Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

Poison Panic – Helen Barrell


In the 1840s the level of literacy was still low across the United Kingdom, but stories of crimes committed didn’t need to be read by everyone for them to spread, especially when the crime was murder, even more so if committed by a woman and panic inducing when the means by which a person was slayed was poison.

In Essex the county was the unfortunate scene of the panic induced by tales told both orally and by the newspapers about a number of women put on trial for poisoning unwanted relations using arsenic. There were calls for regulations and a strong sense that there was a shadowy group of women who were acting in cahoots or at least devising a method to poison people and walk away from the horrific crime with no stain on their character.

Helen Barrell’s book, Poison Panic, delves into the facts, and the fiction, of these events using all available sources to examine the cases and to evaluate whether there was any sense of collusion between the women whose crimes feature here.
This book is jam-packed, not just with the details of the three women Sarah Chesham Mary May and Hannah Southgate whose crimes in rural Essex led to wariness about that gentle hand at home who was in charge of preparing the food, slipping some of the notorious white powder into the dish, but also on some of the social history. We learn just how rudimentary their homes were, the rats that plagued the household were hopefully kept at bay with arsenic, houses where one man’s struggle with the results of arsenic poisoning were more than a slight inconvenience for his downstairs neighbours and houses where money from a burial club might just make it worthwhile to bump of an unsuspecting relative?

I’m a fan of investigations into Victorian crimes and can only applaud Helen Barrell in her presentation of the interlinking stories in Essex. With plenty of pictures, including photographs, illustrations from the magazine Punch as well as the very useful maps that underpin how closely or conversely how far apart the women lived from each other in a time where transport for wives of agricultural labourers wasn’t an option. To give a little perspective the author uses information from her own family in the village of Wix to give some context to the scene of crime. The author uses the Census of 1841 to provide additional evidence as well as the newspapers of the time who went to the same sort of lengths they do nowadays to keep the reader’s attention. It is fascinating to see how years after the poisonings these stories were wheeled out, dusted down complete with inaccuracies and served up fresh for what was sometimes a whole new generation of readers years after the events.

All fascinating stuff but for me, having read quite a large amount about this particular crime over the last couple of years, it is good to have some real cases that directly influenced the government to act in bringing in laws surrounding the sale of poison. Not, as the author is keen to point out that those early laws would have stopped the three women investigated in this book getting their hands on the white stuff.

Poison Panic was the thirty-first read in my Mount TBR Challenge and I’d like to thank the author for a comprehensive visit to Essex to examine these arsenic poisonings in the 1840s.



First Published UK: 30 June 2016
Publisher: Pen and Sword History
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

19 thoughts on “Poison Panic – Helen Barrell

  1. Love the sound of this one Cleo. As you know I enjoy Victorian crime tales too – although you’re miles ahead of me in your reading on the subject!
    I used to collect the Green Penguin Notable Trials series, which I loved. You’ve probably read some.


    1. I did read a few of those Notable Trials and always smile when they are referenced in novels I read, which happens more frequently than you would imagine – if I had the time (and space) i could easily start a collection


  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating, Cleo. I find this sort of historical look at crime to be really interesting. It sounds as though this one takes a look not just at the actual incidents, but at the culture of the times. And that’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned.


    1. As you know although I like many kinds of true crime these that explore the Victorian period are my favourites – I find it fascinating without the added knowledge of modern forensics how the investigations (and trials) played out and of course the context in this book not just of the era but the lives lived by the agricultural labourers (of which my ancestors were included) is just as interesting

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Murder by poison is fascinating…Interestingly enough, one of my top ten books for the year will be the fictional book Poison, but nonfiction tales of these kinds of murders are definitely intriguing. Thanks for sharing.


  4. There’s just something about a poisoning death… It somehow seems much more sophisticated than say, a stabbing or a hit-and-run. This looks like a very interesting read.


    1. I think that’s what appeals to me although I’m sure that standing by and watching the results of your actions in a cramped cottage might have made some of these women regret the course of action they took.


    1. I have quite a few recommendations in this area Laila although I only got around to reading In Cold Blood this year! I do enjoy the Victorian True Crimes as they often cover social history at the same time – these trials went some way to changing the laws on buying poison for everyone.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Life is no fun any more! Why aren’t we allowed to poison our partners – it would keep them on their toes if they knew we could just pop out for a good dose of rat poison!


    1. 🙂 Even more worthwhile if you had enrolled them in a burial club beforehand – peace and quiet and some spare cash if you throw them in a pauper’s grave! Blame these women for some reason parliament felt the need to bring in some rules about handing out arsenic as if it were sweets!

      Liked by 1 person

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