A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

A hysterical woman yawning, c.1890, by Albert Londe (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

It was just after 8pm on 8 July 1907 – a Monday night in north London. Lamplighter Harry Mitchell, aged 33, had just left his home in Stoke Newington to light his lamps for the night. He lived in a top floor flat in what were somewhat euphemistically called artisan’s dwellings at 34 Garnham Street, with his wife, Clarissa Maria, and three children – a six-month-old girl, 18-month-old boy, and a seven year old girl.

Left behind, Clarissa was seen to open the front window at the top of the building – and to onlookers’ horror, push through her seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa Alice, who fell and became impaled on the spikes of railings that separated the building from the pavement. Mrs Mitchell then looked through the window to check that her daughter had fallen, before rushing back into the front room.

George Tilley, a mill foreman, was walking down the street when he saw the first child impaled on the railings. He ran over and gently lifted her off, before a movement above made him raise his eyes. To his horror, he saw the middle child, known as Frederick, only 18 months old, clinging onto the sill of the second floor window. As he watched, this child too fell ‘with a thud’ into the space between the railings and the flats, lying there clearly severely injured.

Jessie Abrahams, a local woman who was also passing by at the time, said there was a gap of around two or three minutes between the two children falling out of the window. She had also seen Clarissa Mitchell ‘very deliberately’ open the window wider, before throwing herself out – as though tumbling through space, it was later said. Her body was impaled on the railing spikes with such force that several men were needed to lift her off the railing.

The three Mitchells were carried by shocked onlookers to the nearest dispensary, on the High Road, where much to everyone’s amazement, Frederick was found to be still alive, although critically injured, and was immediately rushed to the Metropolitan Hospital. It was initially believed that both the mother and elder daughter were dead – but a more thorough investigation found signs of life in both, and they were taken to the German Hospital in Dalston. Although both were conscious, they were said to be in a ‘very critical’ condition.

The Mitchell family’s neighbours, hearing the shouts and thuds, and learning what had happened, were obviously concerned about the fate of the younger daughter. They broke into the flat, and there found the baby sleeping peacefully in bed.

What had caused this woman to take such an awful course of action? Mr and Mrs Mitchell were said to be highly respected residents of their local community, members of the Salvation Army, and hard working.

However, the 30-year-old Mrs Mitchell, who worked as a servant, but who when not at work was confined to a small flat with three small children to look after, had been said to have been ‘low spirited for some time’. This was another way of saying that she suffered from depression.

On her husband leaving for work one summer’s evening, she had decided she could take life no more, and had tried to take her children with her on a journey to a better world. Her only comment on being lifted from the railings was that her head hurt; her oldest child, however, told onlookers:

“Mother threw me out. I clutched the curtains, but they broke.”

The following day, it was reported that Mrs Mitchell had spent a restless night in the German Hospital, and had been screaming ‘almost continuously’. The little girl impaled on the railing had been far quieter, despite having been impaled through her groin; but her brother was in a far worse state.

It took a month for the woman to be charged with wounding her children – she was also charged with attempting suicide. The time lapse was due, simply, to her injuries; she was in hospital for weeks following the event. At the North London Police Court, she was committed to the Central Criminal Court for trial; she had only spoken once, asking, “Can I see my children?”

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor. (Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor.
(Wellcome Images, used under Creative Commons)

But her children were, a month later, still in hospital, and she was not permitted to see them. A doctor called to give his opinion remarked that he thought she was insane, and so the gaol doctor was asked to keep her under observation. Clarissa Mitchell duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 10 September 1907.

Here, new light was shed on Clarissa’s past. Harry Fullarton, the assistant medical officer at Holloway Prison, where she was held pending her trial, gave evidence that she was mentally ill, and had been for some time – ‘she is quite unfit to understand the present proceedings or instruct solicitor or counsel’.

He said that he had found out that she had previously been detained as a lunatic between August 1901 and March 1903, before being released in the belief that she was ‘cured’. At the time of her incarceration, she was already married and was caring for baby Clarissa; on being released, she returned to her husband and quickly had two more children.

To modern eyes, it seems highly possible that Clarissa was suffering from post-natal depression that may have turned into psychosis; the timing of her two severe bouts of mental illness both came when she had very young children in her care.

It was found that Clarissa Mitchell was insane and unfit to either plead or to take her trial on a charge of wounding. She was ordered to be detained at His Majesty’s pleasure.

And what of the family she tried to destroy? The baby, sadly – the one child Clarissa had not tried to kill – may have died; but the two she had thrown from the window both survived. The 1911 census shows Clarissa Alice, now 11, and Harry Frederick William Mitchell, now aged five, living with their father at 100 Rendlesham Road in Clapton.

Harry Mitchell, aged 37, was still working as a lamplighter for the Gas Light and Coke Company; in the census return, he had recorded the fact that he had been married for 12 years, and had had four children, of whom, one had died (I have not been able to ascertain whether this was the sleeping baby of 1907, or a child who had died prior to this).

Another hand had scrawled a red line through the details of his marriage, denying Clarissa her existence as the lamplighter’s wife, and thus, albeit unknowingly, denying her existence, too, as her children’s mother.

*

Sources: Belfast Weekly News, 11 July 1907; Portsmouth Evening News, 9 July 1907, Wells Journal, 11 July 1907, London Daily News, 9 August 1907, Diss Express, 16 August 1907, Old Bailey Online (ref t19070910-21). Birth of Clarissa Alice Mitchell, Edmonton, Mar 1900 (vol 3a 374); 1911 census on Ancestry.

Clarissa Maria Mitchell died in 1941, aged 65 (FreeBMDs, Windsor district, Dec 1941, vol 2c, page 869 – the location suggests that she may have died in Broadmoor, which was in Crowthorne and thus came under the Windsor district for registration purposes); Clarissa Alice, unlike her mother, never married; she died, a spinster, in her 80s (source: Civil Registration Death Index, on Ancestry).