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.
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
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.
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
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
The crime became the basis for the 1984
speculative historical book Watson's Apology by Beryl Bainbridge.
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
On the Nature of Things by Lucretius Carus
Cicero on Oratory and Orators by Marcus Tullius