The Murder Of Sarah Brown

On Sunday 30th September, 1888, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were murdered in Berner Street, Whitechapel and Mitre Square, in the City of London respectively, and the people of the East End faced up to the fact that, after an absence of two or so weeks, the Whitechapel murderer had returned.

Ove the next few days, there was a huge amount of press coverage of these two murders, so much so that other crimes in London were somewhat overshadowed by them in the pages of the newspapers.


Once such murder took place in Westminster just before midnight on the 29th of September, 1888.

The victim was a 45-year-old woman by the name of Sarah Brown, and, unlike the Jack the Ripper murders, the police didn’t have to go out searching for her murderer, because her husband, John Brown, having carried out the horrific deed, promptly walked into the local police station and informed the police that he had just murdered his wife.


The St James’s Gazette carried the following report on the murder in its edition of Monday, 1st October, 1888:-

“A murder was committed in Westminster on Saturday.

Shortly before midnight John Brown, a gardener, employed in St. James’s-park, asked the police at Rochester-row police station to permit him to see the inspector on duty.

He was brought before Inspector Fairlie, to whom he stated that he had killed his wife, and that her body would be found at their place of residence in Regency-gardens, Regency-street, near the Horseferry-road.

He handed the inspector a large spring-backed clasp-knife, which had blood on it, as also had his clothes.

The man was detained, and the police went to the house, where the woman was found lying dead on the floor with her throat cut. Several wounds had been inflicted in the shape of stabs and cuts. The body was seen by a medical man, who pronounced life to be extinct.

When charged with the murder, Brown declared that he had committed it in consequence of the woman’s unfaithfulness. He had been brooding over her misconduct since his return from a convalescent home, to which he had been sent after treatment for an acute illness in Westminster Hospital.

The woman is stated to have been nearly the age of her husband, who is forty-five.

When at the police station Brown was quite calm and did not appear to have been drinking to excess; but it is said that he has of late been peculiar in his manner.”


Over the next few days. some disturbing facts began to emerge about both the victim and the perpetrator of the “Westminster Murder”, as the press was now dubbing it.

It transpired that John Brown had been acting strangely for several months, and that his wife had been forced to seek official help in protecting herself from him.

Indeed, so afraid was she of him, that she had asked that he move out of the family home, and he had, reluctantly, complied with her wishes.

Unfortunately, without his contribution to the family coffers, she had been unable to provide for herself and her children and had gone to court to get some financial support from him, but the magistrate had refused her request, and her husband had duly moved back in with her.

But he continued to act bizarrely, and, as recently as the very night on which he had murdered her, she had begged the authorities to intervene and protect her from him, but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears.


The London Evening Standard, on Monday 1st October, 1888, reported on the efforts made by the murdered woman to protect herself:-

“On Saturday night, shortly before eleven o’clock, a man, named John Brown, murdered his wife, Sarah, by nearly cutting her head off at the house at which they lived, No. 11, Regent-gardens, Regency-street, Westminster.

The deceased was a laundress, and as recently as September 17th she summoned her husband, who is employed as a roadman in St. James’s Park, to the Westminster Police-court, before Mr. D’Eyncourt, for maintenance, on the ground of having been deserted for a period of six weeks.

The deceased then produced a medical certificate to the effect that her husband’s violent conduct and excitable temperament justified her in refusing to cohabit with him.

The Magistrate made no order for support, and the poor woman seems shortly afterwards to have reluctantly resumed cohabitation with her husband, who was very jealous of her, and had been frequently heard to threaten her.

On Saturday night, at ten minutes to eleven o’clock, a next-door neighbour heard the pair quarrelling in their room on the ground floor.

The noise suddenly ceased and, a minute or two afterwards, the man left the house hurriedly, loudly slamming the front door.

He walked directly to the Rochester-row Police-station where he told Inspector Fairey that he had murdered his wife by cutting her throat. He handed the inspector a large Spring-backed clasp knife, which had marks of blood upon it and described how he had twice stabbed the woman in the neck.

Detective-sergeant Waldock, of the Criminal Investigation Department, was at once despatched to investigate the matter, and found the deceased, with her head nearly cut from her body, in a pool of blood near the fireplace.

Dr. Archer, who examined the body, expressed the opinion that great force must have been employed to have cut the woman’s throat in such a shocking way, for there were two distinct gashes.

The two little children belonging to the deceased were crying in the passage, and were taken away by neighbours.

The man Brown, who is forty-five years’ of age, a little older than the deceased, was subsequently formally charged with wilful murder, and he will be brought before the Magistrate at Westminster Police-court this morning.”


The St James’s Gazette carried the following report on John Brown’s court appearance on Tuesday, 2nd October, 1888:-

“At the Westminster Police Court yesterday, a man named John Brown was charged with having murdered his wife on Saturday night.

Evidence of a neighbour was to the effect that during the last three months Brown and his wife had frequently quarrelled. He heard a sound of scuffling on the night of the murder, and soon afterwards saw Brown leave the house.

Robert Young, a stepson of the accused, nine years of age, said that the prisoner came home from work on Saturday afternoon, and his wife was frightened of him. She intended to leave him on Saturday night. He told her that he had “something in a box for her”, and that then he intended to give himself up.

Six or seven weeks ago the prisoner went to Westminster Hospital, and was there three or four weeks. He subsequently went to a convalescent home, and, on his return, there was something the matter with him.

He kept saying that his wife let men into the house, and he would look for them before he went to work in the morning and when he came home at night, lighting matches to peer into corners. He sharpened the large knife, produced, every day before his wife both at dinner and tea times, although he did not use it at his meals.

On Saturday, when he came home from work, the deceased told him (the witness) that the prisoner was going to try to kill her.

The prisoner never got drunk; he was a thoroughly sober man, and only had a little beer at night time.

The prisoner, who after committing the murder gave himself up to the police, was remanded.

It is stated that the deceased woman several times unsuccessfully sought the assistance of the authorities to put her husband under restraint as a person who was at times unaccountable for his actions and likely to murder her, and that on the Saturday night, in a state of terror, she twice went to the parochial district medical officer, and also expressed her apprehensions to the police.”


The case was, effectively, an open and shut one.

There was no doubt that John Brown had murdered his wife Sarah, and he duly appeared at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) charged with her murder on 22nd October, 1888.

One of those who gave evidence at the trial was Philip Francis Gilbert, the prison doctor at Holloway Prison, where John Brown had been held on remand.

He told the court that, “When a prisoner comes in charged with murder I pay special attention to the state of his mind. I first saw the prisoner [John Brown] on 2nd October; he was admitted on the 1st, and I saw him with very few exceptions every day. I have spoken to him many times with a view of ascertaining the state of his mind.”


As to the state of John Brown’s mind, the doctor was in no doubt:-

“In my judgment he is insane; he suffers from delusions.

He is under the delusion that he heard many voices speaking to him, neighbours and friends to his wife, saying that she ought to be ashamed of herself, that she ought to be killed, that men had been running in and out of his house all day, and that they had given her a good doing while he was away at the hospital; that seven or eight different men used to have connection with her of a night.

He was also under the delusion that she drugged his beer at supper, which caused him to sleep profoundly, and then that she used to have connection with men while he was actually lying by her side; that she used to make signs at the window, and let them in on the sly.

He was also under the delusion of persecution, that while he was living away from her at four different lodgings she used to cause his landlady to annoy him by putting stuff in his boots, which he described as naphtha, which caused his feet to ache and burn, and that men used to watch and follow him about.

He said that he slept very badly, and he complained very much of aching gripping pains in his forehead, which he does still.

I have no doubt whatever that these are genuine delusions – this excessive desire is very often an early sign of insanity; melancholia is undoubtedly a species of insanity – he is now perfectly able to appreciate what goes on in Court, but at the time he committed this act I do not think he was capable of distinguishing right from wrong, or that he knew the nature and quality of the act he did.

He has always behaved well in the gaol.

From the history he gave of himself this has been gradually progressing for some years, but it has been worse since his illness.”


Having heard the evidence from Dr. Gilbert, the jury retired to consider their verdict and found John Brown guilty of his wife’s murder “but being insane at the time he committed it.”

He was subsequently sentenced to be detained in a lunatic asylum “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”