History O’Crime: Meet Lady Betty, Ireland’s “Hangwoman From Hell”

Sometime around 1789, a particularly cold-blooded sadist took charge of dispensing capital punishment at Ireland’s Roscommon Jail. The executioner in question also took special delight in beating and torturing condemned prisoners even before they made it to the gallows. Each snap of the noose, then, became a moment to relish for this state-sanctioned killer.

Certainly such a hard-hearted approach must have been common among hangmen. What makes this instance so noteworthy, though, is that the hangman was actually a hangwoman.

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Betty Sugrue — soon to be known and feared all over the Emerald Isle as “Lady Betty” — was born in County Kerry around 1750. Although she lived in horrendous poverty, Betty learned to read and write, thereby developing a capability that, for females in 18th-century Ireland, was nearly as atypical as going into the death business.

In her twenties, Betty married and had a young son. After her husband died, she and the boy, Padraic, walked 150 miles from Kerry to Roscommon. They finally settled in an abandoned shack and survived by scrounging from the trash and begging on the streets.

Betty loved Padraic fiercely — so much so, in fact, that as soon as he could, Padraic hightailed it to the American colonies and joined the Continental Army. His departure and endangerment sent Betty teetering on madness for years, and she had little contact with anyone outside her hovel.

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So here’s where we get to the part of the saga that smells more than a bit like a bunch of Irish “malarkey.”

One evening, deep into her lonely despair, a tall, bearded stranger knocked on Betty’s door and asked to take refuge in her hut. She said no, but he was insistent. Upon noticing a gold coin in the stranger’s pocket, Betty relented. Once he passed out, Betty stabbed the visitor to death, hoping to find more loot. Instead, upon rifling the man’s pockets, she found letters that identified him. It was her own son, Padraic!

As noted: The Irish do have a way with a fanciful tales of whimsy, so take all that with a pint of Guinness and enjoy it.

Upon realizing she’d committed Padraicide, Betty flipped out and confessed her crime to the local constable. A judge sentenced her to execution by hanging, and she took up residence in Roscommon Jail.

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On the day of her scheduled demise, it’s said that officers led Betty and 25 other prisoners to the gallows just outside the prison. A crowd gathered to watch. Word got out that the hangman had fallen ill and, therefore, the hangings would have to be delayed. The mob nearly rioted.

Betty stepped forward and proposed a peacekeeping solution, telling the sheriff: “Let me free, and I’ll hang them all!” The sheriff took Betty up on her offer. Then, as the hangman turned out to be fatally stricken, Roscommon Jail hired her as his replacement. Betty had found her dream job.

Roscommon Jail [Public Domain]

Roscommon Jail [Public Domain]

Lady Betty, as she came to be called, resided in a third-floor apartment inside the prison. She received a salary, but rarely ventured outside for fear of violence being directed against her — and understandably so.

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In addition to the hangings, Betty relished any opportunity to flog and otherwise “break” inmates. She developed cruel skills on wicked par with her passion for inflicting pain. Observers also later discovered that Betty had covered the walls of her residence with charcoal drawings of each prisoner she killed.

At the time, capital offenses included not just murder — which Betty herself had committed — but stealing a sheep or a horse, robbing a coach, or even forging a signature. The majority of the violators who Lady Betty savaged and put in the graves, then, had broken one of those relatively small-scale crimes.

All this is how, in private whispers, the Irish came refer to Lady Betty as “the woman from hell.”

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Betty herself didn’t die until around 1810. She retired a few years earlier and lived out her last days tending to a garden just outside Roscommon Jail. The remains of all those lamb thieves and phony name-writers most likely provided potent fertilizer for her soil.

Read more:
Irish Women’s History
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Leitrim Roscommon

Main photo: Gallows [Pixabay]



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