Lady Betty

Lady Betty
BY Josie Gray

Given the death sentence for murder, she saved
her life by becoming executioner at Roscommon
Jail, Ireland, 1740.

So there you stood
giving the hangman’s yank,
the rope attached to
someone’s neck, a neck not
unlike yours — fleshy, strung
to heart and brain. One report
thought you deserved a movie.
Indeed, the harder to sort truth,
the stranger the myth we make.
For instance, was it your husband or
your son you murdered?

In a cleansing of the general soul
the town used your deed
as their reprisal. For no recompense
but life, you accepted their burden
as yours, to feel each time you took
a life — the updraft of the death
you’d escaped. More than others, did
you experience the body as
thing, disposable, its animation
gradually twitched away, then stilled?

What had your husband done so “murderer”
became you? At Roscommon Jail’s inception
matrimonial crimes of the era:
beatings in drunkenness, servitude
of the bed, accusations of the usual
domestic sort. “Who was she hanging?”
asks Marese, chopping onions
for shepherd’s pie. Putting down the knife,
“She must have known everyone she hanged.”
A lantern flares in the greater darkness.
What heart was in her? Did she steel it or
let it flow? Retribution. Strange idea.

Yet she agreed to serve in exchange
for life. Did she wear lost lives, or
after a while, was it just another day’s
work? Did she earn the right to walk
the town? If so, did the townsfolk meet her
in the shops, a specter in human form?

I think they stepped aside. Made way for
dignity in reverse. Lady Betty.
For she relieved them of much, and if
she thought less of them, it’s unlikely she gave
sign. Complicity is like that:
a not-so-secret bond, accomplished without
tearing the fabric. She is rent and upright
when I think of her.

On the radio an American voice,
a boss-executioner, admits how wrong
it all seems, no matter the crime
. He’s
from Texas. No clemency there.
They are dying often in Texas.
But in Roscommon town of not so long ago
Lady Betty is stepping high, going
home to her children, whose arms
around her knees must have broken
doorways into corridors of unwitnessed
mercy where she walks yet
in only that rectitude.


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