A self confessed murderer? A or a case for the asylum?

smugglers by g. morland

Smugglers, by G. Morland

Readers last week will hopefully remember that I left you on a cliffhanger as we waited to see what would happen to a man that confessed to a murder carried out 18 years previously. John Lane had walked into a police station and admitted having been involved in the murder of a coast guard at Eastbourne in 1832. The magistrate at Marylebone had remanded in custody for a week so S Division’s finest could see what information they could discover about Lane, his confession, and his mental state.

On Tuesday 22 January 1850 he was back in court before Mr Broughton and the newspaper reporter rehashed the story with a few additions. It seems that in 1842 Lane had traveled to Brighton to seek out Lt. Hall (the officer in charge of the investigation into the smuggling case he claimed to be involved in). He never found him and that was why he’d gone back to ground.

As he stood in the dock a second time to hear the details of the case restated Lane looked miserable. He ‘seemed in a very low and desponding state’ the report continued, ‘and the impression upon most of those in court was that his intellects were impaired’.

Two men from the customs appeared and asked lots of questions of Lane but he wasn’t able to provide them with kind of detail for the events he had originally described. They, and a religious man in attendance, (described as ‘a missionary’) were of the ‘opinion that the man was not sane’.

Mr Broughton concurred and said that given the rambling nature of his confession and the failure of anyone to reveal any details of this supposed crime there was ‘not the slightest chance of a conviction’ before a jury. He discharged John into the care of his wife, a laundress working from premises in Portland Grove. Hopefully she would be able to look after him but what he really needed was specialist mental health treatment and in 1850 that simply wasn’t available to the likes of him, unless he wanted to take his chances with the workhouse  or Bedlam.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

The ‘madman’ who refused to do as he was told.


St John’s Church, Holloway

Not for the first time I’m struck by how frequently the police courts of the metropolis (the forerunners of modern magistrates courts) prosecuted individuals who exhibited clear sign of mental ill health. Victorian society not only lacked the resources to care for the mentally ill, they also had a much less well-developed understanding of them.

As a result the ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ were locked up in institutions like Bedlam (which gives us a popular term for chaos), small private asylums, or, later in the century, larger public ones such as Colney Hatch. The treatment individuals received in such institutions varied but it very far from being ‘caring’.

This was probably the sort of place that John Hassalt ended up in after his brush with Mr Laing, the sitting magistrate at Hatton Garden, in May 1837. At the start of Victoria’s reign John may have been sent to Hanwell in Middlesex, which opened in May 1831. But he might equally simply have been housed in one of the capital’s many workhouses, especially if he was poor. There he would have had virtually nothing that might be described today as ‘specialist mental health care’.

So what had John Hassalt done to earn his appearance in court and a possible relocation to an asylum or workhouse?

John was a bricklayer – or so he was described in court – and he was charged, by the churchwarden of St. John’s in Holloway, with ‘having disturbed the congregation in church on Sunday’.

Mr Povey, the churchwarden, explained that on that morning he’d entered the church just as the curate was reading prayers. Hassalt had approached the pulpit and was about to enter it and take over the service when Povey and several other parishioners seized him and led him away. It was not the first time John had tried to interrupt proceedings he added, but enough was clearly enough for the exasperated churchman.

Apparently all John Hassalt wanted to do was ‘expound the holy truths of religion’ to the gathered audience. When questioned by the magistrate he said nothing other than this in defence and clearly thought he was entitled to do just that. He had written to the curate to express his wish and determination to preach and thought that would or should suffice as explanation.

Povey piped up to say that Hassalt was clearly ‘touched in his intellect’ (in other words he was ‘mad’).

No, I am right enough’ countered the bricklayer.

To which the justice declared that:

his notions of religion could not be very correct or he would not disturb a Minister of the Gospel in the performance of his duty’. He must promise not to do so again.

Hassalt would make no such promise. Indeed he solemnly swore notto! At this the magistrate lectured him on his conduct at some length and warned that if he was brought before him again he would be forced to send him to prison.

I doubt that would have done much good – the warning or a prison sentence – because Hassalt was convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. I fear the only logical outcome of this was likely to be his future confinement, not to a prison, but a mental hospital, either on the command of the state or at the expense of his family, if he had any.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1837]

This has similarities to another tale over interruptions to church services (this one at St Paul’s) and for other stories that involve mental illness see:

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

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

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.


The perils of marrying in haste


Mr. and Mrs Chabot had not long been married when they appeared at the Lambeth Police Court in December 1847. The appearance was a memorable one, although perhaps less so for the couple concerned.

Young Mr. Chabot seems to have been a delicate fellow. He had for some time been imprisoned in Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital for the insane) placed there by his relatives and ‘friends’ suffering from a ‘mental affliction’.

He was released, fully cured, declaring his desire to take a wife. His parents advised him to place his property in a trust fund: for the joint benefit of himself and his wife, and well as for the interest of their children, if they had any’. This may simply have been sound advice but I suspect it had a lot to do with his parents’ misgivings about his mental state.

He quickly found and married a respectable woman named Georgina. It was from here, however, that the problems started.

Georgina Chabot was later described by the court reporter, in full Dickensian style, as ‘a dumpy little woman, whose face was so bedaubed with paint [make up] as to make her quite conspicuous’. On honeymoon the couple rowed constantly, with the husband coming off ‘second best’.

The ‘disagreements’ reached such a serious state that Chabot thought it necessary to come to court to seek protection from his wife’s violence. This was probably more common than historians have so far discovered. Domestic abuse (usually carried out by men) was widespread in the Victorian period but few men would admit to being beaten by their spouses; in a patriarchal society to confess to be unable to control one’s wife would be acutely embarrassing.

On the 6 December, just two months after the fateful marriage, Mr. Chabot returned home from collecting rents and sent the money upstairs to his wife.

Georgian was unhappy with the amount he had brought home and even unhappier that she seemed to have spent an unnecessarily long time at one female tenant’s home.

In a jealous rage she ‘jumped out of bed, rushed down like a fury, and made a vicious attack on her lord and master. She flung a cup and saucer and a flat iron at his head, and after using the poker, managed to cut his head open with the bellows’.

In court at Lambeth the young man was cross-examined by his wife’s legal representative but held to his story. Georgina’s sister said he had started it by punching his wife and denied she had used excessive force. The magistrate must have taken one look at the man and then at Georgina and decided that it was fairly unlikely that the frail youth could have hit anyone.

He fined Georgian £3 (or 20 days imprisonment) and demanded she post 2 months’ bail against her future behaviour or he would remand her. The money was paid and the couple discharged; we can only wonder at their later ‘pillow talk’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1847]

An extraordinary fare dodger at Lambeth

Theodore Hook was a cigar merchant and someone that had involved himself closely in the recent attempt by Morgan Howard to win the parliamentary seat of Lambeth.* But he was also a quite extraordinary fellow if the account of his appearance at the Lambeth Police Court in December 1880 is anything to go by.

During the election campaign Hook had behaved in such a disorderly manner in the Elephant and Castle pub that the landlord had called the police. This had led Hook to court but the solicitor representing the South London Licensed Victuallers; Protection Association declined to prosecute further. But the magistrate had remanded Hook because other claims were being made about him and he wanted these investigated.

PC 423P (no name given) revealed that Hook was in the habit of taking cabs but refusing to pay the fares. No fewer than 7 cabbies came forward to testify against him and it became apparent that Hook had ‘dodged’ fares amounting to over £8 (or around £400 in today’s money).

V0013739 The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam], St. George's Fields, Lambe

Bethlem (‘Bedlam’) Hospital in the 19th century

But there was more. Hook had also been charged with ‘wandering in the streets without any visible means of existence, or being under proper control’, the constable told the Lambeth court.

Hook’s brother now came forward to explain that his sibling had recently been in Bedlam (London’s notorious ‘lunatic asylum’). The magistrate said surely the family should take him in and care for him but the other Mt Hook said ‘it was quite beyond their power to do anything’.

Other witnesses now testified. One gentleman said he thought the prisoner’s cigar business was in ruins, another that he had seen Hook at Dulwich ‘building up stones’ to make a statue of the Queen. He added that Hook told him he ‘had been authorized to go over to Russia to put the Emperor Alexander in order’. This would have been Tsar Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881 (not by Hook it has to be said). He was also said to have walked into the sea ‘in a most daring manner’.

When this was put to Hook he denied being insane but admitted he could be ‘at times a little strange’. Mr. Chance the magistrate thought it quite evident that Hook was not fit to be ‘at large’ and felt that his friends and family were responsible for looking after him. Since, however, it seemed they were not prepared to do so he would order Hook to find two people that would post bail for him to the value of £20. No one came forward and so the unhappy man was remanded in custody once again.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 06, 1880]

* Howard (a barrister and judge) failed on this occasion but did subsequently enter Parliament as a Conservative MOP for Dulwich in 1885. He served just 2 years before resigning his seat and moving to Cornwall where he was appointed as a judge on the County Court Circuit.