|Death: ||Jun. 10, 1809|
Folk figure. Susanna Cox was hung for infanticide on Gallows Hill at the foot of Mount Penn, in the current City Park in Reading, Pennsylvania. While her story has been recounted numerous times, the essence is that she had been sold by her humble family into domestic service when about age 13. Later in her tenure, she was approached by the husband of the household or by a neighbor, and became pregnant. Months later, after hiding her pregnancy, in the early morning of February 14, 1809, she secretly bore a male child, and on February 17, the child was found wrapped in an old coat, dead and frozen in a nearby outbuilding. A doctor determined the child had been murdered, though Susanna herself claimed the child to have been stillborn. The public donated huge sums of money for her defense, which was rendered by three well-regarded attorneys. The law at the time, taken from British law, contended that unless there was a witness to the child's stillbirth, concealment of the child's death was reason enough to sentence a mother to death, and Susanna was found guilty at her one-day trial on April 7, 1809. A model prisoner, she received many visitors in her cell while an appeal to the governor was made. Though she had had no religious education, she ultimately received it through Rev. Philip Pauli, a local pastor who stayed with her throughout her final days and administered communion unto her on her last day. When the governor denied a stay, she confessed to the killing, explaining she feared losing her position and being turned out, and told her visitors of her earnest regret. Across the United States, her story was widely published, usually sympathetically, in both English and German language newspapers. At the time, the borough of Reading had a population of between three and four thousand people, but 15 to 20 thousand came to witness her public execution, to which all available law enforcement was ordered, to control the sympathetic crowds who now saw her as a redeemed penitent. A large contingent walked and rode with her to the gallows, and she wore a white dress trimmed with wide black ribbons made by supportive local women; it was her first new dress. Her execution began with her with a noose around her neck, standing upon her own coffin which was atop a horse-drawn wagon. The horses were then commanded to walk, allowing her to drop. The hanging took 17 minutes and was so horrific and generated such popular sympathy that hers was the last public execution of a woman in Berks County, one of only three. There are reports that doctors on the scene attempted to revive her, perhaps believing that having paid her legal price with death, she might rightfully be brought back. The hangman was beaten and chased out of town. Later that year, Pennsylvania governor Simon Snyder expressed his regret at being unable to overturn the laws of the time which gave him little choice in denying a stay of execution, and the judge in the matter, Judge Spayd, resigned his office within the month and returned to the practice of law. No details survive regarding the burial of the child. The father was never investigated nor charged, though some versions of the ballad include his initials or spell his name partially, matching those of a neighboring man Peter Mertz. Accounts of the disposition of Susanna's remains differed, but one was finally confirmed: Most accounts stated that she was buried in an unmarked grave in a field belonging to her brother in law Peter Katzenmoyer of Hampden near the present Hampden Reservoir close to 13th and Marion streets. During roadwork in 1905, her remains were found there. At the time and for years afterwards, her compelling story inspired the printing of many thousands of broadsides (single-sided printings) in German and English of her sorrowful tale, often called the "Susanna Cox Lied" ("Lied" being the German word for "song") and "Ein Neues Trauer-lied" ("A New Funeral Song"). More than 80 editions have been published since her death. Records, books, plays and a movie were produced to recount or analyze her tale, and to this day, at the annual summer Kutztown Folk Festival, her ballad is read to audiences who listen and witness a somber reenactment of her hanging.
Specifically: Buried in a former field, which is now near 13th and Marion Streets in Reading, Pennsylvania, several hundred yards west of the Hampden Reservoir
Created by: sr/ks
Record added: Jan 29, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 64870675