He looks the model of respectability but don’t be fooled by the photo above. John Selby Watson is one of the most notorious murderers of the 19th century and, for good reason. On October 8 1871, Watson killed his wife, Anne, by beating her with the butt of his pistol.But what prompted this sudden violent outburst? Watson had certainly never engaged in such behaviour before. Born in 1804, Watson was a classically-trained scholar (he studied at Trinity College in Dublin and at Oxford) and was ordained into the priesthood in 1840. His first parish was in a sleepy village in Somerset.
Outside of the Church, Watson was a prolific writer: he translated ancient texts, wrote biographies, wrote a book on the reasoning power of animals and even a history of the papacy. But the Church didn’t pay too well and nor did his books. So, in 1844, he accepted a position as the headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School in London. The job not only boosted his social standing but also greatly improved his financial situation. Watson clearly enjoyed his work at the school but encountered some problems with his students. To put it bluntly, they just weren’t as academic as Watson nor did they share his enthusiasm for history and classics. Over time, student numbers declined and, in September 1870, Watson was dismissed.
What a blow this must have been. Now in his sixties and with a wife to provide for, the situation looked incredibly bleak. What happened on that fateful day is recorded by the couple’s only servant, Eleanor Pyne:
“On Sunday morning, 8th October, my master and mistress went out together rather earlier than the usual church time—they came back rather later than usual—I should think it was about 1.45 o’clock—that was their dinner hour at that time—I had prepared dinner in the dining-room on the ground floor; that is the room on the right, as you come into the house—Mrs. Watson took off her bonnet and things, and they sat down to dinner—I attended to them—they had no wine for dinner, they had some after dinner—I am not certain what wine it was—after dinner they went up stairs into the library; the wine was up there, and they had some dessert—I do not remember seeing them again—it was between 2 and 3 o’clock when I left them in the library—up to that time I had not noticed anything in their manner or demeanour to attract my attention—they usually lived on very friendly terms, they were generally very quiet—I went out that afternoon, about 4 o’clock—I let myself out—before I went out I had prepared the tea in the dining-room—5.45 was their usual time for taking tea—when I returned, at 9 o’clock, I knocked at the door, and Mr. Watson let me in, and he said my mistress had gone out of town and would not be home till to-morrow.”
But Anne would not be coming home. She was already dead, her body hidden in an upstairs bedroom. Two days later, Eleanor found Watson, barely conscious, in his bed upstairs. It transpired that he had taken cyanide and left a note, addressed to his doctor, which said “For the servant, Ellen Pyne, exclusive of her wages. Let no suspicion fall on the servant, whom I believe to be a good girl.” Enclosed was a £5 note and instructions to publish his remaining literary works. The gruesome discovery of Anne’s body was made shortly after.
Once Eleanor had contacted the police, word of the murder spread quickly and Watson became the centre of press interest and national gossip. At his trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872, he was found guilty of murdering his wife but the jury recommended mercy. His death sentence was thus commuted to penal servitude for life.
Watson died in prison on the Isle of Wight after falling out of his hammock on July 6 1884.
You can read the full (and gory) details of the murder trial here: