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1885: Tragic tale of a Haywards Heath Asylum nurse, inmate, would-be assassin and 'suicidal maniac'

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Eastern Evening News - Wednesday 04 February 1885



New York, February 3, Afternoon.

Links to background of protagonists: O'Donovan Rossa and Lucilla Dudley

The sensation produced by the attempt on O'Donovan Rossa's life has been intensified by the full details published in the morning and afternoon here to-day. The extreme section of the Irish party are highly excited, and hint at reprisals. Several have called at the hospital, making inquiries respecting Rossa's condition, and the reply has been the same to all callers, viz., that he is as well as can be expected. Rossa, when first brought into the hospital, appeared to be sinking fast from exhaustion.

The resident surgeon made attempts to find the ball but without success, and it was believed then that the leaden messenger had pierced Rossa's lung. Further investigation led to an opposite view being entertained. The wound was dressed and the patient fell into a quiet sleep. The surgeons are now of the opinion that he may recover with care.

The bullet struck Rossa in the back, penetrating through the left shoulder, but, as stated before, the whereabouts of the ball cannot be traced. Throughout the whole night members of the dynamite faction remained within the precincts of the hospital awaiting the course of events, others of the party relieving them in the morning. During the night the depositions of the wounded man were taken with the usual formalities.

Rossa said that be first saw Miss Dudley on Saturday last, she having written to him to make an appointment. He invited her to come to his office, and the interview took place there. The conversation turned upon the recent dynamite outrages in London, and according to Rossa the woman said she wanted more dynamite explosions and more people killed by them. Another appointment was made for yesterday (Monday) afternoon, again at the office of the United Irishman; thereat Miss Dudley again spoke of the desirability of making further and more effectual attempts to damage England by the aid of dynamite. "Thereupon," says Rossa, "she offered me money to carry on the dynamite war. I refused to accept any contribution, but she again pressed her money upon me, and asked me to make out a receipt on behalf of the Dynamite Fund. I absolutely declined to take it, and then Miss Dudley suggested that we should have a more private interview elsewhere, as there were other matters she wished to discuss, and in more privacy than could be obtained in a newspaper office. I consented to this, and we left the building together. On reaching the street we walked on the sidewalk until about one block from my office, when Miss Dudley suddenly stepped back a pace and fired."

It was fortunate indeed for Rossa that only one bullet aimed against him found its billet. Considering that his assailant was standing directly over his prostrate body it is almost inconceivable that she could have so repeatedly missed hitting him.

Rossa constantly refers to the prisoner as Miss Dudley. It is evident that he mistook her for a single woman, but she herself avers that she is a widow. Her husband died not very long ago, and her two children are also dead. She is a well-dressed woman, and gives her name as Yseult Dudley, and says she is 24 years of age, but she does not look over twenty. Her face is attractive, but there are traces of sorrow upon her features. She says that after the death of her husband she supported herself by nursing at various hospitals. She holds diplomas both from hospitals in London and in Paris, and among the other institutions in which she served is that of the Asylum at Hayward's Heath, in Sussex, England.

Yseult Dudley worked as a nurse and subsequently became a patient at the Haywards Heath Asylum

This was one of the last situations she filled, and she left England in September last for the United States. With the letters of introduction she brought with her, and the diplomas she possessed testifying to her abilities, she had no difficulty in obtaining employment in the New York Hospitals, and from the time of her arrival until now she has earned her living in this way.

Last night, when she fired at Rossa a small crowd speedily collected, but the woman went on firing until every barrel was discharged. The bystanders were so startled by the coolness with which the whole thing was carried out that no one had the presence of mind to interfere until Mrs. Dudley had proceeded some little distance from the spot. She was then seized with the smoking revolver still in her hand, and made not the slightest attempt at resistance. She went readily to the Police-station, and answered every question put to her with a calmness that was, under the circumstances, perfectly astounding.

When asked where she had come from, she replied, "I am a native of England," in a clear, deliberate voice, which showed no sign of hesitation or fear. "Do you know who it is whom you have shot” asked the official. "I have shot O'Donovan Rossa," she replied, "Rossa ought to die;" then in reply to further questions she gave her history as already detailed. When asked why she had shot Rossa, she replied, "Because I am English and he is O'Donovan Rossa."

Many of the fellow-workers of Yseult Dudley in the hospitals here have been interviewed. They state that the prisoner was very reserved, and there was something in her manner which struck them as being singular, and not altogether right. It was supposed that the loss of her husband and her early troubles had preyed upon her mind; but she was fully conversant with her duties. She repeatedly denounced the dynamite faction in conversation with her associates, and was most powerfully excited by the news of the dynamite outrages on London Bridge and on the Metropolitan Railway. She was very agitated on Saturday week last on hearing of the outrages at the Tower of London and at Westminster, and then exclaimed excitedly, "Rossa ought to die." The feeling here is a general one of sympathy with the prisoner, except in the extreme Irish circles. Americans regard the woman as a heroine rather than a criminal.

Chambers Street, where O'Donovan Rossa's offices are situated, and where his assassination was attempted, is a humble thoroughfare, leading into Broadway. Very few pedestrians use it. Rossa’s office is a mean house, tenanted principally by persons with foreign names, doing business as agents. Rossa rents the topmost flat, consisting of two rooms, both small and shabby. They are approached by a narrow stair and a darksome passage. On the outer door is a sign inscribed with the words, "United Irishman O’Donovan—O' Rossa.” The doors are heavy and black, and a dull, crumbling sound yields to the footfall. Rossa's office serves the double purpose of editorial sanctum and meeting place. One—the smaller apartment—is approached by an inner door, and is adapted to secret conferences. Both rooms are repellant and squalid. Rossa's personal appearance is respectable. He dresses much like a master workman.

The only American feature of his appearance is his pointed beard. His cheeks are clean shaven, and his expression American-Irish, slightly sinister, but not forbidding. His frame is powerful, his carriage good, and his manner not unpleasant. Rossa for some time acted as agent to one or two Atlantic steamship companies, but he lost his appointments on the discovery of his association with the dynamite brotherhood. Although much of what Rossa said and threatened was mere vapouring, yet he undoubtedly received large sums to carry on the skirmishing war, and that he had many followers the columns of his paper showed. Among the Irish and ne'er-do-wells by whom he is surrounded Rossa is known as the "boss."

A consultation of the surgeons was held in the hospital this morning and Rossa was pronounced better. It is the belief of the medical men that he will now recover. Phelan, whose life was recently attempted in Rossa's office by one of the dynamite gang, and who now lies in the same ward as Rossa in the hospital, takes an intense interest in all that appertains to his former comrade.

New York February 3, 1 p.m.

The following official information has been issued by the surgeons of the hospital in reference to O'Donovan Rossa's wound :- “The bullet entered the body just over the centre of the shoulder blade. It can be traced upwards and inwards for four inches. The wound is only a flesh wound, and is not dangerous. The ball up to the present has not been found. From this authoritative statement it appears most probable that Rossa will recover. Mrs. Dudley was brought up to the Tombs Police court charged with unlawfully attempting to take the life of O'Donovan Rossa.

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa in later life

The Court was densely crowded. The prisoner was calm and placid. Her good looks and youthful appearance enlisted very general sympathy on her behalf. Only formal evidence was given to-day, the prisoner listening with a quiet attentive attitude throughout. At the close of the hearing the prisoner was remanded for further inquiries, and to await the result of the injuries inflicted upon Rossa.

(From “CENTRAL NEWS" Correspondent. LONDON, Tuesday Night.

The announcement that an attempt had been made upon the life of O'Donovan Rossa caused the most intense excitement in political and official circles to-day, many persons expressing the liveliest satisfaction that the attempt had been made, and the strongest admiration for the woman who made it. That a feeling of unmistakable sympathy with Mrs Dudley exists in all quarters of society Is evident by the many suggestions that a fund should be raised for her defence, or to assist her in other material ways. Such a fund would be largely subscribed to, and many offered to contribute liberally towards it.

From inquiries which we have made it appears that the name of Mrs. Dudley is really Lucilla Dudley. She appears to have had more trouble than falls to the lot of most people, and to have been somewhat affected thereby. Lucilla Dudley is just over 24 years of age. She is of a very sensitive nature and somewhat eccentric. In July, 1883, she attempted to commit suicide in a first class carriage on the Great Eastern Railway by inhaling chloroform. When found by the porter on that occasion he thought her to be fast asleep. She lay back with a handkerchief over her face, and in her hand was a bottle labelled "Poison." The unfortunate woman was removed to the London Hospital, where, after eight hours' unceasing attention, she regained consciousness.

She was brought before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with attempting suicide, and while in the passage of the court again attempted to take her life by swallowing a dose of opium, which she had secreted in the lining of her dress. She at the same time expressed her regret that she had not succeeded in killing herself. She stated she was a governess, and also a hospital nurse, that she had no relatives, and that she had been driven to desperation by the loss of her child. She declined to give any further account of herself, and as she would not promise not to repeat the offence the presiding magistrate ordered her to find two sureties of £25 each to be of good behaviour for the next three months.

The sureties were not forthcoming, and the prisoner was removed from the House of Detention, Clerkenwell, to Millbank, where the chaplain spent much time in bringing her to a better frame of mind. Dudley was discharged from Millbank on the 11th May, 1883, and thanks to the exertions of a number of ladies and gentlemen who warmly espoused her cause, she was enabled to go into training as a nurse at Queen Charlotte's Hospital. She was so employed for some months, and left with some very excellent testimonials from the lady superintendent of that institution. She then appears to have gone to reside at Brighton, and the next thing that was heard of her was that she was found suffering from the effects of poison in a carriage on the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway, near Lewes, having again made an attempt on her life. Fortunately for her the attempt was unsuccessful, although a fatal ending was prevented with some difficulty. She was taken before the magistrates and committed to Lewes Gaol. From there she was sent to the Hayward's Heath Lunatic Asylum. It was about six months since that she was sent from that prison to Canada, and she appears from there to have made her way to New York. Her age when at Milbank was twenty-two years, stud although she described herself as a widow she had never been married.

On inquiry at Millbank Prison we ascertained that Yseult Dudley, or Lucilla Dudley, as she called herself while in that institution, behaved in a somewhat strange manner while undergoing her term. She was of a tolerably calm temperament, but very determined, and often set the prison rules utterly at defiance, having frequently to be punished for her conduct. Well educated, very clever, and prepossessing in her manner and appearance, she made for herself many friends who were anxious to help her in life. The prison doctor, in consequence of her conduct, came to the conclusion that the brain was affected, and that she was a fit subject for a lunatic asylum ; but the visiting magistrates refused to sign a certificate to that effect. One doctor, who took great interest in her, describes her as highly imaginative, and liable to make a statement which had no foundation, in fact, only so recently as a fortnight ago the Rev. George Purnell Meyrick, the chaplain, received a letter from Lucilla Dudley, in which she stated that she was doing well in New York, that she had good employment, often getting fifteen dollars for attending upon one lady patient, and thanking the rev. gentleman for all he had done for her.

Our representative, on inquiry at the Hayward's Heath Asylum, was informed that in September, 1883, Lucilla Dudley was received at the Hayward's Heath Asylum, the County Lunatic Asylum for Sussex, as a criminal patient from Lewes, she having attempted to commit suicide whilst travelling from London to Brighton. She remained in the Asylum until August, 1884, when she was handed over to her friends on their giving an undertaking to the Home Secretary, Sir W. Harcourt, to look after her, and to give him notice should symptoms of insanity recur. Lucilla Dudley is undoubtedly well connected, and is said to be the illegitimate daughter of persons of rank. She has had two children both of whom are dead. Her husband (if she be married) is described as an officer in the army. She is possessed of considerable histrionic power, and at one time studied with a view to adopting the stage as a profession. She was well educated, and among other accomplishments spoke French fluently.

Dr. Williams, the Resident Superintendent of the Hayward's Heath Asylum, was interviewed this afternoon by our representative. The doctor said Lucilla Dudley was a very interesting patient, and was an inmate of the asylum for twelve months. She was suffering from suicidal mania, and during the first six months of her stay she was subject to very violent paroxysms, and whilst they lasted no one's life was safe. She recovered, however, and for the last six months was to all appearances cured. No one by conversing with her would have pronounced her mad.

"Were you not surprised to hear she had attempted O'Donovan Rossa's life?”

—" Not at all. I should say that it was never certain when her mind would lose its balance, and then it would be impossible to determine whether her mania would take a suicidal or a homicidal form."

"Then, doctor, you would not hold her responsible for her actions?”

—"Morally she is irresponsible."

"Miss Dudley's case is then quite an exceptional one?”

“Yes; but by no means unique. It is well understood amongst doctors who make a special study of mental diseases."

"If her state was of so serious a character, is it not surprising that she should have been set at liberty?”

—"She was released," replied Dr. Williams, "on the undertaking of her friends to watch her, and to report to the Home Secretary any signs of relapse."

"Had she ever expressed any strong political opinions?”

—" I never heard her in conversation express political opinions, or detestation of Fenians or dynamitards or in any way refer to O'Donovan Rossa, but she had a dislike towards Irishmen , generally. My senior Assistant-Medical-officer was an Irishman, and she for some reason or other could never get on with him."

"Could you favour me with a description?”

—" Yes, I think I can give you a fair idea. To my mind she was a person of great beauty of the blonde type, light, fair, blue eyes, with a clear, pink and white complexion, just the kind of beauty which one is accustomed to meet in South Devon. She was of medium height, and this defect somewhat marred the effect of her beauty, as it caused her to lean forward slightly and peer after the manner of short-sighted people."

"Was she subject to delusions?”

—" No, she was not at all subject to delusions. Hers was a case of moral, congenital insanity, and was very difficult to deal with, as you could never know what form it would assume. At first her paroxysms were very severe, and at no time could she be absolutely trusted. I do not at all doubt that she had a diploma from a Paris Hospital for nursing. She was a good nurse, and I have heard medical men who knew her speak highly of her in that capacity. In temperament she was ardent, and in her likes and dislikes always in extremes. She loved or she hated. She was no medium. She was fond of learning, especially novels. She used to borrow and eagerly read my French and English novels. She spoke French fluently.'

Nurse "Charlotte" of the London Hospital has furnished an account of Lucilla Dudley, showing that she has passed a most romantic career. " She was admitted into this hospital," said Sister Charlotte to our representative, "some time ago, in a state of insensibility, and did not recover consciousness till next morning, and she remained a patient under my care for about four days. She was a vary intelligent woman, was cheerful in her manner, would converse well upon nearly every topic, and was only reticent when questioned about her attempt to commit suicide. She said she was a Roman Catholic, and was visited by a priest. She declared again and again that as soon as she had a favourable opportunity she would try to commit suicide again. In consequence we never allowed a knife or anything with which she might inflict self-injury to remain within her reach. She used to laugh at this precaution and say, "Do you think I should do it in such a clumsy way as that?" She many times asked me for her jacket, a heavy cloth one, trimmed with fur. She even implored me to let her have it. This led me to suspect that there was something concealed in it which she wanted to take. I carefully searched it and could find nothing; but, afterwards, when she was taken to the Police-court, she was discovered taking opium powder, which, I think, she must have secreted in the lining of her jacket.

She took great interest in the affairs of the hospital while here, and used to be asked to be allowed to go among the children; but this was not allowed. I understood from her that she had been married, and she told me the reason she had attempted suicide was that she had had so much trouble with her husband, who was dead, and also her two children, whom she had also lost. She said she was fond of her children; but the one she loved most was her last little girl. She had a lock of this child's hair in her possession, also a portrait of her and a pair of shoes and stockings, and a letter which she had written, in which she said—

'I cannot stay longer from my dear little blue-eyed darling, and I hope and expect to meet her soon in heaven.'

There was nothing in her conduct while in the hospital to leave one for a moment to suppose that she was insane. She conversed in the most rational manner. She seemed, however, of a somewhat excitable temperament and rather self-willed. She talked of having been abroad. She seemed quite conversant with the question of nursing, and mentioned the various anaesthetics used in medical practice. She was evidently a well-educated woman. I advised her to become a nurse, and to promise not to make any further attempt on her life. When she left the hospital she bade me a most affectionate farewell. I then again said 'Promise me not to repeat such a rash act. She replied, 'No, sister, you have been very kind to me, and I shall never forget you; but I cannot promise you not to do it again, She told me that before she came to the Hospital she had been a nurse in Charing Cross Hospital. and that the reason she left her situation there was that she was unable to submit to the discipline, which she considered was too severe. With reference to her attempted suicide, she showed me a letter which she had written to someone to whom she owed money. In that letter she said that the person to whom she I owed the money was driving her to do what she was about to do. I asked her how she got possession of the chloroform which she had used. She said she had first taken as opium powder before leaving the house of the person to whom she owed the money. She said, 'I swallowed this powder. I then filled a pad of lint with chloroform and when I got into the train I tied it round my mouth and nose with a pocket-handkerchief, and I hoped it would finish me before the train arrived at its destination.' I asked her where she obtained the powder and and chloroform. She replied, 'I got it from a very nice chemist, telling him it was for a chemical experiment. When he sold it to me I said, "Suppose I poison myself with it, what will become of you? " He said, "I don’t know." I said to him, “If you thought I was going to poison myself would you sell it to me?" and he replied, "I don't think I should." There was no label on the bottle,' continued Sister Charlotte, 'giving the name of the chemist.' Dudley several times stamped her foot as if she were vexed, and said, "Why was I so stupid as not to better calculate the time when the train would stop. I might have known there would not be sufficient time to die.' This," continued the nurse, "is all that transpired during her stay in the hospital.'

Subsequently I learnt that she had entered Queen Charlotte's Hospital as a probationer. While there last June twelvemonth she wrote me a nice cheerful letter, stating that she was undergoing her probation as a nurse, and that as soon as she had completed it she thought of going abroad as a nurse. She said she should always feel thankful she had been here in the London Hospital. She expressed regret for the rash act she committed, and added she would never think of doing anything of that kind again. At that time I was going away on my holiday, and I wrote to her, telling her when I expected to be back, and that I should then be pleased to see her.

I did not hear from her again, and I had no news of her until I read in the newspapers that a person answering to her description had been found at Brighton in a railway carriage in a state of insensibility, through having taken chloroform. I then wrote to the superintendent of police at Brighton, making inquiries about her, and he wrote back to say that she had been confined in a lunatic asylum. From that time I had no further news of her. I have been told that while undergoing her probation as a nurse she was somewhat flighty in her conduct. I have been informed that she lost her father and mother when she was young, and that she was sent to France to be educated, and remained there until she was 16 years of age. In France, it is said, she got into wild and irregular ways. When she came back to England she went to live with her guardian at Walthamstow, and that she left there in consequence of a quarrel. For some time her friends lost sight of her, and it is stated that the next thing that was heard of her was that she was living with a Frenchman and had two children. She said she was married to him, and she wore a marriage ring. According to her statement he had deserted her. She told me he was dead. I have been further informed that before leaving for Brighton she had been living for some time at Chelsea."

Lucilla Dudley (otherwise known as Yseult Dudley) who shot Irish politician O'Donovan Rossa

Later inquiries; bring to light the fact that Dudley attempted her own life on the Great Eastern Railway on the 1st of February 1882. When arrested after the attempted suicide, amongst other things found on her was a memorial card of her daughter Marguerite, who is referred to in the letter which she wrote shortly before attempting to destroy herself. After her committal, in default of sureties, a letter was received at Worship Street Police-station from a gentleman in Belgium, asking for certain information with regard to her in order to identify her, and asking for her photograph. The circumstance was reported to Scotland Yard but the nature of the reply of the authorities has not been made known to Miss Dudley's friends.

The following letters, the first of which was found upon her after she had taken poison, and the latter of which was written to a friend just before the 1st of February, 1883, will probably throw some light upon her state of mind at that time:—" I am going to end my life to-day. May God have mercy my soul. It is but for me to die. l seem only to bring trouble on all who know me, and yet I would sooner suffer anything myself. If I had lived I should have gone mad, for life has been intolerable since I lost my darling, my wee girlie. Perhaps I shall have her again now I have tried to get away from thinking about her. Tried everything, - lived fast and reckless, only stopped short of actual wrong; but her little face is by me night and day, and her little voice calls me. I think I lost my right senses, in a measure when she died. I don't know, only nothing has seemed real since. Perhaps God lets her call me, that I may go. Surely, as He has made life too hard for me to bear, He cannot blame me for ending it. All other troubles have come because I ceased to care to calculate when she was taken. It this is ever read I would thank all who have been kind to me, and ask them not to think too hardly of me. God in His infinite mercy will take me to my darling little one again, never to be parted more. Wee golden head and violet eyes, oh ! God, give me to her again.—L. DUDLEY."

"Dear Mrs. M.—As this will be the last time you will ever hear from me try to read it patiently. You are wrong in thinking I was careless or indifferent about your being paid. Indeed, I would have sent you every farthing. You know I have always given you all I had, and the last debt was contracted because I was too ill to move. You must recollect that I wished to go, but the doctor forbid me to move until the haemorrhage ceased. You have been bitterly cruel to me this last week, and I was trying so hard to fight against the impulse to destroy myself and end all trouble. l am sorry you would not even shake hands with me. I have been longing so dreadfully for dear little Marguerite, and tried all I could to throw it off. If I have been extravagant and reckless it was through trying to drive away the thoughts that came. May God now take me to her, As he has made life too hard to live without her, He will not punish me for ending it. I shall be with her before you read this. As a dying woman I ask you to believe that I should not have wronged you out of your money, but you threatened to write to where was going, and that would have ruined my chance of success Ask them to bury my darling little thing with me.—Y. Dudley."


Jill Harwood writes: I found Lucilla Dudley in the 1881 census prior to these events as a married actress, aged 20 born in France but a Bristish subjest , visiting a teacher in East Barnet. In 1891 there is a Lucille Dudley as a "lunatic" in Broadmoor, age is correct, birthplace given as Surbiton, Surrey, former occupation hospital nurse. Lucy was the illegitimate daughter of Captain Handley and Ellen Keenan who lived "in sin" in Surbiton under the name of Mr & Mrs Coverdale while Handley "engaged in pursuits of the turf", Ellen sued him for maintenance in 1864 and was awarded £50 pa. In 1911 Lucy was running a private nursing home with another woman at her home in Sydenham, with 3 female patients, she had a 10 year old niece with her and a young servant. she was still alive in 1939, retired to Clacton and died there in 1947

Thank you to Jill for excellent detective work!



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