Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Bloody Vintner--or, a Pretty Botched 17th Century Romance

Wing (2nd ed.) / K625A
When I first encountered murder in the archives as a graduate student, I was intrigued by the way seventeenth-century English communities policed themselves and sought to regain order and find justice after a crime had occurred.  I was also fascinated by the accounts of these crimes which emerged in popular press, and what readers might be able to reconstruct about the nature of these “bloody acts.”
Take, for example, the story of The Bloody Vintner, subtitled Cruelty Rewarded with Justice, from 1684.  This is the “true account” (note the legitimacy conveyed by the term) of Edward (alias) Edmund Kirk, a Vintner, who “privately married” a serving maid, and then turned around and killed her only eight days later.  He was sentenced to death, and was duly executed by hanging within six weeks. (Check out Sam Thomas’ post on a botched execution). 

Edward Kirk’s story got some attention at the time, written up three times in the popular press in both ballad and broadside forms. While three other men were executed July 11, 1684 at Tyburn, certainly Edward’s murder of his secret wife was far more lurid and interesting than the two men who had broken into the house of the Duke of Ormand, or the man who had stolen a horse.  Those men's names are likely recorded in the sessions records of the Old Bailey, and perhaps their birth, marriage, and property information could be found in their local church records, but little else of their stories seems to remain.
What’s interesting to me is how so much, relatively speaking, is known of Edward Kirk, while so little is known of Joan Greene, the servant who came to such a pitiful end. Referred to mainly as “Mrs. Kirk,” what can be pieced together from Joan’s life are just shadowy glimpses.  In his “last dying speech,” Edward goes on at length about his birth and early years in Fetcham and Mucklam (both in Surry), his failed attempt to become a watch-maker like his brother, his desire to enter the vinter’s trade and his subsequent service at a few taverns, and his ambition to one day keep his own “vitualling house.”
What we know of Joan Greene is scant, and all our knowledge has been filtered through Edward’s moralistic, somewhat chagrined, slightly defensive narrative (which may be hard to distinguish from the perspective of the penny authors who “faithfully” recorded his “dying words”). The two met at The Leg Tavern where she worked and he used to go with friends—“Often going thither I observed this woman, and took the opportunity to being acquainted with her; my frequent visits having now made me familiar with her.”  That Edward had some amorous feelings towards her, at least initially, is clear: “I began to feel in myself a more particular respect and affection for her…she accepted my Love, whereupon I made her a promise to marry her, which she very soon and willingly embraced.”
Something changed, however, in their relationship soon after.  As Edward tells it, Joan began “haunting” his place of employment, a tavern called the Miter, and his employers were not too happy. They allegedly warned him that her continued presence at their tavern would prove “prejudicial to him” if he did not forsake her company. 
At this point, the narrative of their relationship takes a tragic turn. In some seventeenth-century hands, these events would have been written as a merry farce; here, the events are chronicled written matter-of-factly, and their nondescript quality is all the more poignant if you read between the lines.  
It seems that Joan then quit her job, and managed to get Edward’s employers to hire her on as a house servant (but notably, not to work in their tavern). They lived together there for “three quarters of a year” before she eventually moved to a merchant’s house in Thames Street.  Notably, they’re still not married at this point. Edward stayed on a year at the Miter before finding work at the Swan.  At that point he explains, “I had not been above three days there [before] she followed me, still urging and pressing me to marry her as she had done before, so often that I began to grow weary of her importunities and left that place.” He went to another tavern, where after two weeks she found him again. And so this pattern went on for a while, until he seems to have finally given up, and married her.  
They kept the marriage secret, but Edward does not say why. One can only surmise, though, that he had some immediate regrets, seeing the terrible change of heart that followed only eight days later: “I called upon her at her Master’s house, and desired her to go out and walk with me, and when we came to a field near Paddington I did that bloody act, for which I now deservedly suffer.” As he explains, “It has been with great trouble and affliction of my soul, that should be so barbarous and cruel to her… I first gave her a knock with my cane which beat her back, and falling down I cut her throat with a small knife I had in my pocket, without giving her the liberty of speaking one word of mercy.” (That last admission may have surely done him in with a godly jury, and have been seized upon by the ardent clergy who urged him towards repentance.) 
Why did Edward do it?  We can only surmise from a sole passage. “What was the first chief cause that was the occasion of my disagreement with my wife, was her humor to follow me from place to place, and to hinder my associating my self with Lewd and Debauched company.” (She doesn’t seem to have trusted him, perhaps because he was hanging out with prostitutes, even though they were engaged.).  This “small spark” became a “flame of dissention,” and as the Devil informed him, only her “innocent blood” could provide satisfaction. 
Regardless, after some weeks, her body was discovered. Edward seems to have denied knowing her at first, but as you can imagine that didn’t go to well.  We don’t have too many facts here, but the marriage seems to have come to light fairly quickly. I like to think the exchange with the local constable went something like this:
Edward: “I didn’t know this woman.”
Constable: “Oh really? Weren’t you secretly married to her?”
Edward shuffles his feet. “Well, okay. Yes. But I didn’t kill her.”
Constable: “Isn’t that a bloody knife in your pocket there?”
Edward: “Well, yes, but you can’t prove it.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite like that. But we do know Edward confessed to the crime, and was hanged.  Just from the evidence, we’ll never really know what happened, or why. The historian in me sighs over such tantalizing details, and works to construct a plausible narrative where none can be found. But the writer in me loves to speculate and fill in the gaps.  Did Joan make one shrewish comment too many? Was she some sort of deranged stalker? Was Edward a womanizer? Or just suffering a mental break?  This is exactly the kind of case that inspired my novel, The Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the story of a young servant trying to keep her brother from being wrongly executed for another servant’s death…


  1. Great post! I love the idea of using creative means to fill in the missing details and I think your 'conversation' between the constable and Edward is hilarious. It's only missing a "Where did that come from?" from Edward. :-) Can't wait to see your novel!

  2. Thanks Matt! It's fun to fill in the missing parts...

  3. I love the imagined conversation. :) I will definitely read your book.