Thursday, 1 November 2007

A Grisly Murder

It seems that Frederick may have escaped lightly given the murderous potential of his headmaster Reverend Watson. The flogging he received as a schoolboy of Stockwell Grammar School was enough for him to make an untimely graduation. The brutal birching and its result, compounded by a certain Sergeant Tully, make Frederick witness to the passion responsible for a rather 'Victorian' trunk murder.

Well-versed and published in the Classics, the long-time headmaster John Selby Watson murdered his wife, Anne Watson on 8th October 1871. The case was not without considerable legal controversy, as Brooks recounts but his recall of the case details, may reflect a certain confusion that often infiltrates public and media fascination.

The number of pupils at Stockwell Grammar had fallen by 1870 and the governors were forced to give the 66 year old master notice. De Loriol says of the couple:

"...they moved to 28 St Martin’s Lane, a short walk from the school in Stockwell. Gradually, Anne became shrewish, taking to the bottle and ranting at the staff and sometimes at her husband.

He contented himself with the knowledge that, during his tenure as headmaster, the school had thrived; some students even attaining national prominence. His charges also respected him as he was one of the few masters of the age who didn’t believe in corporal punishment, preferring to encourage his students."

This is laughably at odds with the evidence of Frederick's assault and, in any case, Mrs Watson was unlucky enough to come to a singularly grisly end. Although described as having ‘rather hasty temperament’, to be difficult, quarrelsome, or, alternatively, 'a holy terror who drove her husband batty with her black moods and fierce temper', it seems the Rev. Watson, in actual fact, was more than willing to reciprocate by 'beating his wife's head to a jelly'. The weapon of choice was the butt of a pistol discovered in Watson's dressing table.

One failed suicide attempt, a confession note and the discovery of the body by his faithful servant Ellen Pyne led to a trial at the Old Bailey from which he did indeed escape hanging at Horsemonger's by the intervention of the Home Secretary. The details of the trunk and Watson's final demise are various. Whether 'temporary insanity' or 'melancholia' were truly acceptable as a defence, the census of 1881 finds him at Parkhurst Prison, a mere three years before successful suicide down a stair well, fall from a hammock or death by natural causes.

Martin J. Wiener Judges v. Jurors: Courtroom Tensions in Murder Trials and the Law of Criminal Responsibility in Nineteenth-Century England
Gregg Manning Male murders
Nene Adams The Year Round: A Victorian Miscellany
Marilyn Stasio He Did, She Howled
Penny Illustrated Paper, 1871

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