(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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
"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,
March 13, 1900
By Louis Richards, Esq.
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".
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.
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"We thought you'd want to look nice on Thursday, dear", said Mrs.
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
Susanna put her dress aside, she stood and softly paced in her
cell. Mrs. Zahn stood in silence; she noticed the poor girl's
"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
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.
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".
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright by Ms J. (2000).