One Sunday afternoon in 1857 the village of Woolton was horrified when an elderly resident was killed by her son in law, who was later found guilty but insane.
In May of that year Ellen Molyneux, a 66 year old widowed milk dealer retired to Woolton and took up lodgings with the Moss family in Allerton Road. She was often visited by her daughter Mary and her husband Andrew O'Brien, who had remained in Liverpool and ran the Jolly Tars public house in Hanover Street.
On the evening of 30th October O'Brien was drunk when he arrived with his wife, who left to return to Liverpool, at about 4pm the next day. The following morning, a Sunday, Ellen asked her landlords for some whisky for him to have with his breakfast. She then arranged for a local catholic priest named Mr Kershaw to attend and O'Brien recited prayers loudly, causing alarm to Mr Moss who was advised by a neighbour called Mr Atherton to notify the police of his concerns.
Ellen to the two men that they needn't worry and O'Brien would be returning to Liverpool and she replied that it would be on the 6pm omnibus. That afternoon at 2.30pm Mr and Mrs Moss went to Gateacre, leaving Ellen and O'Brien, who was sat in an armchair and much calmer, alone in the house.
Soon after Ellen was last seen alive a neighbour named Ellen Kaye was passing on her way to chapel and heard a female voice saying 'oh dear' two or three times but she thought nothing of it and continued on her way. Margaret Collins, the wife of a stonemason who lived two doors away heard a knocking sound and did decide to investigate. When she went to the back of the house she saw Ellen hanging out of the window, her head and one arm covered in blood.
Ellen's brother Richard Gore, a local shopkeeper, was sent for and he fetched Sergeant Green of the Woolton Constabulary and Mr Kershaw, a local minister. They forced entry into the house at 320pm and went upstairs, where O'Brien had now laid the body out on the floor. He calmly said that he had 'done it' and was taken into custody, with the news being conveyed to Superintendent Fowler at Prescot, who would conduct the investigation and present the case to magistrates the following day.
After hearing evidence from neighbours and Sergeant Green 36 year old O'Brien was asked if he had anything to say to which he replied 'I was obliged to do it Mr Kershaw will prove my innocence.'Dr Cross then presented the results of the post mortem, which showed that Ellen was in a healthy condition and that the death had been a as a result of strangulation and severance of the windpipe. He explained that he had spoken to O'Brien at the police station and he had said 'the hand of God made me do it' and that he did not think the prisoner appeared insane.
O'Brien then spoke again, saying he was 'in a state never before after drink, the pictures all around the room moved and an influence came over me I was to do it. I would lose my life rather than take the woman's life. I would not take her life for all the money in the world. That woman was the same to me as my own mother and the only mother I had in the world.' O'Brien was remanded then formally committed to the assizes for trial after an inquest at the Coffee House pub returned a verdict of wilful murder.
The killing and O'Brien's appearance before the magistrates' court was reported in the Liverpool Mercury the following Wednesday. The paper described O'Brien as 'a man of dissipated habits' who was 'tall, athletic and excited but conscious of what was going on around him' as he stood handcuffed in the dock surrounded by three police officers. the paper also reported that O'Brien had been committed to the workhouse the previous August suffering from delirium tremens after attempting to drown himself at Bootle.
At the Liverpool assizes on 10th December neighbours again recollected the events of the day as the prosecution which proved that there was no doubt O'Brien had murdered Ellen. Mr Kershaw said he was in a state of agitation when he saw him, but Dr Cross felt that O'Brien was acting perfectly rationally. He also said that if the killing had been the result of any seizure, then the effects would not have worn off so quickly as he saw him only half an hour afterwards. With respect to any erratic behaviour by O'Brien at the magistrates' court the next day, Dr Cross believed this was being feigned. His opinion was backed up by Dr Rigg, who had assisted with the post mortem and been present at the magistrates' court.
The surgeon from Kirkdale gaol was also called to give evidence and he said he had not seen any signs of madness being exhibited by O'Brien whilst on remand. Mr Cleaton from the Rainhill Lunatic Asylum also said he had been asked to examine him on three occasions and each time he was well. However doctors from the workhouse hospital explained that when O'Brien was committed there he had an attack of delirium fox, which led to him becoming very violent and delusional, attempting to eat his arm as he believed he was being starved to death. Other doctors who had treated O'Brien at the Infirmary over the last couple of years also said he had been prone to delusions and sudden violent tendencies. A police officer also described how he had once found him kneeling praying in the street at 230am, saying he was waiting to be taken away.
O'Brien's defence counsel Mr Monk told the jury at the end of the trial that he had been on good terms with his mother in law and there was no financial motive for the killing, as any income from her will was small considering he owned two pubs. He pointed to the alarming religious chanting beforehand as proof he was not in a state of sound mind at the time.
In summing up, the judge said that O'Brien had managed to run two pubs without assistance, but the jury had to concentrate on his state of mind at the time of the killing and if it was capable of exercising any reasonable understanding. The jury retired and came back into court after half an hour, with the foreman saying 'We find the prisoner not guilty, that he was insane at the time of the offence.' There was a great deal of clapping in the court which took time to be quelled, then after it went quiet Justice Wightman told O'Brien that he would be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure.