Elizabeth Martha Brown (c. 1811–9 August 1856), née Clark, was the last woman to be hanged in public in Dorset, England. She was executed outside Dorchester Prison after being convicted of the murder of her second husband, John Brown, on 22 July, just 13 days earlier. The prosecution said she had attacked him with an axe after he had taken a whip to her.
Among the crowd of 3,000–4,000 who watched the hanging of Brown was the English novelist, Thomas Hardy, 16 years old at the time, standing close to the gallows. He wrote 70 years later that he was ashamed to have been there. Brown was dressed in a long, black, silk dress. A cloth was placed over her head, but as it began to rain, her face became visible again. Hardy wrote, “I saw—they had put a cloth over the face—how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.” “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain,” he wrote elsewhere, “and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.” Blake Morrison writes that the hanging of Tess in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) reflected his experience of watching Brown’s death.
A local newspaper recorded that she was counselled just before her death by the Rev. D Clementson, the prison chaplain, and that she remained composed:
This morning (Saturday) a few minutes after 8 o’clock, Elizabeth Martha Brown, convicted of the wilful murder of her husband was executed on a scaffold erected over the gateway of the new entrance leading to Dorset County Goal from North Square. The culpret did not up to the last moment, appear to shed a tear. She on leaving her cell, shook hands with the chief warder and other officers. On her way to the scaffold her demeanour was extraordinary. The attendants on either side were entirely overcome, whilst she bore her awful position with the greatest resignation and composure. The Chaplain the Rev. D Clementson, conversed with her on spiritual subjects, and she appeared to engage in fervant devotion and prayer, with her hands clasped firmly together and upturned eyes. On arriving at the place of execution she walked with firmness up the first flight of eleven steps. On this spot the ceremony of pinioning was proceeded with. Her female attendants here left her in the care of the executioner.
A Dorset-based company, Angel Exit Theatre, produced a play called The Ballad of Martha Brown based on the life and times of Martha Brown. The play premiered at Deverills Festival in Wiltshire on 3 May 2014 and is currently touring the UK.
In 1995, Australian band The Lucksmiths released the track Thomas & Martha based on Thomas Hardy’s recollections of the event.
In 2016, it was reported that remains unearthed at the site of Dorchester prison in Dorset may belong to Brown.