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Mysterious Arsenic Poisonings in Rural and Secluded Essex

Mysterious Arsenic Poisonings in Rural and Secluded Essex
© Photograph by Jessica Truscott

The British public first became aware of what would eventually be known as the Essex poisoning ring in the summer of 1846, when newspapers reported proceedings taking place in the magistrates’ court in the village of Newport.

Lydia Taylor, a resident of the nearby village of Manuden, accused Sarah Chesham of Clavering with administering, on multiple occasions, poison to Solomon Taylor, her “illegitimate male child.”

Today Essex, the county that lies to the northeast of London, is home to one of the capital’s three major airports, and many Essex residents commute to London to work, but in 1846 the county was rural and secluded.

At the time of the 1841 census, the population in Clavering numbered 1,170. The inhabitants worked as agricultural labourers, farmers, bricklayers, shopkeepers, glaziers, publicans, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, harness makers, millers, carpenters, schoolteachers and butchers.

Women participated in paid work: Susan Webb, Hannah Clayden and Hannah Banks were young widows who supported themselves and their children through agricultural labour; Louisa Claydon kept a beer shop; Rebecca Green was a dressmaker; Susan Barker was a charwoman; and Fanny Clayden, Anne Creswick and Ann Law taught school.

Many nineteenth-century women who needed to work found employment as domestic servants, and the census records a number of adolescent girls and young women who worked as live-in servants. Clavering Hall employed four female domestics, three of them just fifteen years old, as well as one manservant. Some working-class families also employed household help, typically girls or boys who worked for little more than the cost of their board.

Early Victorian Clavering was not a wealthy place. Farm work paid poorly, and more than a dozen people were recorded as “pauper” in the 1841 census. These people somehow found the means to stay in the village and out of the union workhouse in Saffron Walden that, in 1834, forced the closure of the Clavering poorhouse. But despite the poverty, Clavering was, according to one newspaper, “a generally secluded and beautifully rural village”.

By 1846, the village was home to three churches: an Anglican church built in the fifteenth-century; a Congregational church established in the late eighteenth-century, and a Methodist chapel built in 1844.

The village had two schools the British School, established in 1838 and run by the Congregational Church, and the Church of England’s National School, which opened in 1843 and one public house and inn, the Fox and Hounds, which still stands (at the other end of the village, present-day visitors can find Clavering’s other pub, The Cricketers, which is owned by the parents of chef Jamie Oliver, who grew up in Clavering).

The villagers were not unfamiliar with the types of crime common in rural areas (poaching, drunken fights, petty thieving, retaliatory acts of arson), but they would have been quite unused to the furor that Lydia Taylor’s allegations about Sarah Chesham unleashed.

In October 1844, Lydia Taylor left her home in the village of Manuden to enter domestic employment at Dance’s Farm, Clavering, the home of Thomas Newport, a farmer, and his elderly mother.

The Newports were prosperous tenant farmers, especially in comparison to most of their neighbours. Like many young female domestics, Lydia Taylor was vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Taylor told the magistrates that in the spring of 1845, “Mrs. Newport charged me with being in the family-way. I said it was so. She asked who by? I said by her son, Mr. Thomas Newport.” Newport offered to get Taylor “a little medicine” to “take it all away in a few days” which “would be a great deal better for me and him too”. “I said I would do no such thing,” she testified. “As it was so, it should remain so, till the Almighty pleased to deliver me.” Two days later, Lydia Taylor returned to her mother’s house in Manuden, where, on December 16, 1845, she gave birth to a son she named Solomon.

Within weeks of the birth, according to Taylor’s testimony, Sarah Chesham came calling. Chesham was thirty-five years old, and she lived in Clavering with her husband, an agricultural labourer, and three of their four surviving children (two sons had died in January 1845), ranging in age from seven to fifteen; her eldest child, a seventeen-year-old daughter named Harriet, had left the village, probably for work.

Chesham’s visit surprised Lydia Taylor, who described her as someone she “had not spoken to […] above twice before”. Chesham, she claimed, called Thomas Newport “a poor good-for-nothing sorry fellow” who “should not have done such a thing”. “She pitied me, and seemed to be a great friend to me,” Taylor said. Chesham promised to visit again and came a month later, bringing with her “a rice pudding, an apple turnover, and some butter, tea, and sugar; she kept pitying me and slighting Mr. Thomas Newport.” As Taylor, her mother and Chesham sat down to eat, the baby “became very ill, and appeared as if it could not move,” Taylor testified. “It was then in the prisoner’s arms.” Taylor immediately took Solomon from Chesham and asked her: “What have you been giving him?” Chesham replied, “Nothing but a piece of sugar.” Solomon’s mouth was white and slimy. “The child was convulsed,” Taylor said, “and its lower jaw dropped as if it were dying.” Since that visit, she testified, Solomon remained “very ill and wasted.”

Taylor and her mother were suspicious enough of Chesham that they were “afraid to eat any of the things she had left, and threw them away.” Despite their suspicions, Taylor alleged that Chesham administered poison to Solomon a second time, when she “snatched” the baby from his mother’s hands and took him out to a field, apparently with the aim of confronting Thomas Newport with his illegitimate son.

Taylor also described an episode in which she and Chesham were walking together and Chesham offered Solomon “something like a sucker,” which Taylor refused. By June 1846, Taylor had left Solomon in her mother’s care and went to Stansted, a nearby village, to work as a domestic for a local doctor and his family.

Taylor’s mother testified that Chesham paid a visit on June 13rd, and was able to take Solomon out of Mrs Taylor’s sight just long enough to put something into his mouth. Again Solomon Taylor went into convulsions and “manifested the usual symptoms of being poisoned.” Chesham “decamped and escaped detection,” according to The Times and the Ipswich Journal, until the local constable apprehended her.

He searched Chesham’s home and seized “a number of galley-pots, filled with various sorts of ointments”. The magistrates ordered that their contents “undergo a strict chymical examination” in London and committed Chesham for trial at the next assizes. Chesham, unable to raise the funds to post bail, was taken the fifty kilometres from Clavering to the Springfield Gaol in Chelmsford, the county town, and bound over for trial at the next assises.

Even as the magistrates committed Chesham for trial on a charge of attempted poisoning, apparently not feeling the need to wait for physical evidence to support Lydia Taylor’s accusations, “other matters of a very dark appearance,” as the Essex Standard put it, heightened the suspicions about her.

During an initial, private hearing into Lydia Taylor’s accusation, someone mentioned the deaths of two of Sarah Chesham’s sons, Joseph and James, ages ten and eight respectively, who in January 1845 succumbed to a sudden and violent illness.

The magistrates passed this information to the coroner, who ordered the immediate exhumation of the two boys’ bodies. On the same day that the magistrates’ court in Newport continued to hear Lydia Taylor’s accusations, the single coffin that held the two corpses was unearthed in Clavering, and an inquest into their deaths began.

The boys’ paternal grandmother had the unpleasant task of identifying the bodies before a local surgeon removed the stomachs, wrapped them in cloth and delivered them to a Professor Graham at University College London. Professor Graham, in turn, sent the stomachs to Alfred Swaine Taylor, a professor of chemistry and medical jurisprudence at Guy’s Hospital, who was already gaining a reputation as an expert at forensic analysis and the detection of poison, particularly arsenic.

Victorian inquests differed substantially from their twenty-first-century version. A contemporary coroner’s jury might conclude that a person died as a result of a stabbing, but determining who wielded the knife falls outside the scope of its responsibilities.

Nineteenth-century coroner’s juries were empowered to identify a suspect, and so inquests could serve as dress rehearsals for the criminal trial to follow. Defendants thus began their criminal trials with the deck stacked against them, since one jury had already judged them guilty. In the Essex poisoning cases, the criminal investigations largely took place as part of the inquests, which extended over several days or weeks and involved many lengthy adjournments while the police gathered additional evidence and the coroners arranged for the appearance of expert witnesses.

Many members of the community testified: the vicar, the workhouse surgeon; the police; family members, including Sarah Chesham’s husband, her two older sons and mother- and sister-in-law; neighbours and even Thomas Newport. Alfred Swaine Taylor came up from London to testify that his analysis revealed the presence of a fatal amount of arsenic in the stomachs of both boys, arsenic they consumed shortly before their deaths. Thomas Newport testified that he had dismissed Joseph in December 1844 after discovering that he had stolen two eggs from him, and Mary Chesham, Sarah’s sister-in-law, alleged that Chesham afterwards said of her sons “it would be a good job if it would please God to take them out of the way.” Chesham, according to witnesses, tried to obtain arsenic shortly before the two boys died.

At one point the proceedings nearly derailed. The coroner threatened to have Chesham’s son John transported for lying to the court and asked the police to take charge of him. The coroner later alleged that John Chesham’s employer, a man named Wisbey, had told him what to say in his testimony. Wisbey was both a friend of Thomas Newport and a member of the coroner’s jury. When pressed, Wisbey reluctantly admitted that he and Newport had discussed the case but claimed he could not recall exactly what they said, although arsenic was mentioned.

Another member of the jury “expressed his conviction that the conduct of Wisbey had been disgraceful, and that his criminality had been increased by the fact that as a juror he had sworn to do justice.” Nonetheless, the proceedings continued, and on October 23rd, that the coroner’s jury formally declared its belief that James and Joseph Chesham were willfully murdered and that their mother, Sarah Chesham, was responsible. Sarah Chesham returned to Springfield Gaol to await her trial for their murders.

These would not be the only deaths credited to her. Solomon Taylor had died on September 27th, and the inquest into his death opened soon afterwards, even as the protracted inquiry into the deaths of the Chesham boys wound on. Neither the local doctor nor Alfred Swaine Taylor would state that poison had killed Solomon, whose death they attributed to “inflammation of the bowels,” but this did not bring an immediate end to the proceedings.

The coroner opted to adjourn, and when the inquest resumed two weeks later, Mr Brook, the surgeon, allowed that “[p]oison administered to a child several times in small doses might produce the appearances he had seen.” The coroner’s jury concluded that Solomon “died from mesenteric disease [an affliction common in children and the result of drinking the unpasteurized milk of tubercular cows] of the glands, but whether from natural causes or otherwise there was not sufficient evidence to show.” Despite this ambiguous verdict, Sarah Chesham would still stand trial in connection with his death, on the charge of having administered poison with the intent to murder.

Then the local police arrested Thomas Newport for “having feloniously aided and abetted Sarah Chesham in the administration of poison to her two children,” a charge that must have surprised everyone who followed the investigation, given Lydia Taylor’s implication that he only commissioned Sarah Chesham to poison the baby he was unwilling to support financially and that Chesham accused him of beating one of her sons so badly that it brought on his fatal illness.

The arrest stemmed from a letter to him that Chesham dictated from her jail cell. When he appeared in the magistrates’ court, Newport admitted to having told Lydia Taylor to “get rid of the child” but “firmly denied being implicated in the poisonings mentioned by the woman Sarah Chesham.”

The magistrates committed Newport to stand trial. Unlike Sarah Chesham, he had the funds to post bail. Lydia Taylor, meanwhile, lost her job; her employer, The Era reported, dismissed her for attending the court to testify.

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