Martha Eaton- … I asked her if her Husband had been beating her? She said, yes, – he had been beating her in the Garden. I said it was a cruel Thing to beat a Woman so. Aye, says she, – I have been married above forty Years, and have had seventeen Children.
Susannah Broom was a woman from the eighteenth century, who like many other women from this era married a man who was abusive. Susannah’s, neighbors and friends over heard her fights with Mr. Broom for many years; they even witnessed her bruised and bloodied body. But what none of them could have predicted was that after 40 years of his abuse, and at the age of 67, Susannah would murder her husband, Mr. Broom.
In December of 1739, Susannah was taken to court because she was accused of the murder of her husband. Ten of her neighbors came to the court hearing to discuss the accusation. Susannah was not allowed to defend herself, or to speak on her own behalf; she was allowed a few one line sentences and nothing else during the trial. Susannah was not a violent or murderous woman, nor was she abusive to her husband or disobedient of his rules. However, after much discussion from her neighbors, and little from herself, she was found guilty of the murder, and was sentenced to death by burning on the stake in Tyburn.
In Susannah’s era women were often stuck in a cycle of slavery which often led to death. Women in the eighteenth century, like Susannah, were rarely allowed to have an education, job, or life in society. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, describes perfectly what Susannah’s life would have been like. Like Mary in the “Vindication,” if Susannah had not married Mr. Broom then she would have had to turn to prostitution, stealing, and begging to make a living in society; all of which ended in death. If you were caught prostituting, could have gotten into trouble for committing adultery on another woman’s husband and sentenced to death. If you were a woman and you stole you were sentenced to death. And if you ended up having to beg for a living then you would often starve to death because men had most of the control over money and they would rarely give any to a begging woman. Susannah was alone in the world, and she turned to Mr. Broom for support; she had to marry him for the sense of security in society. Often women were pushed to get married because there really was no other way out of the cycle of death that society created, however they were often unhappy in their marriages.
A Marriage in the eighteenth century was not like the marriages we see today, Anne Mellor says in her article (1) Righting the Wrongs of Women that laws stated, once a man and woman were married, “[a] man and wife [became] one person in law; the wife los[t] all rights as a single woman, and her existence [was] entirely absorbed in that of her husband.” Yet, women married because without a man they had no place in society. Susannah Broom got married probably thinking she would be better off in her marriage than trying to make it in society. But what she probably didn’t see coming was that there were also laws allowing her husband to beat her not only to steal her identity, but also to beat her. This was not always the case but for many women it was; they would marry in order to survive the cruel society they lived in, and the men married to inherit whatever the woman had to offer, and to assume the right to take the woman’s identity and beat her. Wendy Moore states in her article, 18th Century Domestic Violence, that “[m]arital violence is as old as marriage itself. In Georgian England, husbands were legally entitled to strike their wives in order to ‘correct’ their conduct so long as moderation was the watchword. One judge, Francis Buller, even went so far as to specify that a husband could beat his wife with a stick so long as it was no thicker than his thumb, earning himself the nickname ‘Judge Thumb’ in satirical prints for his wisdom.” You might ask, well why did women get married in the eighteenth century if they knew that the man could own AND abuse them. Tricky question, but like I said before, women were not given a chance in society unless they had husbands, and they were willing to suffer the beating their husbands would give them, rather than die in a society that did much worse to them.
Like many women in the eighteenth century, Susannah did not seem to have had a choice as to whether or not she should murder her husband. First she was forced into an unhappy marriage because of the way society was at the time. Then she was beaten for over 40 years, while her neighbors knew she was being beaten, they could not step in and help. Society would have punished them too. These three horrifying aspects of Susannah’s life can be observed in her trial as evidence that Susannah was not a plotting murderess but rather a woman who felt trapped by the world around her, and her only escape was to end her husband’s life, and in turn her own.
Mary Coombes, a neighbor to the Broom’s, said in her part of the trial that on the night of the murder, Mr. Broom was out drinking most of the night. When he returned home Susannah had locked him out. Mary said she heard him ask Susannah to let him in because he was freezing, and she refused. Mary also noted that this happened a lot, where Mr. Broom would leave and when he would return he would almost always be locked out. I can only assume that the reason Susannah locked him out was for fear of his drunken return, and probable abuse. Mary Eaton, a neighbor and friend to Susannah, stated that on the morning after the murder, “The Prisoner came that Morning to my Shop about Three o’clock, for a Farthing Candle: Her Arms and Face were all over Blood, and likewise the Round of her Head. I asked her if her Husband had been beating her? She said, yes.” I believe Susannah was trying to catch the attention of her neighbors and friends by walking the streets bruised and bloody. I also believe she caused scenes with Mr. Broom because she wanted the neighbors to step in, and tell him to stop. However, because of the law that stated that Mr. Broom was allowed to beat her, no one could have saved her from her ultimate fate.
Susannah was not a bad woman, or a bad wife, and she did not want to kill her husband. She was just like the majority of women from the eighteenth century; she was born into a society with few women’s rights, and most odds against her. Because of the events that occurred in Susannah’s life, she was almost forced to kill her husband. She felt trapped because without a husband she wouldn’t have been able to make it in society, but she was being beaten badly, and every time she tried to get rid of him he kept coming back very drunk and more angry than before. When she finally let him back inside the house, and he began to beat her, she made her final decision. She took out her pen knife, and stabbed his legs, chest, and stomach in a rage she could not stop. And at the age of 67 she was finally free. Most of her neighbors claim to have heard Mr. Broom’s cries of murder, but none of them tried to stop her. That may have been their way of apologizing for letting her be beaten for so many years. The following morning, after the murder, Susannah fled to Burford, Oxfordshire for three months of an abuse free life with her sister. Sadly, she was found and taken to court. Where neither she, nor any of her neighbors or friends were allowed to defend her. In the end she was found guilty and sentenced to burn on the stake in Tyburn, on December 21, 1739.
1 Mellor, Anne K. “Righting the Wrongs of Woman: Mary Wollstonecraft’s.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 19.4 (1996): 413-24. Print.