Almost 170 years ago, in one of Craven’s most shocking crimes – described as “unusual and repugnant” – John Rodda used sulphuric acid to murder his baby daughter. Editor Adrian Braddy finds out more.

Child murders were horrifyingly common in Victorian crimes but few were as callous and cold-hearted as the killing of 18-month-old Mary Rodda by her father at Skipton in 1846.

John Rodda, an Irish hawker of mats who was living in the town at the time, poisoned his baby daughter with sulphuric acid in order to receive her burial fee of £2 and 10 shillings.

Rodda initially denied the crime, but he was found guilty following a trial several months later and was sentenced to death by hanging at York Castle. In his final days he confessed to a priest, reportedly sobbing at what he had done.

On May 2, 1846, under the headline “A child murdered for her burial fee”, the Illustrated London News reported on the initial inquest into the baby’s death, held at Skipton.

The report stated: “It appears that [John Rodda] is a member of a burial club and that he would have been entitled to 2.l0s on the death of the child. Under pretence of killing vermin he purchased some oil of vitriol which he poured down the throat of his child whilst she was at home in the cradle, which caused her death. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against the father who was committed to York Castle, to take his trial for the horrid offence at the next assizes.”

The Criminal Chronology of York Castle, published in 1857, provides a detailed 1,200-word report of the York Castle trial, which took place on Friday, June 17, 1846.

According to the chronology, prosecutor Mr Hall told the jury the accusation of murder was “a charge so unusual and so repugnant to the ordinary feelings of human nature that he must caution them against being prejudiced against the prisoner”.

Mr Hall went on to explain the circumstances of the case.

“The prisoner was a hawker of or dealer in mats, and a short time before the death of his child, was living at Skipton,” he said.

The book summarised Mr Hall’s damning prosecution, including proof that Rodda had purchased the poison and told a witness he wanted his daughter dead, so he could claim the payout.

“He had a wife and some young children, the eldest of whom, Mary, was the person into whose death they were about to inquire.

“On Thursday, the 16th of April, the child, which was poorly, was taken by her mother to a medical man, who would be called as a witness, and the jury would learn from him his treatment of that child. It continued poorly, and on the evening of Sunday, April 19th, he should show them that about eight o'clock it was not so unwell, that it ate about a pint of porridge, and about half past eight o'clock it was left nursing on its mother's lap.

“In half an hour afterwards - at nine o'clock - the child was found to be dying in consequence of having taken into its stomach some oil of vitriol.

“During that half-hour the crime must have been committed, if any crime was committed; and the jury would have to ask themselves who were the persons about the child during that half-hour, and who committed the offence.

“He believed that it would be shown the only persons about the child during that half-hour were the father and mother.

“He begged that no inference might be raised for or against the prosecution or the prisoner, because the wife was not put into the box, they must regard the non-production of the wife as a witness as if she was actually dead.

“He (Mr Hall) would endeavour, as far as he could, to fill up the history of the half-hour he had alluded to, by a statement which the prisoner made to the coroner. At that time, on being asked what he had to say, he replied that he had neither bottle, spoon, nor anything else about him but the two children; that he put the deceased into the cradle when it began to vomit, and took it up again, when his wife came downstairs and asked what was the matter; he replied the child had been throwing up; that he went out and asked a doctor to go to his child; that he got the stuff at a druggist's to rub on the wall, but being in a broken bottle he threw it away.”

The report continued: “The child died on the 19th of April, and he should show that on the 18th the prisoner went to a druggist's shop in Skipton, and bought a pennyworth of oil of vitriol.

“Ten or twelve days before this happened, the prisoner, in a conversation with a witness he should call before them, stated that if the child were to die he would get 50s for it from a dead club, and the sooner it was dead the better.”

Virtually no detail is given of Rodda’s defence, which was said to be “powerful”. “The learned counsel then called several witnesses who corroborated the above statements; after which Mr Bliss made a powerful speech in defence; and his Lordship then proceeded to sum up the evidence, which he did in a most impartial manner.”

The conclusion of the trial is summed up in two brief sentences. “The jury then retired, and after an absence of an hour and a half they returned a verdict of guilty. His Lordship then passed sentence of death upon him.”

The book reports that following his conviction, “the unfortunate young man became fully aware of the perilous situation in which he was placed; and, as he could not entertain any reasonable hopes of obtaining mercy in this world, he sought for it where alone it might be found, at the hands of a crucified Redeemer”.

Rodda, who was a Roman Catholic, sought the “spiritual aid” of the Rev T Billington, vicar-general and dean of York.

“Rodda seemed grateful for the attentions paid to him by the rev gentleman and others, and expressed his remorse, with tears, for the horrid crime of which he had been guilty.

“A few days previously to his execution, he made a full confession of his guilt, and stated that avarice was his only motive.”

On August 8, Rodda was hanged at York Castle. Details of his execution were published in the Criminal Chronology.

“At an early hour on Saturday morning, August 8th, the workmen commenced erecting the drop in front of St George's Field, and the solemn preparations for the awful ceremony were speedily completed.

“At the usual hour the wretched man, with blanched cheek and dejected look - his arms pinioned - appeared on the scaffold. After spending a few minutes in prayer, the executioner proceeded to perform the duties of his office, by drawing the cap over his eyes and adjusting the rope, when the fatal bolt was withdrawn - the drop fell - a convulsive struggle ensued - and the mortal ceased to exist.

“There was a large concourse of spectators in St George's Field to witness the spectacle, amongst whom were a number of the lower orders of the Irish, who had congregated to witness the last moments of their countryman.”