1844: John Knatchbull, moral madman

Add comment February 13th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1844, John Knatchbull hanged before an orderly crowd of 10,000 at Taylor Square in Sydney, Australia.

Knatchbull was among 20 children of a prolific baronet. The youngster fought at sea in the Napoleonic Wars but found himself in financial straits after demobilization and spiraled into a criminality.

Transported to Australia for an armed robbery, he there cultivated an extensive rap sheet — mutiny, forgery, poisoning his guards. It was a comprehensive Jekyll-to-Hyde heel turn: “all traces of a gentleman had long disappeared, he exhibited no evidence that he had been in a higher social position,” wrote a clergyman who visited him. “[H]e appeared to be in his natural place.”

So you couldn’t say that nobody saw it coming in early 1844 when Knatchbull, out on a ticket of leave, went

into the shop of a poor widow, named Ellen Jamieson, and asked for some trifling article. While Mrs. Jamieson was serving him, the ruffian raised a tomahawk, which he held in his hand, and clove the unfortunate woman’s head in a savage manner. She lingered for a few days, and died, leaving two orphan children … though an attempt was made to set up a plea of insanity, a barrister being employed by the agent for the suppression of capital punishment, so foul a villain could not be saved from the gallows. (Source)

This insanity defense was a then-novel “moral insanity” claim contending “a form of mental derangement in which the intellectual faculties were unaffected, but the affects or emotions were damaged, causing patients to be carried away by some kind of furious instinct.” That is, Knatchbull knew that he did wrong when he struck the luckless shopkeep, but he had no power to restrain himself. The court took a pass.


Sketch of the scene at Knatchbull’s hanging.

More fortunate of birth and temperament, John’s brother Edward Knatchbull, who was not only the sitting baronet but the UK’s Paymaster General, made good his vocation by arranging a donative to Ellen Jamieson’s orphaned children.

This family — the donors, not the orphans — remains among the peers of the realm, its vintage baronetcy of Mersham Hatch having been upgraded to a baronage in 1880. It’s currently held by Norton Knatchbull, who is also Earl Mountbatten (he’s the maternal grandson of the Mountbatten who led British forces in Southeast Asia, took down the Union Jack in India, and was assassinated by the IRA).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Public Executions

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