Historian Keith Johnson looks back at a shocking crime from yesteryear...
In the second week of January 1865, a woman went to the Manchester Victoria railway station and approached Anthony Bond, the guard of the early morning train from Manchester to Preston and Fleetwood.
She handed him a green painted box with a label on it marked, ‘Mrs. Clegg, passenger from Manchester to Preston’, telling him it was her luggage, and that she was a passenger going by the train to Preston.
He placed the box in the luggage van, and supposed the woman had got into the train.
On arriving at Preston, as no one asked for the box, he took it on to Fleetwood, and on a later train brought it back to Preston and carried it to the left luggage department.
After remaining there some days, and not being claimed, as was the custom on all lines connected with the London & North-Western railway, the box was despatched to and arrived at Euston station in London.
On the Friday following it was opened to see if there was any clue as to the owner. At the top of the box was a thick cloth, and underneath it straw, which, on being removed, disclosed the body of a perfectly formed naked female child, doubled up, and lying on its side on some flocks placed on the bottom of the box.
Railway Inspector Pridgeon, who was sent for, handed the body over to the Metropolitan Police. The body was sent to the St. Pancras Workhouse and examined by surgeon John Roberts.
His examination showed that the child had been dead for some days and judging by its teeth was about 12 months old.
The child appeared to have been well nourished, and there were no external marks of violence. Carrying out a post-mortem examination he discovered congestion of the brain, lungs and kidneys; and on the side of the heart there was a quantity of dark blood.
There was fluid in the stomach, but no traces of poison. It appeared the child had met a violent death from suffocation.
At the subsequent inquest the Coroner said the evidence pointed to a murder having been perpetrated and he adjourned the inquest so that the police could investigate further.
It took little time for detectives to trace the mother of the infant and it was disclosed that she was Mary Bibby, aged 25, an unmarried mother of two who earned her living shirt making and ironing and who lived in Manchester.
Whilst admitting the infant was her daughter Ada, she
vehemently denied murder.
Nonetheless the magistrates committed her for trial at Manchester Assizes in late March 1865 accused of ‘Wilful Murder’ before Mr. Justice Shee. In her defence the court heard that the mother was in the habit of giving laudanum to the infant to keep it quiet, a fact confirmed by her sister.
It was claimed that the child had died from convulsions, caused by an overdose of the drug incautiously
administered. Subsequently the mother took the unusual step of trying to conceal the tragedy by despatching the dead child on the railway.
The jury accepted this theory and recorded a verdict of manslaughter with sentence deferred until later in the week.
Addressing the woman he said that he felt that the jury had come to the right conclusion, but the facts proved against her were of a most grievous nature.
The use of laudanum in such a manner was very serious misconduct.
He told her that all indications were that she had generally behaved with kindness to the child and supported it as best she could.
He concluded by telling her that he would give her a lenient sentence that she would be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 15 calendar months.