Prison Grave May Hold Real Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Martha Brown believed to be Thomas Hardy's inspiration
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2016 4:48 PM CST
Prison Grave May Hold Real Tess of the d'Urbervilles
An 1889 portrait of Thomas Hardy.   (Wikimedia)

Thomas Hardy fans, prepare to geek out. Archaeologists may have uncovered the remains of a woman whose execution is said to have inspired the death of the main character in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Back in 1856, a 16-year-old Hardy was among a crowd of 4,000 that gathered to watch Martha Brown's public hanging at Dorchester prison in Dorset, England. The prison has since been closed to make room for a housing development, and archaeologists conducting a routine survey because of the site's history turned up the still-unidentified remains, including a skull. Only eight convicts were executed and buried at the prison before 1878, reports the Telegraph. "I don't think it would be too difficult to establish if any of the remains are those of a woman," a Dorset-based filmmaker tells the Guardian. "If they are, they are almost certain to be the remains of Martha."

Like Tess, Brown was executed for murdering a man who had wronged her: in Brown's case, her violent husband. "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," Hardy said of her execution some 70 years later. "Hardy is well-known for storing up experiences and using them decades later," says a rep for the Thomas Hardy Society. "When he wrote Tess, I'm sure he had in mind Martha Brown." The housing developer is resisting requests to allow a more thorough dig that might definitively answer the question about the remains, and the government's senior archaeologist in the county will make the final call on whether it's necessary. (Archaeologists recently found the site of an 1826 murder.)

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