Who has not arrived home from a night out on the town and had a craving for some kind of food? Whether it is an oven-ready pizza, some potato chips, or even just a piece of bread it seems like food always tastes better after a few drinks. However, one such drunken night, June 5th 1739 to be exact, did not end with a simple binge on some greasy after-bar food. Instead, a drunk Thomas Bridge “accidentally” murdered his equally drunk wife. That’s right. Thomas Bridge, a “Regular Joe” from St. Andrews, Holburn claims that his wife, Elizabeth Bridge, passed out and accidentally impaled herself on a knife he was holding while drunkenly preparing a piece of cheese bread.
How’s that for cheesy?
While Bridge’s explanation, or should I say excuse, for his crime may seem cut and dry, his trial was anything but (a total review of the trial can be found here). There were 13 witnesses that were called to testify during the trial. Those that were called forward for the prosecution were able to color this already sensational story into something so absurd it is almost unbelievable.
If you want to know more information about trial proceedings in the eighteenth century: (Here)
The witnesses that were called to give their testimonies on the case really “got the ball rolling” on the peculiar story of the murder of Elizabeth Bridge.
The first witness to be called to the stand was an acquaintance of the Prisoner, Thomas Bridge. The witness, John Wilsted, claimed that Bridge came to him on the day of June 6th, 1739 and told him that his wife had been murdered and that he had done it. He continued his explanation and launched into his sensational story as to how she died. Wilsted told the courtroom that it was clear that Bridge was covered in blood, had been drinking, and had a few slight cuts on his nose and brow.
John Wilsted’s testimony raises a few questions. It seems odd that Thomas Bridge would not attempt to flee the scene of the crime, if he had indeed stabbed his wife. He clearly confesses that he did murder his wife to Mr. Wilsted. But why, if there is any reason, did he decide to seek out John Wilsted the morning of June 5th, 1739?
Bridge claimed that he did not flee his home because he was innocent. But how can someone claim to have murdered someone and insist that they are innocent? The story, and perhaps some answers, became clearer as the testimonies from witnesses continued.
Another witness, Richard Slakman, claimed that he shared a drink with Bridge after following them back to their home with his wife. He claims that it was apparent that Bridge was too intoxicated to make it home on his own. While at the Bridge home, Slakman, claimed that the couple argued, Bridge rather aggressively, over alcohol. Bridge demanded that Elizabeth go fetch them more alcohol but she refused. However, when he left the house, the couple “seem’d to be in Friendship together”.
Slakman’s testimony revealed underlying problems in the Bridge marriage. It is clear from Slakman’s testimony that Thomas Bridge was a man with a short fuse. He was not afraid to become aggressive with his wife if it meant getting his way. It is also apparent that Elizabeth Bridge was not the type of woman to shy away from confrontation. These are some of the factors that may have played a role in her untimely death.
The oddest piece of witness testimony came from one of the Bridge’s neighbors, Mary Shields. She claimed that at 10 o’clock at night, on the evening of the murder, she saw Thomas Bridge leave his house with a stick in one hand and a six-year-old child in the other. Bridge dropped the child on a doorstep nearby and left. Shields left her own house and returned the child back to the Bridge residence, but she did not see Thomas Bridge again that night. This piece of testimony is telling as it reveals that Bridge either removed his child from the home before the murder to avoid a witness, or he removed his child after the murder perhaps out of fear.
Hannah Coles, another lodger in the Bridge home, said that she heard a series of thumps coming from the Bridge’s chamber the night of the murder.
“I supposed they were fighting, for they were given to quarrel, but I never had any concerns with them and I thought it ‘twas no Business of mine…” – Hannah Coles
Hannah Coles’ testimony is the most telling and most disturbing piece of evidence in the trial of Thomas Bridge. It is clear from what she heard that the murder of Elizabeth Bridge was no perfect accident. Thomas Bridge murdered her in cold blood. While it was not uncommon for a husband to assert himself as dominant over his wife in the eighteenth century, Coles’ testimony continues on to reveal that Bridge crossed the line and went from asserting his dominance to abusing his wife.
It would appear as though the Jury of the Thomas Bridge trial found the prosecution’s witness testimony to be true. In fact, Thomas Bridge’s defense may have helped sway the Jury as well. During Bridge’s defense it was revealed that between the times of the murder and the trial, which took place July 18th 1739, Thomas Bridge had taken a new wife. The trial transcript gives no further information on Bridge’s new wife. However this information raises an obvious question: Did Thomas Bridge murder his wife in order to take another? It certainly seems as though he did, and the Jury agreed.
Thomas Bridge was found guilty for the murder of his wife Elizabeth Bridge. He was sentenced to Death. The trial transcript does not specify how Thomas Bridge’s sentence was carried out.
What’s the Deal?
If you are left feeling a little bit overwhelmed after all of the information the witnesses of this trial gave… Don’t worry.
You are not alone there.
After reviewing the trial I felt the same way. The Thomas Bridge case certainly tells a sensational story, but what is the deal? Why does this particular case matter? What does it say about the culture of eighteenth century England?
There were two aspects of this trial that jumped out at me. The first was the presence and role of alcohol in the murder of Elizabeth Bridge. The second was the numerous clues that witnesses gave that led me to believe that Elizabeth Bridge was almost certainly a victim of domestic violence.
Alcohol and the Gin Epidemic of the 18th Century
The Thomas Bridge trial clearly shows that the consumption of alcohol was a problem for both Bridge and his wife as both were said to be drawn to the bottle. However, was that the case for the eighteenth century British society at large? The answer is of course, yes.
During the eighteenth century, London was at war with a ‘gin epidemic’ (complete information of the Gin Epidemic can be found here and below). According to the link above, the ‘gin epidemic’ raged in England between 1720 and 1751. The consumption of gin in London began before 1720 and continued after 1751, but it was at its peak during this time. The different kinds of alcohol and who consumed them during the eighteenth century can tell us about different class cultures of the time. The two basic class divisions that existed in the eighteenth century were the upper class ‘genteels’ and the lower class ‘laborers’. Usually, the consumption of alcohols like beer were associated with the upper class and was seen as an acceptable beverage. Gin, on the other hand, was associated with the poor, lower class.
While alcohol itself was more of a contributing factor to problems rather than a problem itself, many of London’s upper class claimed that alcohol, especially gin, was the reason that the lower class were lazy and prone to criminal activity. This of course is a major oversimplification of the time, but it was an accepted ideology in London during the eighteenth century.
Domestic Violence during the 18th Century
Many of the witnesses in the Thomas Bridge trial attested to the fact that Bridge and his wife argued a lot. Hannah Coles testified that she heard the Bridge’s fighting loudly enough and with enough vigor that she thought “the Things upon the Shelves in my Room would have been shook down”. Another witness, Sarah Miller, claimed that she saw that Elizabeth Bridge once had an unexplained black eye. And finally, one of the witnesses in defense of Thomas Bridge claimed about Elizabeth Bridge that he had never seen a woman so turbulent and passionate in his life. He was not being complimentary in his commentary.
Much of the testimony of the Thomas Bridge case points to some sort of marital abuse occurring in the Bridge marriage. However, was this a normal occurrence in the eighteenth century? It certainly continues to happen today, but what kinds of laws were in place to protect victims of domestic violence, if any?
Greg T. Smith’s journal article, “Expanding the Compass of Domestic Violence in the Hanoverian Metropolis”, helps to shed some light on the ins and outs of domestic violence in the eighteenth century (here). However, a more personal look at domestic violence at the time can be found at the Wonders and Marvels website. This short anecdote on the story Mary Eleanor Bowes shows just how brutal domestic violence could be at the time.
According to the anecdote of Bowes, “wife beating was both widely tolerated and sanctioned by law in the 18th century England”. Wife beating was a form of punishment that was performed to ensure a ‘correction’ in the wife’s behavior. In fact, a judge in the eighteenth century specified that it was acceptable for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, as long as it was not wider that his thumb. These sorts of atrocious behaviors were allowed throughout the eighteenth century and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that any sort of legal protection for abuse victims was introduced.
The trial of Thomas Bridge has the makings of an odd case. There are numerous witness accounts of odd behavior on Bridge’s behalf and Bridge’s attempt at a defense is rather odd in nature. Who would really believe that his wife passed out in a drunken stupor, directly onto a knife that he was holding while spreading cheese on a piece of bread. It seems rather unbelievable that Bridge thought his defense could actually hold up on trial. Obviously, given the verdict and his subsequent death sentence, he was very, very wrong.
This trial tells us a lot about how ‘lower class’ citizens lived in eighteenth century Britain. There were plenty of people with alcohol problems and there was plenty of alcohol to go around. As is consistent with situations where alcohol is involved today, you can have too much of a good thing. As for domestic violence, women were forced to suffer in silence. There was very little legislation for victim protection, if any. Elizabeth Bridge was one of the many silent victims of the time and unfortunately her situation turned deadly.
Do you think it is obvious that Thomas Bridge murdered his wife? What do you think of his explanation? Could Elizabeth Bridge have really passed out and fallen directly onto a knife her husband was holding and killed herself? What about the alcohol involved? Should we view this trial as a warning in regards to alcohol consumption? How do you feel about Elizabeth Bridge’s situation before she died?
I would love to hear anything you have to say about the trial itself or the cultural aspects it involved, just leave a comment below!