In 1740, Elizabeth Branch, a well-to-do widow, and her daughter Mary were put on trial at Somerset assizes, accused of murdering their maid, Jane Buttersworth. Another of their servants, Henry Butler, testified to the cruelty of the pair, telling the court that he had been so fearful of Elizabeth and Mary’s wrath that, subjected to their blows and harangues for dropping a serving dish, he had ‘beshit’ himself. The Branches were not done with tormenting Butler, however, but ‘took up my turd, thrust it into my mouth, and made me eat it’. The tortures the Branches inflicted on their household were not, though, of their own invention: ‘Madam Branch’ was reputedly an avid reader, especially of stories of cruelty and tyranny – a particular favourite was the tale of Nero, who was said to have eviscerated his mother to see how he was born.
Elizabeth and Mary got their comeuppance on 3 May 1740, when they were hanged for Jane Buttersworth’s murder. As James Sharpe makes clear, this instance of domestic homicide instigated by women was exceptional but the relationship between violent behaviour, culture and the media is central to A Fiery &