Another manner of treason: The trial and execution of Catherine Bevan in New Castle, Delaware

February 28th, 2018 No comments

On September 10, 1731, in New Castle, Delaware, 50 year old Catherine Bevan and Peter Murphy, a young servant, were executed for the murder of Catherine’s husband Henry Bevan. Peter was hanged, but Catherine had been sentenced to death by burning. The executioner had planned to hang her over the fire so that she would be strangled to death before the flames reached her, but he had never executed someone by burning before and lit the fire too soon. The flames leapt up, burning the rope around her neck so that she fell alive into the fire and was burned to death.

A description of petty treason from Conductor Generalis, an 18th century manual for justices of the peace in the American colonies.

The murder had happened in June of 1731. Henry Bevan had complained to neighbors that his wife and servant mistreated him and the neighbors gossiped about Catherine and Peter’s relationship. When Henry died suddenly and was nailed into his coffin before anyone could view the body, the local magistrate became suspicious and had it pried open. The body was covered in bruises. Catherine and Peter were brought in for questioning and Peter quickly confessed. He said they had first tried to poison Henry by spiking his wine with sulfuric acid. When that didn’t work, Peter beat him until he was weak enough for Catherine to strangle with a handkerchief. Peter changed his story on the scaffold, saying that Catherine hadn’t taken part in the murder, but that it had been her idea. Catherine steadfastly denied everything, even at her execution.

Catherine Bevan was the only woman executed by burning in Delaware and the only woman ever burned for murdering her husband in colonial America. But why was Catherine Bevan burned while her co-defendant was hanged. And how common was execution by burning in colonial America?

Both Bevan and Murphy were convicted of petty treason, a crime brought to the American colonies from English law. The English Treason Act of 1351 (25 Edw. III St. 5 c.2.), besides the usual forms of treason like adhering to the King’s enemies, also defined “another manner of treason,” murdering someone to whom, in medieval society, you owed obedience. The 1351 Act named three types of murder that qualified as petty treason: a servant slaying his master, a wife slaying her husband, or a man secular or religious slaying his prelate. Petty treason was originally punished the same as treason. A convicted man was hanged, drawn and quartered, while a woman was burned to death. Eventually hanging, drawing and quartering was considered too cruel and the punishment for men was changed to hanging, but the punishment for women remained burning.

The Delaware law passed June 5, 1787 abolishing burning as a punishment for petty treason.

The English colonies in North America for the most part adopted English laws on petty treason. Delaware is a good example of how this worked. In 1719 the Delaware General Assembly passed a law providing that all capital crimes in Delaware were to be tried and punished the same as in England (1 Del. Laws 64). The law was somewhat confusingly worded and in 1741, ten years after Catherine Bevan’s execution, a supplemental act was passed to clarify “That every person or persons, who shall be guilty of any petty-treason, misprision of treason, murder, manslaughter, homicide, bestiality, incest or bigamy, shall be tried in like manner as other felons by the said act are directed to be tried, and punished in the like manner as persons guilty of the like crimes and offences are punishable by the laws and statutes of that part of Great Britain called England.” (1 Del. Laws 225)

Other colonies adopted burning as a punishment for petty treason as well, but it was not always applied. At least two other women in colonial America were executed for murdering their husbands, but were hanged not burned. In 1644 a Maine woman named Cornish was hanged for murdering her husband and in 1708 Connecticut hanged Abigail Thompson for the murder of her husband. There is very little information available about the 1644 Maine case. As far as I can tell, Connecticut never adopted English criminal law as a whole and had no laws on petty treason, which may account for the punishment in that case.

By far the women most commonly convicted and burned for petty treason in the North American colonies and the early United States were those falling into the first category of petty treason, “a servant slaying his master.” Enslaved women convicted of killing their owners, taking part in slave revolts, or committing arson were commonly executed by burning. I have been able to find mention of 24 women executed by burning in early America; 22 of them were enslaved women. Enslaved women were executed by burning in many states, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts as well as the South. The one other woman executed by burning in colonial America was a white servant in Maryland, who assisted her fellow servants in killing their employer.

Judgment in the 1787 trial of Sarah Kirk for petty treason.

Catherine Bevan would be the only woman burned in Delaware. Nearly 60 years later, on April 15, 1787, a woman named Sarah Kirk, living in Christiana Hundred, struck her husband James in the head with a stone and then beat him to death with a stick. Not wanting to repeat the botched 1731 burning, the state moved relatively swiftly to change the law. On June 5, 1787 the General Assembly passed a law (2 Del. Laws 905) changing the punishment for petty treason to hanging, the same as for any other “felony of death.” Sarah Kirk’s trial was held on June 6th. She was found guilty of petty treason and sentenced to be hanged. In what may have been an excuse to make sure the new law had gone into effect before the trial, her attorney asked that her conviction be overturned because one of the jurors had not sworn the oath of fidelity to the state. The conviction was set aside and she was retried on October 5th, 1787. She was once again found guilty and sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until she be dead.” Sarah Kirk was executed in New Castle on October 12th where, according to a newspaper account, “she behaved with those sentiments of penitence and resignation, which became her unhappy situation.”

The punishment of petty treason by burning was abolished in England in 1790 and gradually abolished in the United States during the late 1700s and early 1800s. The specific crime of petty treason was also abolished and was treated as any other type of murder.


David V. Baker, Women and Capital Punishment in the United States: An Analytical History. McFarland, 2015.
Ruth Campbell, Sentence of Death by Burning for Women, 5 J. Legal Hist. 44 (1984)
Matthew Lockwood. From Treason to Homicide: Changing Conceptions of the Law of Petty Treason in Early Modern England, 34 J. Legal Hist 31 (2013)
The records of the Catherine Bevan trial are unfortunately missing but the records from State v. Kirk are available at the Delaware Public Archives.
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 1731)
Pennsylvania Gazette (Sept. 23, 1731)

Categories: Delaware Tags: ,

Labor Day weekend hours

August 31st, 2017 No comments

Below are the library hours for Labor Day weekend. Enjoy your holiday!

September 2 9 am. to 5 p.m.
September 3 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
September 4 CLOSED

For more information on library hours see our webpage.

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Summer hours

July 27th, 2017 No comments

The law library hours for the rest of the summer are below. We will resume regular hours on Monday, August 13. Enjoy your summer!

Monday to Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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4th of July hours

June 30th, 2017 No comments

The law library will be closed Monday, July 3rd and Tuesday, July 4th. Enjoy the holiday!

For more information on library hours see our website.

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CALI website unavailable Saturday June 3, 2017 from 8:00 AM ET to 4:00 PM ET

May 31st, 2017 No comments

CALI has told us their website will be down this Saturday June 3rd. During this time CALI lessons will be unavailable. For more information see CALI’s website.

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Law library closed Memorial Day weekend

May 24th, 2017 No comments

The law library will be closed Memorial Day weekend, May 27 through May 29.

We’ll reopen on Tuesday, May 30. For more information on library hours see our website.

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Congratulations to our Delaware Law graduates

May 23rd, 2017 No comments
Congratulations to all our recent Delaware Law graduates. We hope that you have found our library to be a welcoming place to study, to do research and to learn about the law.
Our staff has been proud to be of service to you while you have been students and we want you to know that we hope to be a continuing resource to you throughout your future career. We encourage our alumni to make use of our collection and to call upon our staff, including our reference librarians, for assistance whenever we can help. Whether you need to complete your first legislative history or help identifying the best resource for your research assignment, you can reach the reference staff via phone: (302) 477-2114 and via email:
Please fill out the form available online to get an alumni library card.


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Library closed Tuesday 3/14

March 14th, 2017 No comments

The library will be closed today, Tuesday 3/14 due to snow.

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Spring break hours

March 2nd, 2017 No comments

The library will be open limited hours during spring break. Enjoy your week off!

March 3 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
March 4 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 5 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
March 6 – 10 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
March 11 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March 12 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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Law library open limited hours February 9

February 9th, 2017 No comments

Due to the snow, the law library will be open limited hours, from 2:00 pm to 8:00 today, February 9, 2017.

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Biggar than life: The forgotten story of how a girl from Delaware gained wealth and fame through the power of charm, talent, and lawyers

January 23rd, 2017 No comments
Laura Biggar

Photo of Laura Biggar from a tobacco card.

In 1902, the nation’s newspapers couldn’t get enough of the story of Delaware’s Laura Biggar, a moderately successful actress, who inherited a large fortune from a millionaire admirer and was willing to go to great lengths, not all of them legal, to keep it. Like many 19th century actors, she embellished her biography in newspaper interviews, but it is possible to verify some facts. Laura was born in Delaware in 1866, the only child of Joseph and Jane Bigger. (She changed the spelling of her last name to Biggar after she began her acting career.) Although she claimed in later interviews that her parents were wealthy, they seem to have been a modest working class family. They lived originally in Delaware City, where her father was a carpenter. By 1880, they had moved to Wilmington and lived in the Quaker Hill section of the city in a row house on 6th street.

She began performing at an early age. In 1876, 10 year old Laura appeared in charades in Delaware City, playing her part “in a manner truly wonderful for one of her age” according to a local paper. As a teenager she sang and gave dramatic readings in student recitals and charity concerts in Wilmington and nearby towns. By 1884 she was appearing in Philadelphia in light operas like Princess Ida. She then performed with several touring companies, primarily on the west coast. In 1886 she married J. W. McConnell, a fellow actor, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They had one son, J. W. McConnell, Jr., but eventually divorced. By 1887 she and McConnell had joined producer William A. Brady’s touring company, initially playing supporting roles in After Dark and She. By 1890 she was playing the lead in Brady’s production of The Clemenceau Case, a popular melodrama with a scandalous nude modeling scene.

Ad for the 1888 Webster-Brady Company touring production of After Dark, featuring Laura Biggar. The "Great London Bridge Scene" featured Laura's rescue from a large tank of water on stage.

Ad for the 1888 Webster-Brady Company touring production of After Dark, featuring Laura Biggar. The “Great London Bridge Scene” featured Laura’s rescue from a large tank of water on stage.

In 1892 she began appearing in her most successful role, as the lead in the hugely popular early musical, A Trip to Chinatown. A Trip to Chinatown was the Hamilton of the 1890s, so popular that at one point there were two productions running in New York at the same time, as well as multiple touring shows. Laura starred with Bert Haverly, a popular actor, who she may or may not have married. They claimed to be married at the time, but both denied it later. They toured together throughout most of the 1890s.

At some point in the late 1890s she met and moved in with Henry Bennett, an elderly millionaire, who owned a theater in Pittsburgh and various properties in New York and New Jersey. When Bennett died in 1902, he left Biggar the majority of his fortune, valued at approximately $1,500,000 according to the New York Times. Bennett’s other heirs quickly challenged the will.

At this point Biggar played her trump card. She retreated to a sanitarium in New Jersey, where her doctor/lawyer, C. C. Hendrick, announced that Biggar and Bennett had been secretly married and that she had given birth to Bennett’s son shortly after the millionaire’s death, the baby then dying several days later. The infant would have inherited Bennett’s entire fortune and Laura Biggar would now inherit from the child.

biggar headline ny world

Front page New York World, September 26, 1902

During the civil trial over the will, in a dramatic turn worthy of a 19th century stage melodrama, Dr. Hendrick and the chief witness, an ex-justice of the peace named Stanton who claimed to have performed the secret marriage, were arrested right in the courtroom. The marriage was a fraud. The dead infant had been procured by Dr. Hendrick from the morgue at his sanitarium. Biggar, Hendrick and Stanton, were charged with conspiracy. After a sensational trial, Hendrick and Stanton were convicted but Laura Biggar was acquitted.

A triumphant Laura eventually settled her civil suit with Bennett’s estate, receiving $620,000 plus $1,800 a year for life. This is the equivalent of about $17 million and $50,000 today. One newspaper account claimed that when she sold her share of Bennett’s Pittsburgh theater, she insisted on receiving the money in gold coins weighing 713 pounds, which had to be carried to the train station by 6 porters.

She next moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with Dr. Hendrick, whose conviction had been overturned on appeal, where she bought a newspaper and made Dr. Hendrick the editor. The paper went out of business after a year and she then moved to California. In 1910 she was living in a hotel suite in Los Angeles.

But Biggar wasn’t done keeping lawyers in business yet. In 1903, she was sued by Dr. Hendrick’s wife for alienation of affection. That case continued until 1910 when Mrs. Hendrick won a $75,000 judgement, said to be the largest alienation of affection judgment at the time. Laura married Dr. Hendrick in 1916. They were married until his death two years later. She was also involved in a lawsuit over the sale of Bennett’s theater and was sued several times for failing to pay her bills.

After 1910 Laura Biggar dropped out of the newspapers and lived the rest of her life quietly, in the wealthy Jefferson Park section of Los Angeles with her son and his wife. She died in 1935. I have been unable to find an obituary for her.


Categories: Delaware Tags: ,

Law library closed for winter break

December 21st, 2016 No comments

The library will be closed from December 23rd to January 2nd. Please check our hours during winter break.

Happy holidays and we’ll see you when we resume our regular hours on Monday, January 9th.

Categories: Delaware Tags:

Delaware weird laws go to the movies

August 25th, 2016 No comments
1949 newspaper advertisement for Delaware's first drive-in theater.

1949 newspaper advertisement for Delaware’s first drive-in theater.

Weird law: “R” rated movies shall not be shown at drive-in theaters.

Status: true (but not enforced and probably unconstitutional)

This weird Delaware law is a perfect example of a law passed in response to what seemed like a pressing social problem at the time, that has since been rendered irrelevant by changes in technology and social norms.

Delaware’s first drive-in theater opened in 1949 on route 13 south of Wilmington. The Brandywine Drive-In promised affordable family entertainment in the privacy of your own car. Drive-ins were soon a success in Delaware and throughout the United States, reaching a peak of popularity in the 1950s. But by the 1970s drive-ins had fallen on hard times. Many drive-in theaters began showing adult films and low budget exploitation movies to stay in business. This led to complaints from people living near drive-ins that the movies were visible from public streets and homes where children could watch them.

The debate raged nationwide for several years. Some theaters tried to solve the problem by erecting fences, but this was expensive and unattractive. A special screen was even tested which prevented anyone not immediately in front of it from viewing the movie. (It does not seem to have been a success.)

Many municipalities and states passed laws to prevent drive-ins from showing offensive movies if they were visible from outside the theater. Delaware’s law, passed in 1974 (11 Del.C. § 1366) was fairly typical and banned any film “not suitable for minors,” specifically including those rated R. Of all the state laws still in force, it is the only one that specifically bans R-rated movies. Most other states banned X-rated or “obscene” movies, although some states and municipalities banned all movies with any nudity.

In 1975, a case involving a drive-in theater manager arrested for violating a Jacksonville, FL ordinance banning drive-ins from showing films containing nudity (the R-rated sexploitation film Class of ‘74) went to the United States Supreme Court. (Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)) The court found the Jacksonville ordinance unconstitutionally overbroad and overturned it.

The R-rated slasher film Silent Night Evil Night showing at a Delaware Drive-In in 1975

The R-rated slasher film Silent Night Evil Night showing at a Delaware Drive-In in 1975.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Delaware law remained in the state code, but the provision against R-rated movies doesn’t seem to have been enforced. In this 1975 ad, the Ellis Drive-In (the former Brandywine) is showing the R-rated slasher film Silent Night, Evil Night and in this 2000 photo the Diamond State Drive-In is showing two R-rated movies.

The ability to show R-rated movies didn’t save Delaware’s drive-ins, however. The Diamond State in Felton, the last drive-in theater in Delaware, closed in 2008.

Other states with laws regulating the content of movies shown at drive-in theaters include:

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 17, § 2913

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-809

New Mexico
N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-37-3.1

North Dakota
N.D. Cent. Code § 12.1-27.1-03.2

South Carolina
S.C. Code Ann. § 52-3-100

Vt. Stat. Ann., ch. 13, § 2804

Welcome back to the Delaware Law School law library

August 22nd, 2016 No comments

Widener Law LibraryIt’s another new school year! We’re happy to see our new and returning students back in the law library. Please stop by for studying or research. Why not check out some of our study aids? We have plenty of computers, carrels, tables and comfortable chairs for studying. Our reference librarians are waiting to help you, so please ask us any questions you may have.

You can also visit our website for more information.

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Power outages this weekend

June 8th, 2016 No comments

The library will be closing Friday, June 10th at 2:00 p.m. due to a scheduled campus-wide power outage. It is possible there may be another power outage this Saturday or Sunday. Please call 302-477-2244 to verify our hours before you come in.

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