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Rev. John Selby WATSON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 8, 1871
Date of birth: 1804
Victim profile: His wife, Anne Armstrong
Method of murder: Battered to death with the butt of a pistol
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to death in January 1872. Commuted to life imprisonment. Died in prison on July 6, 1884

John Selby Watson was the headmaster of London grammar school who married Anne Armstrong in 1845. He had studied classics and had been ordained in 1839. He had taken a curacy in Somerset before moving to the post in London in 1844. The school was quite successful but maybe because of changing times by 1870, the number of pupils had fallen and the governors were forced to give the 66 year old master notice.

On 8th October 1871 he called his servant, Ellen Pyne, to him and said that his wife had 'gone out of town. He added that she was to call for a doctor if she found anything wrong with him the following morning. The servant thought this was a bit strange but he was getting on a bit. She later found him unconscious and immediately sent for the doctor.

Watson had tried to commit suicide by taking prussic acid. He had left two notes, one, addressed to the servant, contained her wages and the other, addressed to the doctor, In it he said that he had killed his wife in a fit of rage to which she provoked him. It might have been better for him had he not given instructions to the servant to call the doctor as he was revived.

Anne Watson's body was found upstairs in a locked bedroom. He had battered her to death with the butt of his pistol which was found on Watson's dressing table.

He was brought to trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872. His defence was one of insanity but this was not accepted and he was found guilty of murder. He did however receive a recommendation to mercy. He was reprieved and sent to Parkhurst where he died, aged 80, on 6th July 1884.


The Reverend John Selby Watson (1804 6 July 1884) was a British classical translator and murderer. He was sentenced to death in 1872 for killing his wife, but a public outcry led to his sentence being reduced to life imprisonment. The case is notable for Watson's use of a plea of insanity as his defence, bringing "the insanity defense into perhaps its greatest prominence since M'Naghten."


Born in 1804 Watson was educated by an uncle and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin in 1838. He was ordained Deacon to the Bishop of Ely in 1839 and married Anne Armstrong in January 1845 at St.Marks, Dublin.

Due to his poverty Watson had been engaged to Anne for quite a number of years before they could marry. He moved to London in 1844 where he became the headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School.

Because of falling pupil numbers he was laid off in 1870. But during his long career as headmaster, Watson had made a reputation for himself as a scholar and translator, publishing translations of the classics for Bohm's Classical Library that subsequently became volumes in the popular Everyman's Library series. He also wrote biographies, religious books, and a volume Reasoning Power in Animals. Still with all his learning and activities he made a very small income. When the Board of the Stockwell School fired him, they refused to give him any pension.


A few weeks after finishing his four-volume History of the Papacy to the Reformation, on 8 October 1871 Watson was found unconscious by his servant, Ellen Pyne, having taken prussic acid. Two notes were found: one addressed to Pyne contained her wages. The other was to his doctor. It said "I have killed my wife in a fit of rage to which she provoked me". His wife's body was found in a bedroom, having been battered to death with the butt of his pistol two days earlier.


Watson recovered and stood trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872. Despite a history of arguing with his wife, Watson did not argue provocation. Instead, he pleaded insanity, as his counsel put it: "an antecedent improbability in the deed which would lead everyone in the first instance to seek an explanation in insanity."

The judge, Mr Justice Byles, opposed this excuse strongly in his summing-up. After deliberating for an hour and a half, the jury found him guilty of murder but with a recommendation that mercy be shown because of his age and previous character. Byles however sentenced him to death.

After the trial many affidavits from doctors were presented testifying to Watson's insanity at the time of the murder. Byles then changed his mind and told the Home Secretary that the medical evidence presented at the trial suggested that "this is not a case in which the sentence should be carried out."

After more investigation the Home Office decided that some "imprecise mental unsoundness" had been present and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Due to no obvious signs of madness, however, he was not sent to Broadmoor Hospital, instead he served his time in Parkhurst prison where he died twelve years later, aged 80, on 6 July 1884.

His death was due to falling out of his hammock at the prison. In the words of Martin J. Wiener, "the incongruity of the offense and the lack of any lesser defense pushed the system to a controversial finding of "temporary" insanity to prevent the unedifying spectacle of the hanging of a clergyman of the Church of England. In a sense, in Watson's case, provocation (by his wife, under the stress of his forced retirement) had been reconceived as temporary insanity."

The crime became the basis for the 1984 speculative historical book Watson's Apology by Beryl Bainbridge.

Original works

  • The Life of George Fox, the Founder of the Quakers

  • Biographies of John Wilkes and William Cobbett

  • The Reasoning Power in Animals, 1867


  • Conspiracy of Catiline and the Jugurthine War by Sallust

  • On the Nature of Things by Lucretius Carus

  • Cicero on Oratory and Orators by Marcus Tullius Cicero, 1855



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