The Hanging of Martha Browne

Contents (click on items to move through page)

Robert Gittings
Michael Millgate
Martin Seymour-Smith
James Gibson

From Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. 32-34.

“Shortly after he started his apprenticeship with Hicks, Hardy attended a public hanging, and, as it appears, was very close to the gallows, which was put up high above the entrance to Dorchester Gaol. It was, moreover, the hanging of a woman, who had killed her husband in a crime of jealousy, which had so many mitigating circumstances that they nearly brought a reprieve. Indeed, if she had not maintained almost to the last her husband had died from a kick from his horse, instead of, as she finally confessed, a blow from her hatchet, public sympathy might have persuaded the Home Secretary to leniency. The woman, Elizabeth Martha Brown, was nearly twenty years older than her husband, John Brown, who had been a fellow-servant with her. He had married her, according to gossip, for money, and the couple had lived at Birdsmoorgate, near Beaminster. She had caught him making love to a local woman, and had a violent quarrel lat at night, during which he struck her with his trantor’s whip. She retaliated with the wood-chopper, killed him, and then tried to conceal the crime.

This sensational story was well known, and a large crowd turned out in the early morning drizzle on 9 August 1856. Her handsome appearance, younger than her years, and her lovely hair, added to the morbid curiosity. So did her utterly calm behaviour, though her own vicar, a national authority on oriental languages but with a passion for capital punishment, chose to regard this as callousness. After shaking hands with the prison officials, she walked firmly to the scaffold, and seemed to show no fear. Even Calcraft the executioner showed nervousness. Since it was some time since he had executed a woman in public, he forgot to tie her dress so that she would not be exposed as she swung, and had actually to reascend the scaffold to do this. The execution was even the occasion of a leading article in the Dorset County Chronicle advocating the abolition of the death penalty.

It is clear that the sixteen-year-old Hardy, instead of going straight to Hicks’s office that morning, got himself a good place to view this sight. In a crowd of three or four thousand, his favoured position close to the gallows can hardly have been an accident. He was so close that he could actually see her features through the rain-damp cloth over her face. It made an impression on him that lasted until old age. The nature of that impression offers a somewhat disturbing insight into his mind as it then was. The well-remembered occasion had for him distinctly sexual overtones. He wrote in his eighties, in words whose unconscious tone is barely credible, ‘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’, after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body. For one ardent watcher, at least, the hangman’s would-be humanitarian action had created an addition excitement.

Even Hardy seems to have realized that these reminiscent delights were abnormal, for he added the excuse, whenever he wrote of this, that he was very young at the time. The second Mrs. Hardy, assiduous to present her famous husband in a good light, wrote of the pity that he had been ‘permitted’ to see such a sight–though he seems to have gone entirely at his own volition–and added ‘It might have given a tinge of bitterness and gloom to his life’s work’. This verdict hardly accounts for Hardy’s obvious sense of enjoyment and anticipation, followed by a sensation of calm that seems to give the whole experience a sexual character. As for its effect on his life’s work, or at least upon his most famous novel, another account, perhaps the most telling and circumstantial, certainly does suggest a deep impression with extraordinary personal overtones. On 2 November 1904, The Sketch printed the following paragraph.

     Mr. Neil Munro tells a curious story of the origin of Mr Hardy’s ‘Tess’. When Hardy was a boy
     he used to come into Dorchester to school, and he made the acquaintance of a woman there
     who, with her husband, kept an inn. She was beautiful, good and kind, but married to a
     dissipated scoundrel who was unfaithful to her. One day she discovered her husband under
     circumstances which so roused her passion that she stabbed him with a knife and killed
     him. She was tried, convicted, and condemned to execution. Young Hardy, with another boy,
     came into Dorchester and witnessed the execution from a tree that overlooked the yard
     in which the gallows was placed. He never forgot the rustle of the thin black gown the
     woman was wearing as she was led forth by the warders. A penetrating rain was falling;
     the white cap was no sooner over the woman’s head than it clung to her features, and
     the noose was put round the neck of what looked like a marble statue. Hardy looked at
     the scene with the strange illusion of its being unreal, and was brought to his complete
     senses when the drop fell with a thud and his companion on a lower branch of the tree
     fell fainting to the ground. The tragedy haunted Hardy, and, at last, provided the emotional
     inspiration and some of the matter for ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’.

Hardy cut this out and pasted it into a scrapbook, which was marked ‘Personal’. He crossed out and altered the sentence suggesting he knew Martha Browne and also the erroneous account of the Browns’ profession; but he then headed the cutting with the word ‘Corrected’, and made no further alteration. This shows that the story, apart from slight details such as the exact murder-weapon, was accepted by him as generally a true picture. Years later, he himself repeated the story, almost exactly, to a young visitor ‘with a sort of gaiety’. He emphasized again the weird effect of the woman’s features showing through the execution hood. ‘That was extraordinary’, he commented in the later conversation. Yet the most significant detail is one found in the newspaper account only. Munro, a serious journalist and novelist, who would hardly invent at this point, records that Hardy ‘never forgot the rustle of the thin black gown the woman was wearing’. The rustle of a woman’s dress had enormous sexual meaning for Hardy. It will be remembered that when he recalled his feeling for Mrs. Julia Augusta Martin, which, he himself, said, ‘was almost like that of a lover’ he paid special attention to ‘the thrilling “frou-frou” of her four grey silk flounces when she used to bend over him’, and even recollected the same sound having an effect on him when she came into Stinsford Church on Sundays. There can be hardly any doubt that hanging, and particularly the hanging of a woman, had some sort of sexual meaning for Hardy, which remained powerfully in his thoughts to the end of his life. This account hints that it supplied at least part of the emotional power of his best-known novel.”

From Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982. 62-63.

“In the summer of 1856 occurred, after a sensational trial, the first of the public hangings in Dorchester that Hardy witnessed and, understandably enough, remembered to the end of his life. On 9 August 1856, when Martha Browne was executed at Dorchester prison for the murder of her husband, Hardy stood close to the gallows, among the watching crowd of three or four thousand; as his account of the occasion nearly seventy years later reveals, his reaction had a strong sexual component, focused not on the execution itself but on its immediate aftermath: ‘I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, & how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round & back.’ As it came on to rain, Hardy recalled on another occasion, ‘I saw–they had put a cloth over the face–how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.'”

From Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994. 32-33.

“One event the sixteen-year-old Tom witnessed, on 9 August 1856, left a lifelong impression and probably caused him a severe shock. Its effect may have been underrated, even by himself when writing the earlier part of the Life, in which he scarcely mentions it except in passing. That it always remained on his mind is evident from a visit he made one day in late 1925 to Racedown, the house which had once been lent rent-free to Wordsworth and his sister by the Pinney family. He went with his wife ‘as a pilgrim’, and Lady Pinney recollected that he singed the visitors’ book, then:

     cleaned the pen on the striped lining of his waistcoat, a thing I remember seeing my
     father’s business friends do. ‘It’s a very nice pen, my dear,’ he said to his wife, ‘do
     use it.’ We showed him the rooms the Wordsworths probably used…as he was leaving
     and being hurried home by his careful wife, he turned to me and said, ‘Can you find out
     about Martha Brown? She lived over there’ (and he pointed to the west) ‘I saw her hanged
     when I was sixteen’. He was bustled into the car, before there was time for more.

Lady Pinney made enquiries about this murder (carried out by a woman on account of her husband’s unfaithfulness), and she passed on the information to him. He replied, on 20 January 1926:

     My sincere thanks for the details…about that unhappy woman Martha Brown, whom I am
     ashamed to say I saw hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be
     in town at that time for other reasons…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.

His reaction has the expected sexual component, although his account is unusual in not troubling to disguise it. There is nothing ‘unconscious’ about the effect on him of the shape of a woman’s body: one of the important things about Hardy is that he did not shirk ‘unpleasant facts’. No boy of sixteen could have escaped being affected by the ghastly juxtaposition of sex and death, although it cannot have made its fullest impact on him as an adolescent; rather he registered the impression, and then fascinatedly contemplated it at intervals throughout his life. It was not something easily forgettable, and must have contributed to the fate of Tess.

The erotic implications of this experience and young Tom’s behaviour with girls makes this a convenient point to consider the much canvassed question of the nature of Tom’s sexuality. This would not be necessary to discuss, were it not for the fact that Hardy’s previous biographers, Robert Gittings and Michael Millgate, have suggested that he was impotent. Millgate thinks that this idea is ‘intriguing’, and, though plainly believing in the hypothesis, is too scrupulous to press it, since there is no evidence for it. Gittings pretends to be specific.”

From James Gibson, Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 11-12.

“Dorchester was the county town and there was much for a keen-sighted child to observe–the judges coming to the Assizes, the soldiers in the barracks, the hiring fairs, the markets. Public executions still occurred outside the massive red-brick gaol and Hardy witnessed two of these. The first was on 9 August 1856 when Martha Browne was executed for murdering her husband. In The Life Hardy says no more than that he stood close to the gallows, but in 1919 in a talk with a visitor called Elliott Felkin he recalled:

     The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not
     thinking, but looking at the figure…turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began
     to rain, and then I saw–they had put a cloth over the face–how as the cloth got wet, her
     features came through it
. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree
     fnearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a
     tree. It was curious the two dropping together. (Encounter, April 1962)

Freudian interpretations by some biographers of this and a reference in one of his letters to the way in which the woman’s ‘light black silk gown set off her shape’ have led to accusations that Hardy secretly enjoyed the spectacle which gave him a morbidly erotic thrill and revealed something sick in his imagination. But these were really no more than the very natural observations of a highly sensitive and perceptive young man. Dickens and many thousands of others watched public executions in those days without the same accusations being made about them. In fact, Dickens referred to the ‘fascination of the repulsive’, something most of us have experienced.”