A large percentage of murders of children by their parents that came before the courts in the late 19th century tended to consist of mother’s being charged with having murdered their newborn, and unwanted, babies – crimes that were occasioned in many cases by fears that being branded an unmarried mother would spell ruination for the woman concerned.
Reading some of these cases, you are often struck by just how matter-of-fact the perpetrators of infanticide appear to have been, and it is difficult to summon up any sympathy for these murderous mothers, albeit the juries often seem to have found in their favour and declared them not guilty when their cases came before the court – largely on account of the fact that there were no witnesses to the crime and many of the mother’s claimed that their baby had been dead at birth.
Other cases of child-murder were the result of mental illness, frequently brought on by desperation; and, despite how horrible and heart-rending the actual act of murder was, you sometimes find yourself feeling sympathy for the poor woman who carried out the crime.
One such case that occurred in the year of the Jack the Ripper murders was that of Emma Elizabeth Aston, who murdered her two young children on the 20th of February 1888.
The fact that the newspapers, on the whole, seem to have felt a certain amount of sympathy for Emma Aston, is evident throughout the reporting on the case, and the murder was consistently referred to in the press as “The Upton Park Tragedy.”
The St James’s Gazette broke the story to its readers on 21st of February 1888:-
TWO CHILDREN MURDERED.
“At the Stratford Petty Sessions today, Emma Elizabeth Aston, aged thirty-nine, described as a single woman, living at 36, Whitfield-road, Upton Park, East Ham, was charged with the murder of her two illegitimate children, Bertie, aged two, and Frank, aged one.
A police inspector said that yesterday he went to No. 36, Whitfield-road, and he there saw the prisoner.
In the front room on the first floor, which was used as a bed-room, he saw two children lying dead on the bed.
She said the name of the father of the children was John Morris.
In reply to questions she said, “I had a pressure on the top of my head, and I did it with a knife.”
Asked by the doctor who was present what was the cause of it, she said “Want”; and she went on to say that she owed another woman some money, and she could not pay it because the father of the children would not send any.
She was then conveyed to the police station.
Dr. Bass, the divisional surgeon, said that when he reached the prisoner’s house the children had apparently been dead some hours.
One of the children had a slight wound on the throat; but in both cases death appeared to have been caused by suffocation.
The prisoner was remanded.”
Reporting on Emma Aston’s appearance in court, the Essex Standard had this to say:-
“The prisoner was accommodated with a seat in the dock, and seemed to feel her position acutely, and whenever mention was made of the finding of the bodies of the children and the blood, she sobbed convulsively, and hid her face, leaning on the rail of the dock.”
HER NEXT COURT APPEARANCE
She next appeared in court on the 2nd of March 1888.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper carried a full report on the proceedings in its next morning’s edition:-
“At the Stratford petty sessions yesterday morning, Emma Elizabeth Aston, aged 39 years, a single woman, of 36, Whitfield-road, Upton-park, was charged on remand with the wilful murder of her two illegitimate children – Bertie, aged two, and Frank Morris Aston, aged one, at Upton-park, on Feb. 20.
Mr. Sims now appeared to prosecute for the Treasury.
A sister of the accused stated that another sister had had to be under constant surveillance lest she did some harm to herself during fits of hysteria.
THE ACCUSED’S HISTORY
Mr. Sims, in recapitulating the evidence, said the prisoner seemed to have been employed as a forewoman at Stephen Evans’s mantle warehouse, at Old Change-buildings.
She was there altogether for about 14 years, and there was also engaged there, as a foreman, a man named John M. Morris, and he seemed to have become acquainted with her.
HER FIRST CHILD DIED
Six years ago she found herself enceinte [Pregant], and, leaving her situation, she went to live in the neighbourhood of Plaistow, and was there confined. The child, however, died about three months later, and she then returned and resumed her engagement there as forewoman, and continued there till 1886, making a total service there of 14 years.
CONFINED WITH TWO CHILDREN
In 1886, she went to live at 2, The Limes, Gipsy-lane, in the district of that court, and here she was confined with the two children she was now charged with killing.
The man Morris from time to time sent her money.
In June she went to reside at 36, Whitfield-road, Upton-park.
SHE WAS IN GREAT DISTRESS
At about January there was no doubt that the poor woman was in very great distress, both of mind and body, and, when her remittances ceased, she wrote three letters to Morris, but he did not assist her.
She got in debt with her landlady, she owed sundry accounts and bills, and she had also suffered from a liver complaint and neuralgia.
SHE HAD BEEN TREATED SCANDALOUSLY
There was no doubt that the prisoner had been treated scandalously by a certain man, Morris, who was not only keeping company with her, but was a married man, and who was also keeping another woman at an hotel in London, and he now could not be found.
Speaking of the state of mind of the prisoner, Mr. Sims said that matter would hereafter be carefully inquired into.
The prisoner was then committed for trial.
THE INQUEST VERDICT
Mr. G. G. Lewis resumed the inquest on Monday on the bodies of Bertie Morris Aston, aged two years, and Frank Morris Aston, aged 12 months, the illegitimate children of Emma Elizabeth Aston, who were murdered by their mother on Feb. 20.
The jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder”against Emma Elizabeth Aston, and the foreman added that the jury were of the opinion that the accused was not in her right mind when she committed the crimes.”
HER OLD BAILEY TRIAL
Her trial took place at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) on the 19th of March 1888.
The first witness to give evidence was Alice Jones, the daughter of Emma Aston’s landlady, who had struck up a friendship with the woman, whom she knew as Mrs Styles.
SHE GAVE HER NAME AS STYLES
Testifying, she told the court that Emma Aston had come to lodge at her mother’s premises in the June of the previous year and had:-
“…brought with her two little boys; the eldest was about 18 months old and was named Bertie Morris Aston, and the younger was about four months old, and was named Frank – she gave her name as Styles, and said her husband was a commercial traveller, and was seldom at home…”
HER LIVING ARRANGEMENTS
Describing her living arrangements, Alice Jones said that:-
“She rented a front room, a kitchen, and a scullery, and paid 3s. 9d. a week for them – she continued as a lodger at that rental up to the 20th February.
In the first part of the time a letter used to come for her with regularity about once a week, and after she had received it she used to pay her rent – she told me that these letters were from her absent husband.”
However, Jones said, the letters had become less regular shortly before Christmas 1887, and, in early 1888, they had ceased altogether.
NO MONEY TO LIVE ON
Mrs Styles had had no money for three weeks previous to the 18th February, by which time she was five weeks in arrears with her rent, and she owed money to the doctor and the baker.
Alice had tried to help her out and had lent her 12 shillings, and had also given her food.
On Saturday the 18th of February 1888, a letter had come for Mrs Styles.
But, later that day, Alice found her crying over it in her mother’s bedroom.
There was a postal order for just one shilling in it, Mrs Styles had sobbed to Alice, commenting, “He has only sent me 1 shilling. There is not a word of sympathy. He has taken no notice of the three letters I have sent him”
The accompanying letter was then read out to the court:-
“Mrs. Styles, 36, Whitfield Road, Upton Park. My darling. Just a line to hope you are all well. I am so sorry I could not send it before; I have not had it in my possession 10 minutes. Will write on Monday. Hoping you are getting on pretty well, ever your loving Jack.”
Alice advised her to go and see the writer of the letter on the Monday, to which she replied, “Yes, ill as I am, if Mrs. Scrivens comes round tomorrow I will ask her to mind the children on Monday, and I will go to him”
Mrs. Scrivens, Alice told the court, was a former landlady of Mrs Styles.
SHE HAD BEEN ILL
For some days past Emma Aston (or Mrs Styles as Alice had known her) had been complaining of acute neuralgia in the head, and of a weight on the top of her head:-
“..Her face had been very much swollen, and she had had to wrap something round it – she also complained of a sore mouth and of a constant pain in her back – I do not know what was the cause of that, but I know she had been up with the children for a fortnight, and that her rest had been disturbed – from what I could judge of her she was very ill – she had nursed the children day and night, giving them the most tender care, and never leaving the house all that time – she was completely worn out – she was a most devoted mother to the children…”
About 11pm on the Saturday night Alice had gone to Emma’s bedroom to ask her if she could get her in something for Sunday.”No, thank you, Miss Jones,” had been her reply, “I will take a pint of milk of the milkman in the morning.”
Alice recalled that the room had been in darkness and that Emma had been lying in bed with one child each side of her.
On the Sunday, at noon, Alice had taken pity on the family, and had provided them with dinner.
Emma had been extremely ill all day Sunday, but she had stayed up and was attending to the children.
I HAVE KILLED MY DEAR CHILDREN
At between 7am and 8am on the Monday morning Alice had come downstairs to light the kitchen fire and, to her surprise, she found Emma sitting on the sofa fully dressed, with her boots on, and her a shawl thrown over her head and shoulders.
Alice testified to the court as to what happened next:-
“…I started at seeing her, and said, “Oh, Mrs. Styles, how you did frighten me.”
She said, “Oh, Miss Jones, I have killed my two dear little children.”
I was alarmed at that, and called to a lodger, Mr. Boocock, who came into the kitchen shortly afterwards.
I then said in his presence, “Mrs. Styles says she has killed her children.”
Boocock said to her, “Surely you have not, Mrs. Styles?” and she made some reply in the affirmative, I do not remember the exact words.
She seemed to be in great grief at the loss of her children, and was crying, but beyond the grief for the loss of the children, I don’t think she seemed to think she had done any thing criminal in destroying them.
THE CHILDREN LAY ON THE BED
The three of us then went up into her bedroom and I saw the two children lying on their backs dead, one on each side of the bed. All the bedclothes had been taken off the bed, with the exception of a sheet, and the prisoner pulled that down and exposed the bodies.
I noticed some marks of blood about the mouth of the younger child.
She then said to Mr. Boocock, “Oh, Mr. Boocock, I am not married, and I knew if I went to that man this morning he would not give me any money.”
Boocock said, “Whatever made you do it?”
She said, “I was mad, I was mad; I felt such a weight on the top of my head, something impelled me to do it” – she also said she had strongly been tempted to take her own life, but something said “Don’t.”
Boocock then asked her, “How did you do it?”
She said, “I tried to cut Frank’s throat with a knife, the knife was blunt, and seeing the blood, I put my hand over his mouth and kept it there till he died; he was not long in dying; I used the bedclothes to Bertie, he took a long time to kill, he struggled so.”
I understood her that they were not sufficient, and she used a pillow.
During the time she was making this confession she was in the greatest grief, and was seated upon the bed, and crying all the time.
I attended to the children, and then went downstairs and the prisoner followed – a doctor was then sent for, and a constable arrived a short time after.
PC STAZLER ARRIVES
The first police constable to arrive was George Stazler (K190) who testified at the trial:-
“On the morning of 20th February I was called to 36, Whitfield Road, and there saw the two dead children lying on the bed in the bedroom.
I then saw the prisoner downstairs, and said, “Is your name Styles?”
She said, “No; the truth must come out, my real name is Aston; Styles is a fictitious name; my mother’s maiden name was Styles; I am not married.”
I said, “are you the mother of these two children?”
She said, “Yes.”
I said, “I shall have to take you in custody and detain you here till the inspector arrives; you need not say anything, but if you do, whatever you say I shall take down in writing, and it may be used in evidence against you.”
She replied, “I had a pressure on the top of my head; I thought that I must do it; oh, the two little dears, to love them as I did, and then to take their lives; I was mad; I must have had artificial strength to have done it; I tried to cut the baby’s throat, but finding the knife was too blunt I put my hands over his mouth, and he soon died; the other one was so strong; he did struggle so; he was a long time dying; I might have had the quilt in my hand at the time; I know that I was mad; after I found they were both dead, I thought to myself, “shall I take my own life? no, I must not do that; it is wrong;” I then went down into the kitchen and sat down.”
She also said she had been suffering night and day from neuralgia for the last three or four days.”
INSPECTOR EADY’S TESTIMONY
The next witness to appear was Inspector Louis Eady, who told the court that:-
“On 20th February I went to this house and saw the dead children, and then the prisoner.
She said the eldest child was registered as Bertie Morris Styles and the younger as Frank Morris Styles.
She said that Styles was her mother’s maiden name, and that that was not the true name of the children.
She said the father’s name was John M. Morris, and that he was in business at Stephen Evans’, Old Change Buildings, City; they are wholesale mantle-makers.”
On arrival, he said, he had taken possession of a knife, which he found in the room. He had also seen a pillow without any covering, but had not taken possession of it, as he did not know it was connected with the crime at the time.
He had heard the doctor ask Emma Aston why she had murdered the children, to which she had replied, “Want; I owed Mrs. Jones money; I could not get any; the father would not send any.”
He had, he testified, taken her to the police station where she handed him three letters, which, she told him, were from the man Morris.
On making enquiries at his place of employment, he was told that Morris earned between £200 and £300 per year, although, since the murders, he had not appeared at work, and all attempts to trace him had proved fruitless.
AN UNCONTROLLABLE IMPULSE TO KILL
Giving his evidence, the Divisional Police Surgeon for the Metropolitan Police’s K Division, Charles William Bass, told the court that:-
“..Looking at the whole case I am of opinion that, at the time this was done, the prisoner was certainly suffering under an uncontrollable impulse to kill, and therefore was not conscious of the nature and quality of the act which she was committing, or conscious that what she was doing was wrong.
I have been Divisional Surgeon of Police for seven years, and during that time cases of insanity have frequently been brought under my notice. I have studied the matter and read the well-known authorities on it – there is such a form of madness as homicidal mania that would come on very suddenly.”
GUILTY – BUT NOT RESPONSIBLE
Having heard all the evidence, the Jury retired to consider their verdict, and, returning, they found Emma Elizabeth Aston GUILTY, but not responsible at the time she committed the act.
She was duly sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure and was sent to Broadmoor Asylum.
A HORRIBLE AND TRAGIC CASE
Reading the newspaper accounts of, what is most certainly a horrible and tragic case, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Emma Elizabeth Aston.
To all intents and purposes she appears to have been a loving and attentive mother to her two sons. Indeed Alice Jones had gone so far as to testify in court that she had found her, “a most devoted mother to the children.”
John Morris appears to have used her for his own gratification and to have then offered little support, even to the point of stopping sending her the meagre sum of money with which she had endeavoured to provide for her two boys and herself.
Indeed, you cannot but conclude that he had treated her appallingly and that he should have shouldered some of the responsibility for the bout of insanity that led her to commit her atrocious act.
A CASE OF A VERY PAINFUL CHARACTER
However, he seems to have simply moved on, and to have succeeded in disappearing, perhaps with another of the women he was evidently keeping.
The police had no luck in tracing him, so he was never forced to account for his actions.
Few can disagree with The Pall Mall Gazette’s assertion that this was a case of – “a very painful character.”
But, it is also easy to agree with Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper that Emma Elizabeth Aston – “had been treated scandalously by a certain man, Morris…”