The Criminal Career of Alice Dobb
Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum
Alice Dobb was not a particularly nice person. In fact, this notorious grandmother's criminal career lasted several years and only ended with her incarceration at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Alice, the daughter of William Adams and Mary Garnsey, was baptised at St Peter's, Tawstock on 11 Aug 1806. She was the third of six children.
Alice married William Dobb at Tawstock on 19 May 1827. Their first child, John, was born in 1828, and was followed by Anna, Elizabeth, Henry, Mary, Martha and William. All seven children were born in Tawstock. Her son Henry died at the age of three, but the other six grew to adulthood.
Sometime between 1841 and 1851, William and Alice moved to neighbouring parish of Fremington and took up occupancy of Brynsworthy Farm. Joining them at Brynsworthy were Alice's widowed father, William Adams, and a farm labourer from Tawstock named James Ridge. In 1852, James, the son of Thomas Ridge and Miriam, married Alice's daughter Elizabeth.
Then tragedy struck. Alice's husband died in December 1853, shortly after the death of her father.
Alice's first brush with the law came in 1855. Samuel May of Fremington had noticed that various articles had been disappearing from his locked barn. He "at length resolved to set a watch for the purpose of detecting the mysterious visitor." The culprit turned out to be his neighbour, Alice Dobb, who after using a key she had somehow acquired to unlock the barn, stumbled over the legs of one of Samuel May's labourers. A search of Alice's home recovered no stolen goods, so Alice was charged and convicted under the Vagrant Act, and sentenced to two months imprisonment. According to report in the North Devon Journal, Alice explained her actions by stating that she "must be mazed or mad or something." The article goes on to say:
The woman brought into those circumstances of shame is the mother of six children, pressed by no necessity to the commission of such an act as was clearly contemplated, and is moreover in a good farming business, occupying an estate of some 60 or 70 acres. The two sons of the wretched woman were present to witness the disgrace of their unhappy mother and their own, and some time after she had been committed, the eldest son (a nice respectable young man about 26 years of age, who had returned from service upon his father's death to assist his widowed mother) came into Court, to try when it was too late to obtain a reversal of the sentence. He represented that his mother had been subject to fits of insanity, and they had been obliged to have a person, at times, to look after her. Considering that circumstance, which appeared not to have been thought of before, Mr. May would not now have pressed the charge to the consequence which could not then be re-called. The poor young man wept as be stood there, stunned by the ignominy his unhappy parent had brought upon herself and her family.
Alice served her sentence and by 1861 was living in Tawstock with her daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, James Ridge. In 1862, she was charged with stealing turnips from Peter Joce of Tawstock. Apparently she tried to convince Mr. Joce to not press charges as "she could not bear the thought of coming before the gentlemen." Alice, however, was convicted and sentenced to one month imprisonment.
More serious crimes were uncovered a few months later, when Alice was charged with stealing a skein of worsted. During the police investigation, a pistol which Alice had stolen from a Barnstaple shop a few weeks earlier was also recovered, resulting in a second charge. 24 yards of stolen alpaca were also recovered, and a third charge was laid. For these crimes Alice was sentenced to six months. The report in the North Devon Journal also alluded to the fact that Alice was suspected in a number of arsons.
Two years later, Alice was in trouble again, having stolen a quantify of muslin, lace, and cotton from Eliza Dalling of Barnstaple. The lawyer representing Alice stated "he could offer evidence that the prisoner was not in a sound state of mind, and that she had been confined in a Lunatic Asylum, in which place she would now be confined had her family the means to pay for her." The Recorder of Barnstaple, however, felt that he had no choice but to sentence her to 12 months.
Alice served her 12 months in the Barnstaple's gaol, and then returned to Tawstock to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Early one February morning in 1866, Alice decided to prepare some potatoes for the family's breakfast; potatoes seasoned with arsenic. Alice left the potatoes for Elizabeth to fry claiming that she wanted to see if her "old house was blown down." James, Elizabeth and three of their children immediately became sick after eating the potatoes. When James later testified before the magistrates, he stated that after vomiting he felt well enough to chase after his mother-in-law, but as soon as he caught up to her she blurted, "'Tisn't me, 'tis the potatoes have done it."
The doctor and the police were summoned. The doctor, Joseph Harper, successfully treated the family with emetics although they remained quite sick for several days. The doctor also discovered a few white crystals in the bowl the potatoes had been in. A chemist later identified the crystals as arsenic. The police tracked Alice to the neighbouring parish of Newton Tracy where she was arrested.
In describing Alice, the North Devon Journal used words such as "notorious" and "monomaniac." The newspaper noted that Alice's behaviour when she appeared before the magistrates was "very erratic." She claimed she was ill or that she was blind. When informed that she was remanded for eight days, she exclaimed, "I shan't last eight days longer." Alice claimed that it had been a case of accidental poisoning, and that she had been poisoned herself, however the evidence clearly pointed to Alice having attempted to kill her daughter and her family.
During his testimony at Alice's trial, James Ridge stated that Alice had been in the Exminster Asylum once. He further stated, "I have known the prisoner come down stairs and smash the window, and sometimes try to come down naked. I have seen her running about like a deranged person. At the best of times she never can sit down like a same woman."
One of the witnesses for the defence was Michael Cooke, a surgeon of Barnstaple, and a nephew of my ggg-grandfather. Cooke stated that as the surgeon of the Barnstaple gaol he had seen Alice on a number of occasions. In his opinion Alice "was disordered in her mind." The judge and jury concurred and Alice was found "not guilty on the ground of insanity" and "confined during Her Majesty's pleasure."
Alice was sent to the newly opened Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire, and is listed there in the 1871 Census. Alice died at the age of 71 during the winter of 1878. James and Elizabeth Ridge recovered completely and were still living in Tawstock in 1901.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, July 22, 1864