Friday, 17 August 2012

burning children in Devon

We went to East Portlemouth to look at St Winwaloe's rood screen, painted with what Nikolaus Pevsner drily describes as 'rather dumpy little figures of saints'. There was Winwaloe, holding a little abbey; and St Sebastian, with his tell-tale arrows sticking out of him; and some other folk of a saintly disposition. The screen cheered up an otherwise quite austere church; it's hard to get much ornamentation in the carving of granite.

A church guide leaflet by the font talked darkly of witchcraft, so we went hunting for the grave of Richard Jarvis. 

We found it.

The gravestone is in the top picture. The inscription reads

Body of Richard Jarvis
of Rickham in this parish
Who departed this life
the 25th day of May
1782 Aged 77

Through Poison strong he was cut off
And brought to Death at last
It was by his Apprentice Girl
On whom there's sentence past
O may all People warning take
For she was Burned to a Stake

 Home again, I looked for the story of the unnamed 'apprentice girl'. She was Rebecca Downing, apparently either an orphan or a foundling, who, having been "committed to the lukewarm tenderness of a parish nurse", and then employed as a servant to a local farmer, Richard Jarvis, "who commonly employed her in the fields to pick weeds and stones, attend cattle, and such-like occupations", ...reacted to her "state of bondage" by murdering the seventy-year-old farmer with arsenic which he used to wash diseased horses, putting it "in the tea-kettle with the water to be boiled for his and his grand-daughter's breakfast". Her guilt became evident when she refused to drink the potion herself. After her conviction, she showed herself "incapable of fixing a meaning to the words" of the Lord's prayer. She had heard of God but not of a Saviour, "and had never been told anything about a soul".  ..."Sometimes a tear would fall, but on the whole she seemed more stupified than grieved by her situation. She suffered in her 16th year".[1]

 Her execution is described in Trewman's Flying Post:


July 31st, Amongst the persons capitally convicted at the Assizes was Rebecca DOWNING, sentenced to be burnt alive for the murder of Richard JARVIS. "Rebecca DOWNING was on Monday last, pursuant to her sentence drawn on a sledge to the place of execution [at Ringwell], attended by an amazing concourse of people, where, after being strangled, her body was burnt to ashes. While under sentence and at the place of execution she appeared totally ignorant of her situation and insensible to every kind of admonition

A broadside ballad circulated at the execution concludes

"When to the fatal stake I come
And dissipate in flame.
Let all be warn'd by my sad doom.
To shun my sin and shame.
May I thus expiate my crime.
And whilst I undergo.
The fiery trial here on earth.
Escape the flames below.
"

 ...though this, of course, gives no voice to Rebecca, who is silenced and stifled by the law and by history. Burning was the punishment for 'petty treason' -the murder of a husband or master, people set above the offender by god. I was surprised that people should still be burned alive at this late date; more so that it was a punishment reserved solely for women (men were 'only' hanged); it seems that they were usually strangled before being committed to the flames, though it could not be certain that they were either already dead or insensible when burned, as was the case with Catherine Hayes, who...

 was burned alive in 1726. Her son, Billings, who had assisted her in the murder of her husband, was hung. "An iron chain was put round her body, with which she was fixed to a stake near the gallows." On these occasions, when women were hanged for petty treason, it was customary to strangle them, by means of a rope passed round the neck, and pulled by the executioner, so that they were dead before the flames reached the body. But this woman was literally burnt alive: for the executioner letting go the rope sooner than usual, in consequence of the flames reaching his hands, the fire burnt fiercely round her, and the spectators beheld her pushing away the faggots, while she rent the air with her cries and lamentations. Other faggots were instantly thrown on her; but she survived amidst the flames for a considerable time, and her body was not reduced perfectly to ashes in less than three hours.--"Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate Calendar." G. C. Pelham, June 1840.



[1] From the Christie's website describing The Life, Character, Confession, and dying Behaviour of Rebecca Downing, burnt at Heavitree, Monday, July 29th 1782, for poisoning her master, Richard Jarvis, Exeter: Elizabeth Brice, [1782].