THE EXECUTION OF CATHARINE WILSON


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Taken from Harper's Weekly, November 22, 1863

 

THE GALLOWS.

ON Monday, October 20, Catharine Wilson met a doom as righteous as human law ever inflicted on a criminal whose deeds quite equal the atrocities of any malefactor on record. From the age of fourteen to that of forty-three her career was one of undeviating yet complex vice. It sometimes happens that great crimes are exhaustive and exclusive in their character, and that breaches of the seventh commandment are not compatible with sins against the sixth and eighth. Not so with Catharine Wilson. She was as foul in life as bloody in hand, and she seems not to have spared the poison draught even to the partners of her adultery and sensuality. Hers was an undeviating career of the foulest personal vices and the most cold-blooded and systematic murders, as well as deliberate and treacherous robberies. We speak without hesitation of her crimes as plural, because, adopting the language of Mr. Justice Byles with reference to the death of Mrs. Soames, we not only "never heard of a case in which it was more clearly proved that murder had been committed, and where the excruciating pain and agony of the victim were watched with so much deliberation by the murderer," but also because the same high judicial authority, having access to the depositions in another case, pronounced, in words of unexampled gravity and significance, "that he had no more doubt but that Mrs. Atkinson was also murdered by Catharine Wilson than if he had seen the crime committed with his own eyes." Nor did these two murders comprise the catalogue of her crimes. That she, who poisoned her paramour Mawer, again poisoned a second lover, one Dixon, robbed and poisoned Mrs. Jackson, attempted the life of a third paramour named Taylor, and administered sulphuric acid to a woman in whose house she was a lodger, only in the present year—of all this there seems to be no reasonable doubt, though these several cases have received no regular criminal inquiry. Seven murders known, if not judicially proved, do not after all, perhaps, complete Catharine Wilson's evil career. And if any thing were wanted to add to the magnitude of these crimes it would be found, not only in the artful and devilish facility with which she slid herself into the confidence of the widow and the unprotected—not only in the slow, gradual way in which she first sucked out the substance of her victims before she administered, with fiendish coolness, the successive cups of death under the sacred character of friend and nurse—but in the atrocious malignity by which she sought to destroy the character and reputation of the poor creatures, and to fix the ignominy of suicide on the objects of her own robbery and murder.

To do public opinion only simple justice, even the fanatics of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment scarcely raised a whisper or a murmur against this great criminal's execution. It was felt to be too ridiculous to urge any immunity from the gallows on the score of the criminal's sex. What has sex to do with the matter, except that in this particular case a man could not have committed the murders? It was only a woman, with a woman's arts, a woman's insinuating craft, a woman's admittance to sick rooms, and to the sacred confidences of her sisters, a woman's womanliness, that could have perpetrated this string of crimes. The unhappy precedent which was said to have been established in the case of Celestina Somner was, with general assent, on this occasion, reversed; and the Old Bailey, which for some fourteen years has not seen a woman hung (for Mrs. Manning was executed at Horsemonger Lane), once more witnessed a female execution. As to Catharine Wilson, she died as she lived. A canting letter, full of the usual perversions of Scripture language, has been published in her name, and it is a fair imitation of the morbid literature of the condemned cell; but while deficient in external proofs of genuineness, there is the strongest internal evidence against its authenticity. No other sign of feeling on her part is forthcoming. Bold, defiant, insolent, and hardened, she left the world with a lie in her mouth, and the load of a life of guilt which, according to all moral laws, had long since extinguished her conscience. Very properly, as it seems to us, she was not manipulated by the dextrous spiritual legerdemain of the charitable gentleman, Mr. Wright, "the prison-philanthropist," who has a mission to condemned convicts. The present Ordinary of Newgate seems to be a sensible person, and we have been spared the fictitious euthanasia and ecstatic experiences of a wholesale poisoner's morbid and unnatural penitence. She was not a penitent, she made no confession, and it was not to be expected that she should confess or profess the least sorrow for her crimes. The only thing recorded of her condemned cell is that, with a coarse and mendacious stupidity, she affected not to understand her sentence; and, without a friend or visitor, deserted alike by God and man, she died a felon's death, without even the sympathies of an Old Bailey mob.

In one quarter alone has an attempt been made to revive the vulgar platitudes against capital punishment. The newspapers generally described the scene of Monday morning, not always without the usual talk which is talked by penny-a-liners, but with a commendable sense of propriety. The Times, as in such matters it generally does, took the lead, in a report which was characterized by good sense and right feeling; and the regulation report, communicated generally to the other papers, only sinned in the grandiloquence of its style and the impenetrable obscurity and recondite difficulty of its allusions. Fine writing, however, is a venial sin when measured against indecent misrepresentation of facts and a studied insult to common sense. We can pardon the writer, paid by the number of his sentences and the minuteness of his report, who talked of female executions as resembling angels' visits, because they were few and far between, in consideration of the information—new, we own, to ourselves—that it was formerly the custom, not only to preach condemned sermons, but to place a halter in the felon's pew and a coffin in the aisle of Newgate Chapel, during the service of the Sunday preceding a hanging day. Nor are we much disposed to quarrel with the same ingenious scribe's vivid description of the crowd before the gallows, in which we are informed that "the few respectable people present were as waifs and spars on the strong tide that rolled and surged against the prison walls, the mere flotsam and jetsam of that vast sea of scoundrelism." Indeed, we rather admire his discrimination which identified all the boys present with those "miniature masses of rags, dirt, vice, and ignorant cunning, who, to the disgrace of our police, imperil their own poor lives by turning heels over head for the delectation of boobies who fling them half-pence from the tops of omnibuses;" and we appreciate that very fine sentence which describes the "roar of the crowd, and the shrill laughs and snatches of song which broke now and then on the hoarse diapason of blasphemous ribaldry." This is mere fine talk, written with an eye to the inch measure of the sub-editor. Nor are we much moved to criticise another fine writer's description of the war of the elements, which, throughout the night before the execution, seemed to be in horrid harmony with the approaching tragedy. The entrance of the gallows —of course "the fatal machine"—is rendered, as art-critics say, with a considerable subtlety, as, in the darkness and grimness of three o'clock on a stormy morning, the "hideous apparatus of death, well fitted to strike terror into the most savage heart, is brought out with a horrid rumbling sound." We accompany, with a dim sense of some sort of meaning, the same famous hand, when he describes "the death-bell and its low solemn cadences stealing over the crowd and the criminal herself;" and just as Macaulay describes the beacon-lights streaming from Eddystone to John of Groat's, so with tolerable patience we endure to be informed how "from Southwark and Lambeth thousands came trooping over Blackfriars Bridge, while Bermondsey sent its multitudes over London Bridge, and Saffron Hill and the Seven Dials sent their eager reinforcements, till, joining the stream from Whitechapel, an impetuous and seemingly endless torrent, through Barbican and Smithfield, was absorbed in the great lake by which the gallows was encircled." But when we come to the closer touches of the tragic artist we own that we are lost. Mrs. Wilson, we are told, was dressed "in a light morning gown." The scene is the press-room, from which, we believe, the reporters are very properly excluded. What, therefore, is left but an opportunity for meditation? "It was an awful ought, while looking at her, that all the minute circumstances which impressed the spectators in that sad chamber were, at the same time, fixing their objects on the tablet of her mind —so quickly to be shattered and cast into oblivion." The fact that circumstances were fixing their objects on a mental tablet is certainly an awful thought to a psychologist. But the reporter in the Daily Telegraph, to whom we are indebted for this meditation, has something "more to tell, which may require possibly an effort of moral courage." Here are his own words:

"It is, however, in all its grotesque horror that we would present this scene to our readers; nor can we think it prudent, or in any way desirable, that a single touch of its character should be softened down. Our words, we know, will cause a shudder through all England. Be it so, England has sometimes need to shudder and turn pale at truths within the ken of her current history. When Catharine Wilson stood pinioned in her long, loose gown on that ghastly stage—when the hangman fastened a cord or strap round the skirt of her dress, a little below the knee, so as to keep the folds together and to prevent her struggling in the last agony—when he drew a long white cap over her head, the mob at once saw, recognized, and laughed at an image exactly resembling a figure with which the walls and hoardings of London are placarded. It was a low, stifled laugh, that ran through the brutal concourse; and in the tone of its deep cynicism there was, as we fancied, a rough, harsh kind of pity."

CEdipus help us! What does this mean? If it means that when Catharine Wilson was standing, strapped and pinioned, below the gallows, she looked like that queer figure which is called "the Cure," we can only say that to inform us of this odd likeness is a matter of very bad taste, and shows to what degradation sensation writers will stoop; but it is not a piece of information which will "cause a shudder throughout England." On the contrary, just as the fact of Mrs. Manning being hung in black satin sent satin out of fashion from that day to this, so let us hope that Mrs. Wilson's hanging may discredit the absurd "Cure" popularity.

But all this is venial enough when contrasted with an article, "Another Account," furnished to the Morning Star. This is written by a very deep thinker and philosopher indeed—no ordinary penny-a-liner—

but a "real man," as they say, an "earnest man," who tries very hard to unite the manner of Carlyle with the matter of Dickens. He scoffs at the notion—whose notion is it?—that the hangman is a great moral teacher, and he classes among "the shams and unveracities" the view that capital punishment is a lesson to crime. In more ways than one this public instructor in the Morning Star is a curiosity. He is the only man in England who thinks—only he does not think, but merely affects to think—that "the grounds on which Catharine Wilson has been elevated to the position of a modern Brinvilliers are questionable;" and he goes so far as to say that her brazen impudence in the prison and on the scaffold "was the theme of general admiration." Further, he calls us to remember the case of Eliza Fenning, who certainly was executed an innocent woman, and he talks of "a poison panic." That is to say, there is one writer who has the insolence to say, or rather to hint, that Catharine Wilson was probably. innocent, and has been sacrificed by an unjust judge and a terrified jury to a popular panic on the subject of secret poisoning. His argument is the old stale one of Mr. Charles Dickens. Capital punishments are wrong, because they do not appear profitably to affect the mob present at an execution; and by way of "The Moral," the Morning Star appends to this narrative of Catharine Wilson's execution the Police Report which announces that two persons were brought before Alderman Mechi, charged with picking pockets at the Old Bailey, at the very foot of the gallows. It is almost as absurd to refute this argument as to urge it. As though, wherever there was a crowd, there would not be pickpockets; and as though it would not be quite as reasonable to argue the duty of prohibiting Confirmations at Church, a coronation, or one of Mr. Bright's Manchester meetings, because they, too, were attended by pickpockets. But, further, the argument is, that people who witness an execution are not deterred from crime, because, while the drop is falling, they play all sorts of tricks, and indulge in loose and drunken demeanor. But where is the necessary connection between the two things? Who knows whether and when a coarse and brutal nature is or is not seriously affected? A costermonger may joke at the gallows; but it may affect him seriously, nevertheless. It does not follow that a man is not frightened, because he grins and plays the fool. An incipient murderer may, for aught Mr. Dickens knows, be warned off a coming crime, even though he cuts lewd jokes at Calcraft and his moral lesson. But all this is beside the real question. We do not say that capital punishment is only didactic. It may be, and it very often is, a deterring instrument; and we do not deny that the gallows is a warning and terror to evil-doers. We believe that hanging does produce a serious effect, even on the wretched crowds who witness it. But capital punishment is more than a moral lesson, and more than all this. It is an exhibition, on the largest and most awful scale, of that divine justice the administration of which is intrusted to law.