Today, stories involving people who refuse on religious grounds to seek medical help for themselves or members of their family are still to be found in the press. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, may refuse blood transfusions.
In 1906, a similar, tragic, story was reported in the press, but with little sympathy for the beliefs of the man at the heart of the story. Former Lambeth horsekeeper James Cook was deemed simply “peculiar” after he refused medical help for his two daughters, Dorothy May and Hilda.
The two girls had initially had measles, but then developed bronchitis and pneumonia. This terminology, the use of the word ‘peculiar’ to describe James was a play on words; he was a member of the Peculiar People, a name given both to a branch of the Wesleyan evangelicals.
James was originally from Norfolk, and was, at the time of the deaths, in his late 30s. The 1901 census shows him working as a housekeeper and living in Lambeth with his wife Grace, and one-year-old Dorothy May. He had married Grace West in 1895, back in her home county of Essex, which was the centre for the Peculiar People, its founder, James Banyard, being from Rochford.
In line with his religious beliefs, James had refused to send for a doctor when his elder daughter became ill; after concern from others, he was ordered by a judge to seek help, but still refused. As a result,first Dorothy, and then Hilda, died at their home in Ashmole Place, off the Clapham Road. Dorothy May was just six years old; Hilda was only 18 months old.
James was sent charged with, and convicted of, manslaughter. This followed an inquest, where James told the coroner,
“Gifting the Testament is the treatment. We are to do our part and the Lord will do His. Here are His promises. They are ‘Yea!’ and ‘Amen!’ to them that believe.”
He refused to accept that he had not called a doctor because he couldn’t afford one – he had been unemployed – saying that this would be to offer an excuse, when he didn’t feel one was required. If he had believed a doctor could help, he would have called one, but he felt that his trust in God was all that was needed.
The coroner, in response, had argued that it was not part of his duty to ask why ‘these people’ disobeyed the law, ‘but they must be prepared to bear the legal consequences of doing so.’ A doctor gave evidence that medical assistance would have done a lot of ‘good’ for the two girls.
Later, the jury at James’s trial at the Old Bailey asked for him to be leniently dealt with ‘owing to his having committed the offence through his religious belief.’
The father was unrepentant, arguing that “if I am wrong, the Book is too.” He sought to justify his actions, stating that the bible did not tell him to call a doctor, and he “wished the jury knew it [the bible] as well as he did”. Rather than calling a doctor, he had instead called ‘an elder of the sect’, James Whaley, to anoint them with oil and pray over them. The prayers, obviously, failed to work.
The judge, Justice Bigham, was not as sympathetic towards the man as the jury was; he reminded the jury that Cook had a previous conviction, from 1896 – an identical offence, after another child had died in the same circumstances. In that case, Cook had been let off with a warning, ‘which he had obstinately and persistently neglected’.
Yet despite this, Cook was sentenced to just nine months’ hard labour. The press was more sceptical about him than the jury had been, regarding the man as both odd and abnormal for placing his beliefs above his love for his daughters.
Sources: London Daily News, 17 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 11 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 27 June 1906; North Bucks Free Press, 30 June 1906