The Bowden Murder, 1856

In this very sad case, baby Jane Bowden was killed by her mentally-ill grandmother Maria in 1856. Maria was subsequently admitted to Bedlam in London where she died in January 1860 (see Mental Health for more information). I have capitalised the first instance of each new person in the following newspaper reports.

Entry from The Liverpool Mercury, 2 January 1857 (and republished elsewhere)


On Tuesday evening last, the usual quiet village of Wing, in the county of Bucks, was thrown into the greatest state of excitement by the report that a most deliberate murder had just been perpetrated at Littleworth, in the parish of Wing, by a most highly respectable widow lady, aged sixty-six years, and what makes it appear worse is that it was her own granddaughter that was the victim.

The murdress’s name is Maria BECKETT, widow of the late Jonathan BECKETT, a brewer, residing in Littleworth. At the time of his death, two years ago, he left his property and his business to his son Jesse, for him to provide a home and maintenance for his mother. Since then, up to within a few weeks, she has remained living with her son and his family (he carrying on the business of brewer, butcher, and grocer), and receiving 12s. per week to do as she thought proper with. A few weeks back she went to live with a married daughter, of the name of BOWDEN, still in the same place.

On Tuesday, about three o’clock, she left Bowden’s house, and went to her son’s. When she got there the son’s wife asked her how she did, and if she was come to see them. She replied, “I have not been here since the shop has been altered,” meaning the grocer’s shop. She then went into the house and sat down. She then said, “I have come to see you, but not on a very pleasant errand (here she closed the parlour door, where some tradesmen were at work), for I have come to kill you all.” The son’s wife made answer, “Don’t say so, mother.” She replied, “Oh, I must do it. I am mad, and the devil tempts me to do it, and he has given me a razor on purpose.” She then at once took a razor out of her pocket and opened it, and caught hold of the son’s wife round the shoulders, and attempted to kill her with it. She (the daughter) then called out for assistance, and the workmen rushed into the house and took the razor out of her hand.

After being thus foiled in her attempt here, she at once proceeded out of the house into Bowden’s, and immediately took up a knife and proceeded to the cradle where Mrs. Bowden’s youngest child was asleep (Jane Bowden, aged 11 months), and at once commenced cutting the child’s throat, severing the windpipe in two, and in the space of three minutes the little innocent had ceased to live. Mrs Bowden at the time was upstairs, and, hearing the child scream, ran downstairs, and there she found her baby as stated. She immediately caught it up in her arms and ran to her brother’s house for assistance, but of no avail.

Information was at once given to the proper authorities, and the wretched woman was secured, and now remains in custody to await the coroner’s inquisition. Since she committed the act she appears to be very silent and thoughtful, and seems quite conscious of the fate which awaits her. No motive can be assigned for this rash act, as it has always been remarked that the greatest amount of friendship and kindness appeared to exist between all the family.

Entry from Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 10 January 1857


The inquest on the body of Jane BOWDEN, who was murdered at Wing, by her grandmother, on the 30th ult., as stated last week, was held at the Cock Inn, in that village, on the 1st inst., before J Parrot, Esq. After hearing the evidence, the Jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict of “Wilful Murder against Maria Isabella Beckett,” the grandmother, and she was forthwith committed to Aylesbury Gaol for trial at the ensuing Assizes.

Entry from The Morning Post, 5 January 1857

HORRIBLE MURDER [From the Bucks Herald]

On Thursday last Mr Joseph PARROTT, coroner, held an inquest at Wing, on the body of an infant named Jane BOWDEN, who was murdered by its grandmother, Maria BECKETT, widow of the late Jonathan BECKETT, a brewer, residing at Littleworth, near Wing, Buckinghamshire. At the time of his death, two years ago, he left his property and business to his son Jesse, for him to provide a home and maintenance for his mother. Since then, up to a few weeks ago, she has remained with her son and his family, he carrying on the business of brewer, butcher and grocer, receiving an allowance of 12s per week. The nature of this horrible crime will be collected from the evidence.

The jury viewed the body of the child, which was in the same state as it was when the deed was accomplished. Its appearance denoted that it was done with a determination of killing it, as its throat was cut in two places; one of the cuts, apparently was from ear to ear.

Jane BECKETT, wife of Jesse Beckett, butcher and brewer, deposed as follows:- I live at Littleworth, in the parish of Wing. My husband’s mother’s name is Maria Isabella Beckett, and she lived at Littleworth, in the same parish, with her daughter Ruth BOWDEN. I have frequently seen her, but was not afraid of her. She had for some time appeared very dull. On Tuesday afternoon she came into our house. I was at the time in the shop. I said, “Mother, you have not been here since the alteration,” and she replied, “No, I have not.” She then went into the house and sat down. I then went into the house and said, “You have then come to see us;” and she replied, “Yes, but I have not come on a very pleasant errand, as I am come to kill you.” She looked rather wild at the time. There was not the least reason for her saying that she was come to kill us. I said, “Oh Mother, don’t say so.” She said, “I must do it, as I am mad, and the devil tempts me, for he has given me a razor.” She then took one from her pocket, and laid hold of my right arm. I screamed out, “Uncle, come in, and take the razor from her hand.” I believe Ezra TRIPP laid hold of both her hands and took it from her. I then said, “Set her down in a chair,” but she resisted, and went through the house back again. I asked her if I should go with her. She replied, “No, I am better now, I can go,” and in a few minutes after I heard a scream from Mrs Bowden, and I thought it was my mother who had fallen down. She had lived at our house several months, and has never attempted anything like this before. She has lived with her daughter, Mrs Bowden, five or six weeks.

The Foreman – How was it that you did not think, after she had attempted your life, of not having her looked after properly?

Witness – I was so frightened that it did not occur to me that she ought to be watched, and she went and committted this murder. I never had any fear of her, but at times my husband thought she was not quite right in her head. I did not see her take the razor, but she said that she took it off the clock in our house. There was no quarrel between us when she left our house. We thought it would be better and more comfortable for her at her daughter’s, as they had no business, and we had. I went and opened the door, when Mrs Bowden was coming across the road with the child in her arms. Mrs Bowden said that she attempted to take the life of the child the Monday morning before.

Ruth Bowden, wife of James BOWDEN, carpenter, of Littleworth, in the parish of Wing, said – My mother lived with me. I have not observed anything very particular about her, only she was at times in a very low and desponding way. On Monday morning last she came down stairs earlier than usual. She came down about eight o’clock in the morning. She does not in general come down before two or three o’clock in the afternoon. When she came down on Monday monring she said she was very ill, and thought she must kill us all. I then took hold of her and placed her in a chair, and called my brother Jesse. She appeared as if she was in a fit; but she soon got better, and looked quite sensible. She then sat up until between nine and ten o’clock at night, and appeared about as usual. She did not take anything until about four o’clock, when she had a cup of tea. I then took her up some arrowroot to bed, and did not again see her that night. I did not see her until between seven and eight o’clock on Tuesday morning, when I went into her room to ask her how she was. She said that she was no better. Between two and three o’clock she came down stairs. I saw her come down; but she did not say anything. After sitting down in her chair for a few minutes, she went across the road to my brother’s house. I watched her as she went. The reason of ny doing so was on account of her being so strange the day before. I did not hear anything from my sister (Jesse’s wife), and did not see my mother come back again into the house. I was up stairs at the time. I went up directly mother went across the road. In about two or three minutes I heard my child scream out “Oh, mother!” I had left the baby in the cradle, and her brother, who was five years old, rocking it. I ran down stairs, and there saw my baby in my mother’s lap, with its throat cut. She was in the act of cutting it when I cam down stairs, and before I could get to her she had done it. I then caught the child in one hand and the knife in another, and ran out into the street with the baby. I threw the knife across the house. I then screamed out, and some one came and took the child from me. I think it was Tripp. My other child followed me into the street. My mother remained in the house all the time until I returned again, but she was in another chair. She appeared in a terrible way, as if she was in a fit, and seemed the same as she did on Monday. The constable then removed her into my brother’s house, and I have had no further conversation with her. She never gave me the least cause for alarm until last Monday. She has appeared very dull since my father’s death, which took place two years ago.

Ezra Tripp, bricklayer of Wing, said – I was at work for Jesse Beckett on Tuesday last, and at a quarter to three o’clock old Mrs Beckett passed through the shop where I was at work and went into the house. In a very few minutes I heard Mrs Jesse Beckett scream out for her uncle, Wm GOSS. I went into the house and saw the old lady standing up with an open razor in her hand. She had hold of Mrs Jesse Beckett’s right hand, and appeared as if she intended to make some wound. I then grasped hold of her and shook the razor out of her hand, and it fell upon the floor. She then went out of doors. I did not go after her, but went back again into the house. In about two minutes I heard some one scream, and I immediately went to the front door. I there met Mrs Bowden with the child in her arms. I took the child from her and saw that its throat was cut. I placed my hand over the wound, as the child was alive. I saw that it was dying, and I laid it down upon a table, and it died in about three minutes. I saw old Mrs Beckett the same day and was with her up till Wednesday. She said to Mr BODGER, soon after the death of the child, “that he had told her she would go mad, and that she knew what she had been doing; she had murdered the child, and she meant to do it; she had done it so that it might go to heaven, for the devil had told her to do it.” When she went to bed she appeared to sleep very well and talked very little. After the attempt on Mrs Beckett I did not think there was any occasion to go home with her to her daughter’s house; and before we had, as it were, time to deliberate or think, Mrs Bowden came running across with the child in her arms. I did not hear her say anything about killing herself.

Mr Wm James BODGER, surgeon, of Leighton Buzzard, said – I was at Wing on Tuesday afternoon last, and was told that I had been sent for. I went down to Littleworth, to Mrs Bowden’s house, and saw the child. It was quite dead. I examined its throat, and found two very extensive incised wounds. That on the left side was deepest and longest, and dividing all the large blood-vessels, which was quite sufficient to cause instant death. It is quite surprising to me that the child lived so long. I saw old Mrs Beckett. She was at the time sitting in the middle of the house, and breathing as if she was asleep. I said, “Oh, Mrs Beckett, this is a sad termination to our long acquaintance. I suppose you know what you have done?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “What could have prompted you to do it?” She said, “The devil,” and that she had killed the child that it might go to heaven. I said, “Where do you expect to go to?” She said, “Where I hope I shall not see you.” She then said that she took the razor off the clock, and that she was truly sorry for what she had done. Tripp produced the razor and knife. The knife was a black-handled one, and it appears to me almost strange how this murder could be committed by such a weapon. I have attended Mrs Beckett for several years. She was for a long time confined to her bed by hypochondriasis. She was in a very low, desponding way, and she told me that she did not think she would live long. I have seen her today. She has a very flushed face, and she stated that she appears as if she was in water, or water running up and down her. She is perfectly capable of conversation with any one to-day, and if any one was to bring her a razor she would laugh at them, and tell them that they would be as likely to use it as she would.

Job DENSON, constable, stated that he was sent for to go to Littleworth on Tuesday last. He went, and as soon as he saw Mrs Beckett, he told her that it was a serious charge, and that he must take her into custody. She replied, “It is a serious charge, but I am willing to submit to anything you think well to do.” Tripp then gave me the knife, which I now produce. Tripp said that it was the one the murder was committed with. There is one spot of blood on it. I then had her removed to her son’s house, where she has remained under the charge of myself and other constables.

Mrs Bowden was then recalled, and stated that the knife now produced was the one which her mother had committed the murder with, and was one of their knives which she must have taken from a box in the back room before she committed the deed.

The Coroner then summed up the evidence to the jury, stating the law upon the case as to the state of mind of old Mrs Beckett. They had nothing to do with it, as a higher tribunal must decide that point. As for the evidence, he believed that there was quite sufficient, and all that was required for them was to send this case to the assizes for wilful murder, as there was only one question, and that was – how did this child come to its death? If they thought it came by it through Mrs Beckett’s violence – and he thought there was not the least shadow of dout of that – they would send her for trial for wilful murder.

The jury then, without a moment’s deliberation, returned a unanimous verdict of wilful murder against Maria Isabella Beckett, and she was at once committted under the coroner’s warrant to Aylesbury gaol, to await her trial at the next March assizes for the murder of Jane Bowden.

Entry from The Times, Wednesday March 11 1857


Maria Isabella BECKET, aged 66, was indicted for the wilful murder of Jane BOWDEN, on the 30th of December last.

Mr WROTH was counsel for the prosecution; Mr POWER and Mr MILLS appeared for the prisoner.

The prisoner is a respectable looking old lady, who at the time of the occurrence out of which this charge arose was lodging at Wing with her son-in-law Mr BOWDEN. Near to their house lived Mrs BECKET, the wife of the prisoner’s son, and it appeared that on the 30th of December the old lady paid the latter a morning call. Mrs Becket welcomed her relative warmly, saying “Oh mother, you have not been here since the alterations.” To which the prisoner, whose eyes glared wildly, replied with a sad and solemn voice, “Yes, I am come, but not on a pleasant errand, for I am come to kill you. I must do it for I am mad,” and muttered something about her having been sent by the devil, who had given her a razor; at the same time she produced a razor from her pocket, and seized Mrs Becket’s arm. A scream and struggle ensued, during which the old lady said, “Oh! I must do it!” but a second scream summoned to the aid of Mrs Becket, who was far advanced in pregnancy, a neighbour, and by his assistance the maniac was subdued and apparently pacified. After a while she said she was better and went away, saying she could go alone. Although Mrs Becket had observed indications of a failing intellect in her mother-in-law since her husband’s death two years ago, neither she nor her friend accompanied the prisoner. On her return home she found the deceased, a child only ten weeks old, sleeping in a cradle rocked by an elder sister five years old. Mrs Bowden was upstairs, and immediately after the return of the prisoner she heard a shriek from the girl, and on rushing down discovered to her horror the old lady, with the babe on her lap, deliberately engaged in the act of cutting its throat with a knife. The injuries thus inflicted on the child caused its death in a few minutes, as her distracted mother rushed out of the house with it in her arms. When taxed with the murder the old lady said “I was forced to kill the baby in order that it might go to Heaven.” Both Mrs Becket and Mrs Bowden agreed in attributing this dreadful act to the impulses of insanity, and described the conduct of the prisoner for some time past as that of one labouring under a delusion, struggling with invisible spirits as it were, and whose intellect was failing. The medical man who had known her for several years spoke of her as hypochondriacal at times, and deposed that, in his opinion, the prisoner was of unsound mind at the time in question. She answered all his questions rationally enough, and had always taken to the child more than her other grandchildren. On one occasion the prisoner said to Mrs Bowden, she wished someone would kill her if she would not be hanged for it, and regretted that it was a sin to kill herself, and often expressed the fear that she would die in a workhouse, though her circumstances were amply sufficient for one in her class of life.

Mr Power having addressed the jury, urging that his unfortunate client was entitled to an acquittal on the grounds of insanity.

The Chief BARON left it to them to say whether they were satisfied by the evidence that the prisoner at the time she took away the life of her grandchild was in a state of insanity, so as not to render her criminally responsible for that horrible act.

The jury at once returned a verdict of Not Guilty on the grounds of insanity.