Servant girl who was burnt at the stake for the murder of her newborn baby may be pardoned as new details of grim case are exposed
For almost 300 years, Cicily Jackson has been labelled a baby killer. But now the young servant girl — who was the last person to be burned at the stake in Londonderry — could be granted a posthumous pardon.
Cicily met her gruesome end in March 1725 when she was executed on charges of ‘petty treason’ after being convicted of murdering her own “natural born child”.
The citizens of Derry gathered to watch as she was killed on St Patrick’s Day at Bishopsgate, just outside the City Walls.
Over the centuries, Cicily and the tragic death of her infant became largely forgotten.
Until recently — when new research by a University of Ulster lecturer unearthed intriguing details of her life which indicate her conviction was not as straightforward as it appeared in the early 1700s.
UU lecturer and lawyer John Thompson investigated the death of the girl and found she was in the service of the then Anglican Bishop of Derry William Nicolson as his cook.
She gave birth to a chid, whose sex is not recorded, in 1724 and the infant died shortly afterwards.
New information gathered by Mr Thompson has led him to reveal that the father of the child was the bishop’s nephew James Nicolson, who was ordained shortly before the birth.
Nicolson arrived in Derry to become chaplain to his uncle and fathering an illegitimate child with a servant girl would have been viewed a shameful start to his ministry.
This raises the possibility that there could be more to the infant’s murder. Mr Thompson is examining the technicalities of how someone like Cicily Jackson could be granted a posthumous pardon.
A memorial service is also to be held in Derry city centre on March 17 at the spot where the servant girl was burned.
The researcher has several theories behind the baby’s death — including the possibility that Cicily was suffering from post-natal depression or that James Nicolson may have been involved in the infant’s murder.
Mr Thompson said: “By this point in history burning at the stake was a form of capital punishment reserved for women.
“There is a common misconception that Cicily was burned at the stake for being a witch but that was not the case. She was burned because she was a woman convicted of murdering her child. The charge was petty treason which could mean everything from murdering your master to murdering your husband, or even counterfeiting.”
Details of Cicily's story will be relayed as part of a dramatised women’s history tour of the Walls organised by Sole Purpose Productions next month.
Mr Thompson said little is known about the girl herself.
There is only the briefest of mentions of the macabre incident in one historical source.
Records show that within a fortnight of Cicily’s public death, Bishop Nicolson drew up his own will and testament.
Petty treason was the charge brought against those suspected of aggravated murder or the betrayal of a superior by a subordinate. It was deemed a more serious crime than ‘ordinary murder’. Examples included a wife killing her husband or a servant killing his master or mistress. Men convicted of this offence were either sentenced to hanging or were hanged, drawn and quartered. Women murderers were commonly burned at the stake for petty treason.
A remarkable year... events in 1725 as the Cicily Jackson tragedy unfolded
- King George I was on the throne.
- First meeting of the Freemasons Grand Lodge of Ireland in Dublin.
- Irish Presbyterian ministers formed the Presbytery of Antrim.
- Arthur Guinness was born
- Peter ‘the Great’ Romanov, Czar of Russia, died aged 52.
- New Hampshire militiamen carried out the first recorded scalping of Indians by white settlers in North America.
- Giacomo Casanova, Italian Lothario and writer, was born.
- English-born Quaker William Bradford established the New York Gazette.
- The Russian monarchy sent an expedition to discover if Asia was connected to America.