Murder Most Foul in Olde England

An etching of Catherine Hayes
An etching of Catherine Hayes

by Ray Setterfield

March 26, 1726 — A report on this day that a dismembered body had been discovered in London led to the unfolding of one of the most grisly murder cases in the annals of English criminal history. It resulted in horrific consequences for the wife who had arranged her husband’s death.

Born in 1690, Catherine Hall married carpenter John Hayes when she was 16. They set up home in West London where, in 1725, Thomas Wood, a butcher, and Thomas Billings, a tailor, came to lodge with the couple.

The promiscuous Mrs Hayes, by then the mother of 14 children, slept with both of her lodgers and the three of them conspired to kill John Hayes. The murder was planned according to later newspaper reports “so that they (Wood and Billings) might get into the possession of her husband’s substance and keep her without molestation.”

A graphic account of the murder appeared in The British Gazeteer:

“Wood and Billings first made the late Mr. Hayes drunk with claret (the wife having furnish’d money for that purpose) and that he falling asleep, Billings broke his Scull as he lay on the bed with an ax, and knock’d out his brains, which causing a great effusion of blood, the good woman advis’d to cut the head off, which was done accordingly; she afterwards brought them a trunk to put the body in, but not being sufficient to receive it, they quarter’d the same, and carry’d it out.”

The trunk containing the dismembered body of the unfortunate Mr Hayes was thrown into a pond while his head was dropped into the River Thames. Unfortunately for the killers, the head quickly turned up, as the Weekly Journal reported a few days later:

“Last Wednesday morning at day-light, there was found in the dock at Westminster the head of a man, with brown curl’d hair, the Scull broke in two places, and a large cut on each cheek; judg’d to be upwards of 30, and, by all circumstances, appearing to have been newly cut from off a living body; but by whom, or on what account, is yet a secret.”

The report continued: “The head was the same day set up, and expos’d to publick view in St. Margaret’s Church-Yard to the end that any one knowing the features might give some Account of the person.”

The rest of Mr Hayes was discovered about three weeks later, as reported in the Weekly Journal on 26 March 1726:

“The arms, thighs, and legs of a man cut asunder, as if done with a butcher’s cleaver, were found last Wednesday in a pond by Marybone, and on Thursday they drag’d the pond and took out the trunk of the body wrapt up in a blanket, but finding no head, ’tis suppos’d that which was exposed to publick view in St. Margaret’s Church-Yard, belong’d thereto.”

After the head was identified as John Hayes, the sheriff’s men, putting two and two together, so to speak, concluded that Catherine Hayes and her lovers were responsible for the murder and they were arrested.

In an astonishing twist, The London Journal reported that while in prison awaiting trial Hayes confessed that Billings was her son “got by Mr. Hayes’s father, when she lived with him as a servant.”

This meant, the Journal continued, “that Billings murder’d his own brother, assisted in quartering him, and then lay with his own mother, while his brother’s mangled limbs were under the bed.”

Catherine Hayes would be burned at the stake for her crime, a penalty which she faced, according to The Weekly Journal, “with the utmost terror. She publickly declares that not a shilling would she give to save her life; but a hat-full of guineas, if she had them, she would bestow to save her from being burnt.”

Her hopes were in vain. As The London Journal reported:

“She was drawn to Tyburn on a hurdle, and there burnt alive, without the indulgence of being first strangled, as has been customary in like cases. But, to strike a proper terror in the spectators of so horrid a crime, a special Order was sent to the Sheriff to the contrary.

“She was fasten’d to the stake by an iron collar round her neck, and an iron chain round her body, having an halter also about her neck, (running through the stake).

“The fuel being placed round her, and lighted with a torch, she begg’d for the sake of Jesus, to be strangled first: whereupon the Executioner drew tight the halter, but the flame coming to his hand in the space of a second, he let it go, when she gave three dreadful shrieks; but the flames taking her on all sides, she was heard no more; and the Executioner throwing a piece of timber into the Fire, it broke her Scull, when her brains came plentifully out; and in about an hour more she was entirely reduced to ashes.”

In chains, Billings and Wood were hanged nearby.

Published: January 31, 2017

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