Monday, 31 August 2015

Domestic Tragedy at Crosby

In 1876 a terrible tragedy occurred in Crosby when a widow who was unable to get over the death of her husband killed two of her children before attempting suicide.

The background to the sad affair came about in November 1875 when James Morris, a 51 year old teller with the North Western Bank, died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Fairholme Road. The respected churchwarden of nearby St Luke's Church left a widow, Agnes, and five children aged between five and twelve. 

Agnes was well provided for and needn't worry about money, still  being able to employ a governess for her children. But she was so overcome with grief that she began to have delusions and talked about letting her children starve. Friends expressed concern at this and the fact she always had a vacant look about her and strange eyes.

When 44 year old Agnes took her eldest daughter Ada to a concert in St Luke's schoolroom on the evening of 25th September 1876, there was no indication of what was about to unfold. She was cheerful in her demeanour and on returning home bade goodnight to the governess Sarah Ilbery and retired to bed, sleeping in the same room as Ada and nine year old Anne. Two boys, James and Henry who were aged eight and seven slept in anther room and the other daughter Ellen, aged twelve, slept with Mrs Ilbery.

At 6.30 the following morning Agnes got up and retrieved a revolver she had bought some weeks earlier. She returned to her room and shot Ada and Anne, with Ada dying instantly. Agnes then went into the boys room and fired at them both, severely wounding Henry, before entering the governess's room and shooting Ellen, missing her. This last gunshot woke Mrs Ilbery who quickly got up and followed Agnes, who went back into the boys room and turned the revolver on herself. 

The shots that Agnes fired on herself weren't fatal and Mrs Ilbery managed to prise the gun from her, but when she went into the room where the two girls had been sleeping she found a dreadful scene with Ada dead and Anne barely alive. She carried Anne to her own bedroom and locked her in there along with Ellen and the boys  then sought assistance from the next door neighbour, a shipowner named Mr Tunnicliffe, who immediately sent for two doctors. By the time they arrive Anne had died and Henry was in a dangerous condition so he was immediately removed to hospital. 

With great difficulty, the doctors managed to remove a bullet from Agnes's scalp and she was kept at the house and attended to by a nurse under the supervision of police. Her sister Sarah Salmon arrived from Manchester to look after the uninjured children. When asked why she had done what she did, Agnes replied that she would rather see her children shot dead than starve and that the intention was to kill them all and then herself.

Agnes made reasonable progress over the next few days but she refused to eat. At the inquest on 28th September, held at the George Hotel, Mrs Ilbery told how her erratic and delusional behaviour had been going on for at least six weeks. She said that Agnes had removed Henry from school as the lessons were too hard and she had stopped going to church as she believed she had nothing suitable to wear. Agnes had expressed fears that everybody in Crosby was out to injure her children and began stockpiling poisons. 

A druggist from Dale Street confirmed that Agnes had been buying poisons claiming it was for rats, while Mr Tunnicliffe's daughter said she tried to dress Agnes in the immediate aftermath and all her clothes were beautiful, but she refused not wear any of them. Her sister recalled how she had received a letter from Agnes the previous month stating she must come to Crosby at once otherwise something awful would happen. On arrival, she observed how Agnes was criticising everyone in the village and arranged medical help, but her sister responded by saying that Sarah was undermining her and robbing her money.

The Coroner Mr Driffied advised the jury that they could only return a verdict of wilful murder and could make no decision regarding insanity. He advised that they could if they wished express an opinion over Agnes's sanity but it would be for the assizes court to make a final verdict. The jury then returned a verdict of wilful murder, but gave the opinion that the killings took place as a result of her being insane at the time. The following day Ada and Anne were buried alongside their father at Toxteth Park cemetery.

By 6th October Agnes was well enough to appear before the magistrates for a committal hearing. At the Kirkdale sessions house she sat motionless throughout, her face covered by a black veil. She was charged with the murder of Ada and Anne, the attempted murder of Henry who remained in a dangerous condition with a bullet lodged in his temple, and attempted suicide. Mrs Ilbery, Mr Tunnicliffe and his daughter, and medical men gave evidence and after being committed to the assizes, Agnes was remanded at Kirkdale gaol where the magistrates asked for every attention to be given to her mental state.

Agnes appeared before Justice Lindley at the Liverpool Assizes in St George's Hall on 11th December. She was again wearing a black veil and replied 'not guilty' firmly but quietly when the charge was put to her. The general opinion was that she had been a loving mother when well, but letters produced by her sister proved that she had been having disturbing thoughts. Evidence was heard from Dr Banks from Kirkdale gaol who believed she was in a state of mania at the time, although she was now quite calm. It took the jury just a few minutes to acquit Agnes on the grounds of insanity and she was detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. She was removed to Broadmoor and remained there until 1901 when she died of stomach cancer.

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