We are delighted to welcome back to our blog fellow Pen and Sword author, Naomi Clifford who loves nothing better than nosing around old archives to find stories of forgotten people.
Today Naomi’s going to share with us some information about her latest book, so we’ll hand straight over to her.
In Ford Madox Brown’s painting The Last of England, painted in the middle of the 19th century, a young couple on the deck of a ship bound for Australia gaze grimly out to sea, the White Cliffs of Dover behind them. Perhaps they have left hunger and trauma behind them. Perhaps they are merely convinced that better fortunes lie overseas.
Emigration grew throughout the early part of the century: the Irish potato famine, changes in farming and industry, high taxes – all contributed to a great movement of people to dominions across the water. Many went to Australia and Canada but America was perennially popular.
Although there are no reliable statistics before about 1800, it has been estimated that in the first decade of the 19th century more than 20,000 people emigrated to America from the United Kingdom, most of them from Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. A good proportion of them earned their passage by hiring themselves out as indentured servants, their labour sold on by the captain after landing. Some were veterans of the long wars with France, who had been unable to settle or find employment. Others simply found life in Britain and Ireland untenable: wages were low and food prices were high. The steerage of packet ships crossing the Atlantic was stuffed with the labouring poor and their families, who no doubt earnestly hoped for significantly better prospects overseas.
Abraham Thornton, who in the middle of September 1818 left the family farm at Shard End in Castle Bromwich, Warwickshire and travelled to Birmingham to catch the stagecoach to Liverpool, was not one of these.
His reason for quitting England was simple: he was hated, notorious throughout the country. In the opinion of most people, he had escaped his rightful fate: swinging on the gallows for the brutal rape and murder of Mary Ashford.
Thornton, the only suspect in Mary’s death, was tried at Warwick Assizes in August 1817, but to the surprise of many was acquitted. Rumours that witnesses and jurymen had been paid off by his father were rife and a few months later Mary’s brother started a civil prosecution in London. The case gripped the country, partly because early on in the proceedings Thornton challenged his accuser to hand-to-hand combat, and the rest of the case was devoted to deciding whether this could legally take place. The public was appalled when the case collapsed. Thornton seemed once more to have evaded justice.
Once in Liverpool, Thornton browsed the newspapers for a suitable passage. He booked a place on the American-owned packet ship The Independence which was scheduled to sail for New York on the 25th. Fixed sailing dates was a recent innovation, brought in by a group of New York Quaker businessmen who developed the idea of creating a ‘shipping line’ by contracting several vessels to sail on specific dates between established ports. In autumn 1817 they advertised the first service in the Black Ball line, using large three-masted square-rigged schooners. Sailings started in January 1818.
Soon two ships were travelling across the Atlantic each month each way. Rather than follow the trade winds across the Atlantic, the American captains preferred the most direct route – it was rougher but faster. Thompson incentivised his team: If an eastbound sailing was completed in under 22 days or westbound in under 35, the captain was given a new coat, and a dress for his wife.
The Independence was not one of the Black Ball ships (rival shippers were quick to copy Thompson). In the end, however, Thornton was prevented from boarding after he was recognised by a fellow passenger who objected to the prospect of being at close quarters for at least six weeks with a possible murderer.
Aged 25, and of average height, broad and beefy, with a square jaw and thinning dark hair swept forward over a bald patch, Thornton was easy to recognise. His portrait had appeared in numerous pamphlets while the case was in play and had been printed in The Observer.
It is quite possible that in Liverpool he wore the same black hat, black coat and beige leggings he had on at his numerous court appearances in London. There was also something less tangible but equally notable – an aloof confidence, which had so struck the newspaper journalists who saw him in court that they remarked on it in their reports.
A few days after failing to board The Independence, Thornton managed to leave England. He bought a place on The Shamrock which was aiming to leave ‘immediately’ for Baltimore, which probably meant ‘as soon as the agent had booked sufficient cargo and passengers’.
Most of those who disembarked The Shamrock would have moved on pretty swiftly – Baltimore was the primary gateway to the West. Thornton, however, apparently headed north to New York and into almost complete obscurity.
Back in England, there were rumours about what had happened to him but none can be verified. Like many a traveller before and after him, he found protection in the vastness and anonymity of the US.
Over the years, the Ashford-Thornton case became known primarily for its effect on the statute book – it led directly to the rescinding of two medieval laws, appeal of murder and trial by battle – rather than the question of Thornton’s guilt or innocence. His solicitor and others speculated that Mary had not been raped and murdered but had drowned herself in remorse for ‘transgressing’ with Thornton in a field on their walk home. Naomi Clifford has uncovered evidence to show that the truth about the events of that night has been hiding in plain sight for 200 years…
We are delighted to welcome back to our blog, the author Naomi Clifford. For her book Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches, Naomi researched the stories of the 131 women who were hanged in England and Wales between 1797 and 1837. Here she outlines the last days of the notorious poisoner Mary Ann Burdock.
For 25% off the RRP and free UK P&P phone 01226 73422 or visit Pen and Sword Books and use discount code WATG25 on the checkout page.
People passing by the solid stone gatehouse on Cumberland Road in Bristol would not necessarily be aware that it is all that remains of the city’s New Gaol and that it holds a truly grisly history. Two women were executed on the flat roof above the entrance: Sarah Harriet Thomas, the last person publicly hanged in Bristol, in 1849, and Mary Ann Burdock in 1835. 
A record crowd waited hours in the rain to witness Mary Ann’s final moments, at 1.40pm on 15 April 1835. The Bristol Mirror estimated the numbers at 50,000 and described it as ‘the largest assemblage of human beings we ever beheld’, their mass stretching ‘the entire line of Coronation Road, from the distance of 200 yards beyond the New Church, to the Bridges, and from the top of the river banks down nearly to the water’s edge’. While they assembled there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere; people did not seem overly impressed with the seriousness of what was about to happen.
Then at about 1.30pm, if they were close enough to get a good view of proceedings, they watched a small female figure dressed in black appear on the platform accompanied by the prison Governor, under-sheriff, turnkeys, executioner and the chaplain, the Rev Jenning. They might have heard Jenning intoning the funeral service… ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life…’ At this point, as understanding that events were reaching a climax rippled through the crowd, the feeling amongst the spectators changed. A ‘shuddering and anxious silence’ pervaded.
Those close enough to the gatehouse would have perceived that there was a hiatus on the platform while an umbrella was called for – whether for Mary Ann or for the Chaplain was unclear. Probably only the official entourage on the platform and the newspaper reporters, who were allowed special access, would have heard the Governor ask Mary to move to her place on the trapdoor and her refusal: ‘I will wait for the umbrella.’ The Governor again insisted and again she refused. But the Rev Jenning resumed reading the service and Mary Ann was led reluctantly but not resisting to the drop. The journalists noted that her face suddenly drained of colour.
Why was there such a degree of interest in this particular execution? Why such enormous crowds? Certainly, Mary Ann’s gender was a draw. This was the first hanging of a female in Bristol since 1802 when friends Maria Davis and Charlotte Bobbett were dispatched on St Michael’s Hill holding hands, punishment for abandoning Davis’s 15-month-old son on Brandon Hill where he died of exposure, and the first since 1832 when William Clarke, Thomas Gregory, Christopher Davis and Joseph Kayes were hanged for rioting. There was the added factor that Mary Ann was young – 30 or 35 at most – and attractive, and her crime had given her a new level of local notoriety. The public was much exercised at the time by an apparent spike in poisoning murders by women.
Burdock was born Mary Ann Williams at Urcop near Ross on Wye in Herefordshire. Aged 19, she joined the household of Mr Plumley, a poulterer living in Nicholas Street, Bristol but was abruptly sacked for petty theft and ‘other improper acts’. Soon afterwards she married Charles Agar, a tailor, but he left her and she then lived with Mr Thomas, a married gentleman’s servant. Later, she ‘formed a connection’ with Mr Wade, who kept a lodging house at 17 Trinity Street. A son and daughter were born but it is not clear who their fathers were. Mary Ann appeared to live by her wits. She was illiterate and, as the middle classes tut-tutted to each other, had no knowledge of religion.
It was in the Trinity Street house, in October 1833, that one of the lodgers, Mrs Clara Smith, a widow in her fifties, was suddenly taken ill with severe stomach pains and expired soon afterwards. Mary Ann told anyone who was interested that Mrs Smith had died in poverty and had no relations and she herself hastily arranged a burial for her lodger at St Augustine’s Church.
But Mrs Smith was not poor. Quite the opposite. She was known to hoard large quantities of cash because she did not trust banks and kept her money, possibly as much as £3,000, in a locked box in her room. It did not go unnoticed that soon after her death, Mr Wade and Mary Ann started doing noticeably well: Wade was able to pay off his debts and bought £400 worth of stock to start a business. But Wade’s own run of luck was short. By April 1834 he too was dead and within weeks Mary Ann was bigamously married to Paul Burdock. She was still legally married to Charles Agar, of course.
A few months later, Mrs Smith’s relatives, who had been living abroad, arrived in Bristol and started making inquiries about her estate. Suspicions were aroused. Mrs Smith’s body was exhumed and the contents of the stomach sent to the analytical chemist William Herapath of Bristol Medical School, who identified arsenic.
On 10 April 1835 Mary Ann came to trial at the Guildhall before Sir Charles Wetherell, the same hardline anti-Reform Recorder of Bristol whose arrival in Bristol for the assize in 1831 had provoked civil disturbance during which four people were killed and 86 wounded and after which Clarke, Gregory, Davis and Kayes were hanged.
Mary Ann’s trial lasted three days, ending with a nine-hour summing up by Wetherell, after which the jury retired for 15 minutes and returned a verdict of Guilty. Execution was inevitable .
Two days later, on the morning of her death, dressed in a black dress, bonnet and veil and wrapped in a dark shawl, Mary Ann attended the condemned service in the prison. She sat in chapel ‘sullenly silent, never once rising or kneeling’. At one o’clock, leaning on the Governor’s arm, she was led out to the press room situated under the platform in the gatehouse to be prepared for the gallows. Her bonnet and shawl were removed, her arms pinioned, a white cap placed on her head and the rope put around her head. According to newspaper reports, it was only then that she responded to Jenning’s prayers and uttered loudly ‘Lord have mercy on my soul’ and ‘Christ have mercy on my soul.’
Understandably, she was in no hurry to proceed to the next stage and when reminded that it was time to go said, ‘Dear gentlemen, the time is short – it is hard to die.’ She asked to be remembered to her husband, who seems to have abandoned her, and friends. Faced with the stairs up through the gatehouse to the roof, she again hesitated but when the Governor offered assistance, declared that she could manage.
On the platform, the executioner William Calcraft fastened the rope to the gallows, pulled the white cap over her face and placed a handkerchief in her hand. This was to be the signal she was ready for him to release the trap door. Within seconds she dropped the handkerchief and was hanged. ‘A thrill of terror pervaded every countenance,’ according to the Bristol Mirror. Mary Ann died relatively quickly ‘with a slight convulsive movement of the hands’, her ‘stoutness’ apparently helping to speed her end.
Mary Ann Burdock’s body was taken down from the gallows and casts were made of her head and bust for the use of doctors at Bristol Royal Infirmary, after which it was buried within the precincts of the gaol, the Anatomy Act of 1832 having ended the practice of dissection of murderers’ corpses. Three weeks later ‘P.R’ wrote to Richard Smith, chief surgeon of the Infirmary, with the conclusions of a phrenological analysis of the casts, which concluded that they indicated Destructiveness, Combativeness, Secretiveness, a lack of Benevolence as well as ‘a masculine degree of force and energy’. That energy was, of course, now extinguished.
The next and last person executed on the roof of the gatehouse was 19-year-old Sarah Harriet Thomas, convicted of bludgeoning her elderly employer to death. It was a traumatising scene. Sarah was dragged struggling and screaming to the roof of the gatehouse, pleading for mercy until the end. The prison governor fainted.
The gaol closed in 1883, replaced by the prison at Horfield, and the site was sold to Great Western Railway. The gaol ruins were gradually removed and the ground levelled for rail yards and buildings. The gatehouse, now Grade II listed, is all that remains. Now a shiny new development is planned, the entrance to which will be through the gatehouse. As they pass through perhaps residents and visitors will spare a thought for the souls who were dispatched just a few metres above them.
 A total of nine people were executed on the flat roof above the entrance to the gaol. The original gatehouse, first built in 1820, was demolished in 1831, having been damaged in riots, and was rebuilt in 1832. Historic England.
 Bristol Mirror,Royal Cornwall Gazette 18 April 1835.
 Charles Agar, Burdock’s legal spouse, later sued Stuckey’s bank for the contents of Mary Ann’s bank account, some of which was probably ill-gotten gains from Mrs Smith. He won.
Today we return from our summer break and are delighted to welcome back to ‘All Things Georgian’ one of our previous guest authors, Naomi Clifford, author of the true life Regency mystery, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn.
Naomi is presently researching women who went to the gallows in the late Georgian period for her next book. During her research she came across the story of Rebecca Hodges, so we will have you over to Naomi to tell more.
The Georgian justice system, inconsistent, brutal and stacked against the defendant as it was, still had room to accommodate those whose actions were beyond their own control. During my research into the women who were hanged in England and Wales in the late Georgian era, I came across a case which would now probably be prosecuted as stalking.
In 1818 Rebecca Hodges was indicted for setting fire to hayricks at Ward End near Aston and appeared before Judge Garrow at the Warwick Shire Hall. It was a notable case, not because rural arson was especially unusual but because of the long and disturbing history between the accused, Rebecca Hodges, a servant, and Samuel Birch, her former employer.
One Saturday in 1802, Rebecca left Birch’s farmhouse to fetch water. On her return on Monday, Birch dismissed her for being absent without permission. She decided that she would exact revenge. Over the next seven years, unrecognised because she dressed in men’s clothes, she followed him. On 27 February 1809, having bought a horse pistol and moulded her own bullets (she pressed lead with her fingers), again dressed as a man, she travelled to Ward End, on the way encountering a young lad at the turnpike house of whom she asked several questions about Birch, including whether he had gone to market and what horse he rode. Then she stalked Birch around his farm, hiding in an outbuilding until the moment was right. At around ten o’clock in the evening, she, peered through the kitchen window to check that Birch’s housekeeper and niece Sarah Bradbury had gone up to bed, lifted the latch of his farmhouse, crept up behind him as he slept in a chair and shot him twice, one of the bullets lodging in his head.
Birch did not at first realise that he had been wounded, but his niece and housekeeper Sarah Bradbury, alerted by the gunshot, came downstairs and saw that his head was ‘all over blood’. Mr Vickers, a surgeon in Birmingham, was fetched. He trepanned Birch’s skull and retrieved the bullet. The patient survived but suffered lifelong effects.
Still dressed in male attire and carrying the loaded pistol, Rebecca was arrested in Birmingham, probably for showing some sort of erratic behaviour, and taken to Birmingham Gaol: William Payn, the gaoler, said later that he thought she had ‘broken out of a place of confinement’. He offered to send for her relatives in order to get her properly cared for, but she said it would be no use as she would just be arrested again.
‘For what?’ asked Payn.
‘For shooting a man,’ she replied.
In the courtyard she walked obsessively in a figure of eight and hung her head.
Later, once the connection between her confession and Mr Birch was known, she was brought to the Birmingham police office where she encountered Mr Vickers, the surgeon who had treated Birch. She said, ‘He [Samuel Birch] is not dead, I hope?,’ and when asked whether Birch had ever ill-treated her, replied, ‘No, never.’ She claimed that they had had a romantic relationship and, although she liked Birch very much.
Rebecca was tried in front of Judge Bayley. It was clear that she had committed the deed and that there had been a large degree of planning, but the question was whether she was in her right mind. Francis Woodcock, a magistrate living in Worcestershire, told the court that she had lived in his household for three years and had shown symptoms of insanity, talking to herself, going missing, dancing alone in barns and fields and picking up sticks in one place and laying them down in another. He said she was ‘virtuous but harmless’. Her sister also gave evidence, describing her walking without shoes or wearing only one of them, going out with few clothes on and on one occasion trying to hang herself. Justice Bayley thought that she was not in her right mind and told the jury that if they had any doubt they should acquit her, which they did. She was ordered to be incarcerated in Warwick Gaol as a criminal lunatic. In 1816 she was transferred to Bethlehem Hospital in London, where after fourteen months she was discharged, the doctors there declaring her perfectly healthy.
After Rebecca returned to Birmingham in early 1818 she lived a hand-to-mouth existence of casual employment, possibly combined with part-time prostitution. She often got drunk and was locked out of her lodgings. One constant was her resentment of Birch and after writing letters to him, pleading and threatening by turn, she once more travelled to the farm at Ward End intent on revenge. This time she fire to his haystacks, another capital offence.
She was soon arrested and the circumstantial evidence against her was overwhelming. Witnesses spoke of a woman wearing a long dark cloak and bonnet; similar clothes were found in her lodgings. A linen draper, called as an expert witness, confirmed that a section of purple spotted scarf found near the fire matched one in her possession. A tinder box that had been discarded on the road contained small pieces of cotton resembling the material of one of her gowns.
During the trial Rebecca loudly and repeatedly berated and insulted the witnesses, each time Garrow patiently exhorting her to wait until it was her turn to question them. But despite his instruction to the jury to ‘keep in mind… the dreadful punishment that must necessarily follow a conviction’ they did not even pretend to discuss her possible innocence and within three minutes delivered a guilty verdict. While Rebecca screamed for mercy (‘My Lord, have mercy upon me! … Oh spare my life! Only spare my life, my Lord! I’m innocent! I’m innocent!’) the judge sentenced her to death and warned her not to entertain hopes of a respite.
In law there were four kinds of insanity: perpetual infirmity of mind from birth; the result of sickness, grief or other accident; intermittent (classed as insanity when it manifested and at times of lucidity not so); and a state arising from ‘vicious acts’ such as drunkenness. Rebecca Hodges’ gun attack on Mr Birch may have had been planned well in advance but her erratic behaviour before this showed that she was not in her right mind and was enough to persuade the judge.
Rebecca did not go to the gallows. She was respited and her sentence commuted. In 1819 she was transported for life on board the Lord Wellington in the company of two other Warwickshire women, Elizabeth and Rebecca Bamford, who had themselves narrowly avoided execution. They had been deeply involved in the family business of forgery and uttering and their sixty-year-old mother, Ann Bamford, had been hanged the previous year.
In Australia, Rebecca continued to cause concern. She was first placed in the factory at Parmatta, later sent out to work as a domestic servant. Her propensity to go missing landed her in trouble in 1824 and she was punished with another spell at Parmatta. She was described in 1827 as ‘incompetent to any kind of work’. In 1838 she was granted a conditional pardon. Her date of death is unknown.
Bury and Norfolk Post, 8 March 180; Northampton Mercury, 25 April 1818.
Willis, W., An Essay on the Rationale of Circumstantial Evidence (1838). London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans.
On Insanity: Mr Amos’s Lecture on Medical Jurisprudence. London Medical Gazette, 2 July 1831.
We will now hand you over to Naomi to introduce you to an intriguing character, George Lowman Tuckett.
In the middle of a September night in 1817 Maria Glenn, aged 16, vanished from her uncle’s house in Taunton, Somerset. She had been taken by the Bowditches, a local yeoman farming family who wanted to marry her off to the second son. George Lowman Tuckett, Maria’s uncle, immediately suspected that the Bowditches knew that she was the probable future heiress of her grandfather’s valuable sugar plantations in St Vincent.
Maria had spent the summer at their farm just outside Taunton where she and two of her young cousins had been sent to recover from whooping cough. There was ample opportunity for the family to find out what she was worth. Of course, in 1817, once a girl was married, all her possessions, now and in the future, would belong to her husband.
When I was writing the book, I had to build a picture of Tuckett from the bare bones of his biography and from glimpses of him in the lives of other people. Apart from two publications about his niece’s case and one letter in the county archives at Dorchester, he left a surprisingly small footprint. There are no surviving images of him, which is surprising given that he went on to be, if only for a short time, a Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica (but we’ll come to that later).
George Lowman Tuckett was born in 1771 at Bridgwater in Somerset, the second of his father William’s sons by his first wife Martha Lowman. William was appointed Stamp Act distributor on St Kitts in the West Indies but by 1770 he was back in England, living in Bridgwater, where he was at various times a solicitor, Recorder of the Corporation, Stamp Duty Distributor for Somerset and mayor of Bridgwater.
In 1789, after boarding at Exeter School George went up to St John’s College, Cambridge. He followed his father into the law, taking his pupillage with the brilliant but notoriously grumpy Vicary Gibbs, who specialised in the laws of evidence.
It is not known how Tuckett made the acquaintance of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived at Ottery St Mary in Devon, but the two young men were close enough for Tuckett to take action when Coleridge, impoverished and suffering from depression, disappeared from Cambridge University in late 1793. While Coleridge’s family anxiously tried to track him down, it was Tuckett who guessed that he would have told his old Christ’s Hospital school friends where he was. He persuaded them to break their confidence, after which Coleridge, who had joined the Royal Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, wrote Tuckett an angry letter criticising his love for truth-telling. It is not known whether they communicated again. Truth-telling was important to Tuckett.
Tuckett was admitted to the Middle Temple in London in 1796, after which he completed two years’ practice in England. Two years after that, he sailed to Grenada in the West Indies. On 11 July 1800, aged 30, he married his 17-year-old first cousin, Martha Lowman, daughter of his mother’s brother George Lowman, on St Vincent. The following year he was appointed Solicitor-General of Grenada but his career was seriously affected when Martha became ill and they were forced to come to England. With the exception of a couple of years in Jamaica, where Tuckett practised at the bar, they stayed in England for the next two decades, settling initially in Taunton.
While they were living in Taunton, 11-year-old Maria Glenn, Tuckett’s wife’s sister’s daughter (and his own his second cousin – they intermarried quite a lot) joined them. By now George and Martha had five children (they went on to have another), a remarkable achievement given that Martha had an unknown but debilitating illness. Tuckett and Martha adored Maria – she was everything a genteel Regency girl was meant to be. Shy, bashful, obedient and, above all, innocent about men.
After Maria’s disappearance, in order to build evidence against the family he believed abducted her, Tuckett became a detective. There was no police force to do this work, of course, and although he could have hired an investigator, the work required sensitivity and attention to detail. Also, Tuckett has time on his hands: from what I can tell, his career as a jobbing barrister on the Western circuit was not very taxing.
He travelled extensively around Dorset and to London to interview witnesses and sometimes to conduct an impromptu identity parade. It was his practice to ask someone to describe the person they had seen at a particular time. Then he would present Maria and ask if this was who they meant. When they failed to recognise her, he concluded that Maria had been deliberately impersonated by her enemies. Of course, it’s not a technique that would be acceptable in a court of law now. What happened when the case came to court, and subsequently when the Bowditches sought revenge, is detailed in my book.
He was thorough and determined. He sometimes presented as severe and cold-hearted but underneath he was loving, generous and loyal, with a fundamental commitment to Maria and an acute sense that it was his Christian duty to tell the truth.
Many years later, when Tuckett had managed to resume his West Indian career, he showed the same compassion and adherence to the truth. By 1827, he was appointed Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Jamaica and then in October 1831, with the death of William Anglin Scarlett, the acting Lord Chief Justice of Jamaica. Earl Belmore, the Governor of Jamaica, told Tuckett that it was his intention to appoint him to the post, but after the Christmas rebellion of 1831 (the Baptist War) he was ejected from office and forced to return to London. Although his actions had been approved by the Jamaican Privy Council, Sir Joshua Rowe was given the post of Lord Chief Justice. Tuckett’s brief period of service has all been but forgotten. The Jamaican historical archives have no portrait of him and no information about his role.
It was the end of Tuckett’s legal career and afterwards, he lived in retirement, supporting his four surviving children, none of whom married. Martha died in 1837. On 4 November 1851, he died from heart disease, aged 80, at his home in Ilfracombe, Devon.
If you want to read more, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn: A True Life Regency Mystery is available now from Pen and Sword Books and all good bookshops.
You can also visit Naomi’s excellent website by clicking here.
In the afternoon of 11 April 1815 two men came into the Pitt’s Head public house opposite the Old Bailey and seated themselves at a table. Their clothes marked them out as working men but they were clean and neat. One of them, an old man, was trying to write on a scrap of paper, but was so distressed, his hand shaking so much, that he could not manage it. His friend tried to take over, but he too could not form the letters. Eventually, the old man appealed to a stranger to help. “I want to tell the court that my daughter Eliza told me she was happy in her situation,” he said.
This simple and innocuous statement was crucial to his daughter’s fate, he said. The stranger obliged and the men left the pub and crossed over to the Old Bailey where Eliza Fenning was on trial for her life, accused of attempting to murder her employer and members of his family by putting arsenic in their dinner.
William Fenning, Eliza’s 63-year-old father, was deluded: his daughter’s short road through life had already been mapped, its course decided by a combination of personal animosity, class prejudice, conspiracy and official incompetence.
Eliza, aged 20, worked as a cook for Orlibar Turner, a law stationer living at 68 Chancery Lane, London with his wife Margaret, son Robert and daughter-in-law Charlotte. Turner also employed a maid, Sarah Peer, and two apprentices. Eliza was generally well thought-of; she was lively, amusing, amiable and hard-working. However, a few weeks before the poisoning Charlotte had threatened her with dismissal for going, inappropriately dressed, into the apprentices’ room to borrow a candle. Eliza had been upset by this and had declared to Sarah Peer that she no longer liked her mistress but seemed to put the incident behind her. In reality, it was Charlotte and Sarah who disliked Eliza.
Eliza liked cooking and wanted to show off her skill at making dumplings but Charlotte put her off. However, on 21 March, on her own initiative, Eliza asked the brewer to deliver some yeast. At this, Charlotte relented and agreed that Eliza could serve the family steak, potatoes and dumplings for dinner, and that she should also make a steak pie for the apprentices. Eliza got busy. She made the pie and prepared the dumplings. The apprentices ate at 2pm and the family at 3 so she set the dumplings by the fire to rise while she took the pie to be cooked at the bakers. When she returned she could see that the dumplings were not a success. They had failed to rise.
She must have taken remedial measures, which also failed because when she brought six dumplings to the table they were small, black and heavy. Nevertheless, the Turners ate them, as did Eliza herself. The effects were immediate. Charlotte was soon in excruciating pain and vomiting. Her husband and father-in-law – and Eliza – were also stricken. One of the apprentices, Roger Gadsden, who had picked at the dumplings in the kitchen, and later claimed in court that Eliza warned him not to do so, was also ill. Henry Ogilvy, a surgeon, was sent for, and soon there was another, John Marshall, in attendance.
Eliza asked her fellow servant Sarah Peer, who had not eaten any dumplings, to fetch her father who worked for his brother, a potato dealer, in Red Lion Street, Holborn. Sarah did not tell Mr Fenning it was urgent and said nothing about the sickness in the house, and her message slipped his mind until he was back at home. Between 9 and 10 that evening, he turned up at the Turners’ house in Chancery Lane and knocked. Now Sarah told him a barefaced lie. On the orders of her mistress, she said that Eliza was out on an errand. He went away entirely unaware that five people inside the house, including his daughter, had been poisoned. The family recovered. Whatever they had eaten had been insufficient to kill them.
Orlibar Turner seems to have immediately suspected the dumplings. Once he had recovered sufficiently he showed Mr Marshall the remains of the basin they had been prepared in. Marshall added water, stirred and decanted it and examined the sediment. He found half a teaspoon of white powder, which tarnished a knife. “I decidedly found it to be arsenic,” he later told the court. He did not detect arsenic in the remains of the yeast or in the flour.
Eliza was the only suspect, as she had made the dumplings and, still suffering the effects of the poisoning, she was taken before a magistrate and sent to Clerkenwell Prison. When her parents were finally made aware of her plight, they raised £5 for her defence. Two guineas went to Mr Alley, a defence attorney, and the remainder to a jobbing solicitor who drew up the brief. This was the sum total of her legal resources: against her were ranged the Turners and their armoury of legal contacts, favours and knowledge. The prosecution was riddled with conflict of interest: their personal friend and solicitor worked as the clerk to the magistrate who had committed Eliza.
The case came to trial at the Old Bailey on 11th April 1815 and was heard by the Recorder, John Silvester.1 The case against Eliza was entirely circumstantial and focused on her general behaviour and attitude, and her potential access to the poison. Simmering with resentment at her dressing-down by Charlotte, she had stolen the arsenic and planned her murderous attack.
Orlibar Turner kept two wrappers of arsenic, tied up tight and labelled “Arsenick, Deadly Poison”, in an unlocked drawer in the office where the apprentices worked. It was used on the mice and rats who liked to eat the vellum and parchment. Two weeks before the poisoning, he noticed that it was missing. The drawer also contained scraps of paper, which the servants used for lighting the fire. During the trial, Roger Gadsden, one of the apprentices, said he had seen Eliza take paper from the drawer where the arsenic was kept. The implication was that she had seen it there and stolen it. In court Eliza said that when she needed paper for the fire she asked for it and pleaded for Thomas King, the other apprentice, to come to court to back her up. He was denied to her. Mr Ogilvy, who would have told the court that she herself had been very ill, was not called.
Eliza’s defence was feeble, to say the least. Her defence attorney Mr Alley barely spoke and was not even in court to hear the Recorder’s summing up. One of the jurymen was deaf. She was permitted to speak in her defence, but not for long. “I am truly innocent of the whole charge. I am innocent; indeed I am! I liked my place. I was very comfortable,” she said. She called five character witnesses.
William Fenning’s desperate attempt to submit sworn evidence of his daughter’s happiness with the Turners was in vain. The court would not accept his statement.
The guilty verdict and the death sentence, both predictable, were nevertheless a terrible shock, and not only to Eliza and her family. Many of the great and the good immediately started petitions: to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth; to the Prince Regent. Letters were written to The Times (but not published).
Basil Montagu, a prominent Quaker, uncovered evidence that Robert Turner had had a previous episode of mental instability, appearing “wild” and “deranged”, threatening to kill his wife and himself. He sent his evidence to Silvester, who dismissed it as “wholly useless.”
An anonymous chemist decided to recreate elements of the crime himself. He made dumplings with arsenic – it had no effect on whether they rose or not. He asked his cook to make dumplings and then secretly contaminated them when she was not looking; no one noticed any change in their consistency. He even tried to convince the Turners, whose support was Eliza’s best hope of reprieve, by visiting them at home but, just as he was making headway with Orlibar Turner, John Silvester, the Recorder, entered the house and, backed by Robert Turner, convinced him not to sign the petition in support of Eliza.
The efforts of Eliza’s middle-class supporters failed. John Silvester’s hold over the case prevailed and Eliza’s execution was scheduled. She protested her innocence to the last. “The parting scene with her mother was heart-rending. They were separated from each other in a state of dreadful agony,” wrote William Hone.2
On the morning of 26 July 1815, Eliza rose at 4 am, washed and gave a lock of her hair to each of her attendants. She prayed until 7 and dressed.
“I wish to leave the world – it is all vanity and vexation of spirit. But it is a cruel thing to die innocently; yet I freely forgive every one, and die in charity with all the world, but cannot forget my injured innocence.”
She looked through the window at the other prisoners, who had been locked in their cells but who had climbed up to the windows to see her. “Good bye! good bye! to all of you,” she cried.
Dressed in white muslin gown and a muslin cap and pale lilac boots laced in front, with her arms bound, she mounted the scaffold. Before she dropped, her last words were “I am innocent!” She was followed by two others: a child rapist and a homosexual.
Amongst the 50,000-strong crowd was the writer and journalist William Hone, defender of press freedom and friend of the oppressed.
“I got into an immense crowd that carried me along with them against my will; at length, I found myself under the gallows where Eliza Fenning was to be hanged. I had the greatest horror of witnessing an execution, and of this particular execution, a young girl of whose guilt I had grave doubts. But I could not help myself; I was closely wedged in; she was brought out. I saw nothing but I heard all. I heard her protesting her innocence – I heard the prayer – I could hear no more. I stopped my ears, and knew nothing else till I found myself in the dispersing crowd, and far from that dreadful spot.”
Eliza’s parents were charged 14 shillings and sixpence for her body. They had to borrow the money. Her only possession, a Bible, was bequeathed to her mother. On 31 April she was buried at St George the Martyr, near Brunswick Square. There were a hundred mourners but many others tried to get in.
Fenning’s case continued to trouble and intrigue lawyers and scientists. Did arsenic really blacken knives? Was Marshall’s evidence true and believable? How much had collusion between the judge, the prosecutor and the witnesses been responsible for the guilty verdict and the failure of appeals for remission?
To the crowds of poor and angry Londoners, who knew that a defenceless working woman had been judicially murdered, these things were irrelevant. A thousand angry people gathered outside the Turners’ house. Some were arrested for behaving in a “riotous and tumultuous manner”. Police from Bow Street were stationed outside for days.
Commissioned by John Watkins, William Hone, who had reluctantly witnessed Eliza’s death, started gathering evidence. The Sessions Report of the trial was flawed; large sections were missing. The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning proved Eliza’s innocence and detailed the efforts that the establishment had taken to ensure that she was executed. Silvester’s extraordinary intervention with Orlibar Turner, Basil Montagu’s doomed investigation into Robert Turner’s mental ill-health were detailed.
Hone’s publication itself became the story as Silvester, and the legal establishment tried to defend their conduct. Silvester had a reputation as a hanging judge and was biased against female defendants. There were rumours that he solicited sexual favours in return for mercy.
The Observer took the lead and its lies were repeated in newspapers across the country. The Fennings were said to be Roman Catholics, to be Irish, to have shown Eliza’s body in return for money; her father, they said, had urged her to protest her innocence only to preserve his own reputation. These allegations were printed up as handbills and pushed through letterboxes and pasted up in shop windows. John Marshall and Henry Ogilvy claimed that Eliza had refused medical treatment because she knew her plan had failed. “She would much rather die than live, as life was as no consequence to her” they said.
Even if you accept that many trials at this time were ramshackle affairs, the injustice of Eliza’s execution was a brutal shock but not a surprise. For middle-class families at a time of political change, with ideas of equality wafting across Europe, Eliza represented their greatest fear: the resentful servant with revenge on her mind.
Orlibar Turner was declared bankrupt in 1825 (Sussex Advertiser, 7 February 1825).
In 1828, John Gordon Smith, the University of London’s first Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, noted a claim in the Morning Journal that a son of Orlibar Turner had died in Ipswich workhouse confessing that he had put arsenic in the dumplings. I can find no evidence of this but Robert Greyson Turner was certainly living in Ipswich in 1820 (his wife Charlotte was from Suffolk) – he and his brother are listed in The Poll for Members of Parliament for the Borough of Ipswich.
On 21 June 1829, The Examiner noted that William Fenning, Eliza’s heart-broken father, was still living in London. “The unfortunate girl was his favourite child.” A William Fenning died in Holborn in 1842. If this is “our” William Fenning, he would have been 91.
1 Fans of the BBC’s Garrow’s Law will recall Silvester as the somewhat fictionalized “baddie”. He was sometimes known as “Black Jack”.
2 The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Fenning.