Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Criminal Career of Alice Dobb

Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum

Alice Dobb was not a particularly nice person. In fact, this notorious grandmother's criminal career lasted several years and only ended with her incarceration at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Alice, the daughter of William Adams and Mary Garnsey, was baptised at St Peter's, Tawstock on 11 Aug 1806. She was the third of six children.

Alice married William Dobb at Tawstock on 19 May 1827. Their first child, John, was born in 1828, and was followed by Anna, Elizabeth, Henry, Mary, Martha and William. All seven children were born in Tawstock. Her son Henry died at the age of three, but the other six grew to adulthood.

Sometime between 1841 and 1851, William and Alice moved to neighbouring parish of Fremington and took up occupancy of Brynsworthy Farm. Joining them at Brynsworthy were Alice's widowed father, William Adams, and a farm labourer from Tawstock named James Ridge. In 1852, James, the son of Thomas Ridge and Miriam, married Alice's daughter Elizabeth.

Then tragedy struck. Alice's husband died in December 1853, shortly after the death of her father.

Alice's first brush with the law came in 1855. Samuel May of Fremington had noticed that various articles had been disappearing from his locked barn. He "at length resolved to set a watch for the purpose of detecting the mysterious visitor." The culprit turned out to be his neighbour, Alice Dobb, who after using a key she had somehow acquired to unlock the barn, stumbled over the legs of one of Samuel May's labourers. A search of Alice's home recovered no stolen goods, so Alice was charged and convicted under the Vagrant Act, and sentenced to two months imprisonment. According to report in the North Devon Journal, Alice explained her actions by stating that she "must be mazed or mad or something." The article goes on to say:

The woman brought into those circumstances of shame is the mother of six children, pressed by no necessity to the commission of such an act as was clearly contemplated, and is moreover in a good farming business, occupying an estate of some 60 or 70 acres. The two sons of the wretched woman were present to witness the disgrace of their unhappy mother and their own, and some time after she had been committed, the eldest son (a nice respectable young man about 26 years of age, who had returned from service upon his father’s death to assist his widowed mother) came into Court, to try when it was too late to obtain a reversal of the sentence. He represented that his mother had been subject to fits of insanity, and they had been obliged to have a person, at times, to look after her. Considering that circumstance, which appeared not to have been thought of before, Mr. May would not now have pressed the charge to the consequence which could not then be re-called. The poor young man wept as be stood there, stunned by the ignominy his unhappy parent had brought upon herself and her family.
Alice served her sentence and by 1861 was living in Tawstock with her daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, James Ridge. In 1862, she was charged with stealing turnips from Peter Joce of Tawstock. Apparently she tried to convince Mr. Joce to not press charges as "she could not bear the thought of coming before the gentlemen." Alice, however, was convicted and sentenced to one month imprisonment.

More serious crimes were uncovered a few months later, when Alice was charged with stealing a skein of worsted. During the police investigation, a pistol which Alice had stolen from a Barnstaple shop a few weeks earlier was also recovered, resulting in a second charge. 24 yards of stolen alpaca were also recovered, and a third charge was laid. For these crimes Alice was sentenced to six months. The report in the North Devon Journal also alluded to the fact that Alice was suspected in a number of arsons.

Two years later, Alice was in trouble again, having stolen a quantify of muslin, lace, and cotton from Eliza Dalling of Barnstaple. The lawyer representing Alice stated "he could offer evidence that the prisoner was not in a sound state of mind, and that she had been confined in a Lunatic Asylum, in which place she would now be confined had her family the means to pay for her." The Recorder of Barnstaple, however, felt that he had no choice but to sentence her to 12 months.

Alice served her 12 months in the Barnstaple's gaol, and then returned to Tawstock to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Early one February morning in 1866, Alice decided to prepare some potatoes for the family's breakfast; potatoes seasoned with arsenic. Alice left the potatoes for Elizabeth to fry claiming that she wanted to see if her "old house was blown down." James, Elizabeth and three of their children immediately became sick after eating the potatoes. When James later testified before the magistrates, he stated that after vomiting he felt well enough to chase after his mother-in-law, but as soon as he caught up to her she blurted, "'Tisn't me, 'tis the potatoes have done it."

The doctor and the police were summoned. The doctor, Joseph Harper, successfully treated the family with emetics although they remained quite sick for several days. The doctor also discovered a few white crystals in the bowl the potatoes had been in. A chemist later identified the crystals as arsenic. The police tracked Alice to the neighbouring parish of Newton Tracy where she was arrested.

In describing Alice, the North Devon Journal used words such as "notorious" and "monomaniac." The newspaper noted that Alice's behaviour when she appeared before the magistrates was "very erratic." She claimed she was ill or that she was blind. When informed that she was remanded for eight days, she exclaimed, "I shan't last eight days longer." Alice claimed that it had been a case of accidental poisoning, and that she had been poisoned herself, however the evidence clearly pointed to Alice having attempted to kill her daughter and her family.

During his testimony at Alice's trial, James Ridge stated that Alice had been in the Exminster Asylum once. He further stated, "I have known the prisoner come down stairs and smash the window, and sometimes try to come down naked. I have seen her running about like a deranged person. At the best of times she never can sit down like a same woman."

One of the witnesses for the defence was Michael Cooke, a surgeon of Barnstaple, and a nephew of my ggg-grandfather. Cooke stated that as the surgeon of the Barnstaple gaol he had seen Alice on a number of occasions. In his opinion Alice "was disordered in her mind." The judge and jury concurred and Alice was found "not guilty on the ground of insanity" and "confined during Her Majesty's pleasure."

Alice was sent to the newly opened Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire, and is listed there in the 1871 Census. Alice died at the age of 71 during the winter of 1878. James and Elizabeth Ridge recovered completely and were still living in Tawstock in 1901.


Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, July 22, 1864
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, March 16, 1866
North Devon Journal, July 19,1855
North Devon Journal, February 13, 1862
North Devon Journal, June 12, 1862
North Devon Journal, February 15, 1866
North Devon Journal, February 22, 1866
North Devon Journal, March 1, 1866
North Devon Journal, March 16, 1866
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, February 14, 1866
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, February 21, 1866

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Deluged in Blood

I've written previously about the suicide of Thomas STEVENS (1782-1832), whose mother was first cousin to the Right Honourable John Lord Rolle of Stevenstone. An account of his death in The Annual Register describes how he cut his own throat and died in the arms of his wife, "deluged in blood flowing in torrents."

Far less melodramatic, and probably far more accurate, is this account from Trewman's Exeter Flying Post:
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, Thursday, 19 Jan 1832

     It is with feelings of grief to which we are at loss for words to give utterance that we announce the death of this gentleman. Educated for the Bar, he early displayed talents of a superior order, and having been selected by Mr. Courtenay, Recorder of this city, on several occasions, in his unavoidable absence, to officiate as his deputy, his services were thought so highly of, that on the resignation of that gentleman, in 1820, was invited by the Chamber to fill the situation in his stead. How he has performed the duties of it is known to the whole city. Indefatigable in the prosecution of these, he was ever at hand to advise and direct, and his instructions to the different Grand Juries, were marked by sound sense, a thorough knowledge of the state of society and its best interests, as well as of the law. The melancholy event by which the public are deprived of the services of such a man, is no subject for comment; that such a mind should have given way under, unquestionably, great mental excitement, is one of those circumstances that must remain inscrutable to human understanding, and should teach us all how weak and dependent, even at the best, we are. As a country gentleman, Mr. Stevens had ever taken an active part in the business of the district in which he resided, and long held the commission of Major, in the North Devon Regiment of Yeoman Calvary, in which situation, as in all others, he was beloved and respected. The deceased was 49 years of age, a remarkably affectionate husband, and tender father; a good and considerate landlord, and kind master. Possessed of feelings like these, late events in his neighbourhood had much distressed him, and threats towards one who designed nothing but good, preyed upon his mind. He had been subject to walk in his sleep, and it is imagined that having in this way quitted his bed, under apprehensions that the conspirators were attacking his mansion-house, and the servants (at that hour,) not instantly answering his call, he first fired a loaded pistol in the direction of the shrubbery, and with a razor cut his throat. This sad event, as will been seen by the evidence, took place at his seat,—Cross, near Torrington, about half-past one o'clock, on the morning of Saturday last, the 14th inst. On the same day, an inquest was taken before Francis Kingdon, Esq., Coroner,—when
     Edmund Herring Caddy, Esq., of Great Torrington, Surgeon, was the first witness examined:—Saw the deceased on Thursday last, at Great Torrington, his spirits appeared very low and dejected; saw him again on Friday, between the hours of 4 and 5 in the afternoon, he appeared still more dejected in mind and very low in spirits—he stated that he had not slept for several nights, and that his mind had been much harrassed; advised deceased to put his feet in warm water and go to bed, and that he would send him some medicine; deceased complained of a pain in his head, and said that his stomach was in a disordered state from bile; was again send for between the hours of 1 and 2 o'clock on Saturday morning when he found him dead, deceased was lying on his back in his dressing-room which was covered with blood, an open razor on his bowels, and a pistol on the floor; on examining the body found a large wound on the throat extending from ear to ear, which had divided the carotid arteries and the windpipe, the wound extended back to the vertebrae; of the neck, which must have caused immediate death, and which the cause of the death of the deceased; found no other wound on the body, nor any marks of violence; has no doubt that the deceased died by his own act; the symptoms under which the deceased has labored very frequently produces delirium and temporary derangement of mind.
     Thomas Sandford, a servant to the deceased; have observed my master has failed in his appetite for some time past, and that on Friday he appeared quite melancholy, that he was continually passing from room to room, and was so weak that he could scarcely walk upright; remarked to the servants the state in which my master was in; my master retired to his bed about 5 o'clock in the evening; about half-past 1 my master's bell rang continually which awoke me; wend down in my small clothes and Mary Elsworthy who had answered the bell called "he is killed, he is killed;" saw nothing more until Mr. Caddy arrived, who examined the body; is quite sure that no person could come into the house as he had himself secured the house, and is of opinion died by his own act.
     John Upstone, heard my master's bell ring about half-past 1 on Saturday morning; struck a light and went down to my master's dressing-room, and entered it with Mary Elsworthy the maid servant; saw the deceased lying on the floor covered with blood; his throat was cut from ear to ear; lifted him up with the assistance of Mary Elsworthy; saw no sign of life left but heard on laying him down again a rattle in the throat of deceased three times; saw a razor on the upper part of the thigh which was covered with blood; washed the body after Mr. Caddy, which was covered with blood; washed the body after Mr. Caddy, surgeon, had examined it; there is no possibility of any person entering the room of the deceased by the window; has no doubt deceased died by his own act; there was also a pistol lying on the floor, but did not examine it.
     The evidence being gone through, and the Coroner having summed up, the Jury delivered their verdict, That the deceased labouring under a grievous disease of body, and being delirious and out of his mind, had inflicted on himself a mortal wound of which he died.
     Mr. Stevens has left a widow, and two daughters, of tender years, who with numerous relatives, and still more numerous friends, mourn this great bereavement.
Thomas married Sophia LE MARCHANT (1798-1860), daughter of Joshua LE MARCHANT (1763- ?) and Sarah Susannah GLUBB, at Sidmouth, Devon on 14 May 1821. Thomas and Sophia had two daughters. Sophia (1822-1892) and Louisa Annie (1828-1868).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Gruesome Death

Trewman's Exeter Flying Post

For most of my English research purposes, the two most useful newspapers are the
North Devon Journal and Trewman's Exeter Flying Post. In my last post I wrote about how scans of the North Devon Journal are now available through the British Newspaper Archive. Another newspaper resource is British Newspapers 1800-1900, the result of a partnership of the British Library with Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. Until recently access was only available to institutions, however, individuals can now purpose a 24-hour pass for £6.99, or a seven-day pass for £9.99. And so, for the last seven days, I've been reading Trewman's Exeter Flying Post.

In previous posts, I've written about some accidental deaths in the parish of Merton, Devon, and recently reported on the accidental death of my distant relative, Mary Jane BULLEID (1828-1838). Both the North Devon Journal and Trewman's Exeter Flying Post frequently reported on inquests "on the body" of victims of misadventure. Perhaps the most gruesome in its details is this report from the Thursday, March 25, 1841 edition of Trewman's Exeter Flying Post:
FATAL ACCIDENT.—On the 16th inst. as a boy named Oliver, about 12 years old, in the service of Mrs. Petherbridge, of Pill, in the parish of Tawstock, was going with a horse and cart, in passing a gateway the horse started, and the cart being upset on the unfortunate boy, his head was crushed in such a manner that the brains literally protruded through the fissures caused in the bone of the skull. An inquest was taken on the body, and a verdict of Accidental Death returned.
The most likely candidate for the victim is Henry OLIVER, son of John OLIVER and Ann SALTERN, who was baptised at Tawstock, Devon on 29 Mar 1829.