1871 New born boy strangulation

From Historical Hastings

Mary Ann Downs (aged 19), known as Ann, was employed as a servant by Mr. John Ashby, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children at their home, 1 Russell Street. John was a dyer, originally from Rochester, with three men employed by him[1]. On the 27th of March 1871, Mary complained to her employer of a back ache. She was given some gin and hot water by Elizabeth to ease her discomfort and Mary went to her room to rest after dinner. Before this, Mary paid a visit to the water closet (toilet) at around 1 PM and remained there for some twenty minutes, causing Elizabeth to knock on the door and ask if she (Mary) was all right, thinking perhaps that she had fainted. Elizabeth saw a few spots of blood where Mary had been sitting. Later that evening, the family doctor, Dr. Cooke visited Elizabeth and was asked to check on Mary. The doctor came back saying that he had been told and seen nothing that caused him concern. [2]

Between 10 and 11 o'clock that evening, Mary appeared much better and was told to go to bed and not worry about getting up early the following morning. Mary woke up the following morning at about 10 am and appeared pale and to have lost some weight. Hannah French, a washerwoman, living nearby, who was with Elizabeth then went to Mary's room and came back stating that something would appear to have happened in Mary's room. At this Elizabeth went and inspected the room, finding blood marks on the carpet, with blood and a placenta in the chamber-pot, leading her to believe that Mary had given birth in the room. Sending for the Doctor, who arrived at 1 pm, and spoke to Mary in the drawing room. On their return, he asked twice what Mary had done with the child. Mary eventually replied that the child was in her box and took the key out of her pocket and gave it to the doctor.[2]

The doctor passed the key to Hannah, who upon opening the trunk found the dead body of a baby boy, wrapped in calico with a ribbon tied around its neck. At this a policeman was summoned. Mary was sent to bed by the doctor under the guard of the policeman, Sergeant Streeter. Carrying out a post-mortem on the child, the doctor found that but for the ligature, tied so tight around the child's neck that it cut into the flesh, the child would have been perfectly healthy.[2]

At the subsequent coroner's inquest held at the York Hotel the following Wednesday, the doctor deposed that the cause of the child's death was strangulation. No one, including the coroner would have suspected that Mary was carrying a child; all having seen her about on her various tasks around the town. The doctor, when questioned as to whether the child had been born alive, answered in the affirmative; air pockets having been found in the lungs of the child. Whilst he could not be certain, it was possible that the child had lived for about an hour. The policeman, Sgt Streeter stated in his evidence that he had found no signs of preparation for a child in the servant's room; no cot or baby linen was there. After direction from the coroner that their duty was to find whether a case of murder existed; the jury found this to be true and the matter was referred to the magistrates - the finding of the inquest being Wilful Murder. Mary was placed into the custody of the police in her bedroom at Russell Street[2].

The case was held at the Lewes Assizes on the 20th of July, 1871 under Judge Blackburn. Mr. Merrifield prosecuted and Mr. Ribton defended. Under questioning, Dr. Cooke stated that he could not be sure that the child was born alive or whether it was still-born. This led the Judge to state to the court, that a charge of murder could not be prosecuted due to this doubt. A charge of concealment of birth was the only charge that could be laid against Mary and upon the evidence presented, guilty could be the only finding in law. Upon being so instructed, the jury found Mary guilty of this lesser charge. Sentencing Miss Downs, Judge Blackburn declared that whilst she had been acquitted of the murder charge, she had none-the-less been found guilty of concealment of birth, and this was one of the more severe cases of this nature, requiring a severe sentence of eighteen months hard-labour[3].

References & Notes

  1. UK Census 1871
  2. a b c d British Newspaper Archive Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 1 April 1871 Pg. 0003
  3. British Newspaper Archive Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 22 July 1871 Pg. 0003