Vicky Nagy, The Essex Poisoning Cases 1846-1851

Vicky received her PhD in 2012 from Monash University. Her PhD focused on the social and legal representations of female poisoners’ femininity during the Victorian period. Vicky has been a lecturer at ELTE (Hungary), and researcher at Monash and La Trobe Universities. She is currently an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University and about to begin a new project looking at female criminality in Australia during the colonial period. Her book, Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill is now available from Palgrave MacMillan.

Much has been written about poisoning cases of the Victorian era, and the names of three Essex women appear regularly: Sarah Chesham, a farmer’s wife from Clavering who was accused of poisoning her two sons, a maid’s infant boy, and found guilty of killing her husband; Mary May from Wix, found guilty of poisoning her brother; and Hannah Southgate, from Harwich, accused of using arsenic to kill her husband. While their cases are mentioned in nearly every academic study of poisoning crimes of the nineteenth century, and as late as 1950, the details of the Chesham and May cases were being mentioned in newspaper reports about crime a century previous. The reliance on newspaper reports alone for explaining what happened in Essex between 1846 and 1851 has resulted in a very two-dimensional presentation of the poisonings that caused wide-spread panic and concern for five years. There was more to these cases than the authorities breaking up a poisoning ring being run by a coven of morally degenerate women who wanted to kill their male family members.

Chesham House

The focus on Essex as a hotbed for poisoning crimes began with Chesham in 1846 when she was accused of murdering the infant son of a young maid, who was the lover of a Clavering landowner. Allegedly, before Chesham had done the bidding of Thomas Newport she had already disposed of two of her children, Joseph and John, in a similar fashion to the infant: arsenic poisoning. While poison was found in the remains of her sons and the prosecution was adamant in presenting Chesham as a malevolent mother in their discourse of the case, the jury could only agree that the children had been poisoned but not that Chesham was guilty of their deaths. No motive could be discovered, and witnesses admitted that Chesham appeared to be a fit mother. So, with that she was acquitted and returned to her home unnoticed by the press and criminal justice system for four years.

Across on the other side of Essex, in 1848 May was accused of poisoning her half-brother, Spratty Watts, a man in his forties, for burial club fees amounting to around £10. While the focus of those within the courtroom was on whether or not May was diligent in providing help for her ailing brother, the newspapers were concerned that May’s foray into burial clubs had begun earlier and had resulted in the death of 14 or 16 of her children (the press couldn’t agree) for profit. That May had never given birth to or reported the birth of more than three children (of whom two were alive) did not put an end to the rumours that not only was she the killer of a grown man but had disposed of countless innocent children. May was found guilty. Unlike Chesham she did not have a decent defence lawyer and the alleged motivation of murder for money angered the judge to such an extent that he claimed that he never heard the jury’s recommendation to mercy and stated that even if he had he would have ignored it. In the end she was hanged.

Following May’s execution, a friend of hers Hannah Southgate, was to find herself on trial for the death of her first husband. Although attempts were made in court to discredit Southgate for being a promiscuous woman who had potentially infected her husband with a venereal disease, offered tips to her maid about poisoning babies, and had danced on the news of her husband’s death, the jury found her not guilty. But she was not acquitted due to overwhelming evidence of her innocence, but because the female witnesses for the prosecution were found wanting- one married woman was pregnant with yet another child to an unnamed lover, one had appeared before the courts for theft, and the third owed money to Southgate’s current husband.

Chesham found herself in front of a judge again in 1851 when she was accused of poisoning her husband. Although the jury at the inquest found that he had died from tubercular consumption not poisoning, the coroner, Charles Carne Lewis, wrote to Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, for his blessing to try Chesham for poisoning with intent, a lesser crime than murder but one which still carried the death penalty. With the Sale of Arsenic Act being debated in Parliament almost concurrently, the atmosphere in London and Chelmsford was one intent on stopping Chesham at any cost. By this time the newspapers were convinced that Chesham was the head of a poisoning ring and that her associate May had finally paid the price. That Chesham and May would unlikely have known each other was not important- the physical vicinity of the poisonings supported such conjecture so much that the authorities were willing to exhume the body of a man who had died unexpectedly to try and unearth the poisoning ring members. No other suspicious deaths were found. With the most minimal of evidence Chesham was found guilty of poisoning with intent and sentenced to death. She would be the fourth and last person to hang for that crime and with her death the interest into Essex as a county for poisoning crime passed.

The period between 1846 and 1851 was a dangerous one for any woman found guilty of poisoning. Not only were Chesham and May hanged (in 1851 and 1848 respectively), but five other women who were found guilty of using poison to kill lost their lives to the noose. Catherine Foster (1847), Mary Ann Geering (1849), Mary Ball (1849), Rebecca Smith (1849) and Mary Cage (1851) found themselves on the gallows with various amounts of public sympathy expressed for their plight; Smith cut a pitiable figure as a wife who had experienced poverty and domestic violence and was poisoning her children in the hope of keeping some of her other offspring alive, while Chesham and May were reviled not only for the crimes which they had been found guilty of committing but for their reluctance to repent and seek forgiveness for their transgressions. The hanging of seven women in the space of five years for poisoning crimes may not seem surprising or large given that hangings were common as were poisoning deaths during this period. However, in the years between 1852 and 1900 only ten women were hanged for using poison to kill. Of course, less women were being hanged by the end of the century than at the start of it, but for seven women to executed in such quick succession (and two from the same county and implicated in working together) for a crime that later on would produce only ten deaths over the space of forty-eight years suggests that the criminal justice system and the public were inordinately worried about women’s use of poison during the middle of the nineteenth-century.

Although Chesham, May and Southgate were accused of working together to spread terror throughout Essex, the fact is that there is no evidence that there was a poisoning ring operating in England at that time anywhere let alone in the quiet villages of Clavering, Wix or Harwich. That their crimes, the motivations which only the women alone knew, have remained in the memory of historians and historical criminologists is due to the narratives created inside and outside of the courtroom by everyone other than the women. These narratives indicate the social and cultural fears of women’s agency at a time of hardship, poverty yet amazing technological change and transformation at a time when many were feeling disenfranchised and out of control. These crimes are a site for study not only because of the information about women in the lowest of classes that can be gleaned but because of what the poisoning hysteria tells us about the Victorians.

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