Elizabeth Martha Brown.
Martha Brown(e) was an ordinary woman of humble birth who
worked as a servant. It is thought that she was born in 1810 or 1811 and that
her maiden name was
The marriage was problematic and she caught John in bed with another woman. A quarrel naturally ensued and later that day erupted into violence when John came home drunk and without his hat. She remonstrated with John who replied by hitting her with his whip. This was the last straw for Elizabeth who retaliated by hitting him over the head with the wood chopping axe, smashing his skull and killing him.
arrested but claimed that her husband's death had been caused by being kicked
in the head by a horse. The police did not believe this and thus she was
charged with murder. She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes, as Dorchester is
the County town of Dorset. The jury did not believe the horse story either and
brought back a guilty verdict. The mandatory death sentence was passed on her
and she was taken to
There were obvious mitigating circumstances which led to substantial agitation for a reprieve. Reprieves even for murder although rare, were by no means unknown at this time. There was, however, much public sympathy for her in view of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband. The Home Secretary, however, refused a reprieve even in view of the evidence of obvious provocation, perhaps because Elizabeth had made the fatal mistake of maintaining, virtually to the last, the lie that her husband had died from a horse kick. (c.f. the case of Tracy Andrews in 1997, where she claimed that her boyfriend had been stabbed in a road rage attack, a story which she later retracted). Elizabeth became "locked into" this lie as so many have before and since. Ultimately, in the condemned cell, she confessed that she had killed him with the axe and, therefore, was responsible for his death and accepted her fate with great courage. Diminished responsibility was not a defence open to her in 1856, it would be another 101 years before it was recognised in English law.
Sheriff of Dorset made the necessary preparations for her execution, appointing
William Calcraft as the hangman. He was
Elizabeth's execution was set for 9 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, 9th of August 1856. Calcraft travelled to Dorchester by train and he and his assistant arrived at the prison the day before as required by the Home Office to make the necessary preparations.
gallows was erected over the gates of
A crowd of between 3 and 4,000 had gathered for, what was by then quite a rare event, the public hanging of a woman. To add to the public interest Elizabeth was an attractive woman, who looked younger than her years and had lovely hair. She was also incredibly brave in the face of death. So much so that her local vicar the Rev. H. Moule, regarded it as a sign of callousness. Rev. Moule accompanied
She had chosen a long, tight fitting thin black silk dress for her hanging. At the prison gates, she shook hands with the officials and began the ascent to the gallows set up over the gateway. She walked up the first flight of 11 steps where William Calcraft, a forbidding figure in his black clothes and bushy white beard, pinioned her arms in front of her before leading her up the next flight of 19 steps, across a platform and on up the last flight of steps to the actual trap. Here Calcraft put the white hood over her head and the simple noose around her neck. He then began to go down below the trap to withdraw the bolts (there was no lever in those days). When it was pointed out to him that he had not pinioned Elizabeth's legs, he returned to her and put a strap around her legs, outside of her dress to prevent it billowing up and exposing her as she hanged. (The Victorian preoccupation with decency!) While this was going on, Elizabeth stood stoically on the gallows, supported by a male warder on each side just waiting for her death. The rain made the hood damp and it clung to her features, giving her an almost statuesque appearance. It must also have made it hard for her to breath through the damp cloth.
Once again, Calcraft went below and pulled the bolts thus releasing the trap doors.
Her execution caused a leading article in the Dorset County Chronicle advocating the abolition of the death penalty. Click here for an artist's impression of the hanging.
Thomas Hardy was a boy of 16 when he went to watch this spectacle with a friend and was able to secure a good vantage point in a tree very close to the gallows. He noted "what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back", after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body. It made an impression on him that lasted until old age, he still wrote about the event in his eighties. It was to provide the inspiration and some of the matter for 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles.” It seems possible that Hardy found something erotic about the execution and particularly her body and facial features through the tight dress and rain soaked hood. Charles Dickens, who had also witnessed public hangings and campaigned strongly against them, referred to the "fascination of the repulsive, something most of us have experienced."
James Seale became the last person to be publicly hanged in Dorset when he was executed for the murder of Sara Guppy. He went to the gallows two years later, on the 10th of August 1858, an event also witnessed by Hardy. Public executions were abolished by law in 1868.