My search for more information — truth if you will — about a local murder from nearly 200 years ago is ended. I wanted to find out about why a girl who once lived just yards from where I am writing should take it into her head to marry and then to kill her husband just three weeks after the wedding. (New readers might want to go back a couple of chapters to discover the beginning of the story.)
Here is the inevitable denouement.
The judge told Catherine to prepare herself for the next world at her conviction for poisoning her husband. To assist matters during her short stay in prison just outside the town of Bury St Edmunds she was visited — “unremittingly” is the local paper’s word for it — by various do-gooders out to gain a confession from her. The gaol’s elderly chaplain, another local priest, her vicar from her village of Acton who also taught her as her schoolmaster and even the prison governor all cajoled Catherine during the weeks she had left to live.
During her last days the reporter from the local rag gleaned inside information and wanted to share it: “She read the Scriptures, and prayed frequently; but there was not that appearance of bitter compunction or deep humiliation for her offence, which was to be desired.” Writing for the local middle classes who prided themselves on being less brutish than the poor, the reporter threw in this: “In minds of this class, however, it is extremely difficult to judge of inward feeling by outward appearances, even in the last crisis of human trial.”
Intriguingly, the first story she gave in a series of ‘confessions’ was that there was another, a man, who had led her on to kill her husband. The truth? Seemingly the clerics did not like this version. So they pressed her further. As the local paper said: “At first, she endeavoured to palliate the offence, by stating that she had been tempted by an offer from some person, who had given her a powder the nature of which she did not know; but, on being admonished of the folly and wickedness of persisting in falsehood, she declared her readiness to write the whole truth, and we understand that a confession has been made or taken in writing, which she begged might not published until after her decease.”
That did not happen. Fearing that they would be scooped, the Bury and Norwich Post rationalised (as many scribblers before and since have done) using the time-honoured ‘public interest’ defence about matters which simply interest the public. “We consider it only due to the public to make known at the earliest opportunity, as far as we have been able collect it,” they argued. And so they did.
One version, in her own hand and her own accent, found on her body, read like this:-
now sir first of all i must confess that i ame gilty veary gilty of this awfal criame and well dearserves the death that i ame condamed to die and as i ame soone to steand before my heavvenly Judg i wish to Speake the truth, and I veary sorey say i bought it and did it my own self and did deni it till this veary day and i did not wish to get clear for if i had i neaver should have bean hapy and now i trust i shall be hapy in heven sir do not Show it to eny wone wile i ame on this side of the grave but after ame gone i wish all to know it it is riten veary bad sir but i did it as could. Catharine foster.
Whether a more grammatically correct confession concocted by the prelates she signed before she died was meant to ease Catherine’s passage to an afterlife or salve society’s disquiet over state-sponsored killing as punishment, you would have to choose. The confession includes as a codocil an obseqious thank-you to the priests, so one suspects that perhaps they had more to do with writing the document than she did.
Executions were public — very public. Here’s the local paper again, describing the Saturday morning: “All kinds of vehicles were in requisition to convey spectators to the scene, and every entrance into Bury was animated by persons eagerly driving or anxiously walking towards the spot. Not knowing the occasion, a stranger would have supposed that the populace were hastening to the celebration of some public festival.” An estimated 10,000 people decended on the field opposite the prison gate and awaited the spectacle.
Executions were stage-managed to satisfy the crowds. The gallows was often built 30 or so feet high for all to get a good view. In Bury St Edmunds gaol they made use of the wide flat surface of the wall above the front gate.
The country’s national hangman was an incompetent and sadistic drunkard from London, a one-time cobbler and pie seller who graduated into executions after administering occasional floggings to children in Newgate Prison. He travelled the country by the new railways, visiting provincial prisons with his noose in a canvas holdall. In his spare time he kept rabbits.
He was known as “short drop” William Calcraft. Either he did not know or did not care how to speed the end by letting the condemned fall far enough to break their neck. His favourite crowd-pleasing trick was to dangle from the legs of the victim as they slowly and painfully strangled.
Inside the gaol Catharine panicked when they bound her arms, but recovered her composure before exiting the iron door of the prison to ascend the rough steps. By then an observer said the 17-year old was calm. One paper claimed she made a long speech warning married women to be respectful of their position and not to do as she had done. This was wishful fantasy on the part of a reporter who was not there. Other sources who were, report she was asked whether she had anything to say, but declined. She went to her death believing that she would and could re-unite with her husband and make a new life everlasting on that distant shore.
Her body remained at the end of the rope for the statutory hour. Meanwhile, souvenir broadsheet sellers hawked to the gullible what they claimed were her final words from the gallows, with an illustration of the scene that had taken place just minutes before. Most of the crowd though were now making their way back to Bury St Edmunds — it was after all Saturday and market day as well as hanging day, and all of that was an excuse for the men and quite a few women to get falling-down drunk.
It is said that Catharine never exhibited affection for anyone. “Catharine Foster was always considered a girl of morose and obstinate disposition and phlegmatic temperament.” Observers hinted at psychological disturbance from an early age, though using pre-Freudian, Judeo-Christian imagery. “Her disposition was stubborn and intractable, and her sense of moral distinctions obscure”. They related had abnormally poor social skills that baffled the village. “Her retirement and reserve in youth, too, her shunning all companions, as we bear was her custom, and her long hours of silence, are extraordinary features in the character of the young woman, which it is not easy to comprehend or explain.”
Her failings were contrasted with her late husband’s near saintliness. “John Foster, the victim of her crime, was a man of exemplary character and remarkable piety. Since their marriage he had kept the practice of family prayer, and in his dying hour he invited his murderer to join him in devotion, which she did—with what sort of feelings it is not easy to imagine.”
Nevertheless the youthfulness of the culprit (yes, they used that word) focussed attention on both capital punishment per se and the means by which it was carried out. Questions were asked in Parliament following Catherine’s killing over the seemliness of public execution. One reason for the concern was not for the perpetrator’s rights; it was that the Victorian Establishment feared and abhorred the mob. At a hanging the poor always turned up in disquieting numbers. A further 20 years would pass before the Capital Punishment Amendment Act in 1868 took hanging inside the prison walls.
A couple of things go to prove that history of any event is never as white or black as the books say; Unproven and now unprovable and definitely circumstantial, there was village gossip at the time that Catherine came from a family of murderers going back two generations. Her late father was implicated, though never charged, over the suspicious death of a man in the nearby wool town of Lavenham. The victim had just received some money and was seen drinking with Catherine’s father at the pub. The man was found dead that evening, dangling by his scarf from the village signpost without any of his money. Stories abounded that Catherine’s grandfather was less lucky and was actually hanged for another murder. Unproven and unprovable.