The harrowing story of Sarah Sheldon
ANYONE BEARING THE SHELDON NAME will find the story of Sarah Sheldon a harrowing one. Even by the often barbaric nature of justice back in 1692, being burnt at the stake over a handful of dud coins seems a punishment out of all proportion.
Counterfeiting was a treasonable offence back then and as such was subjected to the harshest penalties. Convicted males were often hanged, drawn and quartered. Women were spared that – in deference to their ‘dignity’ they were burnt at the stake instead!
Sarah, the wife of Fulk Sheldon, was tried for “Felony and High-Treason, for Clipping, Filing and Diminishing the Currant Mony of this Kingdom”, along with Mary Browne at the Old Bailey on 12th October 1692.
The court was told that upon Mrs Sheldon’s house being searched, Mary Browne was found sitting in a room with two pairs of shears and some “Clipt Mony and Clippings lying before her”. Some “broad Mony” was found in a chest of drawers, and Sheldon was found standing outside the chamber door.
Mrs Sheldon, in her defence, said she found the clippings and the other things in Red Lyon Inn Passage in Great Gray’s Inn Lane. She called some of her neighbours as witnesses, who “could say but little for her, any more than that she paid those that she dealt with in as good Mony as is wont to pass”.
Browne said she was a hired servant to Mrs Sheldon and was “no ways concern’d but she could not prove it”.
Both were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
A total of 16 death sentences were handed out that day, all for counterfeiting offences.
Both women “pleaded their bellies” and a “jury of matrons” was set up and they subsequently confirmed that both were with “Quick Child”.
The proceedings of the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London and the scene of many famous trials down the years, are available online for the years 1674 to 1913. See Proceedings of the Old Bailey
It was customary at the time for the Ordinary of Newgate Prison, the prison chaplain, one Samuel Smith at the time, to record the “behaviour, confession and last dying speeches of the criminals executed at Tyburn”. It was his duty to provide spiritual care to prisoners who were condemned to death.
One of the perquisites of the Ordinary’s position was the right to publish an account of the prisoners’ last dying speeches and behaviour on the scaffold, together with stories of their lives and crimes. Sold at the affordable price of three or six pence, print runs ran into the thousands.
It was a highly profitable sideline for the Ordinary, earning him up to £200 a year in the early 18th century, the equivalent of over £20,000 in today’s terms.
He published The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of the Condemned Criminals… Executed at Tyburn (titles varied slightly) following almost every hanging day at Tyburn, and over 400 editions were published, containing biographies of some 2,500 executed criminals.
In the case of Sarah Sheldon, the Ordinary reported: “Sarah Sheldon, Condemned for Clipping, but respited, being quick with Child; Aged 40 Years: Born at Manchester. She said that when she went to Church she minded not the Preaching of God’s Word, nor the Prayers. She confess’d that she did Curse in her Passion, and sometimes did drink in excess.”
Nearly 12 months later, on 20th September 1693, Sarah’s respited death sentence was carried out at Tyburn. In all 15 condemned persons were due to be executed that day but in the end only three were, the unfortunate Sarah being one of them.
The Ordinary’s harrowing account of the process reveals much about the brutality of the law at that time. He recounts that after being “drawn in a Sledge to Tyburn”, she was “stifled” and then “burnt to ashes”. His somewhat watered down language disguises the fact that she was, in effect, burnt at the stake, as were many women found guilty of treasonable offences.
Executioners usually took pity on their victims, strangling them with a cord before lighting the fire, which seems to have been the case here.
He also noted: “Sarah Sheldon warn’d the Spectators against Sabbath-breaking, and all evil courses.”
Right through to 1870 counterfeiting was categorised as an offence against the King (or Queen), a form of treason punishable by death.
English currency was in disarray in the late 17th century. Hand-struck silver coins from prior to 1662 had been clipped around the edges and their value (weight) reduced so that they were no longer a viable tender, especially abroad.
The machine-struck silver coins produced by the Royal Mint in the Tower of London after 1662 were protected from clipping by an engraved, decorated and milled edge, but were instead forged, both by casting from counterfeit moulds and by die stamping from counterfeit dies.
By 1696 forged coins constituted about ten per cent of the nation’s currency. The currency also had a third problem: its value as silver bullion in Paris and Amsterdam was greater than the face value in London. Thus vast quantities of coins were melted and shipped abroad — an arbitrage market.
New Acts of Parliament were passed in order to create the Bank of England and protect national military security. This situation also prompted William Lowndes of the Treasury to ask Isaac Newton for help.
Sheldon hanging at Tyburn
Another counterfeiting case a few months earlier saw John Harris, Jonathan Sheldon and Thomas Drury appear at the Old Bailey on 31st August 1692, charged that they, together with Richard Drury, who was still being sought, did “Falsly, Feloniously, and Traitorously Counterfeit 60 pieces of Money, made of Copper, Tin, and other mint Metals, on 25 August 1692, in Gravel Lane in Ratcliff highway.”
The court record states: “The Evidence swore that a Noise and Thumping was heard, much like the beating of Hemp, in the House where the Prisoners were, whereupon Search being made, there were several Stamps found and a parcel of counterfeit Money, besides some Clippings that were cut off of the said Counterfeit Money.
“There were several Half-Crowns produced in Court against them, &c. The Prisoners denied the whole matter of Fact, but the Evidence on the King’s side was so plain and pregnant; that they were all found Guilty of High-Treason.”
Sheldon and his accomplices were among 13 prisoners sentenced to death that day.
Sentence was set to carried out at Tyburn, where the modern-day Marble Arch now stands, on 9th September 1692.
The Ordinary’s account of the day notes: “Jonathan Sheldon, Condemned for Trayterous Counterfeiting 60 Pieces of Mony, made of Copper, Tinn, and other mixed Metals. Aged 33 Years. His Employment also was Making of Nails for Ships; but falling into bad Company, he grew profane in Drinking and Swearing.”
There is a record of a Jonathan Sheldon baptised at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on 2nd January 1669, the only Jonathan recorded in the whole of England at that period, but whether they are one and the same we will never know.
Of his accomplices, Thomas Drury was said to be from Worcestershire but there is no mention of Sheldon’s origins.
The Ordinary further noted that: “John Harris, Thomas Drury and Jonathan Sheldon, neither in the Chappel, nor at the publick Place of Suffring, were so Attentive and Affective as they ought; yet warned the Spectators of all Sin, and not to adventure on the Crimes which they died for.”