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  • Irish hang-women January 17, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Richard Clark in his remarkable Capital Punishment in Britain has a story that has been buzzing around and around in Beachcombing’s head for the last six months. In his chapter on hang-men RC notes, in a final short section, that ‘Ireland allowed women to be involved with executions and two were’. He records a female assistant executioner who is unnamed but who married the executioner Tom Kellett in the early nineteenth century. However, RC also records a certain Elizabeth Dolan or McDermott who deserves a history all of her own…

    Elizabeth was sentenced to death for the murder of her infant son and was due to hang in 1780 at Roscommon with twenty four others. However, if the story is to be believed – RC employs the word ‘reputed’ that suggests that he has his own doubts – the hangman failed to turn up. Elizabeth stepped in at this point with the words: ‘Spare me, yer Honour, spare me and I’ll hang them all’. The deal was struck and so began a brilliant career. RC writes: ‘She is thought to have operated there from about 1780 until her death in 1807. Her own death sentence was commuted in 1802′.

    The only other two things that we know about Elizabeth was that, first, parents talked about ‘Lady Betty’ to frighten their children into behaving and, two, that Lady Betty drew charcoal sketches of her victims.

    Richard’s own version of the Elizabeth Dolan story is also up on the web and is well worth reading.

    Beachcombing’s only question is: can the tale be true? The two names could be a result of confusion over a maiden and married name. The judge’s act of mercy is difficult to credit for about ten reasons – though RC notes that by law the judge would have had to do the hanging if a volunteer had not appeared and RC is the expert here. Was this then the equivalent of getting bumped off a flight? Instead of, ‘I’ll give five hundred dollars to any passenger who…’ ‘I’ll give another ten years of life to any prisoner who…’?

    Then the charcoal sketches are strangely circumstantial: are they in a Rosscommon museum or have they turned up on ebay?

    Can anyone shed any light on the mystery of Elizabeth Dolan and can anyone supply the name of any other female executioners from anywhere in the world – sacrificing priestesses don’t count: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.


    17 Sept 2011: SY writes in with this from W.R.Wilde (father of Oscar) who reported that ‘this history of Lady Betty we have received from persons who were perfectly acquainted with her during her long residence in Roscommon’. ‘The old gaol of Roscommon stood, and, although now converted to other purposes, still stands, in the market-place, in the centre of the town. It is an exceedingly high, dark, gloomy-looking building, with a castellated top, like one of the ancient fortresses that tower above the houses in many of the continental cities. It can be discerned at a great distance; and, taken in connexion with the extensive ruins of O’Conor’s Castle, in the suburbs, and the beautiful abbey upon the other side of the town, seems to partake of the character of the middle-age architecture. The fatal drop was, perhaps, the highest in Ireland. It consisted of a small doorway in the front of the third story, with a simple iron beam and pulley above, and the lapboard merely a horizontal door hinged to the wall beneath, and raised or let fall by means of a sliding-bolt, which shot from the wall when there was occasion to put the apparatus of death in requisition. Fearful as this elevated gallows appeared, and unique in its character, it was not more so than the finisher of the law who then generally officiated upon it. No decrepit wretch, no crime-hardened ruffian, no secret and mysterious personage, who was produced occasionally disguised and masked, plied his dreadful trade here. Who, think you, gentle reader who now, perhaps, recoils from these unpleasant but truthful minutiae officiated upon this gallows high? A female! A middle-aged, stout-made, dark-eyed, swarthy- complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking-woman the celebrated Lady Betty the finisheress of the law the unflinching priestess of the executive for the Connaught circuit, and Roscommon in particular, for many years. Few children, born or reared in that county thirty, or even five-and-twenty, years ago, who were not occasionally frightened into ‘being good’, and going to sleep, and not crying when left alone in the dark, by huggath a’ Pooka, or, ‘here’s Lady Betty’. The only fragment of her history which we have been able to collect is, that she was a person of violent temper, though in manners rather above the common, and possessing some education. It was said that she was a native of the County Kerry, and that by her harsh usage she drove her only son from her at an early age. He enlisted; but, in course of years, returned with some money in his pocket, the result of his campaigning. He knocked at his father’s door, and asked a night’s lodging, determined to see for himself whether the brutal mother he had left had in any way repented, or was softened in her disposition before he would reveal himself. He was admitted, but not recognized. The mother, discovering that he possessed some money, murdered him during the night. The crime was discovered, and the wretched woman sentenced to be hanged, along with the usual dockful of sheep-stealers, whiteboys, shop-lifters, and cattle-houghers, who, to the amount of seven or eight at a time, were invariably ‘turned off’ within four-and-twenty hours after their sentences at each assizes. No executioner being at hand, time pressing, and the sheriff and his deputy being men of refinement, education, humanity, and sensibility, who could not be expected to fulfil the office which they had undertaken, and for which one of them, at least, was paid, this wretched woman, being the only person in the gaol who could be found to perform the office, consented; and under the name of Lady Betty, officiated, unmasked and undisguised, as hangwoman for a great number of years after; and she used also to flog publicly in the streets, as a part of her trade. Numerous are the tales related of her exploits, which we have now no desire to dwell upon. We may, however, mention one extraordinary trait of her character. She was in the habit of drawing, with a burnt stick, upon the walls of her apartment, portraits of all the persons she executed. Before daybreak, upon the Monday morning after Michael Welsh was shot, several labourers, surrounded by a guard of police, might be seen erecting two tall scaffolding poles in the market-square, opposite the gaol. When this was completed, the cart containing the body of the fisherman’s son, with the redoubted Lady Betty sitting in it, emerged from the back entrance of the gaol; and, having reached the gibbet, the body, with the assistance of some of the gaol officials, was hoisted by her ladyship to the top of the poles, which stood about six or eight feet apart: and from these the body was suspended by the hands, in that attitude which nations are accustomed to adore!! Upon the head was tied one of the decorated hats, on which was pasted a placard with the word ‘RIBBONMAN’ written upon it.’ Thanks SY!