Louisa (or Louise) Josephine Jemima Masset was the first person to be executed in
She was hanged at Newgate prison on
Louisa was 36 years old and was half French (on her father's side) and half English. Click here for picture. She was described as a "cultured" woman. On April the 24th, 1896 she gave birth to an illegitimate son called Manfred and felt forced to leave France due to the stigma attached to illegitimate births in those days - it was considered "quite scandalous." She came to England and settled at 29 Bethune Road Stoke Newington in London. It does not seem as if she was very maternal and soon placed Manfred in foster care with a Mrs. Helen Gentle who lived in Tottenham. Mrs Gentle looked after Manfred from a baby and was paid 37 shillings a month (£1.85 or about $3), which allegedly came from the child's natural father in
Sometime in 1899, Louisa took on a "toy
boy," 19 year old Eudore Lucas as her lover. Eudore was a young French bank clerk who lived next door to
her and was in Britain training in finance. He was paid about £3 a week, which
both agreed made marriage out of the question. Eudore
was aware that Louise had a son, although what his attitude was to Manfred is
On the 16th of October 1899, Mrs. Gentle received a letter from Louisa telling her Manfred's father was going to have the boy to live with him in France and that Louisa would collect him on Friday, October 27th to take him to France. However, Louisa had also made another arrangement, she was going to
On the Friday, Louisa put a clinker brick from her garden into her Gladstone bag before going to meet Helen Gentle at Stamford Hill. After tearful farewells, she led Manfred away with a parcel of his clothes that Mrs Gentle had packed for the journey to
Manfred was dressed in a blue "frock" and had a sailor's hat on. Frocks were quite normal for small boys in those days. Mother and son were next seen at London Bridge station's First Class waiting room at 1.45 p.m. on the Friday. Around , Mrs. Ellen Rees, the attendant in the waiting room, noted the little boy seemed distressed and suggested to Louisa that perhaps he was hungry. Louisa and Manfred then left rather hurriedly, Louisa saying she was going to buy Manfred a cake. She returned without him about 3 hours later to catch a train for Brighton for her rendezvous with Eudore on the Saturday.
At Dalston Junction station, an unsuspecting lady had a horrible shock when she went to the ladies toilets at about and discovered the body of a child. It was a male child and was naked except for a black shawl. The face and head had been battered and there were two pieces of a broken clinker brick lying by the body. These were of the same type found in Louisa's garden. Manfred had been beaten unconscious and then suffocated perhaps using a hand over his mouth and nose according to Dr. J. P. Fennell, the doctor who examined the still warm body. Louisa was familiar with this station as she went there regularly on her journey to one of her piano pupils.
Saturday's newspapers were full of the story of Manfred's discovery - the Victorian's were very fond of a "good murder" and every detail was reported.
Louisa had sent Helen Gentle a letter which arrived on Monday the 30th saying that Manfred was missing her, and that he had been sick crossing the channel on the ferry but that all was well now. However, Helen Gentle was suspicious of the letter, having read about the discovery of the body of a child of Manfred's age, and informed the police of her suspicions. She later identified the body as Manfred and was also able to identify the parcel of clothes which she had made up for him and which were found in the left luggage office at Brighton station together with the frock and sailor's hat.
Back in Stoke Newington, the black shawl found on Manfred was identified by the shop assistant as having come from his establishment and being sold by him on October 24th to Louisa, who being half French had a distinctive speaking voice.
She was also identified by witnesses on
Louisa had read about the discovery of Manfred's body and when she visited her sister later, was clearly in a distressed state. She is reported to have said, "I'm hunted for murder, but I didn't do it" and implicated Eudore in the crime.
She was soon arrested at her other sister's home. She was picked out in an identity parade by. Mrs. Rees, the waiting room attendant, and was duly charged with murder. She was committed for trial at the Old Bailey in December 1899.
Louisa was tried at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Bruce between the 13th and 18th of December 1899. Her defence, led by Lord Coleridge, claimed that Louisa had entered into an agreement with two women, called Browning who on payment of £18.00 a year, were going to look after Manfred for the foreseeable future and that it must have been them who murdered him. She claimed to have given them a £12.00 deposit before handing Manfred over to them. This may sound far fetched now but would have had a lot more credibility at the time when "baby farming" murder cases were not uncommon.
However, as the two Mrs. Brownings could not be found and a receipt for the £12.00 could not be produced, Louisa's story was not believed by the jury. The evidence against her seemed conclusive and she was inevitably found guilty. She collapsed in the dock on hearing the verdict and had to be revived to hear her sentence, which was that she "be hanged by the neck until she was dead."
She was taken from the court into the adjoining Newgate Prison and placed in the condemned cell where she spent Christmas and New Year 1900 guarded around the clock by pairs of female warders.
She is said to have confessed to the murder in the condemned cell. A petition got up by other French women working in London was sent to Queen Victoria but was ignored.
There was to be no reprieve and at on the morning of the 9th of January, she faced her appointment with James Billington, the hangman from
Billington placed a body belt round her waist, to which her wrists were pinioned, and then led her across the yard to the execution shed and onto the trap of the large gallows in Newgate. Once there, her legs were pinioned by a leather strap outside her skirt (to stop it blowing up as she dropped) and the noose placed around her neck. (Click here to see an artist's impression of the scene). When all was ready, he put the white hood over her head and pulled the lever to "launch her into eternity" to use the popular expression of the time. A few minutes later the black flag was run up to tell the crowd outside that the execution had been carried out. After hanging for the regulation hour, her body was removed from the rope and prepared for inquest. The inquest noted that her features looked peaceful and only the rope mark on her neck bore witness to a violent death. She was later buried in an unmarked grave within the prison.
By the standards of the day, she was seen as an immoral woman, the case against her was strong and there was no doubt of her guilt or the justice of her sentence for a crime that was clearly pre-meditated and violent. To many people, the killing of a child by its mother is particularly shocking. But her case is a good example of how social values have changed in 100 years.
In Victorian England, having an illegitimate child was a serious stigma and it was no doubt considered equally scandalous behaviour to have a relationship with a much younger man.
There was no effective contraception in the 1890's - a silk handkerchief being about all that was available and so unwanted pregnancies were commonplace, as were "back street" abortions and the practice of giving unwanted children to people who purported that they were going to look after them, but in fact, murdered them as soon as they had been paid by the mother. The so called "baby farmers."
Bringing up a small child at that time also meant that it was virtually impossible for the mother to find work in order to support herself. There was no Social Security then nor any day nurseries in the modern sense. Helen Gentle's charges were by no means cheap when one considers what people earned at that time so, no doubt, Manfred was a financial burden on Louisa as well as an emotional one.
It is probable that the motives for the murder in Louisa's mind was that she perceived Manfred as an encumbrance to her relationship with Eudore. One wonders if she had ever really bonded with him and whether she actually loved the child or found him an embarrassment in Victorian society.