Innocence on Trial: The Hanging of East Bradford's Elizabeth Wilson

Her story—whichever version you hear—serves as a warning. Whether it’s sensationalized warning for young women or members of the justice system is up for debate.

The tale of Elizabeth Wilson has many versions, but this much is not in dispute: At about 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1786, Chester County sheriff William Gibbons put Wilson in a cart and drove her from the jail in Chester to what was known as the Hangman’s Lot—a site now occupied by a hotel at Edgmont and Providence avenues. There, Gibbons dawdled.

The court that had sentenced Wilson to hang for murdering her illegitimate newborn twins had ordered that she be dead by noon. The execution, however, followed a month-long reprieve, and evidence received after the trial pointed to Wilson’s innocence.

Responsibility for presenting that evidence had been assigned to Wilson’s brother, William. But nothing had been heard from him, and time was up. “Sheriff Gibbons determined to delay carrying out the sentence to the last moment,” related Henry Ashmead a century later in his 1884 History of Delaware County. (Delaware County had been split off from Chester County in 1789.) “He stationed duly qualified deputies at some distance on the road to Philadelphia to notify him by white flags of the approach of Wilson. After a few moments were spent in prayer, the last moment had come, and the cart in which she stood was drawn from beneath her feet. Elizabeth Wilson had been landed into eternity.”

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Fifteen minutes later, the flags began to wave. But William Wilson had arrived too late.

The story was sensational in its own time, but its subsequent retelling and interpretation is a tale of its own. In the first few decades, the tale was used as a warning to young women of the dangers of fornication and bastardy.

Some writers apparently told the story as they pleased, without being held to mere facts. An 1802 evangelical pamphlet published in Boston described the similar fate of “Harriot” Wilson. That account, however, made Wilson the actual killer, though most other accounts suggest otherwise. An 1839 book (supposedly autobiographical) by “Amos” Wilson described the effect of the woman’s execution on her brother, but it makes significant chronological and factual errors. In some tellings, Wilson was described as the product of a family that had been loyal to England during the Revolution, with the implication that Toryism had been the original sin.

Recent authors have looked at the story as a reflection on the status of both women and the poor. In Sex Among the Rabble, historian Claire A. Lyons pointed to the uneven treatment of Wilson and the infants’ father. Even with that evidence, there was no effort to apprehend him. “That she, and not the murdering father of the children, did in fact hang for their murder made the lessons of female responsibility for sexual transgressions all the more powerful,” observed Lyons.

Perhaps the most neutral account was from Charles Biddle, vice president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council at the time of the Wilson trial and execution. The state had abolished the office of governor in 1777, and didn’t restore it until 1790. In the interim, executive authority was in the hands of 12 elected council members. Benjamin Franklin served as president from 1785 to 1787.

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According to Biddle, Wilson was from a “respectable” Chester County family, though he didn’t identify her parents. In fact, no account identifies Wilson’s parents, nor do any genealogies of the county’s large Wilson clan claim her. She seems to have been posthumously disowned. The 1953 Main Line Times account says that her family lived in East Bradford Township.

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The 1802 account described Wilson as “early educated with the utmost tenderness, and every possible care was taken to impress upon her mind sentiments of virtue and religion. She was of a sprightly and affable disposition, polite in manners and engaging in conversation.”

In Ashmead’s version, Wilson’s separation from her family began when she was taken by the preaching of Thomas Fleeson, a young, blind itinerant Baptist minister. Because Fleeson traveled to preach, Wilson traveled to hear him. And so, she broadened her horizons.

Elizabeth Wilson’s troubles apparently began when she moved to the big city. Biddle doesn’t say when this happened or where in Philadelphia she lived. According to the 1953 account, it was at roughly the time of the British occupation of Philadelphia when Wilson, then 16, asked her parents for permission to live and work with relatives who owned or managed the Indian Queen Tavern on Fourth Street near Chestnut. The Indian Queen was a prominent gathering spot. Franklin’s Junto met there, and delegates to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention boarded there. A 1786 account by pamphleteer Ashbel Stoddard claimed that Wilson lived in the Cross Keys Tavern, at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut streets.

In any case, says Biddle, it was in Philadelphia that she met “D—, Sheriff of Sussex Co., N.J.—or, according to Stoddard, Joseph Deshong, a “bold and dashing” soldier in the Continental Army. The sheriff of Sussex County at the time was Mark Thomson, who’d been a colonel in the Army. Thomson also served in the New Jersey Senate from 1786 to 1788 and, later, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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A Deshong family did live in southeastern Pennsylvania, but there is no evidence of a Joseph Deshong who’d been an Army officer. Other accounts, including an 1854 story in the Delaware County Republican, insist that Wilson met her seducer at a wedding in Hockessin, Del., where the man was a friend of the groom. Stoddard also claimed that Wilson had already born three illegitimate children before conceiving the two for whose murder she was executed. He didn’t identify the father.

Regardless, Wilson and the man—whoever he was—formed a relationship. Here is Wilson’s account as related by Stoddard: “In the beginning of the year 1784, he insinuated himself into my company under pretense of courtship, declaring himself a single man, and by repeated promises of marriage, deceived and persuaded me to consent to his unlawful embraces. In a short time after, I proved with child of the two dear innocents. I told him of my situation, and then he dropped entirely his purpose of marriage.”

According to the 1953 account, Wilson was ordered out of the tavern where she worked when her condition became apparent. At the city market, she encountered one of her parents’ neighbors, who carried her home in his wagon, arriving long after dark. There, in her parents’ house, she gave birth before morning.

In Stoddard’s version, she rented a room from Joseph Roods on Union Street and waited several weeks for her lover to come and marry her. When he didn’t appear and she ran out of money, Wilson went to the home of Josiah Wilkinson, a neighbor in East Bradford, where she gave birth. Six weeks later, according to Biddle, the father of the twins appeared: “He persuaded her to take a walk with him, saying he intended to put the children out to nurse. Then, when they got into the woods, he took them from her and laying them on the ground, the inhuman monster put his feet on their breasts and crushed them to death.”

Meanwhile, the 1802 story of Harriot Wilson claimed that she’d delivered only one baby, killing it herself. The 1953 account reported that the man “drew a pistol and pointed it at the chest of the mother” as he “crushed [the babies’] tiny chests with his booted heel.”

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Threatening to kill her if she revealed what he’d done, the man ordered Wilson to say that he’d taken the babies home to New Jersey. She obeyed, but the infants were found by dogs within a few days. Wilson was linked to the bodies by their clothing. A coroner’s jury charged her with murder.

According to the Stoddard account, Wilson confessed to concealing the murder and named “Deshong” as the killer. But Deshong proved to be a fake name. With no other suspects, Wilson was convicted.

In Biddle’s version, William Wilson set out for New Jersey to find the killer immediately after his sister’s arrest. Confronted, the sheriff denied ever meeting Elizabeth Wilson—or even being in Philadelphia for the previous two years.

But the persistent brother found a witness who would testify that the sheriff had not only been in Philadelphia, but had lodged in the same inn as his sister.

Then, Wilson fell so seriously ill that he couldn’t travel for several days. When he finally arrived at Chester in the late morning of Jan. 3, he found the hanging scheduled for that day. He’d thought it was the next.

Still “very unwell,” wrote Biddle, “he galloped to Philadelphia as fast as it was possible, and unfortunately went to [Franklin],” who thought the request for a delay improper and referred Wilson to Biddle. Biddle wrote Gibbons a short note: “Do not execute Wilson until you hear further from council.”

Paper in hand, Wilson dashed toward Chester. “He rode down in an hour and a quarter,” wrote Biddle, “a distance of 15 miles, and the road at that time excessively bad. His sister had been turned off about 10 minutes. They immediately cut her down. Although every means were used, they could not restore her to life.”

According to historian Joan Jensen, public reaction to the execution caused an immediate change in the law. Whereas concealment of the death of a bastard child had previously been a capital offense, the new statute required proof that a child had been born alive. After 1794, all capital punishment except for premeditated murder was abolished.

For his part, Biddle thought it odd that, before Wilson dashed in at the last moment, no one else had proposed a further reprieve—not Wilson herself nor her attending clergy, no member of the council, no family or friend and not Sheriff Gibbons (“a very good man”).

Biddle also wondered why Wilson would pass [Council] and go to Franklin: “Had he stopped at the State House, she would have been saved.”

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