The 18th Century was a difficult time for women, and the legal system was no exception. Women were deemed the property of their fathers, brothers, and husbands and considered to be the “lesser” being. Because of these perceptions, if a woman murdered the dominant male figure in her life there were grave implications. This type of murder could even be considered petty treason, which was punishable by being burned at the stake. This notion of male-hierarchy placed women at an even further disadvantage in an already questionable legal system. There are countless trials that exhibit this inequality, where women were condemned simply because of the perceptions surrounding them as a woman.
Today we have the ability to look at many of these legal events because of the Old Bailey site that has electronically recorded the proceedings that occurred in the Old Bailey Courthouse. Let’s explore one of these trials and get a better understanding of the difficulties women faced, as well as get a better sense as to how the legal system functioned in the 18th century.
The trial of Elizabeth Roberts (Bostock) is of particular interest. Elizabeth Roberts was accused of petty treason and killing her husband, Richard Bostock on the 22nd of May, 1725. Richard died of stab wound to the left side of his body. Elizabeth’s trial was held at the Old Bailey on the 30th of June, 1725. There were a number of witnesses who spoke at the trial, as well as Elizabeth’s own defence statement. I will provide a detailed summary of what happened during that fateful trial.
Watchman Ball was the first to speak. Ball described hearing a jumble in the Bostock household between 11 and 12 at night. Perusing the noise, Ball said he went to the door and Elizabeth answered. Ball said that Elizabeth requested the Watchman to call for her husband at the Cock Alehouse. Ball noted that he was surprised of their marital status and commented on how “they lived an abominable life together”. Ball said he did not fulfill her request, but came back at the end of his round to find Richard standing with the door ajar. According to Ball, when he approached the door Elizabeth came running down the stairs completely nude and proceeded to slam the door, pushing Richard unto the street. Ball said he heard quarrelling after that, but did not bother to investigate further as his shift was ending. Later, Ball told the court he heard someone yelling for the watchman and sent for the constable. Ball then stated the constable found Richard dead on the floor and drenched in blood.
Nicholas Cooper was the next to speak. Cooper’s social status and relation to Elizabeth and Richard is not shared in the trial notes. Cooper remembered hearing Elizabeth calling for the watchmen and asking Cooper to come inside to help her husband. In this statement, Cooper said that Elizabeth believes Richard passed out drunkenly; however, Cooper said he told her that he was very much dead. Cooper then stated that Elizabeth said, “I am afraid I have given him an unhappy Blow. – For God’s Sake call a Surgeon”.
The constable, Nathaniel West spoke after Cooper. West said that he went to the residence around 1 in the morning and found Elizabeth sitting in a melancholic state with the deceased body sitting at her feet and his head draped on her lap. West presented Richard’s bloody clothing to the courtroom as evidence from the scene. The constable then concluded his statement by saying on several previous occasions he has heard Elizabeth screaming “murder!”, suggesting a history of quarrelling
Swarton, who was another watchman, proceeded next. Swarton said he was on duty around 11 at night near the Bostock residence. He said he saw Richard standing outside his house waiting to get in for a considerable amount of time. Swarton said that another woman who lived in the house came to let him in. Swarton recalled there being cries of “murder!” and presumed that Richard was beating Elizabeth. Swarton stated that Richard then came outside to talk to him and told Swarton that he had given Elizabeth a good beating. Swarton said that when he told Richard not to beat his wife Richard replied, “My Wife! says he, Damn her, a Bitch, she’s none of my Wife, and I’ll turn her a-drift to-morrow.” Swarton then concluded that he left and came back only after Richard had died and that Elizabeth stated Richard had done it to himself.
Joseph Barker was a neighbour of Elizabeth and Richard and spoke after Swarton. He recalled that he and his wife were lying in bed when they heard a ruckus below. Barker stated that they did not think much of it, as it was a common occurrence. Barker said that when he was called down after Richard had died Elizabeth said that Richard had inflicted it on himself.
After all of the testimonies, the surgeon gave his statement that Richard’s cause of death was indeed a stab wound that pierced his lung through his 7th and 8th rib.
Finally, Elizabeth gave her defence. Elizabeth stated that she had been working late and retired to bed, as she was very tired. Elizabeth said that Richard then came up and beat her “barbarously” and pulled her out of bed and pulled off all her clothes. Elizabeth stated that this was a frequent occurrence and she would usually go downstairs in an attempt to calm him down and coax him to bed. Elizabeth also stated that she was never married to Richard. However, Elizabeth said that she did not go down as soon as she would have normally and believed that Richard stabbed himself out of drunken vexation. She stressed that his intent was most likely not to kill himself, but an attempt to terrify her. Elizabeth supposed that when he realized the wound was deep he went to clean himself and then fainted, which is where she claimed to have found him. Elizabeth also refuted Mr. Cooper’s statement and said, “as to what Mr. Cooper swore about my saying I had given the Deceased an unhappy Blow, he mistook my Words; for I said, that the Deceased had given me many an unhappy Blow.”
The jury acquitted Elizabeth for charges of petty treason, but convicted her of the murder of Richard Bostock and sentenced her to death.
For more interesting information on the trial check out these links to the original texts!
What Does This Mean?
As you can tell from reading this summary, it is a very complex and disturbing situation surrounding Elizabeth Roberts. I did not want to leave many details out, as I believe Elizabeth’s innocence is found in those details. This detailed summary allows us in the 21st century to look at the extremely detrimental perceptions and predicaments women faced in the 18th Century courtroom and society in general.
One of the most prevalent and intriguing aspects of this case is the reference to Richard’s abusive behaviour towards Elizabeth. Every one of the courtroom speakers mentioned witnessing Richard’s violent behaviour towards Elizabeth either the night of his murder or previously. Despite all of these accounts of both physical and verbal abuse, Elizabeth’s guilt is not questioned in the end. This shows how little consideration was given to Elizabeth’s living conditions with Richard. It also allows us to understand what it meant for a women to be considered “property” and how many women were treated as property by the dominant males in their life.
Because of 18th century perceptions, Elizabeth was essentially doomed from the beginning. Being a female immediately placed her at lower social power during this era in general, let alone the patriarchal courtroom. There is also the issue concerning the reveal that Elizabeth and Richard had been living together when they were not in fact married. Because this era demanded either virginal or marital chastity, it was a big problem that Elizabeth was living with a man out of wedlock. Not only is Elizabeth a female, but she is considered a “tarnished” woman, because of her presumed sexual relations with a man she is not married to. If Elizabeth had any chance at all going into this trial, that information would have almost without a doubt persuaded the court away from her innocence.
Elizabeth’s court defence is very interesting as well. Elizabeth is extremely well spoken in her final plea of life. She remains calm in her language and presents a logical alibi for Richard’s death. Acknowledging Richard’s abuse to her was both brave of Elizabeth and aligned to what every witness stated. There is some evidence that perhaps Richard had also raped her, as he had ripped off her clothes; however, she never mentions sexual abuse specifically. This could relate to the modesty issue of the 18th century. Perhaps Elizabeth purposely left that out to better her position of the court. It could also represent the blurred lines surrounding what was considered sexual abuse during this time. Elizabeth also makes an intelligent refute to Mr. Cooper’s statement that she had given Richard an “unhappy Blow.” This shows that Elizabeth was able minded and also understood how to provide a good courtroom argument. Yet, even with these tools and intelligence, Elizabeth was not able to persuade the court.
The trial setup itself comments on the issues that Elizabeth faced as a woman in this situation. Everyone that testified was male (even though the neighbour’s wife also heard what happened the night of Richard’s death). Even with multiple testimonies that supported Elizabeth’s defence, it was all discredited in the end. The Old Bailey jury was also completely male, which left Elizabeth alone to fight for herself in the courtroom as a female. Despite the petty treason charges being dropped, Elizabeth was still convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
For more info on gender and crime during this era check this out! http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gender.jsp#genderjustice
Did She Do It?!
So, was Elizabeth innocent? Did Elizabeth kill Richard? Or did he kill himself in a drunken rampage? Although we can never know for sure, that will not stop me from theorizing! I believe Elizabeth is innocent. Elizabeth’s account matches the multiple descriptions of Richard’s drunken, abusive behavior. It is very plausible that a disturbed and drunken man like Bostock would accidentally stab himself. However, I believe Elizabeth is innocent regardless of whether or not she killed Richard Bostock. Even if she killed Richard, I would deem her the right of self-defense. If this trial happened in the 21st Century Elizabeth’s case would definitely be implicated with rights to self-defense. But, this sadly did not apply to Elizabeth. Because of her situation as a female in the 18th century and because of the 18th century law concepts, the court did not acknowledge her right to self-defense.
Overall, I found this trial to be quite disturbing. Elizabeth faced a life of abuse and ultimately paid for it with her own life. This societal construct is something that women in general would have to face during the 18th century. On relative terms, I am personal thankful that Elizabeth was acquitted for petty treason and did not have to face the stake. Perhaps acquitting Elizabeth of petty treason was some minuscule way of the court acknowledging Elizabeth’s abusive situation, but that is probably a generous stretch and still does not make me feel any better about Elizabeth’s tragic fate. Overall, Elizabeth’s trial is an excellent window for us in the 21st century to look into the 18th century courtroom. This trial allows us to analyze the very serious societal and legal implications for women during this era. I would say that in the 21st Century we can rely on a more unbiased legal system than the 18th century. I also believe that there is a better understanding of abuse victim’s rights. Unfortunately, it is definitely not eradicated and we still see these legal injustices happen in tragic cases like the recent Steubenville rape trial.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog and I hope you have gained some valuable insight into the societal and legal structure of the 18th century!
What do you think about this trial? Do you think about Elizabeth’s verdict? Was this a fair trial? What does this say about the 18th Century? And how far do you think the 21st century legal system and women’s rights have come since the 18th century?
Let’s get some discussion going! Leave a comment below & take the poll!