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:
400.: WIFE MURDER MORNING CHRONICLE, 28 AUG., 1851, 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.
This is the fifteenth newspaper article on injustice and cruelty by Harriet Taylor Mill and J.S. Mill, who had married in April 1851; for the background, see No. 303. An unheaded second leader, it is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article in the Morning Chronicle of August 28th 1851, on some cases of wife murder. This, like all my newspaper articles on similar subjects, and most of my articles on all subjects, was a joint production with my wife.”
(MacMinn, p. 76.)
in his recent charge to the grand jury at the opening of the Central Criminal Court, the Recorder said—
He was sorry that he could not congratulate them on the lightness of the calendar; for, although it did not contain any charge of murder, yet he was sorry to see that there were several charges of manslaughter, and also a great number of cases of personal violence; and it was very much to be regretted that, in a great majority of the cases, the violence was committed by men upon the persons of those whom they were bound to love and protect—namely, upon their wives.1
It is well that Mr. Wortley should have said thus much—little though it was—on this disgraceful subject; and it is to be hoped that the feelings which dictated his brief remarks will still be in operation when, in the course of the next few days, it may become his duty to pass sentence on cases of this description. But he need not have confined his observation to the present sessions; for every sessions, every assizes, afford proof of the lamentable prevalence of this class of crimes, and of the impunity, or next to impunity, with which they are passed by. Within these few days we have recorded, almost simultaneously, four cases of men tried, or committed for trial, on the charge of killing their wives; and among these the case of Edmund Curtis stood conspicuous, both in atrocity and in the flagrant inadequacy of the punishment.2 The wife, an industrious woman, had passed the day in working as a charwoman, to earn money for the husband. In the evening, according to the testimony of the woman for whom she worked, he came to the house, and the wife
spoke to him, desiring him to come home. He refused. She said his place was at home, and he said, “So is yours.” They then both left the room. He was sober. After they left the house—about three minutes after—I heard a violent shriek. I went out, and saw her lying across a low iron railing in my garden. He had hold of her over the left shoulder with his right hand, and was striking her on the head with his clenched fist. When I got out the shriek had ceased. I heard no noise after. I told him he would kill her, if he had not done so, and desired him to loose her. He did not do so. I called out William Kirkland, who pulled him from her, and she fell on her left side on the ground, apparently lifeless. I told him he had killed her. I called assistance. She was lifted up and put in a chair. She fetched three sighs and died.3
These were the facts; and now for Mr. Baron Martin and his judgment. He said that nothing could justify a man in striking a woman; that the prisoner “indulged in a very violent degree of passion,” but that he could “well believe” that he “did not mean to kill her;” that “no doubt, when this result occurred,” he was “sincerely sorry for it;” and that, “considering all the circumstances,” the “justice of the case” would be satisfied by imprisoning him for six months with hard labour!4 Such are the judgments which are to protect all the women of the country against domestic ruffianism; and such is the caprice which presides over the apportionment of penalties in English criminal justice. The day afterwards, in a case not more atrocious, the culprit was sentenced by the same judge to transportation for life.5 If Curtis had killed, in any similar manner, some other man’s wife instead of his own—instead of the woman whom, as Mr. Wortley said, he was bound to protect—there can be little doubt that he would have been indicted for murder, and probably hanged. The vow to protect thus confers a licence to kill.
Two of the cases adverted to in the Recorder’s charge have since come on for trial before Mr. Justice Wightman.6 In one, the prisoner was acquitted on the ground of insanity. In the case of Andrew Maclean also, the culprit was acquitted, to the disgrace both of the jury and of the judge. The report says,
Early in the morning of the 4th of August, the persons lodging in the next room were disturbed by the cries of the prisoner’s children, and their calling out, “Oh, father, let mother down.” They got up in consequence, and went into the prisoner’s room, where they found his wife hanging by the neck from the cupboard, and the prisoner was sitting upon the bed. The body of the unfortunate woman was quite suspended, and she was nearly black in the face. Upon the prisoner being told that he was a good-for-nothing villain for attempting to hang his wife, he replied that he would do it effectually the next time; and one of the witnesses answered that he would have done it effectually this time, if his wife had not been cut down. The prisoner was slightly intoxicated, it appeared, at the time of the occurrence. The prisoner, in his defence, asserted that his wife had hanged herself.7
The wife was not called as a witness, the reason of which appears from the previous examination before the magistrate—on which occasion the unfortunate creature, either from habitual fear or from the expectation that she would be given back into his power, exculpated the man, stating that she had spoken provokingly to him, and also that he had hanged her only in jest. Her dread of appearing against him was not surprising; for what would have been the consequence to her of having given strong evidence against him, in the event of his acquittal? But her testimony was not needed to show the state of the case, after proof of such facts as those contained in the above extract. Yet “Mr. Justice Wightman, in summing up, said that the case was undoubtedly left in some obscurity by the absence of the wife’s testimony. If she had been called, she could have proved distinctly how the matter occurred; and in the face of the prisoner’s declaration that his wife had hung herself, it was for the jury to say whether the other evidence was sufficient to justify them in convicting him of so serious an offence.”8 On this encouragement the jury returned a verdict of not guilty; and consequently the woman is again given in to the power of the man, that he may, as he threatened, “do it effectually the next time.” We scarcely believe that there is an offence in the whole criminal code of which a prisoner would have been acquitted, in the face of such evidence, except that of an attempt at wife-murder.
In default of the judges, it is for the Legislature to apply vigorous measures of repression to this growing evil. The baser part of the populace think that when a legal power is given to them over a living creature—when a person, like a thing, is suffered to be spoken of as their own—as their wife, or their child, or their dog—they are allowed to do what they please with it; and in the eye of the law—if such judgments as the preceding are to be taken as its true interpretation—they are justified in supposing that the worst they can do will be accounted but as a case of slight assault. It is the duty of the Legislature to teach them the contrary. There ought to be severer penalties for killing or ill-treating a wife or child than for killing or ill-treating, in a similar manner, any other person. A greater severity is enjoined by all the motives which ought to regulate the adaptation of punishment to crime. The crime is greater; for it is a violation of more solemn obligations—it is doing the worst injury where there is the most binding duty to cherish and protect. It is also baser—for it is committed upon one who has trusted the culprit, who is in his power, and who is generally without sufficient bodily strength to resist or retaliate. Those who are exposed to these atrocities—the wives and children of the brutal part of the population—have not the means which all other persons possess of guarding themselves against the evil. Other people are but occasionally and rarely liable to ill-treatment; but these are exposed to it at every hour and every moment of their lives. Being thus far more in need than any other persons of the protection of the law, they ought to have it in fuller measure. The domestic tyrant can perpetrate his tyrannies with the utmost facility, and need never wait for an opportunity; and a stronger motive therefore is required, where the brutality exists, to deter from its indulgence. Finally, there is no crime in the whole catalogue of offences in which the single act which incurs the penalty of the law is an index to such an amount of undetected and unpunished wickedness, and to so vast a mass of horrible suffering. Such a spectacle as the final scene of the life of Hester Curtis is unspeakably revolting; but what is the suffering of a few minutes, to the prolonged death which in every such case must have been suffered for years previously, and to the pangs of thousands of women in the power of similar miscreants, who have enough of caution just to stop short of the point which terminates the existence of their victims? There is not to be imagined a position so degraded, or so hopelessly miserable, as that of the women thus at the mercy of ruffians; and it is a deep disgrace to our Government that, in the fifteenth year of the reign of a woman, nothing has yet been done for their relief.
[1 ]James Archibald Stuart-Wortley (1805-81), M.P. 1835-37, 1842-59, and Recorder of London 1850-56. See “Assize Intelligence. Central Criminal Court—Monday,” Morning Chronicle, 19 Aug., 1851, p. 7.
[2 ]See in the Morning Chronicle the cases of Edmund Curtis, charged with the manslaughter of his wife Hester, and sentenced to imprisonment for six months with hard labour (“Assize Intelligence. Crown Court,” 15 Aug., 1851, pp. 7-8); of Charles Halliday, charged with the murder of his wife Elizabeth, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to transportation for life (“Assize Intelligence. Crown Court,” 16 Aug., p. 7); of Andrew MacLean (b. ca. 1814), a journeyman tailor, charged with but acquitted of the murder of his common-law wife, Mary Ann Watson (“Central Criminal Court—Friday,” 23 Aug., pp. 7-8); and of Robert Thomas Moore, charged with the attempted murder of his wife, Mary Anne, and found not guilty by reason of insanity (ibid.).
[3 ]Testimony of Jane Anne Wilkes, Morning Chronicle, 15 Aug., p. 8.
[4 ]Samuel Martin (1801-83), Baron of the Court of Exchequer from 1850, ibid.
[5 ]Charles Halliday (see n2).
[6 ]William Wightman (1784-1863), judge at the Court of Queen’s Bench from 1841, heard the cases of Moore and MacLean (see n2).
[7 ]Morning Chronicle, 23 Aug., p. 8. There were two children, aged eight (Lizzy) and three years. The witnesses were Mary Rigg and her husband Thomas, and Ellen Mayhew.