Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

Early 19th century portrait of a Bethlem patient

In 1857, the newspapers were full of breathless tales about one man, whose name changed according both to his desire and the individual newspaper’s disregard of the facts.

This was a man who lied his way across the Atlantic, who had deserted his young wife and left her in Bedlam, committed bigamy, and left his first wife destitute. Yet the press coverage described his story as “very romantic” and he was portrayed as a “principal actor” in a drama that was viewed more as a romantic fiction than as a real tale with real victims.

The man in question was called John Blair Wills, but he also used the name John Goddard. He may have received a more favourable press reception than some other 19th century bigamists (of whom, there were many) because of his class; this was an educated man who claimed to be a doctor or an architect – and was readily believed.

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

The non-conformist baptism register for John Blair Wills in Basingstoke

Wills had been born in Basingstoke in 1831, and at the age of 24, had married Mary Ann Maxwell. This came after a concerted pursuit of his intended, after the had bumped into her on an omnibus in Bath when he was allegedly a medical student and she was a 12-year-old girl (The Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857).

He had repeatedly asked Mary Ann’s parents to marry her from that time, and, understandably, they had refused permission. But five years later, when Mary Ann was now 17, they had met again in Surrey Gardens, and married in Kennington on 24 March 1855.

Mary Ann soon became pregnant, and, as the Daily News later reported, she became so ill after being confined – perhaps with what we would recognise today as post-natal depression) that she had to be placed in Bethlem Hospital. After several months, she was considered improved somewhat, and Wills was asked to come and get her. He failed to do so, and instead sent his brother, James Fenton Wills.

Then he did something beyond the pale. Bored of his wife, he duped Mary Ann into marrying his brother, taking advantage of her “simple and weak intellect”. James went along with the plan, telling Mary Ann that John had married another woman while his wife had been incarcerated, and that she was therefore free to marry again herself. Having no other source of income, and shocked at her husband’s alleged actions, she was talked into the marriage, which took place in August 1856.

Mary Ann’s friends soon found out about the wedding, and started an enquiry into John’s status. He then married Anne Good, in April 1857, meaning that both husband and wife had committed bigamy, and that Mary Ann had, in Victorian eyes, also committed incest by marrying her brother-in-law. When Mary Ann’s friends and family discovered the truth, James Wills abandoned Mary Ann. Left destitute, she was “thrown upon the parish, and received into the Lambeth Infirmary”.

 

The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

The bigamous second marriage of John Blair Wills

John Wills and his ‘wife’ Anne then fled to Liverpool – with John’s three-year-old son* by Mary Ann – and on 7 November, they sailed together on the Great Western ship, bound for New York. The Leeds Mercury reported that all John and Anne had taken with them was “some little luggage and a little boy”.

John travelled as John Goddard, describing himself initially as a surgeon, and then later as an architect. He and Anne were said to be aiming ultimately for Philadelphia, beyond the long arms of the British police. They seem to have escaped justice (a John and Anne Wills, of the right ages, were certainly living in Philadelphia in 1870) – unlike poor Mary Ann Wills, who remained in the workhouse infirmary.

She was viewed with sympathy, and received some financial charity from individuals; yet she also seems to have been viewed like one of the poor creatures in Bedlam who 18th century ladies used to go and gawp at; in December 1857, for example, it was reported that “the Marchioness of Townshend has called and seen Mrs Wills”.

Sources: Ancestry, Dundee Courier, 2 December 1857, The Bristol Mercury, 28 November 1857, The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1857, Leeds Mercury, 19 November 1857, Daily News, 16 November 1857, Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 November 1857

* The newspapers clearly stated that the child was a three year old boy; but there are records online suggesting that John and Mary Ann actually had a girl.