THE SALFORD TRAGEDY.
THE reporters say that Lancashire has rarely been so moved as by "the Salford tragedy," discovered on the 3rd inst. ; and though that is a common form with reporters, they are this time probably in the right. There is reason for natural horror in the bare fact, the extirpation of a whole family of eight persons by its natural head and protector, and reason also, in many of the circumstances of the massacre, for keen intellectual interest. Suicides are common enough, unfortunately, and for a mother, half mad or wholly mad with grief and misery, to murder her children, and then kill herself, is not an event without a precedent. But for a father who appeared to his neighbours, to his intimates, and to the doctor who examined his brain after death, to be entirely sane, to slaughter out his whole family— a wife and six children, one of them a well-grown lad—to do this out of affection, and with the most anxious avoidance of any pain or violence, and then, with his victims but just dead, to write letter after letter explaining his motives and, his means, to draft a sensible will, to pass out among his friends in order to secure witnesses to the document, and then to return to the charnel-house and execute himself,—this might have interested De Quincey as much as any mob. Yet this is what, on irresistible evidence, Samuel Hill Derby, a druggist's assistant of Salford, is believed to have done. His history previous to the tragedy is in no way remarkable. He was the son of a druggist, one of a numerous family, and bred by his father to that trade, when at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two, he married a young woman seven years older than himself, and tried as a druggist's assistant to maintain himself and his household. He was deeply attached to his wife, she bore him six children, and they pulled through somehow, till in 1885 Derby fell into some " mis- fortune," probably bankruptcy, and everything went wrong. He grew despondent and morose, and in 1887 two incidents, one of them, on the face of it, a fortunate one, completed his ruin. He was a man of ability, and he had invented a plan for reducing the jolting in railway-trains, for which he wished to take out a patent. His plan was a decidedly clever one, and so the officials of the Patent Office told him, but it had been anticipated, and his proposal was, to use his own repeated expression, declared "ineligible." This preyed upon his mind, though to the last he dis- cussed the facts sensibly and patiently, only regretting his want of earlier information. An uncle also, in Ireland, who was, for a wonder, well off, and who had repeatedly assisted him— in May last, for instance, with £120 in one gift—died and left him and his brothers equal shares in his property. Derby went over to Ireland to receive his legacy, but fell into a dispute with his brothers about the realisation of the property, and imagined that they intended to deprive him of his share. Being an executor, he asked the solicitor to lend him the will to read, and bolted to Salford with it in his pocket, as a kind of material guarantee. He refused even to give it up for probate, and was, of course, beset with advice and remonstrances from his father, his brothers, and the solicitor concerned. These excited him greatly, his circumstances grew worse, although be never appears to have been in actual want, and at last he determined to rid himself of the pressure and of his life together by committing suicide.
Thenceforward the story, otherwise inexplicable for ever to all human beings, is taken up by himself in a series of letters to his kinsfolk, found by the police in his room after his death, and evidently placed there in order to be made public. He could not, he intimates, bear to desert his wife and children, and decided that the whole family should go away to the next world together. He explained his plan to his wife, a noble-hearted woman, he says, who did not wish to survive him, and she agreed to it, provided only that all should go at once as an un- divided household. He therefore, a few days before February 3rd —the exact day is uncertain—mixed some prussic acid, which as a druggist he had by him, with half-a-pound of treacle, and gave the first dose to his wife, in bed with her two youngest children. She took it, he says, quite consciously, and as easily "as if it had been her tea," or, as he again says, "like a lamb." There was probably some momentary sign of pain as she expired, for he mixed some hydrate of chloral with the mess, and administered it to the two children in this room and the four in the other, the eldest of the latter being a lad of thirteen, probably telling them that it was brimstone and treacle, a medicine to which such households are still accustomed. All died easily, he says, and without pain, and then the father sat him-
self down and wrote four letters, which he addressed, folded, and placed upon the mantelpiece of the sitting-room. Two were letters to his brothers in Ireland, abusing them for their greed; one was to an old employer, thanking him for much kindness received ; and one, given below, was to his wife's brother and sister, relating the whole story, and dwelling with careful emphasis upon his wife's consent. He then drew up a will, which he worded quite accurately, bequeathing all his property to a sister who had never offended him, except £20 to his old employer, and a shilling each to his father and brothers, and went out to get the will attested. Neither the chemist to whom he applied nor the other witness saw anything unusual or even excited in his manner, but considered him as quiet and reasonable as he usually was. They signed the will as witnesses, and he took it away to the kitchen in his own house, where, with all his household lying murdered upstairs, he wrote the final letter to his sister, informing her of her legacy, laid himself down on the sofa fully dressed, swallowed the poison, and so died. The bodies were not discovered for days after ; but at last the father sent a messenger to make inquiries, who returned finding the house shut up, and then the father in alarm took the police to the house to see if anything was wrong.
That is a ghastly story, whether Derby were mad or sane ; but we confess we see in it little evidence of true insanity. Murder, even on the great scale, is not in itself evidence of madness, and the suicide did not follow for hours, perhaps days. The wretched man acted throughout with the utmost patience and forethought. He intended to give his offending relatives the most horrible shock possible, and he did it, providing with evident care that his letters to them, which he could easily have posted when he went out to sign his will, should be opened by the Coroner. He intended to give his property to the un- offending sister, and he did, writing as careful a will as a lawyer could have done, and with all his victims lying dead in the house, seeking witnesses to the testament outside. In this will, moreover, he showed that his delusion, if he ever entertained one, had passed, for he carefully specified the only important sum he possessed, the property to come to him under his uncle's will, and in another paper he directed the papers he had taken away from Ireland to be sent back. He intended to hurt his wife and children as little as possible, and he mixed the chloral with the prussic acid and treacle to that end. The witnesses who saw him after the murders, but before his own death, judged him perfectly sane, and in spite of the temptation to the opposite view presented by the universal desire for a charitable verdict, adhered to their opinion under cross-examination. That, also, is the judgment of the doctor, who, to be more sure, took the unusual step of examining Derby's brain, and pronounced it to be perfectly normal and sound. The only evidence indicating insanity was that of the father, and it only amounts to this,—that his son was rather despondent, that he had been violently enraged about a week before the murders about the will, that he fancied he was being hardly dealt by, and that he had an abscess in his head which suppurated through the ear. The Coroner was evidently sure he was sane, for in order to secure the charitable verdict now usual, he felt obliged to suggest that a man might go mad in three minutes, which is quite true, but was not shown by any evidence to be true of Derby. We believe him to have been perfectly sane, though embittered to the last degree, and determined to wreak vengeance in some way on those who bad offended him. The way he took, though unusual in England, is common enough in the East, and may have appeared to a man savage with a disappointment in life, made all the more intense by his consciousness of possessing ability, a merciful method. The children, he writes to their aunt and uncle," are now better off than millionaires," a strange comparison, obviously dictated by long reflection upon his un- just poverty. His whole condition of mind is consistent with sanity, which is to us finally demonstrated by his language about his wife. No one pretends that she was insane, her husband praises her all through, and her father-in-law describes her as a woman of unusually strong mind. No woman of that stamp, and forty-three years of age, is likely to have consented to the slaughter of her children, one of them a lad of thirteen, who might easily have been sent away, merely because thafather wished it, though she may easily have said that when her husband went she should like to go too. Derby, indeed, in writing to his own family, never charged her with complicity, his only definite and detailed statement being in the following letter to her brother and sister. In all other letters be merely said that she did not wish to survive him :— "DEAR LIZ AND DICKt—I cannot go Without a word. I need not tell you how much I regret that there ever should have been any differences between us. However, if there is any doubt on your part as to my forgiveness of you, let it be removed at once. I wrote to Annie from Ireland to say so, and I should have been very glad to see you ; but as you did not come, I did not know what to make of it. You could not possibly have felt more keenly than I did our falling out. If I had thought less of you it would have been different. My darling wife and children are now out of reach of trouble and storm. I am about to follow. The world has no use for heart-broken men. My own misfortunes three years ago, and the selfish greed of my rela- tions, have made my life a misery. I can endure it no longer. Annie always said she would like to go when I did, and a few days ago declared she was ready any time. She was a noble-minded woman, and a devoted wife and mother. I could not leave any of them behind. They are better off now than millionaires. They have not had a particle of pain. I hope you will not think too much of this. Annie took her dose as comfortable as her tea, with the under- standing that we should all go, and wished to be remembered to you all. I wish you every earthly blessing. I am sorry for mother.— S. H. DERBY."
The cause of the difference in the letters is clear. Derby was not only sane, but so sane that he reflected quietly and sensibly on the effect of his letter on his wife's relatives. He liked them, he could not bear them to think that he had murdered their sister, and he therefore declared that his wife had consented to what he wished them to regard as a double suicide. The incident is, in fact, one more glimpse into what is possible even to a sane man when mastered by long-continued disappointment, vin- dictive rage, and that desire of asserting himself in some con- clusive way which, as we have repeatedly argued, is with the weak the most frequent cause of crime.