WARNING - Article contains graphic content that some may find distressing

Murder of a Newborn

Essex Weekly News


On Friday last Elisa Jane Elsom, aged 20 (of rather prepossessing appearance, and very respectably attired), brought up at the Board-room of the Union (in consequence of the illness of the accused)-- before Mr. J. Bell (Mayor) and Mr. J. G. Emson -charged with the wilful murder of her illegitimate child, at the New Almshouses, Saffron Walden, on April 14th.

Prisoner, who appeared very pale, and in a semi- exhausted condition, was accommodated with a seat near the Magistrates by the side of her mother.

The first witness called was Mr. Edward Harley, M.D., of Saffron Walden, who deposed: On the morning of Wednesday, April the 16th, I was called to the New Asylum, in consequence of a message I received from Mrs. Onion, a patient of mine, who resides there. Prisoner is her servant, and I found her lying on Mrs. Onion's bed. I suspected from her appearance that she had been delivered of a child. I went out, and made certain inquiries of Mrs. Watson, another inmate. I then went back to the room in which prisoner was lying, and told her that she must have given birth to a child. She said, "l am sure I do not know anything about it." I asked her where she had been when she last went away from the Almshouse. She said that on the previous Sunday she went to her mother's - who lives in Castle-street*to tea, that after tea she went to Church, and then got back ti the Almshouse shortly after eight o'clock. I next asked her if she went to bed at mother's, or if anything occurred there. She explained where she went on her return from Church, and said if anything occurred it must have been then. I left prisoner then, as she appeared very distressed, and returned in about a quarter of an hour, and made a most careful examination. [Witness here entered into technical details, the result of which, he said, proved that prisoner must have given birth to a full- grown child.] He added: I again accused her of being a mother, but she again strenuously denied it. I told her to think it over, as she would have to account for the child, and I would call again in the afternoon. I did so at half-past two, but she still persisted in her denial; and I told her I must give information to the Inspector of Police, which I did. I then saw her mother, and told her what had happened, but the mother said she knew nothing about it. At ten o'clock that night an oblong box was brought to me by the Inspector and P.-c. Creffield, containing the body of a full-grown male child. I found the child lying on its left side, and the head of the child lying in a tin. I found the jaws widely extended, and part of an apron, rolled into a ball shape, was packed in the mouth. [The apron was here produced and identified. It was saturated with dry blood.) On the following morning I again saw prisoner, and I said to her, "Well, the child has been found. Were you confined at the Almshouse or at your mother's?" She replied, "It did not occur at my mother's. She knows nothing about it. It happened in this room - at the foot of the bed nearest the wall - about half-past ten on Monday morning." Witness further added that prisoner said the birth occurred without her knowledge, adding: I then asked her how the apron came into the child's mouth, and she said she did not know. 

The Mayor : Did she say anyone was present at the time?

Witness : No ; one but herself.

The Clerk: Did you ask her about the child crying?

Witness : No, because she said she did not know that it was a child. I do not think anything further occurred then. The walls and floor of the room bore out her statement. I made a post-mortem examination of the child on Thursday, the 17th, in conjunction with my partner, Mr. Welch. I found the child to weigh 6lbs. 120ozs., which is slightly beyond the average. Its height was 20 inches.

The Clerk: Had the child had a separate existence?

Witness: That I cannot swear. The child breathed, but that might have occurred before the birth was effected. I found a slight fracture of the skull, on the left parietal bone. The right cheek was contused, and on removing the apron from its mouth I found the inside of the cheeks fused. The tongue was curled. I also found a very slight incised wound under the right nipple. I tried the lungs, and found that it had breathed.

Mr Emson: Can you speak positively as to its having breathed at all? 

Witness : I am quite sure of that, the lungs being fully dilated.

The Clerk: Was there anything that would lead you to conclude that the child breathed after the birth?

Witness : I cannot say that.

Witness then detailed technically the internal portion of his examination, in which he said that he concluded that certain indications showed the child must have been suffocated whilst the blood in course of circulation.

The Clerk: You say that she was in a prostrate condition on Monday. Had she, therefore, force-strength enough - to force the apron into the child's mouth then?

Witness: I cannot say. On such occasions mothers are often endowed with a sort of supernatural strength.

Mr. Emson: Was it possible to suffocate the child before its full birth? 

Witness: It is possible. I applied the lungs to hydrostatic pressure, and found that they contained air, the evident result of respiration; but I cannot swear that such respiration occurred after that time.

Mr. F. F. Welch M.D., partner to last witness, corroborated as to the post-mortem appearances of the child, adding: I concur in the deduction and facts in connection with that examination.

The Clerk put a question as to the birth of the child.

Witness said that must be left to the Jury.

Mr. Emson : But what is your opinion?

Witness : I do not give any opinion upon it at all. All I can say is, that the child breathed freely.

Mr. Emson: For a minute or two?

Witness: That I cannot say. The lungs were full of air, and that is alll mean by the term --its "breathing freely." 

On being further pressed witness said: I should say the child was fully born, but it would be consistent either way.

Fanny Watson deposed: I am an inmate of the Almshouse. Prisoner was servant there to two inmates. On Easter Monday morning I came down to the back door for my milk, and spoke to prisoner. I asked her how she was; she was sitting in Mr. Porter's room, getting her breakfast. She said she had a bilious attack, and felt very sick. About 20 minutes afterwards l came down again, and asked her how she felt. She replied, "I don't feel any better, but it is all a bilious attack in my head. Will you be kind enough to do my mistress's room up for me?" I said I would. I told her mistress, who said she would get up, so that "Minnie" could lie down.

Mr. Emson : Had you any motive in asking the girl that question?

Witness: Yes; I thought what it was.

The Clerk: Had you ever accused her of being in the family way?

Witness: Yes, and she utterly denied it. I judged it from her appearance. I saw prisoner go into the room, and lie outside her bed. I told her she ought to have the doctor. She said, "No ; I can't, for I have a heavy bill there now." I went to the door again at 11, and asked her how she was. She said she was better, and asked me to make her a cup of gruel, which I did. I again saw her between two and three, when I took her a cup of tea, and she seemed better.

Did she look exhausted? -Yes, she looked exhausted.

Did you hear any noise in her room? -No.

Mr. Emson: Were you surprised to see her exhausted?

Witness: No; because I had a suspicion.

Witness resumed: Just before five o'clock I was sitting in her mistress's sitting-room, talking with her mistress, the door between the bed and sitting-room being partly open, when Mrs. Onion said, in prisoner's hearing, "It looks like a miscarriage;" and prisonercalled out, "No, it is not." I went into prisoner's bedroom again between six and seven, and saw a quantity of dirty clothing, and took them away. I said nothing to prisoner about them. Witness also spoke to observing other indications, which, she added, tended to confirm her previous suspicions.  

Mr. Emson: Did you say anything to prisoner about them?

Witness: I did not. She was too weak to take much notice then.

Witness resumed: I saw prisoner again on Tuesday morning, when she seemed better. Witness here deposed to making another discovery.

The Clerk: How is it that none of you sent for a doctor? 

Witness : Because both her mistress and the girl said, "No, no." On Wednesday evening I went to search Mrs. Onion's room (prisoner's mistress), when prisoner stopped me, and " I have got something to say to you."I said, "What is it, dear?" She said, "If you look the bed you will the baby in a box." I took the box from under the bed, and carried it to Inspector Allen, who was standing in the hall. I saw the Inspector open the box, and that it contained a dead baby, and that there was something lying across its mouth. On the Wednesday she said she was sorry that she denied "it" when I told her of it.

Mr. Emson : What do you suppose she meant by the word "it"?

Witness : Because she kept it secret from everyone, Sir.

The Clerk: Did you see any preparations in the room for the birth of a child?

Witness: No; I did not. The box in which the babe was found belongs to Mrs Onion.

George Allen, Inspector of Police, deposed: OnWednesday evening, April 16th, I received certain information, and in consequence I went to the house of prisoner's mother in Castle-street, and from thence to the Almshouse, where prisoner was employed. I saw Mrs. Watson and gave her instructions to search the room in which prisoner was then lying.  She brought me the box produced. I opened it, and found it tocontain the body of a full-grown infant male child, lying on its left side, and its head in a meat cover, I took the body to Dr. Harley's. An inquest was held, and prisoner has since then been in custody on the Coroner'swarrant; but I did not charge her, in consequence of her illness, till this morning, when I charged her with the wilful murder of her illegitimate child. She made no reply.

Kate Rippon, wife of Mr. A. Rippon, tobacconist, Saffron Walden, deposed: I am daughter to the Mistress of the Almshouses, and am there daily. On Thursday, April 17th, I went and saw prisoner in bed there. I talked to her about the matter, and she said, "I have been a very naughty girl." I asked her how she came to do such a dreadful thing. She said she did not know. I said, "Were you alone?" She said, "I was by myself". She also said after the child was born she wrapped it in her Holland apron, put it into a box, and shoved the box from her, adding, "If the child had been alive I should not have had the heart to have done it". I asked her what made her think to take the box to put it in? She replied, "I took the first thing that came to hand."

Inspector Allen said he had one more witness; but she was lying in the women's dormitory of that building, and far too ill to be able to leave her bed.

The Magistrates, with the Clerk, the accused, and her mother,  then proceeded to the dormitory, when a painful and singular scene ensued. The eight beds in the room were all occupied with sink and aged female inmates; and the poor witness, a very young woman, by name Ellen Archer, was fast sinking, evidently in the last stage of rapid consumption. She was too weak to answer the questions put to her beyond a whisper, her answers being repeated by the Clerk to the Magistrates, who were seated by the side of the bed; whilst the accused girl was seated on the next bed, in full view of the evidently sinking witness.

The Clerk: Do you know that young woman - pointing to the accused?

An affirmative nod was the response. And did she occupy that bed on which she is now sitting? -Yes.

Did you hear her talking to her mother this morning?-Yes.

And what did you hear her say? --I think I heard her say that she heard the child cry.

Prisoner (bursting out hysterically) : Oh, my God! my God! what will you say next? Oh, it is such a falsehood!

The Clerk: Was she talking to her mother at the time?

A nod.

Are you sure that is what you heard? ---No, Sir; not sure.

Prisoner's mother: What we were talking about was of a babe in the other room. A woman was just confined, and the babe is there now.

The Clerk: Might she have been talking about another child?

Witness: Yes, Sir.

Prisoner: Yes, it was, indeed, Sir; and my mother went and looked at it.

The Clerk (to witness): Did you hear a child cry in the other room?

Witness: No, Sir.

Did you know that a child was recently born there?

-No, Sir.

The Master of the Union : A travelling woman was brought into that room the night before last, and a child was born there at six o'clock last evening. She (meaning prisoner) could have heard the child cry, and no doubt it did.

The Clerk: This is really no evidence at all.

The party returned to the Board-room, when Inspector Allen said that was all the evidence he had to offer.

The Magistrates and Clerk then retired, and after a quarter of an hour's absence, the Chairman announced that they had decided to commit prisoner for trial on the charge of wilful murder.

The form of committal was read over; and on prisoner being asked if she had anything to say, her mother replied for her, by stating that she wished for two witnesses to appear at the trial.

Mr. Emson : That can be done. But in the meantime you had better procure professional assistance for your daughter, to sift the evidence before it is offered, or it may do your daughter more harm than good.

The mother and prisoner pleaded hard to be allowed bail; but the Mayor told her it was beyond the Magistrates' power to grant it. She had better seek the assistance of a solicitor, who could make an application to a Judge in Chambers on her behalf.

Prisoner was then formally committed for trial to the next Essex Assize; and the witnesses, with the exception of the poor girl Archer, were bound over.

Prisoner had to be supplied with stimulants during the hearing of the case, which lasted over four hours, and she frequently interrupted the witnesses by her loud and intermittent sobbing.

The case excited great interest in the town. The youth and general good character hitherto borne by the accused evidently excited no small amount of sympathy in her behalf.