Category Archives: crime

Have Mercy, 1722

In 1722 a ten-year-old girl, Hannah (surname possibly Starky, Norman, or Smart) came before the Old Bailey, charged with thefts. She appears to have been alone in the world – no parents are mentioned and she seems to have no home or family to care for her. Nevertheless, little Hannah was not content to be the object of anyone’s charity and stole from her benefactors. The list of what she stole is staggering: a watch, smocks, sheets, and other linens, a bodice and a petticoat – from two different individuals. Both appeared to have offered the young girl a kindness. John Hoxly had taken Hannah in off the streets, given her shelter, but she stole his goods and pawned them for liquor. Hannah had been sleeping alongside the daughter of her second victim, Anne Harding, when she stole the clothes to be pawned.

All told, Hannah’s crimes deprived her victims of over 8 pounds sterling worth of personal effects. By the letter of the law, that was more than enough to ensure that the young girl would suffer the death penalty. But at the end of each brief summary of Hannah’s crimes, the record indicates that Hannah was found “Guilty to the value of 10 d.” That valuation had nothing to do with Hoxly’s and Harding’s losses. It had everything to do with mercy. Thefts valued over ten pence merited execution. Thefts under that value were seen as open to mercy.

Hannah received mercy from the court. She was one of 35 prisoners sentenced to be transported at this session: over half of all those convicted. Only five were executed. For all that England had a Bloody Code, the courts often found good reason to set aside the extremes, and show some mercy. The mercy shown her was not necessarily unusual and we need to keep that in mind when reading the early modern law. What was on the books did not correlate to people’s lived experience of the courts.

There were two ways in which Hannah might have been thought worthy of mercy: on the basis of her age and her sex. Eighteenth century children weren’t seen as innocent angels: especially not poor and thieving children like Hannah. At the same time, authorities were receptive to the idea that children could be redeemed and a ten-year-old would seem on the verge of either falling irredeemably into vice or being restored to good order and godly living. Similarly, while early modern ideas of women still emphasized their carnal nature as descendants of Eve, popular culture was also willing to excuse women as being less than fully culpable in some cases.

Gregory Durston studied the two broad categories into which women at the courts were slotted: as victims or viragos. Little Hannah might have been a victim in some of the onlookers’ eyes because of her youth and her gender. But a ten-year-old girl either herself a gin addict or taking advantage of the gin craze? She might be seen as more of a virago.

Her crimes were serious enough to warrant punishment, but her age and gender made the court leery of putting the young girl to death. Transportation it would be: how merciful really was that? It’s a false dichotomy that without transportation the only alternative was death. Ashley Rubin shows that other alternative punishments such as whipping, branding, or fining were far less employed after the Transportation Act of 1718. If Hannah had been tried ten years early, she might well have been whipped or received some other punishment: now she would face seven years transported to the colonies. Compared to death, that was mercy. Compared to some of the other punishments more commonly employed before 1718? Not so much.


Durston, Gregory. Victims and Viragos: Metropolitan Women, Crime and the Eighteenth Century Justice System. Bury St. Edmunds: arima, 2007.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 29 March 2018), July 1722, trial of Hannah Starky Hannah Norman , alias Smart (t17220704-59).

Rubin, Ashley T. “The Unintended Consequences of Penal Reform: A Case Study of Penal Transportation in Eighteenth‐Century London.” Law & Society Review 46, no. 4 (2012): 815–51.

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Poisoned Family, 1720

One case I return to often in The Old Bailey Online is the trial of Elizabeth Cranberry for the murder of Thomas Biggs. It is a case of poisoning, long seen as a women’s weapon, but it’s so much more than this: the more you dig, the more you see an unhappy household and the possibility of a poorly-blended family.

I first stumbled upon this case when searching out stepmothers’ stories and looking up every possible use of related terms. Since step-parents and in-laws were interchangeable terms, there’s some confusion in the terms. Elizabeth shared a bed with Hannah Tudor in the house, the first person giving evidence in the case, revealing some interesting family dynamics:

that on Friday Night the Prisoner and the Deceased (who was her Father-in-Law) had many Words together, insomuch that he threatned to turn her out of Doors; and she told him he should not: that on Saturday Morning while the Deceased’s Wife was feeding of him, he complained there was something in the Porridge, and that she told him there was nothing to her Knowledge for she clean’d the Sauce-Pan and boyled it her self, and if there was any thing it must be in the Oat-meal; that he eat two or three Spoonfuls more, and complained again, whereupon she went and took the Spoon out of her Mistresses Hand. and stirring the Milk found something in it, which she said look’d like Lime, and his Son said it look’d like Starch; that stirring it to the Bottom she found a great many white Specks

So either Hannah, testifying here, or Elizabeth, was Thomas’ stepdaughter. Malcolm Gaskill saw that as Hannah Tudor’s relationship. When he discusses this case in Crime and Mentalities, he assigns Elizabeth Cranberry the role of household servant. Therefore, her poisoning of Thomas Biggs would be not just murder but petty treason. However, in the passage that I quoted above, Hannah is the one describing Mrs. Biggs as her mistress and when she talks about the other witness, it is as Thomas’ son, not as her step-brother (or, more likely, brother-in-law given the earlier phrasing in this case).

Whatever Elizabeth’s and Hannah’s relationship to the Biggs, something was clearly amiss with this meal. Thomas demanded to search everyone’s boxes and only Elizabeth resisted. When her belongings were finally searched, a packet of white powder was found and was brought to a Dr. Perkins who testified that it contained white arsenic, white vitriol and bole armoniac. Given that Elizabeth had previously been a servant to an apothecary and admitted that she had the materials to help in washing gloves, the case seemed clear-cut to the court, and she was sentenced to death.
The Female Poisoner, Mary Blandy, 1752
But I wonder at the possible family dynamics unexplored. If Elizabeth Cranberry was Thomas Biggs’ stepdaughter and not his servant, her mother was his wife: the same woman who admitted she mixed the porridge herself and “she made a Saucepan of Milk-Porridge, as usual, and left her Daughter (the Prisoner) to look after her Nursery while she fed her Husband (the Deceased) that he complained there was something in his Porridge twice, &c”. We learn that Mrs. Biggs was the one her husband sent to the doctors when he fell ill, who conveyed his order to feed Mr. Biggs oil to induce vomiting, and who oversaw the unsuccessful treatment.

To construct a storyline where Mrs. Biggs murdered her husband and framed, or at the very least allowed Elizabeth Cranberry to take the blame, is deliciously simple – probably much more appetizing a prospect than that mess of porridge that poisoned Thomas, whoever truly was the culprit.

Gaskill, Malcolm. Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 07 February 2018), April 1720, trial of Elizabeth Cranbery (t17200427-43).

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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.

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

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

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 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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The Lodger’s Scheme, 1678

The Old Bailey Online shows us a great deal about the everyday lives of early modern people, often inadvertently. Something of the makeshift economy that keeps single women afloat in London – both its legal and illegal elements – appears in the case of a household of women. Somewhere to the west of London proper, in the growing suburban parish of St. Andrew Holborn, a drama emerged involving four women who, at least for a time, lived under the same roof. This story shows that beneath the seemingly placid facade of household heads could live an interesting mix of different people in different situations. This home had a landlady and her daughter, a lodger and someone who sublet from the lodger, setting up the opportunity for an attempted crime that needed just one more thing: a chance to be alone in the shared room.

In mid-December of 1678, Anne Moundsel appeared before the court, charged by Mary Brasier with felony theft. Moundsel was a lodger in Mary’s room – we have no other details of the women’s relationship besides the weekly rent that Anne paid (6 pence). However Anne Moundsel apparently was close enough to Mary Brasier that she was able to convince Mary to deliver a letter on Anne’s behalf somewhere on the Strand, The Strand on the Agas Map the bustling commercial street running from Temple Bar into Westminster. Mary Brasier complained to the court that she had been sent on “a false Errand, with a feigned Letter into the Strand, to a person whom she could never find” while her roommate used her absence to systematically rob Mary of a gown, a petticoat and other linens.

Brasier’s complaint was supported by another woman of the household. Eleanor Hasset, her landlady, revealed that the scheme had involved her innocent daughter. Anne Moundsel reportedly had asked the landlady’s child to write a letter and promised her something in return. The mother reported “the Child told her, She suspected the Prisoner was a Thief, and that she her self thought so too” and so Eleanor set up a sting, watching to see the schemer put on Brasier’s gown and gather up her other cloth, then leave the house. Determinedly, Hasset set out in pursuit, fetching the miscreant back once and yet again when Moundsel tried to flee. And then she saw that justice was done.

The Proceedings concludes with Moundsel’s counter-claim that she had been permitted to borrow the dress and was taking the rest for mending, but standing against the clear narrative of her roommate and the landlady, the court and the jury demurred. Anne Moundsel was found guilty of theft and sentenced to branding. This likely would have been a “T” for theft on the thumb – Anne Moundsel is fortunate that she didn’t commit her theft closer to the start of the eighteenth century: from 1699 to 1707, brandings were done on the face in order to more clearly mark out a felon.


Baldwin, Neil. n.d. “The Strand.” The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed January 23, 2018.

Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, “Punishments at the Old Bailey”, Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 17 April 2011).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 23 January 2018), December 1678, trial of Anne Moundsel (t16781211e-13).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 23 January 2018), December 1678 (s16781211e-1).

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Respite’s End, 1692

In June of 1692, a Holborn woman, Ruth Phillips, was charged with high treason in the Old Bailey. Her crime? Clipping coins. This may not sound like a serious offence today, but in the early modern period, trimming bits of the currency of the realm was seen as an attack upon the monarch by undermining the country’s coinage. English money wasn’t in great repute in the 1690s – the beleaguered government decided in 1696 to remake all the coins in a new, reliable process but failed to recall and remake all the money in this ambitious scheme. Instead, coin clippers and counterfeiter continued their covert attacks on the cash that fuelled England’s economy and filled their own pockets.

We might think of currency crime as an activity of powerful bankers, financial wizards or vast workshops of cunning tradesfolk, but coining and counterfeiting were crimes that could be committed at home by men and women, young and old. All it required were a few basic tools and enough muscle strength to wrangle the metal of the coins in order to succeed. That, and a little privacy where you wouldn’t be discovered in the criminal act. The accusations made against Ruth Phillips came largely from women in her household. After showing the many tools of the trade that were found in a trunk in her house, one of Ruth Phillips’ maids testified against her mistress.

Swore that comming into the Kitchen, she saw the Prisoners Arm move up and down as if she Clipp’d Money or somewhat else like it; and that she saw both Broad Money and Clipp’d Money lie before her, but she could not say that she saw any Shears in her Hands, neither did she see her actually Clip

Another witness testified that she heard the clipping of the coins, metal screaming under the trimming of the shears. Those tools and a bag of freshly trimmed coins were produced as evidence. Phillips fought back, accusing various others, particularly a nurse in her household who spoke against the mistress. In Ruth Phillips’ account, the coining materials had been brought into her house by some of her servants. Furthermore, the accused countered, charging that the Nurse who had testified against her had robbed Phillips. Another witness was brought forward to substantiate Phillips’ claim and further suggest that the nurse had framed her mistress. The court seemed unmoved by these counter-claims and given that so much material had been seized in Phillips’ house, how could anyone believe she was ignorant of the operation?

We do not know if Ruth Phillips was married, unmarried, or a widow. After her attempt to frame the nurse failed, the accused woman then claimed that one Cha. Phillips, presumably a male relative, had left the bag of coins and clipping tools with her but the court was dubious. Two wildly different claims from Ruth Phillips swayed the judge not at all. She was found guilty and the punishment for high treason was death.

However, Ruth Phillips had an ace up her sleeves or so she might think. The court heard a “pleading of the belly” where the condemned claimed that she was pregnant and thus should not be executed while she was quick with child. Apparently a jury of matrons agreed, as Ruth Phillips’ sentence was respited for pregnancy. In some cases, the respite was permanent: expectant mothers might be entirely pardoned or sentenced to a lesser punishment such as transportation. The_Burning_of_Catherine_Hayes Sadly, Ruth Phillips was not so lucky. We have no information about her pregnancy, but in October her name appears in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account as she is readied for her execution.

According to the Ordinary, Ruth Phillips had hoped that her respite, like that of some others, would have continued. Instead, she was rudely reminded that a respite wasn’t necessarily permanent.

Ruth Phillips, Condemned about three Sessions since, then respited because quick with Child, and now brought back to her former Judgment. She denyed not the Crime: She confess’d that she had neglected her Duty to God, of which she was now very sensible. I declared to her, that I feared she had not improved her Reprieve to the advantage of her Soul, but grew secure, hoping that she should escape the Sentence of Death. She replyed, that the Concernment of making Preparation for her Death, was a secret Work betwixt God and her own Soul.

When brought out to the execution, Ruth Phillips sat while the men were hanged and then her own method of execution was prepared. As befits a female traitor, her end was different: she was not to be hanged, but burned at the stake. The Ordinary was disappointed that there was no final penitence from this wicked woman. Ruth Phillips rather maintained that she was a victim of her servants’ malice, but submitted to her execution calmly. She was strangled and then her body was burned: a salutary lesson to any others who might besmirch the royal majesty by clipping coins.


Clifford, Naomi. “Pregnant and condemned: Pleading the belly and the jury of matrons.” Naomi Clifford: Life, Love and Death in the Georgian Era. 11 march, 2016.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), June 1692, trial of Ruth Phillips (t16920629-32).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, October 1692 (OA16921026).

Rock, Robert S. “Making Money Go Further – Clipping.” Coins, Crime and History 2 December, 2013.

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A Slippery Set of Stories, 1714-1715

In early April, “a little Boy” was brought before the Old Bailey. He was prosecuted by one who he might have looked upon as a friend and benefactor: John Saucer, his next-door neighbour. Saucer had an indictment against young James Blundel, claiming the youth had stolen eight yards of lustring, a shiny, fine and glossy weave of silk, as well as a silk hood, all from his house.

Blundel’s trial sparks interest on several grounds, despite the brevity of the account. First is the young boy’s circumstance: he is a parish child – an orphan, perhaps abandoned at birth or through the death of his parents left to rely upon the charity of the parish. This case occurring decades before the foundation of London’s Foundling Hospital, his care was very local. His parish, Harrow on the Hill, in London’s northwest, well outside the old city walls, secured the services of a nurse to care for young James. This was common practice, more than one in ten London women worked as nurses, caring for the sick, the poor, the young and the elderly. James Blundel’s unnamed nurse lived next door to John Saucer and his family, who thus came to know the young boy.

John Saucer, by the Proceedings‘ account, took a fancy to youthful James, apparently seeing him as a prospective servant. When the Saucers went away from home in February, 1714, the little boy was left in charge of their house. Saucer returned to discover the materials missing and accused his one-time favourite. The report asserts that the Saucers threatened to take the boy into London, to a Cunning Man. A lawyer perhaps? Or someone more terrifying? The record is sadly opaque.

What we do know is that the threat prompted young James to bolt. He ran away to his nurse and she apparently sheltered him against the Saucer’s wrath. How much protection could she offer, though? For all the month of March, from the time of the theft to the trial itself, did the child stay safe in her care or did he languish in Newgate? We do not know how he spent those long weeks.

However, when the accused eventually spoke in the court, he told a very different story that brings us to our second point of intrigue in the case. Young Blundel claimed that he was innocent, an unsurprising assertion. But the details of who he accused and how are unexpected. He said that it was not he but his nurse’s grandson, one James Cock, who only stole the Saucer’s silk. Furthermore, Cock didn’t act alone. No, he gave the stolen silk to his grandmother, Blundel’s nurse. She apparently received “whatever they stole”. In this version of the theft, James Blundel was nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for a practised set of thieves right there on Saucer’s door. Parish nurses didn’t enjoy a good reputation in early eighteenth century London. Popular belief suspected many of starving or mistreating their charges. To hear that one had a family given to thieving and that she had further acted to receive stolen goods might not have been a surprising claim for the court to hear.

James Blundel was acquited. The judge advised John Saucer to press his case against James Cock – there is no mention of the grandmother’s role so possibly her part seemed less substantiated. Saucer did just as the court advised in October of the next year, suggesting that Cock must have been an elusive soul to evade prosecution for so long. Despite Blundel’s earlier testimony, this wasn’t an easy victory for Saucer. As the Proceedings explains, with no evidence brought against Cock, he was acquitted. Was Blundel no longer in the neighbour’s custody to be able to speak on Saucer’s behalf?

The Saucers certainly got no satisfaction for their stolen silk. That said, we don’t know what happened to James Blundel. Did he stay with the nurse he’d accused of receiving stolen goods – that seems unlikely as he didn’t testify against Cock? Did the Saucers regret their prosecution and restore him to their household? Blundel’s absence from the second trial argues against this. Perhaps the first trial was simply an elaborate scam by Blundel, Cock, and the nameless parish nurse to evade justice in an early eighteenth-century precursor to Oliver Twist? It would be wonderful to find out more about their lives and how life carried on in this corner of Harrow after the prosecutions and acquittals!


Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), April 1714, trial of James Blundel (t17140407-39).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 16 January 2018), October 1715, trial of James Cock (t17151012-46).

Tim Hitchcock, Sharon Howard and Robert Shoemaker, “Parish Nurses”, London Lives, 1690-1800 (, version, 1.1 17 June 2012).

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The Persistent Witness, 1715

You’re walking through the eastern parishes in mid-March of 1715, when a child is crying loudly as a young woman roughly takes off his clothing. Other passersby must have disregarded Mary Skip’s disrobing of this sobbing young boy on the bank beside the king’s highway before this one woman intervened. Even then, Skip’s affirmation that this was her own child could well have satisfied the curious woman that all she had seen was a dispute between a parent and child. This was the normal, everyday trials of family life in the growing city, or was it?
Painting of Two Young Children in Petticoats, c. 1755
Instead of accepting this explanation, the witness persisted, seeing the aggrieved child, Joseph Murrel, alone now and stripped of his warm stuff coat and petticoats (normal attire for a younger child at this point in history). The trial report from late April explains that this bystander

then came back again, and ask’d the Child if that was its Mother; to which it reply’d, No; upon which she seiz’d the Prisoner, with the Goods upon her, and found another Child’s Cloaths in her Lap

Found guilty of highway robbery, for stealing the goods of Joseph Murrel, Senior, in the form of the child’s clothing, Mary Skip was sentenced to death. She claimed to be pregnant and thus ineligible to be executed, but the jury of matrons confirmed only one such pleading of the belly from those sentenced on this day. There was no pardon: Mary Skip would hang for her crime.

In the Ordinary of Newgate’s account for 11 May, Mary Skip (or Ship) is painted even more unsympathetically than in the trial account. It notes that she was

condemn’d for robbing and stripping Naked two Infants, upon the King’s Highway, on the 18th of March last. She said, she was about 24 Years of Age, born in the Parish of St. Mary Magdalen Bermondsey, and of late Years liv’d in East-Smithfield: That she often help’d her Mother, who nurs’d Children , and at other times went to Washing and Scuoring ; by which Means she got a Livelihood, tho’ a very poor one; and, That it was meer Poverty (but, as I observ’d her, it was more the want of Grace) that occasion’d her committing this cruel Fact.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), April 1715, trial of Mary Skip (t17150427-52).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), April 1715 (s17150427-1).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 11 January 2018), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, May 1715 (OA17150511).

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