They say desperate times call for desperate measures, but you’d wonder how desperate things would have to be in order to do what Elizabeth Sugrue did to keep bread on the table.
Elizabeth’s name may not now be famous enough to shake the very pillars of history, but back in her day, ‘Lady Betty’ as she was known certainly gave good cause for people to quake in their boots.
Her story is so extraordinary it teeters towards the fanciful, and some parts may be just that; however, there’s more than a dollop of truth to it, too.
Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, wrote about her in “Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions,” describing Sugrue as being “middle-aged, dark-eyed, swarthy complexioned but by no means forbidding-looking woman”.
Born in Co. Kerry around the 1740s, Elizabeth Sugrue’s life was a hard one. Evicted from her farm after the death of her husband, she found herself homeless and the mother of two children.
Desperate, they trekked hundreds of kilometres ending up in Gallowstown, in Co. Roscommon. The journey cost the life of one child, but she and her son, Padraig, did make it and eked out a miserable existence, scavenging for food to make ends meet.
Those difficult years didn’t abate and, when he was old enough, Padraig, who had to contend with his harsh conditions as well as his mother’s harsh, violent nature, decided to enlist in the British Army, where he is thought to have served in North America.
Over the following years she received letters from her son about his foreign exploits; however, it would seem her temper didn’t improve with his absence.
This fact was driven home one night when a stranger called to her hovel, seeking board. The man paid in gold coin, and so Sugrue gave up her bed to him. As he slept she brooded on her misfortunes and thought of the bag of gold her visitor carried with him and how it would improve her lot.
Tempted to distraction she took a knife and stabbed him dead, then rifled his pockets for the gold, only to discover papers that revealed the murdered man was none other than her own son, returned from America.
Sugrue was later arrested, placed in Roscommon Gaol, and sentenced to be hanged for her crime. And it is at this point when Elizabeth Sugrue’s future was at its most bleak that things took another extraordinary twist.
The hangman was sick.
What to do? The public had gathered for their entertainment and the town sheriff was all a dither with nobody available to do the terrible deed. Which is when the notorious Elizabeth Sugrue stepped into true infamy and offered her services.
Sir William Wilde, who spoke to first-hand sources for his book, recounts how her offer was accepted and, there and then, on the gallows she hanged every last one of her fellow prisoners (said to number twenty-five, among them sheep-stealers, cattle-rustlers, shoplifters, and ‘Whiteboys‘), no doubt to the delight of the assembled masses.
When the jobs were done she avoided a similar fate herself and was escorted back to her cell.
Things got even better for Sugrue because the hangman soon succumbed to his illness. The authorities decided that they had just the woman to fill the vacancy, and so ‘Lady Betty’ was born – Roscommon’s official executioner.
It was a post she would hold for many years. Sugrue lived out her days within the safe confines of the jail, tending her garden and decorating the walls of her home with charcoal sketches of every person she executed.
That image alone is enough to give one pause.
In 1802, Lady Betty’s own sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, in recognition of her service to “the safety of the public” in Roscommon.
Sugrue died in in 1807. One account claims that this was due to her being struck with a rock, wielded by a prisoner who had been sentenced to manual labour; others say her death was from natural causes.
The story of Lady Betty is probably a blur of definite fact and some fiction, but whatever the entire truth, it is an extraordinary life… that of the cruel hangwoman who sowed terror in the hearts of those around her and in doing so ensured for herself an infamous place in Irish history.