Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Brutal Husband Saved By Wife's Drinking

In 1863 a Vauxhall woman died after enduring a four year torrent of domestic abuse from her husband James Cavanagh, but he escaped the gallows due to her death being attributed partly to alcoholism.

24 year old coal heaver Cavanagh and his wife Elizabeth married in 1859 and lived in were living in Newport Street, off Boundary Street at the time of her death on 24th September 1863. Two days earlier Cavanagh had refused to call a doctor for her as she lay in bed with a wound over her eye that was bleeding after he had beat her and kicked her with his boot. When a doctor was sent for by her mother, he treated her for inflammation of brain membranes but did not express much hope of recovery.

At the inquest the following week Elizabeth's mother told how Cavanagh had beaten Elizabeth at least twice a week and often  she had washed bloodied clothes form her. He had often waved a knife around saying he would kill them both and even pushed both Elizabeth and their baby to the floor and kicked them after he had been out drinking. The coroner's court returned a verdict of wilful murder and Cavanagh was committed for trial at the next Assizes, which took place in December.

Prior to the trial the charge was changed to manslaughter on the basis that there were doubts that Cavanagh's blows had directly caused the death, as the inflammation of the membrane was also consistent with alcoholism. Cavanagh's defence team called a friend to say that his wife had fallen over while drunk and hit her head on a fireplace but this was disproved when Elizabeth's sister testified that she had been told to say that for fear Cavanagh would beat her again.

Cavanagh was found guilty but the jury asked for leniency on account of Elizabeth's alcoholism. Despite being referred to by the judge as 'of bad character' he was sentenced to what would now seem an extremely lenient six years penal servitude, but was probably indicative of a time when Elizabeth's drinking habits led to a belief that she got what she deserved.

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