In 1733, Sarah Malcolm stood in the Old Bailey, surrounded by male judges, and defended herself by arguing that it was not the blood of the woman she had allegedly murdered but rather her own menstrual blood that stained her clothing. However, the court (mis)read her blood as proof of her guilt, and Sarah Malcolm was hanged.
This 22-year-old charwoman was charged with the brutal murders of 80-year-old Lydia Duncomb, 60-year-old Elizabeth Harrison, and 17-year-old Ann Price. The two older women had been strangled, Price’s throat had been slit, and the apartment had been burgled. Sarah admitted to having been part of a group of 4 that plotted the robbery, but she doggedly maintained her innocence of the murders.
Sarah Malcolm’s narrative is the sensational story of a female criminal who figured large in the salacious public imagination of the time. Her notoriety resulted not only from the awfulness of her crime, but also from the fact that she remained steadfast in her Catholicism and her innocence until the end. She was infamous enough for William Hogarth to paint her portrait as she sat in Newgate awaiting execution and to sell prints of that portrait to the public for 6 pence. “I see by this woman’s features,” Hogarth is reputed to have said, “that she is capable of any wickedness.”1
Her story is one of a handful of sensational tales of 18th-century wicked women; but it is also the story of a body — a private body, publicly misread. My argument, here, is that Sarah Malcolm’s gender was more significant than her actions – that she was hanged for murder both because of and despite her female body.
According to the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, Sarah worked as a laundress for Mr. Kerrel who lived close to Lydia Duncomb – an elderly, infirm woman who shared lodgings with an elderly companion and a young servant. On the morning of February 4, a friend discovered the bodies of the three women and evidence of robbery; and the alarm was sounded. When Kerrel returned to his lodging, he found a quantity of bloody linen and a silver tankard with a bloody handle hidden in his apartment. He turned Sarah over to the officials, who found money hidden on her person; she was charged with the murders and taken to Newgate.
Sarah was a quick and convenient scapegoat for the murders that appalled London. She was poor, female, Roman Catholic, and although she seems to have been born in Durham, she had spent enough time with her family in Dublin for The London Magazine to refer to her as “the Irish Laundress” (Feb. 23, 1732/3). There was also considerable evidence against her. The stolen money and tankard could be used to prove robbery, but the bloodied linen could (and ultimately would) mark her as a murderess. Once Sarah admitted that the linen was hers, the blood became a shifting signifier that was read by the court as the mark of an unnatural act – even though Sarah tried to persuade them to read it as the mark of a natural one.
Throughout the trial, Sarah was plucky and assertive. She interrupted the witnesses; she questioned them; and she complained when they could not (or would not) answer her questions to her satisfaction. Although all witnesses were certain that the clothing found under Mr. Kerrel’s bed was Sarah’s and that it was bloody, details about the blood and the clothes she was wearing when apprehended seem to have escaped them. Sarah constantly demanded of people whether the blood on the linen was wet or dry when it was discovered, a question that perplexed the court, and which does seem to be less important than the specific location of the blood stains, but a question that did serve to constantly complicate the fact of the blood.
When Sarah finally addressed the court herself, she spoke at length, prefacing her account of the crime with an analysis of the blood on her clothing. This persuasive analysis foregrounds her gendered body, and it is worth quoting at length:
Modesty might compel a Woman to conceal her own Secrets if necessity did not oblige her to the contrary; and ‘tis Necessity that obliges me to say, that what has been taken for the Blood of the murdered Person is nothing but the free Gift of Nature.
This was all that appeared on my Shift, and it was the same on my Apron, for I wore the Apron under me next to my Shift. My Master going out of town desir’d me to lye in his Chamber, and that was the occasion of my foul Linen being found there. The Woman that wash’d the Sheets I then lay in can testify that the same was upon them, and Mr. Johnson who search’d me in Newgate has sworn that he found my Linen in the like condition. That this is the Case is plain; for how is it possible that it could be the Blood of the murder’d Person.
If it is supposed that I kill’d her with my Cloaths on, my Apron indeed might be bloody, but how should the Blood come upon my Shift? If I did it in my Shift, how should my Apron be bloody, or the back part of my Shift? And whether I did it dress’d or undress’d, why was not the Neck and Sleeves of my Shift bloody as well as the lower Parts?
The speech is eloquent and logical, and her final observation marks both a significant absence and a significant presence and deserves serious consideration. Sarah notes the presence of blood on the back of her clothing – an odd place to find the blood of a victim, but a logical place for menstrual blood. And she notes the absence of blood on the bodice and sleeves of her shift – here, she suggests that IF there was blood from a victim on the lower part of her clothing, there should certainly be blood spatters on the upper part.
Her defence is convincing, and – as she mentioned — was supported by the testimony of a fellow prisoner, Roger Johnson. Johnson searched Sarah when she was first imprisoned – possibly hoping to find money that she’d hidden on her person. Indeed, he testified in court that he DID find money hidden in her hair, and he also described the condition in which he found her body:
. . . I begun to feel about her Hips, and under her Petticoats. She desired me to forbear searching under her Coats, because she was not in a Condition, and with that she shew’d me her Shift, upon which I desisted.
Because he was a fellow prisoner who probably hoped for some kind of pardon or reduction in his own sentence in return for testifying, the Court might have regarded Johnson’s account with a certain degree of suspicion. However, in the Court’s summing up, just before Sarah spoke in her own defence, Johnson’s information about finding the money in her hair was accepted as “weighty” evidence; his description of the state of her clothing, though, was ignored.
Whether or not the blood on the linen was menstrual blood, it is highly probably that Sarah was menstruating at the time of the murders. Johnson’s testimony suggests that she was menstruating on February 5th (the day after the crime), increasing the possibility that she was also menstruating the day before. This fact, along with her fairly persuasive defence, would probably be enough –today – to put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. In the Old Bailey in February 1733, though, there was no doubt. The blood was read as the sign of murder not the sign of womanhood, and Sarah’s body was read as that which elicited rather than that which produced the blood. Thus, it is possible to argue that if she had not been menstruating, and therefore had not been found with bloody linen, she might never have been charged with the murders in the first place. It is also possible to imagine that if the Court had been more able/willing to read the specificity or this female body, she would not have been convicted of the murder. However, as history records it, Sarah was both charged and convicted – the former because of her bleeding female body, the latter despite it. Her female body, which had, in fact, precipitated the trial, was then disregarded throughout the proceedings.
Sarah’s story did not end with her subsequent hanging. Although some contemporary accounts report that she was buried, the Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth asserts that her body was dissected by a Professor Martyn, who later donated her skeleton, in a glass case, to the Botanic Garden at Cambridge. When I wrote to the Botanic Garden, asking about this assertion, the response to my letter affirmed that it is “highly probable” that Sarah’s body was one of those donated and later moved into the collections of the Museum of Biological Anthropology. Unfortunately, this Museum holds several skeletons that can be identified as female, but not – with any certainty – as Sarah Malcolm.
This is an odd and eerie epilogue to the story of Sarah Malcolm. But it is strangely fitting. The female body, marginalized by the court almost 300 years ago, is preserved, stripped of its flesh, and now identifiable only by its gender. If Sarah’s is one of the skeletons at the Museum, it is identifiable not as “Sarah Malcolm – the convicted murderess,” but merely as the remains of a woman. Malcolm’s individual identity has been subsumed by the collectivity of her gender – a haunting reminder of what was ignored at her trial.
A more extensive exploration of the trial of Sarah Malcolm can be found in Women’s Writing 11.2 (2004)
all quotations from the Trial Transcript are taken from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers: Sarah Malcolm