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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, all set within and beyond the West End.
EPISODE ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR:
Today’s episode is about Martha Browning, a young girl who murdered her elderly bed-mate for that most common of reasons - money. And although her attempt to cover it up was bafflingly inept, her motive was one that no-one could truly fathom.
As many photos of the case are copyright protected by greedy news organisations, to view them, take a peek at my entirely legal social media accounts - Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The location of Mrs's Graham's Lodging House at 1 Providence Place, where the murder of Elizabeth Mundell took place is marked with a red cross and is under the word ST JAMES'. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, access them by clicking here.
Here's a video to go with this week's episode, showing you Brewer's Green. Sadly the lodging house and Providence Place has long since been demolished. These videos are links to YouTube so they won't eat up your data.
SOURCES: This case is primarily based on the original court records held at the Old Bailey, but it is also based on several news sources, only a few listed here.
Just Stay by Aakash Gandhi
Contempt by Seclorance
Serenity by Parvus Decree
Rain by Silent Partner
Baci Soavi e Cari by Capela Duci
Omonia by Dan Boden
UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE:
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about Martha Browning, a young girl who murdered her elderly bed-mate for that most common of reasons - money. And although her attempt to cover it up was bafflingly inept, her motive was one that no-one could truly fathom.
Murder Mile is researched using authentic sources. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details. And as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 144: Martha Browning’s Baffling Motive.
Today I’m standing in Brewer’s Green, Westminster, SW1; three roads south of Ghodratollah Barani banging on the gates of Buckingham Palace, four roads east of the scattered remains of Emily Beilby Kaye, one hundred yards east of the assassination of Sir Michael Francis Dyer by Udham Singh, and very close to the mystery of Bob Gould, the man who was never there - coming soon to Murder Mile.
Brewer’s Green is an odd place, as being perched at a y-shaped junction, it consists of one large tree, an impossibly tiny school and a fenced-off patch of grass, but – surrounded on all sides by modern glass-fronted monstrosities – it looks like the last vestige of its past has been swamped by its present.
Preserved for posterity, on the corner of Caxton Street sits the Blue Coat School; a 17th century relic often called The Blue Boy, and yet everything built prior to the 1900’s has long-since been demolished.
Flanked by embassies, law firms and equity firms; as well as salons where a single trimmed follicle can cost a monthly wage, posh hotels where even touching the mini-bar requires a second mortgage, tailors who intricately stitch pocket-hankies (“which are NOT for blowing your bogies on – thank you”) and – of course – there’s a Pret’, the McDonald’s for every avocado-chomping middle-class numpty.
More than 170 years ago, Brewer’s Green was unrecognisable; being a rabbit’s warren of dark alleys, dilapidated hovels and overcrowded lodging houses. Just off Caxton Street, at 1 Providence Place was a three-storey townhouse occupied by thirty-two lodgers. Paying by the week and sometime by the day - being too poor to rent or buy their own - many shared a room and often a bed with a stranger.
Two such bed-fellows were 61-year-old Elizabeth Mundell and 23-year-old Martha Browning. Like a surrogate mother and daughter, being snuggled up under a blanket was no great issue as it kept them both warm and safe. But when money got tight, their situation forced Martha to do the unthinkable.
As it was here, on 1st December 1845 that Martha murdered Elizabeth. And although she would almost disguise her ghastly crime, right from the start, her motive was cursed with a fatal mistake. (Interstitial)
Everybody likes a laugh and a joke, right? A bit of fun to alleviate the stresses and strains of daily life.
Elizabeth Mundell was a jolly lady, as full of life as she was of food, and being a pink round ball of flesh, which heartily wobbled like bowl of blancmange when she laughed, she was impossible not to love. But as a woman for whom tragedy often beat her with a shitty stick? She made the best of a bad life.
Elizabeth was 61-years-old, a good age for a working-class woman in that era. Born on the 4th February 1785, her family were labourers and washer-women, so her depressing little life’s history was written before she had even breathed. But rising to the modest rank of domestic servant, she did alright.
Slogging her guts out seven-days-a-week, sixteen-hours-a-day to serve her ungrateful lord and master, her meagre wage included no holidays, no sick-pay, no benefits, no pension, and it was barely enough of a pittance to survive. But in her twenties, she met and married Thomas Mundell, later a soldier in the Queen’s Guards based out of Horse Guard’s Parade near the newly renovated Buckingham Palace.
Married for close-to forty years, they battled through thick-and-thin, and although they tried for a child several times, with the morality rate for babies being high, only one was known to have survived. But together; Thomas, Elizabeth and their daughter Ann lived a good life in Kennington, South London.
As the matriarch, Elizabeth was strong. Although large, she was fit, healthy and agile on her feet, with part of her width being the muscles she had developed owing to the demanding nature of her work as a domestic, a wife and a mother. But by 1840, life rewarded her with cruelty. Unable to keep up with the younger servants, Elizabeth was let go. Being too old, Thomas was invalided out of the Army. And with pensions the preserve of the middle-classes, they were forced to rely on their only child.
In 1843, Thomas died, leaving Elizabeth as a penniless widow. To dull her depression, sometimes she drank, and around the same time, she sank a bottle of poison, although some said this was a mistake.
She had worked her whole life, but had nothing to show for it, except a few odd-and-sods which fitted in a small wooden chest and some cheap knickknacks she kept in a red cloth ‘housewife’; a small bag she stashed in her bathrobe pocket, full of needles, threads, buttons and things which made her smile.
She loved to laugh and devoured anything which distracted her from her pain. She took pleasure in the simple things in life like a cup of tea, a suet pudding, but most of all, she loved a bargain; keeping any leaflet or voucher which saved her money, and especially any harmless sales gimmick - like a fake cheque or a pretend pound note – which no-one in their right mind would take seriously.
In 1844, she moved into a first-floor room of Mrs Graham’s lodging house at 1 Providence Place, and – as much for company, warmth and an income of 18 pence a week – she shared her bed with a lodger.
In November 1845, a friend of her daughter and someone she had known for six months became her bed-fellow; she paid on time, they got on well, and although – being a larger lady – Elizabeth took up most of the mattress, it didn’t prove a problem as her lodger was quiet, harmless and petite.
Her name was Martha Browning...
...three weeks she would kill Elizabeth Mundell...
...and yet, no-one foresaw this, as she didn’t look like a murderer.
Martha was twenty-three, but looked barely thirteen. Being as tiny as a dolly and as fresh-faced as a peach, she exuded innocence and was the kind of girl many wanted to protect. With a faint little voice and apple-blossom cheeks, although undeniably sweet, her pixie-ish proportions were partly down to malnutritian, and plagued with illness, she walked with a slowness which mirrored her child-like mind.
Little is known about her life, except she was born in Alton in Hampshire, her father was dead and her two siblings lived in London. Since the summer, Martha had worked as a lowly servant to Captain William Matthews and his wife Jane on Bedford Street in Covent Garden, but being too light for heavy work and too simple for complicated tasks, on the 18th of November, she was let-go from her job.
The few coins she had squirrelled away were gone, the bitter winter was howling in, and living under the black shadow of the workhouse which loomed behind like a dirty cloud of doom. Unable to pay 18 pennies-a-week for a bit of a bed, soon her fate would include hunger, poverty and homelessness.
Thankfully, she had a very maternal bed-fellow in Elizabeth...
...but pushed to such extremes, even the meekest of creatures are likely to snap.
Around that same time, inside Elizabeth’s red cloth ‘housewife’, Martha spotted something she had never seen before, and probably would never see again. Printed on paper, swirled with ornate italics and emblazoned with what her semi-literate eyes read as ‘Bank of England’, she saw a £5 note. It was tatty, it was old, and (having kept it for so long) it had an odd smudge of dirt in the corner.
For Elizabeth, she was not shy about showing it to others, as it made her smile...
...but for Martha, that note would pay her rent for the next two years.
On the night of Sunday 30th November 1845, both women went to bed at 10:30pm. According to Mary Cheshire, the lodger in the next room, Elizabeth was “in good spirits”, but Martha would disagree.
Martha: “she went off all well and sober, but about midnight she was turning and restless, she didn’t say what of but earlier she had pains in her head. About four o’clock she plunged like she was fitting, I asked her what was wrong, she said it was a dream. I asked should I get her anything, she said no”.
For the next three hours, they slept. But at 7am, Martha was awoken by Elizabeth’s screaming face. Her eyes wide and wild, her jowls undulating, as she screamed “Murder! Murder! What are you doing to me?!” Maybe it was widow’s grief, or bad food, or some sort of madness? As she was not herself.
Martha: “she threw her hands up to her face, screaming all hell and such, I got up, washed her face with water, but it did no good, none at all, so I said to her I’d go fetch her daughter”.
Of course, that was Martha’s version of events...
...but Mary Cheshire had heard the screams. “I heard Mrs Mundell cry out, I went to her door and found it fastened on the inside. I hammered, nobody answered, I rapped again, and the girl answered in a low tone of voice ‘nothing’s the matter’, I heard nothing after that, no noises nor calling out”.
Fifteen minutes later, having put on her bonnet and cloak, Martha unlocked the door: (Martha) “she was lying in the bed, quite quiet she was, Elizabeth pleaded “don't go for Ann", but I had to”. Before leaving, Martha knocked on Mary’s door; she told her Elizabeth was sick but now sleeping, she was going to fetch help, and asked Mary to check on her if she heard any noises. She heard nothing, so never went in... and during the fifteen minutes that Martha was away, no-one else entered the room.
Of course, there was a reason why Elizabeth was so silent.
A few streets south, at 11 Rochester Street, Martha frantically banged as loud as her tiny fists could, as her little lungs breathlessly exclaimed “your mother’s ill, she fitted, come quick”, at which Ann followed. But by the time they had returned to the lodging house, Elizabeth was already dead...
...but her death was not from a fit, nor natural causes.
The scene was bizarre. It was only a small simple room, but the bed was empty. Elizabeth was missing, and upon the indent where she had slept, three heavy wooden chairs had been stacked high. But why?
Behind the door, Elizabeth lay. Dressed in a nightdress; she lay sprawled on her back, her limbs lying limply by her sides and her head hung back, as the roundness of her belly arched high. With bloodshot eyes bulging from her pale livid skin, through her frothy gaping mouth, a fat purple tongue poked.
Shocked by the sight, Martha fled screaming “for God's sake, send a man, a woman’s hung herself". And so, it seemed, as knotted around her neck, embedded deep into her flesh was a length of cord.
But if this was a suicide, it looked as if it was cobbled together in a panicked state by a simple mind.
Dr John Atkinson arrived soon after, determining “her flesh was swollen and livid, her eyes open, blood issued from her nose and ears, with froth from her mouth, consistent with hanging... or strangulation”, but – aside from the fact that she had been of “good spirits” - several details didn’t make sense.
If she had hung herself, why had the three chairs remained upright? Why were the roof pegs unable to take the doctor’s weight, let alone hers? If the rope had snapped, why hadn’t it frayed and left a tatty length of noose dangling? And why were there two ends of rope on either side of her neck?
If instead, she had strangled herself? How did she tie the knot without it loosening? How did she pull the rope from behind her own back? Why was the rope still taut, as the second she lost consciousness, it would have untied? Given the depths of the marks in her neck, why were there no resulting rope burns on her palms or fingers? And how did she climb onto the box, after she was already dead?
And if this was a murder? Being strong, Elizabeth could have fended-off any assailant, but only if she was awake. With the door locked from the inside, so how did her killer get in? And – most importantly of all – what had been stolen, as nothing appeared to have been touched... or so they thought?
That night, at the Coach & Horses pub in Dean’s Yard, an inquest was held into the death of Elizabeth Mundell. Witness statements were heard, Martha gave an account, the jury saw the body in-situ, but – as was standard practice in a case so seemingly simple - Dr Atkinson’s was not asked to give evidence.
So, based on her widow’s grief, her poverty and prior history of suicide, the jury declared that Elizabeth had died by “suicide owing to her state of insanity”. Martha was not arrested, no police investigation was initiated, and - with Dr Atkinson unable to usurp the coroner’s decision - the case was closed.
Back at the lodging house, Elizabeth’s body was laid-out, so mourners could lay flowers and pay this lovely lady their last respects. But struggling to cover her funeral costs, there she would remain there until the money could be found or her rent ran out. And unwilling to sleep in the same room or even the same bed as a dead body, Ann let Martha (her mother’s murderer) sleep in her home.
But still, grief aside, things didn’t sit right for Elizabeth’s family.
Upon moving her body onto the bed, Edward, Ann’s husband had noticed that the mattress was wet, as was to be expected, as when a person is hung, their bladder often voids, expelling urine. Only the top was bone dry and the wetness was underneath, meaning someone had flipped the mattress over.
At Ann’s home, Martha was clearly nervous as a second inquest was requested and looked likely to go ahead. And against what he was permitted to do, Dr Atkinson had informed Ann & Edward that the inquest’s findings were wrong, that death was not suicide and that Martha was most likely the killer.
What they needed was undeniable proof...
...what they got was Martha Browning.
Two days later, Ann & Edward, accompanied by Martha, headed to the lodging house to prepare the body for burial. A sadness hung in the air like the feted stench of decomposition. Riddled with guilt as the grieving daughter wept, Martha kissed the corpse’s cheek and uttered “do you think she’s happy?”
And although an odd phrase to utter insuch company, as she prayed, what she did next defied logic.
With uncharacteristic generosity, to Edward, Martha declared “most likely you are short on money. I will lend you a sovereign"; a small fortune for many, but being the equivalent four month’s rent for an unemployed girl of just twenty-three-years-old, he thanked her, but his suspicions had been piqued.
From her cloak pocket, she pulled a note; printed on paper, swirled with ornate italics and emblazoned with what her semi-literate eyes read as ‘Bank of England’, she held a £5 note. It was tatty, it was old, and (having been kept by its original owner for so long) it had an odd smudge of dirt in the corner...
...which Edward saw.
“I offered to change it for her”, he said “but she insisted on doing it herself”. Into the Blue Boy, a public house beside the small school on Brewer’s Green, Martha entered, note in hand. But barely a minute later, she emerged with a look of dejection and even a little shock on her squished-up little face, stating "oh, they have played a trick on me, I do not understand, they said they would not change it...”
...and they wouldn’t, and for good reason too.
Thousands were printed, but this £5 note was one Edward & Ann had seen before, as had many others, as having brought so much joy to Elizabeth, the dirty smudges were as identifiable as fingerprints.
Grabbing her by the scruff of her neck, Ann & Edward forcibly marched the girl towards Scotland Yard, and being too tiny to break free or flee, Martha could do nothing to escape their grip, as she was dragged kicking and screaming along St James’ Park, up Horse Guard’s Parade and to 4 Whitehall Place.
In her hysterical panic, between fits of pleading and passing-out, she made a full confession, declaring; "what will my mother think of me; a murderer; to die on the gallows", several times she asked those around her to pray for her guilty soul, she admitted that this was her first and only robbery, and said "I cannot keep it any longer. I murdered the old woman, and deprived your wife of her mother."
The £5 note was presented, Martha confessed, she was arrested at the Gardener’s Lane Police Station and - whilst ripping out fistfuls of her own hair and repeatedly collapsing to the floor like a dumped rag-doll - she tearfully pleaded "I am an unfortunate creature, do with me what you like".
Headed up by Inspector Partridge, an investigation was conducted by the newly formed Metropolitan Police, and several pieces of evidence were found, which the initial inquest hadn’t requested; such as two pawn tickets for a gown and a shawl once owned by Elizabeth - and most damning of all - in her own box, they found a length of cord identical to that she had used to strangle her bed-mate to death.
This time, thanks to Dr Atkinson’s testimony (which he was finally permitted to give) a second inquest dismissed the case of ‘suicide by insanity’ and found grounds to proceed with a charge of murder.
Martha Browning was tried at the Old Bailey on 17th December 1845, before Mr Baron Alderson and Mr Justice Patteson. The case was a media sensation, as no-one could believe that this mere slip of a girl with elfin-like limbs and apple-blossom cheeks could be so callous, especially as often she had to be carried into the dock by two policeman and several times the trial was stopped as she had fainted.
Her defence was simple. Elizabeth’s death had no witnesses; no-one had seen it nor heard it, she was unwell (as an inquest had proved that) and all of the evidence was entirely circumstantial, so her guilt could never be proven without a “shadow of doubt”. The jury agreed and asked for leniency...
...but the judges overruled them, and she was sentenced to death.
At five minutes to eight, on the morning of Monday 5th January 1846, Martha was led from her cell at Newgate Prison. In a barely-audible whisper, she thanked the guards for their kindness, and weeping like there was no tomorrow (which there wasn’t), she was led outside to the hangman’s gallows.
As the first woman executed at Newgate for 14 years, a crowd of 30,000 spectators had assembled; some sat eating picnics, some got pissed, many jeered and heckled, and so excitable were the crowds, that when Martha appeared, a stampede crushed several, leaving a 9-year-old girl crippled for life.
As the clock struck eight - having made her peace with God, Martha uttered her final words, “may the Lord have mercy on my soul” - with her thin limbs fastened and the noose tightly secured about her tiny neck, the trapdoors flung open and the little body of Martha Browning dropped. (End).
Only, she didn’t die... as with William Calcraft being less of a skilled executioner and more of a grisly showman, through his bungling for the sake of entertainment, Martha endured a truly horrible death. As being so tiny and light, her body-weight hadn’t broken her neck in a single swift snap, but instead, she was yanked and dangled, and as her neck stretched, she was strangled for several long minutes.
Ironically, her end mirrored Elizabeth Mundell’s at her own hands, but with crowds baying for blood, Martha’s life was ended by Calfraft’s trademark finale, as the fifteen stone man hung from her feet.
In her prison cell, Martha had fully confessed to a priest. Her motive was simple, she was desperate and had been tempted by the £5 note... a sum of money which could (and did) change her life forever.
But even though the murder was pre-planned... a small (but vital) detail had eluded Martha.
To distract her from her pain, Elizabeth loved to laugh. She took pleasure in simple things like a cup of tea, a suet pudding, but most of all, she loved a bargain. Always looking to save a penny, she kept any leaflet or voucher, especially a harmless little gimmick like a fake cheque or a pretend pound note.
Printed on paper, swirled with ornate italics and emblazoned with what her semi-literate eyes read as ‘Bank of England’, what Martha saw was a £5 note, but what everyone else saw was a practical joke.
You couldn’t spend it, and it was worth nothing, it wasjust a simple ploy to lure the customers in, and which no-one in their right mind would ever take seriously, or think was legal tender. But having missed the joke, Martha’s motive was fatally flawed, as the note - once again - made Elizabeth smile.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
As always, an entirely optional bit of chit-chat which includes some aimless thoughts, a few questions and lots of extra details about the case continues after the break.
A big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are Hazel Cullen, Mark Gibson and Simon Russell, I thank you all. May the king of Battenberg bestow upon you a lifetime supply of cakes, all served up by Reg Christie clutching a cup of tea. What a treat! And – of course – all the treats you get via Patreon; like badges, stickers, key-rings, photos and videos, plus episodes you won’t get anywhere else.
Murder Mile was researched, written and performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible, which are freely available in the public domain, including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, and are always incomplete or full of opinion rather than fact, therefore mistakes and misrepresentations can be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken to create a fuller picture. It is not a full and complete representation of the case, the people or the investigation, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity, speed and the drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, and therefore it will contain a certain level of bias and opinion to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated. Murder Mile is just one possible retelling of each case. Murder Mile does not set out to cause any harm or distress to those involved, and those who listen to the podcast or read the transcripts provided should be aware that by accessing anything created by Murder Mile (or any source related to any each) that they may discover some details about a person, an incident or the police investigation itself, that they were unaware of.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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