The sad story of Elizabeth Elless, 1756

Was it suicide, accident… or murder?

(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of worldwide history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)

Mr. Porter came to me and told me he thought it was the parish’s duty to examine into the death of this poor creature… For there was, according to all circumstances, room to suspect she or some other person had administered something to deprive herself or child of life.

No single historical account can give us the full picture of a situation, constrained as it must be by the perspective of the writer; and sometimes only part of a story makes it through the passage of time anyway. We can’t access the full truth behind this week’s sad little story, but it is interesting and illuminating of its time. A warning to the squeamish: it contains a first-hand account of an 18th-century autopsy.

This is our third and final visit to the diaries of Thomas Turner. In the first, we read of his marriage woes, and in the second of his health troubles and the dubious treatments of his era. Turner was a key figure in his Sussex community of East Hoathly as a shopkeeper, and former schoolmaster; but this time the focus is on his role as a parish overseer of the poor. This role existed as a result of the Poor Law from the late 16th to the early 19th century: money raised from local taxation was used to provide support for local people on hard times. A justice of the peace and co-opted overseers1 were responsible for its fair distribution. They had to keep accounts of this, which often survive and provide useful information for family and social historians, and Turner’s own diaries sometimes record parish finances.

Before we come to the main story, an amusing little interlude also provides some context about a person who will become central to our current tale. Enter Thomas Turner, ashamed of a drunken incident…

Tues. 8 June. Now what I am a-going to mention makes me shudder with horror at the thought of it. It is I got very much in liquor… And what is still more terrifying, by committing this enormous crime I plunged myself into still greater; that is, that of quarrelling, which was this: my walking yesterday and again today, my feet were very sore, so that, meeting with Peter Adams, I asked him to carry me home, which he agreed to; and I accordingly got on horseback at The Cats after first having some words with a person and I can think for no other reason but because he was sober, or at least I know it was because I were drunk. We then proceeded on the road home and, as I am since informed, oftentimes finding an opportunity to have words with somebody, and, doubtless as often, giving somebody the opportunity to sneer and ridicule myself, as well in justice they might. And, I suppose I, to gratify Mr. Adams for his trouble, told him [if] he would go around by Will. Dicker’s, I would treat him with a mug of 6d., which he readily accepted of (though he, I understand, was very sober). There we met Mr. Laugham and several more, but who I cannot remember, and I suppose also in liquor. Now there was formerly a dispute between Mr. Laugham and I about a bill wherein I was used ill, and I imagine I must tell him of that. Or whether they, seeing me more in liquor than themselves, put upon me, I do not remember, but Mr. Laugham pulled me by the nose and struck at me with his horse-whip and used me very ill, upon which Mr. Adams told ’em he thought there was enough for a joke, upon which they used him very ill and have abused him very much. And whilst they were a-fighting, I, free from any hurt and like a true friend and bold hearty fellow, rode away upon poor Peter’s horse leaving him to shift for himself and glad enough I got away with a whole skin. I got home about 10 o’clock.

Thurs. 17 June. In the forenoon I went down to see Peter Adams. Found him in bed and determined to prosecute the men that abused him.

[It will become clear why this is relevant later. But now we come to the main story. To ‘swear the parish’ refers to someone declaring which parish had responsibility for their welfare; and in cases of illegitimacy, ‘swearing the father’ – i.e. naming him – absolved the parish of financial responsibility towards the child.]

Fri. 2 July. Heard… of Elizabeth Elless’s being with child.2

Sat. 3 July. In the morn Mr. French3 and I went up to talk with Eliz. Elless, who acknowledged she was with child and not above 2 or 3 weeks more to go of her time. We asked her to inform us of the father, which she seemed very unwilling to do, but she agreed with us to go and swear her parish,25 though we were almost confident she did belong to our parish, but thinking she might be persuaded to swear the father,26 we concluded to carry her to Lewes and accordingly came back to prepare for our journey… Then Mr. French and I went down to Mr. Porter’s4 to get him to meet us as we were a-carrying my lady along and to talk to her to inform her of the reasonableness and justice of her either informing us who the father was or swearing it, which he promised to do… Mr. Porter, according to his promise, met with her and talked to her very much but all to no purpose; so we proceeded on our journey. When we came to Lewes, had her examined, and being informed by Mr. Verral, the justice’s clerk, she would belong to us, we did not have her sworn; and with all the persuasions Mr. Verral, Mr. French and myself were masters of could not prevail on her to confess the father, though I think we tried all ways to come to the knowledge of him.

Tues. 13 July. This day died Eliz. Elless, and immediately after she was dead, Mr. Adams told me Mr. French and I would be fined on account of her death. The reason was because we carried her before a justice and asked her to swear the father.

[Turner and French would only have broken the law if they had taken Elizabeth to a magistrate to swear the father less than a month after the child was born, but her reluctance meant they didn’t pursue this. Why was Adams suddenly getting involved anyway? Read on…]

Weds. 14 July. About 4 o’clock Mr. Porter came to me and told me he thought it was the parish’s duty to examine into the death of this poor creature who died yesterday, and have her opened. For there was, according to all circumstances, room to suspect she or some other person had administered something to deprive herself or child of life. For they had agreed with a nurse to come a-Monday, which she accordingly did, and was agreed with for only a week, and a person an entire stranger. Now this creature was very well all the day a-Monday and baked. And after she had taken the bread out of the oven, she took a walk and returned about 8 o’clock. And about 10 o’clock, or between 9 and 10, she was taken with a violent vomiting and purging and continued so all night until Tuesday, 5 o’clock, at which time she expired. And the latter part of her time she was convulsed, and if asked where in pain, she would answer ‘All over.’ Now what was very remarkable, she had not above 2 or 3 days more but her time as to child-bearing was expired. And during all the time of her sickness she never had any pangs or throes like labour, nor no external symptoms whatever, and complained of great heat, and was afflicted with an uncommon drought.

And what more increased our suspicion was as Mr. John Vine’s two men and apprentice was a-coming home from work a-Monday night, they saw Peter Adams’s horse stand tied up at a pair of bars which led into a very remote and obscure place in a wood, and upon which they immediately concluded to see whether he was alone… Before they had went far, they saw Mr. Adams, who made directly for the bars where the boy see him get on his horse and ride off. And as the men also knew him, they went forward, but not far, before they found where two people had stood and also two places where people had lain down.

They then agreed to separate and endeavour to find out his partner, and one of them had walked but a little way before he see this unhappy creature, with whom he shook hands and talked to. And afterwards they all three see her together. This the men offer to swear before any magistrate…

They were also seen on Saturday night by another person, conversing over a pair of bars, he on horseback, leaning over his horse’s neck, and she a-leaning over the bars. And during the whole time of her illness they never sent for any midwife or apothecary, nor did not call in any neighbours till near noon on Tuesday, and then only 2 or 3 simple creatures. And he, Peter Adams, were with her a great part of the day on Tuesday until she became speechless, and then shook hands with her and parted. And for a great while past they have been as conversant and familiar as if they were lovers though he was a married man.

To do him justice he has had one child before by another woman, and his wife, poor woman, is now big with child.5 Upon this suspicion we went down to Mr. Jer. French’s to consult him, whom we found of the same opinion… And we all agreed to have her opened in order if possible to discover whether she or any one else had administered anything to deprive her or the child of life… I then went to Lewes to get Dr. Snelling to perform the operation…

[We met Snelling the doctor last week. Mr Davy, who we now meet at the autopsy, is described as a ‘man midwife’.]

Thurs. 15 July. Mr. Snelling, Mr. Davy and myself came to Mr. Porter’s about 10 o’clock, where we went in and stayed just the time of eating a bit of bread and drinking a glass of wine. We came up to my house where we provided ourselves with all things necessary for the operation, to wit, a bottle of wine and another of brandy and aprons and napkins, together with a quantity of fragrant herbs such as mint, savory, marjoram, balm, pennyroyal, roses etc., and threaded all the needles. We then proceeded to the house when we duly examined the nurse, who confirmed all we had heard before, with the addition that it was such a case as she never saw before and that she was fearful all was not right. The doctors then proceeded to the operation after they had dressed themselves and opened their instruments. They first made a cut from the bottom of the thorax to the os pubis and then two more across at the top of the abdomen as:

The operation was performed in mine and the nurse’s presence. They also opened the uterus where they found a perfect fine female child, which lay in the right position and would, as they imagined, have been born in about 48 hours. And as the membranes were all entirely whole, and the womb full of the water common on such occasions, there was convincing proof she never were in travail. The ilea were all very much inflamed, as was also the duodenum, but they both declared they could see no room to suspect poison. But if anything else had been administered, it had been carried off by her violent vomiting and purging (though they said circumstances looked very dark and all corroborated together to give room for suspicion). We came back to my house about 1 o’clock, and Mr. Snelling and Mr. Davy went to Mr. Porter’s. The doctors both allowed this poor unhappy creature’s death to proceed from a bilious colic (so far as they could judge).

And that’s the last we learn of poor Elizabeth herself – inconclusive in terms of poisoning (i.e. murder or perhaps suicide), and ultimately an unconvincing verdict of ‘bilious colic’, a rather vague term covering all manner of abdominal pains.

Of Peter Adams, we hear more over the course of the year. For one thing, he was already known for having got another woman pregnant outside his own marriage, four years earlier. Turner’s diary refers to a parish bond obliging Adams to contribute to the resulting child’s upkeep, as well as Adams’ reluctance to pay. Only nine days after the autopsy, we read:

Sat. 24 July. He, the said Peter Adams, had a female bastard child by Ann Caine, now the wife of Thomas Ling, and as security to the parish for the said child… he gave the said parish a bond, dated 4 April 1752, wherein he binds himself, his heirs, executors and administrators to pay the churchwarden and overseer of the parish for the time being the sum of 18d. a week and every week from the birth of the child for so long time as the said child shall continue to be chargeable to the parish… Mr. Poole gave me a summons to oblige Adams to appear before him at The White Hart at Lewes a-Saturday next to give his reasons for not paying; and then if he could give no reason for not paying and could not be brought to do it by the justices, we must then immediately execute the bond against him and sue him for the same… In the even talked to Peter Adams again who still quibbles on but will not absolutely deny paying it.

Eventually a summons was issued. Meanwhile, not long after this, Adams himself asks Turner for help with regard to the beating he received back in June, before Elizabeth’s tale unfolded:

Weds. 4 Aug. About 12 o’clock Peter Adams called on me to go with him to Ringmer in order to see the people who were eye-witnesses of his abuse a-Whitsun Tuesday, which I accordingly did. We found James Carter, John Mitchel, David Tippings and Dorothy Presnal, all eyewitnesses of his and my abuse, which they say was very great and, in their opinion, insufferable…

But by the autumn, Turner is less supportive of Adams altogether, and clearly the story of Elizabeth has set tongues wagging in the community:

Fri. 5 Nov. There was in the even a very strong argument between Mr. Porter and Mr. Adams concerning the unhappy affair of poor Elizabeth Elless, when I think it must astonish almost any thinking person to see with what audaciousness the poor hardened wretch behaves, for he seems to glory in and give encouragement to crimes of the deepest dye, and his chiefest discourse consists in obscene words and oaths.

Turner’s 20th century editor David Vaisey6 describes Peter Adams as a “feckless, though evidently charming, individual who was moving downwards in society”; Turner’s diary records that he was released from his bond over Ann Caine’s child in 1758. Adams’ wife died in 1768; he remarried five years later but his new wife died after six months. Adams himself died in 1780.

As I said at the start, we can’t really know the truth here – but certainly the reports of Adams suggest he could have had some hand in Elizabeth’s death, or perhaps urged her to take some purgative to force a miscarriage which went horribly wrong. Yet he also came to Turner’s rescue while the diarist had his drunken escapade. Lost in the mists of time, what did Peter Adams really get away with?


The role was rotated among respectable members of the community, unpaid and compulsory.


A Francis Elless was the local schoolmaster and a close friend of Turner. Was he Elizabeth’s father? It’s not clear from the diaries but presumably they must have been related.


Jeremiah French was a wealthy tenant farmer, 20 years older than Turner and his fellow parish overseer. David Vaisey, editor of Turner’s diaries in the 1980s, observes that French “was the scourge of those less fortunate than himself, especially keen to pursue paupers out of the parish if he could ensure their settlement elsewhere”.


The Rev. Thomas Porter was the parish rector and, like French, a powerful personality known for hard drinking and strong opinions.


Turner’s diary also mentions the loss of one of their children earlier in this same year, 1756.


David Vaisey (ed.), The Diary of Thomas Turner, 1754-1765, CTR Publishing, 1984; online at