On the 11th of September, 1745, Thomas Morgan, a pipe maker, was accused of having killed his wife Elizabeth. He had allegedly stabbed her repeatedly, with at least three of the wounds being potentially fatal. Despite there being no solid evidence, Morgan was put to death for the murder of his wife. In today’s system of law, we believe that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Indeed this belief is at the core of our legal system and is meant to ensure, as much as possible, that people do not get punished for crimes which they did not commit. When combined with reasonable doubt (the idea that if there is any doubt that the defendant did what he is accused of then he cannot be prosecuted for it), people who are innocent have a much better chance of getting off (ideally, anyway). Together, the system is meant to make it harder to send people to jail, hopefully meaning that the only people who end up there are the people who are meant to be there. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any such customs in the 18th century, as is clearly apparent in the case of Thomas Morgan in 1745.
The idea that Morgan would be capable of such an act did not seem to be in question. In fact, many people were willing to testify as to the veracity of his accusation. His own apprentice, who was also named Thomas Morgan, but of no relation, discovered the body. He testified that Morgan (the prisoner) had told him of an order to be filled and so he had expected to be to work early. When Morgan did not come down to work in the morning, the apprentice bored a hole through the wall of the bedroom and saw a bloody pair of legs on the floor. The apprentice then testified to discovering the body of Elizabeth naked on the floor beside the bed, with no wounds that he noticed. The apprentice further stated that he heard no noise coming from their chamber through the night (Old Bailey). This account differs greatly from the account of another eyewitness.
Mary Ann Moody, a neighbour, was who the apprentice first told. She testified that Elizabeth was still wearing her shift, though it was pulled up, and that there were many wounds visible on her torso and head. She also professed to hearing loud noises through the night, right up to actually hearing Elizabeth herself cry out murder, as well as something about justice, followed by a sort of moaning (Old Bailey). Moody stated that she could hear everything that went on within the house. There are several differences between these two accounts, not least of which is that someone within the house heard nothing, while a neighbour was able to recite a conversation between Morgan and his wife. The difference in the wounds that Elizabeth had is also odd, but the coroner confirmed the presence of at least twenty stab wounds, so we can assume that Moody was correct on that point. In light of such conflicting reports, it is difficult to know anything for certain, but one thing that we definitely cannot know is who committed the murder. There is no evidence in either account that even remotely links Morgan to the death of his wife except for the fact that it was done in their bedroom.
So where was Morgan when all of this was going on? Well, according to several accounts, he was around town all morning. He gave Franklin, an old employee of his who was now working as a waterman, a beer to ferry him around for a bit, but then left after ordering it. He then went into a shop on Rosemary lane and bought a coat to replace his own, after a good deal of haggling. The court made it sound as though this activity was an attempt to flee and to disguise himself, but there is no evidence to support this. Upon learning that his wife was dead, Morgan turned himself in, professing his innocence, sure that he would be proven not guilty. He was put to death shortly after the trial.
The Ordinary’s account has some interesting things to say about Morgan turning himself in. According to it, it was not as simple as the trial transcript says:
“This fellow after having committed the murder made his escape, and rambled about from place to place, as he said, haunted by his wife’s ghost, that turn himself which way he would, it always seemed to be fluttering at some distance directly before him, with all the wounds he had given her open to his view, and threatning with her hands: he said he oftentimes had courage enough to attempt to get at it, but was never the nearer, and in one of these attempts, not minding where he was, he tumbled into the river near Dorchester, and had like to have been drowned; when he got out, he saw the ghost again, which seemed to grin at him as if glad of his misfortune; whereupon in a great rage he drew his knife, and ran furiously towards it; it vanished, and in its stead stood a most tremendous spectre, which seemed to take him in its arms, he was carried away as in a whirlwind, and set down again near Oxford in the yard of a farmer of his acquaintance, who happened to be present, and helped him up as from a swoon, who had seen him described in the news papers, and therefore, notwithstanding his acquaintance, delivered him into the hands of justice.” (Ordinary’s Account)
This is certainly a much stranger version of the story, and one that would seem to prove Morgan’s guilt, by his own admission. It seems unlikely that such damning evidence would not have been used during the trial, and this may have been included in the Ordinary’s Account as a sort of cautionary tale. But Thomas Morgan was still put to death.
That he was judged absolutely guilty seems like a bit of a leap. How did the jury arrive so quickly at the death sentence? Morgan is definitely a person of interest. He is definitely even the prime suspect. But to put a man to death with no real evidence to support that decision is what separates our legal system from the one in place during the 18th century. Morgan was not innocent until proven guilty; he was assumed to be guilty and could not prove his innocence. There is no sign of the murder weapon. There is no blood on a man who allegedly stabbed his wife more than twenty times. And there is no real motive for Morgan to have done such a thing. There seems to be an overwhelming abundance of reasonable doubt in this case, which also would have led to Morgan getting off in today’s system. The fact that a man was put to death based on such flimsy evidence really shows the difference between the two court systems.
This decision was no doubt based on Morgan’s relationship with his wife. Theirs was not a happy marriage, and indeed they were looking for a way to end it when all of this occurred. Morgan is said to have beat his wife on occasion, and does not deny this himself. It even suggests that Elizabeth may have had another lover that Morgan may even have been aware of. Morgan just wanted money that he could get from Elizabeth (or maybe her family), and then he would be gone. Elizabeth’s father tells of one time that his daughter came to him after two years of not seeing each other to complain about her husband’s abusive ways. When Morgan himself came to ask for her back, saying that he could not possibly carry on with his work without her, Elizabeth seemed on the point of refusing, fearing that Morgan would soon turn back to his old abusive ways. Nevertheless, she returned with him. Not long after that though, Elizabeth’s father received a note from his daughter, delivered by John Adams, pleading with him to fix the mess that she was in. Adams himself spoke of abuses that he saw Morgan commit: striking his wife on the head and chest, even threatening to strike her with a hammer. Adams said that he tried to reason with Morgan, tried to get him to be less harsh, but to no avail (Old Bailey). This particular altercation occurred only one week before Elizabeth’s death.
With such overwhelming, and numerous, accounts of Morgan’s abuse towards his wife, it is no wonder that the jury was swayed by all of this information. Even today it would be hard to look at such a violent and abusive individual and believe that he was innocent. But just because he is not innocent of that does not make him guilty of murder by proxy. Morgan had no motive to kill her. In fact he was going to get money from her and then leave, so killing her would have been a decidedly bad thing for him! It would have been better and safer to wait it out, get the money, and leave. The transcript made it clear that this arrangement was satisfactory for both Morgan and Elizabeth, so they could have both just waited it out.
It all comes down to whether you believe that a man is innocent until proven guilty, or that it is okay to assume that he is guilty first, unless he can prove otherwise. Today, we believe the former, that it is the prosecution’s job to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, not the defendant’s job to prove that he is innocent. Morgan may have in fact murdered his wife. His assertions that he is innocent do not rule out the possibility. But it is also impossible to look at the given evidence and see guilt proven. Reasonable doubt means that proof of guilt has to be absolute. But reasonable doubt is not in play here, as is painfully apparent in the verdict. Maybe Morgan did it, and so deserved what he got. But maybe he was put to death unjustly, based on his past and some very weak evidence. The fact that we cannot know which is right proves the latter. Whether or not Morgan committed the crime, he was put to death unjustly, because his guilt could not be proven.