Sarah Malcolm - 1733.

 

Sarah Malcolm is the third in this series of educated, middle class young women who met her death at the hands of the “common hangman”.  She was just 22 when she was hanged for the murders of three women during a robbery at the home of one of them.

Sarah originated from Durham and had been born in 1711 to a good family.  However, her father had squandered the family’s money and as a teenager, Sarah was forced to move to London and go into service.  Initially, she performed her duties well but later got a job at the Black Horse, a pub in Boswell Court near Temple Bar, where she became involved with London’s low life.  Click here to see Hogarth’s portrait of Sarah in Newgate prison.

She left her job at the Black Horse and took a job as a laundress to several chambers (apartments) above the Inns of Court, working for some of the tenants there.  Among her customers was Mrs. Lydia Duncomb, a wealthy but somewhat frail old lady, whose age is variously quoted as being between 60 and 80, who occupied a set of chambers in Tanfield Court in the Temple.  She employed two live-in servants, Elizabeth Harrison, aged 60 who was effectively retired, and 17 year old Ann Price, who had been employed to take over Elizabeth’s duties.  Elizabeth “Betty” Harrison had been Mrs. Duncomb’s companion for many years.

 

The murders.
The precise events of the night of Saturday, the 3rd of February 1733, are unknown because Sarah never gave a credible account of them.  She told her trial that she entered the old lady’s apartment with Martha Tracey and the Alexander brothers, and they carried out the robbery while she kept watch on the stairs and thus took no part in the murders. 
The first body discovered was that of Ann Price with a knife wound to her throat.  Her body was found in the passage leading to the apartment, her hands clutched to her wound.  Elizabeth Harrison was found lying across her bed having been strangled with her apron string or similar and Mrs. Duncomb similarly lying across her bed.  It seemed that she too had been strangled but that she might have died of shock and fright, and the weight of her assailant’s body on top of her. 

On the Sunday morning, one of Mrs. Duncomb’s friends, a Mrs. Ann Love, arrived for a dinner invitation, but could get no answer or see any sign of life. She went to fetch another of Mrs. Duncomb’s friends, a Mrs Frances Rhymer, and they could not raise the old lady.  Sarah also came up and Mrs. Love, fearing that all was not well, sent Sarah to find a locksmith. Sarah returned later with Mrs. Ann Oliphant, also a friend of Mrs. Duncomb, who was quite a bit younger and managed to gain entry into the apartment.  They were met with the horrific sites described above.  They also realised that the apartment had been stripped of anything of value and Mrs. Duncomb’s strongbox had been forced open.  Other neighbours came to see what was going on. A doctor was sent for by one of the Temple porters and Mr. Thomas Bigg, a surgeon, made a preliminary examination of the three deceased women.

Arrest.
John Kerrel was also a tenant of the Chambers and he too employed Sarah.  He had been out on the Saturday and returned home around one o’clock on the Sunday morning, to find Sarah in his room.  He was surprised to see her there at that time of night and being aware of the murders, asked her if anyone had been arrested.  He told her to leave and was obviously not comfortable with her presence, as he believed that whoever had committed the murders knew their way around the apartments.  He also discovered that some of his waistcoats were missing and when he challenged Sarah about this, she confessed that she had pawned them.  Sarah left but now being thoroughly suspicious he made a search and in the Close-stool, he found some linen and underneath a silver tankard with blood on the handle.  Under the bed he found a bloodstained shift and apron.  He immediately called the watchmen and they caught up with Sarah by the Inner-Temple Gate.  They brought her back to John Kerrel’s apartment who asked her if the tankard was hers, and she told him it was and that it had been given her by her mother. She was now taken to the constable and he took her before Alderman Brocas, who sent her to the Compter (local lock-up jail) and on the Monday morning committed her to Newgate prison.  As part of the normal admissions procedure, she was searched on arrival and was found to have a considerable amount of silver and gold coins about her, which she allegedly admitted were Mrs. Duncomb’s. They also found a purse containing 21 guineas in the bosom of her dress, which Sarah claimed she had found in the street. She offered these to Mr. Johnson the turnkey (warder) if he made no mention of them.  He refused this and took the coins to his superiors and reported the attempt to bribe him.  She also repeated to Mr. Roger Johnson that she had organised the robbery, but that she had stayed on the stairs leading up to the apartment while Martha Tracey and the Alexander brothers had carried it out.
An inquest was held into the murders and Sarah was indicted by the Coroner's Court.

Trial.
Sarah came to trial at the Old Bailey at the February Sessions for the City of London, and County of Middlesex which were held on Wednesday, the 21st to Saturday, the 24th of February.  Sarah’s trial was scheduled for Friday, the 23rd.
The indictment against her read as follows:
“Sarah Malcolm, alias Mallcombe was indicted for the Murder of Ann Price, Spinster, by wilfully and maliciously giving her with a Knife one mortal Wound on the Throat, of the length of two Inches, and depth of one Inch, on the 4th of February instant, of which wound the said Anne Price instantly died.
She was a second time indicted for the Murder of Elizabeth Harrison, spinster, by strangling and choking her with a cord, on the said 4th of February; by reason of which strangling and choking the said Elizabeth Harrison instantly died.
She was a third time indicted for the Murder of Lydia Duncomb , Widow, by strangling and choking her with a Cord, on the said 4th of February, by which Strangling and Choking the said Lydia Duncomb instantly died.
She was again indicted for breaking and entering the dwelling-house of Lydia Duncomb , Widow, and stealing 20 Moidores, (Spanish gold coins valued at 27 shillings each) 18 Guineas, one Broad-Piece, value 25 s. 4 Broad-Pieces, value 23 s. each, one half Broad-Piece, value 11 s. 6 d. 25 s. in Silver, a Silver Tankard, Value 40 s. a Canvas Bag, Value 1 d. and two Smocks, value 12 s. on the 4th day of February instant, about the hour of 2 in the night of the same day.” 
Sarah pleaded not guilty to all of these charges.
As all of these indictments were capital offences, it was decided to proceed with the first charge only (the murder of Ann Price) to save court time.  The prosecution told the jury that if they were not convinced by the evidence and by the findings of the Coroner's court, it was for them to say how Ann Price died. The basic chronology of the crime, discovery of the bodies, and the arrest of Sarah were now put before the jury.

John Kerrel was the first to give evidence and he told the court of the events leading to the arrest.  His friend and neighbour, John Gehagan, also testified for the prosecution and confirmed the discoveries of the bloodstained clothes and the tankard.  The two watchmen,  John Mastreter and Richard Hughs, gave evidence of Sarah’s arrest and told the court how she claimed that the blood on the tankard was her own from a cut finger.  Frances Rhymer, who looked after Mrs. Duncomb’s financial affairs, identified the tankard and the purse that had been found on Sarah and told the court of the contents of the old lady’s strong box.

Sarah cross examined each prosecution witness in minute detail and made much of any differences between the known facts and their recollections of events, in an effort to discredit their testimony.

Roger Johnson told the court how he had searched Sarah in Newgate and made his incriminating discoveries.  He testified that she admitted to him that the money was Mrs. Duncomb's and offered it to him to keep quiet about it.  He remembered that the purse contained 20 Moidores, 18 Guineas, 5 Broad-Pieces, one 25 s. piece, some 23 s. pieces, a half Broad-Piece, 5 crowns, and 2 or 3 or three shillings.  (Quite a large sum).  Johnson further suggested that Sarah had told him she had hired three witnesses to testify that the tankard was hers.  Sarah claimed that she had given the money to Johnson for safekeeping and that he was to return it to her when she was acquitted.  Johnson’s superior, Mr. Alstone, confirmed Johnson’s account and also added that Sarah had told him that she had planned the robbery and had been assisted by Martha Tracey and the Alexander brothers.

The next piece of evidence was the statement, taken on oath, when Sarah appeared before Sir Richard Brocas on the 6th of February.  In this, she affirmed that she had planned the robbery but that she had remained on the stairs outside the old lady’s apartment whilst it was carried out by Tracey and the Alexanders.

Sarah was not represented by counsel but offered a spirited defence.  She claimed that the blood on her shift and apron was from her period and was not that of the murdered maid and attempted to show that the bloodstains found on these were not consistent with murder.  She claimed the blood on the handle of the tankard was from her finger cut.  She admitted to planning the robbery and to being an accessory to the crime and accepted that these crimes deserved death.  She then gave an account of the crime which implicated Tracey and the Alexanders but absolved herself from the actual killings.  She told the court that while she accepted that she would hang for robbery in a dwelling house, she could not confess to the murders as she was innocent of them.  She also asked the judge to order the return of the money found on her that was over and above that stolen from Mrs. Duncomb. At the end of her defence, the jury retired for 15 minutes to consider their verdict.  Sarah was found guilty of the robbery and the one murder charge that was proceeded with and also guilty in accordance with the verdict of the Coroner's Inquisition, i.e. the other two murders.  The authorities had no evidence against Martha Tracey and the Alexander brothers and did not charge them with anything.

She was taken back to Newgate and the following day, at the end of the Sessions, returned to court to be sentenced to death along with nine men.  Her case was reported in the London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, of March 1733.

In the condemned hold at Newgate, she continued to refuse to confess to the murders.  Crimes like this were very rare at the time, especially when committed by a young woman, and so she was seen as something of a celebrity.  The well known painter, William Hogarth, visited her in prison two days before her execution and sketched her prior to painting her portrait. 

As was normal at the time, in the case of particularly shocking murders, it was arranged that her execution would take place as near to the crime scene as possible.  She was apparently distressed about the venue as she would die amidst people who knew her rather than at Tyburn where she would have been somewhat more anonymous, among the eight men condemned at the same Sessions who suffered there on Monday, the 5th of March. She is reported to have confessed on the night before she was hanged and the details were printed in, “A Paper delivered by Sarah Malcolm on the Night before her Execution to the Rev. Mr. Piddington, and published by Him” (London, 1733). However, this was more of a self justification than a confession.

Execution.
Sarah’s execution was set for Wednesday, the 7th of March.  Newgate’s portable gallows was set up in Fleet Street, in the square opposite Mitre Court for the purpose.  Sarah was prepared in the normal way by the Yeoman of the Halter, her hands tied in front of her and halter around her neck. She was placed in the cart with John Hooper, the hangman, to make the short journey to Fleet Street accompanied by a troop of Javelin Men and the Under Sheriff.  Sarah is said to have fainted in the cart and also to have “wrung her hands and wept most bitterly”.  When she arrived at the gallows, she listened carefully to John Gutherie, the Ordinary’s, prayers for her soul and again fainted.  She was revived and just before the cart was driven from under her, she was reported to have turned towards the Temple and cried out, “Oh, my mistress, my mistress! I wish I could see her!” and then, casting her eyes towards heaven, called upon Christ to receive her soul.  She was dragged off the cart by the rope and left kicking in the air, dying after a brief struggle.  Her body was taken down and according to the parish records, she was buried in the churchyard of St. Sepulchre's church on the 10th of March.  It is possible that her body was anatomised after execution.  Strangely, it seemed that John Hooper was the only person present to have any real sympathy for her.  Hogarth thought that “she was capable of any wickedness” and the crowd surrounding the gallows were of the same view.  Click here to see a painting of the scene.

Conclusion.
There seem to be two possible solutions to the murder of Mrs. Duncomb and her servants.  One is that Sarah alone killed them, as the authorities believed, and that her defence was simply a pack of lies and an attempt to deflect the blame onto others.  The second scenario is that Sarah was indeed telling the truth and that others killed the three women. It is notable, however, that the Alexander brothers and Martha Tracey were not prosecuted on any charge relating to the robbery and murders, presumably because the authorities could find no evidence against them.
Sarah’s bloodstained garments featured prominently in the trial – however, blood typing had not been invented at the time and there was no means of knowing whose blood it was – she claimed it was her menstrual blood. Sarah did not deny being present on the stairs nor did she deny having the stolen property.  It should be remembered that robbery in a dwelling house was a capital crime at this time and that she expected to be hanged just for this. Two men had already made the journey to Tyburn for this in the first three months of 1733.  Was Sarah in denial over the murders? It is not by any means unknown for a person to find it impossible to come to terms with a shocking crime even though they know they are about to be put to death.
Most of Sarah’s actions from the Sunday morning on seem to point to guilt – the hiding of incriminating evidence in other apartments to which she had access, the possession of property that clearly could be identified as Mrs. Duncomb’s, and the attempt to bribe the turnkey in Newgate.  Her insistence that the tankard was a present from her mother and her suggestion, if made, that she had paid witnesses to say so.  Her admission that she had planned the robberies of Mrs. Duncomb and of another tenant.
But probably the most damning evidence against her in the eyes of the jury was the endless strings of lies and half truths that she told, before her arrest and afterwards in Newgate.
It has been suggested as a motive for the crime that Sarah was having a relationship with one of the two Alexander brothers, who she hoped would marry her, and she devised the plan to rob Mrs. Duncomb so as to enable her to have enough money to marry on.  She presumably saw her elderly client’s apartments as a source of “easy money”.  Perhaps Ann Price disturbed her in the course of entering the apartment and was thus stabbed.  Ann was a fit teenage girl who would have put up a struggle and no doubt this commotion would have alerted Mrs. Duncomb and Elizabeth  Harrison and so they too had to be silenced. 
Sarah was perhaps fortunate, in that had she been in the direct employ of Mrs. Duncomb as an indentured servant, she would have been guilty not only of murder but also of Petty Treason and would have been burned at the stake.

Back to Back to main contents page