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Law and Crime

Did the Victorian Asylum Allow the Rich to Evade Justice?

The 1854 case of an English vicar has parallels with a present-day case

One afternoon in May 1852, Mrs Elizabeth Bunn, live-in housekeeper to a Church of England vicar, came home unexpectedly early and found her employer in the act of sexually assaulting her twelve-year-old daughter. The local police constable made an arrest, took the Reverend Edmund Holmes before the local magistrate, who declared the vicar insane. Reverend Holmes was dispatched to a small private asylum, Heigham Hall, in Norfolk, East Anglia. Here, he was certified insane by two doctors and certificates of lunacy were filled out.

This was not how English criminal law in the middle of the 19th century usually functioned. The normal course of action would have been to begin criminal proceedings, during which medical men would give their expert opinion on the defendant’s state of mind. A jury would then have the chance to decide a guilty verdict, a not-guilty verdict, or acquittal on the grounds of diminished responsibility. If the latter verdict were given, the defendant would then be sent to an asylum. The magistrate in the Holmes case – Mr Cann – had no medical expertise or training, and so should not have declared Reverend Holmes unfit to plead.

In August 1852, Holmes was deemed to have become sane again and was permitted to stay on at Heigham Hall as the institution’s chaplain – with his status changed from ‘patient’ to ‘boarder’ (ie resident within the asylum but without any compulsion to stay). Local residents’ concerns regarding the Holmes case began to grow. They wondered why it was that in May 1852 the reverend had been too insane to face a criminal trial, yet just two months later he was considered sane enough to carry out the duties of a man of god. And why, if he were indeed sane, was he not now put on trial for the attempted rape of a minor?

Fourteen months later, an aspect of England’s lunacy law underwent a revision: from November 1853, no one was permitted to change their status from patient to ‘boarder’ without full investigation of the circumstances by the national inspectorate, the Commissioners in Lunacy. Reverend Holmes and the owners of Heigham Hall requested retrospective permission, but the Commissioners refused. So Reverend Holmes left the asylum and was found a position as a church curate in a large parish by the Bishop of Norwich.

It’s possible that the matter would have ended there – with plenty of local hostility but no action taken – if it hadn’t been for a professional quarrel among two Norfolk doctors. Dr Hull made the public allegation that Dr Nichols of Heigham Hall had approached him in May 1852 and requested him to sign a lunacy certificate for Reverend Holmes because (Dr Nichols allegedly told Hull) the vicar needed ‘rescue’ from the ‘grip of the law’, since he was ‘a member of a high county family’. Dr Hull claimed that Dr Nichols had attempted to bribe him to declare Holmes insane, promising that certifying Holmes ‘would be [worth] hundreds a year in his pocket’.

Dr Hull wanted nothing to do with the plan, and refused; and so (Hull claimed) Nichols went and found two other doctors to undertake the certification.

The row between Hull and Nichols came to the ears of one Dr Ranking, who had recently sunk a large part of his fortune into becoming a co-proprietor of Heigham Hall and was now wondering if he had made a very unwise investment: was this the sort of scandalous mad-house that would knowingly admit sane people as patients? Usually, such false incarcerations were a case of an innocent and sane person being plotted against by greedy relatives or spouses; but the Holmes case shows that the asylum could also be way of allowing a criminal with deep pockets to evade justice.

At long last a hearing was arranged, as a result of Dr Ranking’s noisy agitation. But it took place behind closed doors, and this only served to make the whole story look even more murky. However, reports were leaked to the press, relaying the testimony of witnesses who stated that Reverend Holmes had always been ‘eccentric’, ‘of unsound mind’, sometimes ‘violent’. Reverend Andrew, a long-standing friend of Holmes, said that he ‘used to speak of his housekeeper as being possessed with seven devils; that he would some day murder her; on one occasion he stuffed her mouth with pieces of raw potato.’ Medical staff at Heigham Hall stated that once Holmes was in their care, they discovered ‘a number of bodily complaints that had a pernicious reaction upon his mental health’. This is almost certainly a euphemistic reference to venereal disease – never a great diagnosis for a vicar, but at least offering a potential way of explaining away moments of violence with spells of lucidity. VD would make being ‘mad’ in May but ‘sane’ in August more plausible.

However, this wasn’t good enough for one politician, who raised the matter in parliament with the Home Secretary, and so a more open and public hearing took place. During this investigation, the magistrate Cann’s own son, a clerk at the magistrate’s court, defied his father and said that the vicar had been hustled into the asylum ‘in consequence of the station in life of Mr Holmes. Probably, had he been a poor man, the case would have been different. The usual course would be to prove the offence first, and afterwards to consider a plea of insanity.’ That is to say, it was for a jury to decide on his sanity or insanity.


In Britain recently, the possibility that a mental condition was being used as a way of evading justice became a major news stories. An establishment figure, Greville Janner, a member of the House of Lords, no less, faced allegations of the sexual abuse of minors. After the initial acceptance that his Alzheimer's Disease put him beyond prosecution, this decision was reversed, then upheld, and Lord Janner passed away in December. There may still, however, be an investigation into the allegations, so that they alleged victims can put their testimony on the record.

As regards the 19th-century, it’s difficult for us to assess the extent to which individuals evaded prison by feigning insanity. Dr Charles Hood, who ran Bedlam in the middle years ot the century, believed that many perfectly sane villains pretended to go mad in prison in order to be transferred to the asylum, since conditions were considered better in the latter. Far later in the century, Lady Harriet Mordaunt was believed by many to have escaped a very public divorce and revelations of her infidelities by being declared a lunatic (others, though, swear the she had in fact become insane, and that her adulteries were a facet of her mental illness).

As for the Holmes case, when the final report arrived on the desk of the Home Secretary, his under-secretary scribbled at the end of the document: ‘Nothing now can be done, I think.’ And so Mrs Bunn’s daughter never received justice.

Reverend Holmes doesn’t appear in the archives again until his death in 1870, in Boulogne, northern France, where he held a junior religious post.

The Asylum Journal of Mental Science’s editorial on the Reverend Holmes case had concluded, in 1854: ‘We cannot see what advantage could possibly have been gained to the ends of justice by sending the unhappy man in the first instance to a gaol and by exposing the details of a nasty case in a court of law.’ Sexual attacks were not family reading, and for that reason were often reported euphemistically in mainstream newspapers; but it is odd to our eyes that a professional journal for psychiatrists should be so willing to call for the official overlooking of a troubling crime. Sex crimes, including assaults upon children, can be found in Victorian newspapers and court reports – it wouldn’t be accurate to say that such matters were routinely swept under the carpet, as we may perhaps imagine. However, it is the case that (just as until relatively recently, in our own times) there were many instances where these incidents were downgraded, or the victim found her/himself under scrutiny; or the world just preferred to look the other way. In the Holmes case, the locals, the press and an MP did not look the other way; but nor did they bring a satisfactory conclusion to this distressing case.

The Lancet, 1 December 1854
The Daily News, 2 December 1854
Asylum Journal of Mental Science, 1 November 1854
National Archives, Home Office papers, HO 45/5521

A picture of the demolition of Heigham Hall in progress can be found on the Norwich Heart website here
No other picture of it has survived (unless anyone knows differently!)

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England by SarahWise is published by Counterpoint
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About the Author
Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise is a writer based in London.

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