February 2016 | Nate Pedersen

Bones of Real-life Tess of the d'Urbervilles Found?

32261.jpgArchaeologists may have uncovered the bones of the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. While excavating the site of a former prison in Dorchester, the archaeologists located a skull and other remains believed to belong to Elizabeth Martha Brown, who was hanged at the Dorchester prison in 1856. A teenage Hardy was in attendance at her hanging, an experience which left a profound and lasting impact on him.

Brown was convicted of the murder of her second husband, John Brown, who she may have killed with an axe after he took a whip to her. Despite always proclaiming her innocence, Brown was sentenced to death and became the last woman publicly hanged in Dorset.

Hardy, shameful at having attended the hanging, later recollected, "My only excuse being that I was young, and had to be in town on other business." The writer later mined elements of Brown's fate for the ending of Tess of d'Urbervilles, a novel about a woman who ultimately murders a man that greatly wronged her.

By all accounts, Brown met her death with grace and poise. Hardy wrote of it, "I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back."

The remains found by the archaeologists will be further examined for more details. The site of the former prison is not yet fully excavated.