Famous Reprieves and Stays of Execution Part 1

About a variety of people who were given reprieves or stays of execution from capital punishment including Petrarch, Wither, and Greene.


PETRARCH (1304-1374), Italian poet.

At the age of 40 he died and was laid out for mourners to visit. Under local law, corpses had to lie in public view for 24 hours before burial. After 20 hours a sudden change of temperature made him sit up in bed, complain about the draft, and scold his attendants for not looking after him properly. Thus instead of being buried alive, Petrarch went on to live for 30 more years.

GEORGE WITHER (1588-1667), English poet.

When the English Civil War (1642-1649) broke out, Wither (or Withers) joined the Parliamentary forces as a captain of horse. Later promoted to garrison major at Farnham Castle in Surrey, he was captured by the Royalist troops and sentenced to be shot. His life was spared, however, when another poet, Sir John Denham (1615-1699), begged Charles I to pardon Wither on the grounds that so long as Wither was alive, he (Denham) "should not be the worst poet in England." The reprieve was granted, but from that day on, Wither despised Denham and never showed him any thanks for saving his life.

ANNE GREENE (1628-?), English servant.

After entering service as a domestic servant in the household of Sir Thomas Read, Anne was seduced by the master's grandson and gave birth to a child. She alleged the child was stillborn, and medical evidence substantiated her claim. But she was tried for the child's murder, condemned to death, and hanged at Oxford on Dec. 14, 1650. At her request, several friends pulled at her swinging body and beat her with sticks in order to hasten her dispatch. After the required hour, her body was cut down and delivered to doctors for dissection. While on the dissecting table she commenced to breathe again, and the doctors succeeded in reviving her. The news brought great rejoicing and an official reprieve.

JOHN SMITH (c. 1705), English criminal.

After being found guilty of "a scandal," John Smith was sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn. On Dec. 12, 1705, the sentence was summarily carried out. Smith had been hanging for 15 minutes when a reprieve arrived. He was hastily cut down and successfully revived "to the great admiration of spectators." He was pardoned and became a popular celebrity, known as "Half-Hanged Smith." Only much later was it discovered that the reprieve had been an elaborate hoax.

MARGARET DIXON (c. 1728), Scottish criminal.

Hanged at Musselburgh, Margaret Dixon "greatly scared" a crowd of curious people by waking and climbing out of her coffin a few hours after the execution. Although she was reprieved and given a free pardon, her husband was considered a widower because she was officially dead. Therefore, to conform with the strict Scottish laws, they were required to wed again to "legitimize their union."

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