January 14, 1862
Clavering, Essex, England
Rebecca Law kills her husband and infant son
Samuel (27) and Rebecca (25) had been married for around 7 years before the murder. The early portion of their marriage was peppered with quarrels, primarily due to their differing personalities (Samuel was described as having “loose habits” while Rebecca was “sober and generally well conducted”).
The later years of the Laws’ marriage seemed to have improved. At least, until Samuel was arrested for destroying a gate. Rebecca and the children moved into a workhouse (an establishment to give accommodations to the impoverished in exchange for work) during the time Samuel was in jail. Once he was released, he collected his family and moved back into their home. Two days later, Rebecca knocked on her mother’s door. She was covered in blood and accompanied by her eldest son. (The son was not named in reports, though it was noted he was 6 years old.)
Rebecca told her mother someone had broken into her home and murdered her husband, though she quickly changed her story and confessed to his murder. Meanwhile, a former police officer identified as Mr. Codling heard of the strange events and visited the Laws’ house. He discovered the body of Samuel draped over his bed, his head “fearfully mutilated.” Samuel had over 100 deep wounds to his head, face, and neck and a further 15-20 gashes on his right hand and arm. It was later revealed he had been attacked with a billhook, a curved blade used to cut branches and shrubs. During his investigation, Codling heard the cries of an infant, 16-week-old Alfred, who had been attacked with hammer blows to his head. He lingered in pain for the majority of the day and succumbed to his injuries later that night.
When Codling returned to Rebecca’s mother’s house, Rebecca explained the crime. “I didn’t want to hurt him, but I could not help it; I was forced to do it. I chopped him with the bill. He went to bed first, and then I went upstairs and struck him when he was asleep, and he shrugged his shoulders and jumped up. I struck him again, and he groaned very much.” She explained she struck Samuel several more times, went downstairs for about an hour, and returned to the bedroom, finding Samuel still alive. Rebecca asked Samuel if he knew her to which he replied with an “expressive grunt” indicating he did. Rebecca then struck Samuel several more times until he was dead.
Soon after, Rebecca struck Alfred with a hammer, left him for dead, collected her 6-year-old, and traveled to her mother’s.
At this point in Rebecca’s story, she admitted she intended to kill her eldest child by drowning him but could find no bodies of water to facilitate his murder. Codling asked if Rebecca thought to drown herself as well. “I wish I had,” she replied, “but I thought one day out of hell was better than being in it.”
Rebecca was brought to trial where she claimed, “All the time I was hitting [Samuel] there was a noise on the stairs — I mean the devils — but I wasn’t afraid.” She was acquitted of the murders of her son and husband on the basis of mental illness confined to a “lunatic asylum.”
Storey, Neil R. The Little Book of Murder. The History Press, 2013
Storey, Neil. The Grim Almanac of Essex. The History Press, 2005
The Annual Register, or a View of the History and Politics of the Year 1862. London, 1863
“The Late Murder in Essex.” The Leeds Mercury. June 21, 1862 (image source, via newspapers.com)
“Murders and Murderous Crimes.” The Examiner [London, England]. January 18, 1862