Elizabeth Martha Brown

Elizabeth Martha Brown, a victim of “justice”

After describing the execution by hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, the anonymous reporter of the Dorset County Chronicle and Somerset Gazette asked in despair “do these horrible sights tend to demoralise or deter”?

The Hangman’s noose 

The execution had taken place in full view of a large crowd, not far from the gaol where Elizabeth had spent her final days.

The reader was left in no doubt of the reporter’s view: too many of those before the scaffold had come merely “to glut their morbid curiosity” in seeing a woman being hanged.

They came “laughing and jeering and full of no pleasant sentiments towards the human victim offered up (to) … their gaze”.

They left the tragic and terrible scene not to “retire and meditate” but to “drink and carouse, to riot and blaspheme and keep the town all day in a state of perturbation and misery”. (1)

What the young Thomas Hardy saw

The young Thomas Hardy was present in the crowd.

Seventy years later, the memory was still there, still fresh, still strange and terrible.

He wrote in a letter in 1926 how he had seen Elizabeth hanged, and how he had remained “after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure … turning slowly on the rope”.

Thomas Hardy

He added, disturbingly, “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain … they had put a cloth over her face … as the cloth got wet her features came through it …  A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped, he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree”. (2)

The sad truth

Martha was hanged on the 9th of August 1856 for the murder of her husband, John Anthony Brown on the 5th of July 1856. The murder took place before dawn during the early hours of the morning, after a vicious quarrel between husband and wife.

A confession from her cell, hours before her execution, reveals that Mary had been the victim of domestic abuse. She had been driven to her act of violence by the extreme provocation and violence of her husband – insults, threats and a savage beating by a whip.

The article attached in PDF makes use of contemporary accounts to uncover the real story of Martha’s tragic end, and shows how, even over a hundred years ago, the same views we hear now being aired over the morality or otherwise of Capital Punishment were being heard then.


(1) Dorset County Chronicle, Thursday 14 August 1856, P:13, British Newspaper Archive

(2) Thomas Hardy, Letter to Lady Pinney, quoted in “Thomas Hardy’s Letters Will Ruin Your Day”, The Paris Review, June 2 2016

For the PDF, of the full story, please click here