You are gazing at the skeleton of a notorious woman, as exhibited in London’s famous Surgeons’ Hall, whose murderous cruelty shocked and stunned eighteenth century England.
I thought hard about whether to re-visit this case because of its barbarous, torturous and gratuitous violence. However, when I re-read the transcript of Mrs. Elizabeth Brownrigg’s trial which took place on September 9th 1767 at London’s famous Old Bailey Criminal court, for the torture and murder of fifteen year old Mary Clifford in August of that year – two hundred and fifty years ago – I wanted Mary’s anguished cries for help to be remembered on this terrible anniversary together with an appreciation of the bravery of another young girl, sixteen year old Mary Mitchel, who gave crucial evidence against Mrs. Brownrigg, which greatly assisted in this wicked woman’s conviction and execution. It somehow seems unjust that Elizabeth Brownrigg is remembered but Mary Clifford and Mary Mitchel are forgotten.
Also, when I read the adage expressed at that time that I’ve taken as a title for this blog; “Let her crimes be buried though her skeleton be exposed″, I do not agree such crimes should necessarily be buried –our knowledge that they actually happened teaches us so much about the devious nature of human kind and what still happens today behind closed doors, these two hundred and fifty years later.
So here we are, starting at the end of a cruel murder story rather than at the beginning.
I want to understand more about the imagery and symbolism that attempts to convey a powerful message of deterrence within the judicial system of the time, and the use of the highly controversial drawings employed by the media to illustrate this wicked deed.
Be warned, it is extreme in nature with only one agenda, that of seeking to capture the public imagination so that whenever they hear the name Brownrigg – images of the sheer horror Mary Clifford and other young apprentice girls endured is not in doubt.
Okay – the villain is caught and has had her comeuppance. Here she is with a little more dressing:
Under the Murder Act of 1751, there was a clear determination to deliver more than deterrence by execution alone. The Murder Act included the provision, “for better preventing the horrid crime of murder” and “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment″, and that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried″, by mandating either public dissection or “hanging in chains″ *of the cadaver, *(see my blog:
Under this Act, therefore, following her execution at Tyburn, Brownrigg was destined for public dissection for which tickets of admission to Surgeons’ Hall to watch her be transformed from skin & bones to just bones were like gold dust.
It was overheard by some, seeking what author Elizabeth Hurren refers to as a, “shocking, thrilling, repugnant, blood-staining, enticing experience,” that it was a pity forty-seven year old Brownrigg was so painfully thin to begin with – there was so little flesh to part from her bones. (See Hurren, E., Dissecting the Criminal Corpse, August 2016)
An eager medical student called Silas Neville, was determined not to miss this transformation from body to skeleton exhibit, and knew to mingle in nearby Child’s Coffee House, located in St. Paul’s Churchyard and close to both the Old Bailey and Surgeons’ Hall, and thereby procure some tickets from those associated with this medical ‘performance’ to take place in the theatre of Surgeons’ Hall. He even started a diary in that very year of 1767 for, as Hurren observes, he was determined to follow, “.. the anatomical entertainments in the capital.” (Hurren, ibid.)
He recorded the following entry:
“Wednesday 16 September 1767: After waiting an hour in the Lobby of Surgeons’ Hall, got by with great difficulty (the crowd being great and the screw stairs very narrow) to see the body of Mrs. Brownrigg, which, cut as it is, is a most shocking sight. I wish I had not seen it. How loathsome our vile bodies are, when separated from the soul! It is surprising what crowds of women and girls run to see what usually frightens them so much. The Hall is circular with niches in which are placed skeletons.”
Below is an illustration of a murderer (not Mrs. Brownrigg) undergoing public dissection in the same manner as applied in her case.
You now know Mrs. Elizabeth Brownrigg suffered a public execution and her flesh and internal organs were cut from her bones also under public gaze, and finally, burial was denied under the Murder Act in order to provide the public with a tangible image of what wickedness is supposed to look like. The newspapers had been running for weeks with the horrific details of this woman’s crimes and were now able to report the following final episode:
“It is said the skeleton of Mrs Brownrigg will be ﬁxed in the niche opposite the front door in the Surgeons’ Theatre, and her name will be wrote under it, in order to perpetuate the heinousness of her cruelty in the minds of the spectators.” Source: The Stamford Mercury (Stamford, England), Thursday, September 24, 1767; pg. 2; Issue 1875.
The newspapers had indeed worked hard during the proceeding month it took to get Brownrigg to trial, to ensure that the minds of all such spectators gazing at this symbolic exhibit, had but one image in their minds as they gazed up at the skeletal remains:
This midwife, Elizabeth Brownrigg, working to assist the poor women of the Workhouse, had been appointed by the overseers of the Parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, and was living in Flower-de-luce Court, a long winding jumble of an alley close to London’s Fetter Lane. She lived with her husband James, a painter, and John, their son.
Brownrigg herself, had given birth to fifteen children and apart from John still living at home, only two others were said to survive. The Brownriggs had employed three apprentice girls – interestingly all were christened Mary. Her first apprentice was Mary Mitchel (who had run away from Brownrigg’s cruelty and was later to give evidence against her), then Mary Jones, who also ran away and back to the Foundling Hospital where the Governors ensured Brownrigg was castigated by the Lord Chamberlain for cruelty and abuse towards their charge, and finally Mary Clifford who died on Sunday August 9th, 1767 after being beaten to death by Brownrigg over at least twelve months of torturous existence in the Brownrigg’s basement kitchen. She was kept as a slave, as a prisoner and as an object of extreme vengeful frustrations by all three Brownriggs.
Rather than recount the more sensational descriptions of Mary Clifford’s ordeal as contained in the media, below is the actual charge from the Brownrigg’s trial that was read out at the Old Bailey – so given what you are about to read in judicial language, you can see what the media had in its journalistic grasp for such sensationalism.
“James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife, and John their son, were indicted, for that they, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved by the instigation of the devil, did wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously, from the 1st of May 1766, and divers other days and times, to the 4th of August 1767, make an assault on Mary Clifford, spinster; that the said Elizabeth, her the said Mary, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, did make an assault, with divers large whips, canes, sticks, and staves, and did strike, beat, and whip, over the naked head, shoulders, back, and other parts of her naked body, in a cruel and inhuman manner, giving to her divers large wounds, swellings, and bruises; and with divers large hempen cords, and iron chains, round the neck of the said Mary, did bind and fasten, giving her thereby a large and violent swelling on the neck of her the said Mary; and in a certain place, under the stairs, leading into a cellar, in the dwelling-house of the said James, did fasten and imprison; by means of which striking, whipping, binding, fastening, confining, and imprisoning her the said Mary, she did pine and languish till the 9th of August, when the said Mary did die. And the said James and John his son, of malice aforethought, were present, abetting, comforting, and maintaining her the said Elizabeth the said Mary to kill and murder. And her the said Elizabeth and James her husband, stood charged on the coroner’s inquest for the said murder.”
(Source: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 July 2017), 9th September 1767, trial of James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife James Brownrigg John their son (t17670909-1).
You may wonder why I’m only singling out Mrs, Brownrigg given the whole family was charged and herein lies another disgrace that despite severe beatings upon beatings given by both James and John Brownrigg to Mary Clifford often with Mrs. Brownrigg supervising the severity or even bringing them down to beat Mary because she was exhausted with her own efforts with belts, buckles canes and staves – their beatings did not directly lead to Mary’s death. They only received an indictment against them for assaulting and abusing the brave apprentice Mary Mitchel who gave evidence against them at the Old Bailey. Here is her voice these two hundred and fifty years later;
(Note: Mary Mitchel’s reference to “upon liking” is referring to the mutual probation period – so it was in the interests of the Brownriggs to treat their ‘free’ apprentices kindly for the first month in order to secure their ‘binding’ to the family)
Proceedings of the Old Bailey , 9th September 1767
Mary Mitchel sworn.
Mary Mitchel. I am going into sixteen years of age.
Q. Do you know the nature of an oath?
M. Mitchel. I do, I can say my catechism.
Q. Where did you live?
M. Mitchel. I lived in the house of James Brownrigg, in Flower-de-luce court, Fetter-lane; I was his a prentice.
Q. How long have you served of your time?
M. Mitchel. I have served two years of my time last May; I was there two months upon liking before I was bound.
Q. How long was Mary Clifford there?
M. Mitchel. She was there about a year and a half; she was there a month upon liking.
Q. How was she treated during that month?
M. Mitchel. Very well.
Q. Had she a good bed to lie upon while upon liking?
M. Mitchel. She had.
Q. When did any ill usage begin?
M. Mitchel. About a week, or a little more, after she was bound.
Q. What sort of ill usage?
M. Mitchel. Such as beating her over the head and shoulders with a walking cane and a earth-brush by my mistress, that is Elizabeth Brownrigg, she was the first that began.
Q. Did you see anybody else strike her?
M. Mitchel. Yes, John the son has struck her.
Q. Where did she lie after she was bound apprentice?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes on the boards in the parlour, sometimes in the passage, and very often down in the cellar.
Q. How came she to lie there?
M. Mitchel. She had the misfortune of wetting the bed; that was the reason of her being moved; at first she had a mat to lie on.
Q. Had she any thing to cover her?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had her own clothes, and sometimes a bit of a blanket.
Q. Was there any particular place where she used generally to lie?
M. Mitchel. Yes, in the cellar, where they used to lock us in; it goes under the kitchen stairs.
Q. How big was the place under the stairs?
M. Mitchel. It is about the bigness of a closet; it went in and turned under the stairs.
Q. Had she any bed there?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had a bit of a sack with some straw in it.
Q. What had she to cover her?
M. Mitchel. Sometimes she had something to cover her, and sometimes a bit of a blanket, and sometimes she was quite naked.
Q. Did she chiefly lie there?
M. Mitchel. She did.”
Source:Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 July 2017),9th September 1767, trial of James Brownrigg , Elizabeth his wife James Brownrigg John their son (t17670909-1).
This trial became more and more tense as Mary revealed that the Brownriggs used to go away for week-end breaks leaving early on Saturdays and not returning until late Sunday night – possibly around six or seven times a year – leaving the girls naked, without food or water and locked under the kitchen stairs. On their return, the beating of Mary Clifford continued.
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.”
Source:Old Bailey Proceedings Online (ibid)
It was after a last savage beating on July 31st that it’s claimed the “Hand of Providence” intervened on Mary’s behalf and so began the trail to track down and discover what cruelties had been happening in the Brownrigg’s kitchen basement area.
“Lamentable cries and groans“, were heard by a concerned servant working next door for Deacons the local bakers. It so happened that on that very same day as that last and most severe beating of Mary Clifford by Elizabeth Brownrigg took place, James Brownrigg had purchased a large hog which he brought back to live in the kitchen area of the house and it stank so much he was forced to open wide a skylight window to let in more air. The concerned servant,
“.. looked from his master’s through this casement-window, and observed something lying upon the ground bloody, but in such a situation as not to discover whether it was human or not; he thereupon called, but receiving no answer he threw something which fell upon the poor girl, who thereupon groaned and uttered some inarticular sounds; from whence he discovered the object to be human.” Source: The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of Elizabeth Brownrigg, who was executed at Tyburn on Monday September 14th, 1767.
Thus began an intensive inquiry into the Brownrigg’s activities which lasted some time as she denied the very existence of tragic Mary Clifford and then claiming she had gone to live in the country and she blatantly defied investigation by the parish officers and even legal representations for her to produce Mary Clifford for the officers to see.
It was James Brownrigg who eventually brought the young girl to be seen by the parish officers who were obviously distressed at the sight of this speechless, and grievously injured innocent apprentice.
Mary Clifford died of her wounds in hospital on August 9th 1767, unable to speak one word about her ordeal. Sadly, her step-mother who was unaware of the cruel world Mary had been confined in, had tried to visit her during July but failed to get past the trickery of Elizabeth Brownrigg.
There is no other ending than to abhor such a cruel tragedy, but at least these two hundred and fifty years later we should learn from Mary Clifford’s suffering and realise that where vulnerable young people are concerned, sustained and reliable professional accountability must never be relaxed.
Even Brownrigg was reported by the press as urging that all Overseers “..should look now and then after the poor young persons of both sexes to see that their masters and mistresses use them well” (The Stamford Mercury: Sept.17th, 1767 p.3)
Unfortunately, even in our contemporary times – it seems, that lesson is still there to be learned.