Elizabeth Martha Clark was born in Whitechurch, Dorset in 1811 to John Clark and his wife Martha. First married at the age of 20 to a man named Bernard Bearn, Martha would stay married for 10 years having two children named William and Thomas, both dying young of illness within a month of each other. Martha met her second husband, John Brown, while she was working as a housekeeper. The couple married in 1852, after which living in the quiet Dorset village of Birdsmoorgate, near Beaminster.

On Saturday 6th March, Martha called on her neighbour who, on visiting the Brown residence, found John Brown dead, covered in blood. Martha claimed that this had been caused by a kick to the head by a horse, however evidence suggested that his death had happened inside the home, putting Martha under suspicion.

Brought before the Assizes at Dorchester Shire Hall on the 21st July 1856, Martha was tried for the murder of her husband. In front of a packed court room, the prosecution implied that she had murdered John due to jealousy of a younger love interest, Mary Davis. Denied the legal right to see the evidence brought against her and with many witnesses called for the prosecution, the outcome of the trial was almost a foregone conclusion. Without evidence to support her claim, Martha would be sentenced to death.

Maintaining her innocence throughout the trial, she would eventually give a full confession. Martha explained that John had returned home drunk from the pub “Being enraged and in an unforgivable mood”, where the couple would argue. John whipped Martha several times before she struck him with a wood chopping axe.

It was clear from Martha’s confession that she had been in an abusive relationship, stating “I had never struck him before after his ill-treatment”. The large amount of media coverage for the trial created a swathe of support for Martha, with some influential individuals attempting to have her sentence commuted. Unfortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful. Martha would be hanged over the gates of Dorchester Goal on the 9th August 1856, less than 3 weeks after her trial.

In the months following, a media storm had begun to rage surrounding Martha, references to her perceived unfeeling and emotionless demeanour were returned to time and again. This was not how a woman was expected to react, going against the societal norms of ‘good wifely behaviour’ and expected femininity. Expectations which, whilst less pronounced, are still experienced by billions of women today.

Up to 4,000 people would attend Martha’s execution, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles author Thomas Hardy. Many of those in attendance had signed petitions to have her sentenced commuted. The execution was the spark which lit a large public debate over capital punishment and the treatment of women in the justice system. What if the accused was innocent? Does the finality of capital punishment mean that a jury is less likely to convict or condemn?

Despite these debates, the punishment would remain in place until 1964.

We have few words from Martha herself due to the overbearing weight of the male-dominated court room surrounding her trial, so we allow an excerpt from the words of Shire Hall’s ‘Juvenile Poetess’ to speak and reflect on capital punishment and the lack of mercy which it embodies.

“And have we then – poor, mortal men – no mercy for each other?
No pitying hearts to the woes, the sins of one another?
Shall we deny that blessing which our Father gives to all,
And take away that precious life which we can ne’er recall?”

To discover more about Elizabeth Martha Brown, come and visit Shire Hall Historic Court House Museum, Dorchester.