In 1887 a man described as a half wit in the press was found guilty of murder but reprieved from the death penalty.
John Anderson was twenty two years old and lived in a court in Roscoe Street with his widowed mother. He was from a very poor family, having been in and out of the workhouse and unemployed for some time. His widowed sister and two young children lived in a neighbouring property, and he often went without food for two days at a time to ensure they were fed.
For reasons that were never fully established, Anderson got into a long running dispute with George Mason. He was a twenty seven year old carter living in Gray Street, off Windsor Street, with his mother and father. The incident that led to Mason's death, described by the Liverpool Mercury as a 'diabolical outrage', took place on the afternoon of Saturday 23rd July 1887. Mason was stood at the corner of Jamaica Street and St James Street when he saw Anderson walking towards him from Park Lane. On seeing Mason, Anderson ran at him with a knife, stabbing him in the abdomen.
Mason ran away but Anderson continued to chase him until he sought refuge in a public house. A large crowd surrounded the attacker and he was detained by a police constable who used a baton to knock the knife out of his hand.
Anderson was taken to the Argyle Street bridewell and Mason was helped into a cart to be conveyed to the Southern Hospital. On being questioned Anderson said he had been 'ill used' by Mason two days earlier but he did not have enough money to take out a summons. The knife, he said, was on his person for his own protection.
Dr Wigmore at the Southern Hospital was concerned for Mason's condition and called for depositions to be taken with immediate effect. This was made in front of a magistrate, police sergeant and Anderson. Mason stated that they had fought on the Thursday night but that the attack on the Saturday was unprovoked. When challenged by Anderson about shaking his first, Mason said all he was doing was pointing at him.
On the Sunday morning Mason died and on being charged with murder, Anderson replied 'I done it in self defence.' Press investigations found that Anderson regularly attended congregational church services, and a minister told the press that he was considered to be 'weak minded and neither physically nor mentally a fit and proper person for the duties of this life.'
At his trial on 4th August, previous employers of Anderson said that he was weak in the mind, but the surgeon from Walton gaol was of the opinion that he was not insane. Witnesses who had seen the attack stated that there had been no provocation from Mason and the fact Anderson had taken the knife out with him was a major factor. The jury found him guilty of murder but recommended mercy. In sentencing him to death, Justice Day said that no jury could have reached any other conclusion.
Anderson's execution was fixed for 22nd August and he wrote to his mother from the condemned cell at Kirkdale gaol, saying she had been good to him and not to feel any sorrow. However, in light of Anderson's low intellect, with five days to spare the Home Secretary commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. This move was welcomed by the Liverpool Mercury newspaper, which described him as a 'poor half witted creature' who should be in a state asylum rather than gaol. He was however placed at the mainstream Chatham prison in Kent.