The trial of Ada Williams became a sensation in 1913 when, in response to the taunts of her husband, she killed her own son, born before she married him. JAN BONDESON writes that as Suffragettes campaigned for the vote and a world war loomed, opinion was divided on whether she was villain or victim. And despite the death sentence being handed down, she managed to cheat the hangman.
Albert and Ada Williams were a recently married couple living in Battersea and they had two children.
He was a labouring man and she a barmaid.
Ada’s reputation was far from the best, and she had often stolen from the publicans who employed her.
She had a bastard son named John Patrick Dunn, born before she had met her husband, and the cruel Albert was often taunting her about her shameful secret.
When drunk, he beat her up more than once, and in the end, she left him and went to live at No. 21 Comyn Road, not far from Clapham Junction in what is now one of the most comfortable neighbourhoods in South London.
But Ada Williams was not happy without her beloved Albert.
She got the fixed idea that if she ‘got rid of’ her little son, Albert might take her back and they would live happily ever after.
On November 8, 1913, she strangled the helpless boy to death and then proceeded to dismember the body.
She cut both legs and one arm off and proceeded to burn them in the grate.
But the sheer horror of what she was doing became overwhelming, and she gave herself up to the police and confessed her crime, showing them the mangled remains of her son with the words ‘I have murdered him! Tell Mr Williams that he is now free to walk the streets as he pleases!’
At the coroner’s inquest on John Patrick Dunn, Albert Williams was censured for his cruelty to his wife.
There was a considerable amount of sympathy for the young and attractive Ada Annie Williams, as she was called in the newspapers.
Was this not one of the cases where ‘woman pays’ for her loyalty and devotion to a worthless man?
The sordid and brutal end of little John Patrick’s short and blameless life, his severed limbs left to roast in the grate, was forgotten, and Ada Annie Williams became something of a newspaper heroine.
Described as a tall, slim woman of refined appearance, she was supported not only by proto-feminists, but also by a number of ‘celebrity’ busybodies who had been moved by her pathetic story, including the Dean of Manchester, numerous other clergymen, two London magistrates, and the author George R. Sims.
The John Bull newspaper started a petition on her behalf, and the Daily Mirror published her photograph on the front page.
But nevertheless, the ordeal of Ada Annie Williams continued.
She was committed to stand trial at the Old Bailey in December 1913. She had already confessed to murdering her son, but her barrister Mr R.D. Roome urged that her despair, poverty and misery would justify the charge being reduced to one of manslaughter.
There was not a person in court, he claimed, whose heart was not wrung with pity for her.
But Mr Justice Riley coolly stated that he could not see any ground on which it was possible to reduce the offence below the crime of murder.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Mr Justice Riley sentenced her to death.
But Ada Annie Williams had one more trump card to play.
There was sensation in court when she claimed to be pregnant and demanded a stay of execution.
For the first time since the Richmond murderess Kate Webster had (vainly) ‘pleaded the belly’ back in 1879, a ‘Jury of Matrons’ was convened to examine her, and their verdict was that Ada Annie Williams was really pregnant.
The execution was postponed, and the Home Secretary later commuted the death penalty to penal servitude for life.
This was the last time a Jury of Matrons was employed in a British court. Ada Annie Williams’ newspaper supporters exulted that their heroine had been saved from the gallows.
For a few months, they published regular updates about her life in prison, but soon she joined the ranks of yesterday’s celebrities, and was forgotten about.
According to the police files on her case, she gave birth to a healthy boy at Holloway prison in March 1914; he was taken away to the Wandsworth Union workhouse infirmary.
Ada Annie Williams was a truculent, difficult prisoner, who was in constant trouble with the authorities.
After being removed to Liverpool prison in late 1918, she behaved herself better, and was actually discharged on license in July 1921.
She was taken care of by her respectable civil servant father, Mr Charles Dunn, of No. 31 Bonar Road, Peckham [it no longer stands], and by her invalid mother.
Ada Annie Williams took up nursing but failed to pass her exams.
This did not prevent her from working as a mental nurse for a while, but not with much success.
One of her patients attempted suicide, and she was blamed for this and urged to take up another career.
In 1928, she was herself incarcerated in Epsom Mental Hospital, but she was out of there the following year, and still under the care of the Aylesbury After-Care Association as late as December 1935.
This is the last that is known about her. This is an edited extract from Jan Bondeson’s Murder Houses of South London (Troubador Publishing, Leicester 2015).
Please support your local paper by making a donation
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.