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.