Front Page Titles (by Subject) 390.: THE CASE OF ANNE BIRD MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 MAR., 1850, P. 5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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390.: THE CASE OF ANNE BIRD MORNING CHRONICLE, 13 MAR., 1850, P. 5 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, 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 CASE OF ANNE BIRD
This article is the ninth on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor and Mill (for the background, see No. 303). It comments on the trial of Anne Bird (b. 1805) for the brutal beating of a two-year-old child, Ellen Welsh, held on 8 Feb. at the Marylebone Police Office, before George Long (1780-1868), magistrate and author. The case had been reported in “Police Intelligence—Friday. Marylebone,” Morning Chronicle, 9 Feb., p. 8. This unheaded third leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the state of the law respecting assault, in the Morning Chron. of 13th March 1850. Very little of this was mine.”
(MacMinn, p. 73.)
much has been said and written, although as yet to very little purpose, on the effect which the progress of society in wealth, numbers, and education produces on the nature and amount of crime. Among many differences of opinion on this much-debated question, there is on one point a very general agreement. However it may be with offences against property, crimes of violence tend, it is generally believed, to diminution. There is nothing in which we seem to have so much the advantage over our fathers as in mildness of manners; and the delinquencies which prevail in the present generation are, according to common opinion, those which have their source in poverty or cupidity, but not in ferocity.
Though we do not deny the truth of this representation as it affects some classes of society and some offences, yet, as a general fact, we are sorry to say that it is not borne out by that authentic register of the manners and habits of the populace—the Police Reports. Far from exhibiting any decrease in crimes of violence, hardly a day passes in which that record does not bear frightful witness to their unabated prevalence. And the crimes which thus abound are, in point of moral turpitude, the worst order of crimes of violence—not the outbursts of offended irascibility against an equal, but the habitual abuse of brute strength, and the indulgence of wanton cruelty. Women and children, or young persons, are usually the sufferers. Cases succeed one another with hardly any intermission, in which men are proved to have killed their wives by brutal maltreatment; every such death being the termination of a series of sufferings, extending through years, against which the vital principle was at last unable longer to bear up. For every such extreme case, we may be assured there are hundreds which stop just short of the infliction of death, or in which death is inflicted, but not ascribed to its true cause. In another very numerous class of cases, a man or a woman is found to have kept an unhappy child for weeks and months in some disgusting domestic dungeon, until it is nearly dead from cold, hunger, and neglect—or to have scourged it day after day, until it is brought into a state which strikes horror when at last exhibited, and from which in many cases the child never recovers. In other instances a parish apprentice, or a young person hired as a servant from the workhouse, is the miserable victim.
Whoever has sufficiently attended to the proceedings of the Police Courts to have observed the deplorable frequency of these cases, must have been no less forcibly struck with the scandalous impunity of the culprits. Often, even when the victim has died from their maltreatment, they are not sent to trial. If tried, they are, in a majority of cases,acquitted—sometimes in the face of the clearest evidence. Even if found guilty, it is only of manslaughter, and they get off with a year or two of imprisonment. Cases short of death are very seldom tried at all, but are disposed of summarily by the police magistrate. A recent instance at the Marylebone Police-office exemplifies the sort of justice usually administered. The case was one of peculiar enormity, the victim being a child two years old. The culprit, a woman named Anne Bird, was proved to have cruelly maltreated this infant with a whip. The magistrate did what magistrates in such cases usually do; he talked of the extreme atrocity of the case—as if strong words would do away with the effect of weak acts—and then sentenced the woman to the greatest penalty he could summarily inflict—a fine of five pounds, or, in default of payment, two months’ imprisonment. If this woman, under the pressure of poverty, had stolen five shillings, the magistrate would not have failed to commit her for trial, and if found guilty she would probably have been transported. But her offence being brutal cruelty, practised on a creature utterly helpless and unoffending, he did not deem it worth while to try whether a higher court would be of opinion that a case of extraordinary atrocity deserved greater punishment than two months’ imprisonment. At the end of the two months the child, no doubt, will be given back to its torturer; unless before that time, as happened in a similar case not long ago, it dies of the injuries received.
The fault is partly in the administration of the law, but chiefly in the law itself. The whole state of the law on the subject of offences against the person urgently requires revision.1 Towards offenders against property the law until very lately was ferocious, and even now it does not err on the side of gentleness; but in case of personal violence, short of premeditated murder, it is chargeable with confounding together offences the most widely separated, both in kind and degree of criminality, and with the most excessive and unwarrantable lenity towards all but the lightest. Legislators and judges have bestowed little consideration on the amount of guilt and suffering which lie disguised under the mild and euphonious designation of “common assault.” That gentle phrase stands for nearly every sort of bodily maltreatment of which death or maiming is not obviously the result. There is but that one term to denote the whole range of acts of personal violence, from a quarrel between two strong and equally matched men, one of whom knocks the other down in a fair fight, to that habitual and wanton abuse of muscular strength against the weak and defenceless which makes life a martyrdom. Even if this confounding of the gravest moral distinctions were a mere matter of theory and classification, it would be very far from harmless in its effects on the popular mind; but, carried out as it is, to the full, in daily practice—some of the most detestable actions which one human being can perpetrate against another being punished, when punished at all, with about the amount of penalty which would be due to a simple breach of the peace—it would show a profound ignorance of the effect of moral agencies on the character not to perceive how deeply depraving must be the influence of such a lesson given from the seat of justice. It cannot be doubted that to this more than to any other single cause is to be attributed the frightful brutality which marks a very large proportion of the poorest class, and no small portion of a class much above the poorest.
Persons who are not conversant, either by their own knowledge or through the proceedings of courts of justice, with the breadth and depth of popular brutality, have very little idea of what is comprehended in the meaning of the words, “domestic tyranny.” This is now the only kind of tyranny which, in the more improved countries of the world, still exists in full vigour. Even in the worst governed countries, of any tolerable degree of civilization, it is now but rarely that Kings or public functionaries have it in their power personally to maltreat any one. The barbarities of which history is full, and which in barbarous countries flourish as rankly as ever, very few persons in a civilized country now suffer from political authorities—millions are liable to them from domestic ones. The great majority of the inhabitants of this and of every country—including nearly the whole of one sex, and all the young of both—are, either by law or by circumstances stronger than the law, subject to some one man’s arbitrary will. Every now and then the public are revolted by some disclosure of unspeakable atrocities committed against some of these helpless dependents—while, for every such case which excites notice, hundreds, most of them as bad, pass off in the police reports entirely unobserved; and for one that finds its way, even for that brief instant, into light, we may be assured that not hundreds but thousands are constantly going on in the safety of complete obscurity. If, through the accidental presence of some better-hearted person than these poor creatures are usually surrounded by, complaint is made to a magistrate, the neighbours—persons living in the same house—almost invariably testify, without either repentance or shame, that the same brutalities had gone on for years in their sight or hearing, without their stirring a finger to prevent them. The sufferers themselves are either unable to complain, from youth or ignorance, or they dare not. They know too surely the consequences of either failing or succeeding in a complaint, when the law, after inflicting just enough punishment to excite the thirst of vengeance, delivers back the victim to the tyrant.
As a matter either of justice or of humanity, these things speak so plain a language as ought to be in no need of commentary. What it is of more importance to insist upon, is their demoralizing effect. Attention has of late been much directed to the overcrowding of the labouring population as a source of moral evils.2 Let any one consider the degrading moral effect, in the midst of these crowded dwellings, of scenes of physical violence, repeated day after day—the debased, spirit-broken, down-trodden condition of the unfortunate woman, the most constant sufferer from domestic brutality in the poorer classes, unaffectedly believing herself to be out of the protection of the law—the children born and bred in this moral atmosphere—with the unchecked indulgence of the most odious passions, the tyranny of physical force in its coarsest manifestations, constantly exhibited as the most familiar facts of their daily life—can it be wondered if they grow up without any of the ideas and feelings which it is the purpose of moral education to infuse, without any sense of justice or affection, any conception of self-restraint—incapable in their turn of governing their children by any other means than blows? The law, whose utmost exertions would not be more than enough to withstand this mass of depraving influences, makes so little use of its powers and opportunities, measures out its reproofs and punishments by such a scale, that the culprits believe almost the worst of these brutalities to be venial, and all minor ones to be actually permitted—while the victims regard their suffering and debasement as the regular course of things, which the law sanctions and the world allows; and when not crushed entirely, they seek a wretched compensation by tyrannizing in their turn, when any hapless fellow-creature comes within their power.
[1 ]9 George IV, c. 31 (1828), made common assault for the first time a criminal misdemeanour punishable on summary conviction before a magistrate on complaint of the victim (Sect. 27); the punishment was limited to a fine of not more than £5. Only for non-payment of fine could the convicted assailant be jailed for a maximum of two months (Sect. 27). In serious cases, the Crown was permitted to proceed by indictment and a longer punishment could be imposed (Sect. 29). Prosecution resulted in the loss of other criminal or civil remedies by the plaintiff.
[2 ]E.g., “Report of G.A. à Beckett, Esq.,” in “Reports to the Poor Law Board, on the Laws of Settlement, and Removal of the Poor” (24 Oct., 1848), PP, 1850, XXVII, esp. 238, 242-3; Aubrey De Vere (1814-1902), poet and essayist, “Colonization,” Edinburgh Review, XCI (Jan. 1850), 1-62, esp. 4-6; and John Malcolm Ludlow (1821-1911), social reformer, “ ‘Labour and the Poor,’ ” Fraser’s Magazine, XLI (Jan. 1850), 1-18, esp. 3.