Drainage mills in the Fens, John Sell Cottman

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.

UPDATE

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.