Elizabeth Jeffries -1752.

 

Background.
The British public and therefore the British media have always enjoyed a “good murder.”  The early months of 1752 brought not one, but two such events. Their cases filled the newspapers for weeks and we are led to believe that the two murderesses corresponded with each other while awaiting trial and execution. 

Elizabeth Jeffries had aided and abetted the murder of her uncle and was hanged in Epping Forest on Saturday, the 28th of March. Mary Blandy had poisoned her father at Henley on Thames and was hanged at Oxford, just over a week later, on Monday, the 6th of April.

Mary had apparently become aware of Elizabeth being in a similar predicament to her own and was allowed to write to her while both were in prison.  The ensuing correspondence, between the 7th of January and the 19th of March 1752, was published under the title of “Genuine Letters between Miss Blandy and Miss Jeffries.”  Initially both women protested their innocence to each other, but later Elizabeth acknowledged her guilt to Mary. In her last letter to Elizabeth on the 16th of March, Mary reportedly wrote: "Your deceiving of me was a small crime; it was deceiving yourself: for no retreat, tho' ever so pleasant, no diversions, no company, no, not Heaven itself, could have made you happy with those crimes un-repented of in your breast." So, with the promise to be "a suitor for her at the Throne of Mercy" Mary finished the correspondence.

 

The crime.
Mr. Joseph Jeffries was a wealthy, but childless man who lived in Walthamstow, Essex and who adopted his niece, Elizabeth.  He made his will in her favour but threatened to change it because of her rebellious teenage ways, her good behaviour having been a condition of inheritance.  Elizabeth had been thinking of murdering her uncle for some two years but did not see a way of doing it unaided. Finally fearing that he would carry out his threat to disinherit her, the by now 21 year old Elizabeth, enlisted the help of Mr. Jeffries’ gardener, John Swan, with whom she was believed to have been “intimate” to use the contemporary term.  They had tried to persuade a former servant, one Matthews, to kill Mr. Jeffries by offering him a substantial share of the proceeds, but in the end he declined, although he was probably present at the killing.

 

The plan to kill Mr. Jeffries involved Matthews obtaining a brace of pistols for which Jeffries and Swan had given him half a guinea (52.5p in today’s money).  He spent this on drink but still joined the others in Mr. Jeffries’ house at around 10 o'clock on the night of Tuesday, July the 3rd, 1751.  Matthews hid himself in the pantry and was joined there by Swan and Elizabeth around midnight.  They asked him if he was ready and where the pistols were but he told them, "I cannot find it in my heart to do it." To which the furious Elizabeth replied: " You may be damned for a villain, for not performing your promise!"  Whether Swan feared that Matthews would prove unreliable, we don’t know, but he had brought a brace of pistols.  He also produced a book and insisted that Matthews should swear not to disclose what had passed between them, "unless it was to save his own life."  Matthews then left Mr. Jeffries’ house but remained long enough to hear a pistol shot.  Elizabeth and John had devised a plan whereby they would both pretend to have been in their respective rooms at the time of the shooting, having first staged what was to appear to be a botched robbery by hiding some plate and silver in a sack downstairs.  Later that evening, they would raise the alarm and claim that  Mr. Jeffries had been robbed and murdered by an intruder.
Initially the authorities arrested Elizabeth as there was no sign of forced entry, and began a search for Matthews whom she had implicated.  However, they could produce no evidence against her and she was released.  Upon release she took control of her uncle’s assets and began spending them.  In the meantime Matthews was located and gave a full statement of events, if only to save his own neck.  On receipt of this information Elizabeth and John were re-arrested and committed to
Chelmsford prison for trial at the next Assizes.

 

Trial.

They were tried together some 8 months later at the Essex Assizes, before Mr Justice Wright, on Tuesday, the 10th of March 1752.  They had missed the previous year’s Assize which had opened on the 31st of July 1751.  Matthews was the principal witness for the prosecution and both were found guilty. The Crown counsel summed up Elizabeth’s motive for killing her uncle thus "to alter his will, if she did not alter her conduct." John Swan, as he was a servant of Mr. Jeffries, was convicted of Petty Treason “for the cruel and wicked murder of his late master” and Elizabeth “of aiding, helping, assisting, comforting and maintaining the said John Swan to commit the murder”.  Note that she was not charged with murder, as she would have been under the doctrine of common purpose that applied in the 20th century (see Edith Thompson), but rather with the crime she had actually committed.  She reportedly confessed her part in the crime on the Thursday and they were brought back before the court on the Saturday to be sentenced. (It was normal practice to sentence all the prisoners at the end of the Assize.)  She fainted as her death sentence was pronounced.  Nine men also received death sentences of whom 5 were reprieved and the other 3 hanged at Chelmsford on the 26th of March.

 

Execution.
The execution procession left Chelmsford Gaol at 4 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, the 28th of March, with Elizabeth riding in a cart, probably sitting on her own coffin and accompanied by the hangman.  Because John Swan had been convicted of Petty Treason, he was drawn along behind tied to a sledge, which was a mandatory part of the punishment for that crime.  The pair would have been escorted by a troop of javelin men and the procession led by the Under Sheriff of Essex.  On arrival at the gallows, which was near the sixth milestone in Epping Forest, some 23 miles and perhaps 8-9 hours away from Chelmsford, he was made to get up into the cart with Elizabeth and stand beside her. 

A huge crowd had assembled to witness the proceedings, such was the public interest in the  case.  The prisoners did not communicate with one another at all, not even by glance, in the cart.  Elizabeth was made to stand on a chair as she was of small stature and fainted several times as she was being prepared.  It was reported that both confessed their guilt and justice of their sentences to a member of the jury who questioned them before they were turned off. After they had hung for the requisite time, both bodies were taken down. Elizabeth’s corpse was taken away in a hearse to be delivered to her friends for burial, but Swan’s  was hung in chains in another part of the Forest, said to be near the Bald Faced Stag Inn, in Hainault Road, Chigwell, Essex, as a warning to others.

Thanks to Peter Nelson of the Epping and Ongar Highway Trust and his excellent Chapman and Andre's map of Essex of 1777, I am able to say with reasonable confidence that the sixth milestone in Epping Forest was almost certainly near Walthamstow, in what is now Whips Cross and Snaresbrook.  Obviously, Epping Forest covered a much greater area 250 years ago than it does today.  It was not unusual for the execution to be held near the place of the offence was committed at this time, especially in the case of particularly heinous crimes.
A broadside of the trial and execution of Elizabeth and John is available at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/victorian/poplit/curiosities/small/curio171.html  You will notice, with the typical accuracy of these publications, that the date of the murder is a year out. This and possibly other similar ones would have been sold at the execution and locally. You will also notice the difference in spelling of Elizabeth’s surname.  This was common at this period in history.

Comment.
Both Elizabeth Jeffries’ and Mary Blandy were both middle class women from good backgrounds who had received at least some education. Both could read and write which was not by any means universal then.  They were not the usual criminal women from the 18th century underclass, convicted of street crimes or theft, or the pathetic young women being hanged for the murder of their bastard children.

Clearly Elizabeth’s desire for money was the prime mover in the crime and it seems that she sucked John Swan into the plan by the offer of sexual favours.  It is not clear 250 years later whether she was really interested in John as a person or rather just saw him as an available assistant.  No doubt she would have been happier to have paid Matthews to commit the crime and so put a slightly greater distance between it and herself.

 

It seems extraordinary that the authorities would transport the pair over such a distance to execute them in view of the difficulties of the task.  A Roman road runs from Chelmsford towards Havering, which would have existed at the time, and must have eased the first part of the journey.  There was very little in the way of media in 1752, newspapers were out of reach of the ordinary person due to their cost. This was this reason that people were transported back to near the scene of the crime for their execution, so that the local inhabitants could see justice carried out.  It is notable that as with other couples in their situation, any romance and affection for each other had evaporated by the time they got to the gallows.  Each probably blaming the other for their downfall. 

 

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