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Susanna COX

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Infanticide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 14, 1809
Date of arrest: 3 days after
Date of birth: 1785
Victim profile: Her illegitimate infant son
Method of murder: Strangulation?
Location: Berks County, Pennsylvania, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Reading, Pennsylvania on June 10, 1809
 
 
 
 
 
 

Susanna Cox (1785–1809) was a young domestic servant in Berks County, Pennsylvania, accused of murdering her illegitimate infant son. Berks County was home to large populations of German-language immigrants who settled there in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Cox shared this German heritage (referred to as Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Dutch). Unlike the murderesses mentioned above, Cox was an uneducated woman who spoke a German dialect and could do little to defend herself in court.

Furthermore, she was tried at a time when American laws were changing. After a brief trial, Cox was hanged in Reading, Pennsylvania, on June 10, 1809. Following her execution, her story gained such sympathy that it was written in a ballad and widely circulated in German and in English through newspapers and broadsides (sheets of paper printed on one side). This immensely popular ballad was printed in over 88 editions in its broadside form throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, the ballad is read at the annual summer Kutztown Folk Festival to audiences who listen intently and then witness an effigy of Cox hanged in a dramatic reenactment.

References

  • Suter, Patricia, with Russell and Corinne Earnest, The Hanging of Susanna Cox: The True Story of Pennsylvania's Most Notorious Infanticide and the Legend That's Kept It Alive (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, to be released in May 2010).

  • Nest, Bathsheba Doran, a fictional play based on the story of Susanna Cox, Samuel French Publisher, 2008.

  • Earnest, Russell and Corinne, Flying-Leaves and One-Sheets: Pennsylvania German Broadsides, Fraktur, and Their Printers (New Castle, Dela.: Oak Knoll Books, 2005).

  • Yoder, Don, The Pennsylvania German Broadside: A History and Guide (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).

  • Richards, Louis, "Susanna Cox: Her Crime and its Expiation," Paper read before the Historical Society of Berks County, Pa., 13 March 1900.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

Susanna Cox

Folk figure. Susanna Cox was hung for infanticide on Gallows Hill at the foot of Mount Penn, in the current City Park in Reading, Pennsylvania. While her story has been recounted numerous times, the essence is that she had been sold by her humble family into domestic service when about age 13. Later in her tenure, she was approached by the husband of the household or by a neighbor, and became pregnant.

Months later, after hiding her pregnancy, in the early morning of February 14, 1809, she secretly bore a male child, and on February 17, the child was found wrapped in an old coat, dead and frozen in a nearby outbuilding. A doctor determined the child had been murdered, though Susanna herself claimed the child to have been stillborn.

The public donated huge sums of money for her defense, which was rendered by three well-regarded attorneys. The law at the time, taken from British law, contended that unless there was a witness to the child's stillbirth, concealment of the child's death was reason enough to sentence a mother to death, and Susanna was found guilty at her one-day trial on April 7, 1809.

A model prisoner, she received many visitors in her cell while an appeal to the governor was made. Though she had had no religious education, she ultimately received it through Rev. Philip Pauli, a local pastor who stayed with her throughout her final days and administered communion unto her on her last day. When the governor denied a stay, she confessed to the killing, explaining she feared losing her position and being turned out, and told her visitors of her earnest regret.

Across the United States, her story was widely published, usually sympathetically, in both English and German language newspapers. At the time, the borough of Reading had a population of between three and four thousand people, but 15 to 20 thousand came to witness her public execution, to which all available law enforcement was ordered, to control the sympathetic crowds who now saw her as a redeemed penitent.

A large contingent walked and rode with her to the gallows, and she wore a white dress trimmed with wide black ribbons made by supportive local women; it was her first new dress. Her execution began with her with a noose around her neck, standing upon her own coffin which was atop a horse-drawn wagon. The horses were then commanded to walk, allowing her to drop.

The hanging took 17 minutes and was so horrific and generated such popular sympathy that hers was the last public execution of a woman in Berks County, one of only three. There are reports that doctors on the scene attempted to revive her, perhaps believing that having paid her legal price with death, she might rightfully be brought back. The hangman was beaten and chased out of town.

Later that year, Pennsylvania governor Simon Snyder expressed his regret at being unable to overturn the laws of the time which gave him little choice in denying a stay of execution, and the judge in the matter, Judge Spayd, resigned his office within the month and returned to the practice of law. No details survive regarding the burial of the child.

The father was never investigated nor charged, though some versions of the ballad include his initials or spell his name partially, matching those of a neighboring man Peter Mertz. Accounts of the disposition of Susanna's remains differed, but one was finally confirmed: Most accounts stated that she was buried in an unmarked grave in a field belonging to her brother in law Peter Katzenmoyer of Hampden near the present Hampden Reservoir close to 13th and Marion streets. During roadwork in 1905, her remains were found there.

At the time and for years afterwards, her compelling story inspired the printing of many thousands of broadsides (single-sided printings) in German and English of her sorrowful tale, often called the "Susanna Cox Lied" ("Lied" being the German word for "song") and "Ein Neues Trauer-lied" ("A New Funeral Song").

More than 80 editions have been published since her death. Records, books, plays and a movie were produced to recount or analyze her tale, and to this day, at the annual summer Kutztown Folk Festival, her ballad is read to audiences who listen and witness a somber reenactment of her hanging.

Findagrave.com

 
 

Susanna Cox

Her Crime and its Expiation.

By Louis Richards, Esq - BerkHistory.org

Situated at the distance of a few hundred yards from the Oley turnpike road, in Oley Township, Berks County, upon the border line of Exeter, there stands a large old stone mansion, which, at the beginning of the century, was the property of the Snyder family, long seated in that neighborhood. Its appearance indicates thrift and comfort, and the region is picturesque and attractive.

This ancient dwelling possesses a melancholy association with a tragedy which transpired upwards of ninety years ago and has deeply impressed itself in local history and tradition. Though often rehearsed, the narrative of the crime of Susanna Cox and its expiation is of enduring interest, both as a vivid memento of the times of its occurrence, and a pathetic instance of the stern administration of public justice which was the characteristic of a bygone period. The whole tone of the picture is somber, but its contemplation is humanizing.

There resided here, in the year 1809, the family of Mr. Jacob Geehr, who was married to Esther Snyder, both representatives of old and highly respectable county stock. With the Snyders and Geehrs there had lived for eleven years, in the capacity of a domestic, a girl named Susanna Cox, who, at the time of the lamentable event which fixed public attention upon her, was in the twenty-fourth year of her age. She was born in the lower part of the county, of very humble parentage, and was early put out to service.

Entirely without education or the advantages of timely moral training, she possessed nothing to recommend her in her menial relation except a vigorous bodily frame, repossessing countenance and a cheerful and willing disposition. She behaved herself with at least outward propriety, kept closely at home, and, though not considered very bright or apt for work, attached to herself the family of Mr. Geehr by her tender and affectionate care of their three young children, all of whom were born during the period of her employment.

But, as events developed, the luckless girl, perhaps from the very simplicity of her disposition too easy a prey to the wiles of the designer, was led aside from the path of virtue, and confronted with the consequences of her error. Whilst it was observed that she had complained of some obscure indisposition, no one in the family appears to have been positively aware of her condition, or, marvelous as it would seem, knew the fact that, early upon the morning of the fourteenth day of February, 1809, she had, alone, in her own apartment, become a mother.

At about daybreak on the morning of the third day there after, the seventeenth of February, Mr. Geehr had occasion to go to an outbuilding a few yards from the house, to search for some old iron needed for certain repairs which were in progress on his farm. This structure, still standing, and bearing as the date of its erection the mark of 1767, is a small one story stone house, originally occupied as a dwelling. The basement was used as a wash house, the Monocacy creek flowing beside it. In a corner of the rear room upon the main floor was a closet, and underneath it a deep receptacle in the wall, usually filled with promiscuous rubbish. Drawing out its contents, Mr. Geehr came upon a parcel wrapped in a piece of an old coat, which, upon inspection, proved to be the dead body of a newly born, fully developed male infant, frozen stiff. The gruesome discovery, being communicated by him to the family, caused much consternation. Although the girl Susanna had been about the house as usual during the preceding days, suspicion was at once directed to her, and, upon being closely questioned upon the matter by the female members of the family, she admitted that the child was hers, and that she had placed it where it had been found, but said it had been born dead.

Deeming it proper that the affair should be judicially inquired into, Mr. Geehr, without particular inspection of the child's body, replaced it in the wall, and sent his tenant farmer to Reading to summon the Coroner. Acting in the place of that official, who was sick, Peter Nagle, Esq., for a long period a Justice of the Peace of the town, came, late in the afternoon of the same day, accompanied by a young medical practitioner, Dr. John B. Otto. A jury from the neighborhood being impaneled, a surgical examination of the child's body was made by the physician, as the result of which it was ascertained that the lower jaw had been broken, the tongue torn loose and thrust back, and strangulation evidently produced by a wad of tow or flax which had been forced into the throat

The girl being questioned anew by the Justice in private, adhered to her original story as given to the family. But, appearances leaving no doubt that the infant had been violently done away with, the finding of the inquest was that it had been murdered, and that the self-confessed mother was the perpetrator of the crime. Upon being informed of this result, and told that she would have to accompany the Justice upon his return to the town, the girl cried a little at first, but presently seemed quite willing to go, ate a comfortable supper prepared for her, and, after being warmly clothed for the journey, was conveyed to Reading and committed to prison for trial.

That trial was not long deferred. An indictment against Susanna Cox for willful murder was found by the grand jury at the April Term of the Oyer and Terminer following, and upon Friday, April 7th, the next to the last day of the session, she was arraigned before the Court, then presided over by the Honorable John Spayd, and pleaded not guilty. The prosecution on the part of the State was conducted by the Deputy Attorney-General, Samuel D. Franks, Esq., and the prisoner was defended by three of the leading practitioners of the local bar, Marks John Biddle, Charles Evans and Frederick Smith, Esqs.

According to the notes of trial taken by Mr. Biddle, the facts developed were as have already been stated. Substantially no testimony was adduced on the part of the defense, Dr. John C. Baum, the family physician of Mr. Geehr, being called and stating that he had prescribed for the accused the preceding autumn for some unusual aliment, without discovering its cause, and that she had also reiterated to him the day after her commitment to prison her previous assertion that the child had been born dead, giving as her reason for the concealment of its birth that she feared she would lose her place if the fact were discovered.

The prisoner's cause was ably and forcibly presented to the Court and jury by her learned counsel, who urged in her favor the lack of positive proof of the commission by her of the offence charged, the existence of a reasonable doubt of her guilt, and the hazard of a conviction upon mere circumstantial evidence. The confession of the accused that the child was hers having been given in evidence by the State, that confession, it was contended, must be received in its entirety, coupled as it was with her assertion that it had been born dead. Her previous character, moreover, had been shown to be good, and no person naturally virtuous, it was argued, sinks at once to crime which shocks humanity.

What stronger plea in the law could, under the circumstances, have been made in behalf of the hapless girl? What greater indication of the public concern for her life than these voluntary efforts by such an array of distinguished counsel? But, divesting the ease of all considerations of sentiment, it would be doing violence to impartial judgment to assert that the verdict of guilty of willful and premeditated murder, which was rendered by the jury after about four hours deliberation, was not fairly warranted under the law and the facts.

Upon the following morning, in the speedy course of justice, the prisoner was again brought to the bar of the Court and sentenced to pay the penalty of death which the law affixed to her crime. In choking accents the deeply affected Judge pronounced the solemn words which consigned the unhappy girl to her awful doom. A multitude of people, as great as could crowd within the walls of the old provincial court house where the trial had taken place, listened to those words with no less profound emotion. The condemned, herself, bowed her head and wept convulsively, still, however, maintaining her innocence.

The popular sympathy for the unfortunate girl was now enlisted in an effort to secure at the least a commutation of the sentence at the hands of the Executive. The Governor of the State, Simon Snyder, was petitioned to spare the life which the law had declared to be forfeited to its demands. Whilst the prisoner's guilt could no longer be judicially questioned, it was urged that justice could be satisfied without the shedding of her blood.

The hanging of a woman was then, as it continues to be, repugnant to the people of Pennsylvania. Yet there had been numerous instances of it in the history of both the Colonial and State governments, and before the law there could be no just discrimination in the punishment of deliberate murder founded upon distinction of sex in the perpetrator.

Two women had previously been executed in Berks County for the crime of murdering their illegitimate offspring. Elizabeth Graul, convicted at the November Term of Oyer and Terminer of 1758, and Catharine Krebs, convicted at the November Term of 1767, were hanged at Reading the former on March 10, 1759, and the latter on December 19, 1767. No facts regarding these remote cases have been transmitted.

At that period the sanguinary code of 1718 was still in force, under which no less than twelve distinct offences were punishable by death. By the same statute the mere concealment of the death of her illegitimate child by the mother was made presumptive evidence to convict her of murder, unless she could make proof by at least one witness that the child was born dead.

This harsh feature of the ancient law, together with the penalty of capital punishment for all offences other than murder of the first degree, was finally removed by the Act of 1794, which also required, with respect to illegitimates, independent affirmative proof of the fact of the killing by the mother as essential to a conviction, and punished the concealment of the death by imprisonment at hard labor, which remains the law at this day.

Between the organization of the State government under the Constitution of 1790, and the year 1809, five women, three of them colored, convicted in other counties, also paid the death penalty, the offences being, in nearly every instance, the murder of illegitimates. A young woman named Sarah Keating was tried in the Oyer and Terminer of Berks County before Supreme Court Justices Shippen and Brackenridge, in October, 1804, for concealing the death of her illegitimate child, and acquitted; the grand jury having previously ignored a count in the indictment charging her with its murder. Since 1809 there has occurred but a single instance of the execution of a woman in Pennsylvania that of Catharine Miller, who was hanged in the county of Lycoming, together with her paramour, in February, 1881, for the murder of her aged husband.

Humanity was a marked trait in the character of Governor Snyder. That he regarded capital punishment with disfavor is evidenced by his remarks upon the subject in his annual message to the Legislature in December, 1809, suggesting the expediency of its abolition as a matter proper for their consideration. The signing of death warrants he referred to in the same connection as the most painful duty devolving upon the Executive. But the policy of the law with respect to the due protection of human life was firmly settled, and there was at that day, moreover, less disposition to interfere with the solemn verdict of a jury than there is at this. Nor had modern theories as to individual responsibility for crime materially affected ancient ideas of public justice.

The particular crime of which Susanna Cox had been convicted was no uncommon offence, and it was especially ill fated for her cause before the Governor that, in the beginning of May, 1809, while the petition in her behalf was still in his hands, a girl named Mary Meloy was arrested upon the like charge at Lancaster, then the seat of the State government. The circumstances were of unusual atrocity, and whilst the defendant was subsequently acquitted, she was at the time of her apprehension believed to be guilty.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Governor's decision was adverse to the pending application. A brief official record remaining in the Executive department at Harrisburg states, under date of May 9, 1809, that, "The Governor this day took into consideration the case of Susanna Cox, now under sentence of death for murder in the first degree, confined in the jail of the County of Berks, of which crime she was convicted at the last Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery held in the said county - and thereupon a warrant under the Great Seal of the State, and signed by the Governor, was issued to the Sheriff of the County of Berks, George Marx, Esq., commanding him to execute the sentence of the said Court upon her, the said Susanna Cox, on Saturday, the tenth day of June next, between the hours of ten and two of the clock of the said day, at the usual place of execution. The said warrant was immediately transmitted to the said Sheriff of the said County of Berks, with instructions to communicate the same to the prisoner forthwith."

This action sealed the fate of the unhappy girl; from it there could be no appeal. When the purport of the warrant was made known to her, and she realized that all hope for her h ad gone, she broke down completely, freely confessed her guilt, and began her preparations for the ordeal of the fatal day, then but one month distant.

Following the English custom, the execution of criminals in public was then, as it had been from the beginning, the practice in this State. It was not until the passage of the Act of April 10, 1834, that executions were required to be conducted within the prison enclosures, the number of officials to be in attendance thereat limited, and the presence of minors excluded. At almost every county seat there was anciently a "Gallows Hill".

This, at Reading, was the tract upon the county grounds at the foot of Mount Penn, now included within the territory acquired by the city and occupied as a public park. A portion of it, comprising between fifty and sixty acres, was purchased by the county from the Penns in the year 1800, at the instance of the Commissioners, for the especial purpose, the reason assigned for acquiring the additional ground being that the concourse of spectators at public executions was usually so great that the property of private individuals was necessarily trespassed upon.

Here, during the Colonial period, numerous malefactors were sent to their final account, and here also, subsequent to Independence there were hanged, in October, 1792, a negro, Samuel Pope, otherwise Samuel Peeves, for rape; in January, 1798, Benjamin Bailey, for the murder of a peddler on the Broad Mountain, within the then limits of Berks County; in June, 1809, the girl Susanna Cox, and in January, 1813, John Schildt, the parricide and demoniac.

Public executions were deemed great popular object lessons in law and morals, and were commonly attended with religious exercises, including, in some instances, addresses to the multitude by the reverend clergy. But experience proved the benefits of such occasions to be a more than doubtful sequence. Murders continued to be as freely committed as before, and the scenes attending hangings were frequently degrading and disgraceful. The presence of the military was always required to prevent outbreak or possible rescue. Had the execution of criminals continued much longer to be thus conducted, it is extremely probable that capital punishment in this State would long since have been abolished. A change in public sentiment in this regard, as evidenced by repeated remonstrance's to the Legislature, brought about the passage of the Act of 1834.

The fact that the girl Susanna Cox must so shortly die for the offence which she had now freely confessed, rendered her an object not only of renewed public sympathy, but of great public curiosity as well. Large numbers of people were admitted to the jail where she was, and talked with entire freedom to her upon her unfortunate situation. This jail was the old two-story stone building, still standing, at the corner of Fifth and Washington streets, erected in 1770, a quaint surviving specimen of the rude prisons of Colonial times.

The Sheriff with his family resided within it, occupying a considerable portion of its available space. Its limited accommodations were frequently over-taxed; no adequate provision existed for the complete separation of the sexes, and communication with the prisoners from the outside was no very difficult matter. In the beginning of the century, as it is said, a license to sell liquors in the public part of the building had actually been granted to the son of a former Sheriff.

Insolvent debtors, many of them of a highly respectable class, were brought into close contact with the lowest and most dissolute characters. At that period jails were regarded as houses of detention merely, rather than as reformatory institutions, prison discipline was necessarily lax, and the utmost vigilance of even a well-disposed Sheriff could not prevent many of the evils which gave to them the character of nurseries of vice rather than schools of virtue.

During her incarceration the youthful prisoner was treated with the utmost leniency, assisted in the Sheriff's family and was a guest at his table. Her behavior was childlike, gentle and decorous. In the last month of her life she had many tender ministrants to both her temporal and spiritual needs. The Rev. Philip Reinhold Pauli, the venerable pastor of the Reformed Church of Reading, who visited her frequently as her spiritual adviser and comforter, found her extremely penitent, and submissive in an extraordinary degree to her impending fate. Upon the day before her execution he administered to her in the presence of the Sheriff's family the Holy Communion, and prayed long and earnestly with her for her soul's salvation. At the same time there was completed for her by friendly female hands the white dress, trimmed with wide black ribbons, in which she was to walk forth to her doom, and which was to be her garment in death as well.

The tenth of June was clear but oppressively warm. The town was crowded, and the public excitement, though subdued, intense. The two weekly newspapers of that date, the German Adler and the English Advertiser, give but meager accounts of its memorable incidents. The contents of country newspapers of the period were made up largely of advertisements. In their news departments the principal subjects of attention were foreign affairs, particularly wars and rumors of wars among the European powers. Local happenings in a town of between three and four thousand inhabitants were presumed to be known to all, and the journalistic allusions to them were brief and paragraphic, merely.

On the eighteenth of May previous, Sheriff Marx had issued the proclamation customary on such occasions, notifying the justices of the peace, the coroner, constables and all other civil officers within the county of Berks, "that they and every of them be in the Borough of Reading on Saturday, the tenth day of June next, at nine o'clock in the morning of the said day, then and there to assist the Sheriff of the county aforesaid in keeping the peace and good order at the execution of a certain Susanna Cox, now confined in the common jail of said county, who is to be executed on said day at the usual place of execution" concluding with the well-worn formula of: "God Save the Commonwealth!"

The public in general needed no formal invitation. Says the Advertiser issued on the morning of the tenth: "This day the execution of Susanna Cox takes place. Eleven o'clock is appointed to start from the gaol for the Commons. Report says that from ten to fifteen thousand people are expected; some coming from fifty miles distance."

Again, in its issue of the seventeenth, it was stated that, "Never did Reading behold so numerous a collection of people. The taverns were all crowded the preceding evening, and all night wagons loaded with people from the country were passing through the streets, some coming upwards of seventy miles to see this truly unfortunate girl terminating her worldly existence. The number of spectators on the ground upon the hill exceeded twenty thousand." "The arrivals," said the Adler, "were by wagons, on horseback and on foot, and continued in constantly increasing proportions throughout the night and down to the moment of the execution. The weather was extremely hot, and owing to the crowd many of the people were in danger of suffocation."

"At a little after eleven o'clock," states the Advertiser, in quaintly describing the final scene, "the mournful procession moved from the gaol. The unfortunate girl, with a wonderful serenity, intermixed with a smile on her countenance, walked straight up to the awful place of execution on the Commons, at the foot of the hill, supported and comforted by two reverend ministers, kneeled down as soon as she arrived, and committed her last fervent prayer to an Almighty God and Redeemer, to whom she had during her confinement (after the death warrant being read to her) most earnestly supplicated for mercy and forgiveness of sins and transgression with whom she had made her peace, and from whom she was assured she had received the comfort of His mercy and grace. She shortly after ascended the scaffold, willingly surrendering a body of sins for the satisfaction of the offended laws of the country, when she was launched into eternity without a struggle! The greatest decency was upheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of sympathy were seen flowing spontaneously from the almost numberless crowd of spectators."

"It was indeed," concludes the account, "a day of sorrow." It might in truth have been added that it was the saddest day that Reading had ever seen. Viewed through the mists of more than ninety years, the bosom heaves and the eye moistens as imagination pictures the incidents of that summer's morning of expiation as they have been described by many eye-witnesses, all now long since passed away.

A troop of infantry under Captain Lutz headed the procession, marching to the funeral notes of fife and drum, the church bells the meanwhile tolling, next followed the officials, the wagon containing the coffin, and immediately behind it the central figure in the afflicting drama, toward whom all eyes were strained, leaning upon the arm of her aged spiritual attendant, the Reverend Mr. Pauli. As the ruddy, black-eyed, black-haired young woman walked resolutely up Penn Street, followed by the closely pressing throng, many heartfelt farewells and benedictions were addressed to her by the deeply affected spectators. The multitude now saw in her not the self-confessed criminal, wearing upon her breast the scarlet letter of her own infamy, but the transformed penitent, about to ascend to the arms of her Maker and Redeemer. Whence the smile that illumined her features? Was it because she already felt the burden lifted, and had she indeed a veiled assurance of the peace that was to come?

Once, only, there was a halt for a few moments while a cup of water was procured from a pump along the highway to slake her burning thirst. Arrived at length at the place of execution, the procession entered the hollow square in which the military had been arranged about the scaffold. Pressing solidly up to the ranks, and at a great distance beyond, was a compact mass of humanity, men, women, youths, and even little children clinging closely to the garments of their elders.

An earnest prayer was offered by the Reverend Mr. Pauli, after which there was sung an old German hymn of the Seventeenth Century, which had been committed to memory by the girl while in prison - a composition of penitence and resignation, the initial verse of which was:

I, wretched creature, sinner poor,
  Stand here before thy sight
 Oh God! show mercy in this hour,
 Judge not with vengeful might.
 Take pity Lord, thou pitying God,
 Upon my desperate plight

The simple but painfully impressive service closed, the white-robed supplicant, with bowed head, calm and composed throughout, undismayed, apparently, in the presence of the King of Terrors. The wagon containing the coffin stood directly underneath the rude instrument of death, two tall, upright pieces, with a crossbeam from which the fatal rope depended. The girl, when bidden, resolutely ascended the vehicle and stood upon the coffin, which had been placed across as a sort of platform. The unknown hireling in mask who performed the office of executioner now covered the head of the condemned and adjusted the noose about her neck. At a signal the wagon was driven from below, and there hung the girl in her death agonies before the gaze of the awestricken multitude in her hand a white handkerchief tightly clutched A simultaneous cry of horror at the awful spectacle arose throughout the overwrought throng. It was dreadful to see; it is distressing to relate!

Some have asserted that the hangman completed his function with an act of brutality by jerking the ankles of the victim to hasten her death. Others said - and this appears the more probable - that he merely stooped to adjust her low shoes which were likely to fall off her feet in the struggle. Be this as it may, he was marked for vengeance, and subsequently, while proceeding from the scene of his invidious duty, was set upon at the corner of Penn and Sixth (then Prince) streets, by one of the town fighters of the day, Andrew McCoy by name, and beaten unmercifully, his silver hire money rolling from his pockets into the highway. Recovering himself as best he could, he made a hasty retreat across the river, away from the town and its excited populace forever.

After being suspended for seventeen minutes, the now inanimate form was lowered, and having been submitted to a bleeding at the hands of the physicians present, to assure the fact of death, was placed in the coffin and delivered to the relatives. Susanna had a sister Barbara, married to one Peter Katzenmoyer, who lived in the suburb of Hampden. To his house the body was conveyed, and upon the night of the following day buried in an open field upon his land, a heap of stones being piled above the turf to conceal the location. For successive days and nights the lonely grave was watched to prevent the remains from finding their way to a dissecting table a disposition which the poor girl had, while in prison, especially requested her relatives to guard against. The spot is indicated as upon the sloping ground, several hundred yards to the westward of the present Hampden reservoir, and near where Thirteenth and Marion streets, when opened, will join.

A small pamphlet, printed in English and German, entitled: "The Last Words and Dying Confession of Susanna Cox," issued by the newspapers of Reading, was offered for sale to the public immediately after the execution. The Confession was prepared for the condemned girl, and signed with her mark in the presence of Peter Nagle and Sheriff Marx on the eighth of June, 1809, two days previously. Copies of it are now very rare, but its contents are meager and devoid of special interest.

After reciting a few facts regarding her life and crime, it proceeds to express her gratitude to the Sheriff, to the gaoler, Daniel Kerper, the clergy and to all who had rendered her kind offices while in prison, and closes with sentiments of penitence, and an admonition to all, especially the young, to take warning by her example. A "Traveler Lied," or Sorrow Song, in the German, by some now unknown author, containing thirty-two verses of the doggerel description, reciting the whole mournful story, was published simultaneously with the Confession, and proved so popular that copies of it continued to be reprinted and sold to within a very recent period. It has been memorized and sung by hundreds who have wept over the fate of the subject of the verses, is still preserved in many households, and is to be found in some instances pressed between the leaves of the family Bible.

Within a little more than a month after the execution of the unfortunate girl whom it had fallen to his sad duty to condemn, Judge Spayd, deeply moved by the event, resigned his office and returned to the practice of the law. The melancholy tragedy made a profound and lasting impression upon all who knew or heard of it, and its traditions, interwoven with some fictitious details, have been transmitted through the successive generations to the present The criminal annals of the State present few narratives of more pathetic interest That the obscure girl was greater in her death, so far as fame is concerned, than if her life, though of the longest, had been devoted to the practice of virtue, is a true, though perhaps grotesque commentary upon her history.

The docket of the court of Oyer and Terminer of Berks County for the April Term of 1809, contains, in the case of "Respublica versus Susanna Cox," but the usual brief and formal entries of the charge, the arraignment, the plea, the names of the jury, the verdict and the sentence. Such records are not in their tenor suggestive of appeals to the sympathies or the imagination. But appended to the terse official memoranda in this case is found the following note, in parentheses, in the hand-writing of Mr. Franks, the counsel for the prosecution:

"On the 10th June A.D. 1809, the prisoner was executed, previous to which she confessed the murder and died penitent, Peace to her soul!"

After the lapse of ninety years, let us echo the sentiment of the kindly lawyer of a bygone time, and reverently respond:

"To her soul be peace!"

  This article originates from a paper read before the Historical Society of Berks County, Pa.
   
March 13, 1900
    By Louis Richards, Esq.

 
 

Susanna Cox

Preface:

In the early 19th Century, the crime of Infanticide was a common problem in society. Young women who found themselves with child would often try to hide or end the pregnancy. 200 years ago, ending a pregnancy was a very high risk for the mother; so many times the new mother would make her problem "disappear" soon after it arrived. Polite society did not look favorably upon women who were considered to have loose morals. An unmarried woman raising a bastard child was a public disgrace. If that same woman tried to dispose of her "disgrace", she was a felon.

The story you are about to read is true. The main character, Susanna Cox, was a real person. Susanna Cox was her real name. Susanna was a servant girl working off an indenture in the year 1807. The practice of Indenture was fairly common in early America.

The names of the characters (other than Susanna) are fiction; however, most of the characters are based upon actual participants mentioned in the historical record. In the interests of entertainment I have taken some dramatic license with their personalities and some of their actions. The main points of the story (the trial, the sentence, Susanna's attire and her execution) are told as they were reported in the surviving documents.

Susanna was 24 years old at the time of this story. She had limited education and naturally her worldview was shaped by the limits of her rural Pennsylvania environment. Susanna's physical description is taken from historical records; which describe her as, "a comely girl with light colored hair and small slender stature".

As the author, I have taken the liberty of assuming Susana's personality. I did this to add emotion and some drama as neither of these is passed down in the historical record.
 

Part 1:

Susanna sat in her cell and wept. "Tomorrow", she thought, "tomorrow they're going to kill me". The warm, dry, June evening dragged on as the condemned girl sat alone with her thoughts. She was alone and scared. "Why did they pick me", she thought, "Jenna Beck did the same thing two summers ago and no one cared".

It was June of 1807. Susanna Cox had been tried and convicted of killing her newborn baby and hiding the body. Susanna was a 24-year-old woman working off an Indenture as a house servant to the Jacob Martin family. The Martin Farm was near the settlement of Friedensburg in the Pennsylvania County called Berks.

German farmers whose ancestors had come to the New World in the middle of the past century made up most of the population of the area. The jail where Susanna was held was in the basement of the Berks County courthouse in the town of Reading.

The population of the Berks County area was almost as stern and devote as the puritans of New England. They were alarmed with the sinful ways of the younger generation. "This Cox girl", they thought, "imagine a servant taking up with a man. Why, it's a disgrace". The fact that Susanna had killed the infant and hidden its body was just too much. This sort of thing had happened before, the good people of Berks County wanted an example made of "this Cox girl" as they called Susanna.

Susanna was an outsider to the citizens of Berks. She was from the settlement of Germantown, near Philadelphia. Susanna came from a large family in which she was the oldest. Her father had sold her and another daughter into an Indenture of seven years to pay some debts. Neither of the girls would be missed and the money was needed. Indenture had been a common practice in North America for the past 150 years. It was a way for many poor European peasants to pay for passage to the New World. Indenture was also a way for families to raise money and be rid of too many daughters.

Susanna had three years to serve in her Indenture. The Martin family had been reasonably good to Susanna providing clothing and a place to live in exchange for housework and childcare. Susanna was content with her situation on the Martin farm but often she longed for a life beyond the farm.

Alone in her cell, Susanna thought of her mistake. "William, will you come to save me", the thought, "we can have a baby again someday". William Hoffman was a horse dealer from west of Berks who Susanna had met the pervious year. William was a guest at the Martin farm and had found time to bed the comely servant girl. He left with a promise to return and pay Susanna's debt so that she'd be free to marry him. Sometime after William's departure, Susanna discovered her pregnancy. She was able to hide the fact from her master and mistress and in June of 1806 her baby was born. To avoid disgrace, Susanna killed the baby by suffocation at birth.

Susanna's cruel and heartless behavior went undiscovered for some weeks. In early July, the corpse of the unfortunate baby was discovered in a pile of brush near the farm's springhouse. Since Susanna was the only adult female (besides Mrs. Martin) on the farm, she was naturally the suspect. Mr. Martin got in touch with his pastor then with the local constable.

Within hours, the surrounding neighbors converged on the Martin farm. Susanna denied her guilt but was soon placed under arrest by the constable. The neighbors would have lynched her then and there if not for the constable. Susanna was put in a wagon and driven the 15 miles to the town of Reading where she was turned over the county Sheriff one Conrad Zahn. Since she was a young woman, she was placed in the charge of Mrs. Zahn, the Sheriff's wife and lodged in his house.

Now, nearly a year later, Susanna sat in a cell with a sentence of death over her head. She thought of the slow and painful trial and felt regret for her lies in denying the act. She was very afraid to admit the crime then. She was afraid of being put in prison. Susanna never expected to be given a sentence of death.
 

Part 2:

"Susanna Cox, having been found guilty of the murder of your own child, it is the sentence of this court that you shall be taken from this court to a place of confinement. On a day that pleases this Commonwealth, you shall be taken to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy on your soul". Susanna trembled whenever she thought of those chilling words. It had been 8 months since her sentence. She had been very hopeful after her lawyer had told her that the Commonwealth was unlikely to hang a woman. He told her that more likely, she'd be made a bondservant for life in some distant locality.

The debate dragged on through the winter. All this while, Susanna stayed in the Zahn house under the watchful eye of Mrs. Zahn. Susanna became a part of the Sheriff's household. She was often seen at the market. The influential citizens and certain clergy of Berks County were an unforgiving lot. Soon, letters and complaints reached the Governor of the Commonwealth. By the spring of 1807, the Governor had confirmed Susanna's sentence of death. On May 19, 1807 the Governor gave his final confirmation of the sentence. Susanna would hang on Thursday, June 11 in the town of Reading.

Later that same day, a prominent local physician was brought to see Susanna. Doctor Otto Reifsnyder was asked to examine the girl to check for pregnancy or any other illness. The doctor was able to pronounce Susanna in perfect health. The good doctor was a bit embarrassed when Susanna asked when she would se him again. In reality, he would be the one who would pronounce her dead in just under one month.

Susanna was quickly moved to the county jail, which was in the basement of the two-story courthouse. Sheriff Zahn had to make preparations for the hanging. The Sheriff had no experience with executions so the county prosecutor hired a man from Lancaster to oversee preparations and to perform the actual execution. The hired executioner immediately set about building a gallows for his victim.

The gallows was a very simple affair. It consisted of two uprights about 15 feet high topped by a stout crossbeam. It was said to look like a large inverted U. This gallows stood in what was called Penn's Common. This was a large grassy area about 100 yards from the Courthouse. The hanging would be in public as was the common practice in those days.

The "Lancaster Man" as he was called by the people of Berks was a former soldier named Leroy Harst. Harst claimed to have hanged several Indians from west of the Susquehanna. He would be able to dispatch the condemned girl. Harst was a large blunt featured man who liked to boast of his skills as a hangman in the taverns. In reality, Harst's experience consisted of a lynching of some Indians that he and some other bullies had participated in some years before.

This self styled executioner had been in Berks for nearly a week when Sheriff Zahn suggested he meet the condemned. The Sheriff thought this was necessary to prepare the final plans for the execution.

On Tuesday, June 2, Harst and the Sheriff visited Susanna in her cell. Susanne was startled by the visit and soon became terrified. "Sheriff Zahn", she said, "is there any news from the Governor"?

"Now Susanna", said the Sheriff, "you know there is no changing this. You must accept God's will. You still have some time left".

"I know that its God's will that I must die", she said, "but I keep hoping that he'll be merciful. I'm sorry I did that thing, and I'll never do it again. I don't want to die."

She was introduced to Harst. "Now missy, let's not have this", he said, "you did the crime and its up to me to see you punished for it".

"Who are you", Susanna asked in a worried tone.

"Why, I'm the 'Lancaster Man', here to hang you", said Harst.

"Oh God, no", cried Susanna. She retreated to a corner of her cell.

Harst grasped her by the arm and pulled her to the center of the room. "Let's get a look at you", he said.

What he saw was a small, terrified woman with dark blond hair. Susanna was pretty enough dressed as she was in a patched and worn dress, plane gray in color with small flat slippers on her feet. "Here's a pretty little thing", Harst thought, "we'll have to come back and see her again". Harst put his large hands on Susanna's neck and shoulders. "Won't take much to crack this neck", he said to the Sheriff.

Susanna cried, "please no, let me alone", as she tried to pull away from the huge man. The girl was clearly terrified.

Harst laughed and held onto the terrified girl while she struggled. That's enough, Harst", said the Sheriff. "You can get on with your work and let this poor girl alone".

Harst released Susanna. "Until next week", he said, "then she dances to my tune". He laughed as he left the cell.

Susanna was shaking with fear. "Please don't let him take me", she cried to the Sheriff.

"Just you rest easy, Susanna", said the Sheriff. "We'll be here all the time. We'll try to make this as easy for you as we can". Susanna was shaking with fear and despair as the Sheriff left her cell.
 

Part 3:

On Tuesday June 9, Susanna had a visit from Mrs. Zahn. The Sheriff's wife had taken a liking to the girl and felt it her Christian duty to provide some small comfort. Mrs. Zahn had gotten some of her friends to sew a dress for Susanna. The girl was grateful to the point of tears. The dress was in white cotton with little black bows sewn on the bodice and skirt. With the dress, the ladies had provided a muslin chemise and a new pair of dainty kidskin slippers.

"We thought you'd want to look nice on Thursday, dear", said Mrs. Zahn.

Susanna offered her tearful thanks to the woman. "Its so nice, I never had a dress and shoes this nice", she said. "They always gave me old things to wear, these are my first new shoes, you are so kind to me Mrs. Zahn". There were tears in Susanna's eyes.

"Now child, there 's no need to take on so", said Mrs. Zahn, "it's just a small kindness."

Susanna sat looking at her new things for a moment; this was the first and finest gift she'd ever received. "Do you think I can be buried in these things", she asked. The condemned girl continued to look wistfully at the dress and slippers.

"I think that would be all right, dear," said Mrs. Zahn. She'd speak to her husband later to make sure Susanna could keep the dress and slippers. "This poor girl", she thought," has never had a new dress. Now she's going to die in the first new things she's ever had".

Susanna put her dress aside, she stood and softly paced in her cell. Mrs. Zahn stood in silence; she noticed the poor girl's shaking hands.

"I'm afraid of what is going to happen", said Susanna, "I can't help it, I'm so afraid". Susanna was shaking.

"I know you are, dear, just try not to think about it", said Mrs. Zahn. She laid a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder.

"Do you think it will hurt, the hanging I mean", asked Susanna.

"I don't know, dear, I don't think so", said Mrs. Zahn, "I think you'll feel just a bit of a squeeze, then it will be all over. You'll see the next world".

"I wish this was all a dream", said Susanna, "but I know it's true. There really going to hang me. I'm so sorry for what I did". Susanna cried softly.

"I know you are repentant, dear", said Mrs. Zahn, "that won't stop this thing but it will help in the next world". She put a hand on Susanna trembling fingers.

"Will I be allowed to see a minister", asked Susanna.

"I'll get Reverend Stoltz to come to you", said Mrs. Zahn. "He'll be glad to comfort you. I'll be back tomorrow and we can talk more then".

The Sheriff's wife left feeling sad for the girl. Susanna was facing her impending death with a lot of courage for a simple servant girl. Mrs. Zahn was determined to make things at the end as easy as she could for the girl.

Later that day, the Reverend Stoltz arrived and asked to see Susanna. The two talked and prayed for some time. The minister left promising to return in the morning.
 

Part 4:

Later that same night, after he left the tavern, Leroy Harst decided to visit the condemned girl. The town was filling with visitors eager to see the hanging. Most of the visitors had not seen Susanna but rumor of a pretty young girl dying at the end of a rope brought people from far and wide.

Leroy Harst was celebrated in some of the lower circles as the man of the hour. He was delighted with his new status. As he approached the courthouse, he noted that all was quite as it should be at 11:00 at night. Harst let himself in and descended to the jail level. The old turnkey was asleep. Harst woke him and gave him a coin to have a drink at the tavern.

Harst quietly opened Susanna's cell door and entered. The girl lay on straw pallet in the corner in a fitful sleep. She was wearing her thin cotton shift for sleep. She woke to crushing pressure on top of her. Susanna could smell a sour whiskey odor mixed with sweat and musty clothing.

"What...oh God, no", she cried, "help me".

A hand hit her across the face, "shut up you stupid doxie or you'll die tonight". Susanna recognized Harst as he pushed her shift above her waist.

"Please don't do this", she begged.

"You'll do as I say slut or I'll see to it that you take a good long time on the rope", said Harst. "I can make it easy or hard for you on Thursday. If I want, I can have you kick all afternoon. It's up to you".

"What do I have to do", asked Susanna.

"Just give me a little ride and I'll send you off neat and tidy. You won't feel a thing", he said.

Susanna felt real disgust for the first time in her life that night. She lay there as Harst lowered his sweaty, smelly bulk on top of her. Fortunately, he was finished soon.

Susanna was crying when he had finished. "You promised me to be quick on Thursday", she said.

"Yes child", he said, "it'll be over and done in a blink". He laughed as he pulled up his breeches. Then he looked hard at the girl. "You say a word of this to your precious Sheriff and you'll be kickin' till Sunday", he snarled.

Harst left Susanna in her cell.

The next morning Susanna was very quiet. She sat on the low pallet as Mrs. Zahn and Reverend Stoltz visited her. She was very quite and withdrawn. Mrs. Zahn noticed a bruise on the girl's jaw but Susanna gave no reply when asked how she got the bruise.

As evening approached, the minister left and Mrs. Zahn ordered warm water for Susanna so that the condemned girl could bathe. Susanna was grateful for this small luxury. After her bath, she dressed in her clean chemise. As a last act of charity, Mrs. Zahn plaited Susanna hair into a single braid. This would be easily pinned up on the girl's head in the morning. The two women talked for a time and Mrs. Zahn took her leave. Susanna was sad to see this woman go. Mrs. Zahn had been her only friend.

Susanna remained alone with her thoughts. Eventually, she reached a state of half sleep. She knew she was spending the last night of her life. She had a sick feeling in her stomach.
 

Part 5: 

The morning of June 11,1807 broke crisp and clear. The hot spell seemed to be subsiding. Susanna woke in her cell to the new day. It was 6 in the morning. She was given a bucket of water to wash in and was able to make herself presentable. She carefully washed her hands and feet and put on her new dress and slippers.

The jailer brought her a pot of tea and a boiled egg. "How much time do I have", she asked.

"Oh, things won't get started for a few hours", he told her, "you'll have time to finish your tea". The old jailer looked at her, "you look real pretty today, young miss. I hope its quick and easy for you", he said.

Susanna shuddered; the reality hit her again. "Today is my last day", she thought, "there will be no sundown or tomorrow or anything for me. If they look for me tomorrow I won't be here…I won't be anywhere." She burst into tears and was still weeping when the Reverend Stoltz arrived with Mrs. Zahn.

The three talked and prayed for a time. Susanna said again how sorry she was for her act of murder. The minister told her that she would be able to tell God of her sorrow as she entered a better world. The minister's words didn't seem to help. Susanna looked as if she was in a trance as she contemplated what was about to happen to her.

Finally, Mrs. Zahn fastened Susanna's braid up on her head. The girl looked very pretty in her dress. Susanna came out of her trance and tearfully hugged and kissed Mrs. Zahn. "Will you stand where I can see you when they take me out there. I can do this better if I have some one to care", Susanna asked Mrs. Zahn. Mrs. Zahn had a white muslin cap for Susanna to wear. Commonly called a 'mobcap', the headwear was a simple ruffled cap that was worn over a woman's hair. It was considered improper for anyone to go out doors with their head uncovered. Mrs. Zahn put the small cap on Susanna's head. The girl's curls framed her pretty face below the white ruffles. The woman said good bye to the condemned girl and left the cell promising to be out there for the girl.

At 9:30 the Sheriff and Leroy Harst arrived with two deputies. Harst smiled at Susanna, "Its time, young felon", he said. She looked at the large man without comprehension.

Susanna could feel her stomach flutter. As she rose to her feet, she felt very faint and would have collapsed if the Sheriff had not supported her. Susanna felt sick and asked to be allowed to relieve herself. She was allowed to use the chamber pot in her cell in front of the Sheriff, the hangman and deputies. It was a humiliation but couldn't be helped.

"Its time Susanna", said the Sheriff.

"I understand, Sheriff", said Susanna, "please don't hurt me".

The deputies took Susanna each by an arm and led her out of the cell. Her heel-less slippers made small scuffing sounds on the wood of the steps as the group ascended. They went out the door of the courthouse to a huge crowd. Later estimates said 20,000 people had turned up to watch the hanging. The crowd saw a small figure in a white dress being led by two large men. She looked so small and helpless.

The procession from the courthouse walked slowly along the 300-feet of path to the gallows. As they neared the gallows, Susanna began to breathe rapidly, her eyes opened wide in terror. The minister was intoning a prayer. "Don't look at it", whispered the Sheriff, "think of other things."

The gallows stood as it had for the past week and a half. Today there was a thick rope ending in a large noose dangling from the center of the high crosspiece. Under the noose was a small four-wheeled cart and on the cart was a coffin. Susanna would be made to stand on her own coffin on the cart, which would then be driven from beneath her feet. There was a stool to help the girl mount the cart. Susan noticed Doctor Reifsnyder standing to one side of the cart. He averted his eyes from hers.

As she approached the gallows, Susanna fell to her knees and began to pray for forgiveness. The minister joined her and helped her to her feet when the prayer had finished.

It was nearing 10 in the morning as they helped the girl to the cart then to the lid of the coffin. Harst bound Susanna's hands behind her back. She was turned to face the courthouse. The only sound was the soft scuffing of Susanna's slippers on the smooth wood of the coffin. The Sheriff approached and looked up at the condemned girl, "Susanna Cox, you are ordered to be put to death by hanging. Do you have any last words"? Susanna stared at the Sheriff, not quite aware of his question. She was trembling. "Susanna Cox", repeated the Sheriff, "do you want to say anything before the sentence is carried out"?

Susanna slowly shook her head and whispered, "no" in a cracked voice, she was weeping. The crowd had grown quiet. Watching this girl about to die had taken the festiveness out of them. Susanna searched the crowd for a sympathetic face. She saw Mrs. Zahn standing with two other women.

Harst removed the white frilly mobcap from Susanna's head. He then pulled the large noose over the girl's head and adjusted the thing around her throat. Susanna could feel the rough, heavy rope. The hangman next produced a cotton bag about the size of a small pillowcase and pulled it down over Susanna's face. He then stepped from the coffin lid and jumped from the cart. "Are you ready slut", he asked.

Susanna stood hooded and noosed, trembling in the warm sun. She just shuddered and gasped a breath of air. "God, please make this fast", she prayed to herself. The crowd had grown absolutely silent now.

Suddenly a crack of a whip drove the carthorse forward. The cart and coffin lurched from beneath Susanna's feet. She felt the cart moving and tried to take a step to keep her balance but there was just air beneath her feet. The girl's mouth opened to scream but the tightening rope forced a gagging, choking sound. She dropped just a short distance, making a soft thud as the rope arrested her fall. The hanging girl began to thrash and buck immediately. "It hurts", she thought as she kicked the air beneath her feet, "oh my God it hurts."

The crowd made a moaning sound as the girl began to hang. The hangman stood beneath the wildly kicking girl and smiled. One of Susanna's slippers came off as she kicked in the air. She pointed her toes in a futile effort to reach solid ground but there was none for her. Her eyes were half closed and her tongue protruded from swollen lips. The unfortunate girl was fighting a loosing battle for her life. Under the hood, her pretty face swelled and darkened as the deadly dance continued. Susanna's consciousness began to fade as she writhed and twisted on the rope. There was only a rustle of cloth and the creak of the rope with an occasional soft gurgle coming from the hanging girl.

As the struggle went past 8 minutes, the Sheriff said to Harst, "end it man, my God how can you watch her suffer so".

Harst just stood there and watched Susanna thrash on the rope. He saw her remaining slipper had come off at her heel. Harst reached out and grabbed the still kicking feet and removed the slipper. As he did, he appeared to lift and lower the struggling girl. A soft moan came from the dieing girl. The crowd thought he had let her get a breath to extend the hanging. They began to jeer at the hangman.

Harst picked up the slipper Susanna had kicked off previously and put it in his pocket. The thrashing continued, weaker now as the dying girl continued to struggle. Most of the crowd was anxious for an end; they felt that the poor girl had suffered enough.

The sheriff and a deputy quickly grabbed kicking legs and held on while they gently pulled. The effort tightened the noose enough allow it to do its deadly work. Susanna lasted another few minutes, mercifully unconscious. Her body stiffened and gave two massive spasms and a convulsive shudder. She then seemed to relax all the tension in her body. The girl hung limp and lifeless on the rope.

Susanna dangled on the rope; her head was twisted toward her right shoulder. There was a faint smell of urine and perspiration coming from the dead girl. The body slowly swung back and forth on the rope.

Harst, the hangman stood smiling as he looked up at the corpse. The man patted a dangling bare foot and said, "that's all for today slut". He had thoroughly enjoyed the hanging. There were many in the crowd who thought the entire spectacle had been an act of barbarism. They began to shout curses and threats at Harst.

The body was allowed to hang for another half-hour as most of the crowd watched silently. Most were in a state of minor shock. They had seen a perfectly healthy girl reduced to the state of a carcass in a butcher shop before their eyes. Harst received his "hangman's fee" under the gallows. He laughed as he gave the hanging body a push to get it swinging again. Harst walked toward the tavern as an angry crowd looked after him.

The Sheriff and his deputy began removing Susanna's body from the gallows. The small limp figure was laid out on the top of the coffin. The hood was removed, revealing a mauve colored face. Her eyes were closed and her tongue had forced its way between her teeth. Susanna's features were somewhat swollen in death. The noose was removed from the bruised neck. Doctor Reifsnyder stepped forward and felt under Susanna's breast for a heartbeat. He then had the Sheriff release the bonds on the girl's wrists and took her left wrist in his hand. As a test for extinction of life, the doctor cut into the girl's wrist. Since a dead body does not pump blood, the severed artery simply leaked blood. The doctor pronounced Susanna dead.

Susanna's body was put into the coffin and carried to Doctor Reifsnyder's nearby office. Here, the unfortunate girl would be examined and prepared for burial. Mrs. Zahn and some of her friends would wash and dress the poor girl's body.

Leroy Harst was caught by a group of irate citizens who were offended by his behavior and his incompetence as an executioner. As he tried to flee, Harst was caught and severely beaten. He was left on the street. He recovered but his fee had been taken by one of his attackers. Harst never returned to Berks.

Susanna Cox was buried at the edge of Penn's Common (in a Potter's field). She was laid to rest wearing her white dress with the black bows. Her slippers, picked up by Harst, were never found so Susanna was buried without shoes. A paper with Susanna's name, the date and cause of her death was put into a small bottle which went into the coffin. No marker was ever placed over the grave.

In writings some years later, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania expressed regret at his decision to allow Susanna Cox to be hanged.

In 1938, workmen digging a foundation near Penn's Common unearthed an old coffin containing the bones of a young woman. From a paper in a bottle inside the coffin, the skeleton was identified as that of Susanna Cox. The remains were moved to the city's then "Potter's Field" and buried in an unmarked grave.

End

Copyright by Ms J. (2000).

 
 


Susanna Cox

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
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