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Dinah Pearson: Murderer? | John F. Wake

Dinah Pearson

Maria Street, Tiger Bay, March 1864


It is 1864 and 39 Maria Street, Tiger Bay was a beer house named the Prince Llewellyn Inn. The landlord was Joseph Fisher (29) from Somerset. His wife, Selina (29) was also from Somerset. They had a six-year-old son, (un-named in the report) and a little daughter, Susan (2). The Fishers took in lodgers, as most of the beer houses did in those days, and of course had a resident servant girl, Ann Murphy (21), originally from Suffolk. She was unmarried.

The second Bute Street Police Station opened in 1895 on the corner of Maria Street but in 1864 it was derelict land. Maria Street comes off Bute Street at a right angle and runs through to what was the Glamorgan Canal. It was a newish street in 1864 made up of terraced houses mostly occupied by newcomers to Cardiff, many from other parts of Wales and England.

At the rear of the backyards in Maria Street on the northern side ran Bute Lane. There was an entry from Bute Lane into the outdoor toilet closets that stood in a row along the backyards. Another entry was a passageway between two houses in Maria Street. The toilet closets were lockable and the waste dropped down a hole into a sluice pipe and ditch. They were not efficient. The public could also get in and use the facilities via the Bute Lane door as it was hardly ever locked.

It was a Sunday morning and Selena Fisher was up and about early in the Prince Llewellyn. It had been the usual busy Saturday night in the pub but at least Sunday would bring respite, now having restricted licensing hours.

Around 10:00 am Selena Fisher went to use one of the closets and on opening the door she smelled something foul and saw what she thought was a pig’s head or ear sticking up through the excrement in the ditch. She looked closer and saw it was a baby’s head. She shouted and a neighbour, Jones, attended, and looked down the toilet. He verified that the item covered in filth was indeed a dead baby. A runner went to the police station and found Constable Cambridge who came to the scene.

Today every care would be taken in the most hygienic of circumstances, but what that officer faced then, and the actions he took, are simply too awful to imagine. He noted that several people had used that toilet since the baby had been put in. It is difficult to grasp how that could be. If Selena Fisher had seen what she thought was a pig’s head surely others must have seen it also before covering it further. The only explanation is the closet must have been used in the black of the night where people doing their business would not have seen the dead child.

Cambridge pulled the body out and put it in a bucket. He could see what he thought was blood amongst the filth. He carried the bucket to the Dead House in St Mary Street. He put the bucket on a table and pushed some of the filth off it. He saw that the baby’s throat had been cut wide open. He called for Doctor Paine, the police doctor who attended promptly.

The time is now 12:30 pm on Sunday afternoon. Paine made a quick examination of the tiny male body. There was a deep wound on the left side of the neck. The umbilical cord had been cut close to the body. There were other signs of violence that were only discovered properly once the body had been cleaned on the Dead House table. Paine informed the officer that the baby could well have been murdered and to take that prognosis into the investigation. The door of the Dead House was locked and the key deposited in the police station. Constable Cambridge informed the Reserve Man to send a runner and tell the Chief of Police, Stockdale. The constable then returned to Maria Street.

There was a small crowd of excited people in the street. The awful incident had become public knowledge. The onlookers were passing exaggerated information and speculation from one to another. Their thoughts on the horror would soon be brought to life with more revelations.

PC Cambridge then did something that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes would have been proud of – he followed a trail of blood. Spots led from the closet towards the back door of 43 Maria Street. From that moment Cambridge saw and heard one of the most terrible and stressful piece of street life that he was ever likely to experience.

Dinah Pearson was born in Wiltshire in 1846, so she was seventeen years old at the time of this incident. She was attractive and born into poverty, which can often foretell the future for girls from the back-streets; a life on the edge, prostitution, drunkenness and crime. There were lucky ones who went into domestic employment and servitude with decent families. The unlucky ones did not. She was described as having a ‘ladylike demeanour’ and her appearance was ‘pleasing to the eye’.

Dinah was lodging at 43 Maria Street, Butetown, the occupants being the Cornwall family. Mrs Cornwall, also born in Wiltshire, appears to have been Dinah’s elder sister. The head of the family, Hills Cornwall, was a butcher by trade.

Constable Cambridge entered 43 Maria Street through the back door and saw blood stains on the stairs. He found Dinah Pearson in an upstairs room she shared with a six-year-old boy, the Cornwall’s son. He saw she was upset and he took it upon himself to arrest her ‘for the wilful murder of her child’. She walked to another room with her sister and sat down, distressed. The officer then said that whatever she was going to say he would write down.

She said ‘Oh, Lord what shall I do?’

She then walked about the house aimlessly and told Cambridge that she had come to Cardiff just before Christmas and delivered her own child the previous night. I thought it was dead because it did not cry. I then took it to the sink and cut its throat. ‘I did it with a carving knife,’ she said.

Cambridge found a carving knife in a drawer in her room.

It is worth noting certain facts at these early stages which were to come out later. The officer wrote down the replies in a notebook that he was to use at the magistrates’ court. At the Assizes he admitted he had written them again in a separate book because the replies were not clearly written in the original. It was the new book he would read from at the Assizes. He even admitted at the court that some of his notes were written on the morning of the court case, but they went undisputed. They referred to finding the blood trail. He swore that he put no further questions to Dinah Pearson.

After taking possession of the carving knife, Cambridge said that Mrs Cornwall had said in the presence of Dinah, ‘Tell the truth’. Again, it is worth jumping ahead to the court trial where PC Cambridge said initially that Mrs Cornwall was not in the room when he charged and arrested Dinah, then he later said she was in the room.

Dinah Pearson was taken into custody after admitting she had dropped the dead baby down the toilet.

It is worth reading the original evidence in an attempt to understand the defence’s position and the evidence-gathering of a major Victorian murder trial. Doctor Paine undertook the full official post-mortem at the Dead House. The main and evidential details follow:

The child had been born at full term.

The wound on the left side of the neck began just below the ear and passed down in front of the neck, passed deeply down through the muscles of the neck, passed through the blood vessels, the wind pipe and the vertebra of the neck.

There was only one wound which must have been inflicted with great force. No other external violence marks.

Umbilical cord had been separated close to the body. Appeared to be cut.

On removing the scalp there was slight ecchymolis beneath the skin at a part corresponding to an external discolouration. This may have been done by a blow or a fall.

The vessels of the membranes of the brain contained less blood than he had usually seen when he had examined the other bodies of newly borns.

On removing the skin over the chest the muscles of the body was pale which corresponded to the other parts of the body that had been deprived of blood.

The lungs were inflated and well expanded. They were light pinkish, mottled in colour and spongy. The heart and lungs when removed from the body floated. The lungs were cut into pieces, then put into water, they floated. It showed that respiration had been established.

The right cavity of the heart contained a small quantity of venous blood. The left one was empty. Dr Paine concluded that the contractile powers of the heart up to the time of the infliction of the wound had been performed.

The post-mortem concluded the child had been born alive and the wound had been enough to cause its death. There was no doubt the child had breathed. The child had sufficient vital power to have maintained an independent existence. He declared, however, that he could not swear the child had existed independently of the mother. He commented that the separation of the umbilical cord so close to the body was dangerous. Dr Paine carried on by saying it can and does cause haemorrhage and had the haemorrhage arisen from the umbilical cord not being secured properly, he could hardly have expected to have found the blood vessels of the heart so entirely deficient of blood. He reiterated that the cause of death was the wound in the neck.

This is vital evidence. It is the difference between life and death for the accused. Manslaughter or murder, or perhaps neither; a concealment of birth.

Dinah Pearson (17) was charged, held in custody, and indicted:

At Cardiff on the 23rd January 1864, feloniously, wilfully and with malice aforethought, killed and murdered a certain male child.

Thursday, 17 March 1864. Dinah Pearson was in a very dangerous place: the dock of the Assize Court in Cardiff Town Hall. She admitted it was her child. She admitted putting a knife in the baby’s neck. She admitted putting the baby down the pan in a garden closet in Maria Street. Whatever sympathy there was for her, surely it came down to her being a young woman, who was sixteen when she became pregnant, giving birth to her baby and killing it; a most evil act of murder.

If a jury found her guilty she had to be sentenced to be death by law. But, even then, there was a way out for her. The jury could ask for clemency after finding her guilty. This would then go to the Home Secretary who had the final say whether to commute the death penalty and return her to the judge for another sentence. But it did not look good for Dinah, lonely and standing in the Assize dock.

The jury members could not have imagined what that girl had gone through. Why? Because they were all men. No women were allowed to serve. Could they emphasise with a young girl delivering her baby alone, cutting it, hiding it, then going through hell in the following days due to her physical condition, let alone her mental state?

The judgement lay on whether the whole of the baby left his mother’s womb and did it then live a separate existence? This same question was asked repeatedly in Victorian courts when young girls were charged with killing their own baby.

One question was not asked, it never was asked in such cases, however extreme and distasteful – who was the father? It appeared in researching all these cases that the girls were ‘hussies’, while men were simply doing what men do. Why ask who the father was? There has to be an answer why no court, or investigator, or reporter ever asked: ‘who was the father?’

The jury had Dr Paine’s post-mortem evidence to accept or reject. How about Constable Cambridge? Dinah’s barrister, Mr Giffard, gave a stinging criticism of the officer. Had he, being full of himself, got carried away, bullied the girl and become overbearing?

…there is a man, an experienced police officer and a young girl of seventeen years of age, who was at that time suffering from the throes of childbirth, and in such an excited and hysterical state as to be properly subject of sympathy by Dr Paine, if not such a man as the police officer Cambridge.
Members of the jury, if you are sick and feeble in bed, would you like to have such a man as your attendant nurse? …in the mischievous zeal of such an enthusiastic police officer he went and cross examined this poor woman…

Reading between the distinct lines Dinah’s barrister was under no illusions that Cambridge had perjured himself. He did not say it directly but enough hints went to the jury that conversations took place at the time of the arrest being ‘fabricated’. Giffard highlighted the mess that Officer Cambridge had made of his evidence: different notebooks, different words, made-up answers, and overbearing conduct.

He spoke of Dr Paine and how his evidence was professional and delivered calmly with all the attributes of a very experienced medical man. But. with regard to the lungs floating proving respiration, were they respirated slightly before independent life from the mother?

Giffard invited the jury to look at the prisoner and the pressure she was under and had been under. A child forced to lose her chastity. Someone had caused her to act in such a way.

The way the law worked then was clear. If a jury had the slightest doubt that the child did not have an independent life away from the mother, they must find her not guilty of the crime of murder. If they believe the child did have an independent life then they must find her guilty.

At least there had been a passing mention to the young girl losing her chastity. How she lost it we do not know. Was it rape, overbearing conduct, power of social position, infatuation, or innocence? Was it the activity of a hussy, as most commentators described pregnant girls?

And who was the father? They court didn’t care about that.

The Judge summed up, informing the men of the jury that their duty was to bring in a verdict to which they were all agreed. Whatever they felt about this heinous offence they must not be swayed by emotion. It was the facts they had to judge upon. They retired, but only for a few minutes.

Q ‘How do you find Dinah Pearson, guilty or not guilty of the murder of a male child?’

A ‘Not guilty.’

The emotion in the court room must have been intense. The black cloth was pushed to one side.

The Jury: ‘Guilty of Concealment of Birth and Mutilation after Death.’

The Judge: ‘You will go to prison with hard labour for eight months. Take her down.’

What happened next is possibly more upsetting and vividly portrays the attitudes towards ‘fallen’ women.

Dinah was not in prison long. Her behaviour and state of mind was not good. The events that had taken place over the previous year had turned this ordinary working girl into a convicted murderer. They had taken their toll.

The medics at the prison decided Dinah Pearson was a lunatic. She arrived at the Vernon Lunatic Asylum in Briton Ferry, near Neath, on 20 August 1864. It was the Glamorgan Quarter Sessions (usually local judges, whereas Assizes always had High Court judges) who financed the Vernon asylum. There were a limited number of patients sent there during its early years in the 1840s. In later years it was expanded.

One month after Dinah was admitted to the asylum, on 26 September 1864, she was dead. She killed herself.

Her body was removed, at some expense, and taken to her birthplace, Hullavington in Wiltshire, where she lies in peace in the parish church graveyard.

Kathleen’s Story by author Cheryl O’Brien is a short story on the feelings and thoughts of a destitute servant girl from the back streets. A girl just like Dinah Pearson.

The Dinah Pearson case sums up what many Victorian women may have thought but dare not say. This from a contemporary journalist:

The committal of Dinah Pearson for the murder of her newly born babe strongly suggests the necessity of some more stringent law than that which enforces pecuniary damages in cases of seduction. A young woman who has scarcely passed her years of girlhood in her first agonies of childbirth, is seized with morbid desires to destroy the evidence of her shame and with apparently superhuman resolution carries out the horrible idea under the impression that her putative offspring was already dead. With animals of a lower classification than the genus homo, the destruction of their young is by no means uncommon and we leave to ethnologists the possibility of reconciling similar cravings with the educated or uneducated human race. Few who have seen Dinah Pearson (apart from the consideration of her crime) will be strongly prepossessed in favour of her youth and ladylike demeanour, while they feel there is no adequate punishment for the author of her criminality.
December 1864.

What punishment could there be for the instigator of her criminality? If it was rape then there was certainly a punishment, but who is going to believe a servant girl? If she named someone it would be denied, therefore no case to answer. If she said ‘I did as I was told’ she is open to the allegation of being a hussy seducing an innocent man. Examining all the answers a young girl could give in those days, not one would stand up in court, even if it ever got there.

more information:


This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.

https://geni.us/Dead-House

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Dinah Pearson: Murderer? | John F. Wake

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