‘The Woolwich Murder’: A Case of Jealous Insanity

On the evening of 21 December 1884, Frederick Marshall climbed through the bedroom window of Laura Wilson, aged 17, and murdered her.[i]

‘Terrible Murder at Woolwich’, Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1885

‘Terrible Murder at Woolwich’, Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1885

The two were previously betrothed, but it was reported at the inquest that Marshall had become jealous of Laura’s relationship with Charlie M., a family friend, and Laura had called off the engagement.[ii] It was established at the inquest and subsequently reported in the press that Marshall and Laura had a sexual relationship. This intimacy seemingly aggravated Marshall’s feelings of ownership and he wrote Laura the following letter which, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper stated, ‘contained threats of a very serious nature’:

You are a deceitful to [sic] faced young woman. You said in bed you’d be true to me… If you won’t see me on Sunday I will see Charlie and tell him I have been with you and slept with you 4 nights, and your father I will write… and tell him the same… if you mean to not have me tell me and have no one else and if you let me sleep [with you]… one more night I will say nothing to… no one… if I don’t see you or hear from you before Wednesday night I will do as I say. I feel nearly mad to think all our days and hours are spent all for nothing. I made up my mind to have you… you ought to be afraid of dropping dead the oaths you’ve taken always to me… Write soon dear Laura (a number of crosses) From your ever true lover Fred (three crosses)

Marshall also wrote letters to Laura’s father whom, thinking Marshall ‘peculiar’, warned him to stay away from his home. Marshall took little notice, however, and began scaling his garden wall to spy on Laura. Following one such occasion, Marshall  wrote to Laura and described what he had seen:

he [his ‘rival’] went out to get some beer and when he came in you was laughing and talking with him and it’s a wonder I did not do something to him when he went out in the yard. I was over the fence watching you, [if]… I see you in there stopping while his [sic] in there by the Heaven above I’ll swing for you.

At the inquest, Marshall was portrayed as jealous and insane. He had told Laura: ‘I am not very well I feel nearly mad when I think of you.’

'The Woolwich Murder', Illustrated Police News, 19 January 1885

‘The Woolwich Murder’, Illustrated Police News, 19 January 1885

Following the inquest, Marshall was bound for trial at the Old Bailey and transferred to Clerkenwell Gaol. The Prisons Act (1865 and 1877) stipulated that all prisoners in England and Wales had to be regularly subjected to a medical inspection. Clerkenwell’s Prison Medical Officer found that Marshall suffered from ‘constant’ head pain, ‘does not understand the gravity of the crime’, and has ‘no comprehension of moral obligation.’ He forwarded his report to the Home Secretary who ordered two physicians to examine Marshall. They found Marshall to be insane and he was removed from the jurisdiction of the court and committed to Broadmoor. Marshall’s removal to the asylum caused controversy. The case was used to criticise the Criminal Lunatics Act (1884) for giving the Home Secretary too much power. In addition, it was argued that a defendant’s right to a trial was being undermined.[iii] The debate over Marshall’s committal to Broadmoor was part of a wider issue. Roger Chadwick shows that as a result of the Prisons Acts there was ‘an increase in both insanity verdicts and the prior commitment of insane prisoners to Broadmoor’ – the entire judicial system was being undermined.[iv] At Broadmoor, Marshall ‘employs himself usefully in the wards, and in the evening occupies himself with music.’ Deputy Superintendent David Nicolson reported on Marshall’s mental health: ‘when spoken to seriously he seems scarcely to comprehend what is said and shows no indication of emotion and but little responsiveness… If spoken to in a cheerful or jocular way his face readily lightens with a not unpleasant smile.’ He continued:

He suffers from a moral inability and incapacity which, under ordinary circumstances, need not cause him to act of intemperately or insanely; but which, under any feat of strain or excitement and appeared by the severe headache to which is so liable, end in mental confusion which will scarcely fail to reveal itself in active and dangerous insanity and irresponsibility. This being so, and although he cannot be said to suffer from distinct delusions, it is impossible not to regard him as being at the present time of unsound mind and a fit and proper person to be detained in a lunatic asylum.

Despite Marshall’s willingness to get on with ward life, he was a troublesome character. He complained about the quality of the food, refused food, and complained about his treatment. Marshall wrote to his father:

I must inform you I have got a severe sore throat and cold, had no food since Friday breakfast time… I was put to bed in an infirmary and because I wanted to get up and dress to go out to wash the attendant locked the door and I told him I throw him over if he did not open the door so he told the Dr and Principal… 6 of them came and told me to get up and follow them without letting me get dressed and took me out of the warm room down some cold flag stone steps and put me in a cold room bar and bolted up not allowed to have no water in room or anything else and I am parched… I am now treated like a dog father no chair or stool or table to writ[e] on only the wall or floor. I wish you would see into my treatment and write to the proper quarters about it and get it entered in the press

It was the job of the Superintendent to censor patients’ letters. In some cases, letters were never sent because they contained false or damaging information. On this occasion, Superintendent William Orange made the following decision: ‘Of course it may go on, but it had better be copied as [Marshall]… complained of having no safe food.’ It appears that Marshall’s father put his son’s accusations to Orange, who replied:

Marshall has been suffering from his throat for the last few days, and has been out of sorts in other respects. He made use of threatening language to the infirmary attendant and it was necessary to place him in a separate room in order to prevent him carrying out his threats… He is, of course, supplied with everything [including food]… that he requires.

There is evidence to suggest that Marshall, like a number of Broadmoor’s patients, made friends at the asylum. A fellow patient described him to the Superintendent: ‘I have known Mr Marshall for a very long time, and a more open and frank young man is not easily to be found without a particle of vice.’ Broadmoor’s medical men viewed Marshall differently. According to medical reports, Marshall was violent and easily agitated. In 1888, Marshall escaped – the circumstances surrounding his escape are discussed here. Marshall was at large for one day. Following his return to the asylum, Marshall’s behaviour reportedly worsened – he insulted some of the patients, was insubordinate, and was caught in an ‘indecent position’ with another patient. Marshall and the other patient concerned subsequently ‘tried to make others believe that they were not friends’, but they were eventually separated ‘for their [own] good.’ Marshall was moved to the refractory block were he reportedly continued to fight with other patients. Marshall died at Broadmoor in 1896.

[i] For more on Marshall’s case, including references, see Jade Shepherd, ‘Victorian Madmen: Broadmoor, Masculinity and the Experiences of the Criminally Insane, 1863-1900’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Queen Mary University of London, 2013).

[ii] ‘The Woolwich Murder’, The Standard, 24 December 1884, 3.

[iii] HL Deb 10 March 1885, vol. 295, col 597-604.

[iv] Roger Chadwick, Bureaucratic Mercy, p. 238.

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