Was Spratty Watts bumped off by an Essex poisoner?
PUBLISHED: 12:54 20 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:51 20 September 2016
Helen Barrell's university dissertation was on Agatha Christie, so it was inevitable she'd be drawn to real-life allegations about poisoning for love or money
It’s a nice summer’s evening but farm labourer-cum-pedlar William Constable looks terrible. Sitting by the fire, he complains of stomach aches, pains across his body and in his head, and feels sick. His half-sister, Mary, tells a neighbour he looks so bad she fears he’ll die.
William – better known as Spratty Watts – suffers vomiting and diarrhoea overnight. The man toiling in the fields of Essex on a Wednesday lies dead on the Sunday.
Mary May, at whose house he’d been lodging, goes to see the Rev George Wilkins to arrange the funeral. She says William needs to be buried speedily, “as he was a very bad corpse”. It couldn’t have been pleasant or healthy to have a body in a cramped cottage during a warm June.
Spratty Watts receives a pauper’s burial three days after his death.
About a fortnight later, Mary again calls on the rector of Wix, between Harwich and Manningtree. She’s asking for a favour: a certificate to say her brother had been in good health just before his death.
The clergyman refuses, saying she’ll have to go to the doctor for one. By the way, why does she need it? Mary shows him a letter from the secretary of a burial club. It’s refusing to pay out unless she delivers hard evidence her brother was healthy when she signed him up only the previous month.
It all sounded a bit suspicious.
On May 13, 1848, Mary May and neighbour Susannah Forster had gone to Harwich to meet shoemaker John Pratt, collector of the New Mourner’s Friend Society. Mary had nominated her brother for membership and Susannah had confirmed he was a “hearty strong man”.
It was Susannah, the mistress of Wix’s National School, who’d told Mary about the society. She’d previously enrolled her own brother. If he died, the society would pay out £9 or £10 – about half an agricultural labourer’s yearly earnings.
“Burial clubs and friendly societies were examples of working and lower middle-class Victorians self-organising; forming their own insurance clubs where members would pay in small amounts of money,” explains Colchester-born Essex exile Helen Barrell, whose new book tells the story of Mary May and other troubled characters.
“A burial club would pay a sum of money on the death of a member to cover the cost of a funeral, and a friendly society would cover members for a certain period if they found themselves unable to work.
“Even the poorest members of Victorian society felt the stigma of a pauper’s burial.”
It was eccentric rector and amateur sleuth the Rev Wilkins, and Inspector Samuel Raison of Essex Constabulary, who went to Harwich to find out more about the burial club and Mary’s dealings with it.
A week-long inquest into the death of William Constable opened at the Waggon pub in Wix on the last day of June, 1848 – just a few weeks after he’d breathed his last. The body was exhumed from the churchyard that morning.
Some of the remains were taken to London to be analysed by Prof Alfred Swaine Taylor. He found arsenic in part of the stomach and the duodenum. Mary May was arrested.
She told the coroner: “All I’ve got to say is, I never done the crime, and I don’t know who did. I never gave him anything in my life only what I should not mind taking myself.”
The inquest jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder” and, the next day, Mary was sent to jail in Chelmsford. “The speed with which the law sometimes moved in the nineteenth century is quite astonishing to us now,” says Helen Barrell. “William Constable had died on 8 June, and, less than a month later, the inquest verdict returned wilful murder against his sister.
“Before the end of July, Mary May, ungallantly described by The Times as ‘a repulsive-looking woman’, was standing in the dock at Chelmsford Shire Hall.”
Among the witnesses giving evidence was her surviving child, the nine-year-old weeping William.
The jury’s verdict came after 20 minutes of deliberation: guilty, with a recommendation of mercy.
With Mary still protesting her innocence, the judge sentenced her to death, saying: “You appear to have been actuated merely by this sordid love of a small, an exceedingly small, sum, and for this you have destroyed the life of a near relative, and periled your own soul.”
The Society of Friends in Chelmsford – Quakers – started a petition to try to save Mary’s skin. It amassed 1,385 signatures, in vain.
No-one had been executed at Chelmsford for nine years, but August saw a crowd of about 3,000 gather outside the county jail in Springfield. (Today’s Chelmsford Prison.)
Time ran out for the convict not long after 9am.“She climbed the ladder to the scaffold, unable to stand by herself, and moaned, ‘Save me – save me’ and ‘Where is my dear husband?’” Helen writes.
“Calcraft” – that’s experienced executioner William Calcraft, who hailed from nearby Little Baddow – “fixed the noose around her neck, and placed a cap over her head. She turned to one of the prison officers who was holding her up, saying, ‘Goodbye. May the Lord have mercy on my soul.’
“The drop fell, and after three minutes of struggle as the rope crushed her windpipe, Mary May ceased to be.” There was even a ballad written about her.
Following the execution, says Helen, the Chelmsford Chronicle printed many allegations about the life and conduct of the dead woman. “Once again, they brought up the issue of her late husband and her other children: ‘She had long been suspected, before the present murder was brought to light, of poisoning other persons.’” But: “It was only once her brother was found to have died from arsenic that questions arose over the earlier deaths.”
During the inquest on her brother, the Essex Standard had “printed something that would be repeated across the country whenever May’s case was reported: ‘Some suspicion begins to be entertained as to former proceedings of the prisoner, who is known to have buried fourteen out of sixteen children, and it is said one or two of the latest deaths (about six years ago), and also that of her first husband, took place rather suddenly.’”
Mary married her first husband in 1825, at Ramsey, near Wix. “Ramsey’s baptism register shows six children of James Everett and Mary, most of whom died in infancy, and James himself died in 1840, aged thirty six.
As tragic as this is, it was by no means unusual at this period for a family to lose so many members in so short a time,” argues Helen.
And there was never any evidence presented to suggest her husband or children had been dispatched by foul means.
Nevertheless, panicked hysteria was taking hold. For these were edgy times.
Helen also details the stories of Sarah Chesham of Clavering, near Saffron Walden – on trial in 1847 for poisoning her two sons and another woman’s baby – and Hannah Southgate, from Wix, who in 1849 was tried for the alleged murder of previous husband Thomas Ham.
Hannah was a friend of Mary. Gossip suggested she’d killed so she was free to marry again... only three months after Thomas’s death.
While the aim of the book is not to solve the mysteries of all these deaths, “the reader is left free to formulate their own theories”, says Helen. Her book points out how satirical magazines such as Punch mocked how easy it was to buy poison for pennies from chemists and grocers during the Victorian era. It had legitimate uses – spread on bread and butter and left around holes in the walls of poor-standard Victorian homes, for instance, to kill rats and mice – but could also be used for foul means.
Newspapers were filled with lurid inquest reports about deaths caused by poison. “Trials were reported in detail and the deceased’s close relative or friend stood in the shadow of the hangman. Leading articles in The Times boomed that something must be done – to tighten up the civil registration of deaths and to regulate the sale of poisons and the running of burial clubs.
“With their generous payouts intended to cover funeral costs, the burial clubs presented the motive; easily-obtained poisons provided the weapon; and loose rules for registering deaths concealed the crime.”
She adds: “The English south-eastern county of Essex loomed large in the public imagination, one of the locations where many arsenic murders had allegedly taken place.” The names of Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate “were linked in the newspapers, the press claiming they were part of a poisoning ring of women who taught each other how to kill with ‘white powder’...
“While mainland Europe in the 1840s was convulsed with revolution, the Essex poisonings crystallised the fear that British society was under threat.”
The sale of arsenic was unregulated, then.
“That is, until a perfect storm in the late 1840s, involving the cases in Essex, and some others elsewhere in Britain,” Helen tells the EADT.
“So much pressure came onto the Government that the law had to be changed, although initially it was only arsenic that was regulated.
“Thanks partly to the events in Essex, the ‘poisons register’ – which anyone who’s read an Agatha Christie novel will have come across – was created.”
• Poison Panic – Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex is published by Pen & Sword True Crime at £14.99
Mordecai’s dead chickens pointed to murder most foul
It was simple chance that brought the Essex “arsenic poisoning” cases to Helen Barrell’s attention. She was probing her family roots when notes in the margin of a burial register aroused her curiosity.
“I already knew that my five x great-uncle in Acton (near Sudbury) had lived next door to Catherine Foster, when she was accused of murdering her husband with arsenic in 1847. It was because Mordecai’s chickens had died after eating the Fosters’ leftover dumplings that the murder was brought to light,” she explains.
“I was researching my grandma’s ancestors in Wix, near Harwich, and was looking through the burial register. I found a note in the margin about someone dying of arsenic poisoning in 1848, and someone being hanged for their murder.
“As a detective fiction fan, this immediately piqued my interest! But I also wondered about it happening so near in time and location to the Acton murder, so I started to look through digitised newspapers from that time and was able to stitch together the cases from reports of inquests and trials.
“As so many of my family are from that part of Essex, I wondered if any more relatives of mine had been involved – and as it happens, some of them were witnesses at the trials.”
She admits being shocked by the speed of Victorian “justice”.
“There is one case where someone died in mid-June, and by the end of July the person accused of their murder was on trial. And murder trials often lasted less than a day – and the punishment was execution.
“The papers printed inquest reports in great detail, which is great for historians, and was helpful for the barristers at the time, so they could read it in advance of the trial to prepare, but it made it difficult to find jury members who were impartial.
“I think it was difficult to get a fair trial, particularly if you were poor. If you were rich, you could hire whoever you wanted to defend you, as well as your own team of scientists to undermine the chemical evidence, and sue the papers!
“If you were poor, you probably couldn’t read the papers to start with, and may well stand trial with no defence at all. If you were illiterate and had been in prison for months, there’s no way you could have prepared a defence by yourself.”
Helen also feels some outcomes were influenced by attitudes towards females – “partly the idea, which seems to be wholly invented, of women conspiring en masse to poison, and teaching each other how to bump off inconvenient relatives.
“But certain attitudes might be turned to your advantage: you can see this when Charles Chadwick Jones, who defended both Sarah Chesham and Mary May, tries to convince the jury of their innocence by praising their virtues as ‘good women’ – loving mothers, kind sisters. Who could think such women would be guilty of murder?
“But there’s the flipside, and the prosecution could suggest that their sexual morals were lacking, or that they were drunkards, or didn’t keep house very well – the jury might wonder if they could, in fact, have committed murder.”