Wrongful Confinement at Broadmoor, Part 1

The question of wrongful confinement was debated in the press and sensationalised by novelists. In the mid-eighteenth century Daniel Defoe condemned the confinement of women as a ‘vile practice now so much in vogue among the better sort’ and in 1830 Hanwell asylum’s John Conolly expressed similar concern.[i] Later in the nineteenth century, sensation novelists Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade published The Woman in White (1860) and Hard Cash (1863) respectively and had a significant role in raising public awareness of the need for lunacy reform. In 1858-59 and 1876-77 there were panics regarding wrongful confinement which led to the appointment of Select Committees of the House of Commons but these only exacerbated public fears. In addition there were a number of well-publicised accounts of real-life cases of alleged wrongful confinement. John Perceval believed he was wrongly detained in an asylum for two years after he had been declared sane. He published A Narrative of The Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman, During a State of Mental Derangement; Designed to Explain the Causes and the Nature of Insanity, and to Expose the Injudicious Conduct Pursued Towards Many Sufferers Under That Calamity (1838) and formed the Alleged Lunatics Friend Society (ALFS) in 1845.[ii] Louisa Lowe was allegedly illegally incarcerated in an asylum between October 1870 and December 1871.[iii] Following her discharge, Lowe attempted to prosecute the Lunacy Commissioners for allowing her to remain incarcerated even though she was sane; she lost the case but drew public attention to wrongful confinement. In 1873 Lowe formed the Lunacy Law Reform Association, which succeeded ALFS, and spoke at public meetings and gave lectures. In 1877 the Government appointed a Select Committee to investigate the lunacy laws and Lowe gave evidence regarding her own incarceration and drew attention to a number of other cases of alleged wrongful confinement. In 1883 she published The Bastilles of England in which she interrogated the workings of the English Lunacy Laws and described cases in which there were questionable grounds for incarceration.[iv] In 1879, Herman Charles Merivale anonymously published his own story of being twice wrongfully confined.[v]

The question of wrongful confinement was also raised at Broadmoor where some patients pleaded sanity and in their letters home or to the Superintendent expressed disdain at their continued confinement. Even if patients were considered sane and had demonstrated industriousness and self-control, their discharge could still be refused. This frustrated some patients, one of whom wrote to Superintendent William Orange, ‘during all these years I have not had the slightest symptom which preceded my illness previous to being sent here. I think that is the best and safest test [of sanity].’ The records also indicate that some patients’ families were also frustrated when their relatives were refused discharge after many years of being considered sane. Such cases led the editors of Lloyds Weekly Newspaper to express their concern that some of Broadmoor’s patients were detained without reason. It was the case of H.D, however, that created the most contention.

In February 1878, H.D., a fifty-two year old clergyman, fired a pistol at Sir George Jessel, Master of the Rolls, as he arrived at the Rolls Court on Chancery Lane. The court-keeper and usher called for the police and a constable arrived. H. D. reportedly told him ‘I have done it […] I have shot the Master of the Rolls, which is what I wanted to do.’ Whiting found on H. D.’s person a letter addressed to Mr Taylor, a tobacconist, which read:

I beg leave to ask you the very great favour of going over to see my wife […] and break to her the fact that I am in custody for assaulting one of Her Majesty’s Judges. After five and a third years of incessant struggling I have come to the most unwelcome conclusion that I can gain a hearing, not a grand thing for any man in any country, only by breaking the law.

H.D. was charged with feloniously firing a pistol with intent to do murder or grievous bodily harm before Mr Flowers at the Bow Street Police Court, where his ‘incessant’ struggle became clear. It emerged that Jessel had previously presided over two suits brought forth by H. D. In 1877, in the second of these meetings, it emerged that nine years earlier H. D. had been appointed chaplain to an Industrial School in Brighton but was dismissed from his duties. He presented a Petition of Right to the Queen to reinstate him which was heard before Vice-Chancellor Malins who rejected the petition. Jessel was the presiding judge the day H. D. appealed against Malins’s decision and he upheld the judgement. Two weeks later H. D. went before the Court of Appeal where he told Jessel that he wished to negate the judgement of Malins on the ground that he was a corrupt judge. Jessel threatened to have H. D. removed from court and H. D. left. The next time they met was on the morning H. D. fired the shot.

The frustration H. D. felt after years spent trying to be reinstated at the Industrial School became clear during his questioning at Bow Street. H. D. represented himself and requested to question Jessel in front of witnesses but he was refused. He then asked permission to read from his notebook but was again refused permission. The Times reported that H. D. was ‘very moved and in sobbing tones, said “Oh! pray hear me at last. This is a free country and you are obliged to hear me now I am in a dock.”’ Flowers appeared unsympathetic and told H. D. that he would have to wait until the following day to make his case. The next day H. D. directed the attention of the court to a statement made by Jessel who, following the shooting, reportedly returned to his duty as judge, apologised to his peers for his lateness and declared, ‘I am glad to tell you that I have no doubt whatsoever that the person who fired the pistol at me is insane.’ One newspaper responded to Jessel’s remark: ‘Surely for a man of Sir George’s experience it was a most improper thing to prejudice a prisoner in that way.’ Flowers appeared to view the remark more positively and considered it ‘a merciful view of [H. D.’s] conduct and probably the only ground upon which he could hope to escape punishment.’ Assault was a very serious crime in Victorian Britain and was severely punished. But as historians have shown, insanity was one way to justify and explain violent behaviour that contravened the purported manly ideal. Jessel’s proclamation of insanity thus provided the defence H. D. needed. An examination of press reports suggests that Flowers was convinced H. D. was insane. When H. D. began to read to the court letters he had previously written to Jessel, Flowers informed him that his case must go to trial, but H. D. continued:

Prisoner: I will read these letters. (The prisoner read a letter written in very strong language referring to the conduct of the judge before whence his case had come.)

Mr Flowers: Did you expect him to take notice of such a letter as that? I won’t hear any more of that sort of stuff. It is perfectly useless. It might perhaps be useful to you in some sense, to show that you were –

Prisoner: Do you, not, sir, remember the definition of madness?

H. D. began to quote an article from the Lancet in which madness was defined as ‘tearless’ when Flowers stopped him on the grounds that he could not allow H. D. to speak upon such a matter. One can presume that H. D. was referring to his emotional display the previous day in order to call into question Jessel’s opinion that he was insane. H. D. continued to discuss the events that led to his dismissal from the Industrial School and began to read some letters he had sent to the Guardians of the Poor at Brighton. Flowers refused to be drawn into the matter and bound all witnesses to give evidence at a trial.

This initial investigation attracted much press attention. During questioning it emerged that H. D. had not loaded the pistol with a bullet but with a wad of paper and thus the crime was not an attempted murder. The press still sensationalised the act, however. One newspaper reported that the ‘would-be murderer’ was a ‘person of excited appearance’ who ‘rushed forward and discharged a pistol’ at Jessel’s head, thus depicting H. D. as an irrational and dangerous lunatic. This depiction was juxtaposed with one of Jessel who following the incident ‘displayed the utmost calmness’; and thus, the utmost manliness. The scene described by the press differed from the evidence given during the trial. At the Old Bailey, Hayes told the courtroom that H. D. walked calmly over to Jessel after firing the pistol and introduced himself. Jessel said he witnessed H. D. ‘take his right hand from under the left side of his coat’ before he ‘presented a pistol’ at him; both men thus portraying H. D. as calm, collected and stationary when committing the crime.

H. D. defended himself during the trial where much of what had transpired at Bow Street was reiterated: that his motive for the assault was to be tried and so raise public awareness of his unjust dismissal, and that there was no murderous intent. No medical evidence was requested during the trial but H. D.’s mental condition was scrutinised more here than it had been previously. Sydney Roberts Smith, Governor of Newgate, told the court that he had seen H. D. write many letters, some in Latin, since he was admitted. One of the letters was translated and read to the court to prove that H. D. was intellectually sound. Despite Smith’s evidence the question of H. D.’s sanity was directed to laymen. Jessel recalled his previous meetings with H. D. and remembered his behaviour as:

decidedly irrational—his address was incoherent and irrelevant and seemed to me to show distinct signs of delusion—he seemed to think that everybody was […] in a conspiracy against him, and those who have experience in those matters know that is a very common sign of the mind giving way.

The trial transcript and press reports suggest that the general feeling in the courtroom was that H. D. was insane, but two witnesses did attest to his sanity. Mr Taylor, the tobacconist to whom H. D. had written said, ‘I was surprised to hear that he was called insane – I have never seen any insanity in his case, certainly sometimes excited about his case that he had in the Courts, but not insanity.’ Taylor was cross-examined by the Solicitor-General who asked him to share his opinion on H. D.’s mental state, he replied: ‘I can’t say that I investigated any of the cases he said he had been wronged in […] my judgement about his sanity or insanity would in some way depend on whether he related facts or whether they were delusions.’ Indeed, as well as being the legal test for madness, delusions were a good public indicator of the disease. Taylor also told the court that H. D.’s efforts to regain employment had driven H. D. and his family out of their home and forced them to sell their possessions. Another witness, Mr Horton, reiterated this:

I walked up the Strand with him on the Wednesday before the unfortunate circumstance came about […] he told me that he must do something desperate, for he would be heard – I heard of his arrest on the Friday he told me that he was a ruined man, that he could get no employment whatever.

H. D.’s motive for the crime thus stemmed from his failure to secure employment and provide for his family.

Despite Flowers’ assertion at Bow Street that H. D. would get the opportunity to air his grievances at his trial, the judge, Baron Huddleston, stopped H. D. from asking the former matron of the Industrial School questions relating to the conduct of the Guardians which had ultimately led to his dismissal. Huddleston stopped the trial at this point and asked the jury to consider the verdict. After half an hour they declared, ‘we find that the prisoner fired the pistol, but that it was not charged with anything calculated to kill or do grievous bodily harm; and that he fired the pistol whilst labouring under a delusion as to his supposed wrong.’ Huddleston then told them that they must ‘acquit him altogether, if you don’t find the pistol was loaded as to kill […] or do any grievous bodily harm.’ The jury conferred again and returned a verdict of not guilty. H. D. was then charged with common assault and Huddleston instructed the jury to decide whether H. D. had fired the pistol. If he had, he said, there is no doubt that H. D. is guilty, and warned the jury that they could not find him insane after the verdict was announced. Huddleston said that ‘the defence of insanity was not one to be lightly entertained’ and that ‘It was difficult to fix a rule with regard to insanity, but in the case of [Daniel] McNaughton the matter was fully discussed and the judge laid it down that the person doing the act knew at the time he was doing a wrong act.’ He continued:

No one could doubt that [H. D.] was suffering under a strange delusion – labouring under the notion that he had been the victim of injustice. The failure of the actions he had taken seemed to weigh upon his mind, and in respect to that no one would doubt that he was labouring under a considerable delusion, as was shown by the evidence of the Master of the Rolls.

Huddleston then misdirected the jury to find H. D. insane. He told them that it was their prerogative to decide whether they considered H. D. to be responsible for his act ‘at a time when he was manifestly labouring under a delusion.’ As the jury turned away to discuss the verdict H. D. interrupted, ‘You must have medical testimony, I humbly submit, to decide that.’ H. D. then asked Huddleston if he could change his plea to guilty, but was refused. After five minutes the jury returned with a verdict of ‘not guilty on the ground of insanity’ and H. D. was ordered to be detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The verdict is an interesting one. Throughout the trial many witnesses referred to H. D.’s delusions. Yet, H. D. made it clear that he had planned to shoot at Jessel and disclosed his motive. In the eyes of the legal profession a motive implied guilt. Moreover, the McNaughton Rules stated that

If a person commits a criminal act under the influence of an insane delusion, with a view to redressing or revenging some supposed grievance or injury […] he is nevertheless punishable if he knew at the time that he was acting contrary to the law.

As his letter to Taylor demonstrates, H. D. knew that his act was illegal and thus he should have been punished. The question of why H. D. was found insane arises. As happened in some criminal cases, the jury appear to have been guided by the judge and convinced by Jessel’s testimony. Indeed, the verdict indicates that the question of a defendant’s insanity was sometimes directed towards a diverse and sometimes contradictory group of witnesses; neighbours, friends, relatives, alienists and, in this instance, an ‘esteemed’ judge. This trial suggests the power judges and juries still had over determining the existence of insanity in criminal cases.

After H. D. was questioned at Bow Street it was reported in the press, ‘In one important matter I think the public must be pretty generally agreed, and that is, that […] [H. D.] is not in his right mind, but we may expect conflicting evidence on this.’ Another newspaper declared, H.D. ‘seems to have been one of those troublesome persons of whom it is difficult to know at any time whether they are sane or insane.’ The decision to find insanity in some cases was controversial and H. D.’s committal to Broadmoor was no exception.

To be continued…


[i] Valerie Pedlar, The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), p. 80; Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987), p. 103.

[ii] John Perceval, A Narrative of the Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman, During a State of Mental Derangement; Designed to Explain the Causes and the Nature of Insanity, and to Expose the Injudicious Conduct Pursued Towards Many Sufferers Under That Calamity (London: Effingham Wilson, 1838).

[iii] For Lowe, Helen Nicolson, ‘Introduction’, in Women, Madness and Spiritualism, ed. by Roy Porter, Helen Nicolson, and Bridget Bennett, 2 vols (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), VI, pp. 139-156.

[iv] Louisa Lowe, The Bastilles of England; or, The Lunacy Laws at Work (London: Crookenden and Co., 1883).

[v] Herman Merivale, My Experiences in a Lunatic Asylum by a Sane Patient (London: Chatto and Windus, 1879).

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