“‘Miss Salley! Miss Salley! Come up stairs, Nanny does not move…’ the mother and daughter were up stairs an hour after we were sent down. I never saw Ann Nailor afterwards…that was the day they told us the girl had run away.”
Sarah Metyard and her daughter Sarah Morgan Metyard in July 1762 were tried and convicted of a crime they as a pair had commit four years previously- the willful murder of their thirteen year old servant Ann Nailor by tying her up and starving her for three days. Together Sarah and her daughter, about eighteen at the time of the crime, formed a hierarchy or power: a widow in full power over her daughter and household, a daughter in power of her mother’s servants and a young servant in ill health as the object of their cruelty. It was Ann’s second attempt to run away that acted as the catalyst resulting in her death at the hands of her masters. Such a trial becomes a narrative in itself as a comment on gender expectations during the 18th century. Men were expected to be physically dominant and control their household and it creates a stark contrast with ideological customs because of the absence of male involvement in any aspect of the trial. Women were expected and taught to submit to male authority and were thought to only act emotionally, not physically. Sarah Metyard breaks both of these societal conventions. Being the sole form of authority in her household she had full power and control over its inhabitants. This alone would have been unusual, let alone the unmotivated and physically cruel actions with that which her and her daughter were charged. Trials involving women during this period for the most part fell into a category that cited their social insecurity and desperation that motivated actions as a last resort; a wife at the abusive hands of her husband, as an example. However, what sets this trial apart from typical proceedings involving women during the 18th century is that Sarah’s actions were not motivated by what was referred to as emotional female flaws or desperation. Sarah Metyard and Sarah Morgan Metyard were appropriately punished based on their actions. Regardless of their gender they were executed because of the simple explanation that they murdered their servant.
Consequently unable to perform her duties adequately because of her health, Ann Nailor was subject to frequent brutality at the hands of both Sarah and her daughter Sarah Morgan. Ann was deprived of her daily meals and was often beat. Seeing no other viable option than to attempt to run away a second time, she was stopped by the milkman on her escape; pleading with him to let her go because she would be starved if she were caught. The daughter, Sarah Morgan, seeing her attempt to escape ordered the milkman to stop her. She was dragged by the neck inside and led to an upstairs bedroom where the mother held Ann’s head while the daughter beat her. She was then tied to a stair post near a back room by a rope around her waist and her hands tied behind her back. She remained as such for three consecutive days, only being released at the normal bedtime so she could sleep. It wasn’t until the third day that we reach our opening servant testimonial, “Nanny does not move…”
All three servant testimonials stated that they believed Ann to be dead upon seeing her body only supported by the ropes around her waist. However, it is here that the theatrical performance of the mother and daughter pair begins. Sarah ordered drops to be given to her to revive the girl whom she claimed had simply passed out and ordered the other servants downstairs. Realizing Ann was dead, the pair placed the body in a box in a back bedroom where it remained for two months until the odour threatened to reveal their crime. On the evening of December 25th 1758, Sarah demanded her daughter help dismember the body and place it in separate bags to be thrown over the gully wall in Chick-lane. Burning the hands, Sarah stated “Fire told no tales”. Sarah Morgan’s account of this preceding makes note that she wanted no part in this action and begged her mother to confess to the crime. As rebuttal, her mother exclaimed that her uneasiness at the task was illegitimate and any attempt to reveal their crime would result in her claiming that the act was hers alone. The only visible sign of weakness Sarah showed was her physical inability to throw the body over the wall, opting instead to throw the bags at the base of the wall in the mud in hopes it be discovered some time later as result of an ‘unfortunate accident’. This is clearly not a typical 18th century woman that would be expected to exude no power. Sarah showed no mental remorse or hesitation for her crime. Clean your hands and walk away unscathed?
They hoped to do so by staging Ann’s disappearance by opening a cellar door and having a servant bring her supper only to find the door ajar. A specific servant testimonial described Ann’s disappearance as follows: “Sall came down, and said the garret door was open, but nobody there. Then the mother made answer, she is run away; I suppose she ran away when we were at dinner; that they both said.” What a well-timed and pre-meditated response from our mother and daughter pair. Sarah staged Ann’s “escape” to the other servants to end any direct questioning, thus eliminating, she thought, any possible witness accounts. The only available information given during the trial was that the servants were not permitted upstairs upon seeing Ann immobile and were then informed later that evening that she had run away, ignoring her sickly disposition that did not permit her the energy to crawl to bed the previous night. All servant testimonials stated they believed the girl to be dead even before the string was cut. The mother daughter pair did not succeed in convincing their other servants of Ann’s disappearance. Despite the authority she held over her servants, Sarah did not have the power to conceal her crime from witness testimony.
Sarah and Sarah Morgan were not products of the time, nor were they forced to take extreme action based on any unavoidable circumstance. This trial is unique because it shows a woman in a position of power that committed actions out of cruelty, not desperation. Ann Nailor was in a disadvantaged position based on her health and her employment as a servant under direction and lead of Sarah Metyard. There was no other motive behind Sarah’s actions other than the fact that Ann was unable to perform her duties adequately because of her health. Ann had tried to run away once before and her second attempt triggered her death at the hands of the mother-daughter team. Throughout the trial Sarah and her daughter were in constant disagreement over the details of the crime and who the judge would believe was at fault. Their discourse only fueled the true nature of their character.
Character testimonials offer an outside source of information on the daily life of the accused and their relationships with others. The character testimonials collected on behalf of Sarah stated that many neighbours and acquaintances held no opinion for or against the woman. No one could accept nor refute her actions; a disadvantage to Sarah being that she had no close friends that could then testify to her character. The Old Bailey’s Ordinary’s Account stated that:
It seemed doubtful on whose head the storm would break; whether on the mother, who denied the whole charge, and would represent her daughter as a monstrous false accuser and a parricide, or on the daughter, who while she accused the mother, instead of excusing herself, turned the arrows pointed at her against her own bosom; or whether the thunder would equally blast them both: their heart-burnings against each other, and their fears each for herself.
Individual testimony from Sarah and Sarah Morgan proved each was defensive about their involvement or lack thereof in the crime. Sarah Morgan’s defense was that she was often abused by her mother and thus should not be held accountable for any actions she committed, citing that her upbringing heavily influenced her personal actions. This approach is interesting because she does not deny her actions, but tries to validate them instead. She brings up a debate that is still argued today; whether childhood upbringing should have any effect on future actions- nature or nurture. I find it odd that Sarah Morgan would choose to divert her actions instead of refuting any testimonial against her. In the face of her mother, however, maybe it was the better option to accuse Sarah as the upbringing to her abusive actions instead of denying an act that her mother would no doubt reveal. However, her mother passionately stresses that her daughter’s accounts are lies. The pair that together contributed to the crime was not united in their defense. What is also interesting is that in the Ordinary’s Account there is an explicitly stated lesson at the end of what amounted as a kind of narrative tale: only through the proper teaching of manners, love and charity will children be able to grow up in an environment free from the crime of Sarah and Sarah Morgan. Children need to be taught from an early age right from wrong and this mother and daughter pair was sad examples of the opposite.
Sarah and Sarah Morgan Metyard had no reason to kill Ann Nailor. This particular trial is interesting because of fact that the mother daughter pair that proved themselves opposite from the 18th century mold. Women were expected to act emotionally; Sarah and Sarah Morgan acted physically. Women were seldom in control of their own actions, let alone their own household; Sarah had full control over her actions and those residing in her house. Neither woman showed remorse for her actions toward the innocent servant, rather stressing their own upbringing or pure falsehood as cause for their conviction. Sarah and her daughter Sarah Morgan were appropriately punished for their actions. Their execution was not based on their gender or social status, but purely on their actions toward another human being. This 18th century trial proved a link to our modern judicial system that did not favour gender or social status, but rather punished a crime solely for its actions.
All quotations are from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Sarah Metyard and Sarah Morgan Metyard