Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Clergyman, Scholar, Murderer: The Rev. John Selby Watson

The Rev. John Selby Watson - a respected scholar and former longtime headmaster at the Stockwell School in South London - had a long and difficult married life. Even friends of Anne Selby-Watson described her as "always fretful." In October 1871, in his library at home, Rev. Watson beat her to death with the butt of a pistol. He dragged her body into a small closet, later telling a curious servant that the stains on the carpet were spilled port. 

The 67-year old cleric spent the next two days getting his affairs in order, leaving instructions for the disposal of his books and papers, including a translation of Valerius Flaccus "which I think deserves to be published." Then, he took to his bed with prussic acid, leaving a note: "In a fit of fury I have killed my wife. Often and often she has provoked me and I have had to restrain myself, but my rage overcame me and I struck her down." Selby-Watson was well-trained in the classics but not so much in chemistry; he survived the suicide try to be charged with murder. 

The brutal, calculated slaying cast "a distressing gloom over all thoughtful minds." The clergyman plead insanity, claiming a melancholia brought on by the loss of his job after 25 years. But a jury of Londoners proved unsympathetic and sentenced Selby-Watson to hang. The Home Secretary was besieged with appeals for mercy, many citing the murderer's age and scholarly accomplishments. The Times groused, "There are other murderers besides clergymen ... if extremity of temptation be once admitted as a bar to execution, a dangerous hope might be opened to criminals," while The Spectator decried "sickly sympathy... not creditable to English moral feeling." In plainer language, The Globe inquired, "Would the same sympathy have been felt if a Mr. Mick Connor had knocked his wife's brains out with a pick-axe?" Nonetheless, Selby-Watson's sentence was soon commuted to life. 

He died in his hammock in prison on the Isle of Wight in 1884. The Rev. John Selby Watson makes The Dictionary of National Biography with the unique listing of "author and murderer." I highly recommend Beryl Bainbridge's fictional study of this case, Watson's Apology. Murders by clergyman were (thankfully) rare. In 1887, an insane curate murdered his vicar in Suffolk. 

Illustration: The Penny Illustrated Paper

Now available, Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 1.

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