This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.
“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.
It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.
In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.
The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.
That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.
Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.
Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.
Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.
A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.
* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.
Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.