A Murder at the Asylum

6 min readFeb 11, 2021

I recall, as a teenager, visiting patients at a mental hospital along with a few friends. Leavesden Lunatic Asylum, in what is now the outskirts of suburban London, had been first opened in 1870 and within ten years was home to more than 2,000 patients. I vividly recall walking along its dimly lit corridors breathing in stale odours of disinfected excretions, before ascending a double flight of stone stairs and awaiting the opening of the door to a ward of some thirty or so patients. Sitting in the high ceilinged room at damaged wooden tables we would talk and laugh and play board games for a while. On a summer evening we might take a group outside to play football. I felt sad when I thought of those incarcerated within its walls. I also felt something of the sense of security that was part and parcel of the experience that inevitably accompanied the confinement of the residents. I had no reason to think that they were not well cared for or that the life of the asylum was anything other than routine and predictable.

Yet I knew nothing of what had taken place there at the close of the nineteenth century.

The front of Leavesden Asylum

By the year 1899 Caroline Ansell had been a patient at Leavesden for four years. She was one of three sisters who lived in London, of whom one had died as a child. The third, Mary Ansell, had been living for some time with the Maloney family where she undertook housekeeping duties that brought her a very small income. It seems that she performed her duties thoroughly and was well thought of by her employers.

In April of 1899 Mary visited her sister at the hospital, taking with her a present of a cake she had baked specially. Caroline was delighted with the present and shared some of it with her friends in the hospital, saving most of it to eat herself. All those who had a slice of the cake became unwell. Caroline died. Phosphorous had been added to the cake mixture.

One of asylum wards

The staff, not surprisingly suspicious about what had taken place, notified the police who commenced an investigation. Meanwhile Mary made a claim under the life insurance policy that she had taken out on her sisters life. The policy specified that Mary would receive eleven shillings should Caroline die after six months and double that amount if she died after a year. The policy had been taken out just over six months before Caroline’s death.

The police were soon onto Mary Ansell. She vehemently denied playing any part in her sisters demise. So the police were naturally keen to establish whether she had indeed poisoned her sister and, if so, why she had been desperate to get hold of an insurance payout (which, in view of the unfolding case, was declined).

The background and evidence uncovered by the police confirmed that Mary was most certainly the murderer. She had written Caroline’s name on the cake wrapper and the handwriting matched another sample they obtained. They discovered that Mary had sent a gift of tea and sugar not long before and that Caroline had used very little because the tea had a very bad taste. They also confirmed her purchase of phosphorous which Mary claimed was for use as rat poison, although there were no rats at the house where she lived and worked. The existence of the insurance policy was of course quite telling: It came to light that Mary had a boyfriend whom she wished to marry. He was not financially well-placed, so the payout from the insurance policy would have been sufficient for the couple to pursue their wedding plans. It appears that the police did not reach any conclusions about the involvement of the boyfriend in the events that had taken place.

Mary was quite definitely the guilty party and so she was arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged for murder.

At this point, however, some questions arose with regard to Mary’s sanity and therefore her responsibility for her actions. Should somebody who was not sane really be put to death? One might also ask why, if there was a question as to her sanity, would that not be raised before or during her trial?

To address the question of her sanity Dr Forbes Winslow was engaged to assess her. The well-known, if somewhat unconventional doctor, became involved in many high profile cases where he put forward his views. On this occasion, because his opinion was not sought by the crown prosecutors, he was not allowed to go to St Albans’ gaol where she was being held, in order to see her. His assessment had to be at second hand.

So Winslow set out his investigation under a number of headings: Hereditary Insanity (a lot); Motive (not evidence of sanity); Behaviour at the trial (unable to understand the gravity of her situation); and Indications of Insanity (intense passion and love alternating with each other, mental vacancy at times, talking to herself, laughing for no reason). All good reasons to regard her as insane, he suggested. But then the doctor went still further because he obtained a drawing of Marys’ head and of her hand. The shape of Mary’s head, Winslow asserted from his knowledge of the science of phrenology, indicated that she was mentally deranged. Her hand showed “an absence of any marked head-line, and the weak and indistinct finger form and the general indecision of character are to be observed”.

In Winslow’s view at any rate it was beyond doubt that Mary Ansell was a “mental degenerate” who should not be found guilty of murder at all, but should be treated for her insanity.

The report that Winslow compiled became part of a very public commotion. Newspapers built the bandwagon to save this “weak-minded woman” from the gallows. Public meetings were held and Parliamentary questions were put to the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley. In addition the Chairman of the trial jury came forward with his own objections. He made the point that Mary Ansells’ sanity had not been questioned ahead of the trial and that, if it had been, he could say for certain that he and his juror colleagues would never have found her guilty of murder. In fact, given the circumstances they were placed in, he claimed that the jury had taken the view that a guilty verdict and inevitable sentence of death by the judge would be bound to lead to a reprieve.

In spite of the furore and the petitioning of parliament, the Home Secretary announced that there were no grounds for remitting the sentence. On a sunny morning in July 1899 Mary was hanged at St Albans’ gaol. It may (or more likely may not) be comforting to consider that the partial defence of diminished responsibility would come into play if the Mary Ansell case was heard today.

Brief and distant recollections of lives gone by and of the life of the lunatic asylum serve as a reminder that each day we tread the paths of others who have gone before. Their lives may be hard to imagine now, but failing in any effort to recall them puts at risk the possibility of understanding the full picture of lives and events that, in ways large and small, have shaped our own.