“I am innocent of it all, for it was not me that did it” – Henrietta Radbourne

On July 11th 1787, Henrietta Radbourne stood at Old Bailey Court in front of Mr. Justice Wilson, witnesses, and twelve jurors on her case of murder and petit treason. Henrietta’s case was remarkable as she was charged with both murder and petit treason combined in one account, later found guilty of murder but was acquitted of petit treason. [1] The two charges Henrietta was indicted for were serious crimes in the eighteenth century. The more serious of the two crimes Henrietta was charged for at the time would have been petit treason. Back in the eighteenth century petit treason was considered an aggravated form of murder which involved the killing of a master by a servant, a husband by his wife, or any other type of superior killed by his inferior. The punishment for petit treason was much more severe than the punishment for murder, which is the only account Henrietta got convicted for, and for women convicted of petit treason they were burned at the stake, a tradition that remained until 1790.

Henrietta’s case was different for the eighteenth century because Henrietta was charged with both murder and petit treason for the murder of Hannah Morgan, who was Henrietta’s mistress.  Hannah Morgan was struck, cut, stabbed, beat and penetrated by a stick with a bayonet attached to it.

Type of stick Henrietta Radbourne allegedly used against Hannah Morgan. Attached a bayonet to the end.

Hannah Morgan’s injures consisted of a mortal wound to the top of her head, length of one inch and a depth of one inch, as well as four other stab wounds to head, bruising on her right hand and her left hip. Hannah Morgan survived her initial attack and held onto her life for several weeks until she succumbed to her wounds. However the case was not so clear cut as it seemed. Much of the evidence was circumstantial or hearsay but considered strong enough to see Henrietta guilty of murder. I plan to argue that Henrietta was convicted due to being part of the lower class.

Henrietta Radbourne was told by some neighbours, Henry and Rebecca Holmes, to apply through a town agency to look for a job as the stigma that had been put on Radbourne would not be of help in finding her a job. Henrietta’s stigma was that she lived in a home with John Radbourne; they were not married, and she had a child with him. The child did not survive and John left Henrietta. Those events lead to the stigma put onto Henrietta which required her to seek a job through an agency. Henrietta was set up to be a servant for Hannah Morgan and stayed at Hannah’s house for the duration of her employment.  Within a few days Hannah Morgan began to experience unsatisfactory service with Henrietta and some strange feelings about Henrietta and asked her to quit.

This is the particular door lock common for the eighteenth-century and would have most likely been the type of lock on Hannah Morgan’s bedroom door.

On the 31stof May Henrietta had entered Hannah’s room and asked her mistress if she had said her prayers that night; Hannah did not like this comment and quickly told Henrietta to remove herself from the room and go and say her own prayers. After this comment Hannah then got up to secure the house including the door lock on her own bedroom door, which was much tougher to lock than usual. At approximately three o’clock on the morning of the 31st, neighbours and watchmen heard screams of fire and murder. Watchmen and neighbors arrived at Hannah’s home and could not get the front door open as it was secured. Both the watchmen and neighbors entered the home through the front parlor window.  The first witness brought to the stand was William Cranfield who stated that when they had entered the home they had all seen Henrietta on the staircase. Cranfield went to go and unlock all the doors in the home Henrietta stated to him: “for God’s sake, come, and help my mistress, she is murdered.” Cranfield responded to Henrietta: “do not frighten yourself, I will open the back door, and let some people in.” Cranfield then stated to the jury that this was all that passed between him and Henrietta and they did not speak anymore afterwards. This conversation was also overheard by Edward MacDonald, who was one of the watchmen on the scene.

All that found Hannah Morgan in her bedroom all saw the same sight; blood running down her head, blood all over the floor, blood on the doors and windows. Sometime after everyone began to gather around Hannah’s home and the surgeon had been called, Constable William Brown arrived on the scene. Brown searched the home for anything suspicious and did not notice anything then went upstairs to speak with Hannah. Brown was lead to Hannah who was put onto the bed and tried to get Henrietta out of the room for some privacy. Brown alleged that Henrietta would not remove herself from the room, she continuing to wash cups and saucers, and that he had to take her by the arm and remove her. Brown, based on Old Bailey Session’s papers, is unable to tell the court what passed between him and Hannah but afterwards went to search Henrietta’s room and upon examining the bed believe there to have been another person in the bed with her. Brown was the one who found the alleged murder weapon in Hannah’s room next to her fireplace. The weapon contained traces of grey hair and from seeing those hairs perceived this as the murder weapon.

Unfortunately for Henrietta none of the witnesses called came to her defence. Henry and Rebecca Holmes, who recommended Henrietta to the town agency in search of the job, both testified against Henrietta. Rebecca Holmes claimed that Henrietta told her that she, Henrietta, would soon come into some money from a recently deceased aunt and uncle. Henrietta enlisted the help of Rebecca to get Henry to tell John Radbourne that she would be coming into money and if he would marry her then it would be both of theirs. Both Rebecca and Henry stuck to this story. Henrietta came to her own defence upon hearing this and stated:

“Mrs. Holmes has told a great many infamous stories already, I did not say any such thing to her; it is through them that I am brought here, and the last time that I was before the Justice, I was persuaded by Holmes himself not to say anything at all about it.”

Henrietta wanted to stress to the Judge and jurors that it was the Holmes that brought her to this situation and it was they would had went into Hannah Morgan’s home and killed her. Henry Holmes responded to Henrietta’s statement by telling the Judge and jurors that he and his wife only brought Henrietta there, in reference to the job, by helping her receive the job. Henry also stated that he and his wife never once urged Henrietta to do anything wrong, only to do well at her new job. Even Henrietta’s ex John Radbourne did not help Henrietta. John Radbourne called her a liar, he did not know if she was lying about the inheritance but that he did perceive her to be a liar. Henrietta stated to the jurors that the inheritance was real and that it was from her brother she would receive her share from her deceased aunt and uncle:

“I told him before I left him, that when my brother came of age, I should have twenty or thirty pounds if he pleased to marry me, because he did not like we should live together in that way of life; my brother has got another estate left him lately, which is by my uncle and aunt, who are both dead, and this last estate my brother designs to give me.”

After all the previous witnesses were called, a final and crucial witness was called to the stand. Surgeon John Heavyside was the attending doctor to Hannah Morgan. Heavyside was the doctor who determined that Hannah’s death was attributed to the blunt force trauma and the cut wounds she received on the night of the 31st. Heavyside was also the only one present at the time of when he asked Henrietta what had happened that night. Heavyside stated that he told Henrietta to try and save herself. Heavyside expressed that Henrietta  tell the truth to which she told him that she allowed Henry and Rebecca Holmes into Hannah Morgan’s home that night and they were the ones who committed the attack. Heavyside then presented the court with a letter signed by Hannah Morgan. The letter, read by James Crofts the magistrate for the county of Middlesex, retells the tale of how Hannah was attacked by an unknown assailant and that Hannah believes that it could only have been Henrietta. Hannah Morgan’s letter stated that:

“She verily believes no other person was in her house but the person now present who calls herself Henrietta Radbourne; and this informant says that she did maliciously assault her in her dwelling house as aforesaid, with intent to kill and murder her, and her goods and chattels being in the said dwelling house, feloniously to steal, take and carry away.”

Henrietta only has but one thing left to say to the jurors and Judge:

“I am innocent of it all, for it was not me that did it, I have no witnesses at all here or elsewhere, but here are two people that is here that did it, at this present time, and they persuaded me not to say any thing; and when I was at Litchfield-street, they told me not to say any thing, for if I did I should be done as well as them, and I, ignorant of the affair, never said a word about it.”

Henrietta stuck with the belief that Henry and Rebecca Holmes were the cause for Hannah’s attack and inevitable death. Throughout the case it is known that Henrietta is a poor woman who has a stigma of having a child while unwed. Both these traits led Henrietta to be perceived as capable of murder. The court perceived Henrietta’s motive was to gain the money, items and home from Hannah’s death in order to get out of a bad situation. It was shown through the case that Henrietta’s word was not accepted as they as a quick scapegoat for Hannah’s death. They did not have to look far for someone to have blame, and a poor maid that no one cares about. The eighteenth-century court system is also very much flawed compared to the twenty-first-century court system. Although the eighteenth-century did not have the same technology as we have today it should not have allowed them to be ignorant to the very non-circumstantial evidence against Henrietta. As stated earlier, much of the evidence given was passed down through word and not so much action. Being poorly perceived in the public eye as a maid, a women, a liar, and not married put a huge stigma on Henrietta. Henrietta’s case shows that even if you don’t have a lot of evidence to go by, be careful of what you say and do, because all of that can be used against you.


[1] Simpkin, W, and R Marshall. The Critical review, or, Annals of literature. 2. London: 1791. 38. Web. Retrieved on October 26, 2012 <https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=_usvAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader&authuser=0&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA38>

all quotations from the Trial Transcript are taken from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers: Henrietta Radbourne

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2 comments on ““I am innocent of it all, for it was not me that did it” – Henrietta Radbourne

  1. Some great writing Darren!

    I really enjoyed this case and the in depth analysis you did on Radbourne but especially how her social status played a role in her conviction. It was really interesting to note that you even went as far as adding a certain dramatic flare to your argument which caught my attention and definitely made me want to side with Henrietta and hate the 18th century for its abuse on women.

    I only have a couple criticisms for you. The first thing that might help strengthen your blog is the tone you develop through your writing: your paper has a great amount of textual evidence to back up your argument but I would be careful not to speculate to much and spin the Radbourne proceedings in a way that weakens what you are trying to say.

    Besides just a few simple grammatical errors the only other thing I would say about your blog is that maybe have more flow between sentences. This is more in terms of writing style, my personal preference is less period points and more conjunction words, comas and semi colons which make your argument flow better and lets the reader follow your train of thought with much more ease. Again the last point is more about style then anything and specifically the grammatical mistakes deal more with comas than anything else.

    Great read though! You definitely have a knack for the gritty details and academic argument.

  2. You picked a really interesting case and I especially enjoyed the way you connected the outcome of her crime to her social status.

    I have a few suggestions to help you strengthen your blog post and your argument. My first suggestion is to read over your blog post again, with a critical eye. I agree with Ernesto when he speaks of the flow of your sentences, so I think keeping this in mind will help you see where things can be added to help the flow (like commas, semi-colons, etc.) when re-reading your post. I would also suggest reading your blog post as though you are someone who does not know anything previously about the case. I feel like this could help you strengthen some of your points and make them more clear to your readers. Something I would also suggest would be to organize some of your sentences and paragraphs in a way that would make it more clear.

    The paragraph about the social stigmas that Henrietta lived with was confusing to me, to be honest. I understand what you are trying to say however, I think that the paragraph could be worded differently. I feel as though what a social stigma is, is not represented clearly and correctly in this paragraph.

    I was really happy that you explained “petit treason” early on in your blog. There were only a couple times I read the term without knowing what it was, before you defined it, which is great.

    Overall I found this to be an interesting narrative and analysis of this crime. You represented Henrietta so well in this case that I feel like I know her. You did a great job of bringing the story to life.

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