“I gave Mary a bit of cake, and then I killed her, wretch that I am”

I. Crime and Trial

On the morning of April 21 1864, M. D. saw her husband to the front door as he left for work, as she did every morning. After he had gone, she returned to the kitchen and murdered her two young children. Following the crime, she walked across the street to her neighbour’s house – a policeman – and reported the act: ‘I’ve killed my poor children, take me and lock me up, I’ve not hurt them; I love them; they’re in heaven.’ M.D. was arrested, and an inquest into the murders followed. As usually happened in child-murder cases, the press reported heavily on this ‘horrible’/‘shocking’/‘terrible’ crime committed by a previously loving and attentive mother who was ‘passionately fond’ of her children and whose character was, up until the crime, exemplary. It is from these press reports (example below) that we can gauge some sense of what happened at the inquest and the trial.

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Penny Illustrated Weekly News, April 23 1864

At the inquest, M.D’s husband referred to M.D.’s affection for her children, and stated that she’d demonstrated no signs of insanity or mental anguish. She never drank alcohol, ‘having signed the teetotal pledge when eight years of age’ – an important fact because the consumption of alcohol and insanity were very closely tied in the nineteenth century. He did, though, remember that on the morning of the murders M.D. wasn’t her talkative self as she showed him to the door. He also mentioned that she ‘had said she would like her home better furnished’, but that he was unsure whether this played upon her mind. This lack of furniture was important. The policemen to whom M.D. confessed her crime reported that she had told him, ‘I’ve tried to be like others, and I cannot’. The policemen assumed that she was referring to the condition of her house, which had ‘very little furniture’. This lack of furniture was tied to her husband’s failure to secure steady employment. It was reported in one newspaper that M.D’s husband had been out of work and that ‘this seems to have affected the wife, who … has latterly been somewhat depressed in spirits.’ In addition to the condition of her house, M.D’s husband told the inquest that in the month that preceded the crime she had complained that ‘her head was bad’, and appeared confused and was easily exhausted. He also ‘believed some members of [M.D.’s] family had been affected in their head, but could not say positively.’ Other witnesses reported M.D.’s demeanour following the act. Dr P. reported that M.D. was ‘very dejected, and yet very restless, sighing and wringing her hands’. During the inquest it was reported in the press that M.D. ‘wrung her hands and moaned piteously the whole time.’ The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder and M.D. was committed for trial.

M.D.’s trial took place the following August, and evidence similar to that presented at the inquest was provided: M.D. was anxious about the lack of furniture in her home, and her family was barely surviving. Evidence was given to demonstrate M.D.’s demeanour immediately following the act. A policeman repeated M.D.’s confession: ‘ I gave Mary a bit of cake, and then I killed her, wretch that I am.’ He said that she had expressed regret at taking the two children away from their ‘affectionate father’ – a man whom she described as a ‘good husband’. Other witnesses testified that M.D. wasn’t of sound mind, and that for some months she had frequently imagined that harm would come to her husband and that she and her children would be left destitute and alone. But this wasn’t the explanation M.D. had given to the policeman: ‘the thought suddenly came upon her and she did it.’ The defence called M.D.’s mother and father the stand. They told the courtroom that ‘she was always eccentric in manner, and on one occasion ran away from home without her clothes … Four of her brothers and sisters had died of water on the brain.’ It took the jury twenty minutes to find M.D. not guilty on the ground of insanity. She was transferred from Leeds gaol, where she was held during her trial, to Broadmoor.

II. Broadmoor

Before a patient was transferred to Broadmoor, the Prison Medical Officer (PMO) at the prison where they were held filled out a document called Schedule A – this recorded a patient’s personal information including name, date of birth, bodily health, crime, verdict and cause of insanity. The PMO at Leeds gaol reported that ‘improper nursing during menstruation, and anxiety about her husband’ had caused M.D.’s insanity. The former was not mentioned during the trial. M.D.’s chief delusion was ‘fear for her children’s welfare’. Immediately following her committal to Broadmoor, M. D. was reportedly ‘very quarrelsome’ and ‘not quite sane’. According to the asylum’s medical officers, her husband was to blame for her insanity: ‘she was kept in constant … fear from her husbands intemperance and neglect’, and following the birth of her second child in 1863 ‘was very depressed … [and] left alone very much’ – an analysis of M.D.’s life that contradicts her claim that he was a good and loving husband.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1860s a number of applications were made to the Home Office for M.D.’s discharge, mainly from her father (on behalf of her family), who also wrote many letters to M.D. at Broadmoor within which he told her how much he wished she could be liberated. M.D. heard nothing from her husband until 1871, when he wrote to her at Broadmoor to inform her that he was going be in London and would like to travel to Broadmoor (in Berkshire) to visit her: ‘but I suppose you will not like a visit from me.’ M.D. replied, informing her husband that would like to see him. He responded by telling her that he was pleased she had written, and that he’d be in touch when he knew more about his travel plans. She never heard from him again. Whilst M.D.’s relationship with her husband appeared to deteriorate, the relationship she maintained with her parents was a strong and honest one. In 1872, her father wrote to her informing her of her husband’s whereabouts:

My Dear Child,

In reply to your letter of the 10th just, we are all happy to hear that you are in good health in both body and mind. In answer to your questions concerning your husband, I will tell you all the information I can … your husband has left Halifax and I do not know where he has gone to he has got a chid by this other person between five and six years old. I cannot say whether he has gone away. He was at my house a month hence and he said that if you got your liberty he would … leave the country that is all the information I can give about your husband and if you get your liberty myself and your brother has a home and a good one for you as long as we live [sic]

M.D. soon received another letter from her father informing her that her husband had left the country. Perhaps in an effort to assure her she wasn’t alone, he told her: ‘You have a good mother and a good father … and you have four brothers and two sisters’. Ten months later M.D.’s father wrote to Superintendent William Orange asking for his help in securing his daughter’s discharge: ‘Her mother and brothers and sisters and myself promise that she shall be taken care of in future if you will comply with my request. I shall never cease to be thankful to you’. M.D.’s discharge was certainly looking more likely. The medical officers had reported an improvement in her health and character: she ‘is industrious, abstentious and generous. She remembers dates and facts’. Orange certainly had her discharge in mind – he began to make enquiries into who might care for her if the Home Office approved her release. Two months later, Orange received the following letter from an unknown correspondent who had looked into the whereabouts and character of M.D.’s husband:

I find he is living with another woman, and he himself states that he is married, but whether this is true I cannot tell … One thing is certain, that [her husband] is a thorough scoundrel, and I have little doubt that it was owing to his wicked conduct that his unfortunate wife was driven to desperation, as even during the trial, while the poor woman’s life was pending, he was seen in the company of prostitutes, by many people in this township.

M.D. was discharged from Broadmoor in the spring of 1872. The records don’t indicate where she was sent, but it seems very unlikely that her husband would have been entrusted with her care: he apparently didn’t possess the good moral character expected of guardians.

 

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