The tragedy of an insane marriage

How Joseph and Anne Cruttenden got together in Brightling in the first place remains a mystery, but their bizarre marriage ended in unsavoury tragedy.

It was a union that must have been the source of much gossip and rumour in the latter part of the 18th century.

He was the village butcher and, at almost 80 years of age, she was 40 years his senior. Old enough to be his grandmother as some of their more uncharitable neighbours might have said.

The unlikely match came to a horrible end in June, 1776. Joseph had been missing for three days and his family - Brightling abounded in Cruttendens in those days - was growing increasingly worried.

Finally his brother broke into the butcher’s shop and made a grim discovery upstairs. Joseph was dead in bed, his throat cut, and Anne was beside him complaining: ‘There lays the butcher. I have been talking to him and cannot get him to answer me.’

Worse still, her pet cats were on the point of starvation and had started eating the corpse.

To say Widow Cruttenden appeared ‘disordered in her senses’ was probably an 18th century understatement. A coroner’s jury was unable to form a verdict because of her ‘mad answers’ and had to sit again a week later.

This time they returned a verdict of murder and she was committed to Horsham Gaol where she languished throughout July in a ‘perfect state of distraction’ awaiting trial. She was condemned to death, the method

prescribed by law for a husband-killer at that time being burning at the stake.

There was no mercy. A contemporary report refers to her as ‘a hag’ and adds: ‘This execrable and remorseless woman, who is near eighty years of age, not satisfied with having barbarously and inhumanely murdered her husband, exposed him prey to her half-starved, voracious cats,

whose nose and cheeks they had entirely devoured and left him a most horrible spectacle.’

She went to the stake on 15 August, 1776, the last execution of its kind in the county.’

A terrible story.