Melancholy Tragedy: The Murders of Sarah and Annie Pethebridge

Melancholy Tragedy: The Murders of Sarah and Annie Pethebridge

Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum

Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum

October of 1871 is perhaps best known as the month of the Great Chicago Fire, allegedly begun when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern. But for the secluded North Devon village of Yarnscombe, October 1871 is the month when Jane Pethebridge murdered her two daughters.

Jane Pickard, oldest daughter of James Pickard (1813-1897) and Sarah May (1813-1876), was born in Fremington, Devon in 1839. In 1855, Jane married George Pethebridge, the son of Thomas Pethebridge (1816- ?) and Rebecca (1816-1872). Sometime after their marriage, Jane and George moved to Aberavon, Glamorgan, Wales, where their daughter, Elizabeth, was born during the summer of 1858. George was badly injured in a mining accident, and the family returned to Fremington to live with Jane's parents. Unfortunately, George succumbed to his injuries during the summer of 1860.

For the next few years, Elizabeth was raised by her grandparents, as Jane had obtained a position with a family in London. Finally, in the summer of 1868, in Exeter, Jane married Richard Pethebridge, the younger brother of her first husband. Richard was born in Yarnscombe, Devon in 1837. He was a road labourer, and lived with Jane in a cottage in the village. Their daughter Annie was born a year later in the summer of 1869. Another daughter, Sarah, followed in the winter of 1871.

On Thursday, October 5, 1871, Jane sent her daughter Elizabeth to fetch some beer from her aunt, Mary Ann Pearce, who lived at East Orchard Farm about a mile away. On her way back, a neighbour, Emma Moon, the wife of Police Constable James Moon, called to Elizabeth and asked her if she knew that her mother had gone out. Mrs. Moon then urged Elizabeth to check on her step-sisters. When she got home, Elizabeth went upstairs to find the two girls on the bed. Thinking they were asleep, she tried to wake Annie but soon realized that neither child was breathing. Elizabeth ran back to her neighbour and told Mrs. Moon that her sisters were dead. Emma fetched her husband who after a quick examination of the crime scene set out after Jane. He caught up with her outside of Yarnscombe on the road to Barnstaple, brought her back to his house, and charged her with murder.

Later that evening PC Moon, accompanied by Charles Richard Jones, a surgeon from Great Torrington, examined the crime scene more closely. They discovered marks around the necks of both children, as well as a bruise on Annie's forehead. PC Moon also found two lengths of string, with which the two girls had apparently been strangled.

Newspaper coverage of the murders was extensive. Trewman's Exeter Flying Post refers to Jane as "crippled and paralysed" but states she ran from her house without the aid of her crutches intending to drown herself. PC Moon mentions that she had a walking stick when he arrested her. The reporter states that at her appearance before the magistrates in Great Torrington, Jane had "a somewhat forbidding countenance, and she betrayed no traces of compunction."

The North Devon Journal provides a more detailed picture. Annie's birth had left Jane paralysed on her right side, and although her mother had partially recovered, it was Elizabeth who largely managed the household. Jane was also subject to seizures.

During the Victorian Era, there was a growing awareness of mental illness, and the possibility that a person might not be criminally responsible for their actions. This was especially the case when a mother murdered her child. To an educated person, the thought of a sane woman murdering a child was inconceivable. As a result, insanity became a foregone conclusion is these cases.

At the Devon Assizes a month later, the presiding judge, Baron Martin, instructed the Grand Jury to discharge Jane, after hearing medical evidence that she was "of unsound mind." The judge then directed that Jane "be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure."

Jane was sent to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire, where she died in 1881. At the time of the 1881 Census, her daughter Elizabeth was a domestic servant at a lodging house in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In the spring of 1882 she married Frank King. Together they raised a large family, although it is unlikely that Elizabeth's children ever knew about their step-aunts.


North Devon Journal, October 12, 1871
North Devon Journal, December 21, 1871
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, October 11, 1871
Trewman's Exeter Flying Post, December 20, 1871