Tragic case of teenager hanged in public sight

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EXECUTIONS seem incompatible with any claims to be a civilised society; even more so public executions, particularly the one which ended the short and tragic life of Elizabeth Lavender in Horsham just over 200 years ago. The case, lost in the mists of time, attracted the attention of Worthing-based Peter Hawkins who has researched it and now writes about it here.

PUBLIC executions in Horsham that continued well into the nineteenth century attracted large crowds of spectators and became so popular as an attraction for those with a morbid interest that they became to be known as The Horsham Hanging Fairs.

On execution days, which were usually on Saturdays at noon, the mood of the waiting crowd contrasted incongruously with the gruesome scene that was about to be enacted, with some spectators even waiting outside the prison gate until the unfortunate prisoner emerged and then following the horse-drawn cart to the gallows.

Of the many executions that took place in the town there could not have been a more tragic case than that of a seventeen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Lavender who was hanged in 1799 for the infanticide of her new-born male child.

Brief details of the case were reported in a paragraph of a local newspaper dated July 22nd, 1799: “At Sussex Assizes which ended on Saturday morning, five persons were capitally convicted and received sentence of death.

“One of them, Elizabeth Lavender of Horsham, sentenced for the murder of her male child, was left for execution at Horsham on Monday. Her behaviour at the gallows was such as became one in her unhappy situation.

“She trembled and wept much but seemed to listen to the clergyman who attended her, and having expressed a hope that all other females would take warning by her untimely fate, she was hanged at about half-past twelve without any apparent agony.”

This being but one of the many executions held in the town, the case did not merit any further details of the events that were set in place some nine months earlier with the young woman’s fateful encounter with an unnamed male.

However, research into any likely sources of information and court documents held at the National Archive have provided an insight into the girl’s dreadful ordeal of incarceration and two trials culminating in the ending of her young life on that July morning in 1799.

The tragic story starts on Sunday 20th January 1799. The body of a new-born male infant was discovered at Fairlight concealed in a small tub among some cord wood in a cellar, and suspicion immediately fell upon a young woman who resided in an adjoining apartment.

A surgeon was sent for and stated that she had very recently been in labour.

At the Coroner’s Inquest held in the parish of Fairlight on Monday January 21, the jury of thirteen men viewed the body of the child and heard the surgeon’s evidence.

They recorded a verdict that Elizabeth Lavender, a single woman aged seventeen, had alone and secretly given birth to a live male infant on the night of the 19th or the morning of the 20th of January and afterwards, on one of those days, murdered him with a knife.

She was committed to the care of proper persons until she could be removed to the County Jail at Horsham.

On Monday March 25, Elizabeth Lavender was delivered to East Grinstead Assizes where three men, including one Thomas Hedgecock, gave evidence to the Grand Jury, similar to that presented at the Inquest.

It was stated that the birth had occurred on January 20 and on the same day she had murdered the child with a knife worth one penny, held in her right hand.

She pleaded Not Guilty and was remanded in jail until the next Assizes because it was unsafe for Elizabeth Hedgecock, a material witness for the prosecution, to travel due to her advanced stage of pregnancy.

At Lewes Assizes Elizabeth Lavender again pleaded Not Guilty to the charge of murder, but she was convicted and sentenced to be hanged and then dissected and anatomised.

There was no mention of the father of the child or of the case for her defence.

Four men, defendants at the same Assizes, were reprieved leaving Elizabeth Lavender as the only one of the five defendants to be sentenced to death. Against her name on the court document confirming the sentence, there was written one word: Hang.

On the day of execution Elizabeth Lavender emerged from the small grim cell where she had been held in Horsham jail, out into the brightness of the July morning and taken in a horse-drawn cart to the gallows where an observer noted that “alone and forsaken she trembled and wept much”.

The chaplain attending her said to the gathered spectators, “If ye have tears, prepare to shed them now.”

Thus ended the short life of Elizabeth Lavender, seventeen years of age, who has no grave and lived at a time when there was not the support available today that could have prevented the crime being committed.

n On October 12 2010 a young woman aged seventeen appeared at Winchester Crown Court and was convicted of infanticide, having stabbed her new-born baby with a knife and concealed the body in a litter bin.

She was sentenced to a 12-month Community Supervision Order and a Youth Rehabilitation Order.