The long scene of torture in which this inhuman woman kept the innocent object of her remorseless cruelty, ere she finished the long-premeditated murder, engaged the interest of the superior ranks, and roused the indignation of the populace more than any criminal, occurrence in the whole course of our melancholy narratives.
This cruel woman, having passed the early part of her life in the service of private families, 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 who were taken in labour in the workhouse, which duty she performed to the entire satisfaction of her employers.
Mary Mitchell, a poor girl, of the precinct of White Friars, was put apprentice to Mrs. Brownrigg in the year 1765; and 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 it 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 toward 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 White Friars bound Mary Clifford to Brownrigg; nor was it 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 followed at every stroke.
Elizabeth Brownrigg cruelly flogging her apprentice, Mary Clifford.
The elder son having one day directed Mary Clifford to put up a half-tester bedstead, 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 show evident signs of mortification. Her mother-in-law, who had resided some time in the country, came about this time to town, and inquired after her. 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 further disturbances. Upon this the mother-in-law was going away, when Mrs. Deacon, baker, at the adjoining house, and that she suspected the apprentices were treated with unwarrantable severity. This good woman likewise promised to exert herself to ascertain the truth.
At this juncture Mr. Brownrigg, going to Hampstead on business, bought a hog, which he sent home. The hog was put into a covered yard, having 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. Accordingly, one of the maids, 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, in order to induce the girls to speak to them; but she seemed wholly incapable. Mrs. Deacon then sent to the girl's mother-in-law, who immediately called upon Mr. Grundy, one of the overseers of St. Dunstan's, and represented the case. Mr. Grundy and the rest of the overseers, with the women, went and 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. Upon this Mr. Deacon's servant declared that Mary Mitchell was not the girl they wanted. Mr. Grundy now sent for a constable, to search the house, but no discovery was 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. Upon this information Mr. Grundy and some others returned to the house; on which Brownrigg sent for a lawyer, in order to intimidate them, and even threatened a prosecution unless they immediately quitted the premises. 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 about half an hour, if the coach was discharged. This being consented to, the girl was produced from a cupboard under a beaufet 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 announced her to be in danger.
Brownrigg was therefore 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 now carried before Alderman Crossby, who fully committed him, and ordered the girls to be taken to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where Mary Clifford died within a few days; and the coroner's inquest, being summoned, found a verdict of Wilful Murder against James and Elizabeth Brownrigg, and John their son.
In the mean time 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.
On this he went to London the next day, which was Sunday, and, going to church, sent for Mr. Owen, the churchwarden, to attend him in the vestry, and gave him such a description of the parties that Mr. Owen desired Mr. Deacon and Mr. Wingrave, a constable, to go to Wandsworth, and make the necessary inquiry.
On their arrival at Dunbar's house, they found the wretched mother and son in a room by themselves, who evinced great agitation at this discovery. A coach being procured, they were conveyed to London, without any person in Wandsworth having knowledge of the affair, except Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar.
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 over him and embraced him; while the husband was kneeling on the other side.
On her way to the fatal tree the people expressed their abhorrence of her crime in terms which, though not proper at the moment, testified their detestation of her cruelty. Before her exit, she joined in prayer 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 her execution, which took place at Tyburn, September the 14th, 1767, her body was put into a hackney-coach, and conveyed to Surgeons' Hall, where it was dissected, and her skeleton hung up.
That Mrs. Brownrigg, a midwife by profession, and herself the mother of many children, should wantonly murder the offspring 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 wicked enough to copy her vile example!
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.