In 1854, Mary Ann Brough committed a gruesome crime. In the middle of the night, she sliced the throats of her six children before turning the razor on herself. The scandal grew when the public realized that Brough was Queen Victoria’s wet nurse, charged with caring for Bertie, the young Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne.
Queen Victoria had nine children of her own, even though she reportedly was not fond of children. The Queen went into mourning for forty years after her husband died, and even asked to be buried with a plaster cast of his hand. And Queen Victoria was also in charge of hiring wet nurses to care for her children. When one of her Royal wet nurses murdered six innocent children, Victoria was haunted by the crime.
Mary Ann Brough lived through her suicide attempt and became one of the most notorious female serial killers of the Victorian era. But she escaped the noose by claiming temporary insanity. Was she truly insane when she methodically slaughtered each child, one by one?
Queen Victoria did not just rule Great Britain for a record-making 63 years. She was known for having children—she had nine, in fact. In order to keep up with the childbearing (she had all her children in a 17 year period, between 1840 and 1857), Queen Victoria hired royal wet nurses for all her children.
On November 9, 1841, Victoria went into labor with her second child, the future King Edward VII. As a child, he was called Bertie. Queen Victoria was enamored with her heir from birth, writing, “our little boy is a wonderfully strong and large child. I hope and pray he may be like his dearest Papa.” But the royal wet nurse Victoria chose to care for little Bertie, named Mary Ann Brough, became Britain’s most notorious murderer of children.
A wet nurse was a lactating woman who nursed an aristocratic baby. Royal mothers, like Queen Victoria, traditionally turned to wet nurses to breastfeed their children. For centuries, however, wet nurses had come with a warning: the wrong wet nurse could easily corrupt an infant.
As early as the sixteenth century, men warned women to be careful about trusting a wet nurse. In 1577, Italian author Omnibonus Ferrarious warned that infants would adopt the "nature of the person by whom they are suckled.” In short, a sinful wet nurse could harm a child. Many physicians warned that moral qualities could be transmitted through the breast milk to a child.
If a bad wet nurse could corrupt a child, it was even more important for a future king to have a virtuous wet nurse. In the 1840s, one image warned about the dangers of a drunken wet nurse by showing an intoxicated woman offering alcohol to the infant Prince of Wales, little Bertie. In the drawing, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are bursting through the door, horrified at the scene.
In fact, the scene might have had a hint of truth. Mary Ann Brough was Bertie’s wet nurse for eight months, but she was fired from the job for unclear reasons. One newspaper later reported that Mary Ann “was discharged for disobeying orders, first in receiving visits from her husband, and next for being caught in the act of drinking ardent spirits.” Of course, by then Mary Ann was on trial for killing her own children, so the story might have been untrue.
The sun was barely up on June 10, 1854 when Henry Woolgar spotted a bloody pillow hanging from the window a cottage in the quiet village of Esher. After ringing the doorbell, Woolgar found a ladder and climbed up to peek through the window.
When he looked in, he saw a gasping woman with her throat cut. “Her hands and face were covered with blood and her hair hung about her face,” Woolgar testified. “She was making a whistling noise, apparently from the wound.” And worse, “the blood was spurting from her throat.” When Woolgar rushed to her side, he saw something even more horrifying.