Posts Tagged ‘women’

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)

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Delaware’s silent sentinels, Delaware women in the fight for women’s suffrage

March 23rd, 2012 No comments

Delaware's Mabel Vernon marches to the White House

In a previous post, I covered the role of Delaware women in the struggle to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Women from Delaware also played an important part in the long and difficult struggle to get the amendment proposed and passed by Congress. The National Woman’s Party, founded in 1916, was a women’s rights group that used more militant tactics to get the attention of politicians and the public.

One of the leaders of the NWP was Delawarean Mabel Vernon. Born in Wilmington in 1883, her father was a newspaper editor. She attended Swarthmore College, where she met Alice Paul, who would become the leader of the NWP. After college Vernon worked as a teacher until Paul asked her to work as an organizer for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and NWP. She organized local protests and nationwide tours and became an accomplished speaker. In 1916 she led a group of activists who unfurled a banner and heckled President Wilson during a speech to Congress.

A policewoman (in white) arrests Delawarean Annie Arniel (center left) for picketing the White House

In 1917, the NWP decided to step up pressure on President Wilson and organized pickets in front of the White House. Calling themselves “silent sentinels” the women picketed the White House, in Lafayette Park and at other government buildings. In June 1917 the police began arresting picketers. Initially they were usually released without charge, but when the protests continued the penalties became more serious. Alice Paul and other women were sentenced to up to 6 months in Occoquan Workhouse. Some prisoners held hunger strikes and were force-fed by prison authorities. Released prisoners were sent on nationwide tours by the NWP and spoke to crowds wearing their prison uniforms.

Catherine Boyle, of New Castle, Delaware, holds a suffrage flag

A number of Delaware women were among the protesters. Seven served jail time: Mabel Vernon, Florence Bayard Hilles, Annie J. Magee, Naomi Barrett, Annie Arniel, Catherine Boyle, and Mary Brown. Annie Arniel of Wilmington, who had worked in a munitions factory, spent the most time in jail. She was arrested 8 times and spent a total of 103 days in jail. After one of her arrests Arniel told the Sunday Star, a Wilmington paper, “We were good enough to work in the steel plant and help load shells for the battle-fields of France, but we are still not good enough to vote, it seems. Can anyone see justice in this?”

The National Woman’s Party continued the protests until 1919 when Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

Photo credits: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress and Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

For more information see:

Annie L. Arniel, the Iron-Jawed Suffragette. Webpage by Ken Menard.

Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. University Press of America, 1991.

Mabel Vernon: Speaker for  Suffrage and Petitioner for Peace. Interview by Amelia R. Fry. Bancroft Library. Suffragists Oral History Project.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. Boni and Liveright, 1920.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.


The 19th Amendment in Delaware

March 19th, 2012 No comments

Delaware suffragist Florence Bayard Hilles speaks to a crowd

After years of struggle by women’s movement advocates to gain the vote for women, the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1919. However, the amendment would not become part of the Constitution until it had been ratified by 36 states. Ten months later 35 states had ratified the amendment and only one more state was needed. The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement looked to the Delaware General Assembly to cast the decisive vote at a special session in March 1920.

The suffrage and anti-suffrage forces descended on Dover to encourage the General Assembly to vote their way, marching through town wearing distinctive flowers, yellow for the suffragists and red for the anti-suffragists. Both sides were led by charismatic women.

The leaders of the suffrage forces were Florence Bayard Hilles of the National Woman’s Party and Mabel Lloyd Ridgely of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. Florence Bayard Hilles was the daughter of the American ambassador to Great Britain and was descended from Delaware’s politically prominent Bayard family. Mabel Lloyd Ridgely was the leader of the Kent County suffragists and also came from a prominent Delaware family.

Mary Wilson Thompson, leader of the Delaware anti-suffragists

The anti-suffrage leaders were two equally prominent Delaware women. Mary Wilson Thompson was active in many civic causes and was an expert lobbyist. She was eventually known in Delaware for, among other things, founding the Delaware Mosquito Control Corp which worked to reduce mosquitoes in Sussex County. Emily Bissell was a social reformer who founded what is today West End Neighborhood House  and is best known for introducing Christmas Seals to America.

Both sides lobbied and protested in Dover. The suffragists brought Eamon de Valera, president of the Irish Free State to Delaware to convince Irish-American representatives and at one point resorted to kidnapping the chairman of a House committee so that he couldn’t present the amendment for a vote the suffragists were sure to lose.

On May 5th the Delaware Senate ratified the amendment. Only the House remained to be convinced. After months of lobbying and rallying by both sides the Delaware House on June 2nd voted to adjourn without passing the amendment. The anti-suffragists had won.

But their victory was short-lived. Delaware had lost its chance to make history and the lobbying and marching passed to the next state, Tennessee, which ratified the amendment by one vote. The Nineteenth Amendment and votes for women became part of the Constitution.

Photo sources:

Florence Bayard Hilles. Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party. Library of Congress.

Mary Wilson Thompson. Historical Society of Delaware.

For more information see:

de Vou, Mary R., “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Delaware,” in H. Clay Reed, ed., Delaware: A History of the First State (New York: 1947), 1:349-70

Delaware,” in Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage (National American Woman Suffrage Association: 1922) 6: 86-103

Higgins, Anthony, ed., “Mary Wilson Thompson Memoir,” Delaware History 18 (1978-79): 43-62, 126-152, 194-218, 238-266.

Hoffecker, Carol E., “Delaware’s Woman Suffrage Campaign,” Delaware History 20 (1982-83): 149-167.

The Suffrage Movement in Delaware. Historical Society of Delaware.

Mary Ann Shadd, African American journalist and lawyer born in Delaware

June 9th, 2011 No comments

Mary_Ann_ShaddMary Ann Shadd was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823. Her father, Abraham Doras Shadd was an abolitionist and prominent member of the free black community in Wilmington. The Shadds  lived in Delaware until Mary Ann was 10 years old when her family moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania probably because there were better educational opportunities for black children there than in Delaware. Mary Ann returned to Wilmington for a time and taught school in West Chester, Norristown, and New York city.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 the Shadd family moved to Canada, where Mary Ann started a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman and a school. She married Thomas F. Cary and had two children. She eventually returned to the United States, and after the Civil War moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught school and wrote for newspapers. She also was an activist for women’s suffrage. In 1883 she graduated from Howard University School of Law becoming the second African American woman to graduate from law school.


Mary Ann Shadd Cary House in Washington DC

First Women Admitted to Delaware Bar in 1923

April 28th, 2011 No comments

Delaware was the last state to admit women to the Bar (except possibly Alaska, but that depends on which source you check). Not until 1923, when the state constitution was amended to permit women to be “officials of the state” could women become lawyers. Sybil Ursula Ward and Evangelyn Barsky were both admitted to the state bar in that year.

Sybil Ursula Ward was  from a family of prominent Delaware lawyers. Once admitted to the bar she worked for her family’s law firm Ward & Gray, which is today Potter Anderson & Corroon. She was also the first woman elected to the Wilmington City Council.

Evangelyn Barsky was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her father was a successful merchant. She practiced law with her brother Victor and in 1935 became assistant city solicitor in Wilmington. She was also active in the Republican Party. Unfortunately she was killed in an automobile accident in 1936.


Jacqueline Paradee Mette. “Women in the Delaware Bar” in The Delaware Bar in the Twentieth Century. The Delaware State Bar Association. 1994

Jewish Women in America: An American Historical Encyclopedia. Routledge. 1998

Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

Local Legal Tourist Attractions – Faunbrook, Home of First Woman Attorney in Chester County

April 27th, 2011 No comments

Smedley_Darlington_HouseToday’s local legal history site is not exactly a tourist attraction. It is currently a bed and breakfast. Faunbrook, in West Chester, was the home of the Darlington family, including Isabel Darlington, the first woman admitted to the Chester County Bar and one of the earliest woman lawyers in Pennsylvania.

Isabel’s father Smedley Darlington was a Congressman and a wealthy man but an economic panic in 1893 cost him a large part of his fortune. Isabel seems to have decided it would be a good idea if she entered a profession as an independent means of support. She started attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, finished the three year course in 18 months, and was admitted to the bar on October 4, 1897.

She went into practice with her brother in law, Thomas Butler, in West Chester, handling estate, property and commercial cases. Probably her most prominent client was Pierre S. du Pont. Ms. Darlington handled the transaction when P.S. du Pont purchased Longwood. She practiced law for many years until her death in 1950.

Much of the information in this post comes from this Philadelphia Inquirer article.