A Plea For Insanity: The Sarah Allen Trial

On January 18th, 1738, a seemingly puzzled and quiet Ms. Sara Allen, surrounded by a crowd of judges, sat upon the bench of the Old Bailey Courthouse awaiting her sentence. Ms. Allen, accused of killing her newborn bastard infant, listened as the judges had read aloud their final verdict.  After a time discussing what was to be Sarah’s fate, the judges deemed that Ms. Allen, being ashamed of birthing a bastard child did, in fact, place the child within a kennel, and proceeded to throw the kennel from a height of three stories. Despite Sarah’s seemingly peculiar behaviour, the judges of the Old Bailey Courthouse dismissed all acquisitions of insanity, finding Ms. Sarah Allen guilty of infanticide. As for her sentence, the judges saw fit that Sarah be burned to death at the stake.

Sarah Allen’s narrative is the astounding story of a female criminal whom had fallen victim to an outdated, inexperienced 18th century judicial system. The case of Ms. Allen possesses a great deal of judicial negligence. In his personal accounts, the Ordinary of Newgate neglects the possibility of criminal insanity. In his defence, the Ordinary believed the accused Ms. Allen’s acted under her own will. The Ordinary based his defence on the fact that the then ill Ms. Allen seemed to recover from her sickened state, and that sometime later she repented her sins. However, the Ordinary’s details seem to be vague assumptions loosely based upon religious beliefs and common sickness. The Ordinary’s accounts are perfect examples of the religious power, and power of the social voice. My argument, here, is that Ms. Sarah Allen’s sentence ruling was influenced by a lack of judicial knowledge surrounding the idea of insanity – that she was burned at the stake for judicial negligence and the power of the eighteenth century social voice.

According to the Ordinary’s Account, this 27 year old female murderess was born unto honest parents. Her father, a well established Blacksmith, provided young Sarah with the opportunity to attain a sound education at a proper educational institution. Eleven years prior to the crime, Ms. Allen had moved from Buckinghamshire to London in pursuit of employment. While in London, Ms. Sarah Allen would find work as a servant for a number of families. Furthermore, Ms. Allen proved to be a mild mannered, honest young women. With each family, Ms. Allen gained a strong, hard working, positive reputation. While working as a servant in a public house at Westminster, the Ordinary’s Account states that, “she contracted Familiarity with a certain young Man.” As a result of this familiarity, Ms. Allen soon found out that she was with child. Once assured of the pregnancy, Ms. Allen took leave of her service duties and moved into an upper Garret located near Turnstile. It was at this location, the Ordinary Account states, “she threw the [ch]ild out of the Window, three Stories high, in the Street.” William Brumfield, the surgeon called to the scene, described the state of the child upon examination:

I found a large Bruise on the back Part of the Head, which we call the Os Occipitis. The Scull was not fractured, and the Reason it was not I think is this; that in a Subject to young, the Bones are of too fine a Texture to break. I took off the Cranium, and found a large quantity of Blood upon the Brain, which I suppose was occasioned by the Fall. There was likewise a great deal of Blood in the Belly and Breast, which proceeded from the Rupture of some Blood Vessel, and these Things were the Occasion of its Death. I try’d the Experiment of the Lungs in Water, (which I take to be very certain) and they floated; this in my Opinion, was a sure Sign that the Child had breath’d; for if it had not, they would have subsided in the Water.”

On the 6th of October, 1738, a witness to the trial, named Elizabeth Scott, claimed while on an evening walk she had come across a kennel beneath the upper window of Ms. Allens’ home. Upon a closer view of the kennel, which had been leaning against the lower level neighbours door, the witness, Elizabeth Scott, discovered the contents which occupied the inside of the kennel. Ms. Scott attested that when she moved closer to the kennel, she found within it a small, deceased infant child. Overwhelmed with such a sight, Ms Scott told the court that she then proceeded to the nearest tavern to get a “Pint of Pearl.” Upon returning to the scene, the witness, Ms. Scott, had noticed that a crowd of folk surrounded Mr. Frayer’s doorway. Once inside the home of Mr. Frayer, Ms. Scott found the accused sitting in a chair alongside the deceased infant. Shocked and infuriated, Ms. Scott approached Ms. Allen and proceeded to ask her, “How could you be so barbarous as to throw your child out of the window?” Only the repeated utterance, Ms. Scott told the court, that came from her lips was “the Lord knows! The Lord knows!”

By today’s judicial standards, such a response as “The Lord  Knows!” to any particular question would raise red flags. Furthermore, it is bizarre to think that such  an estranged answer did not raise any questions from the Ordinary of Newgate.  That in mind, one would be mistaken to claim that the Ordinary had a great deal of judicial inexperience. After all, it was in part, the Ordinary’s job to take note of any signs that may be considered unnatural. Here, however, the Ordinary, and the rest of the courtroom, passed judgement over such a statement. Apparently, they had merely deemed Ms. Allen’s response a coincidence. Further, the court decided that such a response was brought about due to an after-shock. And yet, evidence of insanity did not end with Ms. Scott’s testimony.

Upon calling Ms. Jane Raikes to the stand, the judges began questioning her relation to the accused. When questioned about Ms. Sarah Allen’s personality, Ms. Raikes answered, “she/always was a giggling, silly, empty Creature.” At this point of the trial, the court has been given accounts of Ms. Allen’s demeanour during the crime, and her personality years prior. What is interesting about Ms. Jane Raikes testimony is her choice of words. It is plausible to say that Ms. Raikes implications were innocent. Yet, in today’s court system, Ms. Raikes choice of words would raise many questions. Why would Ms. Raikes use these specific words to describe Ms. Allen? Moreover, how could the court let such an answer stand without further questioning? Of all possible responses, Ms.  Raikes chose to call her a “giggling, silly, empty Creature.” Given the previous statement from Ms. Scott, Ms. Raike peculiarity only reenforces the idea that Sarah Allen had been mentally unstable for some time prior to the murder.

As for the courts lack of interest in such a statement, the only reasonable explanation deals with social justice. That being said, much like today, 18th century social powers tended to govern within the courtroom. That is not to say that judges had a lesser power. Rather, it was the voice of the public that often had a hand in judicial court cases. Society often demanded outright justice in the event of any unlawful behaviour. As a result, trials such as Ms. Sarah Allen’s, reflected the social views of the eighteenth century. If it were so, the eighteenth century criminal motto would have gone something like, “Sick, or not! Someone must be held accountable for the crime!”

The trial of Ms. Sarah Allen seemed to operate upon a certain level of religious order. Ms. Allen herself, was a women greatly devoted to the Bible. Her acts of service shine true to a life of religious devotion. She was raised into a religious family, taught the word of Lord, and kept this sense of devotion with her all her life. However, facing charges of infanticide, Ms. Sarah Allen’s religious devotion had been unlawfully used against her. In the Ordinary’s Account, the Ordinary stresses the fact that Ms. Sarah Allen had properly repented her all the sins of her life. The Ordinary goes on to mention, “she attended constantly at Chapel, and behaved in a very humble, devout, and religious Manner.” Moreover, the Ordinary, seeing that Ms. Allen repented her sins, attended the chapel, and kept a certain level of religious manner, believed that she was fully aware of her senses. However, as mentioned above, Ms. Allen was a person of great religious devotion for many years prior to the murder. This reinstates the significance of Ms. Allen’s chant, “the Lord knows, the Lord knows!” Clearly, the only words that could tremble from her lips reflected what had been a major part of her young female life; her religious devotion towards the Lord, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the courts system of handing the debatable issues of insanity created an unfair circumstance for such criminals as Ms. Sarah Allen.

On the morning of Wednesday, January 18th, 1738, Ms. Sarah Allen was found guilty of charges laid against her relating to the death of her bastard infant child. Sadly, as a result of her actions, Ms. Allen was sentenced to burn at the stake. Her personal narrative resonates through the eyes of numerous scholars as one whom had been subject to social, political, and judicial negligence. Despite the rather convincing evidence, Ms. Allen was hastily dismissed of the possibility of being insane. Therefore, the power of eighteenth century social norms, rather than a just court system, heavily influenced the verdict. Regardless of judicial inexperience, the social norms greatly affected the status on women. As a result, the judges, along with the jury, felt as though Ms. Sarah Allen should be held fully accountable for her actions.

All information and quotes mentioned are taken for the Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Sarah Allen, Killing, Infanticide




One comment on “A Plea For Insanity: The Sarah Allen Trial

  1. Hey Colin! This is quite an intriguing and tragic read you have here; it really does tell a tale of the court system at the time of Allen’s sentence, doesn’t it? Well done on getting the core facts out while keeping the discussion and story rolling along.

    It was hard to pick out any areas that came up as jarring or tempo breaking, but I found that there was the brief moments where your organization seemed jumpy. By this I mean that you start with a narrative passage about Allen’s day in court and then move to a brief intro and then into another part of the biography. I’m wondering if it would suit the flow better if your intro came first and then moving on into the biography. I assume that your opening paragraph was meant to catch the eye, but it just seemed odd as I moved on into the main arguments when it almost seemed like you were repeating what was mentioned briefly in the first narrative paragraph; somewhat like spoiling the ending of the book before the characters are developed.

    The other main suggestion I would throw out to you would be regarding your pronoun usage in certain passages. I didn’t count all the exact instances, but there were the occasional times where the structure of your sentence lead to confusion regarding who was in subject to a statement. My example for you is at the end of the 5th paragraph with the sentence “Only the repeated utterance, Ms. Scott told the court, that came from her lips was “the Lord knows! The Lord knows!” ” in which at a moment’s glance could lead to confusion about who the ‘her’ was referring to, Ms. Scott or Ms. Allen. But perhaps I’m the only one who was tripped up by that.

    Otherwise, your flow was good and evidence was argumentative presenting a good statement regarding the judicial system at the time. Well done! 🙂


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