Monday, October 3, 2011

October 7, 1896 --- A Lady Kleptomaniac

Walter Castle, a prominent tea merchant and financier from San Francisco, California, and his wife, Ella, are accused by London police of shoplifting. In the couple's suite at the posh Hotel Cecil in the Strand, police found purloined furs, watches, clocks, brooches, even toast racks from the hotel dining room.

The influential Castles call in the U.S. Ambassador but the police are unmoved. At Marlborough Street Police Court, bail is set, and incredibly met at the unheard of figure of £40,000 ($200,000). The charges are greeted with disbelief in America. Castle's brother tells the San Francisco newspaper that Americans are routinely treated in "the most impudent manner" by London shopclerks. The Governor of California and several representatives of British firms on the West Coast cable their support, vouching for the respectability of the young couple.

By the time the case comes to trial, however, defense counsel makes the startling admission that Mrs. Castle is a kleptomaniac, subject to "a temporary overthrow of her mind." Doctors are lined up to testify as well as affidavits from America, swearing to her past thievery, even down to swiping vegetables at a stand. The charges against Mr. Castle were dismissed although Scotland Yard remained unconvinced that he was really unaware of his wife's crimes in a hotel room filled with her booty.

Mrs. Castle pled guilty, begging for mercy. Instead, she got a 3-month sentence and was led off, in hysteria, to Wormwood Scrubs. A pardon was immediately applied for at the Home Office. The Press is in full outcry; Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle - creator of the great Holmes - wrote The Times in protest: "It is to a consulting room and not to a cell she should be sent." After three days in gaol, Mrs. Castle was freed and ordered, with her husband, to leave England with the "least possible delay." In December, Mrs. Castle entered the Philadelphia Polyclinic Hospital where her condition was diagnosed as "disordered menstruation, hemorrhoids and uterine irregularities" which the doctors suggested could be the cause of any number of manias, including thievery.

Back in England, questions were asked in Parliament why a rich American woman was freed while poor shoplifters received lengthy jail terms. 

Punch (adapting Shakespeare) concluded:

That in a Castle is kleptomania
Is in a cottage rank larceny.


  1. It is true that she had this disorder. The Castle family had an agreement with all the stores in San Francisco that any clerk who saw her taking things should automatically put it on the Castle account at that establishment.

    How do I know this? My great-grandmother was married to her brother in her first marriage.

  2. If you are the author of this comment, please contact me at My wife is descended from Rebecca Weill, Ella's younger sister, and the sister of your great-grandmother's first husband.