Harriet Morris was an unmarried mother working in service in London, convicted in 1866 of attempting to poison her daughter; a crime for which she was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude.
Little is known of Harriet’s early life, other than that she was born in London in either 1838 or 1839. Up until she committed her crime she worked as a servant – census records from 1861 suggest she may have worked for the Halse family in St Mary Abbots, Kensington.
Harriet appeared before the Old Bailey in December 1866, her only appearance there, and it is from the proceedings of this trial that we learn the most about Harriet. It was revealed during the trial that Harriet had an illegitimate child called Emily Louisa Morris, who lived not with Harriet, but with a widow named Elizabeth Brown. The arrangement was that Emily would remain in the care of Elizabeth, and Harriet and Emily’s father would pay Elizabeth a regular sum of money – both parents were, however, in arrears. Harriet was accused during the trial of taking her daughter Emily to a “dark place” where she then dipped a bun in some liquid and forced Emily to eat it. Emily then proceeded to be sick, and complained it made her mouth “smart”. After giving her daughter the liquid, Harriet quickly left the scene and abandoned her daughter in the dark avenue, and ignored her daughter calling out to her. Emily was later found by a man, and then the police took her back to Elizabeth Brown’s house. During the trial, a chemist was questioned who had examined the liquid administered via stains on Emily’s clothes, and he determined that the liquid was in fact oxalic acid – a poison. Harriet denied this, claiming instead that the liquid was alum water, which the court clearly did not accept, as Harriet was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude.
The guilty verdict was made with mercy being recommended by the jury, in light of what was perceived to have been difficult circumstances which drove Harriet to administer the poison. Although the sentence of fifteen years' penal servitude was likely to have been a reduced sentence in light of Harriet’s circumstances, the sentence was still a severe one, and it appears that Harriet did in fact serve all of her sentence. Her prison register from a year after she was sentenced shows that she was serving the initial part of her sentence at Milbank. From a prison license ten years later in 1876, we can see that Harriet had by this time been moved to Woking prison (a prison designed for disabled criminals, including convicts with mental illnesses as was likely in Harriet’s case), and had by this time served a considerable portion of her original sentence.
Harriet’s crime appears to have been very much an isolated incident – her victim was somebody with a very close association with her (her daughter) and it was performed with a very specific aim. Harriet had no prior convictions or court appearances at the Old Bailey, nor was she ever charged with a crime again upon her release from prison. Unlike many convicted criminals during this period, Harriet did not have a record of committing petty crimes, and she appears to have committed her crime at a moment of weakness, which may explain why the jury recommended mercy at her trial.
Unfortunately, census data does not add much more to our knowledge of Harriet Morris. Given that her name was not that unusual, there are a number of marriage and death records for many different people named Harriet Morris in London around this period, and there is nothing that would allow us to make a link between any of those records and the Harriet Morris we are looking at. However, one very significant life event that we know of from her court records is the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Emily Louisa, who was 6 years old at the time of her mother’s trial, making her birth year around 1860. Unlike many women who ceased their criminal activity after they had children, the fact that she had a child actually seems to have been the motivating factor behind Harriet’s crime. Indeed, during the trial Harriet claimed “I intended to have stopped with her, I wish now I had done so, and then there would have been an end to us both” – presumably she is indicating here that she wanted to kill Emily when she was born. This, together with the fact that she ended up in Woking prison towards the end of her sentence, may indicate that Harriet was suffering from mental illness whilst in prison, and it is likely that this was the case prior to her trial as well.
Also recorded in the proceedings of her Old Bailey trial are the personal circumstances that the jury felt were relevant to her case. Harriet claimed that Emily’s father had no involvement with his child, and that Emily had been “a world of trouble” and had “brought me to death’s door before now”. She also explained that she had no avenues of support - her father had died and her mother was a “poor woman in the country” who could not help her. Apparently, lawyers had been involved to try and get the father to fulfil his responsibilities, but that process had been going on for many months prior to Harriet’s crime, and had yielded no results. Because Harriet was working in service, she could not look after Emily herself, hence why Elizabeth Brown was raising her instead. The court proceedings portray Harriet as a desperate woman who committed a terrible act in very difficult circumstances, and the jury clearly believed that her life situation was what drove her to attempt to poison Emily – and the jury also felt that her personal circumstances necessitated mercy.
Unfortunately the census data provides little information about Harriet’s later years. There are eight different death records from London for women named Harriet Morris, born around the time that the Harriet we are looking at was born. The dates of death on these records range from 1882, a year after Harriet’s sentence would have ended, to 1919, which would have made her around 81 years of age at the point at her death. There are few details attached to many of these records, and so it is very difficult to try and link any of them with the Harriet we are interested in. As such, her year of death is uncertain. As to whether she ever married, again the census data provides the same problem. However, given that she was 28 at the time of her conviction, and she served fifteen years in prison, she would have been around 43 upon her release. Also given that she was in Woking prison, which suggests she was suffering from mental illness, these factors together would have perhaps made it more difficult for her to marry at this point in her life, and so the possibility remains unlikely, but not entirely impossible.
In many ways, Harriet’s case was relatively unique – many crimes from this period centred around theft of property, counterfeiting money, and so on, but this case did not. The use of poison, and the fact that the crime involved the mother as the perpetrator and her young daughter (who was not a baby) as the victim is also very uncommon. However, the recommendation of mercy that Harriet received was less rare, as the courts were generally hesitant to prescribe the harshest of punishments for women who committed murder or attempted murder, as this was not considered to be a significant social problem, and so prescribing harsh punishments would produce few benefits for society. Given her gender and the difficult life circumstances that Harriet was in, and the fact that she had no previous convictions, it was not unusual at all that in Harriet’s case the jury recommended mercy.
Wounding, Penal Servitude, Prison Licence, Female
This page was written by Alex Traves with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.