About the Author
Neil R Storey is an award winning historian an author specialising in social history. He has researched and lectured on twentieth-century warfare and its impact on society for 25 years. He began academic life pre and post grad at UEA and now lectures all over the UK. Neil has published over 30 books and numerous articles on a variety of social history themes in both academic journals and national periodicals and has acted as consultant for television and film companies. Neil has a nationally respected archive of original photographs, documents and ephemera to illustrate his works.
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By Neil R. Storey
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Neil R. Storey
All rights reserved.
THE BURNHAM SICKNESS
The seven Burnhams are villages dotted along the upper edge of the Norfolk coast. These attractive settlements are blessed with a combination of big skies, fine countryside, and rivers that snake towards quiet bays and the sea. Today they are beloved by holidaymakers and second homeowners, but in the nineteenth century they were rural hamlets of close-knit communities with a strong reliance on agriculture, coastal trading, and a long history of smuggling. In 1835 Burnham Market and its adjoining hamlet of Burnham Westgate was a community of 1,126 inhabitants. Life was simple and there were still many who not only believed in, but relied on, folklore to ensure good harvests, administer medical needs, and even find love. Death was common: parents accepted that not all of their children would make it to maturity, and consequently, families were larger than they are today. And in Victorian times there was always a fear of epidemics and diseases, especially smallpox, consumption (tuberculosis) and cholera.
Folks here lived close by one another, many of them in small rows of cottage homes, which often had shared yards, pumps, adjoining workshops and stables. On one of these roads, known today as North Street, just off Burnham's marketplace, lived the Billing, Frary and Taylor families. Their row of cottages led off from the street at a right angle. Nearest the road, living in the cramped rooms above Thomas Lake's carpenter's shop, were Robert and Catherine Frary with their three children. Next to them were Peter and Mary Taylor, and finally, on this little row, lived James and Frances 'Fanny' Billing with a number of their children.
Two sudden deaths occurred in quick succession within the Frary household early in March 1835, leaving poor Cat Frary (aged forty) mourning for the loss of her husband and a child who had been staying with her. There was public sympathy for her, but inevitable questions were raised in fear of some contagion having manifested itself in the Frary home. Time passed, however, and as no one else showed signs of falling victim to the mysterious 'Burnham Sickness', the matter died down and the village returned to normal for a few weeks. But then Mary Taylor (wife of Peter Taylor, aged forty-five, a journeyman cobbler who was a neighbour and friend of the Frarys) was taken violently ill and dropped dead on the evening of 12 March. Mr Cremer, the local surgeon had been summoned by Cat Frary and Phoebe Taylor (Mary's sister-in-law) but could do nothing for poor Mary. Surgeon Cremer's suspicions were aroused by this sudden death and an inquest was called for the following day, before Mr F.T. Quarles, Coroner for the Duchy of Lancaster. At the inquest it was suggested that Peter Taylor had been 'associated' with Fanny Billing (aged forty-six), a mother of eight children (she had given birth to a total of eleven children but three had died in infancy), who was described as 'a woman of loose character', but this dalliance was not immediately considered relevant to the crime. The contents of Mary Taylor's stomach had been analysed and found to contain arsenic in such a quantity it had caused her death. The jury returned a verdict of death by poisoning: but exactly how, and by whose hand, remained unknown. But the groundswell of suspicion within Burnham fell on Mary's slothful and unfaithful husband, Peter Taylor.
Further enquiries soon revealed that Fanny Billing had recently bought arsenic from the local chemist, Henry Nash. When questioned about this, Billing claimed she was buying it to poison rats and mice for a Mrs Webster of Creake – a statement Mrs Webster flatly denied. A poke (small sack) of flour from the Taylor house had been tested and traces of arsenic were found: this was enough for local magistrates Frederick Hare and Henry Blyth to remand Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing to Walsingham Bridewell for further questioning.
As Billing was escorted by constables to the cart that would take her to the bridewell, Frary was quoted as calling out: 'Mor, hold your own and they cannot hurt us.' This outburst was quoted in early accounts as being the cause of Frary's immediate arrest, but that was not quite the case. Rather than relying on the spurious claim that Frary made that statement, further investigations led to more solid grounds for her arrest in connection with the murder. Both Cat and Fanny were known to consult witches or 'cunning folk' at Burnham, Sall and Wells. On the afternoon of Fanny's arrest Cat asked Fanny's son, Joseph, to hire her a horse and gig for a drive to Sall, in order to see a woman who – as Joseph recalled – 'was something of a witch, that that woman might tie Mr Curtis's tongue [Mr Curtis was the keeper of the Walsingham Bridewell] so that he might not question my mother.' Frary's close friendship with Billing, combined with their trips to the witches and the poisoning of Mary Taylor, revived the questions that still surrounded the mysterious death of Frary's husband and the child staying with them. These factors led to Cat Frary being taken into custody for questioning.
As the weight of evidence against her was revealed through questioning, Cat Frary – who had appeared so 'cock sure' – soon buckled under the pressure and went into rapid physical and mental decline. Needless to say, the alchemy of the witches did nothing to hold the tongue of Mr Curtis. Worse still, comparisons were drawn with a woman named Mary Wright, from the nearby village of Wighton, who had murdered her husband by administering arsenic only a few months before the Burnham deaths: and Mary Wright, Billing and Frary were known to have consulted the same 'cunning woman' or 'witch' – Hannah Shorten of Wells. Shorten's 'love-spells' were known to consist of arsenic and salt mixed together and then thrown on the fire. For most Burnham people, it did not require a great leap of imagination to see the likes of the accused mix the poisonous concoction in the food of one who would have obstructed their 'sinful desires'.
By the time of the Summer Assizes the bill against Peter Taylor had been ignored by the Grand Jury. Concerns over Frary's deteriorating health raised questions of her ability to stand trial, but nonetheless, Billing and Frary appeared in the dock before Mr Baron Bolland on Friday 7 August 1835. Investigations had concluded that the women had entered into a diabolical plot to bring about the removal of each other's 'human obstacles' – quid pro quo. Frary was charged with administering poison to Mary Taylor, with Billing as an accessory before the fact. The second indictment charged them both with murdering Robert Frary. The death of the child was not mentioned in the charges.
Phoebe Taylor was the first to take the stand. She recalled visiting her brother-in-law, Peter Taylor, at his house on the evening of Mary Taylor's death. When Phoebe arrived about 8pm she went upstairs to find Mary on a chair at the bedside, retching. Asked how she was, Mary said she felt 'very ill', adding that Mrs Frary was boiling gruel for her. Mary then asked Phoebe to go and fetch the gruel for her. When she arrived at Cat Frary's, Phoebe saw a saucepan by the side of the fire. Cat poured a little gruel into a cup and Phoebe took it to Mary, who, after having it thinned a little, partook of it. Mary's sickness had not improved when Phoebe returned about 12.20am. By that time Mary was so weak she could not speak: Peter Taylor was also retching. Peter sent Frary to summon Surgeon Cremer and Phoebe was sent to go with her. When Mr Cremer arrived there was nothing he could do for Mary Taylor and she died shortly afterwards.
Phoebe Taylor's story was corroborated by two other visitors to the Taylor house on that fateful night – a local labourer named Edward Sparke and blacksmith William Powell, who had come to see Peter Taylor for a haircut and shave. Both men stated they had seen Frary taking additional cups of gruel to Mrs Taylor; and noted that after she poured the gruel into the teacup, she openly 'took a small paper out of her pocket, and emptied the contents into the gruel and stirred it up'. Sparke noted the contents were white, like powdered lump sugar – indeed, that is what he assumed the contents of the packet were. Frary was then seen to throw the empty white paper onto the fire. The evidence became yet more damning with the testimony of Samuel Fuller Salmon, an employee of Henry Nash the chemist. He recalled the visit of Fanny Billing and Cat Frary to the chemist shop on 25 February. Mrs Frary had asked for a pennyworth of arsenic, claiming it was 'to poison mice with'. Billing also requested a pennyworth and Salmon wrapped both pennyworths (which equated to a quarter of an ounce) of white arsenic in separate white papers, gumming a label marked 'Poison' on each.
The chemist Henry Nash also gave evidence. He recalled a subsequent visit, when Fanny Billing came to the shop with Jane Dixon (it must be remembered that, in those days, a witness had to be present if poisons were to be purchased). Billing asked for three-pennyworth of arsenic, claiming she was buying it at the behest of Mrs Webster of Creake, to kill her infestation of mice and rats. Nash recalled she then asked for a pennyworth more for herself, plus a pennyworth of pills and a pennyworth of lemon drops: all of which – he took pains to point out to the court – were put into separate packets and the poisons clearly marked. Jane Dixon was paid a penny by Frary for her trouble.
Francis Church, the Burnham Westgate surgeon had been directed by the Coroner to make an examination of the body of Mary Taylor. In the company of Surgeon Albert Cremer he had gone to the Taylor house, opened Mary's body, and found 'an appearance of inflammation on the external coat and on a portion of the bowels'. He removed the stomach, being careful to pass a ligature at each end. Church placed the stomach in a bowl and Cremer had the dubious honour of carrying it over with Mr Church to Nash's chemist shop. In the presence of all these medical men, tests were carried out by Nash on the stomach contents and arsenic was detected. A portion of this stomach was also sent to Richard Griffin, a Norwich surgeon. His tests also revealed the presence of arsenic. The results of tests, which revealed arsenic from flour in the Taylor residence, were also presented.
The method of the murder and the possession of poison by Billing and Frary established, the court was then presented with the motive for the death of Mary Taylor. At the inquest and previous hearing, allusions had been made about illicit liaisons between Billing and Taylor. At the trial the court was presented with the testimony of several locals willing to state the affair between Billing and Taylor had been public knowledge, and that the couple had been spotted together on several occasions, loitering in the shadows by the Rose and Crown, and in the lovers' lanes around the village. More than once, it was stated, Peter Taylor had been 'obliged to take the hedges, leap gates and run across fields' to avoid detection. Such was the feeling of dislike in the village for Taylor's indiscreet behaviour, he found his shoemaking trade had tailed off, and in the last few months of his life Mary was more or less keeping him. Taylor claimed he was suffering from rheumatic fever and confined to his bed: but it was remarked in court how he miraculously recovered enough in the evenings to conduct his liaisons with Billing and evade prying eyes by running across fields. The court was also reminded of the time James Billing had been brought before the Walsingham Petty Sessions, where he was charged with 'ill-using' Fanny. In claiming extenuating circumstances he cited his behaviour had been a direct result of discovering his wife and Peter Taylor in the privy together. Apparently it had been the last straw after he had, on a prior occasion, tried to enter his living room and found the door bolted. When he was finally allowed in, he had found the pair alone in there! Even Fanny Billing's son testified he had remonstrated with his mother about her relationship with Taylor. She had promised to break it off: that same week Mrs Taylor died.
When Cat Frary took the stand her relationship with a Mr Gridley came under scrutiny. Billing testified that together they, Billing and Frary, had bought arsenic to cast a 'love-spell' as told to them by the 'witch', Mother Shorten of Wells. Frary had said: 'I am going to put a handful of salt and a teaspoonful of arsenic into the fire of a morning to draw Mr Gridley to see me again at night.'
It was claimed she had met Gridley on ten occasions. One night she was caught out by her husband, who demanded to know her business with the man. When Gridley found out about the exchange, Billing stated he had said of Mr Frary: 'Damn him, put him out of the way, he is of no use here!' A few days later Cat Frary went to Billing and asked her to put some of the love philtre (potion) into a small bottle of porter. This just made the poor man sick. The following day Billing and Frary conspired to get more arsenic and mixed it with the gruel, tea and brandy she gave her husband. His death was excruciating. In her testimony Billing claimed: 'I was present when he died; I went upstairs after his death, and after the people's backs were turned a little from her, she [Frary] clapped her hands and said "I am glad he's dead."' Billing went on to point out that it was Frary who had put the 'stuff' in the flour.
When Billing encountered Frary on the afternoon of Mary Taylor's death she asked how the woman was. Frary clapped her hands and said: 'I have stretched her out.' After Mary's death Frary gave Billing some flour in a bag and some bran in a cloth from the Taylors' house, telling her to put it in her swill tub. Frary also said she had put the remainder of the dumpling from the Taylors' into the privy. Frary was either too ill or chose not to speak against Billing's statement. On being called for their defence both women declared their innocence, but declined to say anything further, saying they should leave it to their counsel. They called no witnesses. After a brief summing-up the Judge allowed the jury to retire to deliberate their verdict. Billing and Frary were both found guilty as charged.
The second indictment charged Billing and Frary with the murder of Robert Frary. Elizabeth Southgate, the mother of the child that died while staying at the Frarys', gave evidence of visiting the household the day after her child's death to enquire after the circumstances. She found Robert Frary very ill. While she was there Fanny Billing came in with some porter. Asking Cat for a teacup, Fanny was seen to swill the porter around in the jug before she poured it out in the cup. Southgate noted: 'Something came out of the spout like powdered lump sugar not dissolved.' Billing then passed it to Frary, saying: 'Drink it all up Mr Frary, it will do you good.' When he did not drink it down she urged him again: 'Drink it up.' Bob Frary retched for most of the afternoon and by seven the following morning he could not speak. By 8am he was dead. Assumed to have fallen victim to some mystery illness, he was buried a few days later.
After Mary Taylor's death was confirmed as a murderous poisoning, the question of the deaths in the Frary household flared up again, and the body of Robert Frary was exhumed. A curious feature of death by arsenic poisoning is that it can result in the corpse being 'preserved' – putrefaction taking longer due to the nature of the poison in the system. Robert Frary had been buried for three weeks. Surgeon Church, who examined the body stated in cross-examination: 'The body was as fresh as if buried but a day.' When examined, the stomach still showed inflammation, and when tested it clearly indicated a fatal amount of arsenic. The prisoners, again, said nothing in their defence, nor called any witnesses. After a short deliberation the jury found both women guilty.
The learned Judge was observed as being 'deeply affected' while donning the black cap to pass sentence. As he addressed the condemned women, Billing appeared to be 'earnestly praying'. Frary, near collapse, had to be held up, and through her trembling lips passed the words: 'I am not guilty, my Lord.' Once sentence was pronounced Frary had to be removed from the bar in hysterics, and 'bitter shrieks' – supposed to come from the families of the condemned women – were heard from the overflowing public gallery.
Frances Billing and Catherine Frary dictated their confessions to the murders in their condemned cells. They admitted their crimes, adding that they had not only mixed arsenic with Mr Frary's porter and gruel, but with his pills, and that it took no fewer than four doses of the poison in the poor man's porter and tea to kill him. They were executed in front of the County Gaol at Norwich Castle on Monday 10 August 1835. The scaffold was usually assembled between the entrance lodges, but 'out of proper consideration for the exhausted condemned, whose bodily powers would prove inadequate to sustain them in walking the distance' the scaffold was erected at the upper end of the bridge. This also made the proceedings visible to most of the vast crowd assembled to watch the final moments of the two women, shamed in the press and broadsheets as 'The Burnham Poisoners'. It was commented that the crowd, which numbered several thousand, was seen to be made up of an extraordinary number of women.
Excerpted from Norfolk Murders by Neil R. Storey. Copyright © 2012 Neil R. Storey. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Burnham Sickness Burnham 1835,
2. The Stanfield Hall Murder Wymondham 1848,
3. The Repentance of William Sheward Norwich 1851,
4. The Last Judicial Beheading in England Walsoken 1885,
5. The South Beach Murders Great Yarmouth 1900 and 1912,
6. Valentine's Tragedy Norwich 1903,
7. A Forgotten Cause Célèbre Norwich 1905–6,
8. The Catton Horror Catton 1908,
9. The Killing of PC Charles Alger Gorleston 1909,
10. The Last To Hang in Norfolk Old Catton and Dereham 1951,