Elizabeth Brownrigg, Executed for Torture

Elizabeth Brownrigg met and married a plumber named James Brownrigg, and they created a nice life for themselves. They were wealthy enough to live in London on Fleet Street in Flower-de-Luce Court and owned a second home in Islington that they used as a retreat. The Brownriggs were also lucky enough to become parents to a brood of fifteen (or perhaps sixteen) children, and, Mrs. Brownrigg was said to be a loving, nurturing, and caring mother.

Elizabeth Brownrigg, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Elizabeth Brownrigg. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because of her motherly skills, Mrs. Brownrigg gained an appointment at Dunstan’s parish. There she was tasked with taking care of all the poor women who entered the workhouse. In addition, Mrs. Brownrigg earned money as a midwife and was skilled enough to have women lie-in privately at her home, which is where her problems began.

To reduce her expenses, Mrs. Brownrigg began to take in apprentices who replaced her other servants whenever possible. Among the apprentices Elizabeth took in was Mary Mitchell, who arrived at Elizabeth’s in February of 1765. However, within twelve months Mitchell ran away. She did not get far because Elizabeth Brownrigg’s youngest son found her and returned her to his mother. From that point forward, according to one English newspaper, Mitchell was “tied up and whipped naked … and never suffered to stir out doors.”[1]

The abused Mitchell soon found sympathy from a French Woman, who was lying-in under Mrs. Brownrigg’s care. The French woman promised she would not share Mitchell’s secrets about Elizabeth Brownrigg’s abuse, but one day the French woman became so upset, she reproached Elizabeth Brownrigg and told her what Mitchell had said. Mrs. Brownrigg was furious, and, in retaliation, she flew at Mitchell and “thrusting a Pair of Scissors … into her Mouth, cut her Tongue in two Places.”[2]

In May of 1765, another girl, Mary Jones, arrived from the Foundling Hospital. She was with the Brownrigg family less than two months when Mr. Brownrigg received an order from the Hospital Solicitor stating that he must “forthwith make Satisfaction for the abuse of … the said Child, [or] this Corporation will prosecute him with the utmost Severity.”[3] Apparently, Jones ran away and told authorities that Elizabeth Brownrigg, assisted by her husband, regular whipped her. This resulted in Jones being permanently removed from the Brownrigg home.

Despite Jones’s removal, Elizabeth Brownrigg got a third apprentice in February of 1766. Her name was Mary Clifford. Interest in Clifford was roused about a year later when a relative went to see her at the Brownrigg’s home only to be told that she was not there. However, neighbors told the relative that they had seen Mitchell previously and reported that they heard “Moanings and Groans” at the Brownrigg’s house regularly. The neighbors, now alerted, began to watch for Clifford, and when they spotted her, they told Clifford’s relative.

The Brownrigg’s continued to claim Clifford was not there, and, so, the relative got authorities involved. They investigated and not only discovered Clifford but also found Mitchell, who the Brownriggs had hidden in a cupboard. They learned that Clifford was also placed in coal-holes at night with her hands tied behind her back and that Mitchell was chained around the neck, “the end of which was fastened to the yard door, and … pulled as tight as possible.”[4] Moreover, both girls were beaten with whips and belt buckles until they were black and blue, and the beatings were so frequent their wounds had no time to heal.

Mrs. Elizabeth Brownrigg Flogging Clifford, Public Domain

Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging Clifford. Public domain.

According to Mitchell and Clifford, they suffered other severe punishments. Elizabeth Brownrigg sometimes became so upset with Mitchell she would “come to her, and fixing a Hand upon either Cheek, would draw them down her Face with so much Force, as to occasion the Blood to start from her Eyes.”[5] Another punishment was to turn the girls upside down and dip their heads into a bucket of water. But the worse punishment was the beatings. With the assistance of her husband, Mrs. Brownrigg would fastened Mitchell or Clifford to overhead hooks or to the back of chairs, sometimes naked. Then Mrs. Brownrigg would whip the girls until blood poured down their bodies or until Mrs. Brownrigg’s own “Fatigue had exhausted her insatiable Fury.”[6]

Clifford was in terrible condition when she was discovered. In fact, her condition was so worrisome an apothecary was immediately called because her body was battered to the point it was completed ulcerated. She was also too weak to walk and had to be carried in by chair to meet with authorities who wanted to question her about Brownrigg’s abuse. After the meeting, because Clifford was in such poor condition, she was sent to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where she died a few days later.

With Clifford’s death, three of the Brownriggs — Mr. and Mrs. Brownrigg and their oldest son, John — were charged with “Wilful Murder.” Mr Brownrigg was immediately taken into custody, but Elizabeth Brownrigg and John absconded and went into hiding disguised in clothes purchased at London’s Rag Fair. They slithered from place to place until they obtained lodging with a London chandler keeper. Fortunately, the chandler keeper read Sunday’s paper, discovered he was harboring the fugitives, and turned them over to police.

When the Brownriggs came before the bar at Old Bailey, the evidence was irrefutable that both girls were wantonly abused and that repeated assaults resulted in Clifford’s death. After eleven hours, Elizabeth Brownrigg, who was described as a “thin Woman, of a brown complexion, sharp visage, and seemed to be above Fifty Years of Age,”[7] heard her punishment. She was found guilty and ordered to be executed. As for Mr. Brownrigg and his son, they were acquitted of the “higher charge” and received a six month jail sentence instead.

Elizabeth  Brownrigg was considered a pariah and “on the way to the fatal tree the people expressed their abhorrence of her crimes in terms which … testified their detestation of her cruelty.”[8] She was executed 13 September 1767, about the same time that 6-year-old Anne-Marie Grosholtz (who would later become Madame Tussaud) moved to Paris. As to Brownrigg’s execution the number of spectators for her hanging exceeded the amount that had attended any previous execution. Moreover, after her death, her skeleton was permanently “fixed in the Nitch opposite the Front Door in the Surgeons Theatre, and her Name … [written] under it, in order to perpetuate the heinousness of her Cruelty in the Minds of the Spectators.”[9]

Elizabeth Brownrigg’s skeleton. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.


  • [1] “Elizabeth Brownrigg,” in Derby Mercury, 25 Sept 1767, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Derby Mercury, 25 Sept 1767, p. 2.
  • [4] Knapp, Andrew, etal., The Newgate Calendar, Vol. 2, 1825, p. 371.
  • [5] Derby Mercury, 25 Sept 1767, p. 2.
  • [6] “Elizabeth Brownrigg,” in The Caledonian Mercury, 21 September 1767, p. 1.
  • [7] “London, Sept. 14,” in Derby Mercury, 18 Sept. 1767, p. 3.
  • [8] Knapp, Andrew, etal., p. 373.
  • [9] “London, September 15,” in Oxford Journal, 19 September 1767, p. 1.

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