Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
389.: THE CASE OF MARY ANN PARSONS  DAILY NEWS, 5 FEB., 1850, P. 4 - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The online edition of the Collected Works is published under licence from the copyright holder, The University of Toronto Press. ©2006 The University of Toronto Press. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of The University of Toronto Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE CASE OF MARY ANN PARSONS 
This article, the eighth on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor and Mill (for the background, see No. 303), responds to “Horrible Cruelty,” The Times, 2 Feb., 1850, beginning on p. 8 and continuing in Supplement, p. 1, which describes the coroner’s inquest and subsequent examination before magistrates resulting from the brutal death of Mary Ann Parsons at the hand of Robert Curtis Bird, a farmer, and Sarah Bird, his wife; Mill’s quotations are all from p. 8. The witnesses mentioned are James Morrish, a shoe-maker, and Richard Hooper; the victim’s mother’s name was Grace Parsons. For further comment on the case, see No. 392. This unheaded third leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on a case of atrocity near Bideford, in the Daily News of 5th Febry 1850. Very little of this article was mine.”
(MacMinn, p. 72.)
we would earnestly call the attention of our readers to one of the most horrible cases of brutality which have ever disgraced the superficial civilisation of our time and country: we were going to call it the most horrible, but cases approaching to it in atrocity are so incessantly recurring in the police reports, that we hesitate to pronounce even this case unrivalled in those disgraceful annals.
Mary Ann Parsons, a girl of fifteen, said by the master of the workhouse1 to have been “strong and healthy, although not particularly bright,” was hired as a servant from the workhouse of the Bideford union, by a man and woman named Bird, in September last. On the 5th of January she died, of such an accumulation of wounds, mutilations, and other horrible injuries, that we will not repeat the sickening list as given in the examinations before the magistrates. On the Friday before Christmas-day, the evidence of a man named Morrish shows that he saw her standing in the middle of the room where the prisoners and their four children were; that she was ordered “to go into the slee house, or back house;” that as she “went across the kitchen” he “saw that her neck and shoulders were covered with blood, which appeared to have flowed just before” he “came in;” that about ten minutes afterwards the man Bird “opened the slee door and ordered her to wash the blood off her neck.” Another man named Hooper saw her the day after Christmas day, when she “appeared to be very ill: she could not stand upright.” He “heard her making a horrid noise after she got up stairs: she was crying, and making a ‘wist’ or ‘moaning’ noise as she was going up.” This creature had seen her repeatedly flogged by both the man and woman, and neither he nor the former witness ever interfered even by a word of remonstrance. During the whole three months that she was in the service of these wretches, she appears to have been utterly friendless, uncared for, unenquired after. Her mother, who was an inhabitant of the same workhouse, never once saw her, and was ignorant of her fate until made aware of it by the ghastly spectacle which the body presented when in the coffin. The only person who seems to have said anything about the girl after she entered their service, was the master of the workhouse; this man, meeting the woman prisoner, who after a month’s trial had told him that she was an “honest, good, industrious girl,” and hearing on this occasion some complaint, gave his advice to “properly chastise” her. The instrument of torture is said in the report to have excited the horror of the spectators; it was “a strong stick of about a foot in length, to which were fastened eighteen stout sharp leather thongs, about two feet long. This formidable cat was capable of inflicting the most cruel laceration, as bad as the army whip, and worse than the cowhide of the American slave owner.” With this it was that the girl was reduced to the state in which her body appeared. The man Sermon, who gave the brutal recommendation to flog this girl of fifteen, and who admitted that he had “punished children in the workhouse,” though he “never served a child anything like that,” declared that in the army, where he had served, and had frequently seen sentences of flogging executed, the manner in which this poor victim had been treated would not have been considered fair flogging. With how much of this evidence before them does not appear, the coroner’s jury, under the direction of the coroner,2 found that the girl died “from congestion of the brain, caused by external injuries, but how or by what means such injuries were caused there was no evidence to shew.” Fortunately for justice, the “means,” though mysterious to this “jury of respectable (!) yeomen,” were apparent enough to others. An application having been made to a magistrate, the culprits have most properly been committed to take their trial for murder; and heartily were it to be wished that the wretch who counselled “chastisement,” and the two base slaves who looked on calmly and saw—one of them the brutality itself—both of them its consequences—could be reached as accessories to the crime. From the report it would appear that justice might have been entirely defeated and the monsters might have escaped punishment, but for the clear, distinct, and manly evidence of the surgeon, Mr. Turner.3 Too many of this gentleman’s profession, in similar cases, give their evidence in softened terms, and profess doubt, from fear of injuring themselves with the lower class of their customers.
Our law, or at least its administration, takes abundant care of property, but the most atrocious personal violence it treats with a lenity amounting to actual license: even when death follows, the offence is generally pronounced to be manslaughter, and the criminal escapes with a year or two’s imprisonment. Yet whether we look to the torments inflicted, or to the depravity indicated in the perpetrators, the crime against Mary Ann Parsons is of far deeper atrocity than that of a Rush, who fires a pistol at a man and kills him.4 Rush intended death, but they intended torture, and inflicted death by torture. What the law is, and what its administrators thought of such crimes as this poor child has been the victim of, was shown in the case of the notorious Mrs. Brownrigg, who was hanged for murder, and has remained the traditional type of the worst and most odious species of murderers.5 Brownrigg flogged two of her apprentices to death—exactly what these people have done to this unfortunate servant girl. The question in law was not whether she had premeditated their death: it was enough in law and justice that she had carried diabolical cruelty to the point which caused it.
[1 ]Thomas Sermon.
[2 ]J.H. Toller, the deputy coroner for the district.
[3 ]Charles Colville Turner.
[4 ]James Blomfield Rush was hanged on 14 Apr., 1849, for the murder on 28 Nov., 1848, of Isaac Jermy (1789-1848), Recorder of Norwich, and his son.
[5 ]Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife in London, was hanged on 14 Sept., 1767, for the murder of an apprentice, Mary Clifford. She was known to have beaten her other two apprentices, but was tried for the death of Clifford.