ONE hundred and fifty years ago this week, an inquest was held in a public house in north Durham into the death of seven-year-old Ann Whitfield, who had been murdered by her own father, Joseph, a pitman.

“The shocking occurrence has created quite a sensation in the populous village of Leadgate, and during the time that the inquest was being held, a very large crowd assembled around the Coach and Horses, eager to gain any information as to the fate of the unhappy man,” said the Advertiser’s sister paper, the Darlington & Stockton Times, of July 31, 1869.

The long column of small, dense type makes fascinating, and shocking, reading. The depth of detail is gruesome but, equally, there is a real degree of compassion for the father who had committed this appalling crime.

“Joseph Whitfield, whose hand was raised against his own child, was a very quiet, inoffensive man, but recently he had given way to a kind of religious frenzy in which he had been guilty of many extraordinary acts and, indeed, so bad had his malady become that he had been compelled to desist entirely from work,” said the paper.

The first witness called was his nine-year-old daughter, Jane, who said that before 7am the previous Wednesday, her father had taken a razor to the throat of her sister.

“He held Ann on his right arm and it was in his right hand also that he had the razor,” she said, describing the bloody scene with her father only in his nightshirt. “She asked ‘who’s done this?’ to which her father replied ‘I did the deed. I wanted her out of this weary world.’.”

PC Frin arrived, found the bloodied man calmly sitting in the kitchen, and the girl dead upstairs.

“On charging him with having murdered his daughter, he burst into tears,” said PC Frin. “On taking him away, he asked if Ann was dead, and when told that she was, he burst into tears a second time.”

Dr George Renton, physician, arrived and certified the girl dead. He had been treating Whitfield for six months.

“For some months past the poor man had been a kind of religious maniac, and witness when called upon to attend him on one occasion recently was told by him he would not touch any medicine till the Lord told him to do so, and asserted that he was certain he was going to glory,” said the D&S Times.

Chester-le-Street coroner JM Favell had heard enough. With Whitfield sobbing in the pub, the coroner asked the jury whether he had cut his daughter’s throat – if he had “their verdict had to be wilful murder for in such a case there could be no such thing as manslaughter” and, at these proceedings, they could not take into account the state of his mind.

“The jury, without retiring, returned a verdict of ‘wilful murder’ against Joseph Whitfield,” said the D&S Times. “On the verdict being communicated to the crowd waiting outside, a loud murmur of sympathy with the unfortunate man was uttered.”

The following day, Whitfield appeared before Lanchester magistrates charged with murder, and all the evidence was heard again.

Having listened to his daughter Jane in the box, he commented: “She’s not done so well as she did before.”

When asked if he had anything to say, Whitfield replied: “An open confession is good for the soul. I deliberately took the razor from the top of the press while my poor wife was fettling Billy’s breakfast, and I went upstairs and cut my poor darling’s throat after my wife went out.” In brackets, the reporter described the mood in court at this point with a single word: “(Sensation.)”

The D&S Times said: “Prisoner, who was greatly affected during his statement, wept bitterly, and had frequently to stop for breath. He was then committed to take his trial at the next assizes on the charge of wilful murder, magistrate AA Talmadge remarking that it would be for a jury to consider how far his state of mind made him responsible for the crime he had committed.

“The prisoner was then removed.”

The next Durham Assizes would have been held in a couple of months. If Whitfield had been found guilty of wilfully murdering his own daughter, he would have hanged, but his name does not appear on any list of those executed in Durham. His state of mind, then, must have been taken into account.