11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night

Khalid Elhassan - November 21, 2017

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Marylebone Police Court today. Flickr

Esther Griggs

In January of 1859, Esther Griggs, an impoverished mother of three residing in one of London’s slums, was arrested and brought before the Marylebone Police Court after she threw her baby out the window of her dwelling and onto the cobbled street below, causing him severe and life threatening injuries. Esther claimed that she dreamt that one of her sons had woken her up, telling her that the building was on fire, and so she threw her infant out the window in an attempt to save him from being burned alive.

Building fires were an ever present and terrifying threat in the London of that day, especially so in the crowded slums and poor neighborhoods. These buildings were chock full of rickety and readily combustible buildings, that were jammed to bursting with the urban poor like Esther Griggs and her family. In the wee morning hours of that day, a woman had been heard screaming “Oh my children! Save my children!” Police were summoned and entered the building, but before reaching the apartment from which the screams emanated, they heard that sound of smashing glass.

A distraught Esther answered the door, frantically questioning the police about her baby, and asking “Have they caught it? I must have thrown it out the window“. The window had not been opened, and Esther had apparently thrown the baby through the glass. As the police reported, had they not arrived in time, she probably would have thrown her other two children out the window as well.

The authorities awaited news of the baby’s fragile hold on life to determine the charges against Esther, and when the infant eventually recovered, a jury was empanelled to indict her for assault with intent to murder. After deliberating, the jurors refused to return an indictment, finding that Esther Griggs was in a somnambulistic state, or suffering night terrors and was unaware of her actions at the time.

The Esther Griggs near-fatal tragedy became a standard case study in criminal law courses in British and other common law countries’ law schools, including the US, on the presence or absence of the necessary mens rea for criminal culpability. That is, the requisite intention or knowledge of wrongdoing for a criminal defendant’s actions to constitute a crime and render him or her criminally culpable for such acts.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Edinburgh High Court, where Simon Fraser was tried. STV

Simon Fraser

Simon Fraser, a Scotsman from Glasgow, was a 27 year old happily married husband and devoted father who, around 1AM on the morning of April 10th, 1878, dreamt that a monster had come up through the floor to attack his family. Simon seized it and smashed it against the ground, only to wake up and discover that he had smashed the head of his 18 month old son.

It was not the first time Simon had serious problems in his sleep. He suffered from somnambulism and night terrors, and had a long history of nightmares in which a white monster or savage beast broke into his house at night to attack his family. He did not deny what he had done, and told police that he thought he was defending the very child whom he had killed.

Witnesses at his trial before the Edinburgh High Court testified that he had long been afflicted with such dreams, during which he inflicted injuries on others. His sister testified that he had almost strangled her once, and that on another occasion, he had to be pulled from the sea after he jumped in to try and save her from drowning when she was back home, safe in bed. His father also took the stand to describe how he once awoke to the then-teenaged Simon straddling and beating him.

The foreman of the jury then informed the judge that there was no need to hear additional testimony, because the jury were already of the unanimous opinion that Simon was not responsible for his actions. The court then decided to call expert witnesses to testify about his sanity, to determine whether he should be set free or be committed to an insane asylum for the rest of his life.

After hearing testimony from two medical experts, one of whom opined that Simon was sane while the concluded that he was not, the jury held a quick whispered conference right there in the courtroom, without even retiring. Within a minute, the foreman announced the jury’s verdict that Simon was not responsible for his actions, and that he was sane. Accordingly, he was set free. However, to ensure that he would not harm another whilst in the grip of somnambulism and night terrors, special arrangements were made. He remained free during the day, but at night, he slept alone in a room locked from the outside, with his wife keeping the key.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Kentucky State Capitol and Supreme Court Building. WKU Public Radio

Fain v. Commonwealth

As described by the Court of Appeals of Kentucky in Fain v. The Commonwealth, 78 Ky. 183 (1879), it was a cold February evening in 1879 when defendant Fain and a friend entered the lobby of the Veranda Hotel, shook the snow off their coats, and sat down. Both were tired, especially Fain, who had not slept much lately because of sick children at home whose care kept him awake at night. It was warm inside the hotel lobby, the lights were dim, and it was not long before Fain and his friend fell asleep where they sat.

Eventually, Fain’s friend woke up and tried to wake Fain but could not. He went to the reception desk and booked a room with two beds, then sent the receptionist to wake Fain. The receptionist tried, but could not, and told Fain’s friend that he thought the defendant was dead. The friend told him to not be silly, and to get on with it. What followed, in the words of the court:

The [receptionist] shook him harder and harder until [Fain] looked up and asked what he wanted. The [receptionist] said he wanted him to go to bed. [Fain] said he would not, and told the [receptionist]deceased to go away and let him alone. The [receptionist] said it was getting late, and he wanted to close the house, and still holding [Fain] by the coat, the latter either raised or was lifted up, and, as he arose, he threw his hand to his side as if to draw a weapon. A by stander said to him, don’t shoot; but without noticing or giving any sign that he heard what was said, he drew a pistol and fired. The deceased instantly grappled him to prevent him from shooting again, but a second shot was fired almost immediately, and a third soon followed

Then, shouting “How-wee!“, Fain rushed out of the lobby and into the street, pistol in hand. He thrust the pistol into a bystander’s hand, asking him to defend him because he had just shot somebody, but did not know who. The receptionist died of his wounds, and Fain was arrested, tried, and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison, from which sentence he appealed.

The appellate court reversed the conviction on grounds that the trial court erred by not allowing Fain to introduce evidence by medical experts of somnambulism, or that he had been a lifelong sleepwalker. The lower court had denied Fain’s request to introduce evidence that he had to be watched since infancy to prevent him from injuring himself while asleep. Additionally, he had witnesses who were prevented from testifying that when aroused from sleep, Fain frequently got up frightened and resorted to violence as if resisting an assault, and for minutes thereafter, would seem unconscious of what he did or what was going around him. In conclusion, the appellate court held that if Fain had been unconscious or nearly so of what he was doing or what was being done to him, and thought he was being attacked and so resisted an attempt to kill or injure him, then he should be acquitted.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Detective Robert Ledru examining evidence at Le Havre beach murder scene. La Brujula Verde

Robert Ledru

In 1887, Robert Ledru was a 35 year old Paris police detective who was considered one of France’s best, and so when the authorities in Le Havre asked for help with a mysterious case of missing sailors, Ledru was sent to lend them a hand. He arrived in the Normandy port at evening and went to bed early. When he awoke the next morning, he was surprised to discover that his shoes and socks were wet.

When he got to the Le Havre police station, he was told that the missing sailors case was now a low priority, as there had been a murder during the night at the beach of a prominent businessman by the name of Andre Monet, who was discovered face down, shot through with a bullet. The victim had not been robbed, and nothing pointed to any reason, motive, or suspect.

Ledru went to the beach to investigate the crime scene, and noticed footprints leading up to and away from the corpse. After examining them, he seemed troubled, and remarking that they looked familiar, ordered plaster casts made of the clearest footprints. When that was done, he sat right there on the beach, looking at the plaster cast footprints for hours. Finally, he got up and told the gathered gendarmes that there was no need for further investigation, as he had solved the crime: the killer was Robert Ledru, although for the life of him he had no memory of shooting the victim. However, one of the footprints had a missing big toe and matched that of Ledru’s, who was missing a big toe. There was also an empty chamber in his revolver, which was always kept fully loaded. Finally, there were the wet shoes and socks he woke to that morning. From all the preceding, Ledru concluded that he had been sleepwalking on the beach that night, when he encountered and shot the victim.

The police were skeptical at first, and Ledru’s bosses thought their star detective must be suffering some temporary crisis caused by overwork and stress that led him to imagine himself a killer. However, ballistics testing proved that the bullet recovered at the crime scene had been fired from Ledru’s revolver, so that sealed it. He was jailed for his own good, and kept under constant watch.

While in prison, the authorities gave him a revolver loaded with blanks. One night, Ledru got up and fired it at a guard, which convinced the authorities that he was, indeed, a homicidal sleepwalker. From then until his death fifty years later in 1937, Ledru was kept in a secluded farm outside Paris, watched over by doctors and armed personnel.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Wikimedia

Isom Bradley

27 year old Isom Bradley lived in Texas with his girlfriend, Ada Jenkins, when one night in 1925 the couple had a conversation about an enemy of Isom named Lawrence Williams. Ada told her boyfriend about some threats Williams had uttered against him, and Isom grew increasingly alarmed by what he heard. Nervous and fearing that Williams might come for him while he slept, Isom went to bed that night with a pistol under his pillow.

Sometime in the early morning hours, Isom was startled by something, and got out of bed in a panic, convinced that an intruder was in the house to do him in. He grabbed the pistol from beneath his pillow and fired off several rounds into the dark. When he finally calmed down and lit a lamp, he discovered his girlfriend, Ada Jenkins, stone dead at the foot of their bed, having been shot multiple times.

He was arrested, charged with murder, tried, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, Isom’s conviction in the lower court was reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on grounds that the jury had not been informed that the defendant could have fired the shots while in a somnambulistic state, and thus acted without volition.

The decision, Bradley v. State, 102 Tex. Crim. 41 (Tex. Crim. App. 1925) set the precedent that sleepwalking was a valid defense in Texas, as the state’s criminal appeals court held that a: “Somnambulist [sleepwalker] does not enjoy the free and rational exercise of his understandings and is more or less unconscious of his outward relations; none of his acts can rightfully be imputed to him as crimes.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Joann Kiger (right) awaiting the verdict in her murder trial with her brother and mother. Preceonomics

Joann Kiger

On the night of August 17th, 1943, Carl Kiger and his wife Jennie, along with their two youngest children, 15 year old Joann and 6 year old Jerry, were peacefully sleeping in their farmhouse in rural Boone County, Kentucky. The family’s sleep and peaceful serenity were shattered that night, however, when somebody shot and killed Carl and Jerry, and wounded Jennie. 15 year old Joan jumped in the family car and drove to the neighbors to get help.

When law enforcement arrived, they found no sign of a break-in by intruders. Carl Kiger, a suspicious man who took home security seriously, was well known for his precautions, checking and making sure all windows and doors were secure before going to sleep. That night had been no exception, and investigators noted that the house was “locked up tight”. In the absence of evidence of murder by an outsider, the investigators and prosecutors looked at those inside the house, and charged the by-then 16 year old Joann and her mother with murder, both for that Carl Kiger, and Joan alone for that of young Jerry.

During the trial, it came to light that Joann had a history of night terrors – super intense and realistic nightmares – which she had inherited from her father. The defense argued that Joann had dreamt that she heard gunshots, thought that a murderous intruder had broken into the house, and in a somnambulistic state, grabbed two of the various loaded revolvers that her father kept around the house to be within easy access and reach in case of an emergency.

Armed and confused, she set out to “rescue” her family, yelling that “there’s a crazy man in here who’s going to kill us all!” Firing at shadowy figures whom she imagined were firing at her, Joann started her intended rescue by shooting her little brother to death. She then rushed to her parents’ room, where she shot her father dead, and wounded her mother with a bullet to the thigh. After mental health experts testified to her delusions and night terrors, the jury took four hours to deliberate, then acquitted Joann on grounds of insanity. Following that verdict, the case against Joann and her mother for the murder of Carl Kiger collapsed, and prosecutors dropped the charges.

Joann was sent to a mental institution, where she was interred for a year before being released. She changed her name to Marie Kiler, and went on to graduate from the University of Louisville, with a degree in education. She then spent her professional career as a guidance counselor in the Jefferson County, Kentucky, public school system, before dying at age 64 of cirrhosis of the liver.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
North Korean soldiers marching through Seoul. Pintrest

Ivy Cogdon

In 1950, Ivy Cogdon was a 50 year old mother from a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, who was afflicted with a variety of nervous complaints, including night terrors. On August 11th of that year, she entered her 19 year old daughter’s room with an ax in hand, and smashed her skull. When police arrived, Ivy admitted what she had done, and was duly arrested and charged with murder.

In her defense, she claimed that she was sleepwalking when she left her bedroom, and in that somnambulistic state, she thought North Korean soldiers had invaded her suburban home and were attacking her daughter. So she reacted by grabbing an ax and rushed to her daughter’s defense, swinging at the imaginary North Korean soldiers to fend them off, and in the process, ended up killing her daughter. As she told detectives: ” I dreamt the [Korean] war was all around the house. I heard Pat screaming and rushed into her room, it was full of soldiers. I hit at them. I remember hitting the bed. Oh Pat, I don’t want to live now“.

While Ivy Congdon’s actions were bizarre, her underlying fear was not uncommon at the time in Australia, where there was a widespread of Asians and Asian communists. The country was only 5 years removed from WW2, when it had been threatened by Japanese invasion. More recently, Mao’s communists had won control of China, and only two months earlier, the North Koreans had crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, sparking the Korean war.

She pled not guilty on grounds that she was sleepwalking at the time and unaware of her actions. At a coroner’s inquest, a psychiatrist testified that he thought Ivy was a somnambulist, or sleepwalker. As described by other doctors who had been treating her prior to the killing, her medical history included powerful night terrors, and they had described her as a “hysterical type” prone to blackouts and somnambulism. Their conclusion was that Mrs. Cogdon would not have known what she was doing when she killed her daughter.

At trial, she testified that of her many fears, her greatest was of the recently started Korean War, and of how she would protect her family from invading Korean soldiers. She was particularly worried that the invaders would “pollute” her daughter, and on the night of the killing, those fears were exacerbated and made more vivid when her daughter told her that she would volunteer as a transport driver if the Koreans invaded Australia. As she lay worrying, her daughter told her: “Mummy, don’t be silly worrying about the war. It is not at your front door“. That attempted reassurance only worsened matters, and made Mrs. Cogdon imagine what would happen if the war actually did come to her front door – and crossed the threshold.

Based on the medical evidence, Mrs. Cogdon’s mental history, and testimony by family and friends that she had been a loving mother, devoted to her daughter, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on grounds that she was unaware of her actions at the time, and thus not responsible. It was the first time in Australia that somebody successfully used sleepwalking or somnambulism as a defense, so the case, Regina v. Cogdon, made legal history.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Contemporary newspaper article of the Boshears murder case. Charleston Post Gazette

Willis Boshears

Sergeant Willis Boshears was an American serviceman based in Britain. While his wife and children were in Scotland, he was stationed in Essex, where on New Year’s Day, 1961, he strangled to death a local woman, Jean Constable, after a night of celebrating and drinking. He confessed what he had done, claiming that he was asleep, and when he awoke and found out what he had done, he panicked and disposed of the body. He was arrested and charged with murder.

At the trial, it emerged that Boshears had gone to a pub on New Year’s Eve, where he encountered the victim and a male companion. The trio left the establishment and went back to Boshear’s apartment, where they drank vodka and partied. The victim’s companion eventually left, Jean collapsed on a mattress in front of the fireplace, and Boshears testified that he passed out beside her.

He further testified that he came to the next morning to the sensation of something scratching and pulling at his mouth, and discovered himself atop Jean’s corpse, with his hands around her throat and her fingers in his mouth. In a dazed state, he carried her to the bathroom, dressed her and tried to cut her hair, then placed her in his bedroom. When he finally awoke, he thought he had dreamt the whole thing, but upon entering his bedroom and encountering the victim’s body, he realized it had been all too real.

In a panic, he hid the body for two days, before finally getting rid of the corpse by throwing it into a ditch, where it was discovered, and police investigators tracked her last whereabouts to Boshear’s apartment. He confessed, but claimed that he strangled her in his sleep and had no recollection of that night. In the subsequent trial, the issue boiled down to whether he had acted while asleep, in which case he would not be guilty. After testimony of lay witnesses and experts, the prosecution and defense made their closing arguments and rested their cases. After deliberating for about two hours, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and Boshears was acquitted of murder.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Book written about the Steven Steinberg case. Westword

Steven Steinberg

In 1981, Steven Steinberg of Scottsdale, Arizona, was accused of murdering his wife, Elena, by stabbing her twenty six times with a kitchen knife, as she cried out for her children. He initially tried to blame it on burglars and a home invasion gone wrong, but after police investigators debunked that possibility, he confessed to killing her, but claimed to have done it while sleepwalking, which condition resulted from excessive stress caused by his wife’s constant nagging for money.

During the ensuing trial in the Maricopa County Courthouse, the prosecutors put all their eggs in one basket by making a case for premeditated murder, without bringing any other charges. Steinberg’s attorney, who specialized in insanity defenses, made a case for not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense was helped by what emerged during the proceedings as sloppiness and incompetence on the part of the Scottsdale police during their investigation.

Steven himself testified that he was unaware of the killing at the time, that he was sleeping when it took place, and so it must have happened while he was sleepwalking. The defense brought in a psychiatrist as an expert witness, who testified that Steven killed his wife whilst in the grip of a dissociative reaction, and so he could not have been aware of what he was doing at the time.

Steven himself was a presentable person who came across as a nice guy. After deliberating, the jury returned its verdict, finding that he was not guilty on grounds that he was suffering from temporary insanity when he killed his wife. Because the insanity was only temporary and he was sane at the time of the acquittal, Steven Steinberg walked out of court a free man.

In the aftermath of the case, Arizona changed its insanity defense laws, and judges now are required to impose a “guilty but insane” sentence in temporary insanity scenarios such as that of the Steinberg case. Criminal defendants who are found guilty but insane these days would have to go to a mental institute, where they might be interred for as long as if they had been sentenced to prison.

11 Sleepwalking Killers from History Will Make You Want to Bar Your Doors At Night
Kenneth James Parks. Big Think

Kenneth Parks

In 1987, Canadian Kenneth James Parks was a 23 year old married man and father of an infant daughter who suffered from insomnia and stress. He was going through a rough patch at the time, caused by a gambling addiction that drove him deeply into debt. To cover his losses, Kenneth embezzled about $32,000 from his employer, hoping to make some winning bets that would allow him to pay off his debts and return the money to his employer before it was discovered missing. He bet it on the wrong horses, lost it all, and its disappearance was discovered. He was fired, and his employer filed charges against him. Things got so bad that he stole from his family’s savings account. So all in all, the stress and insomnia were understandable.

Kenneth had the good fortune to be on excellent terms with his in laws, and his mother in law referred to him as her “gentle giant”. In the early morning hours of May 24th, 1987, Kenneth got out of bed and drove about 15 miles to his in laws’ home in a Toronto suburb, got a tire iron out of his car’s trunk, and broke into the house. There, he assaulted his father in law and choked him unconscious, and beat his mother in law with the tire iron and stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife.

He then managed to drive to a police station, where he arrived around 4:45AM, covered in blood, and told them: “I just killed someone with my bare hands; oh my God, I just killed someone; I’ve just killed two people; my God, I’ve just killed two people with my hands; my God, I’ve just killed two people. My hands; I just killed two people. I killed them; I just killed two people; I’ve just killed my mother- and father-in-law. I stabbed and beat them to death. It’s all my fault“. Kenneth later claimed that the first thing he remembered from that night was being at the police station.

Charged with murder, his defense was that he had been unaware of his actions because he committed them while asleep. It stretched credulity, and at first, even sleep specialists were skeptical that it was even possible for a person to get in a car, drive it 15 miles, get out and kill somebody, then get back in the car and drive it to a police station, all while asleep. Eventually, however, the specialists could find no other explanation, and concluded that it was possible that Kenneth had acted while asleep.

During the ensuing trial for murder and attempted murder, the defense emphasized Kenneth’s lack of motive and history of excellent relations with his in laws, and the consistency of his story during numerous interviews. Moreover, his EEG readings were highly irregular, even for people suffering sleep disorders, and such readings were impossible to fake. That was sufficient for the jury to acquit him of all charges, and the acquittal was eventually upheld by Canada’s Supreme Court. Kenneth Parks was put on medication, and never had a recurrence of somnambulism.

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