|Artist's impression of Elizabeth Browne's hanging|
On a drizzly morning in August, Elizabeth Martha Browne met her maker at the end of William Calcraft's rope. She had murdered her second husband John Anthony Browne, twenty years her junior, with an axe becoming the last woman publicly executed in Dorset, England.
Not much is known about Elizabeth before her arrest and trial. Her place of birth is unknown and the year estimated at around 1811, but her date of death - 9th August 1856 - is cemented in history.
John and Elizabeth's marriage was not a happy one. Some accounts say that John only married Elizabeth for her money and that John had several affairs during the course of their marriage. It was an argument about one of these alleged affairs with a Mary Davis that sealed John's fate. Elizabeth had struck John with a wood chopping axe several times, shattering his skull. Upon her arrest Elizabeth told police that John had received his injuries from a 'horse kick to the head'. However she later confessed that she had accused him of being at Mary Davis's house when he had failed to return home for supper.
"He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I had been sitting, and we continued quarrelling until 3 o’clock, when he struck me a severe blow on the side of the head, which confused me so much I was obliged to sit down.
He then said (supper being on the table at the time) “Eat it yourself and be damned,” and reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it 3 times, and every time I screamed out I said “if you strike me again, I will cry murder” He replied “if you do I will knock your brains through the window,” and said hoped he should find me dead in the morning, and then kicked me on the left side, which caused me much pain.
He immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping up the fire to keep his supper warm, and struck him several violent blows on the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards."A crowd of around 3-4,000 people turned out to watch the rare event of a woman being hanged. One of those spectators was a 16 year old Thomas Hardy. The hanging left a lasting impression on Thomas Hardy and many believe it was the inspiration behind his novel Tess of the D'Urbvilles. Thomas Hardy wrote of the hanging seven decades later:
"I saw — they had put a cloth over the face — how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.
I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back."