Executed at Tyburn, 14th of September, 1767, for torturing her Female Apprentices to Death
Portrait of Elizabeth Brownrigg
Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging her apprentice
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, more engaged the attention and roused the indignation of all ranks, than any criminal in the whole course of our melancholy narratives.
Elizabeth Brownrigg was married to James Brownrigg, a plumber, who, after being seven years in Greenwich, came to London and took a house in Flower-de-Luce Court, Fleet Street, where he carried on a considerable share of business, and had a little house at Islington for an occasional retreat.
She had been the mother of sixteen children, and, having practised midwifery, was appointed by the overseers of the poor of St Dunstan's parish to take care of the poor women in the workhouse; which duty she performed to the entire satisfaction of her employers.
Mary Mitchell, a poor girl, of the precinct of Whitefriars, was put apprentice to Mrs Brownrigg in the year 1765; and at about the same time Mary Jones, one of the children of the Foundling Hospital, was likewise placed with her in the same capacity; and she had other apprentices. As Mrs Brownrigg received pregnant women to lie-in privately, these girls were taken with a view of saving the expense of women-servants. At first the poor orphans were treated with some degree of civility; but this was soon changed for the most savage barbarity. Having laid Mary Jones across two chairs in the kitchen, she whipped her with such wanton cruelty that she was occasionally obliged to desist through mere weariness. This treatment was frequently repeated; and Mrs Brownrigg used to throw water on her when she had done whipping her, and sometimes she would dip her head into a pail of water. The room appointed for the girl to sleep in adjoined the passage leading to the street door, and, as she had received many wounds on her head, shoulders and various parts of her body, she determined not to bear such treatment any longer if she could effect her escape.
Observing that the key was left in the street door when the family went to bed, she opened the door cautiously one morning and escaped into the street. Thus freed from her horrid confinement, she repeatedly inquired her way to the Foundling Hospital till she found it, and was admitted, after describing in what manner she had been treated, and showing the bruises she had received. The child having been examined by a surgeon, who found her wounds to be of a most alarming nature, the governors of the hospital ordered Mr Plumbtree, their solicitor, to write to James Brownrigg, threatening a prosecution if he did not give a proper reason for the severities exercised towards the child.
No notice of this having been taken, and the governors of the hospital thinking it imprudent to indict at common law, the girl was discharged, in consequence of an application to the Chamberlain of London. The other girl, Mary Mitchell, continued with her mistress for the space of a year, during which she was treated with equal cruelty, and she also resolved to quit her service. Having escaped out of the house, she was met in the street by the younger son of Brownrigg, who forced her to return home, where her sufferings were greatly aggravated on account of her elopement. In the interim the overseers of the precinct of Whitefriars bound Mary Clifford to Brownrigg; it was not long before she experienced similar cruelties to those inflicted on the other poor girls, and possibly still more severe. She was frequently tied up naked and beaten with a hearth broom, a horsewhip or a cane till she was absolutely speechless. This poor girl having a natural infirmity, the mistress would not permit her to lie in a bed, but placed her on a mat in a coal-hole that was remarkably cold; however, after some time, a sack and a quantity of straw formed her bed, instead of the mat. During her confinement in this wretched situation she had nothing to subsist on but bread and water; and her covering, during the night, consisted only of her own clothes, so that she sometimes lay almost perished with cold.
On a particular occasion, when she was almost starving with hunger, she broke open a cupboard in search of food, but found it empty; and on another occasion she broke down some boards, in order to procure a draught of water. Though she was thus pressed for the humblest necessaries of life, Mrs Brownrigg determined to punish her with rigour for the means she had taken to supply herself with them. On this she caused the girl to strip to the skin, and during the course of a whole day, while she remained naked, she repeatedly beat her with the butt-end of a whip.
In the course of this most inhuman treatment a jack-chain was fixed round her neck, the end of which was fastened to the yard door, and then it was pulled as tight as possible without strangling her. A day being passed in the practice of these savage barbarities, the girl was remanded to the coal-hole at night, her hands being tied behind her, and the chain still remaining about her neck.
The husband being obliged to find his wife's apprentices in wearing apparel, they were repeatedly stripped naked, and kept so for whole days, if their garments happened to be torn. Sometimes Mrs Brownrigg, when resolved on uncommon severity, used to tie their hands with a cord and draw them up to a water-pipe which ran across the ceiling in the kitchen; but that giving way, she desired her husband to fix a hook in the beam, through which a cord was drawn, and, their arms being extended, she used to horsewhip them till she was weary, and till the blood flowed at every stroke.
The elder son one day directed Mary Clifford to put up a half-tester bedstead, but the poor girl was unable to do it; on which he beat her till she could no longer support his severity; and at another time, when the mother had been whipping her in the kitchen till she was absolutely tired, the son renewed the savage treatment. Mrs Brownrigg would sometimes seize the poor girl by the cheeks and, forcing the skin down violently with her fingers, cause the blood to gush from her eyes.
Mary Clifford, unable to bear these repeated severities, complained of her hard treatment to a French lady who lodged in the house; and she having represented the impropriety of such behaviour to Mrs Brownrigg, the inhuman monster flew at the girl and cut her tongue in two places with a pair of scissors.
On the morning of the 13th of July this barbarous woman went into the kitchen and, after obliging Mary Clifford to strip to the skin, drew her up to the staple; and though her body was an entire sore, from former bruises, yet this wretch renewed her cruelties with her accustomed severity.
After whipping her till the blood streamed down her body she let her down, and made her wash herself in a tub of cold water, Mary Mitchell, the other poor girl, being present during this transaction. While Clifford was washing herself Mrs Brownrigg struck her on the shoulders, already sore with former bruises, with the butt-end of a whip; and she treated the child in this manner five times in the same day.
The poor girl's wounds now began to shew evident signs of mortification; and it is probable that she might have been privately buried, and the murderess escaped detection, but for the following circumstance. Mary Clifford's mother-in-law, who had resided some time in the country, came to town, and enquired after the child; and being informed that she was placed at Brownrigg's, she went thither, but was refused admittance by Mr Brownrigg, who even threatened to carry her before the lord-mayor if she came there to make farther disturbances.
Hereupon the mother-in-law was going away, when Mrs Deacon, wife of Mr Deacon, baker at the adjoining house, called her in, and informed her that she and her family had often heard moanings and groans issue from Brownrigg's house, and that she suspected the apprentices were treated with unwarrantable severity. Mrs Deacon likewise promised to exert herself to come at the truth of the affair.
At this juncture Mr Brownrigg, going to Hampstead on business, bought a hog, which he sent home. This hog was put into a covered yard, to which there was a sky-light, which it was thought necessary to remove, in order to give air to the animal.
As soon as it was known that the sky-light was removed, Mr Deacon ordered his servants to watch, in order, if possible, to discover the girls. Deacon's servant-maid, looking from a window, saw one of the girls stooping down; on which she called her mistress, and she desired the attendance of some of the neighbours, who, having been witnesses of the shocking scene, some men got upon the leads, and dropped bits of dirt, to induce the girl to speak to them; but she seemed wholly incapable.
Hereupon Mrs Deacon sent to the girl's mother-in-law, who going to the overseers who had placed out the child, they called on Mr Grundy, one of the overseers of St Dunstan's, and all of them going together, they demanded a sight of Mary Clifford: but Brownrigg, who had nicknamed her Nan, told them that he knew no such person, but if they wanted to see Mary (meaning Mary Mitchell), they might; and accordingly produced her.
Mr Deacon's servant now declared that Mary Mitchell was not the girl who had been seen in the shocking situation abovementioned; on which Mr Grundy sent for a constable, to search the house, which was done; but no discovery was then made.
Mr Brownrigg threatened highly; but Mr Grundy, with the spirit that became the officer of a parish, took Mary Mitchell with him to the workhouse, where, on the taking off her leathern-boddice, it stuck so fast to her wounds, that she shrieked with the pain: but, on being treated with great humanity, and told that she should not be sent back to Brownrigg's, she gave an account of the horrid treatment that she and Mary Clifford had sustained; and confessed that she had met the latter on the stairs just before they came to the house.
On this Mr Grundy and some others returned to the house, to make a stricter search; on which Brownrigg sent for a lawyer, in order to intimidate them, and even threatened a prosecution, unless they immediately quitted the house.
Unterrified by these threats, Mr Grundy sent for a coach to carry Brownrigg to the compter; on which the latter promised to produce the girl in half an hour, if the coach was discharged. This being consented to, the girl was produced from a cupboard, under a beauset in the dining-room, after a pair of shoes, which young Brownrigg had in his hand during the proposal, had been put upon her.
It is not in language to describe the miserable appearance this poor girl made: almost her whole body was ulcerated. Being taken to the workhouse, an apothecary was sent for, who pronounced her to be in danger.
Brownrigg was conveyed to Wood Street Compter; but his wife and son made their escape, taking with them a gold watch and some money. Mr Brownrigg was carried before Alderman Crossby, who committed him, and ordered the girls to be taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital, where Mary Clifford died within a few days. The coroner's inquest was summoned, and found a verdict of wilful murder against James and Elizabeth Brownrigg, and John, their son.
In the meantime Mrs Brownrigg and her son shifted from place to place in London, bought clothes in Rag Fair to disguise themselves, and then went to Wandsworth, where they took lodgings in the house of Mr Dunbar, who kept a chandler's shop.
This chandler, happening to read a newspaper on the 15th of August, saw an advertisement which so clearly described his lodgers that he had no doubt but they were the murderers. A constable went to the house, and the mother and son were conveyed to London. At the ensuing sessions at the Old Bailey the father, mother and son were indicted, when Elizabeth Brownrigg, after a trial of eleven hours, was found guilty of murder, and ordered for execution; but the man and his son, being acquitted of the higher charge, were detained, to take their trials for a misdemeanour, of which they were convicted, and imprisoned for the space of six months.
After sentence of death was passed on Mrs Brownrigg, she was attended by a clergyman, to whom she confessed the enormity of her crime) and acknowledged the justice of the sentence by which she had been condemned.
The parting between her and her husband and son, on the morning of her, execution, was affecting beyond description. The son falling on his knees, she bent herself to him, and embraced him. The husband was kneeling on the other side; she also kneeled down, and, having besought the Almighty to have mercy on her soul, said 'Dear James, I beg that God, for Christ's sake, will be reconciled, and that he will not leave me, nor forsake me, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment.'
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.
At the place of execution this miserable woman joined in prayers with the ordinary of Newgate, whom she desired to declare to the multitude, that she confessed her guilt, and acknowledged the justice of her sentence.
After execution her body was put into a hackney-coach, conveyed to Surgeons' Hall, dissected and anatomised; and her skeleton was hung up in Surgeons' Hall.
What is it possible to say on this subject that will not have occurred to every reader of feeling and humanity? This more than common murder -- this murder by inches, has something so shocking in its nature, something so infernal in its progress, that there is no language in which to express our abhorrence of it.
That Mrs Brownrigg, a midwife by profession, and herself the mother of many children, should wantonly murder the children of other women, is truly astonishing, and can only be accounted for by that depravity of human nature, which philosophers have always disputed, but which true christians will be ready to allow.
Let her crimes be buried, though her skeleton be exposed; and may no one hereafter be found hardy enough to copy those crimes!
Women who have the care of children from parish workhouses, or hospitals, should consider themselves at once as mistresses and as mothers; nor ever permit the strictness of the former character to preponderate over the humanity of the latter.