Cholera, Murder and Attempted Suicide
A grief stricken man whose wife and daughter died of cholera killed his two other children before attempting suicide himself.
Patrick Culkin was a schoolmaster from Carlow in Ireland who like many others, fled the famine in the 1840s and settled in Liverpool with his wife and three children. Unable to find work, thirty four year old Patrick fell upon hard times and was forced to seek parish relief to feed his family.
On the morning of Wednesday 1st August 1849 seven year old Sarah Culkin died of cholera at the family's home in a court off Oriel Street, Vauxhall. The following day Mrs Culkin died of the same disease. A neighbour named Jane Kane did what she could to help, but Patrick said he could not live without his wife and refused to even accept a cup of tea.
Oriel Street as it is today.
On the Friday afternoon Jane went to see how Patrick was and found the door locked. With the help of neighbours, she got in through a window and found Patrick lying on the bed with his arm around the body of his wife. He was barely alive and on another bed were the dead bodies eight year old James and eleven month old Catherine, their throats cut.
Patrick was taken to the Northern Hospital in a state of semi consciousness, calling out on the way to God so that he could be taken to his wife and children. The four bodies were examined by a local surgeon, Dr Kilner. Sarah and her mother had been laid out as if for burial, while the two other children had been dead for some hours, their throats cut from one end to the other.
The inquest took place on 6th August before the borough coroner Mr P F Curry. Mrs Cain told how Patrick had been a loving husband and father but his mood changed immediately with the death of his wife and he said he would never again eat meat in this world. Dr Kilner said that the throat wounds could not have been self inflicted.
Another neighbour Ellen Bent recalled how on the day of his wife's death Patrick had said he could not live any longer and that she should not be alarmed if she read anything bad about him on the papers. On the morning of the killings, Patrick told her how he had been to the Harp pub on Vauxhall Road and been given wine and brandy by the landlord as charity.
Mr Lea from the parish recalled that on the Thursday he had gone to the house and saw Sarah's body lying on the table and Patrick and his two remaining children on the bed next to the corpse of his wife. Mr Lea told him to get up as it was dangerous to lie next to a dead body and that he would arrange for the interment. When he returned that evening with some food, Patrick said that he was awaiting some money from his sister in the Isle of Man and would arrange the burials himself. Mr Lea told the Coroner that he did not fear for Patrick's welfare and apart from the ordinary dejection resulting from his loss, there was nothing unusual in his manner.
As Mr Curry was about to sum up, a female stepped forward to say that Patrick was a friend of her husband and had visited their house in Hanover Street on the Thursday night. She was ordered to give her evidence on oath and testified that Patrick had told them he had lost two of his closest friends and if he said more it would lead to astonishment. The female said she was of the opinion Patrick was of unsound mind at the time.
The Coroner told the jury that they were unable to determine on Patrick's state of mind, that was for the assizes to decide. Referring to it as a 'most frightful case' he said that the only verdict they could return was one of wilful murder against Patrick, who was described by the Liverpool Mail as of 'superior attainment' and well respected in his neighbourhood.
The assizes were due to start just two days later but with Patrick still in hospital under police supervision his case could not be heard. It was another month before he was discharged to Kirkdale gaol to await his trial which took place on 14th December. On being asked to enter a plea, he replied 'I am not conscious of having done it, surrounded with death as I was, my poor wife and daughter - my favourites.' A plea of not guilty was recorded and as was customary at the time, Patrick was tried only for the murder of one of the victims, his daughter Catherine.
For the prosecution, Mr James described the case as 'the most heartrending and painful'. He told the jury that he would simply relay the facts and let them decide as to Patrick's state of mind. Patrick was described as someone of 'kindness and affection' who had fallen into 'extreme destitution'. Mr James went on to say that the cholera had taken many in Liverpool and the Kingdom that autumn and this led to Patrick telling others he could not survive his loss. He told the jury that the only decision they had to make was as to the state of mind of Patrick at the time of the killings.
Jane Cain and Mrs Bent were both called to give evidence about the events in the immediate aftermaths of the deaths of Patrick's wife and eldest daughter. Jane said that Patrick had been talking to the corpses as if they were still alive and even opened Sarah's eyes. Mrs Bent described him as deranged and a doctor from the Northern Hospital felt he was not of sound mind from the time of admission.
Mr Justice Wightman summed up by saying that this was one of the most lamentable and painful that had ever come before a court. He asked the jury to set aside feeling and instead decide if Patrick could distinguish between right and wrong at the time of the killings. If they believed that the distress of mind, coupled with lack of sleep and food, had made the mind so unsettled then a verdict of insanity could be returned. On the other hand, if they felt that Patrick was sane then they would have to find him guilty of murder, no matter how painful that could be.
It took just a few minutes deliberation for the jury to acquit Patrick on the grounds of insanity. He was then detained until Her Majesty's pleasure be known.