ESTHER HIBNER THE ELDER, ESTHER HIBNER THE YOUNGER, AND ANN ROBINSON
Tried for the Murder of a Parish Apprentice, who died as the Result of Inhuman Treatment, 10th of April, 1829
THESE unnatural women were indicted at the Old Bailey, on the 10th of April, 1829, for the wilful murder of Frances Colpitt, aged ten years, the parish apprentice of the elder Hibner.
Mr Bolland (with whom was Mr Alley) stated the case. He observed that the facts he had to lay before the jury would excite the greatest horror in the minds of those who heard the dreadful narration, but he thanked God that such a case as the present was of unfrequent occurrence in this country. The deceased, who was only ten years of age, was a pauper, and was apprenticed to the prisoner, Esther Hibner the elder, who resided at Platt Terrace, Pancras Road, by the overseers of St Martin's parish, to learn the business of fabricating tambour-work. She was apprenticed on the 7th of April, 1828, and in the month of October following a system of the most cruel and unnatural treatment was commenced by the prisoners towards the unfortunate deceased, and the other children who were placed under their care by St Martin's and other parishes. They were not allowed sufficient sustenance, were compelled to rise to begin work at three and four in the morning, and were kept at work till eleven at night, sometimes two in the morning, and sometimes all night. They had scarcely any bed to lie on; and frequently during the most inclement season their resting-place was the floor, and their only covering an old rug. The prisoners had good bedding and clothes, and every comfort that they desired. The children were not permitted to go out to obtain necessary air and exercise, and thus the cruel treatment they had experienced had terminated fatally with three of them. The child which was the subject of the present indictment had been reduced to such a deplorable condition that her feet had mortified; and this, combined with the bursting of an abscess on the lungs, brought on by the ill-treatment the child had experienced, had occasioned her death. The breakfast which the children were allowed was a slice of bread and a cup of milk; if they were indulged with this luxury, they had no more food all day. Sometimes the elder Hibner said the deceased and the other children had not earned their breakfast, and then a few potatoes were given them in the middle of the day, and nothing more till the following morning. Nine pounds of potatoes were divided amongst the whole family, which consisted of twelve persons; they were allowed meat only once a fortnight. On Sundays they were locked in the kitchen, the windows of which were closed.
It was proved that the younger prisoner, Hibner, had taken the deceased from the frame, and knocked her down on the floor; she had then taken the deceased up, and knocked her down again. When the elder prisoner was informed that the deceased was lying ill in the room, instead of affording her that protection which she was bound to do, she replied: "Let her lie there." The deceased, when in a state that she could scarcely crawl about the house, was told by the younger Hibner to clean the stairs. She attempted to do it, but fell exhausted, and was unable to accomplish the task. The younger Hibner then took the deceased upstairs and flogged her with a cane and a rod, and afterwards sent her down to finish the stairs. The children often cried for food, and, to satisfy the cravings of nature, had eaten the meat that was brought in for the dog, and also some pieces of meat which they picked out of the wash that was obtained for feeding the pig. It was also proved that all the prisoners had beaten the deceased, sometimes with a cane, sometimes with a rod, and sometimes with a shoe. The medical gentlemen who attended the deceased before death, and examined her body afterwards, proved that they found large sores on the feet of the deceased, and her toes were mortifying and falling off. After death they examined the body, and found it in a most dreadful state, produced by the ill-treatment she had experienced from the prisoners, and from the want of proper food and nourishment. The case demanded the most serious attention of the jury, and he felt satisfied that they would give the circumstances the most serious consideration before they arrived at their decision.
Evidence of the apprenticeship by the parish officers, and of the dreadful state in which the deceased was found, was then given, and followed up by the testimony of three of the apprentices, who fully confirmed the narrative given by Mr Bolland.
The elder prisoner, Hibner, said she would leave her defence in the hands of her daughter.
The daughter said that the children had sworn falsely. They had been treated with the greatest kindness by her and her mother since they had been in their house, and there was not the slightest ground for the accusation which had been preferred against them.
Robinson declared that what had been alleged against her was false. She was engaged by the Hibners only to assist them in their business, and went home every night at eight o'clock.
The jury, after some, deliberation, found the elder Hibner guilty, but acquitted the other women.
The sentence of death was at once passed upon Mrs Hibner, and she was ordered for execution on the following Monday; while the other women were directed to be detained, to be tried for the assault upon the deceased.
During the trial Mrs Hibner did not exhibit the slightest feeling of remorse for her crimes, or fear for the consequences of them; and when she was arraigned upon a second indictment, which charged her with the diabolical murder of another of her apprentices, she pleaded not guilty with all the firmness of conscious innocence, although, as the poor child's death had been the result of the same dreadful course of treatment adopted towards Colpitt, there could be no doubt of her legal and moral responsibility for the crime which had hurried the wretched being from the world. As a capital conviction had already been obtained against the prisoner, it was thought unnecessary to obtain the verdict of the jury upon this second indictment, and the horrid wretch was conducted from the court to the condemned cell in the jail. Here her conduct became violent in the extreme. She swore to Mr Wontner, the governor of the jail, that she would not be hanged, and became perfectly outrageous because she was not allowed to have a mutton chop for her dinner. On Sunday she had a last interview with her daughter; but it produced no effect upon her hardened mind, and she parted from her without a tear. She subsequently went into the yard, and as it appeared to the turnkey that there was something suspicious in her behaviour he sent a person after her, who found her bleeding from a wound she had inflicted in the front part of her neck with a knife, which, by some means, she had obtained, unknown to the attendants. From this time her behaviour was so violent that it was found absolutely necessary to apply the strait-waistcoat to prevent her from tearing the bandages off the wound. She confessed, soon after her attempt at suicide, to Mr Wontner that it was not her intention to kill herself, but merely to wound herself severely, thinking thereby that she would be allowed to live a few days longer.
When this was ascertained, Mr Cotton offered his spiritual advice and assistance to the wretched woman; but she refused them, saying that she knew enough of the Bible herself, and wanted no interpreter. Mr Cotton persevered until a late hour, but all his efforts proved useless. She listened to him with the most imperturbable patience, and never gave expression to either assent or dissent.
A little before eight o'clock on Monday morning, the 13th of April, the wretched malefactor was led from the condemned cell to the press-room. She exhibited a dreadful appearance. Her dress, a black gown, over which was a white bed-gown, and the white cap on her head, contributed, together with the sallowness of her complexion, to give her a most unearthly aspect. The sad procession then set forward, the miserable woman being carried by two men, as she absolutely refused to walk. On her arrival at the scaffold she was assailed with a loud volley of yells from the people, particularly from the females, of which the crowd was in a great measure composed. She did not make a single struggle, and appeared to die almost instantaneously.
Her body was cut down, after hanging the usual time, and delivered to the surgeons for dissection.
On the same day that this wretched being expiated her crimes upon the scaffold her daughter and her assistant, Robinson, were tried for the minor offence of assaulting the miserable children entrusted to their care as apprentices. Having been found guilty, they were sentenced respectively to twelve and four months' imprisonment in the house of correction.