Most societies are fascinated by women murderers. On September 14, 1767, a massive crowd gathered round the road to Tyburn, thronging around the hangman’s cart, throwing vegetable peels and other refuse. They shouted profanity at the occupants of the cart, one of whom was Elizabeth Brownrigg, the most controversial criminal to grace the pages of the London papers. The jeering crowd followed the cart 3 miles to the public gallows where they continued to hurl abuse at the condemned. They watched, ghoulishly pleased, as she ascended the steps up the scaffold to be unceremoniously hanged. Her remains were then publicly dissected and exhibited for all to see. This humiliation was the final phase of her punishment. This trope of the murderous wife and mother can be found throughout most of recorded history but in 1767 London, it blew up in a big way. A community midwife and mother of SIXTEEN was charged with the torture and murder of the young apprentice girls she had been fostering for her local parish. Stories of her depravity were devoured hungrily by Londoners of every station. No one seemed to be able to reconcile her public image of a devoted spouse, midwife, mother and law-abiding woman with her alleged systematic torture and murder of helpless young girls. Today we’re talking about the notorious child-abuser, murderer and executed criminal Elizabeth Brownrigg.
Have a listen, watch the YouTube below or read the transcript (below).
Other Episodes of Interest:
- The Brutal Murder of Bridget Cleary in 1895 Ireland
- Cock Lane Ghost: A Hauting Hoax in 18th Century London
- Charles Dickens and Spooky Christmas Stories
Transcript of Elizabeth Brownrigg: Child Abuse, Murder and Execution in Georgian London:
Written and researched by Marissa Rhodes, MIL, PhD Candidate
Recorded and produced by Marissa Rhodes, MIL, PhD Candidate and Averill Earls, PhD
Averill: On September 14, 1767, a massive crowd gathered round the road to Tyburn, thronging around the hangman’s cart, throwing vegetable peels and other refuse. They shouted profanity at the occupants of the cart, one of whom was Elizabeth Brownrigg, the most controversial criminal to grace the pages of the London papers. The jeering crowd followed the cart 3 miles to the public gallows where they continued to hurl abuse at the condemned. They watched, ghoulishly pleased, as she ascended the steps up the scaffold to be unceremoniously hanged. Her remains were then publicly dissected and exhibited for all to see. This humiliation was the final phase of her punishment.
Marissa: Most societies are fascinated by women murderers. We see it now with hit movies about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, mega publicized trials like those of Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias, and in the natural world, where a cult of admirers has grown around the black widow spider and other species who are known to regularly kill their mates or their young. This trope of the murderous wife and mother can be found throughout most of recorded history but in 1767 London, it blew up in a big way. A community midwife and mother of SIXTEEN was charged with the torture and murder of the young apprentice girls she had been fostering for her local parish. Stories of her depravity were devoured hungrily by Londoners of every station. No one seemed to be able to reconcile her public image of a devoted spouse, midwife, mother and law-abiding woman with her alleged systematic torture and murder of helpless young girls. Today we’re talking about the notorious child-abuser, murderer and executed criminal Elizabeth Brownrigg.
and I’m Averill
and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Averill: London’s most notorious woman murderer was born Elizabeth Cole in 1720 to a respectable but working-class family. As was the case for the majority if working-class women in the 18th century, Elizabeth spent most of her twenties working as a servant for a family in Prescot-street, Goodman’s Fields, London. At the age of 27, she married a house painter, James Brownrigg.
This might surprise people. Most non-historians think that people married quite young in centuries past. But at this point, the British economy could not support young marriage. This was the same in France and the Netherlands. Historians call this the Western European Marriage Pattern. This was a time when couples postponed marriage until their late twenties, working for wages instead for the first decade or so of their adult lives. So Elizabeth Brownrigg’s life, up to this point, was quite typical for her generation.
Marissa: During the early years of their marriage, Elizabeth ran a boarding school in Greenwich, London. She was generally considered a decent human being but neighbors sometimes criticized her for being domineering with servants and over her spouse. He was what contemporaries called a “hen-pecked husband.”[eyeroll] This could have very well been true but this way of describing married women was really common in the 18th century. In my own research on poor women, I see they were often called viragos or shrews. This basically meant they were violent, domineering or bad-tempered. I find that most women were either characterized this way or as meek, mousey little women. It’s kind of like today we have these stereotypes for women depending on their occupation or personality: you’re either a bitch or a slut. In the 18th century, you were either meek and compliant or a raging virago. There wasn’t often a competent, respected mean between these two extremes. At least not in popular culture.
Averill: Together, Elizabeth and James produced no less than 16 children. Some accounts put that number as high as 19. I don’t know if that’s even mathematically possible considering she didn’t meet James until 1947 and was dead 20 years later. Unless she had a couple sets of multiples? Only three of these children reached adulthood. It’s true that infant mortality was pretty high at this time—about 16% of babies born alive at this time were expected to die before their first birthdays. As many as half of all children were expected to die before the age of 12 due to childhood diseases like mumps, measles,etc. (vaccinate your kids). But even so, three surviving children out of 16 is quite low. And the fact that NONE of the female children survived is even more strange. After the extent of her crimes was uncovered, Londoners theorized that she might have beaten some of her own female infants to death or murdered them outright. We’ll never know but it’s a possibility.
Marissa: In 1765, the Brownrigg family moved to Fleur-de-Luce court, Fetter-Lane, London. James continued painting and Elizabeth started acting as a sort of unofficial midwife. The overseers of the poor of St. Dunstan’s parish charged her with the care of pregnant women from the workhouse. She was said to have “displayed great skill in humanity” when tending to her clients. She was also described at this time as a “faithful wife” and “affectionate parent.” To help them with the unofficial midwifery business, the Brownriggs were given several young girls as apprentices. They received £5 for each girl they took in – that’s somewhere close to $400 in today’s money (but it’s almost impossible to reconcile currency over time and space so take that with a grain of salt).
Averill: Apprenticeship in the 18th century was a combination of boarding school, foster care, and child labor. Poor children as young as preschool-age (though usually older) were bound out to a laborer or tradesman. They’d do odd jobs for their master in exchange for room, board, and usually some education. Some apprentices were taught basic math, or how to read. After a set amount of time, often as much as 11 years, the apprentice would be released out into the world. Sometimes they became journeymen or servants, performing the trade they’d learned as an apprentice. Other times, they became one of London’s many indigent poor. Sometimes their master was the only parent figure they’d ever known but he was also their boss and sometimes even their instructor. It’s kind of sad in some ways but also a somewhat necessary way to form poor and abandoned children into independent members of society.
Marissa: Anyway, the Browriggs’ first apprentice was a 14-year-old named Mary Jones. Apparently Elizabeth, her husband James and their eldest son, John, took to beating and abusing Mary Jones. After enduring this abuse for a few months, Jones escaped to the Foundling Hospital with tales of imprisonment, drowning, and countless beatings. The overseers of the poor were horrified by her condition. She was covered in a series of nasty wounds. The overseers dissolved the apprenticeship, ending Jones’s time in the Brownrigg household. But they left Mary Mitchell, their other apprentice, in their service, and continued to send apprentices to the Brownrigg home.
Averill: London was flooded with abandoned children. From 1756 to 1760, the London Foundling Hospital opened its doors to all and hosted what’s known as the General Reception. In years past, it had been difficult to petition for a spot in the Foundling Hospital. But those admissions rules were temporarily suspended, and all poor infants were accepted. During this time, 15,000 infants were accepted into the hospital. That’s about 10% of all London births during that time. Mary Jones was one of these babies. The massive influx of poor babies into the hospital was such a strain on London’s poor relief system that the hospital had to tighten up its admissions criteria again around 1760. So this is the state of social services in London at this time. Parish workhouses and private relief organizations were strained to the max. This is probably one reason why the overseers of St. Dunstan continued to send apprentices to the Brownriggs after Jones’s escape. They had few choices and probably convinced themselves that Jones just so happened to have a contentious relationship with the Brownriggs.
Marissa: Mary Jones’s replacement, Mary Clifford, was sent to the house in February 1766. Yes… they’re ALL named Mary. Clifford and Mitchell (who had been there for the long haul) were tortured by Elizabeth, her husband and son. Mitchell tried to escape once, taking a play out of Mary Jones’s book, but her plan was foiled by one of the Brownrigg sons who apprehended her on the street. Together, the girls were stripped naked, strangled with chains, and hung up by hooks in the kitchen and cellar.
Elizabeth Brownrigg’s midwifery business grew. She delivered poor women at her own home as well as at a house she rented in Hampstead. Keep in mind these are poor, indigent women, so even though most babies were born at home, these women were usually homeless so had to give birth either at the workhouse or at the midwife’s home.
Averill: While Brownrigg’s reputation as a midwife grew, Clifford and Mitchell lived in misery. Some sources say they lived in a freezing coal hole while more dramatic accounts say they lived in a muddy sty under the stairs where the hogs lived. They were given one piece of bread per day and no water. They got their drinking water from the hogs’ trough. They were often bound and beaten severely with whips and straps. Quickly dressed again in their dirty clothes, and beaten again before their previous wounds had healed . They never slept in a bed even once during their time in the Brownrigg home. When EB went into the country on the weekends, they were chained under the stairs. They especially dreaded these times.
Marissa: After the ordeal, Mary Mitchell recounted some sad stories. There’s one about Mary Clifffors being so starving that she broke open a locked kitchen cupboard but got no reward for her risk because it was empty. Her punishment was particularly severe. The Brownriggs stripped her naked and strangled her over and over until just before the point of death. At the end of the night they threw her in the coal shaft with the chain still around her neck.
The Marys were often asked to do things that they were physically incapable of doing, such as erect a bedstead or carry heavy objects around. When they inevitably failed (especially considering they were starving, injured and suffering from exposure) this was an excuse for Elizabeth Brownrigg to execute another vicious beating.
Clifford once disclosed the abuse to an elderly French lodger staying in the Brownrigg home. The lodger confronted Elizabeth Brownrigg who, in a rage, retaliated by cutting Mary Clifford’s tongue with scissors.
Averill: One summer day, the Brownriggs’ abuses were uncovered and as one contemporary said, “The inhuman tygress [was] cut off in the middle of her barbarous career.” On 31 July: Clifford was stripped and beaten with a whalebone whip. After the beating she was left naked and bleeding in the cellar. She went in and out of consciousness for 4 days and on August 4, a suspicious neighbor saw her through the Brownriggs’s skylight… barely alive and semi conscious on the cellar floor. No one had cleaned or dressed her wounds. But Brownrigg had poured cold water over her a few times.
Marissa: The girl’s mother came to visit a few days before this, asking after her daughter. In most cases, poor children kept in contact with their parents during their apprenticeships. They visited on their afternoons off or on holidays. Brownrigg told her that her daughter was out in the country. The girl’s mother was unconvinced but there wasn’t much she could do. She was even more alarmed when the neighbors saw her leaving the property and took her aside. Mr. and Mrs. Deacon, who lived next door, told the girl’s mother about their suspicions about her mistreatment.
Averill: This interaction with the girl’s mother put the Brownriggs’s neighbor’s on high alert. So it was only a matter of days before Mary Clifford’s broken body was seen on the property. The snooping neighbor, almost certainly Mr. Deacon, notified the girl’s mother who notified a parish officer. A small party of well-respected men accompanied him to the Brownrigg house where they asked to see Mary. The Brownriggs played up the whole Mary-Mary thing by producing Mary Mitchell who was horribly thin and frail but not horribly beaten. After hours of threats and game-playing, the Brownriggs finally produced Mary Clifford who was near death. Her head was swollen to several times its normal size and there was barely any spot on her body that was not bleeding or turning black from infection.
Marissa: Mary Clifford was carried to St. Bartholomew’s hospital where the surgeons discovered there was little they could do to help her. The surgeon “declared that the wounds she had received by whipping, were so bad, for want of dressing, that her shift had eaten into them, and they appeared as if cut with a knife; that scare a part of her body was free; and that her head and face were much wounded.” She was unable to speak, her neck and throat being destroyed.
In the confusion of the immediate aftermath which revolved around the girl’s wellbeing, Elizabeth Brownrigg escaped apprehension. Initially, her husband was arrested because he was the most likely suspect. But after interviewing their other apprentice, Mary Mitchell, it was clear that Elizabeth Brownrigg was the primary abuser. But she was nowhere to be found. For this reason, her crimes and character were circulated far and wide early on in pamphlets, posters, newspapers and by word of mouth.
Averill: An investigation ensued over the next few days. The Brownriggs’ male apprentices interviewed and said they were treated fine but they knew about the mistreatment of the girls. This is one of the reasons why neighbors speculated that she’d murdered her girl children. It seemed too much of a coincidence that her abuse was aimed only at her girl servants and not the boys and that out of her 16 children, only three, all of them boys, survived. Unfortunately, the conditions of the male apprentices’ indentures prevented them from incriminating their master so the investigation continued.
Meanwhile, Brownrigg had met up with her eldest son, 19 year old John. The pair were living in a rented room above a chandlers shop, pretending to be husband and wife…. (Gross. That’s some Oedipus shit there). But I think people were able to get away with this kind of thing a lot more in the 1700s because most people entered into several marriages over their lifetime. Death rates were so much higher that widows and widowers were more numerous than they are today and so were subsequent marriages and blended families. So it wouldn’t have been the craziest thing in the world for a young man to have married an older woman.
Marissa: That Sunday Sunday, Mary Clifford succumbed to her injuries and after the coroner’s inquest, Mr. and Mrs. Brownrigg and their eldest son John were charged with “wilfull murder”. After hearing the news of Mary Clifford’s death Mr. Brownrigg, in jail since she’d been discovered, wept bitterly saying that he knew his wife mistreated the girls but that he was not guilty of murder and would not have been able to contradict anything she did. (You know.. because she was such a virago.) The investigation turned up evidence that he had also whipped the girls regularly and that one time he even broke his whip and mended it before finishing the beating.
Thanks to the immense publicity the affair received, they were apprehended quickly. The chandler read about the Brownriggs in the Daily Advertiser and realized his lodgers fit their description perfectly. He notified the authorities who quickly descended on the chandler shop and found the two in their rented room. Mrs. Brownrigg was relaxing on the bed and her son was pacing worriedly across the room. With them, authorities found several disguises. Several sources say she even dressed as a man (Oh! The Horror!).
Averill: Accused criminals customarily had a public interrogation with the Lord Mayor. While the Brownriggs waited for this, Elizabeth started to suffer from “violent fits.” (Or apparently seizure?) So the interrogation with the Lord Mayor kept being postponed due to these episodes. But every day, a larger and larger mob gathered around the jail, anxious to see Brownrigg pay for her crimes. The mob was rowdy enough that the Lord Mayor opted to dispense with the interrogation of Elizabeth Brownrigg entirely. He feared that the angry mob would overrun the court and kill her. James Brownrigg’s public interrogation went ahead. So more details of the family’s crimes became public.
The mob grew even angrier. One account reads: “…the people expressed their abhorrence of her crime in terms which, though not proper for the occasion, testified their astonishment that such a wretch could have existed: they even prayed for her damnation instead of her salvation: they doubted not but that ‘the devil would fetch her,’ and hoped that ‘she would go to hell.’ Such were the sentiments of the mob.”
Marissa: On September 4, the Brownriggs were secretly moved from the local jail to Newgate, the London prison where criminals awaited their trials at the Old Bailey. They were somehow safely moved. The Brownriggs’ trials were held on September 12. James and John Brownrigg were acquitted of murder. Elizabeth Brownrigg was, to the satisfaction of an angry mob, found guilty of murder and sentences to hanging and public dissection.
Averill: Of course, the standards of trial evidence were not as strict as they are today. Most of the evidence against Elizabeth Brownrigg was, by today’s standards, circumstantial. But to them, it was clear. It appeared that someone had been living in the hog sty under the stairs. The authorities had seized several implements of torture. They found hooks and staples on the walls in the cellar, which was consistent with the girls’ stories of being strung up and beaten. All of these things were damning but the hardest evidence against her was the word of her family. Brownrigg had a large family which included many servants, and they were all eye witnesses to her cruelty. They all seemed relieved to be able to tell their stories. The consistency of their stories did her in.
Marissa:Two days later, Elizabeth Brownrigg was hanged at Tyburn. The Newgate Calendar recorded the last moments she spent with her family. It’s very sad. It reads “The son falling on his knees, she bent herself to him, and embraced him. The husband was kneeling on the other side; she also kneeled down, and, having besought the Almighty to have mercy on her soul, said ‘Dear James, I beg that God, for Christ’s sake, will be reconciled, and that he will not leave me, nor forsake me, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment.’” It’s so weird to think that a person could be so cruel and heartless but also loved by her family.
Averill: After the execution, her body was taken down from the scaffold and delivered to the Old Bailey where it was dissected and anatomized in public. Her skeleton was then exhibited in the surgeon’s hall in the Old Bailey as a deterrent to other violent crime. This ritualistic, gruesome sort of punishment was meant to humiliate the deceased and their families. But I want to point out that there is something about this that doesn’t makes sense. Londoners were horrified and angry about Brownrigg’s crimes. But they were also sort of titillated (and this is the part they didn’t realize at the time). In our episode on the Marquis de Sade, we discussed the connections between violence and sexual desire. We see a little bit of that here. The stories of bondage, beatings and imprisonment within the Brownrigg home were repeated and dramatized for decades to come for many reasons. But one reason was that it was strangely erotic and exciting. It’s ironic because the same Londoners who were horrified by her crimes, were the same ones who watched with excitement and captivation as her nude, dead corpse was chopped up in public.
Marissa: Her story was also trivialized somewhat by English parents who were trying to get their naughty children to behave. One 1835 author called Elizabeth Brownrigg “that bugbear of our childhood.” So we know that Victorian parents threatened their children with something like: “If you keep misbehaving, I’ll send you over to Elizabeth Brownrigg’s house!” or something like that. My mother used to threaten to send me to Singapore to get caned when i was being really bad. Because there was some special on Dateline or something about an American being caned in Singapore. She also used to threaten to send me to Amish camp… Which isn’t a thing but sounds like a dreadful bore.
Averill: Londoners’ fascination with Brownrigg continued in print for almost a century. The terrible nature of Brownrigg’s crimes provoked various reactions from jests, to near pornographic, to the sober social analysis found in Gentleman’s Magazine, which questioned how children could suffer ‘in such a metropolis as London’. Two years after the affair, a historian of London wrote that the story “cannot fail to fill every lover of humanity with surprize and sorrow, that there should exist among the human specie a wretch, who, instead of acting the part of mother to these destitute children, could, with a heart steeled against every tender and humane sentiment, rack her invention for means to torture and torment them. Is it not too amazing that such a horrid scene of inhumanity could be so long and so secretly perpetrated in the very hear of the city, and in a public and creditable neighborhood?”
Marissa: Any true crime buffs out there will love this quote because it’s exactly the same today. Most stories of current crimes are framed by how unreal it is that a family man, or loving mother, or church deacon, or whatever could commit a violent crime. And that such a crime could happen in a “sleep town” or “picture perfect suburb” or small rural hamlet… and so on. This was, of course, the largest metropolis in Europe, but still people could not believe that an ordinary woman living in an ordinary London neighborhood could commit such atrocities.
Averill: Similar themes were raised in several contemporary pamphlets, including An Appeal to Humanity (1767), as well as in later publications such as The Cries of the Afflicted (1795), Brownrigg the Second, or, A Cruel Stepmother (1812), and The Atrocious Life and Horrid Cruelties of Elizabeth Brownrigg (1830), which reveal her enduring infamy in the popular imagination. People find it really difficult to understand how someone that is like them, someone they identify with, could commit violent and sadistic crimes. I think this is why true crime media is so popular.
Sources and Further Reading:
Elizabeth Brownrigg: http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng311.htm
Carter, P. (2004-09-23). Brownrigg, Elizabeth (c. 1720–1767), murderer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
An appeal to humanity, in an account of the life and cruel actions of Elizabeth Brownrigg. Who was tried at the Old Bailey on the 12th of September 1767, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn on Monday the 14th of the same Month, for curelly Beating and Starving Mary Clifford, a Parish Girl, her Apprentice; giving a true and circumstantial Account of that Barbarous Transaction. To which is added the trial of Elizabeth Branch and her daughter, for the Murder of their Servant Maid, &c. &c. (London, 1767). Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. 30 Dec. 2017.
Müller, Anja. Fashioning Childhood in the Eighteenth: Age and Identity. (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2016).
R. and J. Dodsley. The Annual Register, or, A View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, for the Year 1767. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, in Pall-Mall, 1768. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. 29 Dec. 2017
The Athenaeum. London: J. Lection, 1830.
Mandeville, Bernard. An enquiry into the causes of the frequent executions at Tyburn: and A Proposal for some Regulations concerning Felons in Prison, and the good Effects to be Expected from them. To which is Added, A Discourse on Transportation, and a Method to render that Punishment more Effectual. By B. Mandeville, M. D. London: printed: and sold by J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane, MDCCXXV. . Eighteenth Century Collections Online.