‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

Three Counties Asylum central section seen from th

The Three Counties Lunatic Asylum, Bedfordshire, (c.1871)

On the morning of the 22 February 1899 Eliza Williams and her husband Herbert were in bed at their home in Shepparton Road, Islington. Suddenly the door of the bedroom hurts open and a man sprang in armed with a large knife.

He rushed at the couple and aiming for Eliza,  he grabbed her arm and stabbed her in the side. He drove the blade in deeper and as she ‘slipped off the bed, he stabbed her in the breast’. Herbert roused himself and tried to protect his wife, charging at the attacker. But the man was in violent homicidal rage and was too strong for him. Herbert was brushed aside and thrown back onto the mantelpiece.

Herbert recovered his wits and wrestled with the maniac just as he was attempting to ‘rip open [Eliza’s] stomach’. Eventually the trio were dragged into the passageway as the fight continued and Herbert managed to get he knife out of the man’s hands. Soon afterwards the police arrived and the attacker was overpowered and taken away to the nearest police station. Eliza was badly hurt but lived and was rushed to hospital.

It took a while to come to court because the key victim, Eliza, was too ill to give evidence but in early April 1899 the case was heard at Clerkenwell Police court before Mr Horace Smith. Mr Smith now heard that the attacker was none other than Eliza’s father, Reuben Dunham, a 59 year-old carpenter from Wheathamstead in Hertfordshire.

Reuben was a troubled individual who had been residing in the Three Counties Lunatic Asylum near Stotfold before he’d absconded. At the time of the attack Eliza had applied for a summons to have him brought before a justice, perhaps for issuing threats against her. Was he unhappy about her marriage, or something else? Nothing is clear from the court report in The Standard but Dunham was clearly unhappy about something.

The detective dealing with the case, Inspector Collett, testified that when he had charged the carpenter with the attack he had exclaimed:

‘If a man is a man he can look at a man; if he is a scoundrel he turns his head away. This job has been going on for 18 months. I wish I had finished the pair of them’.

At Clerkenwell this level of brooding violence continued as Dunham was fully committed to trial for the assault and wounding. Turning to Herbert he told him:

‘You are a lucky man to be alive. I should like to have another cut at her’.

He was then led away to await the judgement of a jury in due course. He didn’t have long to wait. On the 10 April he was tried at Old Bailey and convicted of wounding and attempted murder. While he had been in Holloway Prison the medical officer there examined him and declared him to be sane, despite what seems to be plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dunham apologised for attacking his daughter and son-in-law and blamed it on his drinking. He said ‘he thought his daughter was going to take all his things away’ but had no other reason for what he’d done.

Despite the jury hearing that Eliza was lucky to survive the assault on her they recommended Dunham to mercy. However, he now admitted several other offences and to being previously convicted. The judge sentenced him to seven years’ penal servitude.

Thanks to the Digital Panopticon we know what happened to Reuben after this. We also have a description:

Eyes bl[ue]. Hair gr[ey] (bald top). Complexion f[ai]r. Height 5′ 3″.

He was granted a prison license (parole) in June 1904 and released from Gloucester prison on the 4 July aged 64.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 03, 1899]

2 thoughts on “‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

  1. Fascinating outcome, given what I perceived as little understanding for the mentally ill – and I wonder if the decision led to him killing his daughter eventually. I know – I should research it..

    Like

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