My new article, ‘“I am not very well I feel nearly mad when I think of you”: Male Jealousy, Murder and Broadmoor in Late-Victorian Britain’, compares representations of jealousy in popular culture, medical and legal literature, and in the trials and diagnoses of men who murdered or attempted to murder their wives or sweethearts before being found insane and committed into Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum between 1864 and 1900. I’ve previously published a post on the case of Frederick Marshall who appears in the article, and this can be viewed here. This post focuses on the case of another of the article’s case studies, Anthony Owston, who in 1878 murdered his wife Jane and attempted to murder John Smith, the man he suspected she was having an affair with, before attempting to commit suicide.
On the evening of 28 September 1878, Owston was at home in Bradford with his wife, Jane, their children, and Jane’s mother. Jane went upstairs, and a ‘distressed’ Owston turned to his mother-in-law and tearfully declared, ‘I cannot live without Jane. I loved her as a boy and I love her as a man.’ He then stood up, and followed Jane upstairs. A short while later Jane appeared in the kitchen – she was bleeding from the neck, and she collapsed and died. Owston then made his way to John Smith’s shop. Smith, having heard Jane scream, had locked his doors and hid under the counter, but it wasn’t long before Owston ‘bounded through a small window’ into the shop and attacked him. Owston then attempted to commit suicide.
Owston was taken to Bradford Infirmary where his wounds healed but, as reported in the press,
his mental condition became so much worse – he being subject to fits of despondency – that it was deemed prudent in the interests of the other patients in the Infirmary, who were terrified by his strange conduct, to remove him to the lunatic wards at the Bradford Workhouse.
II. Inquest and Trial
The inquest took place on 18 November 1878. According to the Leeds Mercury, Owston’s mental health hadn’t much improved. He was
very quiet and docile, [and] generally had his face in his hand; but now and then he raised his head and listened calmly to the evidence, betraying no excitement or anything more than a listless interest in what was going on.
This was no more apparent than when Jane’s mother made a ‘scene’ and Owston ‘gave no outward sign of feeling’ much to the relief of those who feared he would be disturbed. Owston’s lack of emotion, and his ‘listless interest’, were just as indicative of his unsound mind as his previous wildness (his – as one newspaper called it – ‘fit of jealousy’). Owston was also physically weak, and was provided with a chair. It was shown that ‘jealousy and the frequent visits of his wife to Smith’s for beer’ had caused ‘great uneasiness’ in Owston who was convinced that Jane was having an affair (the evening before he committed the crime he had attacked John Smith after discovering him with Jane). Journalists were keen to point out that Jane ‘was given to drink’ – she was a bad wife, and Owston’s concerns/anxieties were portrayed as understandable.
Owston was committed for trial at the Leeds assizes. A picture of ‘misery and distress’ Owston refused to speak at his trial, but he did write on a piece of paper:
I loved her dearly … She said she would leave me … I’ve been jealous some time … I have been certain they intended to run away. I am guilty, and I hope she is dead … She has been determined to leave me. Let me die. I’ve begged of her to live with me, as I could not give her up.
Owston was not found not guilty on grounds of insanity and committed to Broadmoor.
Owston arrived at Broadmoor on 5 April 1879. His case file suggests that he worked hard in one of the asylum’s workshops, and did so because he wished to provide for his family. He wrote to Superintendent William Orange:
my only desire has been to give satisfaction in my work and also to earn as much money as I possibly could on account of the unfortunate position of my children. I assure you I have denied myself almost of everything in the shape of luxuries or anything else purposely to send all I earned home to enable my sisters to keep the home together, as it appears since my fathers death over two years ago they have had much to do to tide over their difficulties in providing for 4 children … you will see my only object now is to do what I can to assist my family and not consider myself.
In spite of this desire to work hard, Owston’s mental health (‘very low and depressed’) meant that he often found it difficult to do so. His mental health continually concerned the medical officers, and petitions for his release (made by his friends and family) were always denied. Owston was reportedly ‘enfeebled’ ‘depressed’ and melancholic, and whilst ‘he goes on steadily and quietly under the regular routine and supervision of an asylum, his mental condition is such that any strain or anxiety would be liable to cause a relapse into a state of active insanity.’ The potential risk that would accompany his discharge was thus deemed too great. During the 1890s, Owston’s mental health deteriorated: acute mania, melancholia, rambling and incoherence were all reported in his medical notes. During this time, Owston’s family became increasingly concerned about him. One of his sons described the anxiety he was having over his father’s condition to Superintendent David Nicolson, and he told him: ‘I may say that I am writing to my father and trust that the letter may be handed to him as I think that a letter from home may be of great value to him at the present crisis.’ He wrote to Nicolson on a number of occasions regarding his father’s health hoping for good news, but Owston never improved. In the mid 1890s he
was found in [day]room on window ledge trying to break the window. He had evedently [sic] fallen off as he has several bruises on his back, he had also scratched his throat, either with his nails or also a tin button. His scrotum was also bleeding and was scratched, he said God almighty had told him to destroy himself. At 1.15 he became very maniacal forced himself into the gallery and threw himself against the opposite window slightly cutting corner under left eye.
Owston slipped into a coma and it was feared he wouldn’t recover. His relatives were informed that he was ‘in a precarious condition and exhausted’ and were advised to visit him ‘without delay’. Against the odds, Owston improved. His case file indicates that he was visited by at least one of his sons, who later wrote to Nicolson thanking him for allowing him to visit, and who expressed relief that he had visited because he believed it would do Owston some good. He told Nicolson that he was ‘pleased to find he [Owston] is so well attended to and cared for and I trust he will now make satisfactory progress’. Owston’s physical health improved, but his mental health continued to deteriorate:
A. Owston troubled with religious mania. Says he asked God on chapel yesterday morning if he should sing, says after he could scarcely open his mouth, so that he could not sing. Says he had vision from God in the night that Mr Gladstone and 10 others were killed in a railway accident, says whatever God tells him to do he shall do. Says if God was to tell [him] to cut his throat he must do it, says he hopes he will not tell him to do that for he wishes to live, as he is a changed man and feels younger and stronger than ever he did.
Despite Owston’ worsening condition his son believed (based on Owston’s letters to him) that he was improving, and that the ‘cheering letter[s]’ he was writing to his father were in part responsible for this improvement. Over the late 1890s and early 1900s he asked for updates on his father’s condition (always followed by his own assessment that his father seemed much better). The reports that followed were never promising, however. Even when Owston was considered ‘fairly tranquil in mind’ the Superintendent was sure that his condition was ‘temporary … not indicating any permanent improvement.’ As the years passed, Owston’s mental health went from bad to worse. At the end of 1904 he was reportedly suffering ‘chronic delusional insanity’, and towards the end of 1905 the asylum authorities informed his family that he was seriously ill. In response, his son – seemingly one never to give up hope – responded: ‘we sincerely trust he will yet take a turn for the better. It is unfortunate his … trouble has reappeared but we feel content to know that my father is in good hands and your good self and staff will do your best for him’. And a few weeks later, upon news of a further relapse, he responded: ‘I trust his present state is only of temporary character’. Unfortunately this was not the case, and Owston died days later. The cause of his death: ‘exhaustion following mania’. For many years following Owston’s death, his children sent a wreath to Broadmoor (at Christmas, Easter, and on the anniversary of his death) to be placed upon his grave.