The Murder of Mary Jane Scaife (1837-1858)

My 4th Great Aunt was a lady named Mary Jane Scaife.  She was sister to Thomas Scaife, my 3x Great Grandfather and one of the first Skaifes in the United States from my family.  She was murdered in August of 1858 by a former love interest, James Atkinson.  The news was very sensational and garnered a lot of press and attention to mental health issues.

Mary Jane Scaife and James Atkinson were neighbors in the small village of Darley, about 45 minutes drive north of Leeds.  They grew up together and were evidently quite close.  So close, in fact, that they were widely assumed to be in love and would marry at some point.  But Mary Jane’s mother (Mary A Downes Scaife) and Atkinson’s father did not approve.  The relationship soured.  On the evening in question, they walked together after church when Atkinson proposed marriage, but denied. Atkinson confessed:

She was all the while awkward with me, and would not go on quietly, so I stopped her where she was; I took her by the throat and told her I would murder her if she did not go on quietly.  She sale it was all false.  She said I only wanted to make her believe so.  Then I took her by the throat and tried to choke her.  She cried not when I took her by the throat, and I thought some one would hear, and we both got up and walked on a little bit, and I pulled my knife out and showed her it.

She cried out, “Let’s go home, Jim; Let’s go home, Jim.” I seized her and cut her throat, and she cried out, “It’s all my mother, Jim, that has caused this disturbance.  The Lord help me.” before she fainted away, and then I left her.

He detailed his attempts to wash the blood off his hands and having a tormented night of sleep before telling his brother who encouraged him to turn himself in.  Amazingly, James Atkinson was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a decision detested by The Lancet and The Examiner.  The whole trial was covered in a book titled Attrocious Murder Committed on the Body of Miss Mary Jane Scaife: A Young Lady, Near Ripley, Yorkshire, by Her Sweetheart James Atkinson; Also, an Account of His Trial which Took Place at York, in December Last, 1858 by the author Peter Brown.  Evidently brevity wasn’t valued at the time.

Atkinson’s defense attorneys were able to argue his insanity/imbecility (despite his supervisor’s job) thanks to the following, as described by the disbelieving writers at The Examiner:

[the defense attorney’s physician] had asked him what a man thought with – if he thought his his heart? and the prisoner answered he thought not.  He had asked the prisoner of a man could think with his legs cut off? And he said he could not tell.  The doctor described Atkinson as an imperfect idiot and partial imbecile.

[…] We have hardly patience to repeat all the nonsense talked by this Dr. Williams.  He examined the murderer in natural history!  He found him backward in his knowledge of trees and domestic animals!

But lest you think that Mr. Atkinson got off scot-free for his crimes, he did not.  After a short, violent stint in York Prison, he was eventually sent to the infamous Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital for the Criminally Insane in London.  To this day, there rests a memorial to the victim in St. Jude’s Churchyard.


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