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Wiltshire Community History

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Question Date :

Monday 4th July 2011 10:03

I have heard a story about a woman being struck down dead in Devizes Market Place in the 18th century. Could you tell me more about it please?

The story relates to Ruth Pierce of Potterne who, on 25th January 1753, came to Devizes to buy wheat. She agreed with three other women to share the cost of a sack of wheat, each paying four shillings and threepence (21 pence). When asked for her share she said that she had already paid it and twice added, “she wished she might drop down dead if she had not”. And she did drop down dead. The next day an inquest, with a judge and jury, found that there were no marks of violence on her body and concluded that she had been struck dead by, 'the Visitation of the Great and Almighty God'; a verdict which would have caused considerable agitation among many of the populace.

A few years later Devizes Corporation put up a painted board in the Market Place detailing the story to 'deter all Persons from calling down the Vengeance of God or taking his holy Name in Vain. Later this was replaced with a stone tablet, which in 1788 was affixed to the sign of the Bear Inn and is now in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Long Street. In 1814 the present Market Cross, pictured here, was erected by Viscount Sidmouth and the Corporation added the story to the inscription. They could not resist moralising on this and added the phrase that she fell dead 'having the Money clutched in her Hand'. This does not appear anywhere in the contemporary accounts of the mid 18th century. So poor Ruth Pierce has been branded as an embezzler when she might have been innocent all the time and the other women could have been lying. It is now considered likely that died of a heart attack or stroke amid the flow of accusations.

The Book of Devizes by Edward Bradby, Barracuda Books, 1985, 0 86023 196 8

Market Cross, Devizes
Market Cross, Devizes

Image Date: 2003
Image Location: Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham



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