Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Philippa Gary and Anne Evans

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IN the month of August, 1672, the wife of a dyer of Plymouth, one William Weeks, died after "many and frequent vomitings." Shortly after that Mr. Weeks and his daughter were seized with the same symptoms—violent pains internally, cold sweats, faintings and vomitings; and in an engraving of the period relative to the tragic event about to be related, Mr. Weeks is shown in bed affected by this last symptom. At the outset the physician who attended them suspected poison, and he was confirmed in his suspicions when a neighbour who had entered the house found a pot in the kitchen with "crude arsenick" in it. Moreover, Mr. Weeks's granddaughter, child of a Mistress Pengelly, was affected in precisely the same manner.

Philippa Gary, the nurse, together with Anne Evans, the servant, first drew attention to themselves by counterfeiting sickness and vomiting, but the general prostration and agony were lacking in their case. The administration of emetics led to the recovery of the child and of Mr. Weeks, but Mistress Pengelly died in great agonies.

This "horrid accident" caused much commotion, and the nurse and the girl were arrested. The first brought before the mayor was Anne Evans, "apprentice to the said Mistress Weeks, a poor child, whose mother being dead, had been bound out in the Mayoralty of Mr. Peter Schaggel, Anno 1672, by the Churchwardens and overseers of Charles parish, being then about twelve or thirteen years old."

The poor child Anne, on being questioned by the mayor, allowed that she bought "a pottle of girts" in the market, and that when they had been cooked she had noticed "some yellow thing in the girts," and the family were afflicted by incessant tortures after they had partaken of it. There had been a dispute between Mrs. Weeks and the nurse, and the latter had asked Evans whether she knew where she could get some rat's-bane. Cary admitted that there had been words between her and the old lady, and said that it arose over the frying of some pilchards. She added that Anne Evans was on bad terms with her mistress, and that the girl had threatened to run away and join "the mountebanks."

The mayor plied one witness against the other. Next Evans said that as she was gathering herbs she found a packet of rat's-bane, and on showing it to Cary the latter exclaimed that was just the very thing needed to "fit" Mrs. Weeks, and that a little dose of it would soon "make work." Next the girl mentioned that Cary abused her for removing a great spider from some beer that Mrs. Weeks was about to drink. A spider was, according to popular belief, a concentration of deadly poison. Cary had said, "Thou shouldst have let it alone, thou Fool, and not have taken it out, but shouldst have squatted it amongst the beer." When Cary was taxed with this, she denied having said any such thing, but asserted that Evans had threatened to do away with her mistress "on Saturday week was fortnight."

The mayor continued his interrogations of each witness separately, playing the statements of one against the other. Then Evans improved her story by asserting that she saw Cary crush the rat's-bane into fine powder between two tiles, and she added that when she asked the nurse what she was about Cary replied that she was making a medicine to "fit" the old woman.

Having placed the powder in a cloam dish, she added small beer, and allowed it to steep overnight. She then gave some of the poison to Anne to put in the "Old Woman's Dish" of porridge, adding, "You shall see what sport we shall have with her to-morrow."

But the amount then administered was small: it was designed to cause only preliminary discomfort. After that, Cary said, "We shall live so merry as the days are long." She cautioned the girl to hold her tongue, and told her that if she did so nothing could come out; and she threatened that if Evans betrayed what had been done, she would lay all the blame upon her. In due time Mrs. Weeks asked for her porridge, and the girl put the arsenic into the bowl according to the instructions she had received from the nurse. Later on Cary drank from a jug; and after pouring in the poisoned liquor, administered it to Mr. Weeks, but he did not relish the taste of it and passed it on to the others to try. They all averred that it had a "keamy" taste, but, small though the quantity was that they drank, all who tasted it had convulsions. In some concern at seeing her master and mistress in such anguish, the girl affirmed that she had exclaimed, "Alas! nurse, what have you done that our master and mistress are so very ill?"

Cary replied, according to Anne's statement, that "she had done God good service in it to rid her out of the way, and that she had done no sin in it."

This confession was read over to Cary, who denied every particular.

Gary and the little girl—who, be it remembered, was only twelve or thirteen years of age—were put in prison, and were to appear at the next assizes. Gary and Evans found themselves "in the very suburbs of Hell," for the local prison was no better than "a seminary of all vilainies, prophaneness and impieties."

After months of waiting, the prisoners were sent to Exeter, where they were tried for their lives. They responded "with heavy hearts though with undejected countenances." Sentence of death was pronounced against them both, but they petitioned to be transported.

The unfortunate little girl was sentenced "to be drawn on a hurdle to the place where she shall be executed, and there burnt to death."

John Quicke was a Nonconformist minister, and he interested himself in the criminals. "Methinks," said he, "the very sentence should have struck her dead; an emblem and lively picture of Hell's torments. Drawn as if dragged by devils. Burnt alive, as if in the Lake of Fire and Brimstone already."

The nurse, Philippa Gary, was ordered to hang till she was dead. "Too gentle a death," wrote the harsh Quicke, "for such a prodigy of ungodliness. She pleads stiffly her innocence, disowns her guilt, takes no shame, her brow is brass, she is impudent and hath a whore's forehead. If ever there were a daughter of Hell, this is one in her proper colours. No evidence shall convince her. 'Confess,’ saith she, 'then I shall hang indeed. I deny the fact, none saw, none knew it but the girl; it may be that vile person, my husband, hath a hand in it, but he is gone. Some will pity me, though none will believe me, none can help me.'" And now, according to Quicke, Satan helps Gary to "an expedient that may help her life." She pleaded before the judge that she was in the family way. "If I must dye, let my child live."

Thereupon the judge ordered a jury of matrons to be empanelled, but they found that the plea of Gary was false.

As Plymouth had been the scene of the murder, the judge had little difficulty in consenting to the petition of the relatives of Mrs. Weeks that the execution should take place there. "Provided that the magistrates of the towne, or Mr. Weeks, whose wife was by the malefactors above named poysoned, shall defray the extraordinary charges thereof, and shall undertake for the same before Easter Day, being Sunday next. The day of execution is to bee on Thursday in Easter weeke, but if you, the magistrate of the said towne, or Mr. Weeks, shall fail to undertake before Easter Day to defray the extraordinary charges thereof, then the execution on these malefactors is to be done at the common-place of execution for this Countie," i.e. at Exeter.

The local authorities gladly undertook the arrangements for carrying out Lord Chief Justice North's sentence, and for affording to the citizens of Plymouth an exciting scene, and for the domestic servants of that borough a moral warning.

Every endeavour was made to persuade Cary to confess, but she laid the crime upon the girl. Of all the ministers who strove to turn her to repentance, John Quicke, the Nonconformist, was the most importunate. He warned her that "she had sworn a bargain with the Devil for secrecy to her own destruction, that all would come out at last, as cunningly and closely as she did carry it before men and angels; and, said I, you are one of the most bloody women that ever came into gaol; you are guilty of two murders, one of your master, another of your mistress, and a third of having drawn in this poor girl like a Devil, as you are, to joyn with you to ruin them and herself also." Quicke further assured her that he did "as verily believe she would be in Hell, unless there were a very wonderful change wrought upon her, as that old Murderer, her Father, the Devil, was." Quicke was obviously not a man to move a sinner to repentance. His exhortation made her cry, but extorted no confession; and when Gary implored this sour and remorseless minister to have some little pity and indulgence towards her, he declined to tone his invectives till he knew that "her stony heart was riven and shivered in pieces and her bones broken under her hellish wickedness."

Waiting without the cell door whilst this appalling denunciation was being delivered was "a crowd of vulgar persons," all pressing and impatient to obtain admission. The gaolers derived not a little revenue by charging the inquisitive and curious with fees for admission to see criminals condemned to death, and they reaped a good harvest on this occasion.

During a subsequent visit, influenced by apparent relenting, Quicke assured the two criminals that it was quite as "easy going to Heaven from the stake and the gallows as if it was from their beds," but then, they must confess their guilt. But Gary was not to be induced to admit anything. He was highly incensed that his words produced no effect, and he abused her roundly as "a brazen impudent hypocrite thus to dissemble with God and man"; and he warned her that, as she kept the devil's counsel, to the devil she would go. He added that he saw no promise of a good result if he expended any more labour upon her. "Look to it, woman," he shouted to her at parting, "that this do not make thy Hell hotter than ordinary."

As the prisoners were conducted from Exeter on horseback, we are told that the nurse exchanged ribald and obscene jests with the spectators, and at the entrance to Plymouth the procession was met by thousands. Persons of every age and sex and quality rushed forth to the suburbs to see the arrival of the two unfortunates. Although, we are informed, many had "bowels of pity for the poor girl," none "hath charity for the nurse."

On being conducted to their cells, various ministers attended them; but crowds poured in, tipping the gaolers, to have a sight of the criminals, and the ministers of religion could effect nothing. The nurse remained resolute in denying her guilt, but the little girl admitted hers.

On the appointed day Philippa Cary and Anne Evans were escorted to the gallows erected on the heights of Prince Rock. "The streets were crowded, the Mayor, the Magistrates and Under Sheriff can hardly pass for the throng. The poor maid was drawn on the hurdle. The posture she lay in was on her left side, her face in her bosom, her Bible under her arm, seeming like one dead rather than alive. At length we came, though slowly, to the place of execution. Plimouth was then naked of inhabitants, the town was easy to be taken, and the houses to be plundered, if an enemie had been at hand to have done it. Catdowne, the Lambhay, the Citadel, and Catwater are pressed with a multitude of twenty thousand persons. But commanders, who have lived in wars and seen great armies, and are therefore the most competent judges in this case, estimate them at one-half. I write within compass. The maid, being nailed to the stake, and the iron hoop about her, and the nurse mounted on the ladder, she desires that the Relater may pray with her." With passionate invocations to the Deity, Mr. Quicke complied; the crowd were invited at the close to join in the singing of a psalm, and in this part of the ceremony the clear childish voice of Anne Evans was heard to rise like that of the lark. Then Quicke laboured through extemporary prayers of inordinate length, smiting at the flinty heart of Gary, hitting right and left at impenitent sinners in those around. It has been said that as a front rank of soldiers kneels to shoot, so do certain divines in their prayers aim, not at God, but at those who hear them. It was so with Quicke. Then the poor sufferers were urged to avow their theological opinions with regard to certain dogmas of religion, not this time by Quicke, but by other ministers.

The rope was now drawn close round the child's neck, "and the hangman would have set fire unto the furze before she was strangled; but some, more charitable and tender-hearted, cryed to him to take away the block from under her feet, which having been done, she soon fell down and expired in a trice."

The executioner could cause neither powder, wood nor fuel to catch fire till the girl had been dead a quarter of an hour; and then, as the flames kindled, the wind blew the smoke into the face of the nurse, "as if God had spoken to her; 'the smoke of My Fury and Flames of My Fiery Vengeance are now riding upon the wings of the wind towards thee.'"

For two hours Gary was compelled to remain and watch the death and burning of the little girl, and again attempts were made to wring a confession from her. Such she steadily and persistently put from her. When the word went forth to dispatch her, the executioner could not be found. He had run off with the halter under the cliffs; and, on being found, was carried by the exploring party to the scene and cast dead-drunk at the foot of the gallows, there to sleep off his intoxication, whilst the nurse was still pestered by the Nonconforming ministers to repent and confess.

But the last words she uttered before being swung into the air were: "Judge and revenge my cause, O God." "A sure proof," concluded Quicke, "that she went into the lake of brimstone and fire, there to be tormented for ever and ever."

We are inclined to judge otherwise, and that she was guiltless of intent to poison the Weeks family. This was done by the child, in a fit of temper and resentment. Only after this had been done, did Cary find it out, and, frightened for the consequences, simulated sickness and cramps, lest she should be accused of the poisoning. As to Quicke's statement that on the ride into Plymouth she used obscene and ribald jests, we do not believe a word of it. He was furious against her because she would not confess; and he was not with her on the ride to hear what her words were. He invented this, and put it into his narrative to prejudice the reader against her who was not amenable to his exhortations, and who accordingly galled his self-conceit.

The authorities for this tragic story are three:—

"Horrid News of a Barbarous Murder committed at Plimouth … 1676."

"Hell Open'd, or the Infernal Sin of Murther Punished. Being a True Relation of the Poysoning of a whole Family in Plymouth … by J. Q. (John Quicke), Minister of the Gospel. London, 1676."

"The Poysoners Rewarded, or the Most Barbarous of Murthers detected and Punished … London, 1687."

Mr. Whitfeld has summed them up in his book, Plymouth and Devonport, in War and Peace. Plymouth, 1900.