The rather tragic case of a young woman from Sheffield, who was tried for the murder of her newborn baby and ended up serving her sentence in a pauper lunatic asylum, may give us a brief insight into how disability was viewed and dealt with by the courts in Victorian England.

24-year-old Esther Dyson had been accused of cutting off her illegitimate daughter’s head with a knife and throwing the body into a dam in a bid to conceal the murder. But despite the seriousness of the case, Esther was acquitted by the courts. The acquittal was on the grounds of insanity. And this appears to be a result of the fact that Esther had been deaf and dumb from birth.

Newspaper reports at the time claimed that this fact in itself was not evidence of her insanity and that the ‘shrewd’ and ‘intelligent woman’ did indeed know right from wrong so should stand trial.

A trial did take place on 31 March 1831 and the Leeds Intelligencer claimed that the case had created a buzz of excitement, meaning that the court was ‘crowded to excess’. During the court proceedings, Esther was asked how she pleaded to the charges but failed to respond. The members of the jury were then sworn to try to ascertain whether the prisoner stood mute ‘by malice or by the visitation of God’. It was decided that in Esther’s case, the latter applied.

There had been concerns raised about her ability to understand the nature of the court proceedings. As well as being deaf and dumb, Esther could neither read nor write. A Mrs Ann Briggs, who had known Esther for about 9 or 10 years, claimed that she did not have a full understanding of what was going on in court and was doubtful whether she could be instructed as to the nature of the proceedings. But, tellingly, Briggs did believe that she had sufficient reason to determine what was right and wrong.

The judge in the case had also appeared reluctant to try Esther and decided that the proper course of action was to impanel a jury to decide whether she was insane. There was an Act on the statue books from the time of George III stating that if any prisoner under indictment was found to be insane by a jury, then that prisoner could not be tried on such an indictment, and instead kept in custody ‘until His Majesty’s pleasure be known’.

And this is what happened to Esther Dyson. She was found to be insane and was sent to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield, arriving on 24 November 1831 under a warrant from the Secretary of State, Viscount Melbourne. It appears that her disability, which meant that she was unable to present a plea and respond to questioning in the courts, may have saved her from the gallows. Perhaps not surprisingly, Esther Dyson showed no symptoms of insanity during her time at the Wakefield asylum and was in fact regularly employed as a house maid.

Nevertheless, this deaf and mute young woman from Sheffield spent the rest of her life at the asylum, dying there on 2 March 1869 at the age of 62.

 

_________________________________________________________

 

Taken from Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There by David Scrimgeour. (Reproduced by kind permission of the author).

Case notes of Esther Dyson (C85/3/6/5. F5.288), West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield Office.

The newspaper consulted for the research – Leeds Intelligencer – is available online at the British Library Newspaper Archive.

 

Latest Updates on Twitter

We were eagerly anticipating The Gruffalo @HullTruck this morning & we were not disappointed! Thank you @TallStoriesLive it was fabulous!! Great characters & wonderful rapport with audience! Hope it won’t be too long until you come to @HullTruck again! 👍👍👍

We have 100+ images of lock-ups in our database. More than illustrations, these are critical primary sources which reveal much about the history of these buildings. Find out more in our latest feature comparing images from the past & present 👇#twitterstorians #historyteacher https://twitter.com/prisonhistoryuk/status/1192469272246833153

Anyone here not read the latest @PSJ_UK yet?? You really should, it's a goodie - prisons in historical context.

Read all about it: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/psj/prison-service-journal-246

#prisons #twitterstorians #history #criminaljustice

Absolutely riveting details given by @Elaineffarrell and @Leannemcck from their @ahrcpress project @BadBridget. Nuance, compassion, transnational ties, fathers pleading for their daughters and more. What an incredible research project

Actually this from 1947 is also pretty familiar then reflecting fears of ‘open’ prisons @YvonneJewkes @carceralgeog @drjamiebennett @crewebencrewe @drdommoran @tcguiney

On next page of scrapbook ‘prison staff complain of attacks’ and another story ‘hose turned on 100 boys: disturbance in approved school’ 1945 @YvonneJewkes @carceralgeog @drjamiebennett @crewebencrewe @drdommoran @tcguiney

Today I’m reading newspapers strikingly familiar tone ... ‘Blow up the Old Gaols’ Home Sec Morrison plans ‘revolution in the penal system, scrapping all the old prisons & the old methods’ Year? 1944 @YvonneJewkes @carceralgeog @drjamiebennett @crewebencrewe @drdommoran @tcguiney

This lovely picture shows a charwoman in 1855. A charwoman was a part-time cleaner, different to a maid in that they did not live in the house. Were any of your ancestors domestic servants?
Ref DE/Bi/4/54 #archives #servant #photography

Prison Service Journal: 246 ⁦@PSJ_UK⁩ great to see this new collection of historical perspectives on prison from ⁦@RhiannonPickin⁩ ⁦@allan_brodie54⁩ ⁦@tcguiney⁩ edited by ⁦@interwarcrime⁩ and Alana Barton https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/psj/prison-service-journal-246