Tried for Child Murder on a charge preferred by her sister, August 1818
THE following trial, which took place at the Surrey Assizes, in August 1818, exhibits, whether the charges which it involved be true or false, a degree of moral turpitude never surpassed in any case ever submitted to the consideration of a Jury in a British court of justice.
Mary Stone, aged 29, was charged on the oath of her sister, Harriet Hampton, with having wilfully murdered a female child of which she (the prisoner) was the mother, in the month of September, 1816, at Richmond.
The prisoner, who was a most interesting-looking young woman, was placed on the seat near the table, as she appeared too weak to support herself in the usual place where the prisoners stand to be arraigned. She seemed quite dejected, and worn down; her features, which were remarkably intelligent and expressive, indicated extreme anxiety and emotion. On being arraigned in the usual manner, and called on for her plea, she replied, in a faint but agonizing tone of voice, Not Guilty.
The prosecutrix, Mrs Harriet Hampton, a fine young woman, about 19 or 20 years of age, was then put into the witness box. On casting her eyes towards where the prisoner sat, she burst into tears, and exclaimed, with great apparent anguish, "O, my sister, my sister!" The prisoner fainted during her sister's agitation, but was speedily recovered; the latter after having been taken out into the open air, was soon sufficiently well enough to give her evidence, which she did with less apparent embarrassment than might have been expected. Her evidence was as follows:-In the month of September, 1816, I think on the 25th, I slept, as was my custom, with my sister, Mary Stone. About two o'clock in the morning she said she was in extreme pain, and shortly after she was delivered of a female child; it cried, and I wanted to go out and call in assistance, but she would not let me. Very shortly after the child was born, it might be about half past two or three o'clock on the morning of the 25th September, my sister forced her hand into the infant's mouth, and choked it, and then thrust the body into a pan under the bed. She afterwards threw herself on the bed, and got up in a moment as if to do something; I then said I'd cry out, and call for some body to come in: my sister replied, that if I attempted to do so she would kill me at the instant, and then kill herself; I was therefore so frightened that I desisted from attempting to give any alarm. My sister left the body in the pan on that night, and on the following one made up a fire in the room, and tried to burn it, but the flesh made such a crackling noise that she was afraid it would be heard, and she took it off the fire and replaced it in the pan. The next morning she took it downstairs, and burnt it in the copper to ashes -- she then cleaned the copper out, and threw the ashes on the dunghill.
On her cross-examination by the Common Sergeant, who was counsel for the prisoner, she said:-- I first told this story about twelve months ago, or shortly after I got married. I let it out one night in my sleep, and on being questioned the following morning by my husband, I confessed the truth to him; my husband is not here to-day. My sister kept the house we lived in at Richmond; it was a small house, having only three rooms, and being thinly partitioned, so that what passed within might be heard by the neighbours. My sister and I always slept in the same bed; my sweetheart then, but husband now, slept in the opposite room to ours; a man of the name of Davis Kenyon, and my brother generally slept in the third room. I never said that my sister, who was an unmarried woman, was pregnant before this matter took place. I don't know that anybody noticed it, for she generally slept in bed for a time before she lay in. When she killed the child I was afraid to alarm anybody lest she would carry her threat into execution of making away with us both. My sister used me very ill since this transaction; her ill usage commenced about a fortnight after it happened; she then threatened to turn me out of doors, and wished that every bit I put in my mouth might choke me. She disliked my marriage, though I never had the smallest ill-will to her, or expressed myself to that effect to anybody. I never said to Mrs Wilkes that I would ruin the prisoner, or that I wished her dead to get the £500 out of the Bank. I never said that as I was not of age I could not get the money yet, or hoped that she might die first. I believe we are entitled to £500 which is in the Bank; Messrs. Smith and Walton are the trustees for my brother, sister, and self. My brother told my husband of our having this property, but I never mentioned it to him, because I did not know exactly how the money stood. My sister had a child before this last, it is a grown boy, has always lived with her, and she treats it well; she reduced her last child's bones to ashes, and threw the ashes on the dunghill. This is what I said before the magistrate.
The case for the prosecution being closed, the prisoner was called on for her defence, but she declined saying anything. The following witnesses were called in her behalf:--
Mrs Elizabeth Wilkes said, that in September, 1816, she lived at Trentham, where she knew the prosecutrix, but not the prisoner. Her husband worked with her in shoe-making. Witness repeatedly heard the prosecutrix wish for her sister's (the prisoner's) death; saying on such occasions, that she wanted her money. She remembered her saying on one particular occasion, "I wish she was dead, for then I would have the money, and my husband and I could get into business on our own account." About three weeks after the marriage of Harriet Hampton, she complained to witness, that the prisoner demanded 3s. a week from her husband for the time his wife had lived with her before she knew him; and she added, "I am afraid she will get the amount from the trustee, Mr Smith, who is her friend."
Mr Walton, of Kingston, proved that he was a trustee under the will now produced, by which £500 was bequeathed to the prisoner, her brother, and sister, with the benefit of survivorship. The married sister was not yet of age.
Mr Justice Abbott, who presided as judge on this extraordinary trial, in his charge to the jury, observed, that the consideration to which their attention was now called, presented, in whatever way it could he viewed, one of the most melancholy instances of human depravity which the mind could well conceive. If they believed the witness for the prosecution, they must convict the prisoner of the foul and horrible crime of the murder of her own new-born child; if they disbelieved her, they must decide that one of two sisters had falsely and infamously conspired against the life of the other, in the shocking expectation of thereby coming a short time sooner to the possession of some small property than she was likely to do in the usual course of things. In either alternative the reflection was most revolting. The story, as related by the prisoner's sister, undoubtedly went to show, that she herself had not acted as she ought if her own statement were correct, for she not only, by her own confession, was present at the murder, but had refrained from giving the slightest alarm, and also concealed it for the long period which had intervened between the alleged commission of the act, and the time when she gave the information. It was for the jury to say whether, taking the story altogether, they could look upon it as entitled to their credence. Nothing was surely more improbable than to believe that a woman in a small house like the prisoner's, with every little room at the moment occupied, and the thin partition so communicating with the adjoining houses that what passed in one was audible in the other -- nothing, he repeated, could be more improbable than that a woman should have, without making the smallest noise, or expressing the slightest pain, so as to be audible outside her room, have borne the generally severe and acute pains of childbirth. There was not, besides, the smallest evidence to show that anybody had seen the prisoner in a state of pregnancy before this occurrence was said to have taken place, and it was most unlikely that an unmarried woman could have evaded observation in such a state. If the body were burned in the manner described, how had it happened that the very offensive effluvia arising from such a process had never attracted the notice of anybody in this small house? Taking the whole statement together, it stood unconfirmed by the testimony which might, were it true, be adduced in its support. The learned Judge concluded by observing to the Jury, that if the prisoner had really committed the act in the manner described, nothing was more unlikely than that she should have quarrelled, and almost immediately after the fact, with the person who balanced her life in her hands.
The Jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict of Not Guilty, and the poor unhappy young woman was restored to her anxious friends, amidst the heartfelt sympathies of a numerous auditory, who had one and all shuddered with horror during the whole time that the revolting details of the accusation were in progress.