Front Page Titles (by Subject) 392.: THE CASE OF MARY ANN PARSONS  MORNING CHRONICLE, 26 MAR., 1850, PP. 4-5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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392.: THE CASE OF MARY ANN PARSONS  MORNING CHRONICLE, 26 MAR., 1850, PP. 4-5 - 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 MARY ANN PARSONS 
See No. 389 for earlier comment on this case; the subsequent trial of the Birds had been reported in “Assize Intelligence. Western Circuit—Exeter, March 22,” Morning Chronicle, 25 Mar., p. 7, from which the quotations are taken. This is the tenth of the joint articles on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor and Mill (for the background, see No. 303). This unheaded third leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the Bideford case, in the Morning Chronicle of 26th March 1850. Very little of this was mine.”
(MacMinn, p. 73.)
the case of mary ann parsons, who died a cruel death from maltreatment, at Buckland, near Bideford, in January last, has terminated in a more complete frustration of public justice than, in our worst surmises, we had imagined possible. The criminals, Robert and Sarah Bird, have not been convicted of murder—nor of manslaughter—nor even of a common assault. They have escaped totally unpunished—unpunished, except by public execration, which, it is to be hoped, will cling to them the more closely that they have not expiated their guilt by the retribution which the law appoints for such malefactors, but which in this instance, as in too many others, it has failed to inflict. Let any one who reads the report of the trial which appeared in our paper of yesterday, judge whether there can be the faintest shadow of doubt as to the facts—whether the two prisoners will not carry to their graves the merited designation of acquitted murderers. The worst features of the case, as it appeared against them in the preliminary investigation, were all confirmed, and more than confirmed, by the evidence on the trial. Several witnesses swore to repeated acts of brutal maltreatment. Several others swore to admissions of such acts by the female prisoner, both as respected herself and her husband. The state in which the poor girl’s body was found was sworn to by Mr. Turner, the surgeon who made the post-mortem examination, in these clear and straightforward terms:
On the legs and thighs I saw several wounds, varying in extent, and evidently inflicted by some irregular or rough weapon. It struck me to have been by a birch. There was a bruise on the chest. The face was discoloured, and the forehead, and some abscesses were on the arms and fingers. The skin over the bowels was discoloured. On the left arm there was an abscess, and the skin immediately round it was discoloured, as if it had been bruised some time, perhaps a fortnight. The abscess had burst below the elbow. There was another abscess just forming. The nails of the little and fore finger were gone, apparently some time. The two middle finger nails were also gone, apparently more recently, and in one the bone protruded. On the right arm there was also an abscess that had also burst. On the right hip there was a large slough. On the posterior part of the hips were several wounds, apparently inflicted some time. They were covered with plaster, and appeared to be old sores. Between the shoulders were two trivial bruises. There was also a mark on the face, from the temple down to the cheek. On removing the scalp I found another bruise on the back of the head, with considerable extravasation of blood diffused between the scalp and the skull.
Then, after stating that he observed congestion of the membranes of the brain, and at the base of the brain extravasation of blood, and that he “found the cause of death in the head,” Mr. Turner continued:
In my judgment, death was the result of the external injuries. I could not form a judgment how that violence had been inflicted. I don’t think the injuries I saw in the head were produced from falls. The condition of the girl must have been extremely reduced before death, and the powers of life weakened. The injuries I observed would have produced an effect on the nervous system, which is connected with the brain.
Another medical witness, Mr. Edge, a surgeon to the hospital at Exeter, “conceives that Mr. Turner is correct in the opinion that he formed, as to the time of death, and the cause.”
After such evidence—unless the testimony was disbelieved, which it was not—it seems incredible that the Judge (Mr. Justice Talfourd) should have charged the jury for an acquittal. Every reader must be astonished at such a course, and must be anxious to know how so extraordinary a judgment came to be pronounced on such a state of facts. The explanation, however, is instructive, by the illustration which it affords of the state either of the law, or of the mind of this Judge—certainly not one of the worst of its administrators. Though there were statements and physical facts sufficient to convince the mind most recalcitrant to evidence, that the death of the girl was the work of the two prisoners, there was not, it seems, legal evidence to bring it home to them. “The case,” in the opinion of the judge, “had failed.” But when we see in what points it was considered to have failed, we cease to wonder—or rather, our astonishment changes its object, and we wonder how there should ever be legal evidence of a murder committed in the manner in which these two culprits caused the death of their victim.
The grounds of acquittal were two; and which of them is the strangest it would not be easy to decide. The first was, that although there was superabundant evidence of brutality by the prisoners sufficient to cause the frightful state of the corpse, it was not proved that anybody struck the particular blow on the head to which the congestion of the brain, said to be the immediate cause of death, was thought to be more especially owing. The second reason was, that even if the blow had been struck by one of the prisoners, there was no evidence “to fix it upon one of these parties more than the other.” But it is by no means clear that, in the opinion of the medical witnesses, the blow on the head was exclusively the fatal injury. Mr. Turner, according to our report, “found the cause of death in the head”—meaning the congestion; but he distinctly said, “In my judgment death was the result of the external injuries.” “The injuries I observed”—being those on the body generally—“would have produced an effect on the nervous system, which is connected with the brain.” The other medical witness professed an unqualifed agreement in Mr. Turner’s opinion. It would thus appear that neither of these gentlemen ascribed the cerebral congestion to any local injury to the head, but to general injuries, affecting the brain not directly, but indirectly through “the nervous system.” Even assuming, however (what, it is fair to say, some of the reports of the trial appear to bear out),1 that death was more immediately caused by that particular injury, among the many of which the sufferer bore the hideous marks—that circumstance does not abate one iota from the moral certainty of the prisoners’ guilt. They were proved to have been in the habit of inflicting, up to nearly the time of the girl’s death, cruelties quite equal to the one assumed to have caused it. There was no direct proof that either of them struck that particular blow; but there was not the smallest evidence accounting for it in any other way. It was for them to rebut the presumption raised by their other brutalities. An adequate cause had been shown for any result, however fatal, in their daily treatment of their victim. On them lay the burden of disproving the connection by proving the existence of some other cause for the catastrophe. If a man were found murdered on the highway, his body covered with wounds, some of which only were mortal, the assassins who were proved to have fallen upon him, and to have inflicted some of those wounds, would not be suffered to escape because no one could swear that the particular wounds inflicted by them were the mortal ones. It would be enough that they did wound him, that no other cause of death appeared, and that he died.
With respect to the very nice and scrupulous doubt—as to which of the two prisoners is answerable—it is easily disposed of. Both are answerable. The guilt rests on both, until one of them can get rid of it by throwing it exclusively on the other. If the atrocious acts—some one or all of which destroyed the victim—had been proved only against one of the prisoners, that one would justly have been made responsible for the catastrophe. But those acts were proved against both, and against both equally. Both, therefore, are accountable; just as is the case if a person is found with a gang of robbers at the commission of a crime—it is on himself that the burden rests of proving his non-participation in their guilt.
Under the jurisprudence of Mr. Justice Talfourd, it is virtually proclaimed to such people as Robert and Sarah Bird that there is impunity for murder, on condition of their adopting the commonest precautions. If the person to be murdered is an inmate of their house, and under their power, they must be dull indeed if they cannot effect their purpose without supplying those links of evidence for want of which the death of Mary Ann Parsons goes unpunished. It matters not though the whole neighbourhood testifies to daily cruelties more than adequate to produce death. It matters not that the corpse excites universal horror by its glaring manifestations of those cruelties. They can surely contrive that no one shall be able to swear to the particular wound inflicted on a particular day, or to prove that this wound was given by one of the murderers, that by another—and the victim, who alone knew, is not alive to tell. This is not justice. If it be law, which, in opposition to a judge’s dictum, we do not pretend to decide, it is law which cannot too soon be altered. When the law places any one—and that a person of inferior physical strength—under the power of another, who may be such a creature as these Birds, it exposes the individual to peculiar risks, and ought, therefore, to guard him by peculiar precautions. What is called the ordinary protection of law is not sufficient. The ordinary protection of law is protection to those who can help themselves—who can in general keep themselves out of harm’s way, or, at least, who can tell their own story. The victims of domestic brutality cannot protect themselves; and there is no protection for them, if, when death ensues, and violence is proved sufficient to cause death, the prosecutors are obliged to produce direct evidence connecting the death with the brutality. It is on the accused that the burden of exculpating themselves should in such cases rest. Death, and maltreatment sufficient to cause death, are the sole facts of which positive evidence ought to be required. Those to whom power over others is given, and who brutally misuse that power, should be thus far held responsible for the safety of those over whom they tyrannise. Otherwise there is no security even for the lives of any of those who have the wretched and disgracefully common lot of being in the power of a brute.2
[1 ]See “Spring Assizes. Western Circuit. Exeter, Friday, March 22,” The Times, 25 Mar., p. 6.
[2 ]The Birds were subsequently rearrested and charged with assault. They were convicted on 5 Aug., 1850, in the Crown Court at Exeter. (See “Summer Assizes. Western Circuit. Exeter, Monday, August 5,” The Times, 7 Aug., pp. 7-8.)