Cheese-Bread with a Side of Murder: The Thomas Bridge Trial

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?

The Trial:

images

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:

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.

The Verdict:

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

1273090626_top-10-gins_10

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

domestic-violence

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Your Thoughts?

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!

Advertisements

3 comments on “Cheese-Bread with a Side of Murder: The Thomas Bridge Trial

  1. gregorymoase says:

    Hi Maggie, I remember you once stating that your favourite part of any essay was choosing a great title! I really like this ‘catchy’ title as it gives just enough information to draw the reader in to here your story. I would suggest instead of saying ‘didn’t’ or other such words they should be expressed as ‘did not’. I just find it would create better flow and appear more formal. How exactly did his wife impale herself? Do you have anyway to further describe this matter?
    From the portion of the trial your first link will not open properly for me. You also mention: “Another witness, Richard Slakman, claimed that he shared a drink with Bridge after following them back to their home with his wife when it was apparent that Bridge was too intoxicated to make it home on his own.” This is slightly a bit of a run-on sentence. It may be a good idea to divide these into two sentences. I found in some certain areas some of the language was a little colloquial. I am not quite sure if this matters, but it might be worth the time to assess some of the word choice.
    I agree that these trials can be a little difficult to understand. Your research outside of the topic was excellent. Within your discussion you mention: “The two basic class divided that existed in the eighteenth century were the upper class ‘genteels’ and the lower class ‘laborers’.” I think instead of ‘divided’ you may mean ‘divisions’ here. In the next sentence after this instead of saying ‘was’ it should say ‘were’.

    • gregorymoase says:

      I also like your analysis of comparing the trial to historical and relatable background material at the time. Overall I found you gave a very solid argument to your trial. I really believe that Thomas Bridge did kill his wife and had such a sorry excuse as to lie about it. It would have been interesting to learn more regarding the mistress he had shortly after his wife’s death. One could wonder if she would have faced the same demise. It isn’t quite clear from your trial what may have been a possible motive. Do you think this mistress had any effect on his discussion or was alcohol to blame. It isn’t known for sure, but I would speculate that Thomas Bridge may have been an alcoholic. I base this opinion on the past evidence of him beating his wife. While others mentioned in their testimony mention they had really been a nice couple it is most likely Thomas’ other side was manifest in his stupor. I am quite sympathetic towards Elizabeth Bridge.
      I really enjoyed reading your writing. Your information of cultural aspects fit closely within your analysis of the trial. I would only recommend making sure all of your links work, possibly add some pictures for effect, correct some of the slight writing errors, word choice, etc. If you want to add some more of your own speculation that might be great as well. It is nice to incorporate your own thoughts. These are all just minor issues I have given to you for suggestion. Don’t think because I mentioned this advice that they should be included. There is no problem with the information presented. Just the extra steps in format are needed. A great first draft I must say!
      Thanks, Gregory.

  2. vanessae365 says:

    Maggie, this post made me LOL right from the beginning. I thought you did a great job incorporating your voice! I could definitely imagine you saying some of these sarcastic quips if we were talking about this case in class. It really made it all the more interesting to read! I loved the title, the quick links were convenient, and I liked how you added specific quotes for evidence in your summary of the trial.

    While I don’t have a lot of grammatical or stylistic criticisms because I found the piece to be very well written, I do have some confusion I wanted to bring up. You say that Hannah Coles’ testimony is why it’s clear that Thomas murdered Elizabeth, but I don’t see how since her quote just says they were fighting, and you note later how fighting within 18th century homes was commonplace. If you could clarify this point a bit further I think it would help a lot. Also, I found Shields’ testimony on Bridge leaving his house with a stick and a six-year-old child and leaving the child similarly disturbing? Could you explain what this meant? Or if it isn’t really of importance you could leave it out, I just didn’t quite understand the significance.

    One little confusion I had was when you say “The Thomas Bridge trial clearly shows that the consumption of alcohol was a problem for both Bridge and his wife” I wonder did Elizabeth have a drinking problem as well? Or did you mean that Bridge’s drunken behavior caused problems for Elizabeth? Maybe I read too quickly but I don’t remember this being clarified.

    I know the introduction states Thomas said: “Elizabeth Bridge, accidentally impaled herself on a knife he was holding while drunkenly preparing a piece of cheese bread.” And later: “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.”, so if you could mention that Elizabeth was drunk too in the beginning it might make it more clear. Another example of where I got confused was in the lines: “While at the Bridge home, Slakman, claimed that the couple argued, Bridge rather aggressively, over alcohol.” were they fighting over the drunkenness or were they fighting while consuming alcohol?

    Next, I found your point on Bridge taking a new wife very intriguing! Was there more information on this? I understand the Old Bailey site can be really convoluted but if you can find more details on this and put it into the trial section of your post I think it would make it even that much more incriminating. Lastly, a small correction in Bridge’s description of his wife under the heading “Domestic Violence in the 18th Century”, I think you mean ‘complimentary’ rather than ‘complementary’.

    All in all, I really liked the set-up of your blog with the different sections and headings. I thought it was great that you concluded the case with major two aspects of the 18th century and related it to the case. It’s clear did an awesome job with this blog Maggie. To answer your questions, I do think Thomas Bridge did kill his wife. His explanation is not convincing to me in the slightest. I think the alcohol had some to do with his thought process that night, but because he had a wife on the side, I think he was already planning on getting rid of Elizabeth in some way or another… I also feel very outraged and sympathetic for what Elizabeth had to endure upcoming to her death. You did a great job of exposing the injustice of 18th century life for women in this post, all while keeping it interesting and entertaining, so bravo!

    Vanessa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s