Female Poisoners in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England Crimes

Victoria M Nagy

Victoria M Nagy

Seventeen women were executed for poisoning crimes between 1843 and 1852. From 1851 through to 1900, however, only ten other women were found guilty of murder or attempted murder by poison.

The start of the nineteenth-century had been one characterised by a willingness to send women to the gallows — one hundred seventy-seven women were executed between 1800 and 1846. There was a clear and continued drop in the number of women being executed for all manner of murder throughout the nineteenth-century.

However, the 1840s and 1850s was the period when the panic surrounding poisons, especially arsenic, and their use for nefarious purposes culminated in the greatest number of executions for poisoning crimes ever witnessed in modern English history.

The roles of men and women in English society were also undergoing significant change in the nineteenth-century, as were understandings of sexuality and gender. Tolerant views of passion and sex for both sexes gradually shifted throughout the nineteenth-century to more rigid and prescriptive ideals.

The expectation of a woman was to be a moral guardian of her family, creating a loving home environment free of sin. Foyster sums up what it meant to be the ideal woman during the nineteenth-century: “Marriage, and motherhood that was assumed to follow, were goals for middle-class women in a society where spinsterhood and widowhood held so many economic and social uncertainties. But while being a wife signalled adulthood, authority and usually governance over the household, it also required a woman to assume a gender role of subjection and obedience to her husband. The institution of marriage was intended to be the bedrock of the patriarchal ideal where women were subordinated to men, and husbands ruled over and dominated their wives” (Foyster, 2005: 9).

In turn, men were also expected to behave in a civilised manner and no longer exhibit behaviour which could be labelled “barbaric” (Wiener, 2004). Where poison was the murder weapon, and where the deaths took place within the domestic sphere that was supposed to remain untainted, there resulted in a panic about uncontrolled women wreaking havoc on their families.

Murderous wives, as Robb states, “evoked fears of sexual anarchy and decreasing patriarchal authority at the very time when organised feminism was championing married women’s property rights and advocating increased educational, professional and political opportunities for women” (Robb, 1997: 177).

Robb argues that the interest of contemporaries in the poisoning cases “suggests deep-seated anxieties about […] the viability of marriage” (Robb, 1997: 176). Many women who used poison were murdering husbands in order to leave or escape their marriages, and most of them entered into new relationships and married again soon after the deaths of their previous spouses (Watson, 2010).

Even though these fears over women undermining the institution of marriage by poisoning their husbands were very real, for a majority of women remarrying was the only option for survival in an era when women’s abilities to lead independent lives were severely curtailed.

In total forty women and twenty men were convicted for killing their spouses with poison during the nineteenth-century in England (Robb, 1997: 176). This number is almost negligible when compared to the one thousand husbands and wives murdered in England between 1830 and 1900, of which cases approximately 90% were men killing their wives (Robb, 1997: 176).

According to Bartrip, some “500-600 people per year, many of whom were children, were ‘ascertained to die’ by poisoning in England alone” (Bartip, 1992: 57), though this number included accidental poisonings.

Even though during the 1840s there was relatively little difference in the numbers of men and women tried for using poison to murder, there was an intensifying fear of women who were thought to have easy access to arsenic and other poisons (Whorton, 2010). There was also a fear that women were forming “poisoning rings” in which they could share poison recipes (Robb, 1997). There was fear at the thought that men would not be able to protect themselves against wives attempting to murder them (Knelman, 1998; Robb, 1997), and that women were willing to kill their husbands for money (Burney, 2006; Ward, 2005).

The cases of Chesham, May and Southgate were not rarities. Women, as well as men, were often fronting court for poisoning crimes in mid-nineteenth-century England. What makes the cases of these three Essex women intriguing is that, compared to others of this period, the legal response to these cases was significantly different and more intense. The legal narratives offer insight into how the broader societal concerns about women and crime intersected with the cases of these three women, and the resulting manner in which their femininity was interpreted and depicted.

As Bell and Fox (1996), Birch (1994), and Creed (1996) have noted, when female criminals appear in court and act in a gender appropriate manner the narratives mobilised in court and the subsequent legal outcome enforce the notion that the female criminal’s behaviour in court is the appropriate behaviour for women, and that a woman who kills is either (momentarily) mentally unstable or monstrous.

Chesham appeared before the courts on two separate occasions — once in 1846 when she was accused, charged and acquitted of the murder of her two sons and a male baby unrelated to her; and on another occasion in 1851 when she was accused, charged and found guilty of killing her husband.

According to authorities Chesham had poisoned her sons, James and Joseph, with arsenic, after she had poisoned the illegitimate son, Solomon Taylor, of Clavering’s leading farmer, Thomas Newport. Regarding the death of her husband, Richard, the toxicologist’s verdict was that he had died of tubercular consumption, which may or may not have been hastened by arsenic poisoning.

Although arsenic was found in Richard’s remains, it was not of significant quantity to have been deadly. However, the coroner was adamant that Chesham must be brought to justice and so she was charged not with murder but poisoning with intent.

At Chesham’s first trial, the focus of both the defence’s and prosecution’s narratives was on Chesham’s mothering abilities, and through that her womanhood. The defence, led by Mr George Bowker, presented an image of Chesham as a kind, caring, the good mother who was incapable of killing her own sons, and certainly not the son of another woman. In contrast, the prosecution sought to position Chesham as a bad woman who had been unfaithful to her husband and therefore was the kind of woman who would kill another woman’s child if hired to do so (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847). The inference was that by being a bad woman, Chesham was a bad mother.

The case for the defence and the prosecution rested on how individuals in the community (neighbours, friends, family and the parish priest) in Clavering spoke about Chesham — as a good mother or a bad woman. These competing constructions of her femininity — one which presented her as feminine, the other as monstrous and unfeminine — resulted in Chesham being deemed worthy of sympathy (according to the defence) and less deserving of sympathy (according to the prosecution).

Although arsenic had been discovered in the bodies of Chesham’s sons it was not enough evidence to prove that Chesham had been the one to administer it, or even that she had any intention to commit murder. Instead, the prosecution focused on Chesham’s femininity. In his opening statement prosecuting counsel stated that “it would be his duty to state certain expressions and certain acts on the part of the prisoner at the bar, which would lead to the impression that she had not that kind disposition that ought to exist in the heart of a mother towards her child” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847).

Three men were called upon by the prosecution to give their opinion of Chesham as a mother and woman: the vicar George Brookes, Newport, and the surgeon Stephen Hawkes. Chesham’s behaviour following the death of her sons was taken as an indicator of her character, which would have had a bearing on the jury’s verdict. The vicar, George Brookes, remarked “when I met Mrs Chesham after their deaths she seemed very angry for a long time with Thomas Newport and his mother” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5).

Newport was also called upon to give evidence and he noted that upon telling her that he could no longer employ her son, she “appeared angry at first” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5). The surgeon Stephen Hawkes who was attending to the children stated that he had suggested to Chesham that an autopsy be performed on the boys but “she made no reply […] by her manner she did not seem agreeable to it” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5). Three of Clavering’s leading men all had negative statements to make about Chesham. Accordingly, the image of Chesham presented by the prosecution was of a disagreeable, angry, and quarrelsome woman.

The prosecution also relied on the evidence of a complete stranger, Lewis Player, a labourer of the Newport family, who based his impression of Chesham on the one occasion he saw her while he was riding past. Player stated that “she was making a noise at her little boy that is at home now, I heard her say — you little dog hold your tongue, you ought to be where the others are” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5). The surgeon later added that it was not Chesham who was taking care of the sick children but the grandmother: “the grandmother was the principal person I saw at each of my visits and seen to take the most interest with the care” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5). Thomas Deards, the downstairs neighbour, stated that “[she] did not seem to be much put out” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5) by the deaths of her sons, and Lydia Newman, an acquaintance of Chesham, stated that “I have said I thought perhaps she might do it, but I had no evidence for saying so excepting as to what she had said to me about Mr Newport sending Joseph away” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/5).

The prosecution had little to rely on in arguing its case. Chesham neither had arsenic, no one in her family had purchased any for her, and her husband and two living sons maintained there never was any arsenic in the house. The prosecution built its case on presenting Chesham’s character as unfeminine, unmaternal. In contrast, the defence argued that Chesham was a kind and caring mother, which resulted in a more sympathetic depiction of her character. Under cross-examination, four of the prosecution’s witnesses attested to this.

As Margaret Mynott stated “the prisoner […] appeared to be a kind mother […] and a decent woman in her way of life” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847). Deards also stated that following the boys’ deaths “I saw Mrs Chesham have a handkerchief before her eyes and she appeared to be crying a little while” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847). By displaying grief, Chesham was exhibiting the signs of a respectable wife and mother.

Brookes, likewise under cross-examination, admitted that he “had seen the manner in which Mrs Chesham conducted herself toward her children and her conduct appeared to be what it ought to be” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847). Mary Pudding, a witness for the defence, also testified that “she appeared to be a good mother and is a pretty regular attendant at Church” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847).

The defence seized upon these statements and insisted that: “[…] she is spoken well of by one whose evidence you may place confidence, the minister of the parish […] and you will hardly believe that the rev.,gentleman would have spoken in the terms he did speak of her if she did not well deserve it […] she has been an exemplary mother and attending properly to her religious duties” (Essex County Chronicle, March 1847).

This depiction of Chesham mobilised by the defence conformed to the gender norms that circulated in Victorian England: pious, loving of her children, sensitive and well-regarded by her community. The issue of the poison was not material to the evidence against Chesham, rather the legal narratives which were competing for the valid depiction of Chesham centred on her “goodness” or “badness” as a woman.

The jury believed the defence’s portrayal of Chesham’s femininity and so she was acquitted. Chesham returned home to Clavering and lived quietly and out of public attention until 1850 when she was again accused of murder — this time of poisoning her husband, Richard.

In September 1850 Richard Chesham passed away after a prolonged illness. The doctor had decided that tubercular consumption was the cause of death; however, because of Chesham’s previous run-ins with the law, the coroner, Charles Carne Lewis, decided that an autopsy was in order.

Minute amounts of arsenic were discovered in his stomach, but again not enough to tie Sarah Chesham to the death. Whereas previously Chesham had a defence lawyer, on this occasion she was left to fend for herself in the face of the prosecution.

Legally, Chesham was innocent of her children’s deaths; however, it did not prevent the prosecution counsel from requestioning witnesses from five years ago to rehash details from her previous trial. Five of the witnesses for the prosecution — William and Hannah Phillips, James Parker, John Holgate and Newport — were requestioned on the deaths of the two boys rather than on Richard Chesham’s death (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6).

The prosecution’s narrative about Richard’s murder was intertwined with that of the first case against Chesham, and sought to highlight how Chesham was a woman shunned by her community. John Holgate commented how “she seemed very unhappy [while Richard was ill] and…I told her what a serious case it was [the deaths of her sons] and how she had disgraced herself and everyone disliked her” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6). The prosecution was relying on one witness alone to deliver the damning evidence about Chesham’s guilt — Hannah Phillips.

Again the prosecution was in a situation where there was no evidence of Chesham ever knowingly feeding arsenic to her husband (although arsenic had been found in a bag of rice, Chesham’s father claimed it was his) (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6). It was Phillips’ information which sought to provide the evidence of Chesham as a wayward and threatening woman.

According to the prosecution, Chesham had offered to teach Phillips how to use arsenic in order to get rid of her husband, William (The Examiner, March 8 1851). Due to a lack of defence counsel, this was the central narrative circulating in court. The only other narrative, small and insignificant in comparison, was the one by the accused herself.

Chesham mobilised the narrative of the good, industrious wife. According to Chesham, Richard was: “[…] a good Husband to me. I am sure nobody lived more comfortably together than we did […] I did everything for him as far as I could do in every respect. He told Mr Brooks the Clergyman that I had done my duty towards him in everything […] I have got nothing to answer for misusing of him not at all” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6).

In Chesham’s narrative it is Phillips who had approached her asking for advice on how to kill with arsenic; as Chesham argued “I can tell the truth as well as Hannah Phillips — Now I will tell you what she came to ask me […]. She asked me if I had any poison by me that I could give her that she wanted to give it to her Will” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6).

According to Chesham there were “three different times she asked me for poison. I told my poor husband, he told me not to say anything about it, there might be a time to speak about it” (TNA PRO ASSI 36/6). Here Chesham is utilising the image of the good wife: demure, and following the advice of her husband, not a gossiper, but a woman who is happily married. Her narrative failed to sway the judge and jury.

When sentencing Chesham, the judge noted “he was afraid this was not the only crime of which she’d been guilty […] and although she had escaped from that charge, justice had overtaken her and she now only a short time to live” (Daily News, March 7 1851). The narrative which gained traction in the courtroom was constructed by the prosecution, where Chesham was portrayed not only as a bad wife, but also as a bad mother, neighbour and a woman who was willing to equip women with the knowledge to poison unwanted husbands.

In contrast, Mary May’s trial was a site for discussions about femininity within the frame of poverty and the aspirations of the poor to be buried with dignity.

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