Melinda Mapson. The forty shilling question.


The savagery of the law in dealing with crimes against property in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is well demonstrated by this case.


Melinda Mapson was a thirty year old married servant woman who took up a job in the household of Mr. William Dignam in New Street in London’s Covent Garden on the evening of Friday the 10th of February, 1809 to replace Margaret Garey who had left his service earlier that day.  It was to be a very short lived job.  Mrs. Dignam gave Melinda instructions as to what she wanted doing and showed her where to sleep and then went on to bed.  Mr. Dignam came home a little later in the evening and spoke to Melinda, telling her that after she had put out the kitchen fire she could retire for the night and then he went upstairs to join his wife.

When Mr. Dignam got up the following morning he noticed that a watch, a basket of clothes and a quantity of silver cutlery together with the sheets from the servants bed were missing and that the front door chain and bolts were undone.  Melinda was gone too.  Only three people were in the house that night, Mr. & Mrs. Dignam and Melinda, and Mr. Dignam distinctly remembered locking and bolting the front door and putting the chain on, so suspicion immediately fell on Melinda.

A closer inspection revealed that their former maid’s trunk had also had the lock forced and some of the contents stolen.  Margaret Garey, had left the trunk at the Dignam’s to await collection on the Saturday.

The thefts were reported to the local constable, Joseph Snow, who began a search for Melinda, which finally led to her arrest ten months later, on the 21st of December 1809, in the Wagon & Horses public house in Newington.  He searched her and found that she was carrying a pocket book containing some pawn brokers’ receipts (duplicates as they were called at the time).  She denied any knowledge of the Dignams and so Snow kept her overnight and summoned Mr. Dignam the next morning to identify her.  Further investigation by Constable Snow’s father showed that the pawn brokers receipts matched some of the items that had been stolen and all were in different names, Mary Green, Mary Mapson and Mary Fuller.  The property recovered was identified by Mrs. Dignam and Margaret Garey and Melinda by at least one of the pawn brokers with whom she had placed it.


Melinda was taken before the local Magistrate and committed for trial at the April Sessions of the Old Bailey which were held on the 11th of that month before Mr. Baron Thompson.

The indictment against her was as follows: “That on the 10th of February 1809, about the hour of twelve, in the night of the same day, being in the dwelling house of William Dignam , two shifts, value 5 s. the property of Margaret Garey ; - a tablecloth, value 5 s. a silk handkerchief, value 3 s. a gown, value 10 s. a silver punch ladle, value 12 s. a shift, value 3 s. a counterpane, value 5 s. a silver table-spoon, value 10 s. and a pelisse, value 20 s. the property of the said William Dignam, feloniously did steal, and that she did afterwards burglariously break to get out of the same”.

The Dignams’, Constable Snow, Margaret Garey and the porn brokers gave evidence for the Crown and there was considerable discussion of the security of the house to see whether it was possible that someone else had broken it and stolen the items.  Mrs. Dignam was asked to put a value on the goods stolen from the house and claimed that they were worth £30 (over £1500 today).

In her defence Melinda claimed that she heard a knock on the door after Mrs. Dignam had gone up to bed and that she opened it to find her seaman husband  standing there.  He threatened her with violence if she refused to allow him in or made a fuss and she was so frightened that she left and went to her lodgings near Temple Bar.  He too returned to Temple Bar later with the stolen property.  Melinda then claimed that she had left London for a few days before returning and finally being apprehended by Constable Snow, who she claimed, told her that Mrs. Dignam would forgive her if she handed back the property.

The jury retired and were less than impressed with this defence.  However they had a very important question to decide which was were the goods stolen worth more or less than forty shillings.  If they decided they were more that this sum Melinda would hang.  It was not by any means unknown for a jury to decide on a lower value for stolen property despite its apparent worth, if only to save a prisoner’s life. When they did so it was known as a Partial Verdict. Melinda was not to be so fortunate and the jury “brought her back guilty” to stealing in a dwelling house to the value of forty shillings. This sum might be equivalent to about £105 today.  She was remanded to Newgate for sentence at the end of the Sessions and was duly condemned by Mr. Baron Thompson. She was taken back to Newgate and lodged in the Condemned Cell, having just a month left to live.  She would have been expected to take part in Sunday religious services and would have listened to Brownlow Forde, the Ordinary, preach in the special area reserved for condemned prisoners.  In the centre of this enclosure was a table on which rested a coffin, to remind the condemned, if they needed such a reminder, of their imminent fate. Meanwhile her case would have been considered by the Recorder of London and a recommendation made to the Privy Council.  This was not favourable to her and there was to be no reprieve, even though there was no record of her having committed any previous offences.

Her execution took place outside the Debtor’s Door of Newgate prison on Wednesday the 13th of June 1810, alongside 34 year old Richard Jones who had been convicted of personating.  William Brunskill led them up the steps of the portable gallows that had been brought out from the prison the night before.  Melinda’s arms were secured round her body with her hands in front. Her legs would not probably have been pinioned at this time. After the usual prayers with the Ordinary, white nightcaps would have been pulled down over their faces and soon after 8 o’clock the pair were “launched into eternity” together. The onlookers were only able to observe their upper bodies struggle for a few seconds before becoming still.  They were left hanging for the customary hour before being taken down for burial.
Melinda was one of six people hanged at Newgate that year and the only woman.


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