Sarah Malcolm, 1710-1733

Laundress and Infamous Murderess

Known only for her participation in a horrific crime, Sarah Malcolm mounted an audacious defence, both at her trial and in print.

Childhood in County Durham and Dublin

Sarah Malcolm (sometimes called Mallcom or Mallcomb) was born in County Durham in 1710.1 Her parents were known as a respectable couple, her father having an estate worth about £100 a year. However, he was an extravagant man, his money ran out, and the family moved to Dublin since her mother was Irish and able to acquire accommodation and work there.

Her father established a business in Ireland. And according to the Ordinary, Sarah was given a "good education at school in Reading, Writing and such other Things as are proper for a Girl, above the meanest Rank of People".

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Working in London

When Sarah reached young womanhood, she accompanied her parents to London where they had business to deal with. She went into domestic service in a series of "good" families where she gave satisfaction in carrying out her duties. Her father returned to Dublin where his main business lay, and shortly afterwards her mother died.

Sarah fared less well on her own. She obtained employment serving in a "low" public house, the "Black Horse" in Boswell Court near Temple Bar. Then she became laundress to a number of residents who lodged in chambers above the Inns of Court in the Temple, amongst whom was a Mr John Kerrel (or Carroll) where she appears to have had the use of a room, although she may have generally lived in Shoreditch.2 At this time she made the acquaintance of Mrs Mary Tracey, and her friends, the young brothers James and Thomas Alexander. They often pressed her to cheat and steal from her employers since she had easy access to the places where they lived.

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The Temple Murders

Sarah Malcolm eventually agreed to assist them to rob a lodger in one of the Temple chambers, a rich, 80 year old, infirm woman, Mrs Lydia Duncomb, for whom Sarah had worked in the past. Mrs Duncomb shared her lodgings with a long term companion, 60 year old infirm Mrs Harrison, and her young servant, 26 year old Ann Price.

The robbery was planned on 28 January 1733 and scheduled to take place the following week. On the 4th of February, late at night, Sarah managed to introduce the Alexanders into Mrs Duncombe's lodging where they hid until the residents were asleep. They then let Mary Tracey in while Sarah remained on the stairs as lookout. She insisted she remained there until the other three came out with their booty - £300 worth of currency, silver ware and other items. Then they went outside to share out their gains.

The dead bodies of the three women were discovered the following afternoon. Ann Price's throat had been slit in a savage manner and the older women had been strangled. When Sarah's master, Kerrel, found a silver tankard and blood stained clothing in her room, he called the watch and she was taken into custody. (Tracey and the Alexanders were also apprehended and held, but after Sarah's death they were released without charge.)

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Bloody Clothing is Proof of Guilt

Sarah Malcolm was indicted for the murders and the robbery, but was tried for murder only, at the Old Bailey on 23 February 1733. Her trial lasted five hours and was reported at length in a sensational manner. She defended herself strongly, admitting to participation in the robbery (a capital crime in itself) but emphatically denying the murders, of which she said she was unaware until they were later discovered (since she was only the lookout). Her defence was based on the fact that the blood on her clothing was her menstrual blood and not that of Ann Price. This may have done her more harm than good, as she spoke unashamedly of a taboo subject in the manner of a "loose" rather than a "virtuous" woman.3 The jury took only fifteen minutes to find her guilty and she was sentenced to death.

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Newgate and Execution

Sarah Malcolm depicted sitting at a table with a rosary. A prison door can be seen in the background William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm, 1733. Reproduced from C. Lewis Hind, Hogarth: Masterpieces in Colour. 1910. © London Lives.

Awaiting execution in Newgate, Sarah received the customary instruction in the Christian faith from the Ordinary, James Guthrie. In his Account, he points out, with some distaste, that she was a Roman Catholic, and his instruction to her, soundly Anglican, underlines the view that her being "of a different Communion" added to her guilt and unrepentant state.

She received other visiting "gentlemen" who wished her to issue a confession which might make a sensational story to sell. She maintained her innocence of the murders to the end. She was particularly distressed that her execution was to take place in Fleet Street, near the Temple Gate, where her acquaintances and neighbours would witness it. Two or three days before her death, she was visited by the painter William Hogarth who sketched her and then painted her portrait; this image can be seen in the lower right hand corner of every page of London Lives.4 She was executed on Wednesday, 7 March 1733.

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The infamy of "the Irish Laundress" grew after her death, with the publication of copies of Hogarth's painting and engravings, the Ordinary's Account, and her final confession, which she entrusted to the Revd W. Piddington, Lecturer at St Bartholemew the Great. In this rare example of a first person narrative by a female criminal, published at her request, she maintained her innocence of the murders, while confessing to participation in the burglary.5 It was reported that Malcolm had an amorous connection with Piddington, who was with her on the scaffold.6 The story of this crime was repeated in numerous publications in the ensuing decades, in which the impression of Malcolm as an "evil, barbaric, and stubborn woman" dominated.7

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External Sources

  • A True Copy of the Paper Delivered the Night Before her Execution, by Sarah Malcolm to the Rev. Mr Piddington, Lecturer of St Bartholemew the Great. 1733, reprinted in The Gentleman's Magazine or Monthly Intellegencer, March 1733.
  • Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth. 3rd edn, 1785, pp. 173-5.
  • The Complete Newgate Calender. 1926 edn, vol. 3, pp. 73-5.
  • Donnachie, Ian. Malcolm, Sarah (c.1710–1733). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (requires subscription). 2004, accessed 19 April 2010.
  • Hitchcock, Tim and Shoemaker, Robert. Tales from the Hanging Court. 2006, pp. 121-30.
  • Magrath, Jane. (Mis)Reading the Bloody Body: the case of Sarah Malcolm, Women's Writing, 11, 2 (2004), pp. 223-36.
  • Shoemaker, Robert B. Print and the Female Voice: Representations of Women’s Crime in London, 1690-1735. Gender and History, 22: 1 (2010), pp. 75-91.

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1 In most accounts, her year of birth is given as 1711. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives it as 1710. This is likely since the Ordinary's Account states that she was "22 Years of Age in the End of May last".

2 The Complete Newgate Calender (1926 edn), vol. 3, pp. 73-5.

3 Jane Magrath, (Mis)Reading the Bloody Body: The Case of Sarah Malcolm, Women's Writing, 11, 2 (2004), pp. 223-36.

4 Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 3rd edn(1785), pp. 173-4. The original of the portrait is in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. Engravings and copies made from the sketch and portrait variously show Sarah Malcolm in her cell with a knife, or a rosary, or writing a letter, on the table beside her, or in the company of a cleric holding a ring in his hand, with the motto, "No recompense but love".

5 A True Copy of the Paper Delivered the Night Before her Execution, by Sarah Malcolm to the Rev. Mr Piddington, Lecturer of St Bartholemew the Great (1733), reprinted in The Gentleman's Magazine or Monthly Intellegencer (March 1733). See also Robert B. Shoemaker, Print and the Female Voice: Representations of Women’s Crime in London, 1690-1735, Gender and History 22: 1 (2010), pp. 85-6.

6 Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth, 3rd edn (1785), pp. 173, 175.

7 Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, Tales from the Hanging Court (2006), pp.129-30.

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About this Biography

Created by

Deirdre Palk 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker