Women as Poisoners in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England

Victoria M Nagy
Victoria M Nagy

On March 25th, 1851 a working-class woman by the name of Sarah Chesham was executed in the town of Chelmsford in Essex for the murder of her husband, Richard Chesham. Her execution was the culmination of a five-year campaign by authorities to track and close down a poisoning ring that was allegedly operating in Essex.

Other members of this rumoured poisoning ring included Hannah Southgate, a woman from Wix charged with the murder of her first husband (Thomas Ham), and Mary May, a woman executed for the murder of her half-brother (William Constable aka Spratty Watts).

From August 1846 to March 1851, the Assize courts and the coroner’s office were working diligently to try not only to convict these women of arsenic poisoning crimes, but also to discover if the men of Essex were under threat of being poisoned by unhappy wives.

This article argues that the application of theories about women and crime, which have been in regular use in the field of criminology for contemporary crimes in the last twenty years, can be used in conjunction with historical methods to advance criminological understandings about female criminality.

This encourages ideas about how criminological methods can be used to advance historical understanding about women, crime and culture during the nineteenth-century. Historians have embraced the possibilities of investigating criminal cases in order to better understand how society responded to violent interpersonal attacks, and how society as a whole influenced the criminal justice system.

As Wiener argues: “In [the] repression of violence, law — primarily its criminal side – took a leading role. The law was a complex entity shaped by many players. Legislators, politicians, civil servants, newspaper editors and reporters, amateur and professional magistrates, judges, jurors, lawyers and others all played parts in this broad movement (Wiener, 2004: 14).”

History can inform a criminological debate about narrative construction, the use of stock stories, and discourses about gender in the courtroom based on criminal cases from over one hundred years ago.

Firstly, I will give a brief background to murder trials of women, specifically involving poisoning, during the mid-nineteenth-century and the consequences it had for many women who were accused of these crimes.

Secondly, I will concentrate on analysing the legal narratives which arose out of the cases of Chesham, May and Southgate in order to illustrate what stock stories were presented, how their femininities were constructed in court, and the resulting narratives created which were used to argue the guilt or innocence of the three women.

As this article illustrates there is a long history of the good/bad woman dichotomy in the legal system, one which, as this article presents, has relevance to those practitioners interested in women’s narratives in the courtrooms today.

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 — 177 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, primarily arsenic, and their use for nefarious purposes culminated in the most significant 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. However, 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.”

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 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 genuine, 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 40 women and 20 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 1000 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.

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