WHY would two men launch inexplicable knife attacks on a fellow servant and a young shop worker? Insanity, defence barristers submitted, was the only plausible explanation when they separately took their place in the dock at Hampshire Assizes in 1842, charged with attempted murder.

The first involved a dissolute stranger who entered a Southampton shoemaker's business on the pretext of wanting to borrow a blade to cut his boot but in doing so, cut his finger which bled so profusely that he bizarrely remarked: "It smarts so rascally."

Fred King, a 14-year-old assistant, kindly handed Thomas Maslin a duster to wipe away the blood, whereupon he suddenly grabbed the terrified teenager by the neck, screaming: "I'm going to kill you, I'm going to murder you."

King, visibly shaking when recalling his brush with death, told jurors: "He then began to cut me. He cut my face right across under the bottom lip. I ran away as fast as I could, through his legs. A gentleman came to my rescue, he took me to a doctor's in the same street I ran to."

Maslin then made a half-hearted attempt to commit suicide, as commercial traveller Samuel Taylor observed. "I saw him cut the boy with a knife and he instantly made a stab at himself on the left breast and cut himself slightly. I fetched two policemen who took him into custody."

The teenager was patched up by surgeon Charles Cooper who, in detailing his wounds, gave a chilling insight into Maslin's state of mind. "It was made under a very agitated feeling. I saw the prisoner and I thought from his manner and general deportment he was in a very deranged state."

The drama certainly bewildered the Rev James Crabb, a friend from childhood. "I have always found him of a remarkably soft, gentle, kind and amiable temper. Nothing remarkable for shrewdness of intellect."

His sentiments were echoed by London draper and tailor John Gill who had known him for 16 years and had offered him a home. "He has lived with my family and I have always found to be of the most amiable temper and disposition."

It appeared Maslin had suffered a breakdown a few weeks before attacking King. Taunton tailor Richard Harris said he had hired him on strong recommendations which were borne out by the quality of his work and ease with customers. "But six weeks before he left, he became a much-changed man in appearance and made the most extraordinary misfits. He left without any words or notice, and without his clothes and money."

Fears he was mentally ill were endorsed by cabinet maker James Harris to whom he had confessed: " I am dreadfully miserable. I remonstrated with him about his drinking and he said he would not do so again as it would shorten his days. He replied: 'The sooner it is over, the better.' The next night, he came home in a very desperate state. He appeared quite deranged and went away. I saw no more of him until he was in custody."

Daily Echo: Southampton in 1850.

Following a direction from Mr Justice Cresswell on the law and the soundness of his mind, jury consulted for a few minutes before acquitting Maslin on the grounds of insanity.

The second case involved footman Joseph Bolton who stabbed lady's maid Louise Pittis under the illusion she wanted him sacked. Nothing, the 50-year-old victim insisted, could have been further from the truth. "We have always been on the best of terms."

Pittis had woken up with a start when Bolton suddenly entered her room at daybreak with a towel in one hand and a knife in the other. "He sprang forward onto my bed and shouted: 'Now I'll do for you.' and cut me on the left side of my cheek. I cried out 'murder' and he stuffed a towel in my mouth. I strove with all my might to get it away and asked 'Joe, why did you did this?' I have never injured you but have been a mother and sister to you.

"He then said he would save my life. He said he had been urged to do it for six months for he had been told I wanted him to get out of his place. He then said he was sorry, sat on my bed and kissed me. I forgave him and he said he would go for a doctor and give himself up."

Suddenly, Pittis, who worked for Admiral Bouverie, the officer in charge of the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth, fainted and the court was adjourned for several minutes before she was able to resume her evidence.

Then, jurors heard how she had reassured Bolton she would not prosecute him and urged him to destroy the evidence, but the footman kept his word and handed himself in to the police.

Dr Henderson, who worked in Portsmouth harbour, treated the maid for two cuts on her neck, one merely a scratch but the other was three inches long and a quarter of an inch deep. "The posterior jugular vein had been severed and I judged two attempts had been made. About two hours after, I visited her again and found her lips and nose were very much swollen from pressure or a blow."

Following testimony from character witnesses, defence barrister Merewether urged jurors to take into account his kindness, work ethic and amiability, which indicated he had suffered from temporary insanity.

The judge directed jurors that if any doubt lingered in their mind, they must give him that advantage. They accordingly acquitted him of the substantive charge but convicted him of causing grievous bodily harm for which he was ordered to be transported overseas for 15 years.