1767: Elizabeth Brownrigg

4 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.

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1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell

4 comments July 6th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1840, a valet was hanged at Newgate Prison for the murder of his aristocratic employer, Lord William Russell.

This celebrity murder of a former Member of Parliament, septuagenarian patriarch of one of England’s august noble houses, by a member of his household activated all the crime-panic circuits still familiar a couple centuries later.

That of class, of course: the perpetual frisson of animosity between the respectable and those they held in economic servitude, bursting bloodily onto the front pages.

That of foreignness, since Courvoisier was Swiss.

And that ever-popular fear of youth amok, when the 23-year-old claimed inspiration from William Harrison Ainsworth‘s then-popular potboiler about the beloved underclass robber Jack Sheppard.*

Speedy Trial

The valet was quickly on trial for his life; the total time elapsed from Russell’s death to Courvoisier’s own was two months to the day.

But a less hasty schedule might have permitted better investigation, as Courvoisier was well on his way to acquittal with his lawyer’s deft rebuttal of the crown’s entirely circumstantial case.

When police discovered the decisively damning evidence of Russell’s stolen effects midway through the trial, the Swiss man made himself an milepost in the evolution of professional ethics at the bar. Summoning his lawyers, Courvoisier informed them that he was indeed guilty but that he had no intention of pleading guilty to a hanging crime and expected his defense to continue.

Attorney Charles Phillips reluctantly complied, implicating fellow-servant Sarah Mancer as the potentially guilty party. When it became publicly known after the trial that Phillips had become aware of his client’s guilt, he was publicly vilified for the vigor of his representation, e.g., contesting “with violent language the witnesses for the prosecution, whose evidence he [knew to be] true,” and a lively debate among legal types on professional propriety in such an instance ensued.**

Read All About It

None of this availed Benjamin Courvoisier aught. His celebrity was brief, but intense — he even signed an autograph for the sheriff, dating it “the day of my execution,” as he was being pinioned for hanging. Broadsides like these below (links to selections from Harvard Library’s extensive publication of execution broadsides) sold a reported 1.65 million copies. (Source)

Broadside 1

Broadside 2

Broadside 3

Broadside 4

Among the published broadsides are several popular ballads relating to the case — one written to lament the murder, before the apprehension of a suspect; others for the condemned’s execution. One certainly wouldn’t call these great literature, but they’re representative examples of broadside balladry, nearly de rigueuer for scandal-mongering Victorian crime coverage and therefore very relevant for these pages.

COURVOISIER’S LAMENT
(Written by Himself.)

You Christians all of every nation,
A warning take by my sad fate–
For the dreadful crimes that I’ve committed,
I, alas! repent too late.
Only think what I must suffer,
And the death which I must undergo–
I cannot rest by day or night,
My heart’s so full of grief and woe.

My parents they were poor — but honest —
And brought me up in virtuous ways;
And never, ’till this sad occurrence,
Did I embitter their fond days.
But now, alas! quite broken-hearted,
My friends and family must be,
To think that I soon must quit
This world for a long Eternity.

My Master was a Nobleman–
Lord William Russell was his name;
Beloved he was by all who knew him,
And well he did deserve the same.
Oh! how could I so basely murder
One that was so good and kind?
I hope the Lord above will pardon
Me, that I may mercy find.

Alas! my days they are all numbered.
When I must give up my last breath;
For the horrid crimes that I’ve committed,
Die an ignominious death.
Oh! while I’ve life, let me entreat you
All, take warning by my fate!
Shew the ways of evil-doers,
Or you’ll repent when ’tis too late.

Attend unto my true confession–
A lesson it may be to you;
Give not your mind too much to pleasure,
Act upright — be just and true.
Let not the sight of gold e’er tempt you
To act dishonest to your friend:
For that alone caused me to murder,
And brought me to this untimely end.

Let not the world blame those two Females
Who, fellow-servants were with me;
For of the murder and the robbery,
None whatever knew but me.
No other crimes have I committed,
Save one single robbery;
Tho’ it was said that Etiza Grimwood
Basely murdered was by me.

Charles Dickens attended this hanging, mining the scene for Barnaby Rudge.

William Thackeray came too — he was becoming publicly engaged as a man troubled by capital punishment, and it was the first execution he had witnessed. (Actually, he turned away at the decisive moment.) Thackeray published an article about the experience in Fraser’s magazine, reflecting doubt at the salutary value of public executions and empathy with the young man’s scrambled mental state as he was raced from condemnation to the gallows in a mere fortnight.

At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But, read the rest of his statement — the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days; them “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work.” It is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands: night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his. By heaven, it is pitiful to read it. See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect). One knows too well how such language is learned-imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.”

* Courvoisier’s Jack Sheppard reference triggered thunderous indictments of this text in the popular press — “a publication calculated to familiarise the mind with cruelties,” howled the London Examiner “and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual” and caused the stage adaptation to be censored (pdf).

Though Ainsworth had decades of writing ahead of him, it’s been argued that his reputation never fully recovered from this case, and that’s why he’s not in the canon. What he lacks in posthumous celebration he garnered in contemporary buzz; Ainsworth’s “Newgate novels” valorizing highwaymen helped to feed an enduring popular craze for hanging broadsides and “penny dreadfuls” and to mainstream a (commercialized) version of thieves’ cant. See The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868.

** See The Bar & The Old Bailey, 1750-1850. In a more unctuous vein, the bishop of London submitted a petition to the House of Lords demanding repeal of the right of defendants’ lawyers to make closing statements.

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Scandal

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1839: Sebastien-Benoit Peytel, notwithstanding Balzac

1 comment October 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Honore de Balzac’s crusade to save a condemned man got the chop.

Sebastien-Benoit Peytel was a notary and minor journalist death-sentenced that August for murdering his wife and their servant, one of those countless local outrages whose passing notice flies before the years.

Driven by sentimentality or opportunism or literary conceit — but with a genuine sense of aggrieved justice — the French writer Balzac, who had met Peytel, took up his pen on the condemned man’s behalf.

I am extremely agitated by a horrible case, the case of Peytel. I have seen this poor fellow three times. He is condemned; I start in two hours for Bourg.

Blowing through 10,000 francs of his own money on travel and investigation, Balzac could never make the case to the public as compellingly as it evidently appeared to him.

The English writer William Thackeray was then abroad in Paris, and if we are to credit his more measured defense of Peytel,* Balzac was counterproductive to his cause.

Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether.

Thackeray’s own (yawn) account won’t bring the rhetoricians out of their seats. Conniving Frenchmen: fresh take.

I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But … [i] t is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury.

[Y]ou may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime.

Eventually, he pivots from Peytel’s execution this date to state a more general argument against the death penalty, at least in its public form.

Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.

Lost among literature’s towering oaks, our day’s humble shrub has a literary footnote of his own for authoring, in 1832, Physiologie de la Poire (“The Physiology of the Pear”), a protracted satire exploiting Louis-Philippe‘s reputation as “the Pear King.” (Contrary to some reports, Peytel does not appear to have invented this image.)

According to these antiquarians, the book contains the author’s “hilarious” predictions of the ways he will not die.

“Il ne sera pas guillotine‘ comme Bories, Raoulx …”

* Thackeray argued that the trial was badly done and the evidence insufficient for execution but expressly stopped well short of expressing confidence in Peytel’s innocence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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