Elizabeth Sugrue saved herself from the gallows by offering to hang her fellow condemned, and thus became Ireland’s only female executioner, says Robert Hume
Michael Manning, from Limerick, was executed in Mountjoy Prison in 1954 for raping and murdering Catherine Cooper, a nurse. The hangman was Albert Pierrepoint, a Yorkshireman: executioner by day; landlord by night. His father, Henry, and uncle, Thomas, were hangmen before him.
“I love hanging Irishmen. They always go quietly and without trouble,” he supposedly said after Manning’s death.
Pierrepoint was the last in a succession of hangmen in Ireland — including William Marwood, James Berry and Thomas Henry Scott, Bartholomew Binns, John Ellis and William Willis — who had been trained for the job in England.
But one executioner was a woman.
Her name was Elizabeth Sugrue, from Roscommon. Today, the town’s Stone Court Centre boasts a fine Italian restaurant, spacious apartments, and a bustling arcade of small shops. But the building conceals a grim secret.
Its bleak, castellated parapet, towering belfry, and two rusty hinges jutting from the facade, yield a clue: it was once the site of the Old Gaol (built about 1740), and a gallows that had, reputedly, the biggest drop in Ireland.
Inside its walls, the notorious ‘Lady Betty’ plied her trade.
Our main source of information about her comes from Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Robert Wilde (1815-76), who claims to have spoken to “persons who were perfectly acquainted with her during her long residence in Roscommon”, the town of his birth.
Wilde writes that Elizabeth Sugrue was born around 1750 in Co. Kerry.
The death of her husband, a farmer, left her destitute. Evicted from her home, she set off with her two children on the long walk to Roscommon.
Sadly, along the way her younger child died of starvation and exposure, leaving only her eldest, Pádraig.
Mother and son moved into an abandoned hovel in Roscommon and scavenged and begged. Elizabeth could read and write, and she taught her son to do so.
According to Wilde, the mother had a “violent temper” and Pádraig threatened to leave home. Elizabeth begged him to stay, but in April 1775, following particularly harsh treatment, he departed.
Some sources claim he enlisted in the army, others that he emigrated to the USA.
Elizabeth remained in Roscommon, a recluse, eking out a living by taking in lodgers for a few pennies a night. Hearing less and less from her son as time passed, she became increasingly bitter.
One stormy November night, so the story goes, a tall gentleman with a black beard, and dressed in a fine long coat, arrived at the door. The nearby inn was full and he was looking for lodgings.
Laying a gold piece on the table, he told her to “buy food with that”. She went out into the night and purchased bread, meat, eggs, and spirits.
Enraged that her lodger was rich, while she had so little, that night she stabbed him to death as he slept, and took all his money.
Some writers claim that Elizabeth had been butchering guests and taking their belongings for years. Others maintain that it was the first time she had strayed.
As she sifted through his papers next day, she found, to her horror, that the lodger was none other than her long-lost son. Not having seen Pádraig for years, she had failed to recognise him.
Wilde reckons that he did not reveal his true identity because he wanted to see if she had mellowed. Unfortunately for him, she had not.
She dashed into the street, shouting out to neighbours that she had done a wicked thing.
Elizabeth was arrested, tried in the courthouse overlooking the market square, and sentenced to death in Roscommon Gaol.
There were 25 others there, also due to be hanged, including sheep-stealers, cattle-rustlers, shoplifters, and ‘Whiteboys’ — teenagers who had torn down fences and hedges surrounding what had once been common land.
On the day appointed for the executions, the prisoners were led out to the gallows in chains, and were greeted with curses and hisses. A pistol was fired to calm the crowd.
Everyone eagerly awaited the entertainment. But nothing happened. The hangman was sick — though some suspected he sympathised with the Whiteboys.
The sheriff and his deputy, “men of refinement, education, humanity and sensibility”, says Wilde, did not fancy doing the job themselves.
As the crowd grew more and more restless, Sugrue — a “stout-made, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned” woman — stepped forward: “Set me free and I’ll hang them all!” she yelled.
The astonished sheriff pondered for a while, before gladly accepting her offer.
Elizabeth went ahead and hanged them, showing not a shred of emotion.
“Unmasked and undisguised”, Lady Betty (as she became known), officiated as hangwoman for a generation. In return for her services, “the woman from hell” lived rent-free in her own private room in the gaol.
Some claim she was given a salary, and that, as part of her job, she flogged publicly in the streets, a task she took to with great enthusiasm.
Under her supervision, the gallows were moved from the square to outside her room on the third floor, to the left of the building as you look up from the square.
Prisoners had to crawl through her window, ready-noosed, onto a platform supported by a beam and pulley. Betty would slide back the bolt and release the trap door, sending them to their slow, agonising deaths.
Using a burnt stick, says Wilde, on the walls of her room she drew charcoal sketches of the hundreds of victims from all over Connacht she had happily hanged.
In 1802, her own sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, in recognition of her service to “the safety of the public” in Roscommon.
When she died, in 1807, Lady Betty was buried in an unmarked grave inside the walls of the gaol.
During the 1820s, the gaol closed and was replaced by a new gaol on the site of the present garda station, says historian Caitlín McCann.
The building became first a “lunatic asylum”, then a refuge for smallpox sufferers, but its cells were not demolished until 1980.
Moved by the tragic story, in 1989 Declan Donnellan, whose parents came from Roscommon, wrote and directed The True Story of Lady Betty, a macabre ceilidh performed by Cheek by Jowl.
TV show Emmerdale’s Sally Dexter played Lady Betty.
Female executioners are rare. Marie Rege sometimes stood in for her husband as an executioner in Brussels, in the 1880s; and Jeanne Woodford oversaw the executions of four men, by lethal injections, at San Quentin, California, in 1999. None have shared the notoriety of Elizabeth Sugrue.
How much of the story of Ireland’s only hangwoman is true is a matter of conjecture. What cannot be disputed is that she played a significant part in the popular imagination.
After her death — from natural causes — her reputation lingered. For years, naughty children who would not stop crying, or who refused to go to sleep, were threatened with the terrifying prospect of a visit from Lady Betty.