Archive for April 8th, 2017

1819: Robert Dean, “rational incoherence”

Add comment April 8th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1819, an apprentice watch engraver named Robert Dean was hanged at. St. George’s Fields, Surrey for the murder of Mary Ann Albert, age four.

The crime appeared, on the surface, to be without motive. Robert was a coworker and good friend of Mary Ann’s uncle, Joseph Williams, and he also became close to Joseph’s sister, Mary Albert. On his frequent visits to the Albert family, he would play adoringly with Mary’s daughter, little Mary Ann.

On the day of the murder, Dean met Joseph at Mary Albert’s house and little Mary Ann sat in his lap for a time. Then Dean and Joseph left the house, but after they had walked only a short distance, Dean made an excuse to go back to the Albert residence. He asked for permission to take Mary Ann for a short walk, and her mother agreed. When they didn’t return, she went out looking for them and was horrified to see her daughter stumbling toward her, blood spurting from a deep gash in her throat.

Mary summoned a doctor, but it was too late: the child died within the hour.

Robert Dean turned himself in to the authorities several days later. Prior to his trial he penned a confession that offered a perplexing reason behind his terrible actions:

On Friday evening last I met a young man named Joseph Williams with whom I had long been intimate, at Mrs. Albert’s house in Jacques-court, Thomas-street. I had long been acquainted with a young woman named Sarah Longman, daughter of Mr. L. at the Grapes, Church-row, Aldgate; my affection for her was extremely great; I had for some time corresponded with her. A dispute unhappily arose; I wrote to her on the subject, expressing my regret at the unfortunate rupture, described the very great regard which I entertained for her, implored her to consent to reconciliation, and begged that she would write me an easily answer. She never replied to my letter. Her father called upon me, and wished that the connexion might be discontinued. These circumstances had an indescribable effect upon my mind; I was miserably unhappy, and was incapable for attending to my business, and gave myself up entirely to despair. I endeavored to prevail upon her to renew the correspondence. I felt that I could not be happy in this world without her, and was determined to leave it. Thoughts of a dreadful description entered my mind, and must have proceeded from the Devil. I felt that I should leave the world in a state of happiness if I could murder her, and determined to perpetrate the deed. I had been home from two days, business not being very brisk, and on Friday evening I called to see Williams, at Mrs. Albert’s. We both came out together and walked in company to the theater. We did not go in; I told Williams that I wanted to see a gentleman in the Borough, and should go that way. We parted and I returned to Mrs. Albert’s. After talking in a very friendly manner with the family, I asked for a knife and they gave me a case-knife. I took an opportunity of concealing it unperceived in my pocket. I shortly went out with the child to buy her some apples, which having done, I returned to the court. A sudden thought came over my mind, that if I murdered the child, who was innocent, I should not commit so great a crime as murdering Sarah Longman, who was older, and as I imagined, has sins to answer for. In a moment I pulled the knife out of my pocket, put the child down out of my arms, held her head back and cut her little throat. In an instant I imagined that I was in the midst of flaming fire, and the court appeared to me like the entrance of hell. I ran away, not knowing where I went or what I did; I wandered about in a state of distraction until I surrendered myself up to the watch-house.

In other words, Robert Dean, spurned by his lover, chose to take out his rage on a toddler, “who was an innocent,” whose family liked and trusted him, and who had nothing to do with the love affair at all. Mary Ann Albert’s mother was obliged to testify against him at trial, and the Newgate Calendar records that when she “beheld the prisoner at the bar, she burst into an hysteric scream of horror, and was for a long time incapable of giving her evidence, until she was relieved by a flood of tears.”

His guilt was never in doubt; for those who saw him at trial he “appeared to be in a kind of idiotic stupor” and “being called upon to make his defence, merely said in a wild manner, that he was not guilty.” (Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, April 8, 1819)

Dean’s disordered thoughts likewise governed his embrace of the death sentence; “his general appearance was that of a maniac, but on all subjects he spoke rationally, although often incoherently.” Did he fear to hang? The example of Enlightenment philosophers comforted him. “Why should I complain, knowing as I do that the change I am going to make is for the better? Where is Voltaire now? — in hell: where is Tom Paine? — in hell: God have mercy upon them as he has upon me.”

A cast of Dean’s head was made after his execution and phrenologists made a careful study of it. According to their findings,

Disappointment in love, aided perhaps by other causes, appears to have produced diseased action in the brain: and the different mental faculties are here seen acting like so many limbs of an automaton, when their different organs happen to be excited by external objects, those which are largest always taking the lead. Thus Amativeness, and apparently Adhesiveness, excite Destructiveness, and Dean first resolved to kill Sarah Longman. The little child, however, fell accidentally in his way, and his Veneration and Benevolence seem to have started into activity in favour of his young woman: he would not kill her because “she would have much sin to answer for.” Impelled, however, by the diseased energy of his large Destructiveness, he could not refrain from murder, but slew the infant, to whom nevertheless he had previously been tenderly attached. After giving scope to Destructiveness, his moral organs came into action, and he was overwhelmed with remorse, and gave himself up to the police.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

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