Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones was accused of sexually molesting mentally disabled children at a children’s hospital in London. Though the accusations generated much scandalous newspaper coverage and a criminal trial, the claims were subsequently forgotten, except for a brief account in Jones’s autobiography and occasional mention in psychoanalytic publications. The scandal resurfaced in 2002, when historian Philip Kuhn brought to light contemporary records that provided a powerful indictment of Jones.

Summary of Event

Ernest Jones was Freud, Sigmund Sigmund Freud’s biographer, his first English convert, and a lifelong proselytizer of Freudian psychoanalysis. In 1906, already under the influence of Freud’s writings (though he did not meet him until two years later), Jones was working in London in various medical and scientific positions. In one of these jobs, for the London County Council (LCC), he tested students for medical and speech problems at the Edward Street School for mentally disabled children in southeastern London. It was here that he allegedly molested several children, the first of three similar incidents in about five years. [kw]Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children, Psychoanalyst Ernest (Mar. 2, 1906) [kw]Children, Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled (Mar. 2, 1906) Child abuse;and Ernest Jones[Jones] Jones, Ernest Child abuse;and Ernest Jones[Jones] Jones, Ernest [g]Europe;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [g]England;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Sex crimes;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Families and children;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 2, 1906: Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones Is Accused of Molesting Mentally Disabled Children[00050] Kerr, James Bodkin, Archibald

Clockwise from top left: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, Carl Jung, G. Stanley Hall, and Sigmund Freud at Clark University in 1909.

(Library of Congress)

On his third visit to the school, Friday, March 2, Jones spent a little under two hours examining about two dozen students. Individual conferences with each student thus averaged not much more than four minutes apiece. Later that day, four students (one boy and three pubescent girls) individually complained to the head teacher, Amelia Hall, that Jones acted inappropriately during his interviews. Hall reported the complaints to her superiors.

The following Monday, March 5, LCC’s medical officer for education, James Kerr, took Jones back to the school to investigate the claims made by the students. Ten-year-old Walter Johnson’s complaint remained vague. Thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Overton said that Jones had asked her an “objectionable question.” Fanny Harrigan, about twelve years old, said that Jones had spoken and acted in “a grossly indecent manner.” Dorothy Freeman, thirteen years old, complained that Jones had “interfered” with her clothing, asked her “an improper question,” and acted in “a grossly indecent manner.”

Kerr believed there was no substance to the allegations, but Freeman’s mother and father took their complaint to the police, which led to further investigation and Jones’s arrest. Jones was defended by the eminent attorney Archibald Bodkin, who later became famous for banning Irish novelist James Joyce’s book Ulysses in 1922. After four hearings before a magistrate, Jones was exonerated, but the scandal would resurface almost one century later.

In 2002, historian Philip Kuhn extracted from contemporary records a more complex story of the Jones scandal. Though the newspaper reports of the time had used veiled language, Kuhn showed in his scholarly article “’Romancing with a Wealth of Detail’: Narratives of Ernest Jones’s 1906 Trial for Indecent Assault,” how to read between the lines to unveil another history. In this article, Kuhn points out that, according to the prosecutor, Freeman and Harrigan claimed that Jones had “indecently exposed himself.” Kuhn goes on to interpret Freeman’s testimony as meaning that Jones asked her to touch his genitals and then forced her to do so. Harrigan is reported as testifying similarly, but adding (as was first revealed in an interview with police just over one week after the event) comments that led investigators to a tablecloth in the examination room. This tablecloth (and, according to some reports, the carpet) had stains, said police surgeon Dudley Burney, “of such a character that they should not have been there.” Kuhn interprets this to mean that Harrigan said Jones had ejaculated. Kuhn writes, “none of the reports explicitly mention semen. But what other stains could possibly explain Jones’s arrest and subsequent prosecution?”

The girls’ accounts were dismissed, as Kerr had testified that “mentally defective children” were given to “romancing” and often made groundless accusations. Harrigan had not told him anything to draw his attention to the tablecloth, and he “gave evidence to account for the stains.” In the end, the magistrate judged the physical evidence inconclusive (perhaps because, even if the stains were semen, there was no way to connect them directly to Jones), and believed no jury would convict Jones on the words of children alone. According to Jones, the magistrate sent him a friendly letter after the acquittal, and colleagues helped defray the costs of his defense.

Kuhn found that Jones, in a letter to Freud, Sigmund Freud in 1913, characterized his life as “a story of . . . ten years of uninterrupted success, then a series of foolishness and failures.” Jones’s alleged impropriety was followed by additional incidents, at least two within four years, which changed the direction of his life. This revelation of additional improper acts could affect how the 1906 incident is viewed.

Following the 1906 incident, Jones discussed sexual matters with a ten-year-old girl (a patient, but not his own) at West End Hospital in 1908. According to Jones, this discussion was part of an attempt to provide a Freudian explanation for the girl’s hysterical paralysis. The girl talked to others about the discussion, leading to Jones’s forced resignation and, a few months later, his relocation to Canada.

The third incident took place in Canada between late 1910 and early 1911 and involved allegations by a former patient (not a minor) that Jones had had sex with her. Jones perhaps refers to this incident in a 1922 letter to Freud, to whom he wrote, “It is over twelve years since I experienced any temptation in such ways.” Though Jones was exonerated after a university investigation, lingering suspicion nonetheless contributed to his decision in 1913 to leave Toronto, Canada, and return to London, where he became a central figure in the development of British psychoanalysis.

Kuhn claims that there were probably additional incidents. Jones confessed to Freud in 1910 that he had “always been conscious of sexual attractions to patients,” and that in subsequent years Freud sometimes suspected him of what are now called “boundary violations.” Apparently, only the 1906 and 1908 incidents involved children.

Despite Kuhn’s refusal, for philosophical reasons, to deem Jones guilty or innocent for the 1906 incident, commentators have recognized a compelling case. First, several children accused Jones, and they did so more or less immediately and more or less consistently. Second, some sort of physical evidence seemed to support the accusations. Third, the incident is part of a recurrent pattern of sexual scandal in Jones’s early life and possibly his later life as well. His acquittal seems to have been based merely on class and gender bias. Several writers have suggested that Jones’s guilt is clear, and they have even employed the word Pedophilia;and Ernest Jones[Jones] “pedophile” to describe him.

On the other hand, Jones’s examinations of the children were brief, and they took place in an open medical setting. Adults came into the interview room unpredictably on at least four occasions during the proceedings, including during Jones’s examination of Overton. How plausible is it that Jones would expose himself even once, let alone several times? If he did not, why did the children complain that he did?

Jones could have been sexually impulsive, and it remains clear that he felt enormous guilt about what in 1912 he called “various wrong tendencies in myself.” It is also possible that he could have been self-destructive. Freud congratulated Jones on his successful return to London in 1913, writing, “But you must promise formally never to spoil it when you have got it at last, by no private motive.”


Psychoanalytic historians have been indulgent. Renowned historian Peter Gay, in his biography Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), notes that Jones had been “twice accused of misbehaving with children he was testing and examining.” Gay also believes Jones had provided “frank and reassuring detail” of the events in his autobiography and that he found it plausible that the children had “projected their own sexual feelings”—essentially Jones’s own account. In her 2001 biography of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, French theorist Julia Kristeva briefly mentions that Jones was “accused of using indecent language with some of his child patients.” The scandal was essentially forgotten—and its impact minimal—until Kuhn’s reexamination was published in 2002.

Additionally, it is possible that, absent the 1906 scandal, Jones might have held his ground in the 1908 incident, not been forced to resign, and therefore not gone to Canada. In terms of the development of psychoanalysis, this might have been fateful, because Jones’s scholarly activities in Canada and the United States proved influential to the history of the development of psychoanalysis outside Europe. Child abuse;and Ernest Jones[Jones] Jones, Ernest

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Ernest. Free Associations: Memories of a Psycho-analyst. 1959. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990. Chapter 7 of Jones’s unfinished autobiography contains his own brief account of the accusations made by the children in 1906.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuhn, Philip. “’Romancing with a Wealth of Detail’: Narratives of Ernest Jones’s 1906 Trial for Indecent Assault.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 3, no. 4 (2002): 344-378. Kuhn’s essay inspired modern debates about the 1906 Jones incident. The entire journal issue is devoted to the topic, and it includes Kuhn’s response to commentators.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maddox, Brenda. Freud’s Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2007. An account of Jones’s life, including both the early scandals and his many later contributions to the development of psychoanalysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paskauskas, R. Andrew, ed. The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1993. Though the letters begin subsequent to the earliest scandals, they illuminate their interpretation and show how they affected Jones’s subsequent fortunes.

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