Elizabeth Jeffries -1752.
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
apparently become aware of
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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.