Making But a Bad Defence, 1681

It was on Christmas Eve in 1680 that a young girl died a horrible death in London. The victim was twelve or fourteen years of age and apprenticed to the chief suspect: one Leticia Wigington (aka Alice Wiggens), a seamstress of Ratcliff parish to the east of the city proper. At the January sessions in 1681, Wigington was brought to trial in a case that captured London’s attention. The Proceedings opened with a shopping list of crimes being tried at the court and the punishments meted out, but made special mention of Wiginton’s crime, averring that she had murdered the girl “in such a barbarous manner, that the like hath scarce been heard.”

The brief account in the middle of the full Proceedings made up in pathos what it lacked in detail. The manner of death was shocking: apparently the apprentice girl had either stolen some money or spoiled some work and, as a result, Wigington got one of her lodgers (some suggested her adulterous lover) to make a cat o’ nine tails – a short whip tipped with multiple lashes that would become a byword for cruel military punishment. Then Wigington and her lodger, one Sadler by name, whipped the child for hours, reportedly rubbing salt in her wounds to further torture the girl. They felt it necessary to muffle her cries so as not to disturb the neighbours, and then beat her until she seemed dead and soon expired. Sadler fled and Wigington went on trial alone. (He was captured a few days later, soon tried and quickly put to death.)

While convicted in January, Wigington was not executed summarily. She plead the belly and so languished in Newgate until September when she finally hanged for her crime. The defence that she had so lacked in January apparently came to her in the intervening time. A London printer produced The confession and execution of Leticia Wigington of Ratclif two days before her September 11 death, prefacing it by an outraged notice that the murderess had confessed her crime before the court in January, but now sought to change her story. Likely, the editorial insertion suggested, this was the result of her close contact with Catholic priests (this being the height of the Popish Plot hysteria).

In this final gasp of a condemned woman, the story changes dramatically. Sadler is not a aid to her cruelty but the central figure in the murderous event. He doesn’t just make a weapon for Wigington’s use, he is the central driver in the foul scheme (he is also living out of wedlock with another woman, Wigington contends). When she tries to see justice done for this murdered girl, Leticia Wigington is instead framed and indicted on false testimony. Abandoned by all, even her husband who repudiates her for pleading the belly while they have been separated for months, she ends the rambling account with prayers for the souls of those whose evils brought her to death’s door.

But the time to have made this case was long past. Wigington had been quickly condemned in the court of public opinion as many pamphlets had shown. Neighbours characterized her as cruel and her own words were used to condemn her, as well as another apprentice, Rebecca Clifford. The last had apparently recanted her claims, but it wasn’t enough to stave off the end.

Sources
Martin, Randall. Women, Murder and Equity in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 2007.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 January 2018), January 1681 (16810117A).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 30 January 2018), February 1681, trial of John Sadler (t16810228-2).

Wigington, Leticia. The confession and execution of Leticia Wigington of Ratclif. London : Printed for Langley Curtis …, [1681]. Wing W2110

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