Martha’s Voice Lives On

This is a story about a young woman, named Martha Richardson; who lived a short life.  She was 25 years old, when she was brutally beaten at the hands of her husband, John, and died August 06, 1684. Martha’s story is a barbaric tale of abuse and violence. When she died her voice was silenced forever; yet, her story continues on in the lives, and in the voices of all the women who have experienced personal violence, at the hands of their spouses. Martha’s experience, and the events that led to her agonizing death, ‘shed light’ on a story as old as time, and as current as our modern-day experiences.

Martha was violently beaten within an inch of her life, by her husband John, on the street outside their home, on July 22, 1684.  At the “Old Bailey,” trial neighbors testified that John, “threw her violently upon the ground, kick’d and beat her on the Head, Neck, Stomach, and Belly.” This brutal beating continued, as John dragged Martha down the street, “by her heels,” and deposited her “to his Door and laid her head over the Threshold.” She lived for sixteen days after the beating, dying on August 06, 1684. John refused to help, or care for her as she lay dying. He claimed that Martha was drunk, and fell down, declaring that he was innocent of any crime. He was heard to say (by the neighbors) that she had made her bed, and now she had to live with the consequences. Apparently, John was not well liked, and was described by his neighbors, as a man of ‘very ill look and character.’ He often displayed a nasty temperament, and had an untrustworthy demeanor. Some of the neighbors reported that John’s first wife died suddenly, under suspicious circumstances. She was found, ‘under their bed with her hair wrapped around her ears,” unfortunately, it was never investigated.

During the trial, the evidence was clear; as a result of the beating, Martha had lost one and a half pints of her own blood. As well as, the following day, her sister reported that she spit up a large amount of blood. The loss of so much blood would indicate severe internal injuries, and these injuries led to her untimely death. I can speculate, with sadness, that if Martha had lived in our modern-day world with our medical facilities, perhaps her death would not have occurred.

Martha’s sister testified at the trial, that Martha’s deathbed wish was, that justice be served; John needed to be punished for the beating that caused her death. Martha displayed a strong sense of ‘making things right,’ even as she lay dying. This leads me to assume, that she was a brave woman. Her brave face inspires a deep, and abiding admiration for her feistiness! When the trial was completed, Martha received her wish; John was found guilty, and sentenced to death. In our modern world, this is often not the case, as many women seem to support their guilty spouses; no matter what horrible treatment they endured. It must be frustrating for local law enforcement officers, when it was apparent the husband was beating his wife; and the wife refused to press charges, (perhaps, out of loyalty or fear). Martha’s sad story underlines, and illustrates the depth of personal anguish, and despair many women are still facing today.

This story is not a rare occurrence, it happens with regularity in many present day households. The fact is spousal abuse lives in the underbelly of our society, like some black abscess waiting to be broken open and exposed. Many women are holding on with both hands to a life filled with suffering, emotional trauma, and unrelenting fear. Martha was a young wife living in the 17th century with no rights, no possessions, and no recourse. If she wasn’t happy in her marriage (well too bad) she was left to ‘make do,’ and ‘soldier on.’ The cultural belief, in 17th century England, was that a young woman needed a home to manage, and a husband to provide for her, or she was a financial burden to her father and her family.

Martha’s beating was brutal, and I am left wondering why the neighbors, (who observed this violent act), did nothing to help her? Even in present day, help is often not forthcoming when a violent act is being committed. Why is this so abhorrent to people? It seems to me that citizens do not want to get involved, they want to ‘mind their own business,’ and they want to stay on their own side of the street. In the 17th century, it was deemed acceptable for a husband to beat his wife (within moderation) if she was not behaving according to her husband’s standards. The neighbors, who observed John beating Martha, may not view the beating as a bad thing. Yet, it begs the question; I wonder if anyone would assist Martha if the beating happened today? It reminds me of the ‘Bystander effect,” a social psychology experiment in the late 1960’s; the scene shows a woman and man in a violent argument on the street. This abusive argument was witnessed by a number of people. During the argument it was revealed that the couple were husband and wife. This information shifted the interest of the observers, and no one came to the woman’s aid. Later, bystanders were asked why they didn’t give aid to the unfortunate women? The observers responded, that they didn’t want to ‘get involved’ in a marital squabble, or ‘get hurt’ by the husband. The underlying belief was that the couple needed to work out their differences, or law enforcement officers needed to intervene. In other words, the two people involved in the violent argument were married, so it was ‘perceived’ that they were on equal footing, even though the husband was beating his wife.

In the case of John and Martha, I experienced a feeling of uneasiness, when reviewing the trial transcripts. This uneasiness was because the neighbors’ inaction displayed a fundamental human failing; on some deep level, they didn’t want to see what was happening. The neighbors’ unwillingness to assist Martha, further cements the notion that domestic violence is viewed as a ‘private story’ between the husband, and the wife. In other words, getting involved in marital disputes are not for public consumption. The notion of intervening means, ‘sticking your nose in other people’s business,’ and this action is not an acceptable social construct in any society or century. Unfortunately, it is this kind of thinking that perpetuates the ongoing cycle of violence against women.

Modern day approaches to family violence, and spousal abuse shows little progress from this 17th century story. It is still incumbent on a woman to prove abuse, at the hands of her husband. She often lives in fear of retaliation, living in terror for her life, and for the life of her children. My own personal story follows a similar track. I can appreciate, and understand the anguish, as well as the personal turmoil abused women face. I know this from observing the fear on my mother’s face, and knowing I was helpless to assist her. I see how she tried so hard to stay, and be the ‘good wife.’ How she tried to protect her seven children from the violence. And finally, how after many years of abuse, she courageously walked away with her pride, and her dignity in tact. But before she left, our lives were filled with uncertainty, and terror. As a young girl, I experienced this violence first hand, and the results have impacted many aspects of my adult life. I was afraid to trust, or be alone with an unknown male, especially if he was angry. Trust, and healing took a very long time. I now realize that many of the choices I made as a young adult were directly related to my home experiences, growing up. Healing was a long, and painful process, but my mother’s voice, my four sisters’ voices, and my voice, need to be heard so that healing can happen, and we can experience hope for a fulfilling future.

I believe that all the voices of abused women need to be heard, rising up in a symphony of beautiful supportive music, so that Martha knows she did not die in vain. Telling her story provides a ‘pathway,’ that heals the broken hearts, and the broken bodies of all the women who went before, or who went after her. Like my Mom, Martha’s story is the story of all women who have been treated with disrespect, and violence at the hands of a man. In the end, Martha’s deathbed wish was heard, and justice was served, when John was found guilty of his crime and put to his death.


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