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Elizabeth JEFFRIES





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: To inherit
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 3, 1751
Date of birth: 1727
Victim profile: Joseph Jeffries (her uncle)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Walthamstow, London, England, USA
Status: Executed by hanging in Epping Forest on March 28, 1752

Elizabeth Jeffries (1727, Bridgnorth, Shropshire – March 28, 1752 in Leytonstone, England) was an executed murderess.

When she was five years old, Elizabeth was adopted by her wealthy and childless uncle Joseph Jeffryes, who had made his fortune as a butcher in Central London. Jeffries sexually violated his niece when she was fifteen. He had willed her everything he owned but hypocritically continually threatened to write her out of the will because of her immoral behaviour.


Elizabeth started an affair with her uncle's man-servant, John Swan. When it seemed increasingly likely that her uncle would carry out his threat regarding the will, she and Swan plotted to kill her uncle. They paid a man named Matthews to get them a brace of pistols. Matthews saw Elizabeth and John in the house on the night of the murder on July 3, 1751, and learned what they intended to do - John made him swear not to tell anyone. She and John then went upstairs and killed her uncle. They made it seem as though her uncle had been the victim of a botched robbery and raised the alarm. Elizabeth was arrested, however she was released when no evidence could be found. The police then began a search for Matthews, whom she had implicated. He was located and told the police everything he knew. She and John were imprisoned to await trial.

Trial and execution

The trial of Jeffries' and Swan began eight months later, on March 10, 1752. She and John were swiftly convicted and sentenced to hang. On March 28, she was taken to the gallows in a cart and riding on her own coffin, while John was dragged on a sledge for committing alleged Petty treason. When they reached the gallows, Swan was forced to stand on the cart while Jeffries, being only 5'1", had to stand on a chair on the cart. Their legs were not tied and they were not blindfolded. A crowd of 7,000 people gathered to watch them hang. Neither Elizabeth nor John acknowledged one another, while the hangman cracked his whip and drove the cart out from under them. John died in less than five minutes. Elizabeth however, being lighter than Swan, took over fifteen minutes to die, struggling to the end.


Elizabeth Jeffries - 1752


The British public and therefore the British media have always enjoyed a “good murder.”  The early months of 1752 brought not one, but two such events.  Their cases filled the newspapers for weeks and we are led to believe that the two murderesses corresponded with each other while awaiting trial and execution. 

Elizabeth Jeffries had aided and abetted the murder of her uncle and was hanged in Epping Forest on Saturday the 28th of March. Mary Blandy had poisoned her father at Henley on Thames and was hanged at Oxford, just over a week later, on Monday the 6th of April.

Mary had apparently become aware of Elizabeth being in a similar predicament to her own and was allowed to write to her while both were in prison.  The ensuing correspondence, between the 7th of January and the 19th of March 1752, was published under the title of “Genuine Letters between Miss Blandy and Miss Jeffries.”  Initially both women protested their innocence to each other, but later Elizabeth acknowledged her guilt to Mary.

In her last letter to Elizabeth on the 16th March, Mary reportedly wrote: "Your deceiving of me was a small crime; it was deceiving yourself: for no retreat, tho' ever so pleasant, no diversions, no company, no, not Heaven itself, could have made you happy with those crimes un-repented of in your breast." So, with the promise to be "a suitor for her at the Throne of Mercy" Mary finished the correspondence.

The crime

Mr. Joseph Jeffries was a wealthy, but childless man who lived in Walthamstow, Essex and who adopted his niece, Elizabeth.  He made his will in her favour but threatened to change it because of her rebellious teenage ways, her good behaviour having been a condition of inheritance. 

Elizabeth had been thinking of murdering her uncle for some 2 years but did not see a way of doing it unaided. Finally fearing that he would carry out his threat to disinherit her, the by now 21 year old Elizabeth, enlisted the help of Mr. Jeffries’ gardener, John Swan, with whom she was believed to have been “intimate” to use the contemporary term.  They had tried to persuade a former servant, one Matthews, to kill Mr. Jeffries by offering him a substantial share of the proceeds, but in the end he declined, although was probably present at the killing.  

The plan to kill Mr. Jeffries involved Matthews obtaining a brace of pistols for which Jeffries and Swan had given him half a guinea (52.5p in today’s money).  He spent this on drink but still joined the others in Mr. Jeffries’ house at around ten o'clock on the night of Tuesday July the 3rd 1751. 

Matthews hid himself in the pantry and was joined there by Swan and Elizabeth around midnight.  They asked him if he was ready and where the pistols were but he told them "I cannot find it in my heart to do it." To which the furious Elizabeth replied: " You may be damned for a villain, for not performing your promise!"  Whether Swan feared that Matthews would prove unreliable, we don’t know, but he had brought a brace of pistols.  He also produced a book, and insisted that Matthews should swear not to disclose what had passed between them, "unless it was to save his own life."  Matthews then left Mr. Jeffries’ house but remained long enough to hear a pistol shot. 

Elizabeth and John had devised a plan whereby they would both pretend to have been in their respective rooms at the time of the shooting, having first staged what was to appear to be a botched robbery by hiding some plate and silver in a sack downstairs.  Later that evening they would raise the alarm and claim that  Mr. Jeffries had been robbed and murdered by an intruder.

Initially the authorities arrested Elizabeth as there was no sign of forced entry, and began a search for Matthews whom she had implicated.  However, they could produce no evidence against her and she was released.  Upon release she took control of her uncle’s assets and began spending them.  In the meantime Matthews was located and gave a full statement of events, if only to save his own neck.  On receipt of this information Elizabeth and John were re-arrested and committed to Chelmsford prison for trial at the next Assizes.


They were tried together some 8 months later at the Essex Assizes, before Mr Justice Wright, on Tuesday the 10th of March 1752.  They had missed the previous year’s Assize which had opened on the 31st of July 1751.  Matthews was the principal witness for the prosecution and both were found guilty. The Crown counsel summed up Elizabeth’s motive for killing her uncle thus "to alter his will, if she did not alter her conduct." John Swan, as he was a servant of Mr. Jeffries, was convicted of Petty Treason “for the cruel and wicked murder of his late master” and Elizabeth “of aiding, helping, assisting, comforting and maintaining the said John Swan to commit the murder”.  Note that she was not charged with murder, as she would have been under the doctrine of common purpose that applied in the 20th century, but rather with the crime she had actually committed. 

She reportedly confessed her part in the crime on the Thursday and they were brought back before the court on the Saturday to be sentenced (It was normal practice to sentence all the prisoners at the end of the Assize)  She fainted as her death sentence was pronounced.  Nine men also received death sentences of whom five were reprieved and the other 3 hanged at Chelmsford on the 26th of March.


The execution procession left Chelmsford Gaol at 4 a.m. on the morning of Saturday the 28th of March, with Elizabeth riding in a cart, probably sitting on her own coffin and accompanied by the hangman.  Because John Swan had been convicted of Petty Treason he was drawn along behind, tied to a sledge, which was a mandatory part of the punishment for that crime.  The pair would have been escorted by a troop of javelin men and the procession led by the Under Sheriff of Essex.  On arrival at the gallows, which was near the sixth milestone in Epping Forest, some 23 miles and perhaps 8-9 hours away from Chelmsford, he was made to get up into the cart with Elizabeth and stand beside her. 

A huge crowd had assembled to witness the proceedings, such was the public interest in the  case.  The prisoners did not communicate with one another at all, not even by glance, in the cart.  Elizabeth was made to stand on a chair as she was of small stature and fainted several times as she was being prepared.  It was reported that both confessed their guilt and justice of their sentences to a member of the jury who questioned them before they were turned off. After they had hung for the requisite time both bodies were taken down. Elizabeth’s corpse was taken away in a hearse to be delivered to her friends for burial, but Swan’s  was hung in chains in another part of the Forest, said to be near the Bald Faced Stag Inn, in Hainault Road, Chigwell, Essex, as a warning to others.

Thanks to Peter Nelson of the Epping and Ongar Highway Trust and his excellent Chapman & Andre's map of Essex of 1777, I am able to say with reasonable confidence that the sixth milestone in Epping Forest was almost certainly near Walthamstow, in what is now Whips Cross and Snaresbrook.  Obviously Epping Forest covered a much greater area 250 years ago than it does today.  It was not unusual for the execution to be held near the place of the offence was committed at this time, especially in the case of particularly heinous crimes.


Both Elizabeth Jeffries’ and Mary Blandy were both middle class women from good backgrounds who had received at least some education. Both could read and write which was not by any means universal then.  They were not the usual criminal women from the 18th century underclass, convicted of street crimes or theft, or the pathetic young women being hanged for the murder of their bastard children.

Clearly Elizabeth’s desire for money was the prime mover in the crime and it seems that she sucked John Swan into the plan by the offer of sexual favours.  It is not clear 250 years later whether she was really interested in John as a person or rather just saw him as an available assistant.  No doubt she would have been happier to have paid Matthews to commit the crime and so put a slightly greater distance between it and herself.

It seems extraordinary that the authorities would transport the pair over such a distance to execute them in view of the difficulties of the task.  A Roman road runs from Chelmsford towards Havering which would have existed at the time, and must have eased the first part of the journey.  There was very little in the way of media in 1752, newspapers were out of reach of the ordinary person due to their cost. This was this reason that people were transported back to near the scene of the crime for their execution, so that the local inhabitants could see justice carried out.  It is notable that as with other couples in their situation any romance and affection for each other had evaporated by the time they got to the gallows.  Each probably blaming the other for their downfall.



Deprived of her Uncle's valuable Estate, the Woman and an Accomplice shot him dead after paying another Man to commit the Crime.

THE case of these offenders is one of the greatest atrocity. Elizabeth Jeffries was the niece of a gentleman of respectability residing at Walthamstow, who, having acquired an ample fortune, and having no children, adopted his brother's daughter, and made a will in her favour, bequeathing to her nearly his whole estate. The girl, however, returned her uncle's kindness with ingratitude; and, having heard him declare that he would alter his will on account of her bad behaviour, she determined to prevent his carrying his design to her detriment into execution by murdering him. She soon discovered her inability to complete this project single-handed, and she gained the assistance of her accomplice in the crime, John Swan, who was in the employment of her uncle, and with whom there is good reason to believe she was on terms of intimacy. They endeavoured to suborn a simple fellow named Matthews to assist them, but although the promise of a large reward at first staggered him, his terrors eventually steeled him against the temptations held out to him. The night of the 3rd of July, 1751, was fixed upon for the completion of this villainy; and at the trial, which took place at Chelmsford, before Mr Justice Wright, on the iith of March, 1752, the following facts were proved:--

Matthews, having travelled from Yorkshire, was accidentally met in Epping Forest by Mr Jeffries, who gave him employment as an assistant to Swan, who was his gardener. After he had been at work only four days he was sent upstairs by Miss Jeffries to wipe a chest of drawers, and she followed him and asked him if he was willing to earn one hundred pounds. He answered that he was, "in an honest way" -- on which she desired him to go to Swan. He accordingly joined him in the garden, and he offered him seven hundred pounds to murder their master. He acquiesced. On his being dismissed, two days afterwards, Swan gave him half-a-guinea to buy a brace of pistols; but having spent the money given to him he was ordered to meet Miss Jeffries and Swan at Walthamstow on the Tuesday following, at ten o'clock at night, the object being then to carry out their intentions with respect to the murder.

When he arrived he found the garden door on the latch, and going into the pantry he hid himself behind a tub till about eleven o'clock, when Swan brought him some cold boiled beef. About twelve Miss Jeffries and Swan came to him, when the latter said: "Now it is time to knock the old miser, my master, on the head." But Matthews relented and said: "I cannot find it in my heart to do it." Miss Jeffries then immediately replied: "You may be d---d for a villain, for not performing your promise!" And Swan, who was provided with pistols, also loudly abused him, and said he had a mind to blow his brains out for the refusal. Swan then produced a book, and insisted that Matthews should swear that he would not discover what had passed; and he did so, with this reserve, "unless it was to save his own life." Soon after this Matthews heard the report of a pistol, when, getting out of the house by the back way, he crossed the ferry and proceeded to Enfield Chase. Immediately afterwards Miss Jeffries appeared at the door of the house and called out for assistance, and, some of the neighbours going in, they found Mr Jeffries dying, but they failed in discovering anything which could lead to the supposition of any person having quitted the house. Suspicions in consequence arose, and Miss Jeffries was taken into custody; but no evidence arising to incriminate her she was discharged, and immediately administered on her uncle's estate and took possession of his property.

Renewed suspicions, however, were raised, and, Matthews having been discovered, Jeffries and Swan were apprehended. Upon this testimony a verdict of guilty was returned.

After conviction Elizabeth Jeffries made a full confession of her guilt. On the day of execution the convicts left the prison at four in the morning, Miss Jeffries being placed in a cart and Swan on a sledge. The unfortunate woman repeatedly fainted on her way to the gallows; and, having fallen into a fit, had not recovered when she was turned off. The execution took place near the sixth milestone in Epping Forest, on the 28th of March, 1752, and, the body of Miss Jeffries having been delivered to her friends for interment, the gibbet was removed to another part of the Forest, where Swan was hung in chains.

The Newgate Calendar -



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