Poison Panic: Arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex

Poison Panic: Arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex

by Helen Barrell


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Poison Panic: Arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex by Helen Barrell

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781473852075
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited
Publication date: 08/18/2016
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

Ilustrations vii

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

Timeline 175

Acknowledgements 177

Further Reading 179

Bibliography 182

References 182

Index 193

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