NOTE: Two murders, on separate occasions, are attributed to Margaret Messenger. In our collection of female serial killer cases, we ordinarily keep to victim count of three or more (including failed attempts), but in cases where the killer is so young it seems reasonable to make an exception. Cases of children who murder on more than one occasion are, it goes without saying, important sources worthy of study for those who wish to understand the crime of serial killing and the mentality, methods and motives of such killers.
FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): A sentence of death passed upon a girl of 14 for murder is fortunately almost unique in criminal annals, and, in that sense, it is a source of satisfaction to learn that Margaret Messenger, who was condemned at the last Cumberland assizes, has been respited. The girl was in the service of a Mr. and Mrs. Pallister, a farmer and his wife, living in the neighbourhood of Carlisle, and acted as nurse to their three children, one of whom a boy, was drowned on the 27th June last. On the 2nd July the parents went to Carlisle market, leaving the baby and the second daughter, aged five years, to the prisoner’s care. “Whilst at work about 10 in the morning, a hired boy named Haffen was startled by hearing a baby’s scream, and on going into an adjoining field be found the eldest child with the nurse, who told him that a tall man had taken the infant away. Later on she was seen bringing the dead body of the child towards the house and on being questioned told various discrepant stories as to what had taken place. Further investigation proved that Messenger had laid the infant face downward in a boggy place, placed a stone upon its head, and so suffocated it. She even confessed later on that she had herself killed the baby alone and unaided. At the time of committing the crime she was only 13, and had but just attained her 14th year when brought to trial. Between seven and 14 an infant is prima facie deemed incapable of crime; but if the Court and jury have good reason for believing that he or she is able to discriminate between right and wrong, conviction and punishment may follow upon the indictment. This they did in the case of Margaret Messenger, and sentence of death was passed upon her in the usual form, since it is no longer lawful for it to be merely recorded, but it was obvious from the first that effect would be given to the strong recommendation to mercy, on account of the prisoner’s youth, which accompanied the verdict of the jury. The juvenile murderess has been respited, and an inquiry is to be instituted into her state of mind what makes the case more horrible is that she has confessed to Dr. Orange, medical superintendent of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, that she had murdered another child of the same family – the little boy who was drowned in the well a short time before – having purposely thrown him in. “The idea occurred to her,” to quote her own words, “as she was chopping sticks in the yard and she took him to the well and drowned him.”
Instances of juvenile and precocious depravity are, unhappily, not without precedent; but the entire absence of motive in this case, as well as its close correspondence with the symptoms recognised by the medical faculty as indicative of homicidal mania, incline us to the more charitable view of the case, and we may safely assume that Margaret Messenger was not responsible for her actions when she murdered the two poor little children. It is difficult if not impossible, accurately to draw the line between manic aberration and crime, or even eccentricity of conduct, but it may be taken for granted that mania consists in some actual lesion or disease of the brain, although the injury may be so alight as to comprehend every grade of perversion of mind or moral sense. Since the time of Locke it has been generally conceded that lunatics have not as a rule, lost the power of reasoning, but that baling once entertained some illusion, they err through reasoning from wrong premises. This is particularly noticeable in cases of homicidal mania, a very common form of which is when the patient believes himself to be acting under a Divine command or follows an absolutely uncontrollable impulse to commit the crime. M Esquirol, from the observation of numerous cases in France and Germany, has come to the conclusion that many forma of monomania, capacity in women, only show themselves in an unexpected tendency to commit homicide or incendiarism. Works on medical psychology are full of instances in which persons otherwise unsuspected insanity have confessed to murderous inclinations, and have been applied to a physician for protection against the themselves. One eminent doctor narrates a case which throws much light upon that of the young convict at Carlisle – namely, of a nursemaid who admitted that upon each occasion of dressing or undressing the infant confided to her charge, she was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to murder it. It may seem, at first sight, somewhat disquieting to contemplate the fact that a large amount of latent and unsuspected insanity, and that of a homicidal character, does undoubtedly exist in our midst at the some time it must be remembered that the persons afflicted by it are for the most part either of low physical and intellectual development, or have an hereditary taint of insanity, while the tendency may be repressed or altogether eradicated by cheerful surroundings and proper education. Conscientious home training of children, with careful selection and good treatment of those who are brought into the household from outside, will reduce danger to a minimum. Still, the misery which may be caused in a family by such an occurrence as that to which we have alluded, where a mother and father were exposed to so terrible and irreparable a loss as that of two infant children within a few weeks of each other, would point to the necessity of drawing public attention more seriously to the question of the criminality of lunatics; for while it is necessary that irresponsible persons should be protected from the fatal consequences of their acts, it is equally undesirable that criminals should escape on the ground that none but a madman could have committed such extremes those laid to their charge.
It is a well ascertained fact that homicidal and suicidal mania is more or less epidemic in character. Great criminals are almost always repeated, and it is a common experience for several persons to give themselves up to the police and confess to the commission of undetected murders. Nor even these confessions always be attributed to the influence of drink or a morbid love of notoriety; the real explanation would seem to be that a tendency of the kind exists without being suspected in many persons of weak or ill-balanced mind, and the notoriety given to murderers and the publication in minute detail of the particulars of their cases prove an actively exciting case for developing such latent germs of insanity. The mischief done by pandering to a morbid popular taste for sensational incidents may therefore have a more serious effect than the corruption of public morals, and may prove a direct incitement to crime. Even novelists and poets, when they graphically depict the sufferings of the love-sick heroines who languish and die on being deserted by their lovers, are touching upon more delicate ground than they perhaps think; for the disease they describe is known to the faculty as a specific form of monomania, and the hectic flush and consumptive wasting away, of which they make so much, are the recognised symptoms of a disease which is liable to be spread abroad, and even to become epidemic. The law which makes insanity, if not an excuse for crime, at least a reason for the non-punishment of the criminal, requires moat cautious interpretation, and we are happy to say that the good sense and experience of our judges seldom, if ever, allow it to be abused. The law deems every accused person responsible for his acts unless it be distinctly shown that he is non compos mentis, and it throws the onus of proving this fact upon the defence. This is a moat salutary provision, and as all persons acquitted on the ground of insanity are detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure, there is no fear of dangerous persons being let loose upon society in consequence. In Margaret Messenger’s case the presumption of her insanity, and therefore of her incapacity to commit crime, is strengthened by her extreme youth. In the case of adults, collateral circumstances must be taken into account, and the balance of justice much more delicately held. The responsibility which rests with the officers of the Crown in such circumstances is a very heavy one, but they may well be left to exercise it in most instances without the pressure of public agitation being brought to bear upon them. It would have been a shocking scandal to carry out the last dread sentence of the law upon a child of 11; but her “capacity for crime” would probably have been judged with a less lenient eye had she attained to what are generally called years of discretion without manifesting any more symptoms of mental disease than, those which were brought out at her trial.
[“A Youthful Murderess.” (From The Standard (London), Nov, 12.) The Argus (Melbourne, Australia), Dec. 30, 1881, p. 7]
FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 3): The sentence of death on the girl Margaret Messenger, who recently confessed to the murder of two children at Sprunston, Carlisle, has been commuted to penal servitude for life. Dr. Orange, medical superintendent of Broadmoor, examined the girl and reported on her state of mind to the [2 illegible words].
[“Reprieve.” The Times (London, England), Dec. 14, 1881, p. 9]
FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): Margaret Messenger, whose case created a sensation in England 10 years ago, has been liberated from Working prison. She was sentenced to death for the murder of her child, being herself only 14 years of age, but the sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life.
[From” “Brief Mention” column, The Richmond River Herald (Coarsaki, NSW, Australia), Jan. 29, 1892, p. 2]
From a promotional book description:
EXCERPT: One of the most disturbing and tragic [murders] was the case of Margaret Messenger. She was a fourteen year old girl from Howrigg, Wigton. On 9th June 1881 she was hired as a nanny by Mr and Mrs John Palliser of Sprunston Farm, Durdar. Barely a fortnight later, on 25th June, one of her charges, two year-old Mark, was found drowned in the farm well. The death was seen as an accident and there was little investigation. Margaret remarked at the time that they wouldn’t need to clean little Mark’s clogs any more.
Just a week later, Mr and Mrs Palliser left Margaret in charge of their two daughters, Margaret and Elsie. There were cries for help from Margaret Messenger and a neighbour came to find the six-month old Elsie with her mouth full of soil. She had died from suffocation. Margaret Messenger claimed she had found Elsie lying face down in a bog with a heavy stone on her head. This time Margaret was questioned intensively. She confessed and was committed for trial. After an extended period of imprisonment, the murderess lived out her long life in Thursby where she became a staunch church-goer.
[Ian Ashbridge, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths In andAround Carlisle, Wharncliffe, Oct. 2006]
Jun. 9, 1881 – hired as a nanny by Mr and Mrs John Palliser of Sprunston Farm, Durdar.
Jun. 25 (27 in other sources), 1881 – Mark Pallister, 2, drowned in well.
Jun. 25 (27 in other sources), 1881 – Mark Pallister, 2, drowned in well.
Jul. 2, 1881 – Elsie Pallister, 6 mo., suffocated, mouth full of soil
Nov. 1881 – Cumberland Assizes, sentenced to death. (source: Nov. 23)
Dec. 1881 – reprieved (source: Dec. 14)
Jan. 1892 – released from prison
Jan. 1892 – released from prison