The longevity of Mary Aubry who was executed by burning in 1689

Sometimes during my research, which currently involves collecting and collating information about the treatment of a corpse after death, I come across the story of an individual who has sparked something within the minds of his or her contemporaries and indeed modern scholars. Mary Aubry is one such individual and a brief overview of her death is laid out as follows.

On Friday, 2 March 1689, Mary Aubry, a French midwife, stood in Leicester Fields awaiting her execution by burning. Aubry was charged with and convicted of the murder of her husband Dennis Aubry who she had strangled. She confessed to the crime, was convicted, and was sentenced to be burnt. In an anonymous account of her behaviour and execution we learn that Aubry had dismembered her husband; the ‘body was found in Parkers-Lane, his Arms, Legs, &c. in the Savoy House of Office, and his Head in another, near Exeter Exchange’.[1] This story is confirmed by the record of her trial at the Old Bailey. The sentence against Aubry was, ‘That she should be carried from thence to the Place from whence she came, and thence be drawn to the Place of Execution, and there be burnt with Fire till she is dead’.[2] At about ten o clock in the morning Aubry was collected from Newgate by the Sheriff’s Officers, placed into a sledge and drawn to Leicester Fields where a stake had been erected on the north side of the square. She arrived at half past ten and was reported as ‘appearing very Penitent, often lifting up her Hands and Eyes to heaven, seeming to express much sorrow for the Crime that had been the occasion of this her shameful End’. Half an hour after her arrival, Aubry was set upon a small stool and had a rope fastened through a hole in the stake and around her neck. The stool was taken away and she hanged, slowly strangling to death for a quarter of an hour as wood was piled about her. Eventually the pile of wood was lit and burnt for at least half an hour, until nothing remained of Aubry but ashes.

Execution by fire had been the punishment for women accused of high and petty treason since the end of the thirteenth century. Petty treason extended to wives slaying husbands as Aubry’s case shows, and to the murder of masters by servants. Mary Aubry, like many of her fellow criminals who were executed during the seventeenth century, did however, live on. Her story was retold in various forms including in iconographic depictions, in ballads, and even on playing cards (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Playing card depicting an etching of Mary Aubry’s execution, 1689. © Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.

Even in 1813 Mary Aubry’s story was still being sold and she pops up on the radar of any historian who touches upon executions by burning.[3] Hence despite her short life her story remains. Now it would be possible to argue that all women executed by burning received the same post-mortem longevity, but this is not true. Judith Bomsellers executed by burning in July 1697 for coining (high treason), has nothing but the Ordinary’s Account to remember her by.[4] Therefore, it must be a combination of factors that have led to some criminals’ longevity while others and their stories are lost. These are currently being examined through my research and at some point I will share my conclusion but for now, the story of Mary Aubry’s crime and execution will have to suffice for this blog piece.

Anna Cusack

[1] Anon. An account of the manner, behaviour and execution of Mary Aubry, (1688), p. 1.

[2] OBP, t16880222-24 and s16880222-1.

[3] J. Caulfield, Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons from the Reign of Edward the Third to the Revolution (1813). For more on Mary Aubry (sometimes spelt Aubrey, Awbry or Horbry) see F. E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550 – 1700 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), pp. 34-38; D. J. Cox, Crime in England 1688-1815 (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 13-16.

[4] OBP, OA16970716.

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