Elizabeth Martha Brown
William Calcraft - the executioner
Source material supplied by Richard Clark Capital
Punishment UK. (A comprehensive site detailing capital punishment within
Period in office - 1829 - 1874.
Calcraft was the longest serving executioner of all and was noted for his "short drops" causing most of his victims to strangle to death. It is not known precisely how many executions he carried out but it is estimated at between four hundred and four hundred and fifty, including those of at least 35 women, making him the most prolific British executioner. He was appointed hangman for London and Middlesex on the 4th of April 1829. His first experience was as assistant to Foxen at the double hanging of housebreaker Thomas Lister and highwayman George Wingfield at Lincoln Castle. Calcraft's first job as No.1 was the hanging of the murderess, Ester Hibner at Newgate on the 13th of April 1829. 1829 was a busy year for him with no fewer than 31 executions. He was assisted by Thomas Cheshire in many of these.
He officiated at the last public hangings in Britain - those of Francis Kidder (the last woman) at Maidstone on 2nd April 1868 for the drowning of her step daughter and Michael Barrett - a Fenian (what we would now call an I R A terrorist) for the Clerkenwell prison explosion which killed 12 people and injured over 100, outside Newgate prison on 26th May 1868.
The Government then passed The Capital Punishment Within Prisons Act of 1868 which transferred all executions inside prison walls. The press and witnesses were still permitted to attend although executions were no longer the great public spectacles that they used to be.
The first hanging "within the prison" was that of 18 year old Thomas Wells at Maidstone on 13th August 1868. Wells was a railway worker who had murdered his boss, the Station Master at Dover. Although the execution was in "private" there were reporters and invited witnesses present and the short drop was used so that they would have been treated to the sight of Wells taking 3 - 4 minutes to die.
Calcraft was the official hangman at Newgate and also carried out floggings inside that prison. He received 1 guinea (£1.05) a week retainer and a further guinea for each hanging at Newgate and half a crown (12.5p) for a flogging. His earnings were greatly enhanced by executions at other prisons where he could charge higher fees, typically £10 - £15.
He also held the same post at Horsemonger Lane Goal in the County of Surrey and received a similar fee from there. Here he hanged 24 men and 2 women between April 1829 and October 1870. He was the exclusive executioner at Maidstone prison, carrying out all 37 hangings there between 1830 and 1872. In addition to these earnings he was also allowed to keep the clothes and personal effects of the condemned which he could sell afterwards to such as Madame Tussaud's for dressing the latest waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors. The rope which had been used at a hanging of a particularly notable criminal could also be sold for good money (up to 5 shillings (25p an inch)).
Calcraft claims to have invented the leather waist belt with wrist straps for pinioning the prisoners arms and one of the nooses he used is still on display at Lancaster Castle. It is a very short piece of 3/4" rope with a loop worked into one end with the free end of the rope passed through it and terminating in a hook with which it was attached to the chain fixed to the gallows beam. This particular noose was used for the execution of Richard Pedder on the 29th of August 1857.
On the 20th April 1849, Calcraft hanged seventeen year old Sarah Thomas in public at Bristol for the murder of her mistress who had maltreated her. This was one job which greatly affected him on account of her youth and good looks.
Frederick George Manning and his wife Maria were hanged side by side on the 13th November 1849 on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Goal. The Mannings had murdered Patrick O'Connor - Maria's erstwhile lover for money. A husband and wife executed together was very unusual and drew the largest crowd ever recorded at an Surrey hanging - estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000.
Dr Edward William Pritchard drew an even bigger crowd, estimated at around one hundred thousand, when was hanged in Jail Square in Glasgow on the 28th of July 1865 for the murders of his wife and mother-in-law.
1867 bought the triple hanging of three Fenians who had murdered a policeman in Manchester. William O'Meara Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O'Brien (alias Gould) suffered together on the 23rd of November 1867 outside Salford Prison. Afterwards they became known as the Manchester Martyrs and a monument was erected to them in Ireland which can still be seen today. Calcraft received the princely sum of £30.00 for this job.
His last hanging was that of John Godwin at Newgate on 25th May 1874 after which he retired on a pension of 25 shillings - £1.25) per week provided by the City of London in 1874. He died in December 1879.
Most of Calcraft's early work came from London and the South East as the Midlands had George Smith and Thomas Askern operated in Yorkshire and the North. With the advent of the railway system in the mid nineteenth century Calcraft was soon able to operate all over Britain and apparently loved travelling. There was 6,000 miles of railway by 1850 which meant that he could effectively and conveniently work nation-wide.
What others have to say about the hanging of Martha Browne and the impact on Thomas Hardy.
From Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
"Shortly after he started his apprenticeship with Hicks, Hardy attended a public hanging, and, as it appears, was very close to the gallows, which was put up high above the entrance to Dorchester Gaol. It was, moreover, the hanging of a woman, who had killed her husband in a crime of jealousy, which had so many mitigating circumstances that they nearly brought a reprieve. Indeed, if she had not maintained almost to the last her husband had died from a kick from his horse, instead of, as she finally confessed, a blow from her hatchet, public sympathy might have persuaded the Home Secretary to leniency. The woman, Elizabeth Martha Brown, was nearly twenty years older than her husband, John Brown, who had been a fellow-servant with her. He had married her, according to gossip, for money, and the couple had lived at Birdsmoorgate, near Beaminster. She had caught him making love to a local woman, and had a violent quarrel lat at night, during which he struck her with his trantor's whip. She retaliated with the wood-chopper, killed him, and then tried to conceal the crime.
This sensational story was well known, and a large crowd turned out in the early morning drizzle on 9 August 1856. Her handsome appearance, younger than her years, and her lovely hair, added to the morbid curiosity. So did her utterly calm behaviour, though her own vicar, a national authority on oriental languages but with a passion for capital punishment, chose to regard this as callousness. After shaking hands with the prison officials, she walked firmly to the scaffold, and seemed to show no fear. Even Calcraft the executioner showed nervousness. Since it was some time since he had executed a woman in public, he forgot to tie her dress so that she would not be exposed as she swung, and had actually to reascend the scaffold to do this. The execution was even the occasion of a leading article in the Dorset County Chronicle advocating the abolition of the death penalty.
It is clear that the sixteen-year-old Hardy, instead of going straight to Hicks's office that morning, got himself a good place to view this sight. In a crowd of three or four thousand, his favoured position close to the gallows can hardly have been an accident. He was so close that he could actually see her features through the rain-damp cloth over her face. It made an impression on him that lasted until old age. The nature of that impression offers a somewhat disturbing insight into his mind as it then was. The well-remembered occasion had for him distinctly sexual overtones. He wrote in his eighties, in words whose unconscious tone is barely credible, 'what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back', after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body. For one ardent watcher, at least, the hangman's would-be humanitarian action had created an addition excitement.
Even Hardy seems to have realized that these reminiscent delights were abnormal, for he added the excuse, whenever he wrote of this, that he was very young at the time. The second Mrs. Hardy, (Florence) assiduous to present her famous husband in a good light, wrote of the pity that he had been 'permitted' to see such a sight--though he seems to have gone entirely at his own volitionand added 'It might have given a tinge of bitterness and gloom to his life's work'. This verdict hardly accounts for Hardy's obvious sense of enjoyment and anticipation, followed by a sensation of calm that seems to give the whole experience a sexual character. As for its effect on his life's work, or at least upon his most famous novel, another account, perhaps the most telling and circumstantial, certainly does suggest a deep impression with extraordinary personal overtones. On 2 November 1904, The Sketch printed the following paragraph.
Mr. Neil Munro tells a curious story of the origin of Mr Hardy's 'Tess'.
When Hardy was a boy he used to come into Dorchester to school, and he made
the acquaintance of a woman there who, with her husband, kept an inn. She
was beautiful, good and kind, but married to a dissipated scoundrel who
was unfaithful to her. One day she discovered her husband under circumstances
which so roused her passion that she stabbed him with a knife and killed
him. She was tried, convicted, and condemned to execution. Young Hardy, with another boy, came into Dorchester and witnessed the execution from a tree that overlooked the yard in which the gallows was placed. He never forgot the rustle of the thin black gown the woman was wearing as she was led forth by the warders. A penetrating rain was falling; the white cap was no sooner over the woman's head than it clung to her features, and the noose was put round the neck of what looked like a marble statue. Hardy looked at the scene with the strange illusion of its being unreal, and was brought to his complete senses when the drop fell with a thud and his companion on a lower branch of the tree fell fainting to the ground. The tragedy haunted Hardy, and, at last, provided the emotional inspiration and some of the matter for 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'.
Hardy cut this out and pasted it into a scrapbook, which was marked 'Personal'. He crossed out and altered the sentence suggesting he knew Martha Browne and also the erroneous account of the Browns' profession; but he then headed the cutting with the word 'Corrected', and made no further alteration. This shows that the story, apart from slight details such as the exact murder-weapon, was accepted by him as generally a true picture. Years later, he himself repeated the story, almost exactly, to a young visitor 'with a sort of gaiety'. He emphasized again the weird effect of the woman's features showing through the execution hood. 'That was extraordinary', he commented in the later conversation. Yet the most significant detail is one found in the newspaper account only. Munro, a serious journalist and novelist, who would hardly invent at this point, records that Hardy 'never forgot the rustle of the thin black gown the woman was wearing'. The rustle of a woman's dress had enormous sexual meaning for Hardy. It will be remembered that when he recalled his feeling for Mrs. Julia Augusta Martin, which, he himself, said, 'was almost like that of a lover' he paid special attention to 'the thrilling "frou-frou" of her four grey silk flounces when she used to bend over him', and even recollected the same sound having an effect on him when she came into Stinsford Church on Sundays. There can be hardly any doubt that hanging, and particularly the hanging of a woman, had some sort of sexual meaning for Hardy, which remained powerfully in his thoughts to the end of his life. This account hints that it supplied at least part of the emotional power of his best-known novel."
From Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.
"In the summer of 1856 occurred, after a sensational trial, the first of the public hangings in Dorchester that Hardy witnessed and, understandably enough, remembered to the end of his life. On 9 August 1856, when Martha Browne was executed at Dorchester prison for the murder of her husband, Hardy stood close to the gallows, among the watching crowd of three or four thousand; as his account of the occasion nearly seventy years later reveals, his reaction had a strong sexual component, focused not on the execution itself but on its immediate aftermath: 'I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, & how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.' As it came on to rain, Hardy recalled on another occasion, 'I saw they had put a cloth over the face how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.'"
From Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994.
"One event the sixteen-year-old Tom witnessed, on 9 August 1856, left a lifelong impression and probably caused him a severe shock. Its effect may have been underrated, even by himself when writing the earlier part of the Life, in which he scarcely mentions it except in passing. That it always remained on his mind is evident from a visit he made one day in late 1925 to Racedown, the house which had once been lent rent-free to Wordsworth and his sister by the Pinney family. He went with his wife 'as a pilgrim', and Lady Pinney recollected that he singed the visitors' book, then: cleaned the pen on the striped lining of his waistcoat, a thing I remember seeing my father's business friends do. 'It's a very nice pen, my dear,' he said to his wife, 'do use it.' We showed him the rooms the Wordsworths probably used...as he was leaving and being hurried home by his careful wife, he turned to me and said, 'Can you find out about Martha Brown? She lived over there' (and he pointed to the west) 'I saw her hanged when I was sixteen'. He was bustled into the car, before there was time for more. Lady Pinney made enquiries about this murder (carried out by a woman on account of her husband's unfaithfulness), and she passed on the information to him. He replied, on 20 January 1926: My sincere thanks for the details...about that unhappy woman Martha Brown, whom I am
ashamed to say I saw hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be in town at that time for other reasons...I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.
His reaction has the expected sexual component, although his account is unusual in not troubling to disguise it. There is nothing 'unconscious' about the effect on him of the shape of a woman's body: one of the important things about Hardy is that he did not shirk 'unpleasant facts'. No boy of sixteen could have escaped being affected by the ghastly juxtaposition of sex and death, although it cannot have made its fullest impact on him as an adolescent; rather he registered the impression, and then fascinatedly contemplated it at intervals throughout his life. It was not something easily forgettable, and must have contributed to the fate of Tess.
The erotic implications of this experience and young Tom's behaviour with girls makes this a convenient point to consider the much canvassed question of the nature of Tom's sexuality. This would not be necessary to discuss, were it not for the fact that Hardy's previous biographers, Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate, have suggested that he was impotent. Millgate thinks that this idea is 'intriguing', and, though plainly believing in the hypothesis, is too scrupulous to press it, since there is no evidence for it. Gittings pretends to be specific."
From James Gibson, Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
"Dorchester was the county town and there was much for a keen-sighted child to observe the judges coming to the Assizes, the soldiers in the barracks, the hiring fairs, the markets. Public executions still occurred outside the massive red-brick gaol and Hardy witnessed two of these. The first was on 9 August 1856 when Martha Browne was executed for murdering her husband. In The Life Hardy says no more than that he stood close to the gallows, but in 1919 in a talk with a visitor called Elliott Felkin he recalled:
The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure...turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw they had put a cloth over the face how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree fnearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together. (Encounter, April 1962)
Freudian interpretations by some biographers of this and a reference in one of his letters to the way in which the woman's 'light black silk gown set off her shape' have led to accusations that Hardy secretly enjoyed the spectacle which gave him a morbidly erotic thrill and revealed something sick in his imagination. But these were really no more than the very natural observations of a highly sensitive and perceptive young man. Dickens and many thousands of others watched public executions in those days without the same accusations being made about them. In fact, Dickens referred to the 'fascination of the repulsive', something most of us have experienced."
Elizabeth Martha Brown(e) was an ordinary woman of humble birth who worked as a servant. Not much is known about her, not even her date and place of birth. She became the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset, and is only remembered as the inspiration for Thomas Hardy's famous novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". Elizabeth was nearly twenty years older than her husband, John Brown(e), and they had met when they were both servants together. It was claimed at the time that he had married her for money. They lived at Birdsmoorgate, near Beaminster in Dorset.
The marriage was problematic and she caught John in bed with another woman. A quarrel naturally ensued and later that day erupted into violence. She struck out at John and he replied by hitting her with his whip. This was the last straw for Elizabeth who retaliated by hitting him over the head with the wood chopping axe, smashing his skull and killing him.She was arrested but claimed that her husband's death had been caused by being kicked in the head by a horse. The police did not believe this and thus she was charged with murder. She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes, as Dorchester is the County town of Dorset. The jury did not believe the horse story either and brought back a guilty verdict. The mandatory death sentence was passed on her and she was taken to Dorchester prison to await her execution some three weeks later.
There were obvious mitigating circumstances which led to substantial agitation for a reprieve. Reprieves even for murder although rare, were by no means unknown at this time. There was however much public sympathy for her in view of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband. The Home Secretary however, refused a reprieve even in view of the evidence of obvious provocation, perhaps because Elizabeth had made the fatal mistake of maintaining, virtually to the last, the lie that her husband had died from a horse kick. (c.f. the case of Tracy Andrews in 1997, where she claimed that her boyfriend had been stabbed in a road rage attack, a story which she later retracted). Elizabeth became "locked into" this lie as so many have before and since. Ultimately, in the condemned cell she confessed that she had killed him with the axe and therefore was responsible for his death and accepted her fate with great courage. Diminished responsibility was not a defence open to her in 1856, it would be another 101 years before it was recognised in English law. The Sheriff of Dorset made the necessary preparations for her execution, appointing William Calcraft as the hangman. He was Britain's principal executioner from 1829 - 1874 - the longest serving hangman of all. He was noted for his "short drops" causing most of his victims to die a slow and agonising death.
Elizabeth's execution was set for 9 o'clock on the morning of Saturday 9th August 1856. Calcraft travelled to Dorchester by train and he and his assistant arrived at the prison the day before as required by the Home Office to make the necessary preparations.
Elizabeth would have been treated very well in the condemned cell where she would have been looked after by two matrons (female warders). Even then there was a strange dichotomy between the harsh sentences of the law, her treatment in the condemned cell, and her cruel and humiliating execution.The gallows was erected outside the gates of Dorchester prison the evening before, on what is today the prison car park in North Square and was a very impressive affair.
A crowd of between 3 and 4,000 had gathered for, what was by then quite a rare event, the public hanging of a woman. To add to the public interest Elizabeth was an attractive woman, who looked younger than her years and had lovely hair. She was also incredibly brave in the face of death. So much so that her vicar regarded it as a sign of callousness. She had chosen a long, tight fitting thin black silk dress for her hanging. At the prison gates she shook hands with the officials but declined to be driven to the place of execution in the prison van, even though it was raining. Instead she chose to walk from the prison to it. She walked up the first flight of eleven steps where William Calcraft, a forbidding figure in his black clothes and bushy white beard, pinioned her arms in front of her before leading her up the next flight of 19 steps, across a platform and on up the last flight of steps to the actual trap. Here Calcraft put the white hood over her head and the simple noose around her neck. He then began to go down below the trap to withdraw the bolts (there was no lever in those days) when it was pointed out to him that he had not pinioned Elizabeth's legs. He returned to her and put a strap around her legs, outside of her dress to prevent it billowing up and exposing her as she hanged. (The Victorian preoccupation with decency!) While this was going on Elizabeth stood stoically on the gallows, supported by a male warder on each side, just waiting for her death. The rain made the hood damp and it clung to her features, giving her an almost statuesque appearance. It must also have made it hard for her to breath through the damp cloth.
Once again Calcraft went below and pulled the bolts thus releasing the trap doors. Elizabeth dropped through a distance of about a foot with a resounding thud. Death was certainly not instantaneous and she struggled some and her "body wheeled half round and back", according to Thomas Hardy, taking a few moments to loose consciousness, as the rope constricted the major blood vessels and put pressure on the nerves in her neck. She was left to hang for the regulation hour before being taken down and buried within the prison. Fortunately anatomisation of the body had been ended by law some 25 years previously.
Her execution caused a leading article in the Dorset County Chronicle advocating the abolition of the death penalty.
Thomas Hardy was boy of 16 when he went to watch this spectacle with a friend and was able to secure a good vantage point in a tree very close to the gallows. He noted "what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back", after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body. It made an impression on him that lasted until old age, he still wrote about the event in his eighties. It was to provide the inspiration and some of the matter for 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'. It seems possible that Hardy found something erotic about the execution and particularly her body and facial features through the tight dress and rain soaked hood. Charles Dickens who had also witness public hangings and campaigned strongly against them referred to the "fascination of the repulsive, something most of us have experienced."