Inhumanity and Barbarity! Monstrous Mrs and Miss Branch of Hemmington, Somerset (1740)

Having discovered the case due to a throwaway line at the end of a report on the murderous mitten-knitter, Sarah Metyard, and her daughter Sarah Morgan Metyard, I decided to look for the case of Mrs and Miss Branch. It’s not in any of the newspapers, but there is a whole pamphlet on the case published in 1740 that gave me way more detail than I was hoping for.

Horrible well-to-do families deeply interest me, mainly because it bucks against the idea that horrific crimes of ‘barbarism’ are only committed by the uncivilised working class or the degenerate upper class, and that middle class characters cannot be effective as horror antagonists. This is more a very specific dig at the director of Eden Lake, who claimed that he chose a gang of hoodies for his antagonists because public schoolboys aren’t scary.

I take it he’s never (a) met a group of public schoolboys and (b) never read Lord of the Flies, but okay, it’s only scary when it’s working class and they live on a council estate, got it. Mrs and Miss Branch can’t be scary at all then. They only beat a lad so hard he —himself, then made him —- it. That’s not even what they’re on trial for.

Without further ado, may I present the content warnings for this post:

CWs: animal abuse, 14yo girl physically abused, food restricted, and beaten to death – details given, head injuries reported.
Details of Dr Salmon’s examination of the body are given, detailing the wounds and injuries, and testimony of abuse by Henry Butler, an ex-servant involving forced excrement-eating.

Monday,  May 19, 1740
Publication: London Daily Post and General Advertiser (London, England) Issue: 1737

Full Transcript of the Advert above:

This Week will be published, Price 6d.
INHUMANITY and BARBARITY not to be equall’d: Being an impartial relation of the barbarous murder committed by Mrs. Elizabeth branch and her daughter, on the body of Jane Buttersworth, their servant, at their farm at High-Church near Philips-Norton, in the county of somerset.
Containing also, I. A recital of the principal and material evience at their tryal at Taunton Assizes before Mr. Justice Chappel, on Friday the 4th of April, 1740.
II. The manner of the discovery of the murder.
III. The wonderful appearance of the light seen on the grave.
IV. The rising of the country people upon them as they went to take their tryal.
V. The particulars of their extraordinary execution at Ivelchester the third of May following, about four in the morning. Taken by a spectator.
Lastly, a copy of a letter sent by Miss Betty branch some small time before her execution, to the Rev. Mr. H- of Hemmington
Sold by T. Cooper, at the Globe in Paternoster Row.

This pamphlet INHUMANITY and BARBARITY is around 37 pages long and available via ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online, a subscription service), sold for 6d. (sixpence) and detailing various aspects of the murder of Jane Buttersworth, a maid and apprentice to Mrs Elizabeth Branch.

Mrs Elizabeth Branch (67) was ‘a Gentlewoman of a considerable Estate in the parish of Hemmington’, Somerset. She had a daughter, Betty (24), a son who wasn’t there and doesn’t feature in the case, and was a widow at this point.

Her husband was an attorney at law known behind his back as The Devil of Belton. Before he married Elizabeth, he was a ‘man of considerable esteem in the world’ and after his marriage, ‘too closely adhering to the Temper and overruling Power of his Wife’ he became obnoxious and despised.

He made his money through corrupt and illegal means, and therefore was involved in several law suits himself, one of which was said to have brought about his death.

The pamphlet goes on to say that ‘His Wife was a Person who lov’d Money, and peculiarly remarkable for her Injustice, even in the lowest Circumstances of Life.’ Therefore, when her husband was confined at home following a court case that seemed to commit him to house arrest, he started having pricks of conscience about his ill-gotten gains and wanted to pay back his ‘unjust Debts’. His wife wouldn’t have that, and so Mr Branch suffered from a mysterious illness (according to the neighbours) where his body swelled up ‘in a surprising Manner’ and three coffins had to be made for it.

Obviously, the neighbours suspect foul play. They whispered that Elizabeth’s own mother was found hanging, which was suspected to be a ploy to cover her murder by making it look like suicide, so an investigation was not conducted. They also claimed that human bones were taken out of a sink or well close by one of the nearby farms, supposedly belonging to a servant girl of theirs who went missing some years before.

The extent to which this is all just a nasty whisper campaign, further sensationalised in the pamphlet to sell it at sixpence, is debateable. But this is what was discussed.

Other servants who had spent time at High-Church claimed that Elizabeth would deliberately mistreat them in order to make them desert their position, so that she could forfeit their wages.

Mrs Branch was also an avid reader, and her favourite things to read were those that treated with tyranny and inhumanity, such as the Emperor Nero, who ripped open his mother’s belly to see how he was born. From this, her daughter Betty ‘inculcated such barbarous Notions, that she would often cut open Mice and Birds, torturing them for three Hours together before they expir’d.’

Into this household comes the lively, ‘sprack‘ [alive, nimble, alert] Jane Buttersworth, a poor girl from Bristol, 14 years old. She was good with a needle and a good milkmaid, but was kept bare foot, bare legged and without a coat in winter and made to go out and milk the cows in this manner, and was not allowed to approach the fire in sight of Elizabeth or her daughter Betty. Like the other servants, she was allowed to eat only bread, cheese and water.

The details of the beating Jane/Jenny received on the day of her death are horrendous and prolonged, and she was made to work despite the severity of her injuries (including after being beaten repeatedly around the head), and it took her almost a full day to die from the injuries she received which seem to include a brain haemorrhage and internal bleeding. This was all because she had gone earlier that morning for a peck of bran, and was told by the sellers she couldn’t have it without the money. The son came over and told Elizabeth he hadn’t given the bran ‘because no one had come for it’, and this lie was what caused Jane to be beaten.

Jane had her head slammed repeatedly against the wall of the cowshed, and then was beaten face down on the floor with withy sticks until the sticks broke to stumps, with Betty kneeling on her neck to keep her down. She was then chased and whipped and cudgelled all around the house and out into the yard, bleeding and staggering, and then told to dust the house and continue her duties, despite bleeding profusely from deep wounds on her legs and arms and severe bruising all over her body. She gave all the visible signs of severe head trauma but tried to comply with her orders, but just couldn’t perform the duties she was supposed to do.

To revive her at one point as she was huddled in the corner with her head lolling onto her shoulder, another servant, Anne James, was told to get a plate of salt – when she tried to stand up for Jane, both mother and daughter flew at her and Elizabeth cried, “You Welch bitch, are you the Mistress or are you the Maid?” and so salt was brought and rubbed ferociously into the girl’s bleeding leg and buttock wounds to revive her with the smarting/stinging.

Jane was offered food at the same servant’s insistence, having not eaten since 5pm the previous day (it was now 4pm) but she couldn’t take it or eat it, and was struck again for that too, and then had her hands forced into a bucket of scalding water to do the dishes which scalded and shrivelled her skin.

The detailed description of Jane complaining about her vision and resting her head against the wall/doors repeatedly after the beatings, and her general disorientation etc is detailed in the account, and eventually she was carried up to her bed where she died.

They called for Dr Harris, but he couldn’t go so sent his son-in-law, Dr Palmer, instead. Dr Palmer observed the dead girl in bed (the Branches had changed her out of her bloody clothes and bloody cap), and he had been told she had fallen while carrying a heavy pail of water.

Mrs Branch later told him any wounds on her not consistent with this story were due to her being manhandled in the exhumation process. He said that this was easy to prove as he could scalp her to find out if the skull was fractured, and upon his honour he was not a man who could be bribed (wink wink), so Mrs Branch gave him a guinea for his trouble and the good Dr Palmer left without examining the body.

The mother and daughter had to lay out the corpse themselves, and the pamphlet details the putrefying wounds and blood etc., and wrapped her in a shroud and had her buried.

The Ghostly Light

The light is an interesting point and is one the pamphlet goes on to detail witnesses and their reports. Anne James was not quiet about the cause of Jane/Jenny’s death, but ghostly corroboration helped the neighbours decide to investigate the truth of Anne’s claims. This was put down to the fact that Mrs Branch was feared in the vicinity as a bad and litigious neighbour, so people were afraid to act against her without proof.

The ploughman first saw the light when he looked out of the window at the churchyard, and saw it appear at about 11pm over the grave of the murdered girl, then move to one end of the church, and then return to fix over the grave. When he called for his boy to look at it, it disappeared. A neighbouring butcher, Mr Clarke, saw it too.

Neither of them could say what had caused it and there was some conjecture as to whether it was ‘a Northern Meteor’ or someone in the churchyard with a candle in a lantern. Conjecture was that either Mrs Branch or Miss Betty Branch had gone out there at night to check on the grave, but the ploughman had not seen anything or anyone other than the light itself, and couldn’t say if that was the case – as did Mr Clarke.

The author/editor of the pamphlet suggested that it would be wise for someone local, who knew the parsonage overlooked the churchyard, to turn their backs and hide the light, not shine the lantern directly opposite. The author then adds that, either way, it was ‘a surprising Mark of Providence’, and ‘the Discovery of the whole Affair, bears the Testimony of the Hand of G O D, who perhaps judged it high Time to pluck them from off the Stage of Life, and make them ignominious Examples to all barbarous and inhuman People.‘ (p. 24)

The Exhumation

Now that this light was seen, the neighbours seized this as a reason or omen to dig up the body quietly at night, determining that if nothing was amiss they would just re-inter her and nobody need find out she was exhumed. But, when they dug her up, she was not ‘in an offensive condition’ (links to martyrdom and the state of a saintly body here, perhaps), and so she was examined and the wounds came to light.

Most damning for some of them there was that the skin on her hands was still shrivelled as if in a tub of hot water all day, indicating that she had been forced to do the dishes as she was dying.

Dr Salmon, intrigued by the tales of the light, decided to be present at this exhumation so he would know the truth, and his testimony at the trial is reproduced in pp.28-9 of the pamphlet, since Dr Palmer, who was sent for at first, said that he did not examine Jane/Jenny’s body when he came to the house and pronounced her dead.

This is Dr Salmon’s testimony:

p. 28
p .29

Full Transcript of Dr Salmon’s Testimony:

I. Dr Salmon dispos’d to this Effect, That hearing of the Light on the Grave, it led his Curiosity so far as to go in Person to know the Truth ; when it happen’d that the Body was taken up : That upon viewing it, he found a violent Bruise in the Os Frontis, and both Tables of the Skull broken : That he also saw a Wound a little above the Temple Bone, which he thought to be the most dangerous ; and another in the Coronal Suture. That he likewise observed in the Regions of the Loins a dangerous Wound ; the Fingers of one Hand with the true Skin beat off, so that he saw the Flexor Muscles and Tendon bare ; the Anguish whereof, with the other Wounds, he thought might be mortal : That her Arms, Thighs, and Legs were greatly bruised, scarce any Part but the Breast and Belly free ; and in general appear’d to be so barbarously and inhumanly used, that it was enough to have killed the stoutest Man : That he apprehended there must have been a vast Effusion of Blood from the Appearance of some of the Wounds being pale and of a Cherry Colour ; for Wounds given in a plethorick State, will be livid and blackish. That the Wounds must have been given in Life, whilst the Blood was still in its Circulation ; for when it is ended, no Blood or Bruise will make any Alteration or Colour in the Flesh.

Elizabeth and Betty Branch were arrested, as was Anne James, and questioned. When brought to view the body, Elizabeth said she couldn’t see anything the matter with it, and that it didn’t bleed in her/her daughter’s presence (the folk belief being that a murdered body would bleed when touched by its killer/s). She also claimed not to know how the girl had come by her death.

When asked if Anne James had beaten the girl, Elizabeth said she’d never suffered a servant to beat a ‘prentice of hers in her life.

Anne James told the investigators the whole story.

After deliberation, the Jury of the Coroner’s court delivered a verdict of ‘Wilful Murder‘. The pamphlet mentions randomly in brackets that ‘(notwithstanding fifty Angels appear’d to the C—-r [Coroner?] on Buckland Downs)’ which seems to be a pretty pertinent supernatural detail…

Mrs Elizabeth and Miss Betty Branch were indicted for murder and everyone else was discharged. They were taken away from the Coroner’s court to Ivelchester Gaol for the murder trial to begin.

p. 26

Full Transcript of the snippet above:

Upon which they were both order’d away to Ivelchester Goal ; whose horrible Appearance is enough to shudder an Heart of Adamant.
The many familiar Enormities of the old Woman, had so harden’d her unrelenting Heart, that at Lye-upon Mendip, she said to her Daughter, Be of good Heart, Child, for I have got over as bad Things as this before now.
—– Which frank Declaration seems to concur with former Testimonies of Cruelty.

The people of the towns and villages along the way came out to see them being drawn to Gaol in the cart and pelted them with dirt and stones, and when they got to Lamport the cart broke down, so they had to walk the rest of the way. The townsfolk followed behind, throwing squibs and firecrackers, and pelting them with dirt and stones.

Mrs Branch turned and threatened them that if she got off (if she were found not guilty), she would sue the whole town.

Given Dr Salmon’s testimony (above) and the testimony of other ex-servants, this was not going to happen.

Henry Butler, previously a servant to Mrs and Miss Branch, was called to ‘prove the barbarous Temper of the Prisoners’ and he said he had witnessed them beating the Deceased and break her head for ‘slight Occasions’, and that they had often beaten him ‘barbarously ; – and once till he besh[a]t himself’, where upon the old Mistress held him while Miss Betty took the excrement out of his breeches, mixed it with ashes, and crammed it into his mouth.

The two sticks used to beat Jane/Jenny were produced in court, still covered in blood.

Mrs Branch stuck with the “she fell carrying a pail, like I told Dr Palmer” and that didn’t work, so they were pronounced guilty of murder, especially with Anne James’s testimony. Despite saying at the inquest she’d never suffered a servant to beat her Prentice, she had got bills against Anne James to pin the murder on her, but for some reasons the bills were not preferred.

The prosecutors also drew up a bill of indictment against the Coroner for perjury, but the Grand Jury was discharged before it could be preferred. [Was the Coroner Dr Palmer? I’m not sure about this part].

They were sentenced to death and given a month to prepare themselves for eternity. Miss Betty was badly affected by this, and her mother not at all:

p. 33

Full Transcript of the Paragraph:

After their Condemnation, Miss fell into a violent Fit ; when her Mother (who took no Notice of the Sentence) hardily said to those who were holding her, Stand away, stand aside, I had rather see her die here than at the Gallows.

Stone cold, Elizabeth. Stone cold. Everyone else thought so too, and the pamphlet relates that ‘When the Judge was going out of Town, the People hung about his Coach, crying out, My Lord, Hang ’em! hang the old B[itc]h! And their Condemnation gave great Satisfaction to the Country all about.’

Some attempts to gain a pardon were made, especially for the daughter, but it was decided that she was the most barbarous of the two given that the beating had gone on for seven hours and was over something very trivial.

The Execution

On the day of the execution, the keeper of the Gaol was called up by the women themselves to take them as quickly as possible to the gallows so they could get it over with as privately as possible.

Elizabeth seemed sullen, but also in denial about the situation: she had complained about her dinner the night before and on the morning, caught hold of one of the Debtors’ arms and said she didn’t have her clogs, and she had to go back and get them or else she would catch cold.

Mrs Branch wore a black silk hood and her daughter Betty wore a large straw hat, and so they made their way to the gallows… only to find the townsfolk were having none of it, and had broken the gallows down and left one post standing, to delay the execution until a large crowd had the time to gather.

This didn’t make too much of a delay, though; a new gallows was erected by fixing two small trees and reattaching a noose. Betty Branch ascended first and fainted – her mother then put the rope around Betty’s neck herself while she was being held upright by the gaolers. Mrs Branch turned her head aside and said, Lord Jesus, must I see my Daughter hang’d! Then asked to kiss her child, but couldn’t as the halter was now fixed and a handkerchief placed over the daughter’s face. Mrs Branch then said, Good God! that ever I should come to so shocking an end! And promptly died ‘without the least seeming Ejaculation or Concern.’

There were around 200 spectators who were revelling in the scene and ‘instead of drawing Tears … there was rather a continual Scene of Joy.’

By 10am the town was full of angry people who had come for the execution and found they had missed it.

Betty’s Letter

The pamphlet closes with a letter from Betty to the Reverend, which is pretty extraordinary and I’ve included it here as a possible glimpse (if it’s real) of the character of Betty in her own hand/letter-writing voice.

Full Transcript:

The following is a true Copy of a Letter sent by Betty Branch a small Time before her Execution, to the Rev. Mr. H——–, a Gentleman of unspotted Character, notwithstanding the Calumny contain’d in it.

Mr. H——,

You made your chest Care to shod my inosent Blood by Corupt Evidence with oute Regard to the justice you ought to have

I donot send this to Implore your Pity being Just going to Launch into Eternity and out of your malicious and Corupt Prosecutions

But do desire you for your good that as you put on the Coate of divenaty you would not ware the waste Coat of Saturn

Consider when next you come in the Presense of god and face your small Congrigation your unhuman Barbarity in sheding my Blood which now Calls for Vengeance at your Door
Content your self with shedding my Blood do not extend your furey to my Brother whose Caretor is so superior to yours

So wishing you amendment

I go to Place where I shall see you give aCCount for your Injustice to
Betty Branch.

Tidied up:

Mr. H——,
You made your chest Care to shed my innocent Blood by Corrupt Evidence without Regard to the justice you ought to have. I do not send this to Implore your Pity, being Just going to Launch into Eternity and out of your malicious and Corrupt Prosecutions, But do desire you for your good that as you put on the Coat of Divinity you would not wear the waste Coat of Saturn. Consider when next you come in the Presence of god and face your small Congregation your unhuman Barbarity in shedding my Blood which now Calls for Vengeance at your Door. Content your self with shedding my Blood do not extend your fury to my Brother whose Character is so superior to yours.
So wishing you amendment.
I go to [a/the] Place where I shall see you give account for your Injustice to
Betty Branch.

I shudder to think what Betty’s brother was like, but I wonder if he was a clergyman too by the tone of the letter.

Not sure how anyone survived in the eighteenth century at this point, but pretty sure the ones who did were scarred for life from whatever awful stuff had happened to them.

That’s the end of the Branch case!

If you’re appreciating the transcripts and research, feel free to tip me on Ko-Fi.

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