Archive for April 30th, 2020

1731: Elizabeth Needham fatally pilloried

Add comment April 30th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1731 the English madam Elizabeth Needham stood in the pillory at Park Place, St. James’s, London. It wasn’t a death sentence de jure … but it became one de facto.

“Mother Needham” kept one of London’s most renowned brothels, far more exclusive than the dives of Covent Garden, and she made herself famous enough in the 1710s and 1720s to rate a place in the burgeoning print culture: Alexander Pope makes sly reference to her in The Dunciad, and as Hogarth seems to have modeled the titular courtesan of his Harlot’s Progress plates upon her.


Needham was famous for her recruiting talent. Here, Hogarth’s pockmarked Needham figure inveigles a pretty lass — the series’s central character, “Moll Hackabout” — freshly arriving to London from the hinterlands, while actual Needham client (and notorious sex-beast*) Francis Charteris leers from the stoop. In a subsequent panel in this same series, Hackabout as a seasoned whore encounters another Executed Today customer.

In her heyday a variety of japes, capers, and scandals unfolded in her precincts, beyond the obvious that was her stock in trade. For a number of years she carried out business unmolested by any chastisement from the law, but she suffered a couple of arrests in the 1720s and the heat on London’s brothels escalated uncomfortably with the onset of the 1730s. Thus it was that the wily old procuress earned a conviction for keeping a disorderly house on April 29, 1731.

Her punishment included a small fine and the duty to stand twice in the pillory, exposed to public obloquy. We have already noted in these pages that the horrors of such an ordeal extended beyond the reputational to an outright threat to life and limb. While it was not unheard-of for the pillorying to invert into a ritual of celebration and triumph for its sufferer were the crowd in sympathy, “it would seem that the default crowd at the pillory attended in expectation of an aggressive event.” (“Sodomites in the Pillory in Eighteenth-century London” by Peter Bartlett, Social & Legal Studies, December 1997)

This image of a crowd expecting to abuse the convict is consistent with the report in Fogg’s Weekly Journal in November 1728:

One Mitchel stood in the Pillory in Little Britain, for designing to extort Money from a Gentleman, by threatening to swear a detestable Sin against him [i.e., sodomy] — It was reported that he was to stand again in Aldersgate-street, upon which Occasion the Populace assembled, having furnish’d themselves with dead Cats, and other Ammunition used upon such Occasions, but the Person who was to make all the Sport not appearing, they diverted themselves with throwing their dead Cats at one another.

Elizabeth Needham had a wide notoriety that would have been especially charged in a mob’s eyes by her association with a villain like Charteris: we see her in Hogarth’s illustration above (not yet completed as of the time of her death) as the corrupt agent of predatory magnates. Moreover, she was apparently already weakened by illness. And although she was suffered simply to lie face down on the stage rather than standing dangerously exposed in the apparatus — and although she could afford to hire bodyguards to keep the crowd somewhat at bay — she received the aggressive version of the crowd whose abuse proved fatal to her.

Rictor Norton’s invaluable compilations of reporting on eighteenth century crime capture grub street’s coverage of the frightful end of Mother Needham (and one unfortunate spectator):

The famous Mother Needham was set before the pillory facing Park-place. She was so very ill, that she laid along under the pillory, notwithstanding which she was severely pelted, and it is thought she will die in a day or two … A boy getting upon a lamp post near the pillory, fell from the same upon iron spikes, and tore his belly in so violent a manner, that his bowels came out, and he expired in a few hours in great agonies …

Tuesday, May 4. Yesterday morning died Mother Needham … She declared in her last words, that what most affected her was the terror of standing in the pillory to-morrow in New Palace-Yard, having been so ungratefully used by the populace on Wednesday … They acted very ungratefully, considering how much she had done to oblige them.

* Charteris caught his own death sentence in 1730 for raping a servant, although he had the pull to obtain a royal pardon — with the aid of one of those familiar squid-inking campaigns of smearing his victim and casting doubt on the circumstances. “All the world agree he deserved to be hanged long ago, but they differ whether on this occasion,” one noble confided to his diary.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,History,Public Executions,Sex,Torture,Women

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