The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
BURNED AT THE STAKE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARY CHANNING
Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword History, 2017 www.pen-and-sword.co.uk www.summerstrevens.com @SummerStrevens sofcover & ebook 117pp; illus; biblio; index ISBN:1473898722 £12.99 hardcover & £7.59 ebook
A henge is a Neolithic earthwork, circular and with a ditch inside the bank. The location of the ditch suggests that henges weren’t defensive, which indicates that they were ritualistic, which basically means that we haven’t any real idea what they were used for. One of the best known henges – if any henge apart from Stonehenge and Avebury, about 20 miles to the north, are “known” to the public at large – is Maumbury Rings in Dorset, close to Dorchester. Maumbury emerges a little from obscurity when used by the Romans as an amphitheatre, and was used centuries later as a defensive position during the Civil War, but, as Thomas Hardy wrote in The Times in 1908, when “the curtain” next rose it was in 1706 on a “scene as sinister as event as any associated with it…real flesh and blood, and no longer uncertain visions of possible Romans at their games or barbarians at their sacrifices”. It was the execution of nineteen-year-old Mary Channing for the murder of her husband. She was burned at the stake at Maumbury Ring in front of a crowd estimated to have numbered 10,000.
Mary Channing was the last woman to be burned at the stake in Dorset, but the barbaric practice would continue in Britain for a further eighty-three years, and while there were many reasons that led to its abolition, one of them was the transfer of public executions from Tyburn to Newgate. In 1786 Phoebe Harris was the first woman burned at the new location and The Times (23 June 1786) complained that the smoke from the burning body had severely affected “several persons in the neighbourhood of Newgate lying ill”. Phoebe wasn’t burned alive, but was first of all hanged – reports suggest that in fact she took several minutes to strangle to death– and after being left to hang for half an hour, her body was dropped into the flames below.
In the case of Mary Channing, Hardy writes, “There is nothing to show that she was dead before the burning began, and from the use of the word ‘strangled’ and not ‘hanged,’ it would seem that she was merely rendered insensible before the fire was lit.” Hardy asked: “Was man ever ‘slaughtered by his fellow man’ during the Roman or barbarian use of this place of games or of sacrifice in circumstances of greater atrocity?”
What seems to have bothered Hardy, who was slightly obsessed with the story of Mary Channing, is his belief that she was innocent of the crime for which she suffered such a barbaric punishment.
Mary Channing was a “wild child” beyond the control of her parents and married against her will to an extraordinarily indulgent and “weak-minded” husband, who permitted her to keep her lovers, financed her parties and kept her supplied with money. “The present writer had examined more than once a report of her trial, and can find no distinct evidence that the thoughtless, pleasure-loving creature committed the crime, while it contains much that she did not. Nor is any motive discoverable for such an act,” wrote Hardy.
Summer Strevens, in Burned at the Stake, tells the story of Mary Channing, and tells it very well. My one criticism, and it’s a very small one, is the title of her book. I admit that I can’t immediately think of a more attention-grabbing one, but one’s immediate thought is that it is a history or an anthology of burnings and that on reading the sub-title the potential buyer might be disappointed to find the book is about one specific case. The title needed something to make clear what a dramatic and fascinating story Strevens has to tell. Channing defended herself in court, and did so very ably, even being commended by the judge, and she never admitted her guilt, but fiercely maintained her innocence throughout. At the end of the trial she revealed that she was pregnant, and therefore the execution was delayed until she had given birth. As Hardy observes, Channing then became seriously ill and lost so much weight that she was reduced to skin and bone. She apparently welcomed death, but nevertheless maintained her innocence, and continued to do so till the end. It’s impossible not to have great sympathy for Mary Channing, but was she innocent or guilty? Summer Strevens tells the tale, it’s up to you to decide.
Review by Paul Begg.