Her story starts in the second half of the eighteenth century, when in desperation to flee from her plight, Betty Sugrue, a destitute farmer's widow from County Kerry, Ireland, set off with her two children on the long walk to Roscommon town, in search of a better life.
Sadly, one child died of starvation along the road, leaving only her eldest son, Padraic. They eventually reached Roscommon and took shelter in a derelict shack and managed to survive by scavenging and begging from the gentry of the town. Betty became a recluse and only the support of her beloved son prevented her from succumbing to insanity.
Betty was known to have a cruel and violent temper, which combined with the relentless life of poverty, drove Padraic to go to America to seek his fortune. Betty was frantic and begged him to stay, but he would not be deterred and promised her that he would continue to support her, by sending money home. She was distraught and couldn't bear for him to go and for the first time hostility grew between them.
One night in April 1775, Padraic set off on his journey, leaving behind his broken-hearted mother. Betty became a complete hermit, only going out at night to the inn where Padraic had worked, to get her food. Even the money and letters she received from Padraic did nothing to lift her from her misery and despair. Over the years she turned bitter and angry and developed a hardness in her character.
In his letters to his mother, Padraic told her that he had joined the Continental Army in New York, which would take him further west into the wilderness. He said he would write as and when he could. As the years passed, it seemed to Betty as though his home in Ireland was becoming more of a distant memory to him and she was doubtful when, if ever she would see her son again.The life of wretchedness and desolation had crushed Betty's spirit further leaving her cold and emotionless and slightly insane.
One stormy November night, a tall bearded stranger speaking in a strange accent came to Betty's door asking for shelter for the night.She cautiously let him in, perceiving from his attire that he seemed wealthy. He insisted on sleeping in Betty's hovel for the night, telling her that the nearby inn was full. Betty had no food to give him so he gave her a golf coin from his money pouch, which she noticed was full.
She offered the stranger her bed for the night, which he accepted, while she sat by the fire contemplating her situation. After the many years of sorrow, hardship and destitution, she thought it very unfair that the stranger should have so much money while she had none, so whilst he slept she took a knife and killed him, then grabbed his money pouch full of more money than she'd ever dreamed of.
Her joy of being rich only lasted a short while, as she searched the pockets of the stranger's coat and discovered to her dismay some letters addressed to her and after recognising the handwriting, she realised to her horror, that she had murdered her own beloved son! After having spent so many years apart she had failed to recognise him. In his writings, Sir William Wilde suggests that Betty's son did not reveal his true identity to his mother straight away because he wanted to see if she had mellowed over the years, but unfortunately for him she had not.
One of her neighbours, hearing her wails of pain and anguish, rushed to her hovel and saw the cause of her screams. She was arrested and imprisoned in Roscommon Jail, to await trial for murder, of which the sentence was public hanging.
On the day of the execution, Betty was led out to the gallows in chains, along with twenty-five other prisoners, receiving the same sentence, but for less serious crimes. The crowds had gathered and were eagerly awaiting the entertainment. Betty was met with curses and hisses, which escalated to the verge of rioting. The commanding officer fired his pistol to calm the crowd.
The sheriff received the news that the hangman had been taken ill and so there was no one to perform the executions. Word rapidly spread around the crowd, who were becoming impatient and the sheriff was worried at the unrest that was growing amongst the people. Betty called out to the sheriff, offering to be a substitute for the hangman. The astonished sheriff agreed, intending to dispose of her afterwards.
Betty was freed of her shackles and to the amazement of the sheriff and the crowd, she carried out the hangman's work on the waiting remaining convicts, in a cold detached manner. Afterwards she was escorted back to the jail, her expression grim and unemotional.
In the meantime the hangman's health deteriorated and he subsequently died. Betty was chosen by the sheriff as the replacement and was allowed secure lodgings in the jail, with permanent employment and a salary. For her own safety, she was unable to venture out into the town, so she spent her days in her quarters of the prison, wandering the damp grey passages.
She worked proficiently and swiftly at her duties, gaining the reputation of 'the woman from hell.' She suggested to the sheriff that it would be safer to install gallows inside the prison and with his permission, she supervised the workmen to complete the new improved gallows, where the public could still spectate, but not intervene. Betty also had the task of flogging the prisoners, which she undertook with great enthusiasm, inspiring fear in her name.
There was a significant drop in the executions in Roscommon Jail, even during the year of the 1798 Rising and Betty's request at semi-retirement was accepted. Eventually her death sentence was lifted in 1802, after a visit with the sheriff to Dublin Castle, in recognition of her service to the safety of the public in Roscommon.
Betty was allowed to retire and spent her last remaining years tending her little garden inside the jail precincts. She died in 1807 and on the sheriffs orders, was buried at night in an unmarked secret place.