Marylebone Police Court today. Flickr

Esther Griggs

In January of 1859, Esther Griggs, an impoverished mother of three residing in one of London’s slums, was arrested and brought before the Marylebone Police Court after she threw her baby out the window of her dwelling and onto the cobbled street below, causing him severe and life threatening injuries. Esther claimed that she dreamt that one of her sons had woken her up, telling her that the building was on fire, and so she threw her infant out the window in an attempt to save him from being burned alive.

Building fires were an ever present and terrifying threat in the London of that day, especially so in the crowded slums and poor neighborhoods. These buildings were chock full of rickety and readily combustible buildings, that were jammed to bursting with the urban poor like Esther Griggs and her family. In the wee morning hours of that day, a woman had been heard screaming “Oh my children! Save my children!” Police were summoned and entered the building, but before reaching the apartment from which the screams emanated, they heard that sound of smashing glass.

A distraught Esther answered the door, frantically questioning the police about her baby, and asking “Have they caught it? I must have thrown it out the window“. The window had not been opened, and Esther had apparently thrown the baby through the glass. As the police reported, had they not arrived in time, she probably would have thrown her other two children out the window as well.

The authorities awaited news of the baby’s fragile hold on life to determine the charges against Esther, and when the infant eventually recovered, a jury was empanelled to indict her for assault with intent to murder. After deliberating, the jurors refused to return an indictment, finding that Esther Griggs was in a somnambulistic state, or suffering night terrors and was unaware of her actions at the time.

The Esther Griggs near-fatal tragedy became a standard case study in criminal law courses in British and other common law countries’ law schools, including the US, on the presence or absence of the necessary mens rea for criminal culpability. That is, the requisite intention or knowledge of wrongdoing for a criminal defendant’s actions to constitute a crime and render him or her criminally culpable for such acts.