Sugrue, Elizabeth (‘Lady Betty’) (1740/50–1807), executioner, is thought to have been born in Co. Kerry into a tenant farming family between 1740 and 1750. The location of her birth and names of her parents are not known, and available details of her life are largely anecdotal or speculative, and often contradictory.
Most of the details of her life must be drawn from accounts published by William R. W. Wilde (qv) (1850) and, with vivid embellishments, Charlotte O’Conor Eccles (qv) (1884). Both believed that Sugrue had some education and was literate, and that she married a tenant farmer, from whom she took her surname and with whom she had at least one surviving son. In his account, which purports to be ‘received from persons who were perfectly acquainted with her’, Wilde says that Elizabeth Sugrue and her husband lived together in Roscommon (Wilde, 104). However, the tale more commonly told by others, including O’Conor Eccles, is that the untimely death of her husband left Sugrue destitute and so she set out on foot from Kerry to Roscommon town in search of a better life for her remaining family. Her reasons for choosing Roscommon can only be guessed at, and she is said to have lost a child or possibly two to exposure and hunger on the journey there. A local version of the story, gathered in the 1930s at Scoil na mBráthar, Roscommon town, places Sugrue rather appropriately in Gallowstown (Lisnacroghy) just north-west of Roscommon town, where, as per other versions, she made a meagre living by taking in lodgers (some later newspaper sources refer to her running a coach inn).
That Sugrue is known at all is due to her lifestyle and later profession, both of which were seen as offensive to her femininity, and her femaleness is the constant point of reference in the various tales of her transformation from a desperate and impoverished mother into the infamous and cold-blooded ‘Lady Betty’. Failure in motherhood was the original sin that doomed Sugrue. She is characterised as a ‘brutal mother’ by Wilde, while O’Conor Eccles emphasises her overbearing and controlling relationship with her one remaining son, though she attributes this to her deep, if unhealthy, love for him. Other characteristics, such as her surliness, unfriendliness and violent temper were all considered unfeminine traits: ‘Her disposition was silent and brooding – what the Irish call “dark” – unsociable with her neighbours. Having no friends, all her dull affections concentrated on her son’ (O’Conor Eccles, 1884). Known for including social commentary in her journalism, O’Conor Eccles attributes Sugrue’s disposition to having been ‘crushed by bitter, hopeless poverty’ and that ‘the privation seemed to act like frost on her soul, chilling and freezing the fount of kindness that springs in every woman’s heart’ (O’Conor Eccles, 1884).
Whether she was violent or overbearing, Sugrue’s son ultimately sought to escape his mother and their shared poverty. In Wilde’s telling he enlisted in the army, in O’Conor Eccles’s and others he emigrated to America to seek his fortune, heading ever westward. Yet more versions contend that he both joined the army and went to America, specifically in the mid-1770s, to fight on the colonial side in the American revolutionary war. In most accounts he sent letters and a little money back to his mother before communication came to a halt. All tales recount the son’s covert return home having made some money (‘pocket money’ in Wilde’s more modest account; a fortune according to O’Conor Eccles and others), and his visit to his old home with his identity hidden from his mother (or parents), while seeking room and board there for the night. It is assumed that he intended revealing himself as her son the next day – only to be murdered in the night for his purse by his mother. Sugrue realised what she had done upon reading the papers this mystery man carried with him. Grief-stricken, she ran screaming into the street and was arrested swiftly – putting up no defence – and imprisoned in Roscommon gaol under sentence of hanging.
On the day of her proposed execution, alongside ‘the usual dockful of sheep-stealers, Whiteboys, shop-lifters, and cattle-houghers’ (Wilde, 104), there was no hangman available. When no other person in the gaol who would agree to the task, Sugrue consented to perform the grim duty of releasing the drop on her fellow condemned, thus earning a commutation of her sentence. O’Conor Eccles portrays Sugrue as eagerly pleading for the job from the very gallows, ‘Spare me life, yer honour, spare me life an’ I’ll hang thim [sic] all’ (O’Conor Eccles, 1884). It is speculated that the presence of ‘Whiteboys’ and other secret society members among the condemned put others off performing the executions, either because they were supportive of the men, or fearful of reprisals. After showing herself an able executioner, Wilde asserts that Sugrue ‘officiated, unmasked and undisguised, as hangwoman for a great number of years’ (Wilde, 104).
Hangings took place on wooden gallows outside a third-storey window of the gaol, a building which still stands at the north end of the market square in Roscommon town. The high location of the gallows provided a particularly long drop and drew large crowds of spectators on execution days. As well as pulling the drop release with supposedly ruthless efficiency, Sugrue was said to have conducted public floggings and overseen occasional public displays of the corpses of rebels and criminals. Wilde’s account details the gibbeting of the body of a Michael Walsh on a scaffold in the market square, overseen by Sugrue. A ‘Ribbonman’ who had been shot dead, Walsh’s gibbeting reportedly drew up to 30,000 to the town. The body was left in situ for a few days, then taken down and paraded in a cart through Roscommon town, Castlerea and Strokestown, along with live prisoners who were stripped to the waist for flogging, though Wilde notes that ‘Lady Betty, for some reason, did not officiate [the floggings] upon this occasion.’ (Wilde, 106)
Sugrue lived within the gaol for the remainder of her days and reportedly received a pardon for her crime in 1802 in thanks for her services. She is thought to have been given the name ‘Lady Betty’, by which she has long been better known, due to being literate and having a more refined manner than her contemporaries at the gaol. Early twentieth century newspaper sources suggest that she was of aristocratic birth, with a writer in the Sunday Independent in 1927 going as far as to cite a ‘popular rumour’ that she was the illegitimate daughter of a Derry nobleman.
Wilde described Sugrue as ‘a middle-aged, stout-made, dark-eyed, swarthy-complexioned, but by no means forbidding-looking woman’ (Wilde, 104), while O’Conor Eccles considered the hangwoman to be a ‘woman unsexed, who was said to revel in the sufferings she inflicted’. Adding a yet more sinister dimension to her role, Lady Betty was said to have used a burnt stick to draw portraits of those she executed on the walls of her room.
Elizabeth Sugrue died in 1807. As with so much of her life, the circumstances of her death are uncertain. A commonly held belief is that she was murdered by a prisoner and buried in the grounds of the gaol; the Scoil na mBráthar account contends that she was struck on the head with a rock by a man who was breaking stones in the prison yard (a common punishment of the time). Other accounts state she died of natural causes.
Sugrue’s legacy endured, however, in the guise of Lady Betty. According to local folklore, Lady Betty was invoked as a bogeywoman by Roscommon parents as a threat to troublesome children. The term ‘hang-woman’ was included in A new English dictionary on historical principles (1901), which cited two sources to justify its inclusion: the earliest is the 30 August 1883 edition of the Philadelphia Press, which, in clear reference to Lady Betty, states: ‘In Ireland, a sheriff once, not being able to find a hangman, hired a hangwoman.’ Lady Betty’s legend persisted throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first. In July 1975 Roscommon town staged a ‘Lady Betty Week’ to try to awaken interest in the old gaol, then under threat of demolition, offering a £100 prize for the best Lady Betty-themed float. Declan Donnellan’s play ‘Lady Betty’, combining music, dance and dialogue, had its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on 18 September 1989, and was toured successfully thereafter by his Cheek by Jowl theatre company. Lady Betty was also the titular character in an animated short film, voiced by actors Colm Meaney and David Pearse for Whakala Films, which debuted at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2021.