1767: Elizabeth Brownrigg

3 comments September 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1767, a jeering mob damning her to hell* saw Elizabeth Brownrigg hang at Tyburn.

“The long and excruciating torture in which this inhuman woman kept the innocent object of her remorseless cruelty, before she finished the long-premeditated murder,” says the Newgate Calendar, “more engaged the attention and roused the indignation of all ranks, than any criminal in the whole course of our melancholy narratives.” Hers is a very rich text.

As a middle-class midwife, Brownrigg mined the Foundling Hospital for young girls whom she would take on as apprentice domestic servants.

Brownrigg was far from the only one exploiting this ready pool of virtual slave labor, but it was her home’s marked sexualized sadism that really moved copy (pdf pamphlet). And Chateau Roissy it was not.

Elizabeth liked to keep the servants locked up, starving, usually naked, and would pinion their hands and inflict merciless corporal punishment for the least transgression against rules like “having any more bread”. The Old Bailey Online preserves one servant’s trial testimony:

Q. In what manner did she use to beat her?

M. Mitchel. She used to tie her up in the kitchen; when first she began to be at her, she used to tie her up to the water-pipe, with her two hands drawed up above her head.

Q. Describe that water-pipe.

M. Mitchel. That goes across the kitchen; the hooks that hold it are fastened into a beam.

Q. Had she used to have her clothes on when your mistress tied her up in this manner to beat her?

M. Mitchel. No, no clothes at all.

Q. How came that?

M. Mitchel. It was my mistress’s pleasure that she should take her clothes off.

Q. What had she used to beat her with?

M. Mitchel. She beat her most commonly with a horse-whip.

Q. How long did she use to beat her in this manner?

M. Mitchel. I cannot justly say, but she seldom left off till she had fetched blood.

This witness Mary Mitchel(l) was the lucky one of the Brownriggs’ last two Foundling Hospital charges: both girls had been stripped and horsewhipped so regularly that ulcerating, infectious sores — never able to heal before the next thrashing — pocked their bodies.

But Mary Mitchell at least survived. Her fellow-sufferer Mary Clifford was flat beaten to death, the body stuffed in the family coal-hole like so much rubbish. (In life, Mary Clifford was sometimes made to sleep there, too.)**


Detail view (click for a larger, three-panel image) of Elizabeth Brownrigg and her crimes illustrated in the Newgate Calendar.

For working-class Londoners struggling to navigate the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, here was a villainess indeed. London was swelling, urbanizing, bustling with vulnerable orphans and abandoned children like our foundling Marys; all its working classes, for that matter, had reason to feel endangered in the face of fights for their lives against emerging commercial powers working hand in glove with the state — not excluding the ubiquitous threat of the gallows for pitiable property crimes.

And as Peter Linebaugh observes, “apprenticeship” by the 18th century “was less likely to involve the development of highly qualified, skilled labour power than to be the means of organizing the exploitation of young labour power.”† Like it’s not enough working your crappy dead-end unpaid internship; now, it comes with flogging?

Somehow, Brownrigg’s husband and son were convicted only of a misdemeanor and got off with a few months in prison, but Elizabeth bore all the hatred of Londoners more used to seeing apprentices swing than even the vilest master. The Murder Act which had appropriated even the corpses of London’s marginal people was applied to anatomize our former midwife; her skeletal remains were long displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Oh, and the Foundling Hospital — which had cautioned the Brownriggs before about their excessive abuse of servants but not actually stopped sending them young girls to abuse — started finally instituting some oversight.


There’s a vicious and unsigned satire, “Elizabeth Brownrigge”, published in the September 1832 Fraser’s magazine. Over the years, it has occasioned a great deal of dispute among Thackeray scholars as to whether it might not have been an early creation of that master satirist’s pen. (Thackeray would have just turned 21 when it published.)

We’re not qualified to render judgment on the literary forensics, but the skewering of a murderess through the author’s mock-sympathy has a deliciously Thackerian flavor about it: the world was “incapable of understanding the height of her virtue.” It also underscores the continuing resonance of Elizabeth Brownrigg to Londoners 65 years after her execution.

The magnanimity of her soul, like Mr. Smeaton‘s pharos on the Eddystone, was firmly fixed upon the rock of the soundest principles, and diffused a light around it, for the guidance of those who were beating the waves upon the dark and troubled ocean of adversity, but was itself unshaken by the storm … [in prison] the fair and excellent Elizabeth adopted, as nearly as circumstances would allow, the same admirable disposition of her time to which she had been accustomed when inhabiting her own romantic bower in the village of Islington. She completed a large stock of baby-linen for the poor; she perused new publications of the day; and she composed an elaborate parallel between the characters of Socrates and Lady Jane Grey, after the manner of Plutarch. These are the two distinguished personages, in the whole range of authentic history, who in their strength of mind, purity of life, and extensive accomplishments, bore the strongest resemblance to herself; and to them, perchance, the attention of our heroine was more particularly directed in the quiet and retirement of her cell by the many points of similarity which subsisted between their destiny and her own.

Later, the fictional Elizabeth mounts a defense of such oblivious loathsomeness that it naturally impresses the judge:

“… punishment is a moral medicine. I may, perchance, actuated by too eager a desire for the rapid cure of my little and much-cherished patient, have dispensed my alternatives too liberally, and produced and untoward, an unexpected, and a most deeply-lamented consequence; but am I, therefore, to be condemned as guilty? In the analogous case of the physician, whose too-abundant anodynes may have lulled the sufferer to endless slumbers, or whose too copious phlebotomy may have let out the fever and the life at one and the same moment from the veins, would this most harsh and unmerciful measure be applied? … I demand from the justice of your lordship and a jury of my countrymen — as a matter not of mercy, but of right — the same impunity in my case which would be accorded, freely an unasked, under parallel circumstances, to the medical practitioner.”

Thackeray or whomever lay behind this pasquinade had a wider literary target in mind than simply Elizabeth Brownrigg(e)’s class. The short story is prefaced with a dedication to “the author of Eugene Aram“, meaning the popular novel published earlier in 1832 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton — a lifelong Thackeray bete noir. That novel concerned another renowned 18th century murderer, and it’s safe to say from the dedication that our satirist considered Bulwer-Lytton’s empathetic portrayal of the titular homicide a little, er, soft on crime.

I have been taught by Eugene Aram to mix vice and virtue up together in such an inextricable confusion as to render it impossible that any preference should be given to either, or that the one, indeed, should be at all distinguishable from the other … I had, indeed, in my dramatic piece, been guilty of an egregious and unpardonable error: I had attempted to excite the sympathies of the audience in favour of the murdered apprentices, but your novel has disabused me of so vulgar a prejudice, and, in my present version of her case, all the interest of the reader and all the pathetic powers of the author will be engaged on the side of the murderess.

* The Newgate Calendar: “On her way to the place of execution 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.”

** Elizabeth Brownrigg admitted to the Ordinary of Newgate the truth of Mary Mitchell’s horror testimony.

† Conversely, rogues who took to the highway and became working-class heroes were very often men who had absconded from their apprenticeship — for instance, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Women

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