Saturday 15 June 2024

Lady Betty - Ireland's First Hangwoman


            Stone Court shopping centre in the square in Roscommon town is a bustling place full of happy
shoppers and diners, but this was not always so, for the building’s walls hold a dark and violent history. The castellated parapet, the towering belfry and two rusty hinges on the façade are all that remain of the building’s former life as the Old Gaol, and home to a gallows that was renowned as having the biggest drop in Ireland. The jail housed some of Roscommon’s worst criminals, many of whom were hanged there. One criminal managed to avoid the noose by offering to do the executions when the hangman didn’t turn up. Her name was Lady Betty, and she was the first hangwoman in Ireland.

            Her real name was Elizabeth Sugrue, and before she came to Roscommon, she lived in Kerry on a small, rented farm with her husband and two sons. The 18th century was a difficult time for Catholic farmers like the Sugrues. The Penal Laws denied them an education and an opportunity to practice their faith, with a price put on the head of any priest who broke the law by celebrating Mass. Many landlords cared little about their tenants and mercilessly evicted them if they couldn’t pay the ever-increasing rent. It was a time of great unrest in Ireland, giving rise to rebellion and attacks on wealthy landlords.

            Unlike most Irish Catholics, Elizabeth Sugrue was educated and even owned some books. When she wasn’t working on the farm or in their small cottage, she taught her husband and sons to read and write. She also liked to draw pictures, which was an unusual hobby at the time, when most Irish people didn’t have time for hobbies.

            Disaster struck when Elizabeth’s husband died, and she had to sell her books to pay for the funeral. Unable to pay the rent, she was evicted and forced to walk the roads with her two sons, begging for scraps of food. She picked up occasional work, reading or writing letters for people who were illiterate, but the life of a beggar is no life for anyone, especially children. When her youngest boy got sick, there was nothing Elizabeth could do except cradle him in her arms on the side of the road, as his little life extinguished before her eyes.

            After that, Elizabeth sank into deep bouts of depression, and started to lose her mind, which was understandable, considering what she had been through. Though she loved her remaining son, Pádraig, she was often impatient, cross, and at times, cruel to him.

Travelling the roads of Munster, and then Connacht, Pádraig, now almost an adult, took it upon himself to do his mother’s job of reading and writing for people, in exchange for a few morsels of food. All the while, however, he dreamed of a better life.

‘Some day, I’ll be rich, Mother,’ he said. ‘And I’ll look after you in a big fancy house with servants.’

Instead of encouraging him, Elizabeth laughed sourly at her son’s foolish ambitions and told him he’d never amount to anything.

When mother and son found an abandoned cottage in Roscommon, they settled there, and though they weren’t much better off than they’d been on the road, at least they had a roof over their heads.

Pádraig continued to read and write letters for people in return for a few pennies, which he used to buy food for himself and his mother. When he had some to spare, he put a penny aside for himself. From discarded newspapers, he educated himself about the wider world, including America, which seemed to be a land of change and opportunity. His mother, suffering badly with her nerves, became increasingly difficult to live with, and often shouted and hit her son, until he could take it no longer. When he had enough saved, he packed a bag and left for America, leaving a note to say that he loved her and would return when he’d made his fortune.

Elizabeth screamed in fury and threw his note into the fire. Forced to defend for herself, she started renting out a room in her home to travellers who couldn’t afford to stay in a proper inn. Though she was angry at her son for abandoning her, she was delighted to get a letter from him saying that he’d joined Washington’s forces in the American War of Independence. He even left an address for her to write back, which she did, as soon as she had enough money to buy a stamp. Desperately, she waited for a second letter and when none came, she feared he’d been killed in the war.

The years passed and Elizabeth became more and more bitter at a world that had stolen everything from her. One wet winter’s night, there was a knock on her door and she opened it to a well-dressed man, standing with his horse in the rain.

‘I believe you take lodgers?’ said the man.

Elizabeth did take lodgers but not ones as wealthy as this gentleman. She wondered why he didn’t go to a real inn, but of course she didn’t ask. She wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to earn some money. Inviting him in, she said he could have a bed, but that she had no money for food. Her eyes widened when the man produced a pouch, heavy with coins, and taking out a sovereign, he told her to go buy some. She dashed off through the rain and returned with enough food to feed her whole neighbourhood.

After they’d filled their bellies, Elizabeth showed the gentleman to his room, and she went to bed but couldn’t sleep. All she could think about was the man’s bag of coins in the room next door.

Taking a knife from the kitchen, she stole into his room with the stub of a candle to light her way. Her visitor was fast asleep so she rummaged in his belongings but couldn’t find the pouch. Then, she noticed a leather cord hanging out from under his pillow. It made sense that he would keep it there. Would she be able to remove it without waking him?

Her hand trembled as she gently pulled the cord, feeling the weight of a pouch of coins coming with it. Inch by agonising inch, she manoeuvred the pouch out and almost had it free when the man woke and grabbed her wrist.

Instinct and fear kicked in, and she plunged the knife into the man’s neck. In seconds, he was dead.

Elizabeth pulled out the pouch of sovereigns and then thought about how she’d dispose of the body, but first, she decided to check his belongings for more valuables.

She gasped in shock when she found a letter with handwriting that she recognised – her own! It was the letter she’s sent to Pádraig. Trying not to think about what this meant, she rummaged through the rest of his stuff and found a diary. She flicked through the pages to the most recent entry.

I have finally arrived in Roscommon and tomorrow I shall visit my mother. I know she won’t recognise me after all these years but it will be good to see her again. I won’t reveal my identity until I’ve spent a night with her. That will give me a chance to see if she’s mellowed with age. If she has, I will look after her in luxury for the rest of her days, like I promised I would.

Elizabeth’s scream woke her neighbours.

‘I’ve killed my son!’ she roared, sobbing with tears and hugging Pádraig’s lifeless body.

Filled with grief, rage and terror, she shrieked into the night, like a demented banshee, until some of the neighbours entered her hovel and came face to face with the horrific spectacle of a mother weeping over the son that she’d murdered.

Elizabeth was arrested, imprisoned in Roscommon Gaol, tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by hanging.

On the morning of her execution, a huge crowd had gathered in the square before the Old Gaol. Some were spectators, there to be entertained by the grisly event. Other were friends and family of some of the twenty-five sheep-stealers, cattle-rustlers and shop lifters standing before the gallows. A few of the prisoners, from a gang called the Whiteboys, seemed to have a lot of support from the crowd. The Whiteboys were a secret society who disguised themselves in white robes and carried out attacks on landlords who treated their tenants badly.

The prisoners lined up at the dangling noose but there was no sign of the hangman.

‘He’s sick,’ a messenger said, but the sheriff didn’t believe a word of it. He knew the hangman didn’t turn up because he was afraid of the Whiteboys.

Half the crowd called for blood, while the other half called for the prisoners to be released. The sheriff could do neither. Nor could he return them to the jail because their cells had been set aside for new prisoners. Try as he did, he couldn’t find anyone to perform the hangings.

Then, a lone voice called out. ‘Spare me life, yer honour. Spare me life an’ I’ll hang them all.’ It was Elizabeth Sugrue.

The sheriff, though dubious about letting a woman do the job, was desperate, so he agreed. One by one, Elizabeth hung the prisoners, and seemed to take pleasure in doing so, despite the cries of hate she received from the Whiteboy supporters, who threatened to kill her. Afterwards, the sheriff knew it would be unsafe to release Elizabeth into the public, so he offered her a permanent position as hangwoman of the jail.

She accepted, and took up residency in the building, taking to her new role with relish. For efficiency, she even had the gallows moved from the square to outside her room on the third floor. Prisoners would enter her room and be sketched by her, before being noosed and pushed onto a platform outside. Elizabeth would then pull back a lever and the convict would plummet to his/her death below.

In her room, Elizabeth displayed the charcoal portraits of all the prisoners she had executed. She became known as Lady Betty, due to her interest in art, reading and writing, and the fact that she was a little more refined than everybody else in the prison.

She was also known to have enjoyed flogging convicts for the public and displaying corpses of rebels outside the Old Gaol, which made her one of the most hated women in Roscommon, where people referred to her as the ‘Woman from Hell’.

Though she was pardoned for her own crime in 1802 as payment for her services to the jail, the public’s hatred of her eventually caught up with her. In 1807, a prisoner who had been breaking rocks in the prison yard as punishment, struck her over the head with a stone and killed her.

She was buried in an unmarked grave inside the prison walls, but long after her death, her ghost was said to haunt the jail, looking for one more neck to noose. Her name was used to threaten naughty children in Roscommon for years. ‘If you don’t be good, Lady Betty will get you.’

Lady Betty likes to draw

The face before it drops the jaw.

Pray to Jesus that she might

Not smile upon your face tonight.

From the play, Lady Betty, by Declan Donnellan


By Kieran Fanning



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