Catherine Hayes was a woman in 18th Century England who conspired to murder her husband with an axe and conceal his body. At the time, men were considered much more valuable than women, by law and so the penalty for killing your husband was much worse than for an ordinary murder.
Catherine was born in 1690, to a poor family who lived in Birmingham, England. When she was 15 years old, she had an argument with her mother and left home. She roamed the country for a few years.
Eventually, she ended up in Warwickshire and found work as a servant for a wealthy farming by the name of Hayes. Catherine was an attractive and voluptuous young woman and it wasn’t long until the son of the family, John Hayes, fell for her charms. The couple were married soon afterwards.
Catherine Hayes was a very demanding woman and her husband was known to be a good and honest man. He treated his wife very indulgently and bought her whatever she wanted, but despite his generosity, she constantly complained. No matter how much money he made, it was never enough for Catherine.
Eventually, they moved to London where John set up shop as a pawnbroker and money-lender. Catherine talked her husband into taking in two lodgers, Thomas Wood and Thomas Billings. Her husband didn’t know that she was cheating on him with both of these men.
Catherine wanted to get rid of John, so she could have access to all his money. She managed to convince her two lovers to help her murder him. One night, they got John drunk and when he lay down on his bed, they broke his skull with an axe and knocked out his brains.
The poor man’s dying screams woke up a woman who lived downstairs. When she came up, wondering what all the commotion was about, Catherine told her they were just having a party and assured her it would be over soon.
When the woman was gone, Catherine told her accomplices to cut off her husband’s head. They put it in a bucket and tossed it into the Thames river. Then, they chopped up his body and put the pieces in a box, which they threw into a nearby pond.
A few days later, the severed head was found floating in the river. The police fished it out, but they had no idea who it belonged to. They washed it off, combed its hair and placed it on a spike outside the local church, hoping someone in the area would identify him.
After a while, the police put the severed head into a jar of alcohol to preserve it. Finally, someone did recognize it as the head of John Hayes and police went to his house. They found Catherine and her lovers there, so they arrested them on suspicion of murder.
There was an old superstition that if a murderer touched the head of their victim, their guilt would be revealed. Catherine was aware of this, so when the head was shown to her, she took the jar in her arms and wailed, “Oh. it’s my dear husband’s head!” Then, she lifted the severed head out of the jar and kissed it on the lips.
Under questioning, Thomas Wood broke down and confessed to his part in the murder. He told police everything. When Catherine found out, she confessed too, but claimed that the devil had possessed them and forced them to commit the murder.
The Jury heard all the evidence and found all three guilty of the crime. They were sentenced to death and ordered to be burned at the stake. Thomas Wood died in prison before they had a chance to execute him.
On the day of her execution, Catherine was dragged to the gallows and forced to watch her lover, Thomas Billings, hanged by the neck until he was dead. The location was near the pond where her husband’s body had been discovered.
Then, the wretched woman was chained to a stake and the people started stacking wood around her. She was terrified of being burned alive and begged them to strangle her first. At the time, when women were being burned at the stake, it was customary for the executioner to strangle them to death so they wouldn’t have to suffer the torture of being burned alive.
However, as the executioner was trying to strangle Catherine, his hands were burned by the fire and he accidentally let go of the rope. The spectators watched as Catherine tried desperately to push away the burning wood. They listened to her screams and cries as she was engulfed in flames. The spectators threw more wood on the fire and within a few hours, Catherine’s body was reduced to ashes.