Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex

Helen Barrell examines the lives of three apparently ordinary women: Sarah Chesham, Hannah Southgate, and Mary May. 1840s Essex became notorious as a place where women stalked the lanes looking for their next victim to poison with arsenic, though much of the reported horror remains unfounded.


– Helen Barrell –


Helen is a librarian. She was born in Essex, the daughter of an undertaker. Her first book, Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex, was published in 2016 by Pen & Sword and is available in paperback and ebook. Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and The Dawn of Forensic Science will be published by Pen & Sword in 2017.


Until 1851, arsenic could be bought with ease in Britain. Costing a few pence, this white, near-flavourless powder was available from the local grocer’s or chemist’s and was often used in the home to control rodents. It had commercial uses, as farmers steeped seeds in it and used it as a sheep dip; it was used in the manufacture of glass and lead-shot, and famously in green dyes. The only problem is that arsenic is very poisonous. A lethal dose was very small, resulting in violent vomiting and diarrhoea, unquenchable thirst, and terrible gastric pain, death following in hours or days. The symptoms could easily be misdiagnosed as a violent stomach upset, not uncommon in a world with poor sanitation. Despite better chemical tests for arsenic arriving in the early 1840s, arsenic was still killing people – by accident and by intention. The British government, always keen to promote commerce over public safety, were reluctant to control arsenic’s availability. It took a series of arsenic poisoning trials throughout the 1840s for the government to finally bend to pressure, and by 1851 the poisons register – which readers of Agatha Christie novels will be familiar with – came into being. Every purchase of arsenic would henceforth be recorded.

Amongst those trials were a collection of cases from Essex, a county in the south-east of England, just outside London. Within easy reach of the London-based press, scandalised leaders in the newspapers told the public that the county was notorious, a place where women plied their trade as poisoners as openly as one might a washerwoman. It made good copy, but it wasn’t necessarily true.

Poison Panic examines the lives of three apparently ordinary women: Sarah Chesham, Hannah Southgate, and Mary May, all of whom were linked by the press, but each had different motives alleged against them. Was Sarah in the pay of a local farmer, intent on ridding himself of his illegitimate son? Had vivacious Hannah bumped off her first husband to make way for a new man? And had Mary murdered her own brother for a £10 pay out from the ‘burial club’?


In this extract, eccentric amateur sleuth Reverend Wilkins becomes suspicious of Mary May. The speech is taken from inquest and trial reports, and is as close as we might ever get to how ordinary Victorians spoke.


It was mid-June, the weather hot and stormy. There were reports of hayrick fires, not the result of arson by discontented farm workers, but caused by lightning striking the tinder-dry hay. Reverend Wilkins, incumbent of Wix in north-east Essex, heard about William Constable’s death on the day he died, and a day or so later Mary May went to see Wilkins about arranging the funeral. She said that William needed to be buried as soon as possible ‘as he was a very bad corpse.’ It would not have been pleasant to have a body in their cramped cottage in warm weather.

William received a pauper’s burial on Wednesday, 14 June. Reverend Wilkins asked Mary what her brother’s real name was – he had always known him as an alias; Spratty Watts.

He asked Mary for her brother’s age, and she said that he had been thirty-eight. Wilkins said he thought he was older than that, but Mary insisted, even when Wilkins suggested that she meant forty-eight instead.

She said, ‘No, thirty-eight, I must know, for I am but twenty-nine.’

Wilkins gave her a certificate of the burial, at her request. Nearly two weeks later, on 26 June, Mary called on Wilkins again, asking for a favour. She told him that she needed a certificate from him stating that her brother had been in good health a fortnight before his death. Wilkins refused, telling her she must go to the doctor for one. She pressed him, saying others would corroborate he had been well. Wilkins asked what she required it for, so Mary showed him a letter from the secretary of the burial club. They refused to pay out unless Mary gave good evidence that her brother was healthy at the time she had signed him up.

‘But this money does not belong to you,’ Wilkins said. ‘It belongs to your husband.’

Mary replied, ‘He’s got a son.’

Wilkins’ riposte was, ‘He’s illegitimate and cannot inherit it.’

Wilkins repeated that the burial club money would have to belong to Mary’s husband, but she said, ‘My husband knows nothing about it – I put him in the club myself.’

Wilkins insisted that, because William had been buried by the parish, it was the parish itself that had a claim to the money.

It was time to involve Inspector Raison. The policeman visited Mary, and after confirming that she had entered her brother in the burial club, he said to her, ‘I understand that you can’t get the money.’

Raison offered to investigate for her, asking Mary to tell him about William’s health. She told him that William drove some sheep on the day he fell ill, and that she gave him ginger beer and a biscuit as he set off. Raison asked if the ginger beer had been sour and turned his stomach, but Mary said, ‘No, that it wasn’t, for he wasn’t sick, and that my neighbour knows.’ She continually denied to Raison that her brother had vomited at all.

Presumably thinking he could convince the burial club that William hadn’t been ill, she said, ‘Yes, and you’ll put it down on that paper that you consider he was in his usual health at the time he was taken.’ She added, ‘Poor old soul, I miss him everywhere, for he never gave me an angry word in his life, and my neighbour, Mrs Feint, knows.’

Raison said he would go and speak to Mrs Feint, but Mary immediately rose from her chair, and said she would fetch her.

‘Oh no,’ Raison replied, ‘I’ll go myself, and then the club will think there’s no smuggling in it.’

It is interesting that ‘smuggling’ was a slang term for underhand behaviour at this time, reflecting how common that illegal activity was along the Essex coast.

Mrs Feint told the inspector that she thought William had been well, too, and on returning to Mary with this news, Raison asked her again, ‘Then you are sure, Mrs May, he was not sick at all?’

‘On no, that he was not.’

She told Raison about some beer she had served up for her brother on 8 June, when he complained of feeling ill – that she had boiled it up with an egg and put some nutmeg in it. Raison asked Mary if she had bought anything from Harwich when she’d gone to sign her brother up.

‘As the club people say he was not well at the time you entered him, did you get any powders or pills for him?’

‘Oh Lor’, Mr Raison,’ Mary replied, ‘You think I got something and gave him, and killed him, I know that’s what you think. Poor old soul, I never hurt a hair on his head, he was the only friend I had in the world.’

Wilkins and Raison went to Harwich to find out more about the burial club and the circumstances under which Mary had entered her brother. It seems like something from The Grantchester Mysteries or Father Dowling Investigates – the local vicar teaming up with a police inspector, but Wilkins’s involvement is explained by the pastoral role a minister has in their local community. His energetic involvement with Mary May’s case, which he seems to have engaged with on a personal and emotional level, confirms the Essex Standard’s later view of him as a ‘somewhat eccentric clergyman’.

Charles Tweed was a baker who lived at Bradfield, about 2 miles north-west of Wix. He would later claim that on 28 June Mary had approached him, saying, ‘Charley, I’ve got into a muddle, and I want you to help me out. It is not money I want, but they say old Watts has been poisoned, and they are going to take up his body.’

She asked Tweed to say that he had seen her brother drink from a bottle in a field, and hadn’t been well since. Tweed was reluctant, but Mary had said, ‘Pray do, for the sake of my poor children; for if anything happens that will clear me.’

So Tweed did as Mary had asked, and spread the story at public houses around Wix.

On 29 June, Raison arrived again at the Mays’ cottage with Constable Emson, and told Mary there was to be an inquest into her brother’s death as there was suspicion surrounding it. He asked her to attend, and Mary said, ‘Oh, he told me, he found a bottle as he was going up a field and drank out of it, and had never been well since, and if there’s anything found in him, I didn’t give it him.’ She added, in a low voice, ‘As true as God, child, he would have hung himself one day not long ago if it hadn’t been for me; he took a line, went up in the field, and I ran after him.’

Raison asked her how long ago that had happened, and she answered, ‘Two months. I wish he had hung himself, and if I’d known I was going to get into this trouble I would have let him.’


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