[Reynoldsʼs Newspaper, 3. Januar 1869]

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Reynoldsʼs Newspaper. Nr. 960, 3. Januar 1869. S. 4.
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Jan 3 Anmerkung von Jenny Marx

Priscilla Biggadyke was hanged in Lincoln Castle on Monday morning. She was poor, ignorant, and had no friends to defend her with zeal, and to supplicate for her the mercy of the Crown. The evidence against her was entirely circumstantial, or made up of little facts said to be inconsistent with innocence, and consistent with guilt. It is an axiom in the administration of our criminal law that “circumstances cannot lie” and it is true on one condition—that the circumstances are truly related. Priscilla Biggadyke lived with her husband in a small two-roomed cottage at Stickney, in Lincolnshire. They had two lodgers, Proctor and Ironmonger, and they all slept together in the same room. The result of such an arrangement was a natural one, and Biggadyke became jealous of his wife. Misery reigned in the household, and the wife was sometimes heard to utter her wishes for her husband’s removal from life. One day he came home and partook of a hearty meal of short-cake and cold mutton. He was violently seized, and the symptoms disclosed to the experienced eye of the surgeon the presence of an active poison. The surgeon took away with him the vomit of the dying man, and the wife asked if he suspected anything? She afterwards carried to the doctor a piece of the cake her husband had eaten, but the doctor said he did not wish to see it. The husband died next morning, at six o’clock, and then began the inconsistent statements of the wife, voluntarily made as soon as she found that her husband had died of the administration of a dose of arsenic. She was taken into custody, and to the superintendent of police said that she “found in her husband’s pocket a paper written on, saying that he had done it himself, as he was in dept.” She was reminded that her husband could not write, to which she replied that he might have got someone to write it for him, and that she had destroyed the paper. Afterwards, she made another statement, accusing Proctor, her lodger, who had, she said, poured some white powder into her husband’s tea-cup, and that he had placed some more in the medicine-bottle sent by the doctor, which, so mixed, she had given to her husband. Proctor was, with her, committed for trial; but the grand jury, under the advice of Mr. Justice Byles, threw out the bill against him. No poison was found in the house, nor does it appear to have been proved that she had purchased any; but some months before it was proved that she had offered to give white mercury to a friend.

The jury found the woman “Guilty,” but recommended her to mercy, on the ground that the evidence was entirely circumstantial; but this recommendation Mr. Justice Byles refused to accept, and she was sentenced to death, without hope of mercy. In the interval between sentence and execution, the convict steadily refused to make any confession of her guilt, and even showed some temper when she was very closely pressed by her relations. We come to the last scene of all—to the scene of the last hour, when the chaplain came to play his part. The poor woman was pinioned, and fainted during the operation; so that, even after she recovered, she heard little of the service for the dead, recited over a living being! She hoped that “her troubles were now all over,” and asked, plaintively, “Shall we be much longer?” The procession had arrived at the foot of the drop, and then the woman was detained on the threshold of death, in order that a little melodramatic scene might be enacted, which we believe is without a parallel, and which we hope will never be matched. Why should prisoners capitally convicted be teased and tortured to confess? We should accept the verdict of twelve sworn men, and hold it sacred. The chaplain of Lincoln Castle is of a different opinion, and it is to be regretted that the undersheriff and the governor had not more firmness and humanity than to interfere in the conversation between chaplain and convict as it was about to commence. The prisoner was asked by the chaplain if she persisted in the declaration of her innocence—“Whether she had anything to do with the crime in thought, word, or deed?” Standing at the foot of the steps leading to the floor of the scaffold, she replied in a firm voice, “I had not, sir.” That ought to have been sufficient; but the chaplain was allowed to pronounce an exhortation at his leisure and in order to enable him to do it the prisoner was “accommodated with a chair.” The speech of the reverend chaplain is a little too long for entire quotation here, but some of it is too remarkable not to provoke comment. “I implore you not to pass away from this world into another without confessing your sins generally, but especially this particular sin”—the very sin which the poor tortured and pinioned convict had just solemnly and firmly denied she had been privy to in thought, word, or deed. And then the priest peeped out. “I had hoped that you would have enabled me, as a minister of Christ, to have pronounced the forgiveness of your sins.” This was very cruel, for it assumed the existence of a human representation in the power of pardon, and it asked for a confession of a crime as the basis of the pardon. But suppose the poor woman had not been guilty in thought, word, or deed? Of what value would the human pardon have been for a crime never committed? And still the poor woman persisted in saying that she had no connection with the death of her husband, but still the chaplain would not let her go to her death. He left her in the hands of God—in whose hands she had always been—in the hope that she had confessed to Him, and lied to man. But still a little more torture for the convict. “What a satisfaction for your children, your relations, and your friends, to know that you had passed from death into life.” And then came out the priest again—“I fear I cannot offer you any consolation; I must leave you in the hands of God. Had you made a declaration of your sins, I should have done what, as a minister of Christ, I am entitled to do. I should have told you that ‘your sins, though many, are forgiven.’ I am sorry that I cannot exercise that authority at the present moment.”

And so the poor woman was led up the steps to her doom, and the executioner—the most humane person present—was permitted to do his office. But suppose that the convict had turned upon the chaplain, and asked him for authority to forgive her? or had asked him if he felt entitled, as a gentleman and a Christian, to assume her guilt as a certainly, which twelve sworn men had only found on circumstantial evidence which suggested, by its very doubtfulness, a recommendation to mercy? Mercy! The woman was poor, ignorant, perhaps immoral, and had no friends to plead in her behalf. It is not such as she to whom Home Secretaries extend mercy. Had she been the wife of a gentleman, a member of a family of the ruling class, then scientific evidence would have been forthcoming as to her insanity, founded upon her condition at the time of the deed. It is to convicts of the Victor Townley order—cold-blooded, matter-of-fact murderers—that reprieves are granted, in fact, even before evidence of insanity is offered. [It is the men of the] class of Samuel Wright, who [kill women in the] heat of passion, upon whom capital sentences are executed. Poverty makes all the difference. There is only one law; there are two mode of administering it—one for the rich, and one for the poor. At least, we may protect poor criminals from impertinence, and the vanity of priests claiming the power of remission of sins. And we may suggest to the landlords and farmers of Lincolnshire, who permit the condition of barbarism known as overcrowding, to ask themselves this question—“Was Priscilla Biggadyke alone guilty?”—if guilty she was, which we doubt. “Let him that is without sin,” in this matter of overcrowding, “cast the first stone”—after the chaplain.|


  • Social cases. 1869