In the past, people accused of crimes were sent to a witness box in court, where they were given three chances to plead guilt or innocent. After the third time of asking, the accused was given a bit of time to reconsider their decision, which at the time a ‘judgment of penance’ was passed. The sentence of penance placed upon criminal offenders consisted of:
“That you be taken back to the prison whence you came to a low dungeon, into which no light can enter; that you be laid on your back on the bare floor with a cloth around your loins but elsewhere naked; that there be set upon your body a weight of iron as great as you can bear and greater; that you have no sustenance except on the first day a morsel of coarse bread and on the second day three draughts of stagnant water from the pool nearest the prison door and on the third another morsel of coarse bread as before. If after three days you are still alive the weight will be taken from your body and a large sharp stone placed beneath your back and the weight replaced.”
In 1665, a deaf mute woman was sentenced in the Shire Hall, St Mary’s Gate and was pressed to death, marking the last time England followed through on this method of execution. It is believed that her ghost still roams the cells that once held the accused , a location that remains preserved underneath Derby’s Shire Hall. Built in 1659, this building served as the location for a handful of infamous murder trials that took place in Derbyshire. In 1817, the site saw the punishment of the Pentrich Martyrs, who were sentenced to being hung, drawn, and quartered. This sentence was the last time this method of execution was used in England.
The history of Derby was hit pretty hard by the plague, where the worst effects were felt in 1592 when nearly 500 people died. During this time, local farmers refused to trade with the townspeople. Grass started to grow in the middle of Market Place since the number of people started dwindling, thus putting a strain on local business. The plague showed no mercy and continued to kill off the townspeople in more ways than one. The threat of famine set in until the farmers finally agreed to trade with the people of the town. They had one condition: leave the money for payment in bowls filled with vinegar at the Headless Cross on Nun’s Green. The farmers would later return for their money when they believed the coast was clear.
It is believed that the Headless Cross dates back to the 14th century. Records show that by the 15th century, the monument had already lost its top. At one time, the cross was transported to the Derby Arboretum park, where it resided for many years. The reputation of being haunted still existed. Later on, the Headless Cross was brought back to the top of Friar Gate. Ghosts associated with the cross include a lady dressed in gray and a woman that enjoys visiting the Arboretum.