Maria Beckett: From Madness to Murder and Back Again

Maria Beckett was the widow of a well-known brewer in Buckinghamshire, England. at 66 years old, she lived between various children. She was regarded as an intelligent, kind and generally well-respected member of the local community.

When her husband died in 1854, his business passed to their son with the provision for an allowance for Maria. 12s a week, in 1855 this was roughly two days wages for a skilled labourer and equates to about £46 in 2021. A highly skilled non-graduate administrator currently earns around £70 per day (after deductions)

By all accounts, her relationship with her children was remarkably close and loving. She lived with her son however two weeks prior to these events moved in with her daughter.

On an afternoon in December 1855, she called at her sons’ property and was greeted by Jane Beckett, her daughter-in-law. There were tradesman present as the home was also the brewery and shop. They moved into the parlour where Maria closed the door and told her daughter-in-law “I have come to kill you”, she produced a razor and went about her stated task.

She managed to deliver wounds to Jane’s arms and chest, all of which were superficial before the workmen outside, hearing the racket entered the parlour and restrained Maria. The razer removed, Maria seemed to settle and left the property. She returned home to her daughter’s where she took a knife and cut the throat of her eleven month old granddaughter.

The trial was swift, Maria’s advocate very effectively demonstrated insanity. Maria was condemned, not to prison, but to the Bethlem Hospital for the Insane, Bedlam!

Was Maria insane?
It would be impossible to ascertain this given the time that has passed and the records that remain. It is also an extremely subjective question in terms of period. Currently in the United Kingdom definition of what was called insanity is made using the Mental Health Act (1983) and tools such as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM). Her actions certainly deviated from social norms then and now. She reported being instructed to kill by the devil however it was never explored how the devil was communicating with her. Intrusive thoughts or command hallucinations would be an indicator of insanity.

In her provisional assessment at Bedlam, it is stated she lived “a clean and sober life”. Which I take to mean was not prone to excess alcohol intake or sexual promiscuity. Syphilis being endemic at the time and associated with violent mental disturbance. There is also no mention of tell-tale lesions. Honestly, whatever your opinion on medical practice in the nineteenth century, they knew what syphilis and the associated psychosis looked like.

Sixty-Six was not an unusual age to start developing symptoms of dementia. However, this is usually a chronic deterioration. Its unlikely to present with a single violent delirium and then pass.

In her admission assessment to Bedlam, it was stated that she had been in poor physical health since the death of her husband two years previously. Bereavement and its associated stress and depression can have some extremely manifestations and largely went unsupported, particularly in a time before the welfare state when mental health and criminality were considered largely the same thing.  A psychosis off the back of this is entirely possible. Or simply the stress of being dispossessed.

Finally, when a patient over the age of sixty-five presents to hospital with a new psychosis today, one of the first avenues explored would infection. Something as simple as a urinary tract infection can cause the most profound and violent delirium and once resolved leave no evidence of any mental disorder.

The cause could be any of the above or none of them. An attempt by a mother to kill her son’s wife is not a particularly new narrative. However, in failing to do this then leaving and killing her daughter’s child. A baby with whom she was reported as being extremely close offers less of a logical motive. So, I am absolutely inclined towards agreement in the diagnosis of “insanity” at the specific time of the crime.

Her patient records suggest she showed no sign of any mental disorder during the remaining two years of her life in Bedlam. She did say, whilst being held prior to trial that she wished they would just hang her, she could not bare being insane. A local “medical man” who knew Maria reported that she had been low in mood since the death of her husband and prone to hypochondria.

What I found interest here was that, despite the diagnosis and treatment of specific mental disorder was radically different, they were exploring a lot of the questions we would today in analysis of mental capacity in the context of what we call the Causative Nexus and concluded related to criminal culpability that a court today would.  

What was Belam like in 1855
Maria was admitted to Bedlam with several others who stood trial for murder but were acquitted on the grounds of insanity. All of these were male, all under the age of thirty-five. This is also roughly the time Bedlam was the subject of intense scandal, even by the standards of Victorian Society.

Ann Morley had been admitted to Bedlam in 1850. She spent her two-month admission in the basement of the hospital. After her discharge she was soon admitted to the Northampton Lunatic Asylum where she came under the care of Dr Nesbitt. He found her to be skeletally thin, too weak to sit up, she had a collapsed uterus and anus with extensive marking and flea bites all over her body. Her recovery under Dr Nesbitt was prolonged but eventually she recovered from the mutism caused by the trauma she experienced at Bedlam and began to speak. She said that on her first night her “keeper” had given her a black eye; she was chained to the floor and unable to stand and routinely soaked with freezing water despite being obviously unwell. Her allegations were taken to the Lunatics Commission, a body governing asylums in the UK at the time. They undertook an enquiry that found patients were admitted to the basement for the purposes of abuse, caustic substances were put on their skin, they were often sexually assa++ulted, and some patients were left paralysed after sustained assaults. The lead physician at the time very rarely attended the hospital and prescribed barbaric and antiquated treatments. He was described in the report as “incompetent as both a physician in charge and as a man of medicine”. Whilst a great number of hospital staff were dismissed as a result of this report none were subject to criminal charges.

Maria was admitted during the enquiry period. Increased scrutiny hopefully would have resulted in better practices however she certainly would not have experienced the sweeping renovation in standards seen at Bedlam before her death in 1860.

Some Reflections

I found it interesting to look at the interface between crime and mental health 150 years ago and compare it to our current system. Whilst I was able to obtain a summary of the Bethlem Report by the Lunatics Commission the full report has yet to be digitised and is thus inaccessible due to CoVID-19 lockdown. I do however intend to obtain a copy as I think there is more to reflect on here.

In numerous reports, Maria has her educational level cited as “imperfect” and she is once recorded as an imbecile in her medical records. This has left me uncomfortably questioning if Maria may have what we now call a Learning Disability however I am unconvinced. She was able to assist with the general work in her husbands’ shop, this would have included business level literacy and mathematics. There is no evidence she was unable to manager her own care needs and despostitions about her character before the murder often refer to her as intelligent. There is no conclusive evidence either way and whilst the term imbecile was used in the nineteenth century to describe these conditions, I do not think she would satisfy modern diagnostic criteria. Bethlem is the origin story of every tale you have seen represented in literature or on screen of an asylum that borders on hell itself. There are few such institutions of merit even by the standards of the time, but Bedlam was something else entirely. Even if Maria were not subject to the abuse patients like Ann Morley underwent you have got to ask yourself what impact that environment would have on someone approaching seventy, in poor health, who has just taken the life of an infant. These were not places of healing.

3 comments

  1. That was so interesting, now I want to know more. It was a very strange case. Thank you

  2. Hi Brilliant report, Maria was my 5x Great Grandmother, you cant change the past aye!

    1. Amazing! I hope I haven’t done Maria or your family a disservice. These events fascinated me. Due to a flurry of cases like Maria’s, and the events at Bedlam at the time this was the beginning of a renaissance in our understanding of mental health and it’s interface with criminal justice in Britain. We still haven’t quite gotten it right now but this is where it all started.

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