For a few years in the 1840s, Essex was notorious in the minds of Victorians as a place where women stalked the winding country lanes looking for their next victim to poison with arsenic. It’s a terrible image – and also one that doesn’t seem to have much basis in truth – but this was a time of great anxiety.
The 1840s were also known as the ‘hungry ’40s’, when crop failures pushed up food prices and there was popular unrest across Europe. The decade culminated in a cholera epidemic in which tens of thousands of people in the British Isles died. It is perhaps no surprise that people living through that troubled decade were captivated by the stories of the ‘poisoners’: that death was down to ‘white powder’ and the evil intentions of the human heart.
Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate are the protagonists of this tale of how rural Essex, in a country saturated with arsenic, was touched by the tumultuous 1840s.
|Publisher:||Pen & Sword Books Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Helen Barrell is a librarian at the University of Birmingham. She has written for magazines such as Fortean Times and Family Tree, and transcribes parish registers from Essex and Suffolk for the FreeREG project.
It was while transcribing the burial register for Wix, in Essex, where some of her ancestors lived, that Helen found a note in the margin: ‘This man was better known by an alias, “Spratty Wats”. He was poisoned with arsenic by his sister-in-law Mary May, and she was hanged for it.’ The more she read, the more Helen realised it was part of a much larger scandal, and discovered that the story of her own family crosses over with the ‘poison panic’.
Helen has her own history website and blog at www.essexandsuffolksurnames.co.uk and author website at www.helenbarrell.co.uk
Table of Contents
Note on Text x
Introduction: The Poison Shop xi
Chapter 1 'My mother has been a good mother to we' 1
Chapter 2 'It's not a pleasant thought neither - is it? - to be buried like a pauper' 47
Chapter 3 Tossicated 84
Chapter 4 'English women are not to be trusted with arsenic' 128
Chapter 5 'I alone suspected her' 162
Further Reading 179