Elizabeth Brownrigg: Child Abuse and Murder in the 18th Century
On the morning of Monday, September 14th, 1767, in the Tyburn Gallows, a 47 year-old Elizabeth Brownrigg stood in a cart awaiting her execution by a noose. So great was the uproar from angry crowds that Brownrigg herself, who was found guilty for the cruel torturous murder of 17 year-old Mary Clifford, was petrified with fear. The groups were so filled with hate that Brownrigg trembled and needed to be held down firmly.
It was then that the hangman Thomas Turlis noosed her, tied the rope to the overhead beam of the gallows connected to pullies by a horse, tapped the horse’s flanks to move forwards, pulling her up to swing, choke, and suffocate until she was dead. As her body lay limp, the crowd cheered. Her body was then taken to the Surgeons' Hall, where she was processed, and her skeleton was laid on display opposite the surgeon’s theater for all to be reminded of her crimes.
The skeleton of Elizabeth Brownrigg on display. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
But even though her crimes were inexcusable, only Elizabeth was sentenced to execution while her husband James and eldest son John, who also took part in the abuse of their servants, were only sentenced to six months in prison.
Is evil inherently human, and is there no answer for how to deal with abuse? Or was Elizabeth Brownrigg and her family an outlier example to the ills that masters could execute on servants? To understand how her end came to be, one must understand her origins, her crimes, and inevitably the life of people in 18th century England.
Elizabeth Brownrigg’s Early Life: 1720-1765
Elizabeth Brownrigg was born in 1720 to a working-class family. In 1745, she married James Brownrigg, who was an apprentice house painter at the time. Though Elizabeth Brownrigg gave birth to 16 children, only three survived to adulthood.
Of the three children, only one is ever mentioned as living with them. In 1765, the Brownrigg family, Elizabeth, her husband James, and their eldest son John moved to Flower de Luce Road in London's Fetter Lane. James earned a prosperous career as a house painter and Elizabeth became a respected midwife.
She was also appointed as overseer of women and children at Saint Dunstan’s Parish workhouse. She was given custody of two girls Mary Mitchell and Mary Clifford, along with five pounds per girl for payment of their apprenticeship.
Another girl, Mary Jones, was to be a servant from the London Foundling Hospital. However, Elizabeth Brownrigg soon began to engage in severe physical abuse of her foundling domestic servants.
1753 engraving of the Foundling Hospital building, now demolished. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Brownrigg’s Abuse of Mary Jones and Mary Mitchell in 1765
Though reports were often ignored in the 18th century regarding the abuse of servants, what made the Brownrigg family's case quite interesting was the severe abuse that their servants endured. In the case of the only girl to escape their torment, Mary Jones, her pleas for sanctuary went largely unnoticed, leaving at most the Brownriggs with an angrily worded letter rather than any real legal action against them.
The 14 year-old Mary Jones was bound to James Brownrigg on May 13th, 1765. However, she would only remain there for two months before running away from the household and hoping to find sanctuary back at the Foundling Hospital. During her initial trial period with the Brownrigg family, Mary Jones was treated relatively well until the period ended. Her relationship with the Brownriggs soon changed.
Elizabeth and James Brownrigg would take turns whipping Mary Jones frequently. They would sometimes strip her naked and then fasten her to a hook on a beam above the kitchen. They would beat her until either Elizabeth or James grew tired.
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Illustration of Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging Mary Clifford. (Fordmadoxfraud / Public Domain)
In another account by Mary Jones, sometimes when she cleaned one of the rooms or the stairs, Elizabeth would purposefully find fault, and they would punish her by holding down her arms and then ordering Mary Mitchell to douse her with the dirty cleaning water several times.
Although the Brownriggs made sure to lock their doors so no one was able to leave, one night, a key was left in the front door. Mary Jones escaped that night and ran back to the London Foundling Hospital.
The governors of the hospital examined Mary Jones and found several wounds around her neck, several bruises, and whip marks all over her back. Mary Jones pleaded not to return to the Brownriggs. Rather than press charges, the governors merely sent James Brownrigg a strongly worded letter demanding that he discipline his wife and restrict her abusive tendencies.
Unfortunately, no further action was taken. Though Mary Jones got away, there were still two girls who continued to endure the Brownriggs’ punishments.
Mary Mitchell was from Whitefriars. Like Mary Jones, Mitchell endured a considerable amount of physical and verbal abuse along with regular beatings for the slightest mishaps. In total, Mary Mitchell remained with the Brownriggs for roughly two and a half years, enduring a plethora of mistreatments.
Similar to Jones, her beatings began after her probationary trial period ended. Mitchell endured the first 12 months of abuse before deciding to escape. Like Jones, she managed to escape from the house but was spotted by the eldest son John Brownrigg who forced Mitchell to return to the home.
She was then treated with even greater cruelty for trying to leave. A similar fate was shared by Mary Clifford, who soon was to completed her one-month trial period when she would became legally bound to the Brownriggs.
The Abuse and Murder of Mary Clifford
Mary Clifford was the daughter of a shoemaker in White Friars, whose wife’s death left him with several children to take care of. Being that he was unable to give them proper care, he sent all his children to the Saint Dunstan’s Parish workhouse. He then remarried.
However, regardless that Mary was sent away by her father, she and her stepmother became friends. She was taken in by James Brownrigg on February 18th, 1766.
Mary Clifford was the third apprentice to Elizabeth Brownrigg and endured the most abuse. In the Brownrigg's trial, it was described how Clifford had been repeatedly beaten over the head and shoulders with a walking cane and an earth-brush by both Elizabeth and her son John Brownrigg.
Elizabeth Brownrigg beat Mary Clifford with a walking cane. (Security Guru / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Clifford's phase of beatings began in 1767, soon after her trial period had ended. Like the other girls who had been tortured, Mary Clifford was stripped naked. Her wrists were tied up to a hook on a beam in the kitchen to be whipped.
However, for Mary Clifford, this was a consistent weekly ritual. In other instances, Clifford was chained to a door by her neck when she attempted to steal food and drink from a cupboard.
In the first year of Clifford's employment with the Brownriggs, Clifford stopped writing to her stepmother. She grew curious about Clifford’s well-being after hearing what had happened with Mary Jones. Clifford’s stepmother immediately went to the Brownrigg household but was refused entry. She was then told by James Brownrigg that Mary Clifford did not live there, nor did the Brownriggs have an apprentice by that name at all and that if she proceeded to make further inquiries, she would pay for it.
One of the Brownriggs’ neighbors named Mr. Deacon, a baker's apprentice, took notice of James's unusual behavior with Clifford's stepmother and then approached her when she was leaving. He waited until James returned to his home and then whispered to her that her stepdaughter Mary was indeed there.
Both Mr. Deacon and Clifford's stepmother went to the local authorities and convinced officers of their suspicions. The officers, along with Clifford's stepmother, proceeded to the Brownrigg's household and forcibly demanded to see Mary Clifford. Though James continued to deny the girl existed, he soon changed his story mentioning that she was not home and but was in the countryside.
After further threats of incarceration, James finally allowed the authorities to see one of the girls and revealed Mary Mitchell, who contained several bruises and lash marks up and down her arms and legs. Seeing how badly Mitchell appeared, the officers pushed through to investigate the entire household. It was then Clifford was found locked behind a cupboard.
The Brownriggs had Mary Clifford locked in a cupboard. (pxhere / Public Domain)
Mary Clifford appeared beaten and emotionally broken. Except for two bits of rags acting as clothing, she was naked and smeared in her own filth.
Her face was swollen. Her head was severely cut with many open and bleeding gashes. Her back, legs, and thighs were blackened from severe bruising. Her entire body contained several whip scars, some fresh and others almost two years old.
Her throat was terribly swollen. Her mouth was so swollen that she could not shut her lips or even speak. She appeared to have been beaten by all manner of tools.
The officers and Clifford’s stepmother were left stunned by witnessing the results of the Brownriggs’ torments. James Brownrigg was then arrested and taken into custody, but Elizabeth Brownrigg made her escape.
The officers removed both Mary Mitchell and Mary Clifford from the house and returned them to the Parish Workhouse. As they were being examined by physicians, the girls were ordered to be undressed and put to bed. But when Mitchell was being removed of her leather bodice, she screamed in agony.
Her wounds had not correctly healed and were stuck to the leather. Due to Mary Clifford’s dangerous condition, she was moved straight to the St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for further care. Unfortunately, on August 9th, 1767, Mary Clifford succumbed to her infected wounds and died.
In the following days after her death, a warrant was issued against Elizabeth and John Brownrigg. Both Elizabeth and John shifted from place to place in London. They wore worn clothing to stay anonymous and inconspicuous until finally taking lodgings in Wandsworth at the house of a Mr. Dunbar who kept a chandler's shop.
Dunbar inevitably turned both of them into the police for a reward. Both Elizabeth and John were taken to Newgate.
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Elizabeth Brownrigg in prison. (MartinPoulter / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Brownrigg’s Trial and Execution: August to September 1767
On September 7th, 1767, the trial for the murder of Mary Clifford appeared before Judge Sir Robert Kite. The case took 11 hours in which Mary Mitchell appeared as the star witness to the persecution, along with George Benham. Medical evidence and autopsy results from Clifford's body was also used in the trial against Elizabeth Brownrigg.
In the trial, Mitchel stated that Mary Clifford was forced to sleep on boards in the parlor and sometimes in the passage. Most times, both Mitchell and Clifford were locked in the cellar at night. Mitchell also testified that James and John occasionally beat Clifford. Their whippings would often re-open wounds from previous beatings.
In another testimony, George Benham, one of James Brownrigg's house painting apprentices, confirmed much of Mary Mitchell's statements. He also mentioned that he visited James in prison shortly after the arrest, to which James asked him to return to the household to remove the hook from the beam in the kitchen and burn all the sticks in the house. Benham finally confessed that Elizabeth had warned him and other neighbors that if Mary Clifford’s stepmother visited the house and asked for her, she was not allowed to be admitted in, for fear Clifford’s stepmother would “give the girls bad ideas”.
On Friday, September 11th, 1767, Judge Kite pronounced Elizabeth Brownrigg to be hanged until dead on Monday, September 14th. Afterward, her body be publicly dissected and then atomized. John and James, on the other hand, were acquitted of their higher charge and instead were sentenced to misdemeanor charges and imprisoned for six months.
She was then hung. As her body swung, the crowd cheered three times and clapped. Her body was left hanging for half an hour before her remains were put into a hackney-coach and taken to the surgeon’s hall for dissection and eventual atomization.
The gallows by Newgate prison for London offenders such as Elizabeth Brownrigg. (Philafrenzy / Public Domain)
The Relationship of Master and Servant
In closing, Brownrigg’s final verdict was indeed a fitting end to the horrors and crimes she committed against Mary Jones, Mary Mitchell, and Mary Clifford. Forever after, Elizabeth Brownrigg’s case and name would become synonymous with the abusive rich cruelly manipulating the working poor, the exploitation, and murder of child servants, as well as the evil an 18th century woman could carry in the darkest of hearts.
However, even though Elizabeth Brownrigg was brought to justice, there is one question that remains: of the three Brownrigg's who were charged with the murder of Mary Clifford, only Elizabeth Brownrigg was convicted and executed for that crime while her husband James and son John, who were just as guilty of torture and abuse, were merely given six months sentences. Why was Elizabeth Brownrigg given the maximum charge?
Perhaps this will be a question that will forever be debated by historians and scholars of the 18th century alike in the years to come.
Top image: Elizabeth Brownrigg and her family abused their child servants. Source: JPRFphotos / Adobe Stock.
By B.B. Wagner
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