12th March 1875

Harriet Gilbert’s starvation death is finally acknowledged

Harriet Gilbert was sentenced to four weeks’ imprisonment on 28 January 1875. Within a month, she was dead through starvation, but it took almost two further weeks for the States of Jersey to start talking about it.

Although motherless and only around 14-years-old, Harriet Gilbert had been sentenced for a third time for petty theft – and not only to regular detention, but to alternate weeks of solitary confinement during which she would be allowed only bread and a single pint of water per day.

When she was eventually brought to hospital, doctors found themselves looking at an emaciated girl, too weak to make any complaint, who died a little over 24 hours later from what they stated to be “congestion of the lungs”. The jury, which ruled on an inquest into her death, declared her passing to have been the result of natural causes.

Questions over her death

The following day, however, the Jersey Independent wrote, “Harriet Gilbert… certainly died from a ‘natural cause’, the caused being certified as congestion of the lungs… but what were the material and contributing antecedents to such natural cause? … in this case one-half of the [sentence] was to be devoted to … the slow starvation of the most miserable diet that can well be offered to a human being”.

The Jersey Independent wasn’t the only newspaper that considered Harriet Gilbert’s fate deserving of criticism. The Jersey Observer waded in, too, and mentioned the prison governor, J Le Rossignol, directly. Le Rossignol sued for libel and Sullivan, the editor, ended up in the dock. Le Rossignol told that court that had he not been involved in upholding the law himself, he would have “wrung Sullivan’s neck from off his head”.

Editor on trial

The libel trial elicited a lot of opinions on Harriet’s condition and how she had been treated. Witnesses to her original trial said no mention was made by the judge that she should be fed only bread and water, and the governor himself admitted that this was merely an assumption on his part. Three doctors testified that Harriet was in fact well fed when brought into the hospital, but another witness testified that whenever they saw Harriet in prison she was crying out for water, which was always refused.

The libel trial was concluded within a day, with the defence asking the jury not to convict Sullivan on account of the fact he had not read the article before it was published because he had been ill in bed. Moreover, ruling against him would harm the press, which in turn would harm the liberty of the island.

Sadly, this plea was in vain. Sullivan was found guilty of libel and sentenced to pay a fine of £25 within a fortnight or, if he didn’t, to six weeks’ imprisonment, which would put him in Le Rossignol’s care.


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