Elisabet’s Murder

Bretherdale Wash

God’s work, Obadiah claimed, Naught but God’s work. And God would have compelled him to take her maidenhead first, for Obadiah Knagg would not have sent an innocent to her death.

Obadiah’s justification for the murder of his daughter is taken from Exodus 22.18: 

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

This injunction justified the murder of thousands of women, and even some men, in Europe and the Americas, though cannot be held solely responsible for the antipathy toward those suspected of witchcraft since similar killings were found in pre-missionary Africa and still occur in some non-Christian countries. The Biblical justification for killing a witch was common-knowledge in MacGregor’s time and remains well-known even in today’s secular world. We are rather less familiar with the Biblical justification for Elisabet’s rape prior to her murder.

Although perverse to modern sensibilities, the belief that one could not execute a woman while she remained virgo intacta was widespread in the eighteen-hundreds and prevailed in rural districts until the Great War. It was based on a misreading of Exodus 23.7: 

The innocent and just person thou shalt not put to death: because I abhor the wicked, 

Anvil Films supports Bard of Tweeddaleand in consequence condemned women proven to be virgins usually had their death sentence commuted to life imprisonment or transportation. However, for the severest of crimes where death could be the only punishment official sanction was made for the woman to be forcibly deflowered to allow the execution to proceed.

In most cases the details were left to the penal authorities who would bribe or persuade a condemned male prisoner to commit the act, though it is certain that some prison warders took advantage for their own pleasure. The use of a prisoner supposedly avoided immorality attaching itself to an innocent man for though the execution was entirely lawful the rape itself never formed part of the sentence passed on the woman.

However, nineteenth century social reformers disapproved of using male prisoners; arguing that it indulged the wickedness of the prisoner and added further sins to his soul to which he must then account before God. This led to several perverse inventions intended to penetrate the condemned woman without direct male intervention. Among them were the Jennings Cocking Chair and the Woolworth Satyr. The former was simply a chair mounted on springs with a fixed ‘member’ protruding through an orifice in the seat while the latter, named after its inventor the Reverend William Waddington Woolworth was a strange contraption made of leather and saddled to a scape-horse. The prisoner would be lowered onto the horse with her legs apart and the horse encouraged to trot until the ‘satyr’ had done its work. The horse would then be slaughtered to ensure the sin could not linger.

Woolworth satyrThe Reverend Woolworth described his invention as: 

A humane means for removing impediment to the due process of law without recourse to sinful practices.

Examples of both devices can be seen at the Museum of Crime and Punishment in Lincoln.

The legal requirement that a doctor examines and confirms a condemned woman is not a virgin was last used in 1927 but remained on the statute book until the 1958 abolition of the death penalty.

Bard of Tweeddale


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