Hello again readers. I recently posted a blog about ballad sellers and death hunters, who made their living by selling printed accounts of the life, crimes, trial and execution of murderers . I promised a follow-up blog. Here it is!
Sally Arsenic was a name first applied to Sarah Chesham of Clavering, Essex. In 1847 she was tried for murdering the illegitimate child of another woman, Lydia Taylor and was acquitted. In 1848 she was indicted for the wilful murder of two of her own children, Joseph and James – and was acquitted again.
For each indictment the accusation was that she had caused death by administering large quantities of arsenic. She escaped justice on the first two occasions because there was insufficient proof against her.
At Sarah’s second trial, Toxicologist Alfred Taylor had explained the differences between acute and sub acute poisoning. Standing in the dock Sarah listened intently to a public dissertation on how to poison with less chance of being discovered!
In 1850 Sarah’s husband Richard died after a long illness. Some believed that Sarah was to blame once again, especially people in the Essex village of Clavering. There was now some new evidence against Chesham. Hannah Phillips, once a friend of Sarah’s, spoke to the police after a fall-out. She told them Sarah gave her advice on how to get rid of her husband. Richard Chesham’s body was exhumed and the police searched Sarah Chesham’s home. The immediate cause of the death of Chesham’s husband was found to be inflammation of the lungs; but Professor Taylor, of Guy’s Hospital extracted arsenic from the husband’s body in small and diffused quantities. It left no doubt in his mind that minute doses of the poison had been frequently given to deceased with intent to take his life. He also discovered arsenic in weak mixture within a quantity of rice-flour which was taken from Chesham’s home.
For her third trial she was tried not for wilful murder but for an attempt to murder her husband by administering poison. She was found guilty and hanged on March 25th 1851 outside Chelmsford Prison. Notorious already for being a poisoner and feared in her own village, she also found fame by becoming the last woman to be hanged for attempted murder.
This case influenced a change in the law on selling arsenic – requiring vendors to make a note of the purchaser’s name, address and reason for needing poison.
Sarah Chesham was the first Sally Arsenic but by no means the last and it seems doubtful she invented the crime. Mary May was hanged in 1849 for poisoning her half brother for the proceeds of his burial fund, confessed, before her execution, that Chesham was her teacher and instigator to that crime. Chesham was at the epicentre of the so-called “Poisoning Panic” in England’s Eastern Counties between 1847 and 1852.
With the spread of the local and national newspapers and evidence freely provided at public trials an ever greater number of people were learning how useful arsenic could be. Despite the new legislation arsenic would continue to take many more innocent lives. Sarah Chesham died in 1851 but her crimes were imitated or copied by other women who then also became known as “Sally Arsenic”.
“It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food,” lamented one journalist from The Times in 1849.
UPDATE April 2015. Sarah Chesham was the first “Sally Arsenic” but in truth there were many more. I wrote this blog in October 2012, little realising that one day I would stumble upon the story of yet another arsenic poisoner and use the background story for my second book – Arsenic Sally. This story focuses on the tragic life of a woman with many similarities to Sarah Chesham. She is attractive, wants rid of her husband and is also called Sarah, a name that can be morphed to Sally. Even her husband called her Sally. This true crime story begins just before Sarah Chesham was executed in March 1851. I will place the book synopsis below and a link to my newly published book on Amazon. If you click on the link and go to my book page you can look inside and read several early chapters for free. Here then is a link to the true story of a young woman charged with murdering her husband by using arsenic..
A poison panic grips the land. Each month brings news of yet another horrid arsenic murder. In the East Midlands village of Eastwood a man has died suddenly. The coroner is worried; this is the second reported case of poisoning in the village. Is a poisoner really at work? Who really poisoned Joseph Barber? How could a surgeon miss signs of arsenic poisoning? Why did a key witness disappear on a ship to America? Was there a miscarriage of justice?
This true crime story is based on extensive research. It revolves around one central character and explores themes of crime and justice, attitudes to women, and a government response to the numbers of deaths by arsenic poisoning. It is based on the tragic life of Sarah Barber of Eastwood and charts the sad and serious events that had such an impact on her life.