“Under the British laws at the time she was found guilty and sentenced to die. Today it would probably have been different.”
So said George Price, the first black prime minister of Belize, recalling the case of Nora Parham who, after a long period of physical and sexual abuse by her partner, Letchel Trapp, finally killed her tormentor by pouring petrol over him and setting him on fire. The court in Belize was told that Trapp died in agony.
Nora, an Asian, was the 36-year-old mother of eight sons and Trapp was the father of four of them. She was said to have complained several times to the police about Trapp’s violent behaviour. Although the jury at her trial recommended mercy, the British governor of the colony, then called British Honduras, declined to interfere with the verdict.
On Wednesday, June 5th, 1963, Nora’s sons kept vigil outside the prison where their mother became the first woman to be hanged in British Honduras.
Belize, B. Honduras, June 5. — Nora Parham, aged 36, the East Indian mother of eight sons, was hanged today for the murder of the man with whom she had been living.
So ran a minute, page-10 wire story in the London Times* from the British Central American possession soon to become self-governing as the country of Belize.
The unfortunate subject of the story was the first, and remains to date the only, woman put to death in Belize.
But she’s very much more than a bit of trivia.
A domestic violence victim hanged for murdering her batterer — who just happened to be a cop — Parham remains a lively source of controversy down to the present day.
Nora’s position as the victim in an abusive marriage, combined with serious doubt about whether she truly killed her husband at all, have given her enduring appeal. There’s a going campaign to issue her a posthumous pardon. In fact, there was a going campaign before she died to issue her a humous pardon, opposed by a governing party paper on the grounds that “sympathy” ought not “change court rulings.”
And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Nora Parham and the years of beatings she’s reported to have endured in her relationship with Ketchell Trapp. One doubts even the harshest magistrate would condemn a person in her situation to hang today.
“By refusing to treat the pair as wife and husband, not just cop slayer and cop,” argues this volume on gender politics in colonized Belize, “the government deepened its own highly political silence about domestic and community gender oppression and violence and added a threatening element to its re-call to ‘domestic womanhood.’”
That cop/husband was doused with gasoline and set afire, but admitted as he expired from these ghastly injuries that he had been beating Parham before the fatal fire.
Even so, it sounds like a calculated way to kill a person.
But many believe, as Parham testified at her trial** that it wasn’t homicide at all … that Trapp was incidentally splattered with gasoline during his donnybrook with his wife, then carelessly set himself ablaze lighting a cigarette while off in the outhouse. (While naked, no less. What a way to go.)
“While he came back in the bedroom, I had a gasoline iron [in] my hand with a pan of gasoline.
“He came in the bedroom with a stick in his hand and hit me on my head. When he was going to hit me another hit, I threw the gasoline on him and he grabbed away the pan from me, and I went through the backdoor and he stone me with the said pan.
“After he stoned [me], I ran around the house and he never see where I got to. I went in the house through the front door, then I took the gasoline iron from where I left it and put it in the box.
“While I was inside I heard a noise and I run to see what it was. When I went I saw Ketchell Trapp come out of the latrine under fire. I then run up to help him but I see I could not, then I continued running towards the Hospital back street, running towards the station.
-Nora Parham, at trial
That trial excerpt is drawn from a strongly pro-Nora account with more details about the case here.
Belize still hands down death sentences, but has not carried one out on anybody, man or woman, since 1985.
* June 6, 1963
** All-male jury, which was true of all juries in Belize until 1970.