News From the DeadRoundup
tags: England, crime, criminal justice, hanging
Eileen is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at The College of Saint Rose. Her research and teaching interests include early modern English poetry, Shakespeare, composition, disability studies, and theories of embodiment. Her current project explores death and decay in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English verse.
On December 14, 1650, 22-year old Anne Greene was led up the gallows in Oxford. She had been charged with infanticide; after sleeping with her employer’s grandson, she gave birth to a child—one she insisted was stillborn—whose body had been found “covered…with dust and rubbish” in the outhouse where she delivered it.1 After praying and willing her remaining possessions to her mother, Greene dropped from the platform, suspended from the noose–but remained alive. Some of those gathered nearby tried to quicken her death to ease her suffering; “lifting her up and then pulling her down again with a sudden jerk,” the group was soon made to stop because the sheriff feared they’d snap the rope.2 One report describes a nearby soldier, monitoring the execution, inflicting “4 or 5 blows on [her] breast, with the butt end of his musket,” either in an act of attempted mercy, further torture, or both.3 Greene hung there for half an hour, after which her body was cut down, put into a coffin, and transported to a local surgeon for dissection.
Then she woke up.
According to Richard Watkins, author of one report detailing her resurrection, Greene began to “ruttle,” gasping for breath.4 Discovering her, an unnamed young man, “thinking to do her an act of charity,” tried to put her out of her misery yet again, “stamp[ing] several times” on her chest “with all the force he could.”5 Once doctors arrived, however, the plan quickly shifted from euthanasic to life-saving care; she was treated for her injuries and, after a month, made a full recovery.6 Not only did she regain her life—no small accomplishment, given everything she experienced—Greene also won back her liberty. In recognition of what everyone agreed had to have been a miracle, local law enforcement wanted to be sure they didn’t contravene divine justice. “Whilst the physicians were thus busy in recovering her to life,” Watkins reports, “the undersheriff was soliciting the governor and the rest of the justices of the peace for … [a] reprieve, that in the case she should … be recovered fully to life, she might not be had back again to execution.”7 It took coming back from the dead, but Greene was once again innocent in the eyes of the law.
Why would Greene’s resurrection have an effect on her legal status? Objectively speaking, nothing about the case had changed; her insistence that she had not murdered her child remained consistent before and after her death. The only change was in Greene herself: she had done the miraculous, returning to life under seemingly impossible circumstances. What I want to suggest is that it’s this transformation—from a living woman into a corpse and back again—that allowed Greene’s story to be heard by others in a way it wasn’t, perhaps couldn’t be, while she was alive—the first time, at least.
In early modern England, the idea that a corpse might have something to say for itself wasn’t entirely unheard of. It was a commonly held belief, for instance, that the body of a murder victim would bleed in the presence of its killer, in effect testifying after death on its own behalf.8 But exceptional cases like Greene’s highlight a discrepancy in the relative credibility of corpses and the living. For women, posthumous testimony could be more convincing than what they had to say in life. Being a corpse—even if only temporarily—was the only way for some women to be believed.
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