9 August 1856 – Elizabeth Martha Brown

Elizabeth Martha Browne

Elizabeth Martha Browne

A character from a classic English novel was inspired by our next unfortunate subject.

Elizabeth Martha Browne was hanged for her crimes in Dorset and her poignant story was to leave a lasting impression on writer Thomas Hardy who was present at her execution – the last ever female to be hanged publicly in Dorset. As a result, her story spawned the character of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

As in the novel, so Brown was of humble beginnings. She went on to become a servant and it was there that she eventually hooked up with John Anthony Brown, who was a bit of a philanderer by all accounts.

Around 20 years her junior, John went on a bender one Saturday night and came home out of his face on booze at 2am. The couple rowed for over an hour and things turned violent – he struck her, then flayed her with a whip a few times.

In her own words, as he husband bent to tie his shoelaces, ‘much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet…and struck him several violent blows on the head…’, so said a report in the ‘Dorset County Chronicle’.

He died and Brown was arrested, but some sources cite that she felt compelled to lie – she tried to blag that her husband had been kicked in the head by a horse. And it is this story that is said to have stood in the way of her reprieve.

No-one believed it, not the police, not the jury, not even the appeals’ judge, so why she laboured this tall tale was a mystery. However, she eventually came clean in her cell as her execution day approached.

Brown was finally taken to the place of execution and strung up by William Calcraft, in front of a crowd of up to 4,000, according to execution specialist Richard Clark.

It was raining that August day and the 16-year-old Hardy observed ‘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’, leading some to disturbingly comment that he may have found the event erotic. Yet that is and remains pure conjecture.

Also on this day

9 August 1905 – William Hancocks

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One Response to “9 August 1856 – Elizabeth Martha Brown”

  1. sacha999 Says:

    How strange that reading a biography of Thomas Hardy I look up Martha brown, having read his account of her hanging to find it is the anniverssary of her death. Spooky!

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