Mary Ann Reynolds was by all accounts a kind and affectionate mother to her four children. However, shortly after her youngest, Frank, was born in around March 1888 her mental health appeared to rapidly deteriorate.
Her sister, who attempted to persuade her to go to the doctor, described her as being “very strange in her manner, quite different to what she was before.” Mary complained to several people of experiencing a burning pain at the top of her head. And every so often she would knock on the top of her skull and announce “it is here” without further explanation.
The onset of her bizarre behaviour also coincided with her husband William losing his job. As a result the young family were forced to move out of their home and find a new room at 125 Judd Street, not far from St Pancras station.
Three or four months after their arrival in Judd Street, the landlord Robert Hough was woken by a loud knocking at around 5am on 9 August 1888. He ran up the stairs to find Mr Reynolds supporting his wife and baby Frank lying dead on the floor.
When the doctor arrived, Mary was sitting on the bed with her hands clasped, swaying backwards and forwards with her eyes shut.
“I clutched the baby round the neck and found it dead,” she suddenly answered, before continuing with her strange rocking movements.
Mary had scratches and a wound to her throat and two large bruises to the back of the head. A hammer and a pair of scissors lay next to her.
Beside the bed, the baby boy was lying on the floor with obvious bruising to the throat. He had been suffocated.
Mary was taken to the Royal Free Hospital and two days later tried to cut her throat in the middle of the night using a knife left in another patient’s locker.
When a police officer came on duty to watch over her during the day she told him: “I killed my baby, I put a handkerchief round its neck and squeezed it, I was loving it, I don’t know what I did it for. My husband was asleep and I took the hammer, striking my head with it, and that woke him up.”
She then exclaimed: “Oh, look, the ceiling is falling”, and asked if the officer would catch one of the butterflies fluttering about the ward. She also saw dogs on her bed and claimed to hear children crying.
The same day she was moved to Holloway Prison to be put under constant observation.
At her trial at the Old Bailey on 17 September 1888, her doctor suggested that Mary had been suffering from puerperal mania, a form of mental illness that starts in the days after childbirth. He also referred to Mary having suffered three broken ribs and inflammation of the lungs shortly before the birth (it is not said how these injuries occureed), on top of the worries of her husband’s unemployment, their financial difficulties and their change of accommodation. Two other experts also testified about her being of “unsound mind” at the time she killed her five-month-old son.
The jury found Mary ‘guilty but insane’ and – at the age of 33 – she was taken to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum.
Case details in Proceedings of the Old Bailey online, reference t18880917-824, and reports in the Morning Post, August 11 and Times, September 20.