Poison Panic on BBC One

We’re happy to host one other visitor publish by creator and FreeREG transcriber Helen Barrell, who will characteristic on BBC One’s Homicide, Thriller and My Household  this Wednesday (third April) at 09.15am. 

Right here, Helen describes the usefulness of parish registers in researching the topic of her books, and the case of Sarah Chesham, who she believes suffered an unfair consequence in her trial.

Cover of Poison Panic

The quilt of Helen’s e-book: Poison Panic.

Some years in the past, I used to be researching a department of my household who lived in Acton in Suffolk. I found a great-several instances uncle referred to as Mordecai Simpson who, it turned out, had been drawn into an arsenic poisoning which led to the hanging of a 17-year-old.

This was the slightly unhappy case of Catherine Foster, who was convicted of murdering her husband. The crime solely got here to mild when Mordecai, who lived subsequent door to Catherine, observed his chickens dying. It turned out they’d eaten leftovers from the arsenic-laced dumpling that Catherine had fed to her husband. She was hanged in 1847.

Whereas transcribing the parish registers for Wix in Essex, I stumbled over one other arsenic case – when Mary Might was discovered responsible of poisoning her half-brother Spratty Watts (often known as William Constable). Mary was hanged in 1848, and the extra I seemed, the extra instances of arsenic poisonings I discovered cropping up within the newspapers round that point.

And one of many different instances was that of Sarah Chesham, who stood trial a minimum of thrice for poisoning in 1847 and as soon as once more in 1851. Simply after that last trial, when Sarah was condemned to loss of life, an act was handed which restricted the sale of arsenic. Up till then, it was as simple to purchase as an any harmless grocery, however after the act was handed, arsenic might solely be bought if the shopper signed or marked the poisons register. In later years, many different poisons have been added to the restricted checklist, together with strychnine and cyanide. Should you’re an avid reader of Golden Age crime fiction, you’ll have come throughout poisons registers in homicide mysteries.

However these tales aren’t any fictions – actual individuals died of arsenic poisonings, and actual individuals have been hanged in entrance of crowds of hundreds of individuals. I used to be curious concerning the impression of the instances on the individuals includes and their communities and so set about researching them intimately. In 2016, Poison Panic, my e-book concerning the cluster of poisonings in Essex was revealed, and in 2017, Deadly Proof, the biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor – the toxicologist who labored on practically all of the instances in Poison Panic, in addition to well-known nineteenth-century trials like that of William Palmer – got here out.

Alfred Swaine Taylor giving proof at an inquest

Final 12 months I used to be contacted by the makers of BBC1’s award-winning sequence Homicide, Thriller and My Household. Sarah Chesham was to be the topic of one of many episodes, and so they requested me for my assist.

I used to be actually glad to be concerned as I’m not satisfied that Sarah Chesham had a good trial in 1851. Sadly, I don’t suppose it’s what the legislation would outline as an “unfair trial”, as a result of as issues have been in 1851, the decide presiding over the case and who sentenced her to loss of life after she was convicted of tried homicide, had not technically carried out something mistaken. It’s simply that morally it doesn’t appear proper because the Offences Towards the Individual Act, beneath which she was tried, doesn’t embody execution as a doable sentence – life imprisonment or transportation for all times are the stiffest sentences doable. Nonetheless, judges have been allowed to condemn as they noticed match, and Campbell, the decide, determined that Sarah was responsible of the fees she’d been acquitted of in 1847 as nicely. 

Sarah had no defence counsel, and the press had been printing lurid nonsense about her too – with no cash of her personal, no solicitor to lift a petition, and with no Attraction Courtroom (which wouldn’t exist till 1875) to problem Campbell’s sentence, Sarah Chesham was hanged.

Parish registers have been extremely helpful for my analysis – not solely did they encourage me within the first place to search out out extra concerning the arsenic poisonings afoot on the time, however in addition they helped me to reconstruct the households of these concerned. Within the case of Mary Might, the registers have been helpful for locating out if the newspapers have been appropriate once they claimed she’d had sixteen kids and murdered all of them – it’ll come as little shock to study that this wasn’t true in any respect. Over-the-top gossip surrounding the arsenic poisonings instances made their approach into newspapers unchecked and have been repeated and exaggerated because the tales unfold. 

Parish registers supply us an perception into bizarre individuals’s lives – and when these individuals turn out to be a part of extraordinary occasions, these registers may give us the info that overblown, tub-thumping newspaper editorial of the previous distorts. And so it’s becoming we filmed a scene in Clavering’s churchyard, the place the very vicar who recorded Sarah Chesham’s household in his parish’s registers as soon as stood.

Helen Barrell, FreeREG Transcriber and Writer of Poison Panic in Clavering, Essex.

The second sequence of Homicide, Thriller and My Household is being broadcast on BBC1 from twenty fifth March to fifth April. The episode about Sarah Chesham airs on Wednesday third April.

Helen Barrell’s books Poison Panic and Deadly Proof are revealed by Pen & Sword and out there from all good bookshops.

Transcriptions for Acton, Clavering and Wix may be discovered on FreeREG.