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Jealousy, bigamy, gin and a ghost: The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

Hanging outside Newgate Prison early 19th century

At 8 o’clock on Monday 18 September 1815, 51 year old Thomas Bedworth was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his on/off lover Elizabeth Beesmore. The details of the murder although vicious were no different to most other crimes of passion, except in one way, Thomas Bedworth claimed that he had been driven to confess in order to put an end to the relentless harrying of Elizabeth’s ghost.

Bedworth’s background

Bedworth was born in 1764 in Bloxidge in Staffordshire. According to him although his parents were good, honest people and tried to keep him on the right path, he was often in trouble. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a brindle bit and stirrup maker in Walsall but left after he had completed the apprenticeship in 1782. He eventually found himself in London and went to work at a factory owned by Mr Rowley in Drury Lane. He left in 1795 when he signed up to join the army.

A bigamous marriage

During his time in London he married Mary Bainer, the daughter of a tradesman from Soho with whom he had three children. He left the army in 1803 and went with family to Birmingham. In 1804 he joined the navy where he gained a reputation as a good sailor. He was discharged in 1813. On returning to his wife he found she had bigamously married again and had three children from this union.

The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

Shortly afterwards he met up with Elizabeth Beesmore who had been deserted by her husband and left destitute with a child. They took up together and Bedworth promised to provide for her as long as she had no contact with her estranged husband. This she agreed to and they pledged themselves to each other to be as husband and wife. To make matters even more complicated she also happened to be the sister of Mary Bainer and so Thomas Bedworth’s sister-in-law.

Detail from William Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of Day’ series. 1738. Public Domain.

They were together for two years when out of the blue John Beesmore returned to London looking for his wife. Thomas was outraged, Elizabeth had broken her word and worse still was giving Beesmore money. Bedworth moved out and took up other lodgings. Attempts on both parties to reconcile failed and during the last altercation Elizabeth announced that she was returning to her husband. Hearing this news a jealous Bedworth vowed to kill Elizabeth.

On the 20 June 1815 Bedworth, his mood heightened by gin, made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms armed with a shoemaker’s knife. On the way he met a woman (Sarah Collis) who lived in the same lodgings as Elizabeth who told him that she was not at home. He and Sarah decided to go for a drink to wait for Elizabeth’s return.

Later he arrived at Elizabeth’s obviously drunk and she allowed him to sleep it off. On awaking he left (without his shoes and coat) and went back to the dram shop, had more gin and returned. He drank tea laced with gin provided by Elizabeth and announced he was going. Before he left, he called Elizabeth to the kitchen where she embraced him and he conflicted “between jealous passion and strong affection” drew his knife and slashed her throat, nearly severing it from her body. He then made his escape.

Cruelty in perfection (Plate III)

Willliam Hogarth. 1751. The Four Stages of Cruelty, Cruelty in perfection (Plate III). Public Domain.

Ghostly recriminations

Bedworth recounts that he first went to Spa-fields where under the cover of darkness he got rid of his blood-splattered apron and then wandered to Regent’s Park where he threw the knife into the canal. He spent the day hiding in Hampstead. It was during that night that he first heard the agonising moans which filled him with ‘disquietude and alarm’.

The next night, which he spent in St Albans, he heard the terrible sounds again and a voice which he recognised as belonging to Elizabeth, crying ‘Oh Bedworth! Bedworth! What have you done?…You have deprived me of all the happiness of this life’. Bedworth terror-stricken prayed for the apparition to leave him in peace.

The nightly visitations continued and grew worse. Tormented by guilt he wandered the streets of London until he came to Highgate Hill. There he saw Elizabeth’s grisly ghost in front of him, she walked by his side and taking his hand placed it on her severed throat. Bedworth fled in terror and lying down in a field felt her lay down alongside him.

Thomas Beesmore.

Thomas Bedworth. Detail from his Confessions. 1815. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

Driven out of his mind and despite being by this time wanted by the police Bedworth managed to obtain a ‘walking pass’ from the Magistrates Public Office and left London. He eventually found himself in Coventry. Although still on the run he had at last come to terms with his guilt. The haunting had also ended. After arriving in Horsley, the torment returned and unable to cope any longer he went back to Coventry where on the 6 July he turned himself in. He was arrested and brought back to London where he signed his confession in front of a magistrate.

The confession of Thomas Bedworth

Frontispiece of Thomas Bedworth's confessions.

1815 Edition of the Confessions of Thomas Bedworth. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

The above account of the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore is taken directly from a statement made by Bedworth the night before his execution[1]. He told his story to witnesses, one of whom wrote it down and produced an 18-page pamphlet costing 6 pence a copy. As always with first-hand accounts it is difficult to know how trustworthy the narrator is and some of the details vary significantly from the two witnesses, Sarah Collis and another friend, Ann Webber who were present at the time of the murder[2]. At the trial Bedworth argued with them causing the judge to admonish the defendant who he believed was trying to recant. Bedworth denied the accusation explaining that he just wanted everything to be accurate such as the murder weapon being a shoemaker’s knife and not a razor.

The major difference surrounds the supposed reappearance of John Beesmore. Bedworth claimed his return was the motive behind Elizabeth’s murder but Sarah Collis stated at the trial that Bedworth moved out due to a dispute with Elizabeth’s son, also called John (even Bedworth admits to arguing with John the day of the murder)[3]. Neither Collis or Webber mentioned Elizabeth estranged husband. It is difficult to know who to believe; maybe Bedworth thought that a crime of passion would gain more sympathy with the general public than a senseless murder committed by a drunk. It is also strange that if involved, John Beesmore never appeared to give evidence at the trial especially if Bedworth was telling the truth and Elizabeth had decided to go back to him.

It took less than an hour for the jury to bring in a guilty verdict of wilful murder. The judge sentenced Bedworth to hang on the following Monday and his body to be given to the surgeons to dissect and anatomise. He also hoped that Bedworth would spend the time he had left repenting and berated Bedworth for taking away Elizabeth’s chance to confess her own sins and die at peace.

A ghastly visitation

So on to Elizabeth’s ghost. The unique aspect of this case was Thomas Bedworth’s assertion that he had been plagued by the restless spirit of Elizabeth who pushed him to the brink of insanity and forced him to confess. Despite many attempts to convince people that ghosts and spirits did not exist through both religious arguments and scientific investigations, the belief persisted. Why a ghost would appear varied but general consensus was that it was more likely if the person had met a violent end and stories of ghosts seeking revenge for their untimely demise were told and retold in all parts of the country. So to many Bedworth’s account would have been entirely credible.

Setting aside the argument that Elizabeth’s ghost was real; the only other logical conclusion is that the ghost had been a figment of Bedworth’s imagination. How and why did Bedworth’s mind conjure up this hallucination can be attributed to two possible causes; alcohol and guilt.

 “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey.  It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away.”[4]

William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane. Public Domain.

The above is the first verse of a poem which accompanied Hogarth’s print of ‘Gin Lane’ and it really says it all. Although since the 1751 Gin Act, gin was no longer viewed as the devil as it had been in the first half of the 1700s[5], its popularity did return during in the early 19th century. Gin could be easily bought in ‘dram shops’ which flourished in areas of extreme poverty and unemployment. Dram shops were small shops where you could either drink the gin there and then or take it away with you[6]. Later these small shops were overtaken by the popular Gin Palaces which sprung up in London in the Late Victorian period.

Then as now people drank to drown their sorrows and forget the misery of their lives, if you were drunk then you couldn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Gin was cheap and strong and easily available[7]. It is noticeable that Bedworth was in the days leading up to the murder pretty much constantly drunk. A witness’ testimony that Bedworth’s was a ‘very quiet man when sober, but when drunk he used to swear a little’[8] seems odd considering Bedworth’s drunken, murderous exclamation at the Two Spies Public House that ‘it would be blood for blood’[9]. All involved on the day of the murder including Elizabeth herself were drinking gin even if it was diluted in water.

Even in the 1800s drinking in excess was understood to be one of the triggers behind ghost sightings. Gin in excess was believed to cause ‘terrible hangovers, depression, anger or even insanity[10]. If it was the effects of the drink which led Bedworth to murder Elizabeth then it must have been the withdrawal from alcohol, the DTs which caused Bedworth to hallucinate the spirit of Elizabeth raised from the grave. Side effects of DTs include ‘nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating[11]. Maybe if Bedworth had been sober he would never have killed Elizabeth.

The Gin Shop. Cruikshank. 1829.

The product of a distorted mind

The most famous work in English literature depicting a descent into madness through guilt is Macbeth. Macbeth during the banquet scene sees the gory apparition of his murdered friend, Banquo and murmurs ‘when the brains were out, the man would die; and there an end, but now they risen again[12] This line encapsulates perfectly the struggle between logic and irrationality and the slow crumbling of a mind at war with itself.

Even in the Victorian period it was accepted that ghosts could be a product of illnesses such as melancholy which could lead to madness. The warning signs of melancholy included dejection, sadness, gloominess and haunting dreams. In many ways it is the modern equivalent of depression with the exception of hallucinations and visions. Melancholy was said to be the result of ghost stories told in childhood as well as anxiety brought on by religious enthusiasm, fear of bewitchment, grieving and guilt[13]. Murderers were known to see their victims and there are countless more recent reports of killers being haunted by the spirits of those whose lives they took.

One famous example is Al Capone who masterminded the murder in 1929 of seven members of a rival gang including James Clark. Shortly after Capone was arrested, his guards ‘would later report that he [Capone] would let out bloodcurdling screams, shouting for Jimmy to leave him alone’[14]. For the rest of his life Capone would see Clark’s ghost, he even hired a medium to banish the spirit but to no avail. [15]

So it is very likely that Bedworth’s guilty conscience did contribute to the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost.

The haunting immortalized

Dickens never claimed to have used the story of Bedworth’s haunting and deranged ramblings as inspiration for his depiction of Sikes wild behaviour, frenzied wandering and hallucinations after the murder of Nancy but the parallels are clear.

He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell… At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always. [16]

It would be odd if Dickens hadn’t known about the murder since his friend, the artist George Cruikshank and illustrator of Oliver Twist had produced the frontispiece for another friend William Hone, whose pamphlet concerned ‘The Horrid Murder of Elizabeth Beesmore’. After Dickens death, Cruikshank claimed that the idea for Oliver Twist was his[17].

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Elizabeth’s revenge

In my opinion the most likely theory for the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost is guilt mixed with the effects of alcohol withdrawal but I do think that Bedworth did genuinely believe himself to be haunted by Elizabeth’s ghost. The loss of his grasp on reality can be detected in a newspaper article on the trial which reported that Bedworth appeared ‘insensible of the awful situation in which he stood, and was smiling and talking to all the persons about him[18].

Whatever the reason behind Elizabeth’s murder, whether jealousy, anger or drink one thing is certain ghost or not, Elizabeth did finally get her revenge.

Gin glass.

Here’s to Mrs Beesmore’s spectral revenge.

Bibliography

William Hogarth – Gin Lane.jpg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane.jpg

Delirium tremens, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delirium_tremens

The Haunted: Social history of ghosts, Owen Davies, 2007

The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 68, Philological Society, July-December 1815

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

British Executions, http://www.britishexecutions.co.uk/execution-content.php?key=3705&termRef=Thomas%20Bedworth

1800 – 1827 Public executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1800.html 

Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, Peter Marshall, 2004

Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Bridget Walsh, 2014

10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost, http://listverse.com/2017/08/04/10-murderers-haunted-by-their-victims-ghost/ 

The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth: delivered to one of the principal officers of Newgate, the night before his execution, onSeptember 18, 1815, for the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore, in Drury Lane, Thomas Bedworth, https://archive.org/details/powerofconscienc00bedwiala

Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures, (ed.) Robert L. Patten, 2016

Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16, https://newspaperarchive.com/courier-sep-16-1815-p-2/

Gender and Crime, 1815-1834, Julie C. Tatlock, Marquette University, 2009

Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18150913-1-defend50&div=t18150913-1#highlight

Gin Craze, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_Craze

Gin Palace, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_palace

How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the Spirits World: Why do some people fear gin?, Chaim Dauermann, 1 June 2015, https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/6/1/8700045/why-gin-a-look-at-the-roots-of-why-some-fear-this-familiar-jNotes[1] The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth [2] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815 [3] Ibid [4] William Hogarth – Gin Lane.jpg [5] Gin Craze [6] Gin Palace [7] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts [8] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16 [9] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815 [10] How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the SpiritWorld [11] Delirium tremens [12] Macbeth Act III, Scene IV, Shakespeare [13] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts [14] 10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost [15] Ibid [16] Oliver Twist [17] Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures [18] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16

#Ghosts #confessions #ThomasBedworth #ElizabethBeesmore #spectres #newgate #alchohol #Hauntings #guilt #nineteenthcenturycrime #domesticviolence #Dickens #hanging #gin

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