Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: Jane Griffin


who was Executed for the Murder of her Maid, January 29, 1719-20

Passion, when it once gains an ascendant over our minds, is often more fatal to us than the most deliberate course of vice could be. On every little start it throws us from the paths of reason, and hurries us in one moment into acts more wicked and more dangerous than we could at any other time suffer to enter our imagination. As anger is justly said to be a short madness, so, while the frenzy is upon us, blood is shed as easily as water, and the mind is so filled with fury that there is no room left for compassion. There cannot be a stronger proof of what I have been observing than in the unhappy end of the poor woman who is the subject of this chapter.

Jane Griffin was the daughter of honest and substantial parents, who educated her with very great tenderness and care, particularly with respect to religion, in which she was well and rationally instructed. As she grew up her person grew agreeable, and she had a lively wit and a very tolerable share of understanding. She lived with a very good reputation, and to general satisfaction, in several places, till she married Mr. Griffin, who kept the Three Pigeons in Smithfield[1].

She behaved herself so well and was so obliging in her house that she drew to it a very great trade, in which she managed so as to leave everyone well satisfied. Yet she allowed her temper to fly out into sudden gusts of passion, and that folly alone sullied her character to those who were witnesses of it, and at last caused a shameful end to an honest and industrious life.

One Elizabeth Osborn, coming to live with her as a servant, she proved of a disposition as Mrs. Griffin could by no means agree with. They were continually differing and having high words, in which, as is usual on such occasions, Mrs. Griffin made use of wild expressions, which though she might mean nothing by them when she spoke them, yet proved of the utmost ill consequence, after the fatal accident of the maid's death. For being then given in evidence, they were esteemed proofs of malice prepense, which ought to be a warning to all hasty people to endeavour at some restraint upon their tongues when in fits of anger, since we are not only sure of answering hereafter for every idle word we speak, but even here they may, as in this case, become fatal in the last degree.

It was said at the time those things were transacted that jealousy was in some degree the source of their debates, but of that I can affirm nothing. It no way appeared as to the accident which immediately drew on her death, and which happened after this manner.

One evening, having cut some cold fowl for the children's supper, it happened the key of the cellar was missing on a sudden, and on Mrs. Griffin's first speaking of it they began to look for it. But it not being found, Mrs. Griffin went into the room where the maid was, and using some very harsh expression, taxed her with having seen it, or laid it out of the way. Instead of excusing herself modestly, the maid flew out also into ill language at her mistress, and in the midst of the fray, the knife with which she had been cutting lying unluckily by her, she snatched it up, and stuck it into the maid's bosom; her stays happening to be unluckily open, it entered so deep as to give her a mortal wound.

After she had struck her Mrs. Griffin went upstairs, not imagining that she had killed her, but the alarm was soon raised on her falling down, and Mrs. Griffin was carried before a magistrate, and committed to Newgate. When she was first confined, she seemed hopeful of getting off at her trial, yet though she did not make any confession, she was very sorrowful and concerned. As her trial drew nearer, her apprehensions grew stronger, till notwithstanding all she could urge in her defence, the jury found her guilty, and sentence was pronounced as the Law directs.

Hitherto she had hopes of life, and though she did not totally relinquish them even upon her conviction, yet she prepared with all due care for her departure. She sent for the minister of her own parish, who attended her with great charity, and she seemed exceedingly penitent and heartily sorry for her crime, praying with great favour and emotion.

And as the struggling of an afflicted heart seeks every means to vent its sorrow, in order to gain ease, or at least an alleviation of pain, so this unhappy woman, to soothe the gloomy sorrows that oppressed her, used to sit down on the dirty floor, saying it was fit she should humble herself in dust and ashes, and professing that if she had an hundred hearts she would freely yield them all to bleed, so they might blot out the stain of her offence. By such expression did she testify those inward sufferings which far exceed the punishment human laws inflict, even on the greatest crimes.

When the death warrant came down and she utterly despaired of life, her sorrow and contrition became greater than before, and here the use and comfort of religion manifestly appeared; for had not her faith in Christ moderated her afflictions, perhaps grief might have forestalled the executioner, but she still comforted herself with thinking on a future state, and what in so short an interval she must do to deserve an happy immortality.

The time of her death drawing very near, she desired a last interview with her husband and daughter, which was accompanied with so much tenderness that nobody could have beheld it without the greatest emotion. She exhorted her husband with great earnestness to the practice of a regular and Christian life, begged him to take due care of his temporal concerns, and not omit anything necessary in the education of the unhappy child she left behind her. When he had promised a due regard should be had to all her requests she seemed more composed and better satisfied than she had been. Continuing her discourse, she reminded him of what occurred to her with regard to his affairs, adding that it was the last advice she should give, and begging therefore it might be remembered. She finished what she had to say with the most fervent prayers and wishes for his prosperity.

Turning next to her daughter, and pouring over her a flood of tears, "My dearest child", she said, "let the afflictions of thy mother be a warning and an example unto thee; and since I am denied life to educate and bring thee up, let this dreadful monument of my death suffice to warn you against yielding in any degree to your passion, or suffering a vehemence of temper to transport you so far even as indecent words, which bring on a custom of flying out in a rage on trivial occasions, till they fatally terminate in such acts of wrath and cruelty as that for which I die. Let your heart, then, be set to obey your Maker and yield a ready submission to all His laws. Learn that Charity, Love and Meekness which our blessed religion teaches, and let your mother's unhappy death excite you to a sober and godly life. The hopes of thus are all I have to comfort me in this miserable state, this deplorable condition to which my own rash folly has reduced me."

The sorrow expressed both by her husband and by her child was very great and lively and scarce inferior to her own, but the ministers who attended her fearing their lamentations might make too strong an impression on her spirits, they took their last farewell, leaving her to take care of her more important concern, the eternal welfare of her soul.

Some malicious people (as is too often the custom) spread stories of this unfortunate woman, as if she had been privy to the murder of one Mr. Hanson, who was killed in the Farthing-Pie House fields[2]; and attended this with so many odd circumstances and particulars, which tales of this kind acquire by often being repeated, that the then Ordinary of Newgate thought it became him to mention it to the prisoner. Mrs. Griffin appeared to be much affected at her character being thus stained by the fictions of idle suspicions of silly mischievous persons. She declared her innocence in the most solemn manner, averred she had never lived near the place, nor had heard so much as the common reports as to that gentleman's death.

Yet, as if folks were desirous to heap sorrow on sorrow, and to embitter even the heavy sentence on this poor woman, they now gave out a new fable to calumniate her in respect to her chastity, averring on report of which the first author is never to be found, that she had lived with Mr. Griffin in a criminal intimacy before their marriage. The Ordinary also (though with great reluctance) told her this story. The unhappy woman answered it was false, and confirmed what she said by undeniable evidence, adding she freely forgave the forgers of so base an insinuation.

When the fatal day came on which she was to die, Mrs. Griffin endeavoured, as far as she was able, to compose herself easily to submit to what was not now to be avoided. She had all along manifested a true sense of religion, knowing that nothing could support her under the calamities she went through but the hopes of earthly sufferings atoning for her faults, and becoming thereby a means of eternal salvation. Yet though these thoughts reconciled this ignominious death to her reason, her apprehensions were, notwithstanding, strong and terrible when it came so near.

At the place of execution she was in terrible agonies, conjuring the minister who attended her and the Ordinary of Newgate, to tell her whither there was any hopes of her salvation, which she repeated with great earnestness, and seeming to part with them reluctantly. The Ordinary entreated her to submit cheerfully to this, her last stage of sorrow, and in certain assurance of meeting again (if it so pleased God) in a better slate.

The following paper having been left in the hands of a friend, and being designed for the people, I thought proper to publish it.

I declare, then, with respect to the deed for which I die, that I did it without any malice or anger aforethought, for the unlucky instrument of my passion lying at hand, when first words arose on the loss of the key, I snatched it up suddenly, and executed that rash act which hath brought her and me to death, without thinking.

I trust, however, that my most sincere and hearty repentance of this bloody act of cruelty, the sufferings which I have endured since, the ignominious death I am now to die, and above all the merits of my Saviour, who shed His blood for me on the Cross, will atone for this my deep and heavy offence, and procure for me eternal rest.

But as I am sensible that there is no just hope of forgiveness from the Almighty without a perfect forgiveness of those who have any way injured us, so I do freely and from the bottom of my soul, forgive all who have ever done me any wrong, and particularly those who, since my sorrowful imprisonment, have cruelly aspersed me, earnestly entreating all who in my life-time I may have offended, that they would also in pity to my deplorable state, remit those offences to me with a like freedom.

And now as the Law hath adjudged, and I freely offer my body to suffer for what I have committed, I hope nobody will be so unjust and so uncharitable as to reflect on those I leave behind me on my account, and for this, I most humbly make my last dying request, as also that ye would pray for my departed soul.

She died with all exterior marks of true penitence, being about forty years of age, the 29th of January, 1719-20.


[1] This tavern was in Butcher Hall Lane (now King Edward Street, Newgate Street), and was a favourite resort of the Paternoster Row booksellers.

[2] The Farthing-Pie House was a tavern in Marylebone. It was subsequently re-christened The Green Man.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals