The Regency poisoning of Mary Biggadike

Mary Biggadike was born May 1801 and baptised in the parish church, of Whaplode, a village in Lincolnshire, by the somewhat forthright vicar, Samuel Oliver.

In early 1818 she found herself pregnant and so, doing the right thing, James Cawthorn, a labourer of Whaplode walked her up the aisle her in August of that year. In due course, she gave birth to a daughter, Marian, who tragically survived for only a few months.

Two years later the couple had another child, a son, James, but by this time their marriage was well and truly ‘on the rocks’ and in March 1821, James clearly needed to find a way of extricating himself from the marriage as he had found a new love.

James found his means of escaping the relationship – but it was to come at the highest price of all, for in August 1821, he found himself indicted for the wilful murder of his wife on 23rd March 1821.

The indictment was that he

wilfully, feloniously, and of malice aforethought, did secretly mix and mingle with milk, flour and sugar, a certain deadly poison, viz. one drachm of arsenic, which he knowing it to be poison, did give to his wife of the 19th March 1821, intending that she should drink it.

He was also charged with assaulting Mary on the day of her death by strangling her.

Mr Franklin representing James wanted him to be charged on only one count, which eventually the prosecution agreed to and it was the charge of poisoning that they proceeded with. The first witness, John Smith who lived close by and knew the family well, he confirmed that he had seen Mary on Monday 19th and she appeared fit and well. He then saw her on Thursday 22nd, when she appeared extremely unwell, her face was swollen and her eyes black and bulging. His wife who also saw her said she thought that Mary had been beaten. At six o’clock the next day he heard that she had died in great agony.

Mary’s mother lived a mere 200 yards from her daughter and when called to give evidence, she said that the young couple had not been getting along well for six months prior to her daughter’s death.  She also confirmed that she saw her daughter every day from Sunday 18th March to Thursday 22nd March and that her daughter had been taken ill on the Monday. Mary’s sister Elizabeth had called upon her on Tuesday and at which time Mary was very sick and complaining of stomach pains.

Mary was convinced she was dying and told Mrs Smith that when her husband returned on the Monday he told her that he felt unwell and asked her to make him some ‘thickened milk’ and having eaten part of it, he asked her to go to the public-house and fetch him a pint of ale, leaving him alone in the house. On her return, he said he had eaten enough and that she should finish the remainder, which she did, and it was then that she was taken ill.

Next to be called to give evidence was Mr Franklin, a surgeon, of Holbeach, who said that Mary had a purple hue on her face, purple spots on her body and a small wound on her leg and internally she showed signs of inflammation. Franklin attempted to carry out tests on her body but was unable to prove conclusively that she had been poisoned.

Mary Sindall was called in to lay out the deceased and she confirmed that the prisoner had followed her upstairs and taking hold of Mary’s cold hand, said ‘Bless you! I little thought your death so nigh’.

Robert Collins, the constable of Whaplode, received James into his custody to take him to Lincoln Castle on the Coroner’s warrant, but just before setting out from Whaplode, James, who up to this point had remained calm, asked to hold his son before they left, at which point he broke down in tears at leaving his only child and as if he knew he would never be returning.

Landscape with a Stagecoach c1840. Metropolitan Museum
Landscape with a Stagecoach c1840. Metropolitan Museum

The carriage took them on to Spalding and when they arrived at the White Lion, James asked permission to write a letter. This letter was to the love of his life, Charlotte Tomlinson, a girl from the same village.  James asked the constable to deliver the letter to her, but instead, Collins kept it as evidence. James continually declared himself innocent of the crime and said in court that he was forced to write the letter, which was vehemently denied by the constable.

The letter was produced in court.

March 26th, 1821

Dear Charlotte – I for the love of you a desolate death must go through. I hope you will have a good Christian heart in you for to come up this afternoon, my dear, and let me bid you adieu. Love don’t feel yourself unhappy, I pay the debt for you. Come up today, love, for I am sure to be put to death. O! Charlotte, what must I go through.

James Cawthorn

It took the jury just minutes to find James guilty of murder and Mr Justice Park pronounced the sentence of death. He confirmed that James was to be executed on Thursday at midday and his body was to be delivered for dissection.  James remained unmoved.

The night before his sentence was to be carried out he made a full confession saying that he could not suffer enough for what he had done. He acknowledged that her murder was carried out by putting poison in the milk.  Having been used to church music, at his request, a psalm was sung at the preaching of the condemned sermon, and he took a part in the melody.

Mary was buried March 26th, 1821 at Whaplode church, aged just 20. Samuel Oliver, who baptised and married her, now buried her, with a note in the register (as he frequently did!) stating that she was

murdered by her husband in the night in a most deliberate manner! The inquest continued for three days!

The love of his life, Charlotte Tomlinson went on to marry in Whaplode, three years later.  The child James went on to have three children of his own who were baptised at Spalding – John, Elizabeth and Mary Ann Biggadike Cawthorn.


Following questions raised by one of our lovely readers I did some more digging and have just discovered this letter which James sent to Charlotte two days after the previous one above, which, it could be argued raises some doubt as to his guilt.

Featured Image

Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman. Yale Center for British Art. Paul Mellon Collection.

22 thoughts on “The Regency poisoning of Mary Biggadike

  1. robheal

    Why is it that poisoners in Georgian and Victorian times invariably used such detectable toxins as heavy metals–arsenic, lead, antimony–to kill their victims? Even if specific tests were not always available, the symptoms of such poisonings were so obvious to any medical professional, that few murderers were safe from detection. We know for certain that accidents involving deadly fungi occurred at this time. Why didn’t poisoners turn to these, or indeed other sources of deadly toxins, such as deadly nightshade, monkshood, or hemlock, which, being organic poisons, might easily be expelled from the body ? After all, Death Caps can be mistaken by ignorant people for edible mushrooms and deadly nightshade berries for cherries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Good question! Not being a poisoner that’s a difficult one to answer, but presumably, as many households had mice and rats, especially those in the countryside arsenic was something they would have had ready access to, but you would think they would have found something less traceable wouldn’t you?


    2. because you couldn’t prove that it wasn’t food poisoning or anything else accidental, and without proof you couldn’t convict. Arsenic was known as ‘inheritance powder’ it was so ubiquitous, because if you were careful you could establish a history of the victim being inclined to stomach upsets before giving a lethal dose. I’m not a poisoner but as a writer of murder mysteries I have
      looked into it fairly deeply. Cyanide which is an organic poison equally could be passed off as a heart failure, and again could be detected if anyone knew enough and went to the trouble using another test by the ubiquitous Mr Scheele [better known for his turning of toxins into paint colours] but you have to suspect someone has poisoned someone else before anyone even tried to do a test. [the original test for any poison was to force the stomach contents to be ingested by some unfortunate dog; if it lived it wasn’t poison.]. And herein lies the rub; if nobody suspects the death of a sickly person or one rumoured to have a heart condition nobody investigates it. The only cases of poisoning we hear about are the ones where the poisoner was careless. cyanide is a plant poison, but has the specific prussian blue test from IIRC 1797 [might have been earlier].
      If you poison with nightshade the berries in the stomach can still be fed to a dog. Monkshood/Wolfsbane/aconite is probably the safest because that can also be absorbed through the mucus membranes and might be given as a salve for privy itching, say. Colchicin is a good one, being available in concentrated form in pills for gout at the time, taxin [yew] is easily passed off as natural, and about the safest one is to serve daffodil bulbs as a ‘mistake’ for onion.
      Of course the main reason is that people of all ages are on the whole ill educated, and to use organic poisons requires a little knowledge of herbalism. Whereas because of the publicity given to the dangers of arsenic as rat poison, anyone might know that it is deadly – equally distilled Laurel leaves to use as wasp killer as cyanide. [and easy to disguise in ratafia for that matter.] Most people using murder as a solution are uninteresting, stupid, illl-educated and most important of all, impatient. They would rather buy inheritance powder than set up a history of not eating onions because it makes them ill to disguise why they were not ill with daffodil bulbs. those of us who write murder mysteries are looking at those with a bit more nous who go to some effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mistyfan

    So Cawthorn had to resort to murder to end his marriage? Wife-selling, a common way to end an unhappy marriage in pre-divorce days, must have been on the way out by then. Legal divorce was still many years in the future and even then it remained frowned upon for a few generations. And murder would have been pretty easy in the 19th century because poisons were so readily available over the counter.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Selling her might have been an option, but that wasn’t really commonplace by then and as you say divorce wouldn’t have been an option, so the only way to ‘get rid of her’, so he could be with his new love was to poison her!


      1. do I read/write too many murder mysteries? Only the way I read his letter to his sweetheart it sounded to me as though he was taking the fall for her. “I pay the debt for you” and “If for the love of you, a desolate death etc” sound to me as though he is saying “Yes, I know you got impatient and killed her but I will take the blame.” He then confessed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sarah Murden

          It’s always interesting the way in which words can be interpreted, I hadn’t thought of that as an option. Unfortunately we’ll never know which version was the truth!


        2. Sarah Murden

          Sarah – your comment has made me do another search for any further documents relating to the trail and I’ve added an update to the article which you may find interesting! Let me know your thoughts! was he guilty or not guilty?

          Liked by 1 person

  3. wow, looks to me as though I wasn’t fishing up a tree at all. ‘I will never discover it’ of course means in modern parlance ‘I will never reveal [uncover] it ‘ which is truly suggestive, as is his calling her his foe as well as professing love. And I wager she never did go to see him but washed her hands of him having got him to go to the gallows for her. there’s a murder mystery waiting to be written in here where the hero proves what really happened.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Yes, you got me thinking, so I tried some different search criteria and there it was, a second letter. Most accounts end with the first letter and don’t mention the follow up to it. The post mortem does, however, refer to strangulation marks, the implication that she was poisoned but that made her ill rather than killing her, so perhaps strangulation was needed to make sure of the desired ending! Again, we will never know, but it’s possible that the wrong person went to the gallows.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sarah Murden

      It didn’t end happily for Charlotte! Having married Thomas, they had 6 daughters. One daughter died aged just 4, in 1835. Thomas died 1840, then Charlotte and 3 more daughters died 1847, all buried within days of each other, with a further daughter being buried two months after them. That appears to have left just one remaining daughter surviving, she went on to work as a cook.


  4. It is even possible that he went to the gallows believing his lover did it; and she broke with him believing he did it, and it was a third person obscured in the mists of time …. or because they had no reliable Scheele’s test result it *could* have been that the sickness was unrelated to poisoning though that’s reaching a bit. ‘not proved conclusively’ *is* suggestive that he had enough of an arsenic mirror to be sure in his own mind, but not enough for a court of law. As I said, it’s damned difficult to get a good result before Marsh refined the Scheele test.


  5. mistyfan

    Those strangulation marks are damning evidence against accidental poisoning though. Personally, I think they point more to a man than a woman, though I guess a woman can’t be excluded altogether.

    By the way, have you done anything on Abraham Thornton, acquitted of the murder of Mary Ashford in 1817? His hometown didn’t agree with the jury’s verdict and he was forced out of the district. His case is still controversial I think. It’s most famous for Mary’s brother trying to enact an ancient law to get him retried, only for Thornton to say the same law also gave him the right to trial by combat against the brother.


    1. Sarah Murden

      The post mortem concluded that she was poisoned, although as Sarah has correctly said, tests at that time for evidence of poisoning were not always reliable. It would seem that Mary didn’t die immediately, rather she suffered for a few days. It was the post mortem that referred to clear strangulation marks on her neck.

      Mary Ashford – no we haven’t written about her. We’ve left that in the extremely capable hands of a fellow Pen & Sword author, Naomi Clifford who has written ‘The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History’.

      Liked by 1 person

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