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.