The Ordeal of Sarah Chesham and the Myth of Sally Arsenic

The Ordeal of Sarah Chesham and the Myth of Sally Arsenic
© Photograph by Charis Talbot

The press depicted Essex as a place where women conspired together to poison family members and the people condoned murder. But the press did not simply report events as they unfolded.

Through substantive errors and fabrications, the press helped to create the story, one that invented, promoted and sustained the myth of a conspiracy of women poisoners.

By demonising the defendants and presuming them guilty from the first accusation, by distorting the facts and giving credence to improbable claims, and by engaging in a large amount of artistic license, the Victorian press created a sensationalised narrative that exacerbated the already highly charged atmosphere in the communities where the investigations played out.

The press coverage of the Essex poisonings embodied elements of a moral panic, a term the sociologist Stanley Cohen first introduced in the 1960s to describe those moments when, as he puts it, “A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.

The media, Cohen writes, presents this “threat” in “a stylized and stereotypical fashion,” the “moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people,” a putative solution is found, and the threat vanishes.

Cohen applied this model to the emergence of the Mods and Rockers. Stories about violent confrontations between these two groups at different seaside resort towns on statutory holidays first appeared in the British press in the early 1960s. Sensational headlines and melodramatic language created the impression that hordes of violent gangs were driving innocent holidaymakers and citizens from the beaches and the streets.

Cohen singles out alarming “quotes” attributed to anonymous participants and identifies these as “so patently absurd that they cannot be an accurate transcription of what was actually said”.

Historian Jennifer Davis applies Cohen’s theory to the London garotting panic of 1862, revealing that the sudden increase in reports of people being violently robbed in the street did not occur until after the Victorian press began printing stories about street robberies.

The narrative the press crafted influenced both the outcome of the Essex cases and events beyond the county borders. In the courtroom, witnesses shaped their testimony to satisfy the needs of a much wider audience than the officials before whom they testified or the communities in which they lived, and juries returned verdicts that flew in the face of the evidence but met the narrative demands of the story told in the papers’ densely printed columns.

According to the press, the bodies subjected to forensic examination represented the tip of an iceberg of poisoned corpses. Poison narratives routinely assumed that poisoners were caught only once their lethal practice was well established.

Once a particular individual was suspected in one death, their pool of alleged victims automatically expanded to include anyone else they had contact with who subsequently died. The implications of references to large families “all of whom were dead” were clear to regular readers of crime reports.

These allegations may have originated within the community, but the press enthusiastically disseminated them, even going so far as to present them as proven facts rather than untested assertions. Estimates of the number of children that Mary May reputedly poisoned varied wildly, and the press was never clear whether five or six of Hannah Southgate’s children had “dropped off short” after she “white powdered” them.

The idea that Chesham and May murdered far more victims than was officially recognised fed the representation of murder as a rural tradition in Essex. Clavering was a community, the paper alleged, where “[c]rimes of the blackest dye” excited no comment, where the inhabitants had “long ago taken it for granted that the prisoner had poisoned her children, and yet say little more about it than if she had killed her pigs.”

Two years later, when the scene shifted to the village of Wix and Mary May, the press characterized Wix as a place where poisoning was not considered murder or, at the very least, where “murder itself no longer wore any hideous or repulsive aspect in the eyes of the villagers in question.”

In Essex, according to the paper, women “everybody” believed had “made away” with their families were “received into the common society of the village,” even if some might have felt “a little secret dread” in their presence. “What is to be said of a district where cold-blooded murder meets with all the popular favour which is shown to smuggling in Sussex, or agrarian assassinations in Tipperary?” railed The Times.

The evidence, however, fails to support the representation of Essex as particularly prone to “secret poisoning.” Mary May, Hannah Southgate, and Phoebe Reed had each lost several children, but this was tragically common at the time.

In the early nineteenth-century, infant mortality rates were as high as thirty percent and remained consistent until the first decades of the twentieth century. The high infant and child mortality rates of the 1840s most probably had more to do with the appalling social conditions that made this decade known as the “hungry forties” than with large numbers of women murdering their children.

Edwin Chadwick’s public health report cited a family that lost six of seven children. Instead of suspecting this couple of murder, the family doctor attributed the deaths to a different kind of poisoning, an “ill-constructed cesspool” and the toxic air around it. The family found a better place to live and stopped burying its children.

Some religious leaders, politicians, novelists and social commentators felt that the poor were strangely accepting of their deaths of their children, but perhaps that was because impoverished parents recognised the odds against their children’s survival and did not necessarily mean that parents caused death, or welcomed it. Sarah Chesham’s friends and neighbours testified to her grief at losing her two sons.

Vague speculations about the number of victims and the characterisation of Essex as a place that accepted murder together fed the allegation that women in Essex conspired with one another to commit poisonings. The allegation first surfaced in reports of the suspicion that Hannah Southgate had murdered her first husband and named Mary May as the “head and chief”.

The origins of the conspiracy theory lay in testimony that May and Southgate were friends; some newspapers described them as sisters or cousins, although this was not the case.

Recent “unpleasant statements, implicating one or more women” had come to light, reported the Aberdeen Journal, and Mary May “urged and advised the commission of the dreadful crimes.”

“There is every reason to fear,” The Times soon reported, “that husbands and children of a great number of women who were on habits of intimacy with Mrs May and Mrs Southgate have been destroyed.” The “mere fact of an intimacy with the woman,” the paper wrote, “is now considered as affording prima facie ground of suspicion.”

None of these reports connected the east Essex cases with Sarah Chesham, but later, once she stood accused of poisoning her husband, the press returned to the theme of systematic poisoning and identified Chesham as the ring leader.

The Times claimed that Mary May who, the paper informed its readers in a demonstration of the tenuous grasp of its own reports, was convicted in 1849 for poisoning her husband blamed Sarah Chesham for her crime, and once this particular allegation appeared other newspapers happily repeated it.

Decades later, retrospective articles cast Chesham as the dominant figure in the Essex cases, the woman who “urged” Mary May to commit her own crime. One version claimed that May’s confession promptly “led to the detection and punishment of her tempter,” ignoring the three-year gap between May’s execution and Chesham’s final trial.

Little evidence exists to support an “atrocious conspiracy to poison husbands and children” in Essex. The press reported that the wives of Button, Palmer and Brudger were “on terms of intimate friendship” with May and Southgate, but none of the testimony at the coroner’s inquest into Button’s death connected the five women.

Undoubtedly May and Southgate knew one another, for they lived in a very small community, but the conversations that Reed and Elvish recounted for the coroner fall short of confirming the existence of an organised system of poisoners.

Sarah Chesham, as The Times eventually acknowledged, most probably did not have any connection to any poisonings in Wix or Tendring, given that these villages were located on the opposite side of the county from Clavering.

The supposed source for the connection the pre-execution confession of Mary May can safely be discounted as a reliable source, given that at the time of May’s hanging, newspapers reported that she died refusing to make any statements at all.

Only in the weeks that followed, after Phoebe Reed, Charlotte Elvish and Thomas Ham’s mother denounced Hannah Southgate, did the story change and newspapers report that from the condemned cell May made such intriguing remarks as, “If I were disposed to open my lips, it would be giving work to Jack Ketch for a week.” None of these reports mentioned that May blamed Chesham for encouraging her to poison. Only later still, in 1851 when Chesham was tried for administering poison to her husband, did the story change again and the press report that May “admitted […] that she had been instigated by the prisoner [Chesham] to the commission of the dreadful act for which she suffered.”

The press was so convinced of May’s guilt before her actual trial that it opted not to provide detailed reports of the proceedings against her at the Courts of Assize. Instead, the newspapers reported the opening address of Ryland, the leading prosecutor, verbatim or used this speech as the source of their own synopsis of the case against her.

The actual evidence that presumably supported the prosecutor’s version of events, the testimony of individual witnesses, was omitted. The Essex Standard informed its readers that the testimony of witnesses to support the charge “was similar to that deposed at the inquest,” which the paper had “fully reported at the time,” the implication being that reporting it again was unnecessary.

The Essex Standard, at least, balanced its report of Ryland’s address with a substantially verbatim account of Serjeant Jones’s speech in defense of the accused. Some papers reduced Jones’s address to a simple argument that “the circumstances were not incompatible with the prisoner’s innocence” and May was “entitled to the benefit of any reasonable doubt they might entertain upon the subject.” Other papers devoted even less space to May’s defense.

The lack of coverage inhibited public scrutiny of May’s trial. Readers simply had to take it on faith that the evidence presented against her proved her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. My close examination of the reports, in this case, reveals an intriguing aspect of May’s trial that other scholars have not recognised.

The prosecutor’s opening address referred to some evidence that, if true, was highly damaging to Mary May’s protestations of innocence. He described a witness who claimed to have seen May remove a twist of paper from a locked drawer, open it and shake its powdery contents into some porter, which she then served to William Constable, who fell ill soon afterwards.

The witness who provided this testimony, the prosecutor said, was Mary May’s own son. The intriguing thing about this is that none of the coverage of the coroner’s inquest referred to this testimony. The lack of detailed coverage of May’s trial makes it impossible to determine what was said in that particular courtroom, other than the prosecutor’s opening address and the judge’s comments.

It seems equally incredible that the press would fail to report such damaging evidence at the inquest, and that the prosecutor would describe this incident without calling May’s son to testify to it in court. If May’s son did not testify against his mother at the trial, then surely Serjeant Jones would have noticed that the prosecutor made a claim highly damaging to his client without substantiation.

The matter of this “invisible” witness raises the possibility that the trial Mary May received was no more fair-minded towards her than the newspaper reports of her case.

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