It was true, that on a cold December day in 1650, among a large crowd of people gathered in an Oxford cattle yard, a young, terrified girl of twenty-two years of age was cruelly executed. Her crime? The poor lass was a scullery maid to Sir Thomas Reade, living below stairs at his sumptuous manor house in Duns Tew, Oxfordshire.
It seems that a lecherous grandson of Sir Thomas – one Geoffrey Reade – had taken advantage of her vulnerability and she gave birth to his stillborn child which Anne concealed in her confusion and fear about what to do. Anne was charged with the infanticide of her son.
The wealthy family who employed her to administer to their beck and call, quickly closed ranks to isolate her and allowed her to be imprisoned, tried and found guilty of murder. They strove relentlessly to distance her from any association with Sir Thomas Reade’s grandson and left her to be sentenced to death by hanging without any mitigating intervention to lessen that unjust verdict.
I said ‘cruelly’ executed for two reasons; one being the outrageous injustice to Anne by the family, but also the nature of the execution itself. Hanging in 1650, meant being pushed from the rungs of a tall ladder once the rope noose was securing your neck to the beam. There was no drop, no snapping of the neck, just slow own body-weight strangulation.
Indeed the only assistance friends and sympathizers can offer you is to hang heavily onto your legs and pull you faster to a tightened strangulation and possible neck snap – others would try beating you to unconsciousness in an attempt to hasten your death.
For thirty minutes of agonizing torture, the ‘Oxford Scholar’ writing the contemporary account reported that apart from some of her friends thumping her breasts, there were, “others hanging with all their weight upon her legs, sometimes lifting her up, and then pulling her down again with a sudden jerk, thereby the sooner to dispatch her out of her pain.” It is reported the the sheriff had to restrain them for fear that the rope would snap.
The above woodcarving, to be found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, presents the observer with more than just the execution taking place as Anne is pushed from the ladder. Its heading “Behold God’s Providence” and the strange imagery in the top left-hand corner, take us to the reasons why this tragic case became such an important and remarkable event in medical science rather than legal studies.
Anne was destined to be dissected for medical science in a long-standing Oxford ritual of a young assistant under a professor’s stern gaze, nervously dissecting the body in the anatomy class as part of their training.
Fortunately, before it was to be Anne lying on such a table, a slight rattle was heard in her throat as the coffin lid was taken away and instead of a dissection, Dr. William Petty and Dr.Thomas Willis realized that life had not been totally expunged from Anne Greene and so they sat her up, forcing her mouth open so they could siphon hot cordial down her throat, thereby making her cough.
From that moment on, she was massaged, manipulated, and even tickled with a feather down her throat and all kinds of ingenious ideas were pursued to allow life and warmth to flood back into this poor girl – literally – as one technique was a hot enema into her bowels. If you return to the image in the top left hand corner of that woodcarving, you will see two figures in a bed – this is Anne Greene being kept warm by another woman beside her.
The miraculous part was how fast all this body heating and other stimuli speeded Anne to recovery and she was able speak within twelve hours and within a day was able to carry a conversation. Also remarkable was the return of her memory despite concerns that this part of her brain would never have recovered from its ordeal and trauma.
Carefully monitored by the Oxford anatomists, Anne was eating normally within a month, her eye-sight was not damaged and her memory – even of the executioner placing the blanket over her head – had returned.
Pardoned by the Sheriff of Oxford, on the basis that divine providence had intervened – her father found it necessary to raise money by charging people to come and talk to her, so he was able to pay the bills for her care and even had to pay legal expenses to the Sheriff for her pardon – so not all was sweetness and light after such a cruel and terrible ordeal.
Indeed Sir Thomas Reade had previously served as a county Sheriff himself and could have easily had such a fee waived or discreetly settled if he had any conscience at all. It seems he didn’t.
Anne Greene returned to live in the country, married and had three children. Meanwhile, William Petty and Thomas Willis became famous for their medical miracle.
Anne did, however, take away a souvenir which she kept upstairs in her country cottage.
It was that very same coffin pictured in the woodcut – but there is no record of whether it was used fifteen years later when she died while in child-birth, aged thirty-seven.
I had hoped to learn of some news and action to punish Mr. Geoffrey Reade for his dastardly behaviour- but nothing is known except that his grandfather, Sir Thomas Reade, who was instrumental in prosecuting Anne and covering up his grandson’s involvement, died shortly after her execution and remarkable recovery. Hardly poetic justice but maybe ‘what goes around comes around’ after all.