It was rumoured that John Anthony
Brown, a carrier, had married 45-year-old Elizabeth for her money. It
was a rumour that was partly verified by the fact that she was some
twenty years older than he was. He was also noted for his
Late on the evening of 5th July
1856 John returned to the matrimonial home in the Dorset village of
Broadwindsor after inbibing in the local pub. His late arrival home
along with rumours of his latest affair were enough to incense
Elizabeth. During the ensuing row John hit his wife with a whip and
she retaliated by smashing his head with an axe.
Mrs Brown attempted to pass off
the demise of her husband as having been caused by the kick of a
horse. The jury were not impressed and found Martha guilty. She later
confessed and was hanged at Dorchester on 9th August 1856 by William
Calcraft, the last public execution of a female in Dorset. A member of
the audience was a sixteen-year-old Thomas Hardy. So moved was he by
the story behind the tragedy that he based part of his Tess of the
d'Urbervilles on Martha Brown
Elizabeth Martha Brown(e) was an ordinary woman of
humble birth who worked as a servant. Not much is known about her, not
even her date and place of birth. She became the last woman to be
publicly hanged in Dorset, and is only remembered as the inspiration
for Thomas Hardy's famous novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles".
Elizabeth was nearly twenty years older than her
husband, John Brown(e), and they had met when they were both servants
together. It was claimed at the time that he had married her for
money. They lived at Birdsmoorgate, near Beaminster in Dorset.
The marriage was problematic and she caught John in
bed with another woman. A quarrel naturally ensued and later that day
erupted into violence. She struck out at John and he replied by
hitting her with his whip. This was the last straw for Elizabeth who
retaliated by hitting him over the head with the wood chopping axe,
smashing his skull and killing him.
She was arrested but claimed that her husband's
death had been caused by being kicked in the head by a horse. The
police did not believe this and thus she was charged with murder.
She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes, as
Dorchester is the County town of Dorset. The jury did not believe the
horse story either and brought back a guilty verdict. The mandatory
death sentence was passed on her and she was taken to Dorchester
prison to await her execution some three weeks later.
There were obvious mitigating circumstances which
led to substantial agitation for a reprieve. Reprieves even for murder
although rare, were by no means unknown at this time. There was
however much public sympathy for her in view of the abuse she had
suffered at the hands of her husband. The Home Secretary however,
refused a reprieve even in view of the evidence of obvious
provocation, perhaps because Elizabeth had made the fatal mistake of
maintaining, virtually to the last, the lie that her husband had died
from a horse kick. (c.f. the case of Tracy Andrews in 1997, where she
claimed that her boyfriend had been stabbed in a road rage attack, a
story which she later retracted).
Elizabeth became "locked into" this lie as so many
have before and since. Ultimately, in the condemned cell she confessed
that she had killed him with the axe and therefore was responsible for
his death and accepted her fate with great courage. Diminished
responsibility was not a defence open to her in 1856, it would be
another 101 years before it was recognised in English law.
The Sheriff of Dorset made the necessary
preparations for her execution, appointing William Calcraft as the
hangman. He was Britain's principal executioner from 1829 - 1874 - the
longest serving hangman of all. He was noted for his "short drops"
causing most of his victims to die a slow and agonising death.
Elizabeth's execution was set for 9 o'clock on the
morning of Saturday 9th August 1856. Calcraft travelled to Dorchester
by train and he and his assistant arrived at the prison the day before
as required by the Home Office to make the necessary preparations.
Elizabeth would have been treated very well in the
condemned cell where she would have been looked after by two matrons
(female warders). Even then there was a strange dichotomy between the
harsh sentences of the law, her treatment in the condemned cell, and
her cruel and humiliating execution.
The gallows was erected outside the gates of
Dorchester prison the evening before, on what is today the prison car
park in North Square and was a very impressive affair.
A crowd of between 3 and 4,000 had gathered for,
what was by then quite a rare event, the public hanging of a woman. To
add to the public interest Elizabeth was an attractive woman, who
looked younger than her years and had lovely hair. She was also
incredibly brave in the face of death. So much so that her vicar
regarded it as a sign of callousness. She had chosen a long, tight
fitting thin black silk dress for her hanging.
At the prison gates she shook hands with the
officials but declined to be driven to the place of execution in the
prison van, even though it was raining. Instead she chose to walk from
the prison to it. She walked up the first flight of eleven steps where
William Calcraft, a forbidding figure in his black clothes and bushy
white beard, pinioned her arms in front of her before leading her up
the next flight of 19 steps, across a platform and on up the last
flight of steps to the actual trap. Here Calcraft put the white hood
over her head and the simple noose around her neck.
He then began to go down below the trap to withdraw
the bolts (there was no lever in those days) when it was pointed out
to him that he had not pinioned Elizabeth's legs. He returned to her
and put a strap around her legs, outside of her dress to prevent it
billowing up and exposing her as she hanged. (The Victorian
preoccupation with decency!) While this was going on Elizabeth stood
stoically on the gallows, supported by a male warder on each side,
just waiting for her death. The rain made the hood damp and it clung
to her features, giving her an almost statuesque appearance. It must
also have made it hard for her to breath through the damp cloth.
Once again Calcraft went below and pulled the bolts
thus releasing the trap doors. Elizabeth dropped through a distance of
about a foot with a resounding thud. Death was certainly not
instantaneous and she struggled some and her "body wheeled half round
and back", according to Thomas Hardy, taking a few moments to loose
consciousness, as the rope constricted the major blood vessels and put
pressure on the nerves in her neck. She was left to hang for the
regulation hour before being taken down and buried within the prison.
Fortunately anatomisation of the body had been ended by law some 25
Her execution caused a leading article in the
Dorset County Chronicle advocating the abolition of the death penalty.
Thomas Hardy was boy of 16 when he went to watch
this spectacle with a friend and was able to secure a good vantage
point in a tree very close to the gallows. He noted "what a fine
figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and
how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half
round and back", after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body.
It made an impression on him that lasted until old age, he still wrote
about the event in his eighties. It was to provide the inspiration and
some of the matter for 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'. It seems possible
that Hardy found something erotic about the execution and particularly
her body and facial features through the tight dress and rain soaked
hood. Charles Dickens who had also witness public hangings and
campaigned strongly against them referred to the "fascination of the
repulsive, something most of us have experienced."
James Seale became the last person to be publicly
hanged in Dorset when he was executed for the murder of Sara Guppy. He
went to the gallows two years later, on the 10th August 1858, an event
also witnessed by Hardy. Public executions were abolished by law in