Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 12, 1855 --- Trial of a Governess

Mlle. Celestine Doudet is found guilty by a Paris jury of abusing the five daughters of a prominent English physician. In 1852, Dr. James Marsden of Malvern, a widower, hired Mlle. Doudet as governess for his girls, ages 7 to 14.

The Frenchwoman came with the highest references, literally, having been a wardrobe mistress to Queen Victoria. "I consider Mlle. Doudet an excellent person... worthy of confidence." Busy with his practice, the young doctor agreed to have his girls schooled abroad. Re-married in 1853, Dr. Marsden stopped in Paris on his honeymoon and approved of all of what he saw and heard of his daughters' care. Soon, however, he began receiving anonymous letters suggesting the girls were the victims of "fiendish persecution." Marsden initially dismissed it as meddling neighbors but when the notes continued, he crossed the Channel arriving shortly after the death of 10-year-old Mary Ann. The listed cause of death was bronchitis, but she had suffered a fractured skull which Mlle. Doudet said had been caused by a fall during a coughing fit.  The remaining Marsden girls begged to go home with their father.  Marsden dismissed Mile. Doudet and returned with his children to England, where Lucy, the eldest, soon died of "exhaustion."

Even with two children dead, Marsden was reluctant to co-operate with the police. The reason became clear at Mlle. Doudet's trial, when he had to admit that he had surrendered his daughters to this woman in hopes she might cure the girls of "practices of a most impure and destructive character," i.e. masturbation. While his three surviving"adorable" girls listened in open court, he testified: "I ordered her to do all in her power to bring the habits under control." He approved chaining the girls hands and legs to the bedposts as they slept and he also paid for the purchase of special "preservative belts." A doctor for the defense said the girls had engaged in "frenzied" masturbation. But witnesses, including ex-servants, told of how Mlle. Doudet humiliated the children by locking them in the privy.  She beat them; her preferred method was to stamp on their feet until they bled.

Jealousy may have been the motive as the treatment of the girls got worse after Dr. Marsden's re-marriage. Mlle. Doudet was acquitted of the most serious charge of causing Mary Ann's death, Mlle. Doudet but received a five year sentence for her cruelty and abuse. Upon her release, she returned to caring for the children of others. 
[The Governess by Emily Mary Osborn]


  1. My recently published non-fiction book, The Water Doctor's Daughters tells the full story of Mlle Doudet and the Marsden children. For the first time it also follows the lives of the surviving siblings,revealing a third suspicious death by poisoning many years later. The book is published by Robert Hale and is available on Amazon. It includes photographs of the various locales and portraits of most of those involved.

  2. Even today children can be sent to a wilderness program or a boarding school in states like Utah or Missouri for masturbation. Some die. Unlike the trial back then most of the employees get off with only fines as punishment.