The Murderesses of Stuart London

The thing about history is that it's not just the 'showreel' moments, the successes and things we're proud of that should be talked about - but the whole history. All of it. The dodgy bits, the bits we're probably not that proud of, if we're honest. I think that history books have been very selective over the years. Yes, we celebrate the good things, but we also need to acknowledge the bits that make us shrink back into our armchairs a little bit. 

Credit: A woman with a sword and a balance; representing justice. Etching, 17th century.
Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

And that is why I decided to write a post about one of the more unsavoury aspects of women's history: women murderers. 

After most of a Friday afternoon peering into my screen at digitized records of the Old Bailey in London, I found many cases where women had lashed out - for various reasons - and taken lives. Most were infanticide - some of them sadly brutal - of children born from affairs or otherwise out of wedlock. One I found had no apparent reason - she had other children and a husband, who was sleeping at the time of the crime, which happened overnight. The record is incredibly brief in this case and offer no possible explanation.

Other women murdered servants, friends, apprentices, husbands and tradesmen. Lives were often lost for very little: quality of work, loss of a special trinket, a misunderstanding. All are heartbreaking, even to us reading 300 years later. Their cases may be a jumble of words on a screen to us, but back then, these were people's lives - sons, daughters, husbands, mothers and wives - cut tragically short. It made for uncomfortable reading, if I'm honest. 

Here are some cases from Stuart London when women resorted to murder.  

Elizabeth Wigenton
On 17th January 1681, Elizabeth Wigenton was brought into the court to answer for the death of her thirteen-year old apprentice. Elizabeth was a coat maker, and, inspecting the work of her apprentice, discovered that it was not to the standard she expected. To teach the girl a lesson, she "beat her grievously" and then had her held down while she continued her assault, this time with a bunch of rods. Eventually, the girl fainted and died soon after from her injuries. Elizabeth's only defence? "She pleaded little in her own defence, onely saying, that she did not think to kill her." 

Elizabeth Crosman
A tragic case from January 1682, which demonstrates that alcohol clouded judgement and aided in a loss of control. Elizabeth Crosman was drinking at an ale house across the road from where she lived, in London's St Martin's in the Fields. When she returned, "having taken a Cup too much", she found her apprentice John Bret, playing with her son. Presumably a misunderstanding, made worse by her drunken state, she beat John with a stick. After a few blows, he overpowered her and took the stick away but she grabbed her husband's carving tool on a nearby work surface and attacked him. John died from a stab wound to the chest and suffered an injured hand in the attack. Despite the blade still sticking out from his chest, he managed to run to a neighbour's house "where he no sooner sat him down, but expired." Elizabeth tried to defend herself by saying that John had said "several provoking words." Despite her efforts, she was sentenced to death. 

Margaret Martell
One particularly violent and calculating murder was committed by a Frenchwoman living in St Martin in the Fields, in 1697. In the warm July of that year, Margaret Martell visited a friend. Later the maid was to confirm that she was an "acquaintance" of her mistress. Margaret convinced the friend - Elizabeth Pullen - to send her maid out to deliver a letter. While the maid was gone, she killed Elizabeth in a locked room; stole silver, buckles, gold rings and jewellery from the house and calmly walked away, smiling and telling the returning maidservant that "Your Mistress wo'nt come home to Night." Suspicions were raised when the maid noticed blood on Margaret's petticoat. The authorities were called to Margaret's lodgings and the stolen items were found. Martell tried to explain away the blood by saying she must have picked up some blood from the butchers' at the market but she was found guilty and sentenced to death. 

Elizabeth Flower
The court scribe for the spring day of 4th May 1698 scrawled down the case of Elizabeth Flower, from Stepney. This seems to be an accidental death, brought about from an argument between Elizabeth and her husband, Anthony Flower. The court heard that they had a disagreement about her husband's debts, when Anthony threw a shovel at his wife. She left the house to give him time to cool down and when she returned, he threw a poker at her. She picked it up, in retaliation, and threw it back at him. The poker hit him on the head and he died six days later. The verdict was ruled as manslaughter and Elizabeth escaped death, but was branded with a hot iron on the hand. 

So what can we learn from these records? 

Murders perpetrated by women here in the seventeenth century - and listed in the records of the Old Bailey - were almost always committed against people they knew. Servants, husbands, apprentices, even their own children. They used weapons - often heavy sticks or rods, sometimes hot pokers, blades, leather straps or their own hands - and tried to cover up their crimes afterwards, or plead flimsy defences. Some deaths were accidental - the result of contemporary punishments going brutally too far, or a reaction to rage that was originally directed at them. Others were much more calculated and cunning and planned well in advance. In any case, when we think of crime in Stuart London, it's important to acknowledge that women, as well as men, played a part. 

You might also like to see my post on a book review of A History of Death in Seventeenth Century England - also a post I wrote as a mini-series to this one, all about Women Murderers of Medieval London. 

Any thoughts? Do you know of any similar stories from the seventeenth century? Let me know in the comments below...

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1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 19 February 2021), January 1681, trial of Elizabeth Wigenton (t16810117-1).
2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 19 February 2021), January 1682, trial of Elizabeth Crosman (t16820116a-6).
3. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 19 February 2021), July 1697, trial of Margaret Martell (t16970707-46).
4. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 19 February 2021), May 1698, trial of Elizabeth Flower (t16980504-11).