In this case we take another dive into history, this time looking at a scandal within the Royal family during Queen Victoria’s reign in England.
As was tradition for the time women of nobility would hire wet nurses to tend to their children including breastfeeding, these were often women chosen due to their fertility as many would already have children of their own, their excellent physical health and by how morally virtuous a woman was, with physicians of the time believing at the time that these virtuous morals would be transmitted to the child via breast milk. This was the case when Queen Victoria, who reportedly did not like breastfeeding chose her wet nurse, Mary Ann Brough who went on to kill six of her children on 10th June 1854.
Brough was born in 1811 and lived in Esher, Surrey, England with her husband and children. Her husband George Brough also worked in service of the Royals with Prince Leopold, he was Queen Victoria’s uncle and the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales (who the current Princess Charlotte was named after). George served Prince Leopold during his time at Claremont house, by 1854 he was promoted to keeper of the ponds and park at Claremont, it is speculated that her husband’s connections landed her the job with Queen Victoria.
She served as a wet nurse from the birth of the Prince of Wales Albert Edward on 9th November 1841 but did lose her position a few months later. It is unclear what exactly caused her dismissal but during her trial it was stated in the media that she was dismissed for disobeying orders by letting her husband visit while she worked and reportedly, she was caught drinking “ardent spirits” while working, but in the biography Queen Victoria Born to Succeed it was explained that the Queen felt Brough had become “morose and stupid”.
She was dismissed in late 1841 or early 1842 and the years that followed appeared to have been quiet and content for the ever-growing Brough family as they lived in their cottage in Esher. In September 1852 Brough gave birth once again, after multiple pregnancies the latest brought on complications. 8 days after giving birth Brough suffered what her physician Mr. Izod described as an “attack of paralysis” this was corroborated by a neighbour Sarah Weller stating that Brough lost use of one side and had slurred speech that never improved after this. Weller said, “she has constantly complained to me of her head since she had the fit, and she told me she felt a heaviness in her head – a tumbling like when she was stooping as if she must fall and a swimming”.
Brough did seek help for her symptoms and Mr Izod noted further issues including a violent pain over her eyes and frequent heavy nosebleeds around this time, he also spoke about psychological components in her illness advising her to avoid strain or excitement due to his concerns for her mental state.
With a houseful of young children all aged from 2-11-years-old and her health problems Brough started to feel the strain, around a week before the murders, measles had hit the Brough household, and all her children were ill and restless leaving Brough with little sleep as she tended to them. The marriage was also going through a rough period as George had started suspecting Brough of being unfaithful and made his intentions to leave her and take the children clear.
On the day of 9th June 1854 Brough was distressed and agitated stating that she spent much of the day in bed. She had wanted to see Mr Izod to get medication for the agitation, but he was unavailable to see her. She headed into that night with her children still unwell and restless.
By midnight Brough had settled the children and tried to rest by sleeping in a chair. As she tried to fall asleep, she realised that she would not be able to rest, instead she took a razor out of her husband’s shaving box and started methodically moving through the house severing the windpipes of each of the six children then turned it on herself slicing her own throat. Her victims named as 11-year-old Georgina Brough, 8-year-old Carry Brough, 7-year-old William Brough, 4-year-old Harriet Brough, 4-year-old Henry Brough and 2-year-old George Brough.
Brough was bleeding heavily and passed out but came to sometime later and realised what she had done as she was able to walk through the house, in order to get help she placed a bloodied pillow outside of the house facing a well-travelled road. It was the spotted by a local man Henry Woolgar at 5:45am.
Woolgar found another man Peastly to help with the situation and the two rang the doorbell of the cottage, with no response they noticed that someone was moving around inside the property, he got a ladder and climbed in through a window. Brough motioned for him to enter the property, he inspected the house and saw the severity of the situation with more and more bodies being found, neighbours gathered at the commotion and the doctor and authorities were called.
Although she could not speak Brough was able to admit what she had done immediately, firstly to Henry Woolgar then to William Bidser Constable of the Parish of Esher, he lived about 200 yards from the Brough cottage, so was first law enforcement on scene. At 7am on 10th June 1854 Mr Charles Mott a surgeon from nearby Walton-on-Thames arrived on scene and provided medical aid, he was able to sew up her severed windpipe and she regained her speech, to the standard it had been before the injury. Mott was the partner of Mr. Izod both knew Brough due to her being a patient at their practice and both even attended her appointments together occasionally. When she had regained her speech, she simply stated “Then you may tell them that I did it”.
Superintendent Biddlecomb arrived at 11:00am that morning and took the only known written record of Brough’s detailed confession, she signed this in front of witnesses including her surgeon Mr. Charles Mott, as she gave her confession Biddlecomb reportedly told her twice saying “to be careful what she said for it would be my duty to take down everything she said and produce it in evidence against her, but she persisted in making a statement, which I took down in writing”. Due to her mental state, there were concerns for the accuracy of the statement she gave and Biddlecomb took the precaution of returning the next day and reading her statement back to her advising her that she could retract any part and that now was the time to do it, she declined this and confirmed her statement and her guilt.
While she spoke to police a neighbour and friend Sarah Weller sat with Brough, Weller asked her whether any of the children had struggled, she was candid in her account and admitted that her eldest had fought and struggled in the attack. By the time the inquest came around on 12th June 1854 she had made clear confessions to at least five separate people.
When in custody Police Constable Peter Thomas Collet took another statement from Brough and in each collected statement the details stayed the same, in the statement Collet took she stated “if the doctor had come it would not have happened” he spoke of her fragile mental state while in custody on the night of 10th June 1854, she asked Collet if it was her child that she could hear crying but no child was crying.
Despite the shock in the local community at the deaths of six young children at the hands of their mother Brough’s friends and neighbours spoke surprisingly high of her describing her as a good mother. Woolgar the man who had discovered the scene told the jury at the time “I have frequently seen the prisoner with her children, and she was always appeared to be very good and kind to them.” Sarah Weller testified that Brough was “very kind to her children, almost too kind. She was a most indulgent mother.” Constable Bidser also took the stand at her trial and testified “I have known the prisoner for some years, and lived two hundred yards from her, and I considered her as good a mother as ever lived. She kept her children well-dressed and clean and acted in every way like a mother”.
Alienist (an early term for psychologist/psychiatrist) and Victorian England’s leading expert in “lunacy” Dr Forbes Benignus Winslow examined all the evidence from Brough’s case and interviewed her at length leading up to the trial, he explained the difficulty her pregnancy and childbirth had brought 21 months prior to the murder, he focused on the nasal haemorrhages and the pressure on the brain that they were relieving and explained the concept of temporary insanity, although he did put also mention to the court how “women are more susceptible” as was believed then. Winslow also praised Dr Izod’s approach to Brough describing him as alert to her state and his advice to avoid excitement was most appropriate for Brough. He further argued given her history of stroke following childbirth, nasal haemorrhages and ongoing headaches that Brough was temporarily insane at the time of the murders describing her already weak mental state collapsing under the stress of several incidents in the weeks leading up to the murder mentioning neighbours’ testimony that she had spent sleepless nights in those weeks taking care of her sick children.
Brough marital troubles also took a centre stage during the trial with the revelation that on 5th June 1854, three days prior to the murders Brough had caught a train to London but unbeknownst to her George had hired a private investigator to follow her due to the suspected infidelity, Field testified that he had witnessed Brough meet a man, but the media at the time took this testimony as evidence that she had in fact been unfaithful and a story spread that she had accompanied the man to a brothel, this was never proven and Field himself testified in court that he had only witnessed Brough meet a man.
With this information George assumed the worst and on 7th June 1854 he separated from Brough, he told her he intended to gain custody of the children and moved out that day to the nearby hostelry The Wheat Sheaf (which is still open and now operates as a pub).
The court also heard Brough’s confession in final arguments about her mental state at the time of the murders the court heard her describe her agitation and exhaustion as she was unable to sleep, how she had complained of a severe headache all day and had tried to Mr Izod and get medicine, they heard how she started to suffer suicidal thoughts as she paced until she described the “black cloud” blinding her as she got the razor blade and turned it on her children then herself.
To close two more experts in “lunacy” Dr Daniel and Dr Ingledew agreed with Dr Winslow’s assessment with the court hearing both Mr. Izod and Mr. Mott who were on scene and familiar with Brough’s medical problems also agreed, with this, five different medical authorities agreed that Mary Ann Brough was suffering from a temporary insanity when she committed the murders.
With the recommendations of experts, testimony from relatives, neighbours, and friends and police on scene the jury was swayed and Brough was acquitted of murder and sentenced to the insane asylum at Bethlehem, commonly known as Bedlam. She remained at the facility until her death seven years later in March 1861.
Brough’s case was not only a shocking tragedy but a scandal for Queen Victoria and the royal court at the time, but in the field of Alienism this case was considered career making not only for Forbes Winslow, but for his fellow alienists as people looked at their examinations of the case as an explanation for why or how a seemingly good mother could be driven to kill her six children while they slept in their beds.