The following passage takes us through the early life of Mary Pearcey, “The Hampstead Murderess,” infamous for the murder of her lover’s wife and her child in 1890, and earning comparisons (perhaps unfairly) to Jack the Ripper. Her story intersects with issues of mental health, class, and gender, for a chilling glimpse at the Victorian Era’s most vulnerable.
Mrs. Pearcey was born Mary Eleanor Wheeler in Ightham, Kent on Monday, March 26, 1866, and baptized on April 28 of the same year. The weather on the day of her birth was reported favorable, “breezy and dry.” It was the kind of country day worthy of a Wordsworth poem.
A Mrs. Taylor, who said she nursed Mary’s mother Charlotte Ann Wheeler during the delivery, remembered the day Mary was born. She later described the baby to a reporter as “pretty” with “light hair and large blue eyes.”
“We had such a good home too,” Charlotte later said, “and we never had a misword in our lives,” referring to her relationship to her husband. In retrospect, and certainly as compared to the draughty, near-empty room from which she gave the interview decades later, Charlotte idealised the family’s time in Ightham as postcard-perfect.
But memory softens and sweetens the bitterness and boredom of reality, and the reality was that Charlotte suffered “a terrible grief” at the time her daughter was born. The grief resulted from disappointing her family, who had disowned her when she didn’t marry the man they’d chosen for her. She worried this grief would contaminate her baby, and she worried about the consequences of carrying a child when she was prone to fits.
It was the combination of this toxic grief and bad genes, Charlotte later said, that made Nellie—Mary’s family nickname—too sympathetic and susceptible to other people’s grief, which, perhaps, caused her to behave in unpredictable ways.
The toxicity of emotions was not an uncommon idea. Many expectant mothers of the era worried that, through some mystical mechanism or chance encounter with a beast, they would imprint the bad psychic energy or physical characteristics of the beast onto their children. The belief was called “maternal impression.” Joseph Merrick, given the show name “The Elephant Man” by his manager Tom Norman in order to drum up a crowd, used this theory to partly explain his own, rare medical condition. Merrick explained his illness this way: his mother was knocked over and frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant. This encounter resulted in the thick lesions that covered his body. In truth, Merrick probably suffered from a combination of Neurofibromatosis Type I and Proteus Syndrome, both years from diagnosis or treatment.
While Charlotte hadn’t been knocked over by an elephant, she worried her daughter had met with a different sort of beast, albeit an invisible one: depression.
While Charlotte hadn’t been knocked over by an elephant, she worried her daughter had met with a different sort of beast, albeit an invisible one: depression. Though scientifically dubious, maternal impression presaged genetic transference, which was still a century away from widespread understanding. In other words, the mechanism was wrong, but Charlotte’s maternal instinct was not, and she indeed had cause to worry that she might have passed on a genetic predisposition to epilepsy and mental illness.
Charlotte Kelly was born in Gillingham. She had spent her youth at Rainham and Rochester, and was a Sunday school teacher at St. John’s church. At church she met her first love, an architect and surveyor by profession (his name has been lost to history). Her father, Michael Kelly, accepted their courtship and the boy’s proposal. In fact, the marriage would have been a source of family pride, for while most of Charlotte’s friends and family were in service to Her Majesty’s Army or Navy, her architect belonged to a higher class. Had they been successfully married she would have undoubtedly been well provided for since he and his friends were well-to-do. The marriage didn’t happen however, because soon after it was arranged, Charlotte went to visit her brother and, while boarding his boat, met James Wheeler, who immediately fell in love with her and courted her aggressively.
As Charlotte later retold the tale of their courtship, when she was leaving the ship James said, “There goes my wife. Either that girl or nobody for me.” She said that it could never be, for someone else had claim to her heart and would have something to say about it, but James was undeterred. “It will be the case of the best man winning,” he quipped.
James Whitford Wheeler was born on October 8, 1829 in Birmingham. Not only was he a low-ranking seaman who would never be able to provide for Charlotte as her architect could have, he had also been married before, to a Miss Elizabeth Wilson. Nonetheless, on February 14, 1865—almost certainly not a coincidence—the romantic Charlotte married her rascal sailor, in secret, while in Kent. It seems she went to some lengths to conceal her identity because the marriage registration notes her name as Charlotte Ann Kennedy, a ‘widow,’ whose father’s name was William Kelly (deceased), when, of course, neither were true. Charming, “fine, handsome, and cheerful looking,” James would prove to be the “kindest of husbands.”
According to Mr James Dunn, a resident of Ightham who knew the Wheelers, they lived in a quaint, old-fashioned cottage. Mr Dunn described Mr Wheeler as a “tall, thin man with dark hair and a dark complexion,” and Mrs Wheeler as a “tall, slender woman, with very fair hair.” They were nice, quiet, respectable people, he said, with whom he often spoke. James Wheeler joined the Kent constabulary and was appointed the village policeman, a sad irony given his daughter’s eventual fate. When he was off duty, James was remembered wearing a blue jersey and playing with the children, who he let chase after him. When on duty however, he was a “different sort of man,” Mr Dunn said, and the children dared not speak to him.
Mr Dunn remembered Mary Eleanor’s birth as an occasion with much “rejoicing going on afterwards.”
The Wheelers didn’t stay long in Ightham though. A few months after Mary was born, they left for the neighbouring village of Wrotham. Again, James served as a policeman, according to Mr Dunn. After that Mr Dunn didn’t see or know much of James or his family.
Nellie was a kind child, but painfully sensitive, Charlotte remembered. She would give up nearly everything she had to other children, she said, and she could never bear to see a child beaten. “If any of them had done wrong at any time,” Charlotte said, “she would try to hide them and then go to their father or their mother, and say, ‘You won’t beat them, will you?’ and she would often cry till they promised not to do so.”
Her mother thought her daughter “kind and good natured”—the sort to give the last penny out of her pocket if she thought others were in distress. That said, when she was denied anything she wanted, she took it to heart and could be impressively self-destructive.
By the mid nineteenth century, Victorian England was a country and culture of radical change. Railway lines criss-crossed the countryside, connecting rural villages to the metropolis.By the mid nineteenth century, Victorian England was a country and culture of radical change.
Steamships regularly crossed the Atlantic in a matter of days. The first commercially successful bicycle caught on in Europe, and the Penny Post, developed by Sir Rowland Hill, afforded even the poorest villager a cheap, efficient means of communication. It was an exciting time full of technocratic optimism and about two years after Nellie was born, the Wheelers traded the “pretty districts of Kent” for the whirl and wonder of the capital.
According to Charlotte, James Wheeler had been invalided out of the Royal Marines, and though he’d tried his hand at the constabulary, he wanted steadier work. Fortuitously, he found employment almost immediately as a delivery foreman at the Hermitage Steam Wharf in Wapping—a giant, industrial warehouse on the Thames. His wages were enough to afford rooms at No. 36 Gloster Street. He must have been a good, hard worker, for he stayed at the Wharf for 14 years.
Their tenement at Gloster Street was a mansion in Kensington compared to the workhouse. Although not yet a byword for “ghetto,” the East End of London in the 1860s and 70s looked much like it would 20 years later when the Whitechapel murders launched the district into infamy. Overcrowded, diseased and destitute, the East End in the late 1860s was a hotchpotch of working-class and unemployed families, many of them immigrants, trying to make their way in a city that could not deliver on all the promises of prosperity it made.
Since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, English society dealt with the destitute through a haphazard system of laws—mainly financed by a series of taxes and rates assessing citizens who owned or rented houses of a certain value. In 1834, the government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, which centralised the system and encouraged the use of large-scale, morbid-looking buildings called workhouses. The old and disabled could apply for money and food, and stay in their own homes if they had other family to take care of them. Those without family, who were neither old nor infirm, entered the workhouse, where they worked for food and a coffinlike bed in which to sleep.Those without family, who were neither old nor infirm, entered the workhouse, where they worked for food and a coffinlike bed in which to sleep.
Writing about the wards of the Wapping workhouse, Charles Dickens said the building was degenerate and behind the times, “a mere series of garrets or lofts with every inconvenient and objectionable circumstance in their construction, and only accessible by steep and narrow staircases, infamously ill-adapted for the passage up-stairs of the sick or down-stairs of the dead.”
Most early and mid-century workhouse infirmaries were little more than holding cells and took on many prison-like aspects. “A bed in the miserable rooms, here on bedsteads, there (for a charge, as I understood it) on the floor, were women in every stage of distress and disease,” wrote Dickens.
Families went to great lengths to avoid workhouses—colloquially called a ‘spike’—if they could, but sickness was a routine cause of poverty, and one of the fastest routes into the workhouse. The Metropolitan Poor Law Amendment Act, which separated Poor Law infirmaries from the London workhouses, was passed in 1867. A resident medical superintendent, who led mostly trained nursing staff, managed the new infirmaries, unlike the old system, which largely used ‘pauper’ nurses to tend to the sickest among them. After 1860, roughly one-third of Poor Law infirmary entrants were non-paupers, but because of the affiliation with poor relief, a stay in hospital was a considerable source of embarrassment, to be avoided if it could.
Avoiding the workhouse and poor law infirmaries would prove impossible for Charlotte and Nellie, as both suffered fits, which may or may not have been epileptic in nature. In fact, sadly, Charlotte would live out her last days and die in the Stepney Union in Mile End, Old Town. What medical records exist are unclear whether Charlotte’s fits were life-long, but Nellie’s fits seem to have been caused, triggered, or exacerbated after an incident in a garden when she was only two-years-old, and dogged her until her death.In her deposition, Charlotte said that Nellie fell out of a nurse’s arms onto stones in the garden as a toddler.
In her deposition, Charlotte said that Nellie fell out of a nurse’s arms onto stones in the garden as a toddler. A few weeks later she began touching her head where she’d hit it, crying incessantly.
When she was old enough to speak, she complained that her head hurt. Perhaps it was the intensity of this brain-on-fire that once caused Nellie to try and drown herself in the River Lea. She was rescued, according to a reporter from Lloyd’s, by a nearby resident who heard the splash. Whether Nellie actually attempted suicide or just threatened it is unclear from the account.
It is equally unclear the kinds of seizures Nellie suffered, or the type of epilepsy she had. In the 1860s, medicine had not yet advanced to the point where it could prove scarring of the brain resulted in headaches, temperament changes and seizures, or what would be called today temporal lobe epilepsy.
In cases of temporal lobe epilepsy, the cells in or around a lesion formed on the brain are so damaged they don’t behave as healthy cells might. The brain misfires, shooting off bursts of electricity that can cause excruciating headaches and various types of seizures.
Some seizures cause the person to fall down and convulse, but others are subtler and simply cause the person to act strangely, or to appear to stare into the distance. Lesions have numerous causes, but are most commonly the result of head trauma, as when a toddler is dropped headfirst on a hard surface.Some seizures cause the person to fall down and convulse, but others are subtler and simply cause the person to act strangely, or to appear to stare into the distance.
John Hughlings Jackson, one of the first and most eminent doctors of the Victorian era to study epilepsy in detail, described the epileptic brain cells as the “mad part” of the brain that makes nearby “sane cells… act madly.” It was an unfortunate analogy, describing psychologically what was largely neuroelectrical, but Jackson was merely adding to the existing historic and literary record, which had long since equated epilepsy with madness or possession.
In Roman and Greek mythology, for example, the Gods were responsible for epileptic fits, but it was considered a “sacred disease”, a form of divine madness. In fact the term itself originated from the Greek word epilepsia, meaning seizure, as in a god seizing control of a mortal’s body. In Middle Age and Renaissance cultures, however, European Christians held that epilepsy was the outward expression of the inward battle for the soul, a fight between Satan and the Holy Ghost, and as far back as 650 BC, seizures were attributed to the Devil. In fact, the Hindus of India dedicated a special demon—Grahi—to explain epilepsy within their culture, and it was no coincidence that Grahi was a feminine deity, as the fiercest Hindu gods were almost always female.
Though strides in understanding the science of epilepsy, and treating epileptics with compassion, were made during the fin de siècle, Victorians were generally afraid of epileptics. Despite evolving understanding of the etiology of the disease, epilepsy remained largely a socially constructed affliction, shaped by a Smilesian ethic that valued hard work, good order, diligence and temperance. Epileptics contradicted notions of social responsibility and respectability, and as a consequence, they were often socially marginalized, stigmatized, and increasingly confined to lunatic asylums or epileptic colonies, having violated “the laws of nature.” As a socially constructed affliction, it was no surprise then that the treatment of epilepsy varied by class. Epilepsy could be a private misfortune among the bourgeoisie, but was often characterized as a dangerous—even criminal—character flaw among the working poor.Mid and late nineteenth century Victorians equated epilepsy with a kind of moral insanity—an inability to maintain control over one’s faculties.
Mid and late nineteenth century Victorians equated epilepsy with a kind of moral insanity—an inability to maintain control over one’s faculties. The prominent Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso described the violent thrashing sometimes associated with epilepsy as “furor epilepticus,”or epileptic fury, which helped fuse the ideas between epilepsy and violence. Though his major theories were largely discredited by the Edwardian era, Lombroso’s atavistic theories of crime were wildly popular in the last decades of Victoria’s reign. And, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde served as the perfect metaphor for the unspoken anxieties surrounding epileptics. Epilepsy was an affliction that could transform otherwise sane men and women into criminal beasts. Such assumptions about the disease enabled doctors to treat patients in unscientific, and sometimes inhuman, ways, and so there was great impetus to resist designations of ‘epileptic’ or ‘lunatic’ and it was generally advisable to avoid the asylum with the same vigour one avoided the workhouse.
In 1868 Charlotte and James had a second daughter, Amelia Elizabeth Wheeler, and a third daughter, Charlotte Amy Whitford Wheeler, was born in 1871. Both were baptised at the Anglican St. Philip’s church in Stepney. In the 1871 census, the family was living at 2 William Street South in Mile End Old Town. Six months later, on August 31, Amelia died of pneumonia. Three more children—all boys—joined the family: James John Henry Wheeler was born on December 4, 1872 and baptised at St. George-in-the-East the following April. Charles Thomas William Wheeler was born March 21, 1875, and also baptised at St. George-in-the-East, and John Wheeler was born sometime around 1879. The family moved at least twice between the birth of the sons—to 60 Great Hermitage Street and then, to 62 St. George Street—but stayed in the Stepney parish.
James Wheeler loved all his children, Charlotte said, but he was particularly tender toward Mary.
“Oh how fond he used to be of that child,” and she of him. At seeing her father returning from the wharf, Mary would run to meet him, and all the children would cling round him. “It was all love and happiness at home when he was with us,” Charlotte said wistfully.Five children was certainly a demand on the Wheelers’ financial resources, but they were better off than many of the working poor.
Five children was certainly a demand on the Wheelers’ financial resources, but they were better off than many of the working poor. “We had such a good home,” Charlotte said, “for he was in a capital position,” meaning, he did well enough at the wharf to provide what Charlotte thought was a decent standard of living.
Mary was educated first at Wapping, and then at a school on Cannon Street Road. By the time she achieved Standard VI, she would have been able to read poetry, write paragraphs and perform basic mathematics. It seems she favoured language though and was a voracious reader, though whether her reading was to stave off boredom or was for pleasure, no one knows. Still, she was fond of or familiar enough with the poet Longfellow to quote him in a love letter she would write years later.
“She was always full of life and spirits,” Charlotte told a reporter, “and they were her really happy days.”
The happy days were not to last, however. Mary left school in her late teens and went to work for her uncle, John H. Kelly, at his newsagent’s shop in Stepney. His shop was close to where he lived at 150 Whitehorse Street and not far from a German family, the Prümmers, who, in 1881 were living at 105 Whitehorse Street.
Her uncle later said of Mary that she was his favourite niece, and was known for having a “kind and gentle disposition.” At some point she stopped selling newspapers for her uncle and went to work for the Prümmers as a nurse to their newborn son, George William Cristoph Prümmer. By Mrs Prümmer’s account, Mary was “a great favourite” in their house, owing to her “kind and affectionate nature” and her “gentle ways.”
Mary worked hard, but she never outgrew the “growing pains,” as her mother called them, that plagued her youth. She constantly suffered debilitating headaches and fits, and never knew what caused them, which seemed to be a source of great anxiety for her later in life. “Mother,” she would say, “I can’t tell what is the matter with my head.” The “storm within” is how painter Vincent van Gogh explained the headaches, paranoia, and personality changes that preceded his own temporal lobe epileptic fits, and Mary described similar symptoms and outcomes.
Mary’s fits grew rather worse as she got older, and during one particularly severe seizure Mr Prümmer had to hold her down. When she came round, Mrs Prümmer said she stared vacantly about and seemed quite dazed. She was so ill thereafter that she was unable to work, and eventually went to the infirmary seeking whatever treatment she could afford. The sick asylum doctor may have prescribed potassium bromide—one of the few antiepileptic drugs available—or laudanum to relieve the pain of the preceding headaches.
With a young child to consider, the Prümmers dismissed Mary from service sometime in July of 1882. The dismissal was understandable, but painful.
Just a little over a month later, she suffered another significant emotional shock. On or near August 15, 1882, men arrived at the Wheeler house on 16 Maroon Street in Mile End, where the family had moved the previous year. They were carrying James Wheeler, her father, on a gurney; he was unable to move. There had been an accident at work, and his injuries were severe. He died forty-eight hours later.James’ death launched the Wheeler family into a spiral of grief, illness, and poverty from which they never recovered.
James’ death launched the Wheeler family into a spiral of grief, illness, and poverty from which they never recovered. Charlotte did the best she could, taking on needlework and laundry and “what we could get to do,” but only two months later, in September 1882, she was grievously ill, and spent four months in the sick asylum, no doubt as much aggrieved by the loss of her “good husband,” as the other physical maladies that troubled her. Charlotte’s brother-in-law, a tradesman in the East End, later said of James’ accidental death that it was a “terrible blow to the family.” Mary took it especially hard, the uncle said, “It was a great misfortune for her.”
A few months after her father’s death, Mary tried to hang herself. She’d tied a rope around her neck and hooked it on a nail, then kicked out a laundry basket from beneath her feet and was dangling—already black in the face from oxygen deprivation—when a neighbour-friend, Mrs Buckley, helped Charlotte lift the girl down. They only just saved her life. “In another minute, if we had not seen her,” Charlotte later told a reporter, “she would have been dead.” In looking back on the event, Charlotte felt her husband’s death marked the beginning of the end for her daughter. “But there, if he had been alive, poor man,” she said ruefully, “it [the murders] would not have happened at all.”
Adapted from Woman at the Devil’s Door: The Untold True Story of the Hampstead Murderess © 2018 by Sarah Beth Hopton. Reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. All rights reserved.