THE MURDER ACT'S FIRST VICTIM. THOMAS WILFORD (1752)

By Dr. Richard Ward

To put an entire stop to such notorious evil [murders], is, perhaps, beyond the power of human skill; but the giving a check thereunto, by stigmatizing the offenders with the greatest marks of infamy, the making the punishment of those convicted of murder more remarkably exemplary than that for another crime, in order to impress a due horror thereof in the minds of the people; and even denying such malefactors the privilege of Christian burial, till after their bodies have been dissected or anatomized, is certainly very meritorious in the Legislature: they have thereby shewn, they are willing to do all in their power towards putting a stop to this growing evil, by extending the laws to the utmost stretch of rigour that humanity can allow.
— John Taylor, Ordinary of Newgate, in his Account of Thomas Wilford, 1752

On 25 June 1752, Thomas Wilford was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for the murder of his wife, whom he had married just four days earlier. He was the first person to be sentenced and executed under the recently-passed Murder Act. As such, after execution his corpse was dissected and turned into a skeleton for display in Surgeon’s Hall. But if the Murder Act was designed to heap further shame and ignominy on murderers, its first victim in fact drew pity and compassion. Indeed, cases such as Wilford may have posed difficult questions about the “justice” of the Murder Act and the morality of the surgeons who helped to enforce it.

Charles Mosley, An Exact Representation of Maclaine, the Highwayman. Etching and engraving. Image courtesy of British Museum. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

The Origins of the Murder Act: Violent Robbers and Dangerous Familiars

At various moments in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries there was debate about the need to make the punishment of murder more severe than that for other types of crime. In the early months of 1752 this was made more urgent than ever as a widespread panic about murder took hold in London. In particular, there were fears about murders committed by robbers on the roads and by daughters and servants within the home. Neither the public streets nor the private home were seemingly safe from the threat of death at the hands of vicious robbers or scheming “dangerous familiars”. In response, the passing of the Murder Act in 1752 sought to invest the punishment of murder with “some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy”, by stipulating that the bodies of executed murderers be either dissected or hung in chains, but in neither instance for the body to be given a Christian burial.


DYING FOR LOVE

Thomas Wilford hardly fitted the profile of vicious robber or dangerous familiar. If his case was supposed to draw shame if anything it drew pity. Wilford was just seventeen years of age, and until the crime had “always bore the character of a quiet, inoffensive, honest lad”. He had been crippled from birth with a missing hand. His parents were desperately poor, and were forced to give Wilford up at a young age. As such, he was sent to Fulham workhouse. There he met his future wife, Sarah, at which point “he began to err from the strait paths, which before he had been taught to walk in.” Indeed, much scorn and blame was placed on Sarah. According to the Ordinary of Newgate, she was “one of the lewdest women [in St. Giles’ in the Fields], tho’ very young;” a prostitute forced into the workhouse after contracting venereal disease. She prevailed on Wilford to marry her. But just a few days after the marriage Sarah stayed out until late with an old acquaintance. When questioned about this by Wilford, she would give him no more answer than she had been “to the park”. A quarrel soon ensued between the two, upon which Wilford threw her down and cut her throat. Wilford made no attempt to escape, but freely admitted to the crime, saying that “he had murdered her whom he best loved in the world, and was willing to die for it.”

The Ordinary of Newgate's Account of the behaviour, confession and dying words of Thomas Wilford. Image courtesy of Old Bailey Online.


The skeleton of Elizabeth Brownrigg, displayed in a niche at the Royal College of Surgeons. Engraving. Wellcome Images V0013496

A PITIED OTTAMY?

Wilford recognized the enormity of his crime: a “real penitent” whose behaviour during his trial “seemed to move every compassionate breast to pity his miserable condition.” Likewise, his behaviour at execution “moved the compassion of the beholders”. After hanging until dead his body was taken down and delivered to Surgeon’s Hall. There, according to the account books of the Surgeons Company, Wilford’s corpse was dissected and turned into an “ottamy” — a skeleton preserved for public display in one of the Hall’s niches (as happened with Elizabeth Brownrigg, captured in this accompanying image).

Would the sight of Wilford’s exposed skeleton have prompted the kind of shame and ignominy that the Murder Act sought to tarnish killers with, given the pity and compassion he received from contemporaries? Such pity and compassion certainly seems to have posed problems for the supporters and enforcers of the law. It seems to have done so for the Ordinary of Newgate, John Taylor, who tried to sidestep such compassion by reasserting the horrors of murder and the necessity of the Murder Act, even as it “extended the laws to the utmost stretch of rigour that humanity can allow.” The surgeons too felt compelled to defend their actions in enforcing the Murder Act. “Let therefore the anatomical table in the Surgeons Theatre, be a preacher to all this audience,” so one surgeon sought to argue in 1759, “and should their passions run high, and the voice of reason and religion be forgotten, may this dread table present itself to their view, and restrain the arm, raised to deprive a fellow creature of life, and not only that, but raised to themselves.”


BANNER IMAGE: Surgeon's Hall, Old Bailey. From Memoranda of Barber Surgeons, 2. Ms. No. 2678. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images under a Creative Commons Licence


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING

1. Report of Thomas Wilford’s trial in the Old Bailey Proceedings, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17520625-31-defend212&div=t17520625-31#highlight

2. Ordinary’s Account of Thomas Wilford, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=OA17520702n1-1&div=OA17520702#highlight

3. Simon Chaplin, “Anatomy or Ottamy? Bodies on Show in Georgian London”, https://www.academia.edu/9421141/Anatomy_or_an_Ottamy_Bodies_on_show_in_Georgian_London