Suspected murder at Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1878

Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1848 (ancestryimages.com)

Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, 1848 (ancestryimages.com)

On 27 June 1878, Thomas James Webb, an epileptic who was an inmate of the Gloucester County Lunatic Asylum, died. Webb had not been in good health, and it was believed that the primary cause of his death was heart disease, but a few days earlier he had sustained some injuries to his chest, and a post mortem found that he had many broken ribs and a fracture to his breastbone. The Coroner opened an inquest at the asylum on 29 June, which continued over a period of about two weeks.

At the inquest, head attendant Samuel Daniels said in evidence that on the night of 22 June, an alarm went off in one of the wards, and he found attendant Henry Collins holding Webb down on his bed. Collins said that Webb had pulled the patient next to him out of bed, and that he had with great difficulty separated the two men. Daniels helped to put Webb back to bed and then left. About 20 minutes later there was another disturbance and returning to the ward, Daniels found three warders now holding down Webb, who was on the floor, in an agitated state. This time a draught was administered to the patient to calm him down, and he was put into another room. On the next day, Dr Mackenzie, the acting superintendent at the asylum, pointed out bruises on Webb’s body, and asked Daniels for an explanation. Daniels had no idea how the injuries had been caused.

Dr Mackenzie stated that he and Mr Packer, the asylum’s medical officer, examined Webb on 23 June, the day after the incident. They both suspected that he had broken ribs. Four days later, Webb had died. Mackenzie believed that the injuries were caused by someone pressing on his chest, possibly by kneeling on it. In answer to a question from the Coroner, he explained that attendants coming to work at the asylum were told how to restrain patients without injuring them.

Mr Packer in evidence gave his opinion that the primary cause of Webb’s death had been heart disease and congestion of the lungs, but his demise had been accelerated by the injuries to his body. Questioned as to how violent inmates were restrained, Packer stated that it was sometimes necessary for attendants to use force to restrain patients. The use of “straight waistcoats” was much discouraged by the lunacy commissioners, and there wasn’t one at the asylum. Although Webb had been an old and feeble patient, it was true that when suffering an epileptic fit, he might have exerted more strength than he normally could. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had taken three attendants to hold him down on the night in question.

A patient named Cooke had been in the same room as Webb on 22 June, and he gave evidence at the inquest. He said that he had seen the attendants and Webb struggling on the floor, and he saw Collins stamp on Webb’s stomach several times, while the others struck him with their fists. George Powell, another patient, said he had heard a great scuffle, but he had shut his eyes and kept quiet throughout the incident.

The evidence of the three attendants who had restrained Webb was heard next. Isaac  Lewis said he had been a night attendant at the asylum for eight months. He had received no instructions as to how to treat patients, but rather he had learned from watching his colleagues. They restrained patients “as best they could.” He asserted that Collins had not stamped on Webb and no-one had struck him. David Rodway had been an attendant at the asylum for two years and three months, and had been at Barnwood (a private asylum) before that. He had received instructions on how to handle patients at Barnwood, but not at the County Asylum. Henry Collins, the other attendant, said he thought Webb’s injuries might have been caused when he fell out of bed.

On 9 July 1878, The Citizen printed an editorial comment on the case, concerning the way in which male attendants were recruited, and the lack of training given to them:

“It is in evidence that men, whose recommendation for the post of attendant is mainly their physique, have been made the guardians and caretakers of the insane, without any special training or instruction in their duties; the natural result being, if the statements of the patients themselves, along with the medical evidence, are to be relied on, a ready application of brute force in a case of supposed or real emergency, suggestive of systematic terrorism and cruelty”.

The inquest hearing resulted in the three attendants, Collins, Rodway and Lewis, being tried at the Gloucester Assizes for murder. At the trial, Mr Packer said in evidence that Webb had two black eyes after the incident, and after his death, was found to have eleven broken ribs – six on one side and five on the other. His breast-bone was broken, and there was a profusion of blood in the chest cavity. Although he had described Webb as feeble, when admitted to the asylum he was classed as a “dangerous lunatic.”

The defence lawyers pointed out that the main case against the three attendants was the evidence of “the lunatic Cooke”, which was contradictory and unreliable. The judge, in his summing up, made clear his sympathy with the three men on trial. He asked the jury how they would feel if they had been in the position of the attendants, trying to restrain a violent man who had just attacked another inmate. The jury huddled together and after “a moment’s consultation” returned a verdict of not guilty.

Three years later, a very similar story was recounted in the newspapers, when Walter Partridge, an inmate at the asylum, died, apparently of natural causes, but was found in a post mortem to have several broken ribs. A very lengthy inquest found that Partridge had been murdered by a person or persons unknown. The case caused a scandal and the Home Secretary became involved, as a consequence of which William Hawkins, a former dock-worker who had become an asylum attendant, was tried on a charge of murdering Walter Partridge. You can read about that case and its outcome in Gloucester Murder & Crime.

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