Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Death of Ann Sadler: Murder by over enthusiastic Dancing

I have been as readers of my own blog can see, musing on the Old Bailey records this morning. Amongst those records one finds interesting cases- and one that I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in was a case of murder by over enthusiastic dancing: here it is
Simon Durrant , was Tryed for Killing Ann Sadler at Leather-sellers Hall , on the 9th of August last, by brusing, rowling and throwing down the said Sadler, of which she languished till the 3d of September and then dyed . The Proof was, that there being a Feast heald there that day and a Dancing Bout ensuing, whilst Durrant was Acting the Countryman, Ann Sadler came in to call her Mistresses Son from thence, when upon intimation Durrant caught hold of her and obliged her to Dance, which she did for almost a quarter of an hour, and then she being about to make her escape from him, he pursued her and puling her back by force threw her down, and tumbled with her over and over; so that being bruised thereby, she went home and sickned and languishing to the day aforesaid, dyed, to which he plaaded that her Dancing was with her own consent and as for the rest it was but a Frolick, and he intended no harm and bringing credible persons to testifie it, and that he laid her down very easily, and further, it appearing upon the Testimony of two Chirurgeons that she dyed not by any Bruise thereby occasioned, he was acquitted , as also upon the Coroners inquisition for Manslaughter.

What lies behind this record? It seems odd at first sight. Let me set up the situation in modern English- what Simon Durrant was accused of was grabbing this young girl, dancing with her, throwing her to the ground, tumbling over her and bruising her so much that she died. It sounds implausible and the two doctors who visited her agreed with my modern impression, that 'she dyed not by any bruise thereby occasioned'. One interpretation sees this case as emerging from something else: Ann Sadler died and her friends hung this charge around the neck of Simon Durrant. He seems to have been a lively young man- and perhaps one that people wanted to bring down, to hang a noose and a murder round his neck.

But look at it again and the evidence changes- its possible to see something there that we might describe as sexual assault- Simon Durrant's excuses are very much in that mould- I did it with her consent, it was just a bit of fun etc etc. That was obviously not the opinion of Ann Sadler's friends when they brought this case to the attention of the court, nor does it seem to be her opinion- she 'languished' for several days before dying. There may have been internal injuries- possibly a little more than a tumble in the hay- that seventeenth century post mortems could not find. Furthermore Sadler may well have faced depression from her ordeal- if we presume that what this account masks is a sexual assault- and that may have assisted her death.

We will never know. Both accounts make sense. A spurious charge invented by Simon Durrant's enemies or a sexual assault that the prejudice and ignorance of the time could not properly judge: its up to you to decide. The evidence is fragmentary and I hope this suggests one of the problems of being a historian, you have a fragment like this and you have to work out what happened from it. Sometimes it is uncertain and you just cannot know- this case is one of those.


  1. A very interesting accusation. I agree that both of the accounts could be true. I think you would have to have been there for sure ;-)

  2. Another little thought to add to the mix:

    'tumble' was a euphemism for copulation during 16th-18th centuries.

    Is this rape by another name....?

    Poor Ann, whatever.

  3. What a strange tale. Because one can never know for sure an historian can speculate to his/her heart's content.
    However what struck me with your sexual assault idea was that it is more of a twentieth/twenty first century concept and that in those days less likely to occur legal consequences, even though resulting in death, which was not immediate.

  4. deb acle I was trying to imply rape by another name- interestingly rape was prosecuted then but normally it often meant something like kidnap rather than rape itself.

    JMB there is an argument that that is going on- its a court that does not recognise assault. I'd be wary of saying that they did not ever recognise assault- more that it was not a separate crime and more difficult to gain a conviction. I think if it was a sexual assault the internal injuries point is vital to understand as well.

  5. I say he raped her and in her being thrown to the ground could have suffered any number of injuries including internal, broken neck, head injuries.

    I think women back then were less likely to draw attention to such goings on, more likely to cover them up, for the mud that could be slung at them and their families , impeaching their character than to falsely accuse him .

    Very interesting post.


Your thoughts on this?