Life, Trial, Condemnation and Execution of
Mrs Mary CHANNING (nee BROOKS)
for poisoning her husband, was strangled and burnt at the stake
©Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Dorchester & Fordington Oct 2009 (last updated July 2012)
at Maumbury Rings in Fordington on Thursday,
March 21st 1705/6
The place of execution - Maumbury Rings Fordington
Mary's name has only come down to us because of the tragic circumstances surrounding her death, and over the last 300 years four slightly differing accounts have appeared in print as follows. .
Research revealed that they all stem from a small 52 page booklet that was published in 1706 by a Benjamin Bragg of the Black Raven in Pater-Noster-Row London entitled "Serious Admonitions to Youth, a short account of the Life, Trial, Condemnation and Execution of Mrs Mary Channing". A copy is held in the British Library (1) in London from which this account is compiled. It is made up of five letters written at the publishers request for an account of Mary's crime, life and execution. Although none of the letters in the published account are signed, they were clearly written from information supplied by someone living in Dorchester at the time and the writer adds his own sermons on the evils of sin and the lessons to be learned from the tragic events that unfolded. I have updated the language but tried to keep many of the phrases used and omitted long sermons to his readers on the lessons to be learned.
John Hutchins for example included a paragraph about her in his famous book called “The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset” which was first published in 1860 ,
Thomas Hardy [1840-1928] bemoaned the lack of hard evidence and doubted her guilt in his short account in the Times Newspaper dated 9th October 1908 and used her fate as the basis of his poem 'The Mock Wife', recording some of the grislier details in his notebooks.
It was picked up again in “Highways and Byways of Dorset” published in 1914. by Sir Frederick Treves ,
And again “The Marches of Wessex” published 1922 by Harvey Darton.
Mary was the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth BROOKES, and was born at the beginning of May 1687 (2). She was born into a family that was relatively well off but being 'anabaptists' (3) the children were not baptised at birth. Mary herself was only baptised as an adult after she was found guilty of murder in 1705. Since before the time of the Rev. John WHITE Dorchester had been a center for non conformist religions so its not surprising to find anabaptists living here. Life was much harder in 17th century Dorchester compared to today. Less than two years before Mary's birth Judge Jeffreys had descended upon Dorchester and held his Bloody Assize in the town when he tried 312 prisoners of the Monmouth Rebellion, hanging 74 and transporting 175. As Mary grew up she would have known the Antelope Hotel just down the road in the high street where they had all been sentenced, as well as 6 High West Street where the famous judge had lodged in his Elizabethan styled house (now the restaurant, Judge Jeffreys ).
Her parents gave her the sort of education that in the early 18th century was deemed suitable for one of her sex and rank in society; namely she was taught to read and write. In both she attained a level of proficiency suitable for a girl of her station in a town like Dorchester. There were no distinguishing characteristics to her upbringing apart from what was then described as a tendency to "slutishness" (which by modern standards might perhaps be more accurately described as an untidy appearance and excessive casualness in her speech). There is speculation that this was occasioned by her mothers frequent absence from home, and too kind and loving a father, implying a lack of proper parental control and supervision. Among the lessons said to be learnt from this part of her life its not surprising to find reference to the 'consequences of neglect of a pious and regular education' and the lack of spiritual guidance during a crucial part of her upbringing. There is also reference to her father, Richard BROOKS having entered a new trade making the family better off so she was spared the fate of the majority of the population who had daily toil to occupy their time.
Her parents clearly tried to prepare her for presentation at social occasions, for example having her taught to dance, but their new found wealth meant she wanted for nothing, became spoilt and overindulgent. Having gained more liberty she formed her own acquaintances, initially with her neighbours, and 'began to delight too much in the vanities of entertainment'. Gradually her former 'sluttishness' changed into an 'affected gaiety' and gaudiness.
Her parents increased income meant that as she grew older, they could afford to send her on visits to Exeter and London. Their intention it was said was to 'reduce her rather rude and unpolished carriage into a decent comeliness', and give her 'a wider experience of the world' but again there appears to have been a lack of any supervision with the result that she became idle and continued her delight in less refined company to an even greater extent. On return to Dorchester she quickly took up her former acquaintance with her neighbours and started to use their house nightly for meeting others of her own age and sex. Inevitably this progressed into evenings with men only.
One young neighbour won her affections and they began to meet at friends houses and in inns at which she frequently bought him wine and whatever else she thought would please him. She gladly paid the whole charge for the sake of his company, and as a demonstration of her love she made him several presents of ruffles (4) and cravats, one of which being laced and flourished with gold was of considerable value. This was not the only expenditure however, as she also gave things of value to people who allowed her to use their houses for her private meetings with him. To continue in this way required a good supply of money and on several occasions she managed to persuade one of her confident's to collude with her in robbing her parents of significant sums of money. Her frequent meetings and entertainments with her lover although ostensibly private gradually became well known. As they became censured by the town ( the writer described it as 'not living within the bounds of modesty') some of her more reliable friends tried to warn her of the potential consequences, but to no avail.
The Olde Ship Inn - oldest pub in Dorchester built c1600 (picture by Mal Nichols)
Much of the original front elevation including the second floor original oak windows remain.
A section of the mantel from the original fireplace is now in the Dorchester Museum displayed with some original oak paneling taken from the wall.
Its great rival was the Antelope Hotel and we know of others like the "George" and the "Green Dragon"
In a town like Dorchester with strong Puritan roots some remonstrance was necessary. A close friend of the writer (possibly one of the towns preachers) on hearing of the situation and having known her for some time, took it upon himself to approach her to ensure she was aware of how their conduct was being viewed and the potentially ill consequences of such a life. He stressed the folly of trying to conceal her practices by lying and the calamities this must eventually bring upon her. He endeavoured to persuade her of the necessity of giving some serious thought to her current situation and to live a more regular and unblamable life. His attempts were initially met with anger and scorn and an undaunted justification of her actions. But not believing her to be innocent he pressed his exhortations. She grew calmer, thanked him for his care of her but declared she valued not the common censure of her conduct for she knew she did not deserve it. She professed that she loved the young man, her neighbour, but simply denied giving him presents, and wished she might never enter the Kingdom of Heaven if what she said were not true. The writers friend knowing her imprecations to be false and despairing for her future simply repeated his desire for her to more seriously consider her situation.
Her reaction to this sermon might be recognised by many a parent today, for we need to remember that she was still in her teenage years. Whether she set out to deceive the world by making them think her love for that young man was not so much as being reported, or whether she simply sought to take a greater fill of pleasure, the result was that she now actively sought out the company of several other young men in town. It was not difficult for her to achieve as she still attended the dancing school which met in Dorchester once a fortnight, and once the tutors had departed it was easy for an attractive young lady to entice young men to keep her company to the early hours. She also tried to gain admittance to all the private balls held in Dorchester, and not to be outdone organised one herself giving participants a handsome gift. She lied to her parents about the reason for the ball which she kept concealed from them by making use of a gentlewoman's house in town.
Entertaining now played a key role in her life to such an extent that she was never happy unless she was the center of attraction. She would frequently entertain several other women at her fathers house, as he was seldom at home. Her mother also being busy made scant enquiry into her conduct and Mary took care that when she was around there was nothing untoward to be seen. As soon as she left however, more expensive food, wine or punch was brought into the house. This made some of her companions uneasy, but she forced it upon them. By this means she succeeded in convincing her mother that she was but returning many kind and innocent entertainments given by her friends. Thus, evenings away from home with her young lover were more easily explained away as visits to the houses of her girlfriends. This was so successful that she ventured into more public entertainment for both sexes at a house she could command where a variety of food and drink was provided and the evening spent in gay abandon. Although this too was concealed from her parents she made too much 'noise' for this to remain private for long. A gentleman in town unacquainted with her family was sufficiently incensed by the impropriety of the gatherings that he informed her parents, first by messenger, and then by letter but her parents did not believe it. As her extravagance increased, however so did the flow of information to her parents who realised too late what was happening.
Marriage to Thomas CHANNING - 15th Jan 1704/5
The situation now hardened their resolve to get her married with the rather vain hope perhaps that a husband would exercise more control over her than they had been able to. Richard BROOKS made it known that a 'considerable fortune' would be given as her dowry and this not surprisingly brought forth suitors. One of these was Thomas CHANNING a young man from the Manor of Maiden Newton (5) a parish 8 miles north-west from Dorchester. The CHANNING family actually came from the small hamlet of Cruxton situated just south of the village on the River Frome, with Richard CHANNING a Gentleman being recorded as the owner of Higher 'Crookston' in 1654 and the family is known to have been still there in 1743. Maiden Newton was larger then having had its own market and fair from the time of Henry III, so the Channing family were of some importance in the town. Thomas was the second of seven children of Richard CHANNING by his wife Elizabeth BARTETT and was baptised at Mappowder in Dorset on 3rd June 1679 so he was eight years older than Mary. (18)
Cruxton Manor farmhouse originally built in the sixteenth century,
once thatched, now modernized.
Picture by Graham Horn
Thomas CHANNING, having recently completed his apprenticeship was now expected to marry and settle down, his father having established a shop in Dorchester for him to run (6). To Mary's parents he seemed an ideal companion for her so they 'pressed for the match', but her affections being engaged elsewhere, she expressed an uneasiness in his company and was scarce persuaded to be civil to him. Privately she declared in company that if her father forced her into marrying him contrary to her wishes she would make him a cuckold and wished some dreadful calamity might befall her. Although the extent of her aversion to him was not known to her parents, they were sensible enough to see that she had little respect for him, and that it was only in obedience to their commands that she suffered his company. He too was aware of her feelings and he started to fix his sights on another. Mrs BROOKS however was resolved to try everything possible to make her daughter recall him, especially when she became aware of the extent of some of her extravagances and the methods she had used to obtain money from them. After some sharp reprimands Mary was confined to her chamber for a number of days. Being deprived of her beloved entertainment and conversation she soon joyfully promised to mend her ways, but this had little affect other than to make her contrive a way to be free of her parents jurisdiction.
Marriage was the obvious solution but she could not entertain marrying Mr Channing so she persuaded one of her close friends to ask her lover. To her dismay he absolutely refused and leaving in high dungeon she returned home. Thus cornered she now began to look upon Mr Channing as a person who might be governed. The next day he was sent for and entertained by her in an entirely different and civil manner, and not suffered to depart before their marriage was agreed on to be in two days time.
Her marriage was initially arranged to be on Sunday 14th January 1704/5 but postponed by Mr CHANNING. Although the reason has not come down to us, we know Mary herself began to have doubts about proceeding. Her mother however was still resolved 'to have it done' and that evening at her brothers house pressed her to proceed. She argued the improbability of a happy life with her former lover against the certainty of one with Mr Channing whose father owned 'a plentiful estate' and Thomas himself was already settled into a good trade which promised a sufficient supply of income. As a result they were privately married at a neighbouring church the following morning the 15th January 1704/5 (7) when Mary was still only 18 years old and Thomas 25.
No sooner were they returned home than she had the company of her beloved neighbour together with some of his friends who had been her former companions. Several of both sex were sent for and others at the news of her marriage came voluntarily so that the wedding celebration became a public affair. The rest of the day and evening were spent dancing with Mary enjoying the companionship of her friends rather than showing any affection for her husband who she publicly ridiculed. When things finally settled down in the early hours, some guests stayed the night, Mary on joining her husband turned her back on him with 'scornful disdain', and could not be persuaded to change her posture despite repeated persuasions of some of her friends. The next day passed in a similar manner. The quick, rather secretive way the marriage was arranged, and the imprudent conduct that followed, caused much gossip about the town. Nothing was more censured however than the frivolous giving of 'wedding favours' by her mother to virtually everyone in town as she then refused to pay the cost of her own extravagance, providing us with a small insight to where at least some of Mary's moral upbringing may have been lacking. Mr CHANNING's parents were unaware of these proceedings. When they did realise what was happening they were extremely upset and embarrassed, but resolved to stand by their son and expressed a willingness to see their daughter-in-law and take some care of their welfare. Mary's father however had by now had enough and would bestow on them nothing but his blessing.
In the days that followed Mary's indifference to her husband continued and when he had to return to his business she initially refused to accompany him, only later being persuaded to do so. There she met with a different class of person, friends and business acquaintances who treated her for the sake of her husband with greater respect, and tried to show her a better way of living. She soon however began to grow weary of such company and made excuses to return to their home & into the arms of her former companions. Her love for her young neighbour was not diminished by her marriage and although she refrained from seeing him in public, they met privately and at one such tryst she presented him with a gold watch as a sign of her affection. Mary was therefore sliding with ease back into her former ways and probably in an effort to wean her of this company her husband persuaded her to accompany him on a visit to his parents where she met with a cordial reception. Playing the role of a more gentle and reserved wife however soon proved too restrictive for her so she took the opportunity to visit one of his uncles where, although still under some restriction, she felt she had more freedom. Thomas still needed to run his business so she remained there for several weeks showing no desire to return to her husband until his uncle tiring of her conversation finally persuaded her to return to Dorchester.
Again she fell in with her former companions who entertained her frequently at public houses and inns throughout Dorchester. Her 'treats' at home were likewise frequent and costly, seldom giving her friends anything but wine. Most of these entertainments were concealed from her husband, being made on Sundays whilst he was absent at church, or on other days when he was attending to his business. She now exercised almost no constraint upon her behaviour. At several private engagements her conversation was so lewd, and her actions so indecent that even the men who were present were ashamed of her company. Her conduct and extravagant expenditure again came to the attention of his father and convinced that she was ruining his son he put a stop to his credit in London. Her husband being cut off from credit and finding his goods daily decrease to fund her wanton life style began to have some thoughts of leaving her.
In the thirteenth week after their marriage a Mr NAIL (or Nayle) who had previously made some 'addresses' to her came to Dorchester and into her company. She showed more than an ordinary kindness providing a plentiful and costly entertainment, and prevailed upon her husband to quit his own bed to let him lie in it whilst she would be content with the maids bed.
On Monday April 16th 1705 Mary obtained some poison from a neighbouring Apothecary's maid and gave it to her husband the next morning in a dish of rice milk. On tasting it he complained that it made him feel sick and ate but a few spoonfuls. To prevent discovery of what she had done Mary threw the remainder into the privy and washed the dish. She had however so well seasoned it that even the small quantity which he took made him immediately ill. After about half an hour he was violently sick but thought nothing of it. A neighbours dog however ate part of his vomit and was immediately taken ill which aroused suspicion and a physician was sent for. He confirmed their opinion and gave Mr Channing medicine after which there appeared to be some hope of recovery. Later however pains began to increase again, occasioned it was thought at her trial by her giving him a second dose as unusually she stayed close with him throughout. On the Wednesday he was worse and clearly now believed that she had poisoned him as he hastily wrote his will leaving his entire estate to his father except for one shilling that he left his wife stating "having every good reason to give her no more". The leaving of one shilling in a will was fairly common practice at this date and used where a person who might normally be expected to inherit was being excluded. As such it was a simple and effective way of preventing them from contesting the Will as it showed that they had been considered. Normally it had no undue connotations as it would often be used to exclude children who had already received their inheritance either because they had been set up or taken over a business, or for females the inheritance would have been in her dowry on marriage. This was not the case here however.
Last Will & Testament of Thomas Channing
This is the last Will and Testament of me Thomas-
CHANING of Dorchester in the County of Dorset Grocer
Made this that eighteenth day of April in the
year of our Lord Christ according to the computation of the
Church of England One Thousand Seven Hundred and
Five I give all my estate real and personal unto my
dear father Richard CHANING gent saving only one
shilling I give my wife having every good reason to give
her no more. I make my said father my full and whole
executor of this my Will and Testament in witness
whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal the day and
year above written
Signed Tho: CHANING
Sealed, published and declared to
be the last will and Testament of the
said Thomas CHANING in the
Elizabeth WADMAN and Thomas COOPER
Probate granted May 21st 1705
When it became known that she had obtained poison, she pleaded with Mr WOLMINGTON the Apothecary not to do her 'a dis-kindness'. His father however hearing of his sons illness on the Thursday forced her from him and taking the best of her clothes and some other things of value she left the house that same afternoon. Her poor husband continued in excessive pains until Saturday when about 9 o'clock in the evening he died. His father being suspicious about the cause of his death had a post mortem carried out by a surgeon in Dorchester who discovered poison throughout his body especially in his lungs which were almost entirely discoloured with it. This done and a Coroners inquest having been held his remains were transferred to Maiden Newton for burial amongst his ancestors where he was interred on 24th April 1705. He and his family were so well respected there that the funeral procession through the village to St Mary's church was accompanied by 60 to 80 people on horseback.
On the day Mr Channing expelled her from their house she spent that evening and the whole of the next day concealed in a house in the town. The constables with the help of some others carried out a diligent search throughout Dorchester but she was not discovered. Fearing arrest she fled the next night to a Parish about four miles from Dorchester but feeling unsafe she spent the best part of Saturday in a neighbouring wood until a person employed by her friends conveyed her that evening to Charlton Wortborn (8) in the County of Somerset where she was left with a relation of her brothers wife. Here she felt safe for a time as the people in the house had no idea of the events that had taken place in Dorchester. Mr Channing in the meantime however was very diligent in his search for her; hue and cries were immediately posted in all the main towns and villages and a great many were employed by him that night to search the wood where she had been seen that day. Several people were taken up and committed on suspicion of having assisted in conveying her away; but to no purpose. On Sunday however the person who had assisted her in her flight returned to Dorchester. Encouraged by the reward and terrified of being made an accessory he confessed to Mr Channing what he had done and promised with some assistance to bring her back again.
The same day with two others he returned to Charlton and persuaded her to go back with him telling her that her husband wished to speak with her. He brought her back to Sherborne where she first heard the news of her husbands death. Showing little concern she was conveyed the next morning to Dorchester. Here she was examined by the Mayor John NELSON and Justices of Peace but declared her innocence and voluntarily offered to clear herself by going to see and touch her husband. Refusing to answer further questions she was sent to the town goal. Her parents it must be said endeavoured to the utmost of their power to prevent her being found guilty. Her eldest brother, a silver smith, just before the Assizes declared that he had asked her to buy the poison for himself and that he used it in his trade. Mr Channing knowing this to be false, as Mary having first declared otherwise, and fearing that this stratagem might save her life issued a Bill of Indictment against him as an accessory and so prevented his evidence coming to trial.
An Account of the Trial of Mary CHANNING Widow
Mary's trial began at Dorchester Assizes before Justice PRICE about ten in the morning on Saturday July 28th 1705. The Jury was selected, Mary only challenging one of those put forward. Her indictment was read out in English and at her request repeated in Latin. She pleaded 'not guilty'.
The council for the Queen (9) were Sir John DARNELL (10) and Mr Serjeant HOOPER (11) the latter opening the case for the prosecution.
Dorchester Assizes 26-28 July 1705
The first witness called was Mr WADMAN who stated that on Thursday and Friday before Mr Channing was poisoned Mr NAILE was at Mrs CHANNING's house and in her company; that they spent their time eating and drinking and in mirth. That Mr CHANNING desired to 'lye' with him because NAILE was to have his bed; but that he refused, and showed his dislike at his kindness to NAILE, whose company
he thought would be prejudicial to him: But that the same evening Mr CHANNING did come into his chamber after he was in bed and brought a pillow with him to lye with his apprentice; but that he hindered him from it and admitted him into his own bed. That Mrs CHANNING, her husband, NAILE and himself went to Burton where they ate, drank, and were merry; and from thence to Charminster. where they did the same and Mrs CHANNING entreated NAILE to return and lye at her house, as he had done two nights before: That Mr CHANNING did the same and he returned with them.
NAILE himself being sworn said that in the last Easter week he came to Dorchester to see Mr CHANNING his old school fellow. That he made him welcome at his house, as did likewise his wife, who desired him to lodge there and that he accepted her kindness; and then he confirmed all that WADMAN had said about going to Burton and Charminster. Being asked if he lay by himself he said that he did; but that Mrs CHANNING came into his chamber in the morning and made a noise by pulling open drawers with which he awoke and seeing her there asked her what she had got. She replied 'a bottle' and brought it to the bedside where they both drank. This she did every morning but being pressed to tell if there was no greater familiarity between them he unwillingly said that he did kiss her as she sat upon the bed. The judge telling Mrs CHANNING that she might ask questions asked several and then began to give her own account of their conversation but being told that this was unnecessary as the evidence did her no harm she became silent.
Next her young lover gave evidence and having been sworn in stated that after her marriage he was with Mary at an ale-house in the town; that she would have given him a watch but he refused it. Being asked by the counsel if he did not accept it, how long he had it and whether it was made of Silver or Gold he said, that he did receive it, but knew not what metal it was, nor how long he kept it . Mrs CHANNING being told she might speak said: that she did give him a gold watch but in jest, not expecting him to keep it. That after she was in prison she sent for it and had it restored again.
The Counsel thinking this was sufficient to give the court as an account of her life just before the fact, came now to prove her guilty of the poisoning.
Amy CLAVEL was first to be called and sworn in who said: That on the 16th April last the prisoner at the bar came into her masters shop about four in the afternoon and asked for some 'Ratsbane' (12). She told her that they had none; but that there was some mercury in the shop which she could not find unless her master was there. That she the prisoner found it herself and took a piece about the size of a walnut for which she gave her a farthing. She asked her what she wanted it for and she replied ' to draw a picture of a man, whereupon she put it in her bosom and left.
Mr Henry MEGGS swore that he was at Mr WOLMINGTON's shop the 16th April last. That Mrs CHANNING asked him if he would be her taster and offered him mercury which she had in her hand; which he took and was about to taste until the maid in the shop told him if he did it would poison him
Robert MARTIN a lad being sworn confirmed the former evidence and that he was in the shop when the prisoner came to buy the poison. That the maid would have had her stay until her master came but she refused telling her that she wanted it presently to paint something which would otherwise be spoiled. That she on finding the box suspected it to be White Lead; but that the maid having convinced her to the contrary by showing her the box of White Lead, she took some of it and was satisfied. He also said that her young brother who was standing in the shop doorway and seeing this said to his sister "What are you going to do; will you put poison in the sugar? If you do some person or other will poison themselves with it". She replied " Kiss my arse, you young rogue; if you don't hold your tongue I will knock you down" and she went home.
Elizabeth COSINS on oath declared that the 17th of April in the morning Mary CHANNING then her mistress, boiled some milk with rice, came to her in the shop and bid her call her master out of the cellar, which she did accordingly. That she went into the kitchen and a little later she followed him. That she heard her master say his milk was 'gristy' and he could not eat it; that her mistress persuaded him to try again; upon his refusal she took it from him saying ' this is gristy indeed' and threw it into the House of Office (i.e. the toilet). That she washed the dish and took him some more and upon her asking him how he liked it he replied 'very well' but could not eat much. That about half an hour later he vomited and said he was very sick; that a dog licked up the vomit and was taken in a vomiting likewise.
Bernard HAMLIN swore that he saw Mr CHANNING eating the milk; that he complained it was gristy and the rest that the maid had sworn. and added that he saw Mrs CHANNING wash the dish, and Mr CHANNING vomit. He asked him if he was well before he ate the milk and he told him he was.
Francis WADMAN being called again said that he saw the vomit lye on the ground and upon enquiry being told what it was immediately suspected Mr C to be poisoned and he sent for the doctor who administered medicine.
Mr WOLMINGTON said that having in private told the prisoner at the bar that he thought her guilty of poisoning her husband and that if she would confess it to him he would serve her as far as possible. She fell on her knees and entreated him for Christ Jesus sake to not say anything of it. Mary's reply to this was that she never said these words , she did not kneel down at all, but only stooped to tie up a shoe with many other excuses which were by the court thought to have no validity.
The Doctor declared that being sent for he gave Mr CHANNING oil and water to cleanse his stomach of the poisonous matter which had some good effect and he appeared to be getting better. That he visited him frequently but after Wednesday he grew worse and finding the poison had seized his lungs he told his friends he would die. That on Sunday his pulse was quite gone and about nine o'clock he died with a hisking cough like a rotten sheep. That on Monday he caused the body to be opened and found the bottom of his stomach, lungs and part of his liver black and several spots in his guts which he believed to be the effects of poison.
Many more witnesses were called some to confirm several particulars given by previous witnesses, some to give an account of Mr CHANNING's illness; others to prove her flight and one swore that the prisoner told him that Mr CHANNING had poisoned himself by handling some poison in the shop before any persons suspected him to be ill
Mary CHANNING conducted her own defence asking many proper questions of the witnesses and answering several things they said. She called as a principal witness for herself one John WHITEN who swore that on the 16th April last he came to Dorchester and about four in the afternoon went to Mrs CHANNING's shop, bought one pound of sugar, half a pound of raisons and asked for some Ratsbane; but she having none brought him some mercury from the next shop for which he gave her a penny. Being asked what quantity it was he replied about the size of his finger, and so did his daughter who swore almost the same as her father. The judge Mr PRICE desired Mrs CHANNING to take notice that her witnesses were mistaken about the quantity the evidence against her affirming that it was as big as a walnut and that for her no bigger than the top of a finger. In answer Mary asked his Lordship to consider that there were nuts of differing sizes and that the size of the nut was not at all described by the evidence and so the quantities of her evidence and that of the Queen might be the same.
Mary called forth many others and made such an extraordinary defence for herself that the Judge declared he thought himself not capable of making a better one. But all her efforts were to no purpose because after about half an hours deliberation that Jury returned and brought in a verdict of guilty. In the evening sentence was passed upon her but she pleaded her belly and a jury of matrons found her to be with child.
After the Trial
Though the first thoughts of death appeared dreadful and shocked her whole frame of mind, she soon composed herself by news that her sentence was postponed until after the birth of her child and this raised the hope and possibility of a pardon.
The Friday after her condemnation her mother came to see her and the family did everything they could to obtain a pardon. Her elder brother waited upon the judge at Wells presenting him with a petition signed by several Gentlemen of the County, but Mr CHANNING also presented a petition 'for a fair representation of the case to the Queen' signed by some of the same and a great number of other Gentlemen so this came to nothing. Her mother then addressed an honourable Lady on the same account but was told that the case was too black for her to appear in with any honour or honesty. Her father used his utmost endeavours in London presenting a petition to the Queen but to as little purpose.
Whilst all these things were being undertaken by her family for the preservation of her body, Mr HUTCHINS (13) the ordinary (i.e. clergyman) of the prison was just as industrious for the salvation of her soul. He spared no pains or admonitions exhortations and other means to bring her to a true sense of her condition seeking an un-resigned repentance. He was very industrious in procuring books for her to read appropriate to her state and encouraged her to come to chapel. Although she confessed to other sins, she maintained throughout her innocence of the crime to which she was accused. When her parents endeavours to obtain a pardon failed they began to be less concerned about her bodily welfare and for want of pay she was removed by Mr KNAPTON (14) the keeper of the prison from a convenient chamber down to the common room for condemned women. And even there they were unwilling to provide a bed necessary for one so near her time as she was. An old tilting wagon was the best lodging she could get.
She was delivered of a son on 19th December 1705 which was baptised at her request (15). Her father fearing her speedy execution, renewed his efforts at a pardon and gave another petition to the Queen coming out of chapel, but again to no effect. After her lying-in Mary contracted a violent fever and with her mother refusing to allow the child to be taken Mary continued to nurse him which further weakened her body. In this rather pitiful state on Friday 8th March Mary was again brought before the bar and asked if she knew of any reason why the former sentence should not be carried out to which she said nothing apart from maintaining her innocence of the crime with which she had been found guilty.
Her time now being short the Rev HUTCHINS renewed his efforts to get her to make a confession which she refused. She had however asked to be baptised. This the Rev Hutchins initially refused as he did not believe her repentance to be sincere. He decided however not to rely on his own judgement but consulted other brethren in the Clergy who had differing views. He therefore consulted the Bishop of Bristol and received from him the power to do as he thought best. Following the advice of several neighbouring Clergy she received her baptism on Sunday March 17th
Execution at Maumbury Rings Fordington (16)
21st March 1705/6
Strangled & Burnt at the Stake
About Noon on the 21st March 1705/6 two men were executed at Maumbury Rings. One for house breaking and the other for murdering his wife; the latter of which went to his death professing his innocence. After the under sheriff had taken some refreshment Mary was brought out of the prison and dragged [i.e. as in pulled in a cart] by her father's and husband's houses to the place of execution. Here Mr HUTCHINS and other Clergy continued with her for some time in prayer and pressed her again for a confession but to no avail. In the midst of her prayers she was strangely concerned at seeing Mr. Richard CHANNING her husbands eldest brother in the large crowd that had assembled. When fixed to the stake about five in the afternoon she again professed her innocence and 'left this world with a courage seldom found in her sex' being first strangled and then the fire kindled and in sight of many thousands of spectators consumed to ashes.
Post Script (Jan 2011 & July 2012)
I have now located Wills for her husband Thomas, her father Richard and her brother Caleb which together throw new light upon some of Mary's background. I have transcribed them in full, Thomas's is shown above and her father Richard and brother Caleb's Wills can be accessed via the following links or directly from the Parish home page [Will of Richard BROOKS Wagoner of Dorchester dated 5th Sep 1708 or Will of Caleb BROOKS the elder collar maker of Dorchester dated 6th Oct 1730 ].
The narrative above is based upon the account written in 1706 which mentions her having an older and younger brother. From her fathers will however we now know that she had six brothers that survived her (Richard, Caleb, William, Joshua, Ebenezar and Thomas) and I give more background about their lives after Mary's execution in Genealogical Notes below.(17) Her father's Will shows that her parents were living in St Peter's
parish in a fairly large house as part of it was rented out. This seems to have descended to Caleb and by 1740 was called the 'White Horse Inn'. Furthermore her father owned several other properties including
a messuage and Inn in the parish of Holy Trinity called the "Royal Gate"; another tenement in the Parish of All Saints called the "Beare" ; a messuage, tenement and land at Honiton in Devon and land at Martock in Somerset. The first three all sound like Inns to me (needs further research). If this is correct these facts explain much about Mary's upbringing.
She was a younger sister with at least six brothers. There is no mention of any other sisters
either in the account of her life which is quite detailed or her fathers will so
she grew up
surrounded by the rough and tumble of young boys and in a business associated with owning at least three Inns or public houses in Dorchester. Being the only girl explains a lot about her father's indulgence, and the level of their wealth, how she was spoilt. Comments about a lack of parental control and absence from home make much more sense as managing their property and businesses in three counties was likely to call both parents away for weeks or even months at a time. Her fathers new trade, referred to in the narrative, was when he also started a business as a wagoner, and establishing trading routes would have demanded a considerable investment in time. Owning property in Honiton it is easy to see how they could have arranged for her to visit Exeter and when she was in trouble and needed to get out of Dorchester she would have known her fathers wagon drivers and easily hitched a ride to nearby villages and on to Somerset where he also owned property and had relatives.
The 1706 narrative was clearly written by someone living in Dorchester and a member of the established church (as I have largely left out the copious sermons or admonitions to youth that he included). Religion was a serious issue then but Dorchester had long held groups of religious people harbouring differing views and this included anabaptists. Some caution is necessary when reading one persons account of events and the disadvantage of it being contemporary with the events is that the writer is likely to reflect the prejudices of that time. Anabaptists did not believe in baptism until adulthood when education and experience enabled an individual to take an informed decision. The absence of an infant baptism is no indication therefore that there was no religious background to Mary's life. Indeed her mother seems to have been lambasted for blaming the judicial system for their plight and backing Mary in her resisting confession thereby in their view damming her soul. Mary made a more than credible defence at the trial unusually eliciting praise from Judge Price and our narrative seems to give insufficient weight to Mary's many witnesses and the crucial evidence of John WHITEN and his daughter. If Mary's mother Elizabeth BROOKES clearly believed in her daughters innocence a false confession to appease clergymen from a different sect would carry little weight. Mary herself showed no indications that she followed any religion and her late request for baptism may have been no more than trying to convince the Rev Hutchins that she was not inflexible on matters of religion but steadfast in her expression of innocence which she held to even as she was tied to the stake. Her elder brother Caleb however in his Will of 1730 reveals that Baptists were regularly practicing their Religion (prior to 1709 when his father died) from his house in High East Street, so the family is still heavily involved in non conformity and as such would not have been looked upon favourably by the established Clergy in the town.
I am also grateful for the assistance granted to me by Chris Potter of Brighton regarding much of the background information on the Channing Family.(18) It is clear that as Gentlemen with considerable power and influence extending far beyond Maiden Newton they were a cut above the Brooks family, even though they were successful traders and would have been considered quite wealthy by the standards of the day. They certainly would not have moved in the same social circles. From the sixteenth century in Dorchester there was quite a gulf between yeomen farmers/tradesmen. A Gentleman would never work with his hands so his household would include personal servants whereas the servants of yeomen farmers or traders were assistants in running the farm or business. Thomas's younger brother John CHANNING (1689-1758) for example described as a Gentleman in documentation went on to become a Bailiff, Alderman, and in 1645 Mayor of Dorchester. With the benefit of hindsight it seems incredible that aged 25, Thomas's lot in life was to establish a grocers shop in Dorchester and marry beneath him. As a second son he was in line to inherit the family seat at Cruxton and a hastily arranged marriage in a nearby church suggests a lack of family approval as I would have expected a big wedding at Maiden Newton. By all accounts Thomas appears to have been a particularly naive and weak character but in Thomas's father Richard Channing Mary came up against a different proposition altogether so its not difficult to see why she fled the house when he arrived, no doubt in high dudgeon at the state of his son.
I for one agree with Thomas Hardy who said that he had "examined more than once a report of her trial, and can find no distinct evidence that the thoughtless, pleasure-loving creature committed the crime, while it contains much to suggest that she did not".
(1). British library system number 000658781 Shelf Mark G.13957
(2).The booklet records ' I suppose there can be no mistake in this, because it came from her own mouth'. The account which was written in 1706 says she was not baptised by her parents but in the goal on Sunday March 17th 1704/5 when she was just 2 months short of her 18th birthday.
(3). Anabaptists: Members of a movement of the Protestant Reformation characterized by adult baptism. Anabaptists held that infants were not punishable for sin because they had no awareness of good and evil and thus could not yet exercise free will, repent, and accept baptism. Denying the validity of infant baptism, they accepted adult baptism, which was regarded as a second baptism by those outside the group who identified them as Anabaptists
(4). Ruffle - an ornamental gathered frill of lace or other cloth on a garment especially around the wrist or neck
(5). John Hutchins refers to her marrying a Richard CHANNING. This is simply incorrect as the authoritive account in 1706 refers to Mary marrying Thomas CHANNING. Mary's father was called Richard BROOKS as was an elder brother and although it requires further research Thomas her husband appears to be the son of a Richard CHANNING from Maiden Newton and Thomas certainly had an older brother also called Richard CHANNING who was present at Mary's execution so its easy to see where confusion can arise. Thomas Hardy's account and that by Harvy Darton are correct in referring to Thomas but the account by Sir Frederick Treves seems to have relied on John Hutchins account as his source and made the same error. For the Channing families background see the History of Maiden Newton and reference to the hamlet of Cruxton; its subsequent division into lower and higher Crookston; and comments on the Channing family. Although the parish registers of Maiden Newton for this period are listed as being available at the Dorset History Center, I live in wales and have still to gain access to them. These would hopefully reveal Thomas Channing's baptism and more information about his ancestry. Channing families were also present in Dorchester with birth marriages and deaths being recorded in All Saints and Fordington throughout the 18th century, but most of the other parish registers still require transcription so I cannot at this stage clearly identify the relationship with those at Maiden Newton. There clearly were connections however with the above history referring to John Channing of Dorchester being mentioned in a deed of leasehold in Maiden Newton in 1739.
(6). From evidence given at her trial we know the shop was in Dorchester; it had a cellar, a toilet, and kitchen attached and that they sold items such as sugar and raisons and Thomas in his will describes himself as a grocer. These are imported foodstuffs for sale to the better off people in the town and would have had a good profit margin on them. The Channing family however also had a farm at Maiden Newton and it seems probable that they used the shop in Dorchester as an outlet for some of its produce. This might also explain why Thomas Channing was often absent as he would have gone there not only to see his family but also to bring back weekly supplies to the shop. When in the shop Mary is also asked for Ratsbane so it probably sold other items as well, such as we might find today in a general store.
(7). I fear that the registration of this marriage may be lost. It was not held in Holy Trinity Dorchester where the registers survive and have been transcribed. There is a gap in the registers of All Saints between 1703-1711 as according to the Rev RG Bartelott who transcribed the registers 'the Rev HUTCHENS the Rector lived at his curacy of Bradford Peverell & some All Saints Marriages were recorded there'. I now (July 2012) have access to Bradford Peverell registers and its not listed there either. The marriage is not recorded on the IGI or on Ancestry.com for elsewhere in Dorset. The marriage registers for St Peter's Dorchester have been transcribed and rather suspiciously there are none recorded between Aug 1704 and May 1706. The existing Rector Samuel REYNER MA (1623-1704)
had been rector there for 34 years and was clearly failing as he died at the age of 81 on 11th Oct 1704 some 3 months prior to Mary's marriage. His replacement did not arrive until 17th March 1705 and his period of tenure was also short as he died in 1706. We don't get back to more regular marriages until 1708 so either marriages were being carried out in other surrounding parishes or they were not properly recorded during this period. Fordington was the nearest church but this too seems to have suffered at this time with no marriages recorded there at all between Jan 1703/4 and Aug 1705. Nor did they marry at nearby Stinsford or his home parish of Maiden Newton.
Bishops Transcripts for Fordington have not survived for 1704/5 and the marriage is not in Phillimores' listing for the parish.
(8). I believe this to have been Charlton Horethorne which lies about 4 miles north of Sherborne
(9). Queen Anne who reigned from 8th March 1701/2 until July 1714
(10). Probably Sir John DARNALL (1672-1735) the younger a lawyer and the son of Sir John DARNALL the elder. His father was a graduate of Grays Inn 1662, Sergeant at law 1692, Kings Sergeant 1698, knighted 1 June 1699 and died 14 Dec 1706 (Also See Dictionary of National Biography pages 513/4).
(11). Probably Nicholas HOOPER of Caius Cambridge admitted to the inner temple 1671, barrister 1678, Sergeant at law 1695-1715 Knighted 1713
(12). Ratsbane:- A form of rat poison based on arsenic oxide
(13). This was Rev Richard Hutchins Rector of All Saints parish Church Dorchester between 1693 and 1734
(14). This is Thomas KNAPTON Governor of the town goal who became Mayor of Dorchester in 1713 and died there 14 June 1721.
(15). His name is deliberately not given in the account written in 1706 to protect his identity. Baptism at birth is against the anabaptist religion of which her mother seems to have been the main believer. She was with Mary until just before her execution when Mary was still nursing the child so we only have the published account as evidence that she was actually baptised before Mary's death. Mary did not adhere to any church but not surprisingly requested baptism for herself and probably the baby as well just before her execution. Rev. Hutchins difficulty is that she would not confess to the crime. There is no trace of a baptism for her or the child in the transcription done of the registers of All Saints Church Dorchester (the goal was situated within its parish - see 13 above) Nor do we know whether he survived for long as many died in the first year after birth. Giving Mary's background its doubtful that the child was Thomas Channing's, at the very least they would have had doubts and I cant see him being taken in by the Channing Family as they were the main driving force behind the execution of his mother. The most likely scenario is that he was taken by Mary's mother.
(16). According to John Hutchins there were as many as 10,000 spectators
(17). Facts about her siblings are more difficult to come by because of their anabaptist religion robbing us of baptismal records. Further work is still required to fully understand the fate of Willam and Thomas but the following has been ascertained on the other 4 of her brothers:-
Richard BROOKS: appears to have married as there is a baptism of a Richard Brooks son of a Richard Brookes in All Saints Parish 6 May 1704; and his wife's name was probably Thomasine as Thomasine the wife of Richard Brooks was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Dorchester on 5th Nov 1710. Either the father or son Richard was buried in All Saints Parish 3 Feb 1729.
Caleb BROOKS: See Transcription of his Will and genealogical notes there
Joshsua BROOKS: He married by licence on 16th January 1717 in the Parish of Loders, as the marriage register specifically refers to Joshua Brooks of Dorchester and his wife's name was Bettries RICKETS from the parish of Portesham. His wife has been recorded as Bettries; Beteras; Beatris; Elizabeth and on her burial register as Betteris but there is little doubt that it is her and they tried three times in vain to name a daughter after her with similar variations in the spelling as shown below. Joshua is named in the will of his brother Caleb written on 6th Oct 1730 but Betteris recorded as the wife of Joshua Brooks was buried in All Saints Parish just 12 days later on the 18 Oct 1731 and Joshua followed on the 29 June 1740 (could not trace a will). They had eight children but all tragically but the last Elizabeth died in infancy:-
(1) James : It was normal for the wife to return to her home parish for the birth of their first child because of the risks of pregnancy but so far I have not located the baptism if there was one for James their first child who was buried at St/Peters 27 May 1719
(2). Beatriss bap St/P 6th June 1720 died 12 days later
(3). Joshua bap St/P 16th April 1723 buried St/P 1st Aug 1724
(4). Beatrice bap Holy Trinity 28 May 1724 buried St/Peters 8th June 1724
(5). Richard bap All Saints Feb 1726/7 buried there 3rd Feb 1729/30
(6). Batterice bap All Saints 23 Jan 1727/8 buried AS 1st Feb 1727/8
(7). Edenezer bap 20 Feb 1728/9 buried AS 16 Mar 1728/9
(8). Elizabeth bap 11 May 1730 - fate unknown
(18). Thomas's parents Richard CHANNING married Elizabeth BARTLETT (who came from Plush in Dorset) were married at Mappowder after banns were published on 24th May 1676. Richard was buried at Maiden Newton on 22nd October 1718 leaving a will dated 11th Aug 1711 which was proved on 4th Nov 1718 and reflects the extent of land and property they owned. Elizabeth his widow died at Melcombe Regis but at her request was buried at Maiden Newton with her husband on 31st Oct 1734. She also left a will which mentions many of her children etc - dated 22nd July 1726 which was proved 2nd Nov 1734 (image on ancestry). They produced a family of seven children:-
Ebenezar BROOKS: The Bishop of Winchester issued a marriage licence for Ebenezar BROOKS, a bachelor of Dorchester, and Deborah MONDAY [Mundye] a spinster of Andover to marry in her home parish on 7th April 1706. On his will Ebenezar later describes himself as being 'a wagoner of Exeter' and in his fathers will of 1709 he is simply left "one shilling and no more" (a legal ploy often used to prevent challenging omission from a will). We also know from his fathers will that he had a dwelling and lands at Honiton which he left to his brother Joshua so it seems likely that on marriage his father put him in charge of running his wagon business in Devon. He may even have stayed in the dwelling there as Joshua remained in Dorchester, or perhaps been set up in his own house so his omission from the Will is most likely because he had already received his portion of his inheritance. Ebenezar's will also shows that he had two daughters born between 1706 and 1713, Eleanor and Deborah. He is back in Fordington by 17th Sep 1713 when he first wrote his will (a codicil was added on 8th October). Ebenezar is then recorded in the parish registers for St Georges church as being baptised as an adult (and being sick) on 9th October 1713. As anabaptists his parents did not believe in infant baptism. He died the following day and was buried there on the 12th. Link to transription of his will. Deborah his widow gave birth shortly after his death to a third child whom she names Sarah BROOKS and had baptised in St Georges church in Fordington on 28th of the same month.
(1) Richard CHANNING(1677-1743) bap at Mappowder Dorset 9th June 1677 who married Susannah TUCKER at her home parish of Lyme Regis on 22nd Dec 1702 and inherited the family seat at Cruxton in 1718. He is the elder brother of Thomas and attended Mary's execution as the account states that she saw him in the crowd gathered there. They had at least 4 children, their daughter Elizabeth Channing (1705-1768) baptised at Symondsbury on 19th Mar 1705 later married John CHANNING (1703-1775) a prosperous London apothecary and dedicated scholar of oriental languages whose life features in the Dictionary of National Biography.
He was the son of another apothecary of London, John CHANNING senior who died in 1726 (both father and son left wills which are held at the National Archives). Richard was buried at Maiden Newton on 22nd April 1743 and left a PCC Will, 1746, PROB11/727
(2) Thomas CHANNING (1679-1705) bap at Mappowder Dorset 3rd June 1679 the subject of this account murdered in 1705 his will has been reproduced above.
(3) Joseph CHANNING (1681-1762) bap at Maiden Newton Dorset 12th Sep 1681, thought to have remained a bachelor, and buried there 9th Nov 1762 leaving a will dated 17th Nov 1761 proved a year later.
(4) John CHANNING bap at Maiden Newton Dorset 26th Dec 1683 and buried there 29th Jan 1683/4
(5) Elizabeth CHANNING (b.1685) bap at Maiden Newton Dorset 18th Sep 1685 she married by licence to Thomas RANDALL of Cerne on 19th Jan 1709 at Compton Valence.
(6) John CHANNING (1689-1758) bap at Maiden Newton Dorset 4th Mar 1689. Described as a Gentleman was living in Dorchester prior to 1741 when he was admitted to the Company of Freemen in Dorchester, serving as Bailiff in 1743; Mayor of the town in 1745; and Bailiff again in 1746. He was made an Alderman of Dorchester on 23rd January 1755 a position he held until his death in 1758 when he was replaced by George Arden. He does not appear to have married leaving all his property and estate to his brother Joseph and various nephews and nieces. As requested in his Will (image available on ancestry.com) although he died in Dorchester his body was returned to Maiden Newton for burial with his family which took place on 21st April 1758.
(7) Mary CHANNING (b.1695) bap at Maiden Newton Dorset 23 June 1695 she married Mr Nicholas de QUETTEVILLE (referred to in her mothers will) and may have had daughter Mary baptised at Melcombe Regis 1st Jan 1721/2 where her mother Elizabeth retired to in her widowhood, but no other information is known.