A Mind “Different From the Minds of Other People”

Catherine Jones carried baby Sarah over to the fire to warm her for a few minutes but a short time later her husband William took the child from her and returned her to the cradle.

The baby was dead, tongue blackened and eyes dilated, and Catherine confessed to her servant that she had smothered her by putting her fingers over her mouth and squeezing her nose. She would give the whole world to have little Sarah back.

William Jones had left his wife alone in the kitchen of the family farmhouse at Llanllyfni, near Caernarfon, while he went into the garden but returned quickly to the house when his servant Ellen called him to say that Catherine was no longer there. It was ten minutes before they noticed her coming in by the back door and went down to meet her. The little girl, eighteen months old, was in her arms and Ellen could see she was dead. She ran to fetch a neighbour.

Catherine, 33, was tried for murder at Caernarfon in July 1878 where she was acquitted on the grounds of insanity after “abundant evidence had been called showing that the prisoner’s mind was different from the minds of other people”.[1] She was returned to Caernarfon Gaol and in September taken from there to Broadmoor Asylum.


A diagnosis of melancholia

William Jones had sought medical help for his wife at least six months before Sarah’s death when Dr Morris Davies diagnosed melancholia and prescribed some medicine as well as recommending a change of scene. The doctor had no doubt that her mind was affected at the time. But even before this Catherine had complained to a neighbour that there was “something rising severely up into her head” and that she was unable to sleep. She had attacked her husband when he suggested getting a woman to stay at the farm to look after her.

Servants and neighbours, giving evidence at the trial, all said they had noticed a serious change in Catherine just before Christmas 1877. Ann Williams, who lived near to the farm, had known her for ten years and told the court that Catherine had always been very kind to her children. Yet she once told Ann that she taken a razor to Sarah’s neck and only stopped cutting when the sight of blood frightened her. Noticing with alarm a slight cut on the child’s neck Ann cared for the child herself for nine weeks. Catherine had also spoken of putting her older daughter, then 3 years old, “over head into the water butt” but this story was shown to be untrue, the child had been ill in bed for three days at the time.


“Will my dress last forever…”?

It seems Catherine became pre-occupied with being poor and unable to buy food or clothing although it was generally understood the family were comfortably off and had everything they could possibly need in the house. She asked a neighbour whether her dress would last forever because she could never afford to buy another one and told a childhood friend, who was making plans to come over from Festiniog to celebrate Christmas with the Jones family, that there was nothing to eat in the house. “It’s very sober here and there is no place for you to lay your head”.

The servant Ellen had only been in service at the farm for three months before Sarah’s death. William Jones had warned her that his wife was “different from other women” and she soon saw for herself. Catherine would not prepare food for anyone in the house, complained always of poverty and never went outside the house.

A succession of witnesses spoke of Catherine variously as “low-spirited”, “wild” and “quite deranged”. Her lawyer thought it quite unnecessary to address the jury and, after a brief consultation, they acquitted her of murder.

Catherine seems to have displayed classic symptoms of puerperal psychosis, a severe mental illness which accounted for the admissions of one in ten of the women of child-bearing years admitted to the old asylums between 1875 and 1924 (see Tschinkel et al, 2007). The most dramatic form happened in women who had never had a hint of mental illness before who, like Catherine, were stably married and well-placed.[2]

She remained at Broadmoor for less than a year before her husband’s efforts to have her transferred to Denbigh Asylum were rewarded and, after just ten months there, Catherine was discharged fully recovered and returned to her family at Llanllyfni.


“Rwyf yn euog” 

But matters could have gone very differently. Catherine was unable to speak English and, through an interpreter, pleaded guilty to willful murder when she first appeared in court at Caernarfon. She was promptly advised by the Lord Justice not to plead guilty unless she had known what she was doing when she killed her child. On learning that Catherine was not defended, the judge called William Jones into court to ask why he had not provided a defence for his wife. William replied that he did not have the means to pay for counsel, he was only a small farmer paying rent and he had been advised that it would be better not to engage a lawyer. This appears to have angered the judge who responded: “Well, then, now I tell him otherwise, remind him of what he swore when he married her”. [3] William went off to obtain legal advice and the case was adjourned to give counsel time to get up a case.

Catherine’s inability to speak or understand English presented problems for her at Broadmoor.[4] Having no other language than Welsh she was unable to communicate with any of the staff and concerns were raised with the Home Secretary who wrote to Dr William Orange, Superintendent at Broadmoor, for clarification. Dr Orange was able to reply that Catherine had been placed in a ward with a convalescent patient from Glamorganshire who was able to speak both English and Welsh and could act as an interpreter.[5]  See also ‘Bad Language – Mary Davies Broadmoor‘.

Catherine became seriously ill with symptoms of pleurisy soon after her removal to Broadmoor and her husband was advised to visit her. He had no English either and had to ask Dr Evan Roberts, who lived near to him in Penygroes, to provide him with a note asking to be directed to ‘respectable lodgings’ for the time he needed to spend in Crowthorne.


The bearer William Jones husband of the poor woman Cathne Jones who came there from Carnarvon is quite illiterate and does not know a word of English and would feel extremely obliged if you could recommend a respectable Lodgings during the times he shall stay at Broadmoor.[6]

William stayed from the 25th to the 29th October and saw his wife several times every other day. After his return to North Wales, he received a note to say that Catherine, although still seriously ill, was a little better than when he had left.


Moves for a transfer to Denbigh

Catherine’s inability to communicate directly with the Broadmoor doctors was a source of concern and Dr Orange was keen to have her moved back to Denbigh Asylum as soon as her health allowed. He was asked for his opinion as to whether her weakened condition might make the long journey unsafe and also for a report on her mental state.

It appears she had no delusions when she arrived at Broadmoor and apart from “a decided air of melancholy” there seemed to be little amiss. She told Dr David Nicolson, the Deputy Superintendent who admitted her, that she had been upset by the death of husband’s parents which had occurred at the time Sarah was born and from which she had never fully recovered. She was subject to frequent headaches and depression and she was not always able to recall the circumstances of Sarah’s death.

In fact Catherine’s mental condition seems to have presented few problems and these would, in any case, have been dwarfed by her language difficulties, her poor physical health and…another pregnancy. She had discovered she was pregnant while in prison at Caernarfon and the Broadmoor authorities were made aware that she would be confined around Christmas. William Jones was unconvinced, explaining that his wife had been ‘much enlarged’ the previous year but some medicine had removed the fullness.

Reporting to the Home Office on Catherine’s condition, Dr Orange expressed his concerns about removing her to Denbigh:

She is not in a fit state to be removed to the Denbigh Asylum at present, in consequence of the pleurisy from which she is suffering; and it appears to be very doubtful whether she will recover sufficiently to enable her to bear with safety a railway journey before the time at which she expects to give birth to her child.

When however her state of health may allow it, her removal to an asylum where she could have the advantage of being under the care of medical officers and attendants who could communicate with her in her own language would appear to be very desirable.[7]

However, Catherine made a favourable recovery and, stressing once again the advantage to his patient of being treated by Welsh speaking medical staff, Dr Orange thought she might with safety be removed to ‘her county asylum’ around mid-December just a few weeks before her expected confinement.

It seems the Home Office was unwilling to agree to Catherine’s removal so soon after her trial, and instead asked Dr Orange to find ‘some respectable woman, who can speak the Welsh language’ to act as a dedicated attendant to Catherine during her confinement. [8] This was clearly judged impractical and she continued to be supported by her fellow patient from Glamorganshire.


Arrival of another William Jones

Catherine was delivered of a baby boy, William, at 8 o’clock on the morning of January 14th 1879 after a long labour. The Broadmoor staff were not prepared to risk leaving Catherine to nurse her child and he was removed from her immediately after birth. One of the female attendants, Harriet Hunt, took charge of him instead. But Catherine was allowed to see her baby in the infirmary and to bond with him while the usual arrangements were made for his removal. William Jones was keen to take his son home and he visited Broadmoor regularly until 16th April 1879 when, with Harriet accompanying him, he made the journey back to North Wales.[9]

The Home Office had issued a warrant for Catherine’s transfer to Denbigh Asylum a few weeks earlier but this had to be postponed when she became ill and bedridden again. Dr Orange thought she was consumptive but in July he was content for her to travel and wrote to Dr William Williams at Denbigh to make arrangements. Mr John Robinson, Clerk and Steward at Denbigh, had expressed an interest in seeing Broadmoor and it was agreed that he would travel to Crowthorne a few days before Catherine’s transfer. Dr Orange declared himself “happy to afford to Mr Robinson all facilities for seeing the asylum” and he arranged accommodation for the female attendant who would escort Catherine back to Denbigh on 29th July 1879.[10]


Not in the least sorry or troubled

On arrival, Catherine was quiet and well behaved. Pale and delicate looking with dark hair and eyes, she appeared to be quite rational but, although she remembered she had been at Broadmoor and for how long, she did not seem “to be in the least sorry or troubled about the destruction of her child”.[11] Eating and sleeping well, she continued to improve. She wrote affectionate letters home to her husband and remained rational and industrious, always knitting.

Although Catherine had been transferred as a ‘pleasure’ patient, William was keen to have her home and wrote to Dr Orange in January 1880 for advice on how to go about securing her discharge.

On visiting my wife – Catherine Jones – at the Denbigh Asylum I find her perfectly well in her mind, but worse in other respects as her diet is so inferior to what she used to have while under your care at Broadmoor. She is most anxious to come home, and I fully believe she would regain her strength and enjoy far better health at home than at Denbigh…. I therefore respectfully beg to ask your opinion as to the course I had better adopt in the matter.  


Dr Orange’s reply was friendly….

It must be a cause of satisfaction to you to have her so much nearer to you…and also it is no doubt to her advantage there. She is now amongst those who speak her own language.[12]

…..but he recommended that William approach the Superintendent of Denbigh Asylum rather than himself about the prospects of discharge.

In May 1880 Dr Williams sent a Certificate of Recovery to the Home Secretary and Catherine was able to leave the asylum. We know nothing more about Catherine but must assume she settled back into her old life at the farm with her husband and remaining children.


A post script:

The story of Sarah’s death and Catherine’s insanity would have been passed down through the family and, in August 1924, there came a harsh reminder when Catherine’s 18 year old grand-daughter was admitted to Denbigh Asylum in a state of great mental excitement, hearing voices and birdsong and “craving for a baby to nurse”.[13] PR’s illness had begun a year earlier with a suicide attempt whilst in domestic service and she now required constant attention and supervision.

Unlike her grandmother, PR spent many years in the asylum and never truly recovered. Although she was discharged from her first admission after seven months, and moved to Birkenhead to take up another post in domestic service,  she was returned to Denbigh shortly afterwards complaining that her mistress had tried to poison her. Over the years her condition showed no significant improvement and in March 1931 it was noted that “some of her symptoms are suggestive of Dementia Praecox”.[14] Nevertheless, PRs story does not end in the asylum. By 1937 she was well conducted and regularly employed and she was discharged at her own request in October the following year.


[1] Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald July 1878

[2] Tschinkel, S et al (2007), Postpartum Psychosis: two cohorts compared, 1875-1924 and    1994-2005.

[3] Carnarvon and Denbigh Herald July 1878

[4] Stevens, Mark (2011), Broadmoor Revealed:  Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum

[5] Berkshire Record Office, D/H14/D2/2/2/280/4-5

[6] Berkshire Record Office, D/H14/D2/2/2/280/3

[7] Berkshire Record Office D/H14/D2/2/2/280/8

[8] Berkshire Record Office D/H14/D2/2/2/280/13

[9] Stevens, Mark (2011), Broadmoor Revealed:  Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum

[10] Berkshire Record Office D/H14/D2/2/2/280/22

[11] Denbighshire Record Office, HD/1/332/Case no. 2893

[12] Berkshire Record Office, D/H14/D2/2/2/280/24

[13] Denbighshire Record Office, HD/1/356/Case no. 10347

[14] Denbighshire Record Office/HD/1/357/Case No. 11203