A while back, when browsing old issues of The Times from 1919, I came across a fascinating case that I felt compelled to share with you, because it’s very much a testament of its time.
Colonel Rutherford had served as a medical officer at the Western Front with during most of the war. He had been commended for gallantry and mentioned in despatches and all that sort of malarky. His fellow officers later testified that he was usually easy-going, able and very gallant, but that he also suffered from brief spells of extremely violent temper, triggered by tiny things, during which he would react and speak in ways not appropriate for an officer. These spells were short and afterwards he seemed quite dazed and tired and appeared not to remember them.
He had been married since 1902 and had several children. An old friend from university testified about how during his engagement he had, on at least one occasion, displayed irrational and violent jealousy because his future wife had taken a walk with said friend. This friend said that over the years he’d known him, he had witnessed in him a downward spiral of melancholia and continually sinking spirits.
During the course of his work, Colonel Rutherford developed a condition that resulted in extreme skin reactions that were quite, quite painful. Partly because of that, he suffered from acute insomnia for most of the war. His fellow officers and his batman attested to him being depressed and even speaking about killing himself. His wife had showed a letter he’d sent her to an old friend, who described it completely incoherent and full of mad scribblings that did not make sense.
Due to his medical problems, he was sent home in 1917 and got a cushy government post. However, he then quit that position and applied to be sent back to France. An acquaintance thought this very odd, and found him quite queer when they spoke, but surmised that the whole thing was due to financial or domestic problems.
Upon his return to France, he was kicked in the head during a rugby game and was unconscious for some time and suffered a brief loss of memory. By all accounts he was under extreme strain due to his work at the front. His wife wrote to him in very warm tones about her love and forgiving him for something in the summer of 1918, but in September, something had clearly happened because she expressed that she had “gone through hell in the last week” because of his mistreatment of her and that, because of it, there was not “an atom” of love for him left in her (the later divorce proceedings seem to imply he’d been unfaithful to her). She told him that she had been advised to get a divorce, but was willing to let him have custody of the three oldest children. After the Armistice, he told his brother: “I am sorry the war is over. I had hoped to be killed in France.”
He returned home in Jan 1919, and there are several accounts of him dragging his wife into a room and locking the door while she called for the maid. There had been evidence of extreme jealousy earlier; apparently, at some point, he had gone berserk and destroyed all the pictures of other men in the house he had been able to find. In anticipation of his return, his wife had ordered the maid to hide two pictures of Major Miles Seton, a family friend and former colleague of Colonel Rutherford’s who was godfather to their youngest child. At the same time, Colonel Rutherford was described as spending most of his time since his coming home with his children and he was apparently very good to them.
Then one night, after the delivery of a letter from Major Seton to Mrs Rutherford, Colonel Rutherford set out on the town. He stopped at a messenger office and got the address for Sir Malcolm Seton where Major Seton was staying.
Sir Malcolm, his wife and his cousin, the Major, were seated in the smoking room when Colonel Rutherford called on them, and Major Seton went to speak with him alone in another room. After about 10 or 15 minutes, they heard crackling noises. Sir Malcolm and lady Seton rushed to see what it was and found Major Seton shot (the body would later be examined and found to contain 14 entry and exit wounds altogether, the result of 6 or 8 bullets).
Lady Seton exclaimed: “You have killed Miles” to which Colonel Rutherford replied “Yes, I only wish I had a bullet for myself.” Sir Malcolm said he appeared rigid and curiously calm (the word ‘dazed’ was suggested) and as if the situation was only gradually dawning on him.
Sir Malcolm rushed out to find a doctor and the police, while Lady Seton remained with the dead or dying Major and the Colonel, who burned a letter, presumably the one from Seton to his wife. When the doctor and the police arrived, Colonel Rutherford went downstairs to admit them. He was asked if he had shot Major Seton which he affirmed. He then asked for his hat and walking stick and to be allowed to send a message to his wife. It read: “I am sorry. An awful thing has happened. Seton is dead.”
He was later examined by several doctors, several of which were specialists in mental disorders. According to these, he only gave as reason for the act that he thought Seton had a bad influence on his children. The only example of this he could give was that one son had talked about big game hunting in Africa which he did not approve of. When asked why he’d shot Major Seton so many times he said he hated to see things wounded. Later during his trial, he seemed confused about the whole thing and said it felt like it had happened to someone else. According to the experts he was not fit to plead due to insanity.
The jury found him “guilty, but insane” which meant he was admitted to Broadmoor and not hanged.
His wife tried to obtain a divorce, but murder and insanity were not considered to be sufficient grounds as the law then stood. Lord Birkenhead commented on the case that
To some this may appear a harsh and even an inhumane result, but such, my lords, is the law of England.
She was finally granted a legal separation in 1922 and eventually (following a new Parliamentary Divorce Act) obtained a divorce from her husband in 1938 on the grounds of cruelty, the suit being undefended. She later remarried and lived to be 100 years old.
During his time at Broadmoor, Colonel Rutherford wrote a book entitled An Outline History of the Great War together with (non-inmates) Gordon Vero Carey and Hugh Sumner Scott, which was published with Rutherford as an anonymous contributor. After publication, Scott sent it to the Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks, ‘with a covering letter describing fully Rutherford’s part in its production’, after which Rutherford was released quietly from Broadmoor. After his release, he was reinstated to the Medical Register but mostly lived and worked abroad, among other places in Vienna and Persia.
He died in South Africa in 1951, and asked to be buried with his tin hat from the trenches.
Sources: The account of the actual crime is mostly based on articles describing the trial in The Times while the account of the later life of the Rutherfords is based on information found by the clever application of Google Fu, most especially here: