Elizabeth Sedgwick – a pyromaniac?

Arson was a crime which carried the death penalty at this time and for which reprieves were quite rare.  16 women were to die for this crime between 1735 and 1799 with a further five between 1800 and 1833, when Charlotte Long became the last, being hanged at Gloucester on the 31st of August of that year. Many buildings of the period were still of largely wooden construction and burnt easily, there was no real fire brigade and no insurance so the building’s owner was normally left facing a large financial loss as a result. 

Farmer John Taylor of Feltham Hill in Middlesex suffered two major fires on two consecutive Sundays which led to the arrest of one of his servants, nineteen year old Elizabeth Sedgwick, who subsequently confessed to the arson attacks and who was hanged at Newgate on the 24th of April 1787.

Elizabeth had worked for John Taylor and his wife Ann for about three months, mainly helping to look after the house.  She did not have a boyfriend and was said to be close to her parents.  It is probable that she was illiterate, as many were at this time and that she had received little or no formal education.

On the evening of Sunday the 10th of December 1786 a major fire broke out which destroyed Mr. Taylor’s straw barn which adjoined the farm house.  At around five o’clock, her main duties being over for the day, Elizabeth sat down to have tea with the family and having finished hers, asked Ann Taylor if she could go to her room and change her petticoat.  Her room overlooked the barn and a short while later Elizabeth came rushing back and told John Taylor that she had seen a man with a lantern and candle in the yard.  John went to the window to be confronted with the site of the barn well ablaze. He immediately evacuated the house in view of the risk of the fire spreading to it.  The Taylor’s and their staff endeavoured to rescue as much as they could from the flames but the buildings themselves were completely razed.  At this time no suspicion was attached to Elizabeth.

One week later at teatime on Sunday the 17th, disaster was to strike again.  As before the family and Elizabeth were sat down to tea when Elizabeth noticed a bright light in the farm yard and shouted out to the family.  John looked out the widow to find both his barley barn and his wheat barn on fire and also the hayricks and the stables containing his six horses and various farming implements.  This fire destroyed all the buildings mentioned and was greatly more serious than the previous one, representing a massive financial loss to the family.  John was later to testify to the court that he was so frightened by what he had seen from the window that he had difficulty finding his way out of the house. 

As was John’s normal practice he had checked round the farm before going in to tea on this Sunday and had particularly noticed that a large pig was securely tethered in its sty.  The pig was seen in the farmyard immediately after the alarm was raised and this aspect struck John as more than a little odd.
One fire may be seen as unfortunate but two in seven days seemed too much of a coincidence. John’s neighbours put up a twenty pound reward for information leading to the perpetrators and as a result a man by the name of Hanking was arrested, but it soon became clear he had nothing to do with the fires. 
On the 12th of January one of the
Taylor’s staff found a handkerchief in the remains of the barns which Elizabeth identified as hers and told them it had been taken from her by force by two men at the bottom of the stairs.  This seemed implausible at best and so John Taylor took her to the local magistrate, Richard Taylor.  Richard was laid up with the gout so Elizabeth’s statement was taken in his bedroom, by the doctor who was attending him.  She accused two men, Winden and Goring, of being the persons who had taken the handkerchief from her. Richard was not satisfied with this story and decided to remand Elizabeth for three days pending a further examination, when he was well enough.  It should be noted the Elizabeth would have received no formal caution and was not represented at this interview.

At the second interview Elizabeth made a confession and this time she was cautioned by the local judge, Justice Bond, not to say anything that was untrue and assured that she would be allowed to correct and amend the statement when it was read back to her.  John Taylor, who was present at this examination was later to tell the trial jury that Elizabeth had not been threatened or brow beaten and that Richard Taylor, the magistrate who took the confession, stopped after reading each section of it back to her and asked if it was correct.  She seemed satisfied with it and put her mark, probably her thumb print, at the bottom of it.  It was signed by Richard Taylor and witnessed by John Taylor.

Elizabeth claimed that the first fire was a pure accident.  She had gone into the barn with a candle to check the hens for eggs and had fallen over in the poor light and dropped the candle stick. She assumed that as the candle light had disappeared the candle had gone out and she could not find it in the dark.  So she left it and returned to the house but did not tell Mrs. Taylor of what had happened.  She swore that there was no intent to cause a fire and this seems credible.  The following Sunday however, Elizabeth stated that she was seized with the desire to start a fire in the barn and deliberately went to it with a candle for the purpose of doing so.  She placed the lighted candle under some straw in the barn and it soon caught fire.  On her way back to the house she released the pig from its sty where John Taylor had seen it tied up securely a little earlier.  She also stated that she had not been induced by any third party to set the fire and that it was entirely of her own volition. As a result of the confession she was arrested and committed for trial.  Richard Taylor made an order that only her parents should be allowed to visit her and that she not be allowed a candle or any food or drink that could upset her nerves.  Richard was satisfied that she did not appear to be suffering from obvious mental problems at the time she gave her confession, although from the conditions of his order he obviously suspected that she might have some.

Elizabeth’s trial opened at the Old Bailey on the 21st of February, 1787 before Mr. Baron Thompson and the second Middlesex Jury.  She was prosecuted by Mr. Garrow, presumably the same Mr. Garrow who defended Elizabeth Taylor two years earlier. She was charged with the December the 17th fire and there was a second count against her for the December the 10th incident.  She pleaded not guilty to both counts.  Evidence was given against her by John and Ann Taylor and also by the magistrate, Richard Taylor and Henry Wilkinson the constable into who’s charge Richard had committed her. Wilkinson told the court that he had followed Richard’s orders and had not allowed her candle, fire or visitors, other than her parents.  It was to him apparently, that she confided her wish to make a confession and to withdraw the allegations against Winden and Goring.  He also told the court that she seemed not to be under duress or intimidated when she made her confession to Mr. Bond and Richard Taylor.  The written confession was produced in court.

John Taylor told the court that on Sunday the 17th of December, the date of the second fire, that Elizabeth had several times said to him and his wife that she hoped there would not be any accident on that day as there had been the previous Sunday.  This struck Richard as a very odd remark to make and raised his suspicions over Elizabeth’s involvement in the incidents.

The court enquired both of John Taylor and Richard Taylor (the magistrate) as to what they thought of Elizabeth’s state of mind and indeed her sanity. Even in 1787 there was concern about executing someone who was obviously insane. There were however no real signs of mental abnormality that could be found.  Nowadays she would be examined by psychiatrists to establish whether she had a personality disorder such as pyromania.  It seems quite possible that she did.  If one accepts that the first fire was an accident, it is possible that she found it very exciting and this was made her decide to start the second which was definitely a deliberate act.  Other than pyromania what motive was there for it?  She seemed to be well treated in the Taylor household by the standards of the day and bore no known grudge against the family.  John Taylor was not critical of her personality in court.  This was confirmed by constable Wilkinson who told the court that Elizabeth spoke well and in respectful terms of the Taylor’s.  The only defence witness, Mary Sedgwick, her brothers wife, who had known Elizabeth for five years described her being of even temperament and not insane.

Inevitably Elizabeth was convicted by the jury and condemned to hang.  In view of the magnitude of the damage caused there was to be no recommendation made for a commutation to transportation.  During her time in the condemned cell she would have been visited frequently by John Villette, the Ordinary, who would have made every effort to get her to accept responsibility for her crime and accept her death with true penitence.

In accordance with her sentence, Elizabeth joined the other prisoners in the Press Yard of Newgate to be prepared on the morning of Thursday the 26th of April 1787.  No less than fifteen people were to hang on this occasion from the two beams of Newgate’s black draped gallows.  Of these, seven, including another woman, Elizabeth Connolly and her co-defendant Michael Daily, were to die for burglary, four men were to hang for highway robbery and one each for coining, personating and housebreaking. Notably not one person was being hanged for murder.
As you can imagine preparing fifteen prisoners would have taken William Brunskill, the hangman, quite some time to complete, so it was not until around twenty past eight in the morning before the drop fell.  In most other respects this hanging would have been very similar to that of Elizabeth Taylor’s.  The behaviour on the gallows of this
Elizabeth was not recorded nor were details of her death.  It is therefore likely that she expired quite quickly with minimal struggling as was not unusual with New Drop hangings.  The execution would have been reported in the newspapers of the day but would have been seen as wholly unremarkable.  The fact that one prisoner was an illiterate nineteen year old girl with probable personality defects would have raised little or no comment at all.  A broadside was printed by D. W. Murcutt of Long Acre London for the execution which stated, rather typically, that all the prisoners were very penitent on the gallows.


It is worth noting that arson still carries a maximum sentence of life in prison even today. No less than sixteen women were serving discretionary life sentences for this crime in 2002, according to a ministerial answer to a question in Parliament.


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