Front Page Titles (by Subject) 318.: THE SUICIDE OF SARAH BROWN MORNING CHRONICLE, 28 OCT., 1846, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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318.: THE SUICIDE OF SARAH BROWN MORNING CHRONICLE, 28 OCT., 1846, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE SUICIDE OF SARAH BROWN
This is the fourth of the leaders on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor and Mill (see No. 303). The unheaded leader (the second) is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the suicide of one Sarah Brown, in the Morning Chronicle of 28th Oct. 1846. A joint production.”
(MacMinn, p. 62.)
in a paragraph which has gone the round of the daily papers, it is stated that on Thursday last Mr. Bedford held an inquest, at the Star and Garter, St. Martin’s-lane, on the body of Sarah Brown, aged nineteen, who had drowned herself in the Thames. “Deceased, the daughter of respectable parents, was seduced by a gentleman two years ago, and had a child by him. Her seducer deprived her of her child.” Several witnesses, it is added, “proved that since her child had been taken from her she had over and over again threatened to destroy herself.” The verdict was temporary insanity.1
The sad history of this poor girl might not have had so tragical a dénouement, if there had been any one to inform her that the creature called “a gentleman,” in tearing from her the last consolation and the last human interest which he had left her, acted as much in defiance of law as of the first elements of justice and feelings of humanity; that the father of an illegitimate child has absolutely no legal rights over the child; that he is, in the eye of the law, not related to it; and that its mother is its sole parent.2 But this piece of legal knowledge, though perfectly elementary, appears to be too recondite for some magistrates, judging from a case published in the police reports a short time since.3 In that case, as in this, the father had exerted the law of the strongest, and kept the child to himself. The mother had retaliated by the law of the cleverest, and had stolen it back. The man again seized on it, and the case ultimately came before a magistrate, who, according to the report, awarded that they should possess the child in alternate months. The magistrate, possibly, may have been guided to this adjudication by some indistinct reminiscence of the judgment of Solomon;4 but there was no similarity in the result, which was, that the disputants were no sooner out of court than they renewed their squabble, to determine which of the two should be entitled to the first month, a point which the magistrate, in his anxiety for equal partition, had forgotten to decide. The matter was at last amicably adjusted, and “ended happily”—for the most serious situation of life is equally capable of being the subject of a comedy or of a tragedy. But if the magistrate acted in any other capacity than as an adviser of the parties, and meant anything more than to suggest a compromise to be voluntarily adopted by them, he evidently violated the law. He had no right to compel the woman to give up one-half of her child. She paid dearly enough for it, and it was her’s, and her’s it ought to be—most certainly no one’s else. She had a legal and a moral right to such comfort as it could afford her, and she had a right to any hold over the man, who had deserted her, that might be derived from the interest which it appears he had not ceased to feel in the child. If any limitation of her exclusive parental control could be allowable, it is not by or for the man, but by that which we should be glad to see exercised, not only in cases of this kind, but in many others—the tutelary intervention of a public authority, to see that the children of the miserable are not brought up to be miserable, or a source of misery to others.
In the case of lawful marriage, the law has thought fit to give to one only of the parents—that one being (need it be said?) the one who by himself or by his representatives makes the law—exclusive power over the children. The revolting excess of injustice, palpable even to the obtusest perceptions, which resulted from this provision of the law in certain extreme cases, induced the Legislature a few years back, on the proposition of Mr. Sergeant Talfourd, slightly to relax in those extreme cases the rigour of the exclusive principle.5 How much more remains to be done in the same direction, before the state of the law can commend itself either to the reason or to the feelings of any one who views it not as an interested party, but as an impartial judge, we shall not at present discuss. The law, however, is not guilty of giving this excess of power, without annexing any conditions to it. Whatever the authority with which the law arms the father, it requires of him, as an essential preliminary, not only that he shall stand clear of having acquired his claim by the destruction of the social position, and in all probability the self-respect of a fellow-creature, but that he shall take upon himself all the obligations and responsibilities which, in the estimation of the law, ought to devolve upon one who, for his own purposes, presumes to call a human being into existence. He can claim none of the rights attaching to a position of which he does not fulfil the requirements. He cannot indulge himself in despotism as the patriarch of a family, and give himself a dispensation from extending to either the children or their other parent reciprocal (however unequal) rights over him.
If the father has not chosen to make himself liable legally to the obligations which, from the very nature of the case, belong morally to the parental condition, those obligations and responsibilities devolve undividedly upon the other parent, and along with them, as their inseparable accompaniment, those rights over the child’s person and conduct, which have no legitimate ground of existence save as a means to the fulfilment of those obligations, or a reward and encouragement for fulfilling them conscientiously. And since this not only ought to be the law, but actually is so, it is wrong in any magistrate not to take every appropriate opportunity of making it known; for this end, among others, that one-half of the human species may occasionally have the satisfaction of believing that if the law is appealed to in their behalf it will do them justice.
At present it is very well known that women, in the lower ranks of life, do not expect justice from a bench or a jury of the male sex. They feel the most complete assurance that to the utmost limits of common decency, and often beyond, a tribunal of men will sympathize and take part with the man. And accordingly they die in protracted torture, from incessantly repeated brutality, without ever, except in the fewest and rarest instances, claiming the protection of law. If justice is invoked, it is generally by the outraged feelings of neighbours, and if the unhappy sufferer deviates into making her injuries known in a police court, at the next hearing she usually retracts everything; for who ever heard of a really severe punishment inflicted upon a man for any amount of brutal ill-treatment of his wife? She knows well that if the case is too clear and strong to allow of dismissing the man with a reprimand, and the woman with a piece of kind advice to be gentle and submissive, the utmost he will have to undergo is a month or two months imprisonment, to be followed by a resumption of all his former power, and her imagination can well suggest with what consequences to her.
If such is the justice society deals out to those women, in the humbler classes, whom it calls respectable, what must an unfortunate creature like Sarah Brown expect? And who can wonder, that driven to desperation by the cruellest wrong, though a wrong wholly unsanctioned by law, she seeks relief not from a magistrate but from suicide, without having had even a momentary thought that the law would do anything for her, or that the law was anything but one of the instruments by which society hunts down those who have violated its rules and incurred its displeasure?
[1 ]The inquest on Sarah Brown (ca. 1827-46) is reported in “Suicide at Waterloo-Bridge,” Globe and Traveller, 23 Oct., 1846, p. 4.
[2 ]By Sect. 71 of the Poor Law of 1834 (4 & 5 William IV, c. 76), the mother is specifically said to have a duty to maintain the child.
[3 ]See “Child Stolen by Its Own Father,” The Times, 19 Oct., p. 6, for the account of the Glossop case outlined in the text, “reprinted from a Manchester paper.”
[4 ]See I Kings, 3:16-28.
[5 ]Thomas Noon Talfourd (1795-1854), lawyer and author, Sergeant-at-Law from 1833, M.P. for Reading 1835-41, in a speech of 25 Apr., 1839 (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 47, cols. 549-52), introduced “A Bill to Amend the Law Relating to the Custody of Infants,” 2 Victoria (25 Apr., 1839), PP, 1839, II, 559-63, which was enacted as 2 & 3 Victoria, c. 54 (1839).