1820: Rebecca Worlock, arsenic poisoner

Add comment August 16th, 2020 Headsman


From a 2017 film treatment of the case.

Thirty-seven-year-old Rebecca Worlock was hanged at Gloucester on this date in 1820 for poisoning her husband.

She’d mixed in a lethal dose of arsenic into a jug of beer from Oldland‘s the Chequers Inn that Thomas Worlock had thirstily quaffed at the end of a long journey. She did this, according to her confession (see p. 19) due to “jealousy on the part of her husband, who had repeatedly called her the most opprobrious epithets, which she declared was without foundation.”

According to Penny Deverill, a descendant of this unfortunate couple who wrote a book about the case, this was a euphemism on Rebecca’s part for her husband’s violent drunken rages.

She certainly was no master criminal. Instead of obtaining the beer herself, she sent her 13-year-old daughter Mary Ann to get it which positioned the kid to testify that, yup, mom intercepted the drink and might have tampered with it. In fact, according to Mary Ann the victim immediately realized what had been done to him.

Father was drinking the last of the beer. He said there was something at the bottom of the cup; and then said to mother you have done for me … I went to call Mrs. Butler; my mother then had the cup and was throwing away what was in it. Mrs. Butler lives next door but one. Mrs. Butler came with me immediately. After I came back mother had the cup in her hands; father was by the fire, and mother by him. Afterwards she threw the stuff out and swilled it. Mother took the cup out of the kitchen into the cellar adjoining the kitchen; could see from the kitchen into the cellar; no steps down. I saw her then empty it into water in a bucket; she swilled the cup out and brought it into the kitchen. My father said he wanted to show the stuff to some one, and was unwilling that she should throw it away.

Still worse, Rebecca to purchase this putative rat poison had been required by regulation to buy in the company of a second person — owing to its very popularity as an expedient for domestic homicide.

To accomplish this, she had fast-talked an obliging passerby outside the apothecary to act as her impromptu aide … and then on leaving the store with her deadly draught in hand, spontaneously blabbed about its real purpose to this total stranger.

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1843: Sarah Dazley

Add comment August 5th, 2020 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today, and footnotes which are also my own commentary. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Sarah was born in 1819 as Sarah Reynolds in the village of Potton in Bedfordshire, the daughter of the village barber, Phillip Reynolds. Phillip died when Sarah was seven years old and her mother then embarked on a series of relationships with other men. Hardly an ideal childhood.

Sarah grew up to be a tall, attractive girl with long auburn hair and large brown eyes. However she too was promiscuous and by the age of nineteen had met and married a local man called Simeon Mead. They lived in Potton for two years before moving to the village of Tadlow just over the county border in Cambridgeshire in 1840. It is thought that the move was made to end one of Sarah’s dalliances. Here she gave birth to a son in February 1840, who was christened Jonah. The little boy was the apple of his father’s eye, but died at the age of seven months, completely devastating Simeon. In October Simeon too died suddenly, to the shock of the local community. Sarah did the grieving mother and widow bit for a few weeks, before replacing Simeon with another man, twenty-three-year-old William Dazley. This caused a lot of negative gossip and considerable suspicion in the village. In February 1841, Sarah and William married and moved to the village of Wrestlingworth three miles away and six miles north east of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire. Sarah invited Ann Mead, Simeon’s teenage daughter, to live with them. It seems that all was not well in the marriage from early on and William took to drinking heavily in the village pub. This inevitably led to friction with Sarah which boiled over into a major row culminating in William hitting her. Sarah always had other men in her life through both her marriages and confided to one of her male friends, William Waldock, about the incident, telling him she would kill any man who hit her. Sarah also told neighbours a heavily embroidered tale of William’s drinking and violence towards her.

William became ill with vomiting and stomach pains a few days later and was attended by the local doctor, Dr. Sandell, who prescribed pills which initially seemed to work, with William being looked after by Ann Mead and showing signs of a steady recovery. Whilst William was still bedridden, Ann — not entirely realising what she was seeing at the time — observed Sarah making up pills in the kitchen.

Sarah told a friend of hers in the village, Mrs. Carver, that she was concerned about William’s health and that she was going to get a further prescription from Dr. Sandell. Mrs. Carver was surprised to see Sarah throw out some pills from the pillbox and replace them with others. When she remarked on it, Sarah told her that she wasn’t satisfied with the medication that Dr. Sandell had provided and instead was using a remedy from the village healer. In fact the replacement pills were those that Sarah had made herself. She gave these to William who immediately noticed that they were different and refused to take them. Ann who had been nursing him and had still not made any connection with the pills she had seen Sarah making, persuaded William to swallow a pill by taking one too. Inevitably they both quickly became ill with the familiar symptoms of vomiting and stomach pains. William vomited in the yard and one of the family pigs later lapped up the mess and died in the night. Apparently Sarah was able to persuade William to continue taking the pills, assuring him that they were what the doctor had prescribed. He began to decline rapidly and died on the 30th of October, his death being certified as natural by the doctor. He was buried in Wrestlingworth churchyard. Post mortems were not normal at this time, even when a previously healthy young man died quite suddenly.

As usual Sarah did not grieve for long before taking up a new relationship. She soon started seeing William Waldock openly and they became engaged at her insistence in February 1843. William was talked out of marriage by his friends who pointed to Sarah’s promiscuous behaviour and the mysterious deaths of her previous two husbands and her son. William wisely broke off the engagement and decided not to continue to see Sarah.

Suspicion and gossip was now running high in the village and it was decided to inform the Bedfordshire coroner, Mr. Eagles, of the deaths. He ordered the exhumation of William’s body and an inquest was held on Monday the 20th of March 1843 at the Chequers Inn in Wrestlingworth High Street. It was found that William’s viscera contained traces of arsenic and an arrest warrant was issued against Sarah. Sarah it seems had anticipated this result and had left the village and gone to London. She had taken a room in Upper Wharf Street where she was discovered by Superintendent Blunden of Biggleswade police. Sarah told Blunden that she was completely innocent and that she neither knew anything about poisons nor had she ever obtained any. Blunden arrested her and decided to take her back to Bedford. What would be a short journey now required an overnight stop in those days and they stayed in the Swan Inn, Biggleswade. Sarah was made to sleep in a room with three female members of the staff. She did not sleep well and asked the women about capital trials and execution by hanging. This was later reported to Blunden and struck him as odd.*

The bodies of Simeon Mead and Jonah had also now been exhumed and Jonah’s was found to contain arsenic, although Simeon’s was too decomposed to yield positive results.

On the 24th of March 1843, Sarah was committed to Bedford Gaol to await her trial and used her time to concoct defences to the charges. She decided to accuse William Dazley of poisoning Simeon and Jonah on the grounds that he wanted them out of her life so he could have her to himself. When she realised what he had done she decided to take revenge by poisoning William. Unsurprisingly these inventions were not believed and were rather ridiculous when it was William’s murder she was to be tried for. In another version William had poisoned himself by accident.

She came to trial at the Bedfordshire Summer Assizes on Saturday the 22nd of July before Baron Alderson, charged with William’s murder, as this was the stronger of the two cases against her. The charge of murdering Jonah was not proceeded with but held in reserve should the first case fail.

Evidence was given against her by two local chemists who identified her as having purchased arsenic from them shortly before William’s death. Mrs. Carver and Ann Mead told the court about the incidents with the pills that they had witnessed.

William Waldock testified that Sarah had said she would kill any man that ever hit her after the violent row that she and William had. Forensic evidence was presented to show that William had indeed died from arsenic poisoning, it being noted that his internal organs were well preserved. The Marsh test, a definitive test for arsenic trioxide, had been only available for a few years at the time of Sarah’s trial. Arsenic trioxide is a white odourless powder that can easily pass undetected by the victim when mixed into food and drink.

Since 1836 all defendants had been legally entitled to counsel and Sarah’s defence was put forward by a Mr. O’Malley, based upon Sarah’s inventions. He claimed that Sarah had poisoned William by accident. Against all the other evidence this looked decidedly weak and contradicted the stories Sarah had told the police. It took the jury just thirty minutes to convict her. Before passing sentence Baron Alderson commented that it was bad enough to kill her husband but it showed total heartlessness to kill her infant child as well. He recommended her to ask for the mercy of her Redeemer. He then donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang. It is interesting to note that Baron Alderson had, at least in his own mind, found her guilty of the murder of Jonah, even though she had not been tried for it.

During her time in prison, Sarah learnt to read and write and began reading the Bible. She avoided contact with other prisoners whilst on remand, preferring her own company and accepting the ministrations of the chaplain. In the condemned cell she continued to maintain her innocence and as far as one can tell never made a confession to either the matrons looking after her or to the chaplain.

There was no recommendation to mercy and the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, saw no reason to offer a reprieve. The provision of the Murder Act of 1752, requiring execution to take place within two working days, had been abolished in 1836 and a period of not less than fourteen days substituted. Sarah’s execution was therefore set for Saturday the 5th of August 1843. A crowd variously estimated at 7,000 – 12,000 assembled in St. Loyes Street outside Bedford Gaol to watch the hanging. It was reported that among this throng was William Waldock.

The New Drop gallows was erected on the flat roof over the main gate of the prison in the early hours of the Saturday morning and the area around the gatehouse was protected by a troop of javelin men. William Calcraft had arrived from London the previous day to perform the execution.

Sarah was taken from the condemned cell to the prison chapel at around ten o’clock for the sacrament. The under sheriff of the county demanded her body from the governor and she was taken to the press room for her arms to be pinioned. She was now led up to the gatehouse roof and mounted the gallows platform, accompanied by the prison governor and the chaplain. She was asked if she wished to make any last statement which she declined, merely asking that Calcraft be quick in his work and repeating “Lord have mercy on my soul”. He pinioned her legs, before drawing down the white hood over her head and adjusting the simple halter style noose around her neck. He then descended the scaffold and withdrew the bolt supporting the trap doors. Sarah dropped some eighteen inches and her body became still after writhing for just a few seconds, as the rope applied pressure to the arteries and veins of her neck, causing a carotid reflex. Sarah was left on the rope for the customary hour before being taken down and the body taken back into the prison for burial in an unmarked grave, as was now required by law.

It was reported by the local newspapers that the crowd had behaved well and remained silent until Sarah was actually hanged. Once she was suspended they carried on eating, drinking, smoking, laughing and making ribald and lewd remarks. Copies of broadsides claiming to contain Sarah’s confession and her last dying speech were being sold among the crowd, which amazingly people bought even though she had made neither. You can see a broadside about her hanging below. Note the stylised woodcut picture that was modified to show a man or a woman as appropriate.

The 1840s were a time of great hardship nationally and yet Sarah, whilst hardly wealthy, did not seem to suffer from this and it was never alleged that she was unable to feed her child or that she was destitute. Extreme poverty in rural areas did appear to be the motive in some murders at this time, especially of infants. Sarah’s motive seems to be a much more evil one, the elimination of anyone who got in the way of her next relationship.

Sarah’s was the first execution at Bedford since 1833 and she was the only woman to be publicly hanged there. In fact Bedfordshire executions were rare events and there were to be only two more in public, Joseph Castle on the 31st of March 1860 for the murder of his wife and William Worsley on the 31st of March 1868 for the murder of William Bradbury.

Notes on the period.

Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen and her reign saw a great deal of change in the penal system. For the first thirty one years of it executions were a very public event enjoyed by the masses. People would come from far and wide to witness the spectacle, in some cases special trains were even laid on! Broadsides were sold at many executions giving the purported confessions of the prisoner and there was considerable press interest, particularly where the criminal was female.

Thirty women and two teenage girls were to be executed in England and Scotland in the thirty one year period from May 1838 to the abolition of public hanging in May 1868. Of these twenty-one had been convicted of poisoning (two thirds of the total). Sarah Chesham was actually executed for the attempted murder of her husband but was thought to be guilty of several fatal poisonings as well. Attempted murder ceased to be a capital crime in 1861 under the provisions of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of that year. Mary Ann Milner would have made the total thirty three had she not hanged herself in Lincoln Castle the day before her scheduled execution on the 30th of July 1847. There were no female executions in Wales during this time but a further ten women were hanged in Ireland during the period, all for murder.

Sarah Chesham‘s case prompted a House of Commons committee to be set up to investigate poisoning. This found that between 1840 and 1850, ninety seven women and eighty two men had been tried for it. A total of twenty-two women were hanged in the decade 1843-1852 of whom seventeen had been convicted of murder by poisoning, representing 77% of the total. There were no female executions in the years 1840-1842 in England. This rash of poisonings led to a Bill being introduced whereby only adult males could purchase arsenic. Poisoning was considered a particularly evil crime as it is totally premeditated and thus it was extremely rare for a poisoner to be reprieved whereas it was not unusual for females to be reprieved for other types of murder, such as infanticide. One of the few poisoners to be reprieved was Charlotte Harris in 1849 who had murdered her husband but who was pregnant at the time of her trial.

* I’m baffled as to why anyone would find it odd — much less incriminating — for a person freshly in custody on a potential capital charge to lose sleep fretting about the horrors of execution. -ed.

** Alderson took part in his share of capital trials, as did any judge of consequence in his day, but was notable as a jurist on the more progressive and less bloody-minded end of the spectrum. An oft-quoted comment of his cautioning against stretching facts to fit your theory would have prevented many a wrongful punishment imposed by tunnel-visioned investigators: “The mind is apt to take pleasure in adapting circumstances to one another, and even in straining them a little if need be, to force them to form parts of one consecutive whole … and in considering such matters to overreach and mislead itself, to suppose some little link that is wanting, to take for granted some fact consistent with previous theories, and necessary to render them complete.”

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1560: Giambatista Cardano, “crowning misfortune”

Add comment April 13th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1560, the son of Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano was beheaded for murdering his — the son’s — wife.

While Cardano pere was one of the great intellectuals of his era, and has been covered in these grim annals via his interest in a genius composer executed for sodomy, the fils earns notice merely for his famous relations.

The latter, Giambatista Cardano by name, committed nothing but a shabby domestic murder, dosing his wife Brandonia di Seroni — “a worthless, shameless woman” in Gerolamo’s estimation — with arsenic when he had tired of her infidelities.

Still, it is the burden of a father to love his firstborn no matter how undistinguished and homicidal. Cardano poured his sorrow into a long funerary verse, not neglecting therein to defend the prerogatives of a jealous husband’s “avenging right hand”; we obtain it from the old man’s autobiography.

A Lament on the Death of My Son

Who has snatched thee away from me —
O, my son, my sweetest son?
Who had the power to bring to my age
Sorrows more than I can count?
Wrath in whose soul or what stern fate
Willed to reap thy youth’s fair flower?
Not Calliope, not Apollo,
Served thee in thine hour of need!
Cithara, now, and all song be still;
Measures of threnodies shall renew
Mourning and sighs for my dear son.
— Strains of his singing haunt me still —
Laurels, alas, in the healing art,
Knowledge of things, and a facile gift
Of Latin tongue—what profit these
Labors long if they swiftly die?
Service rendered Spanish prince,
Duty done to the noblest of men
Help thee naught if with these for thy judge
Death with his scythe doth seek thy blood.

What, ah me, shall I do? My soul
Swoons to remember thee, gentle son;
Silent, I brood on thy destiny grim;
Tears that I dare not give to words,
Shall I not shed for my stricken son?
Lasting encomium had I reserved,
Fitting reward to thine ashes paid;
Silence — O shame — must my tongue now guard,
Death unjust nor its cause announce.
Grave are the ills thou hast borne, mild son.
Prince and Senate and ancient law
Ordered thy doom whilst thou in rash haste,
Brought an adultress the wage of her crime.
Safely adultery now in our homes
Mocks and insults when punishment swift
Stays the avenging right hand of the youth.

Son — the reflection true of the good
Strong in my father — worthy to live
Long through the years — Alas, my beloved!
Fates have forbidden and swept all that good
Far past the stars, and removed from gray earth
Every bright and illustrious thing.
Hail thee, child, for thy spirit high!
Clear is thy blood from ignoble stain;
Honor of forefather’s hast thou sought.
Far stands the king, and hope of safety,
Phoebus denies the lands his beams,
Light from Diana passes and dies,
Stars in the calm sky glance no more
Lest they look down on a palace foul,
Stained with the reeking blood of the slain.

Where lies my way? What land now claims
Body and limbs disfigured by death?
Son, is there naught but this to return?
Thee have I followed on sea and on land!
Fix me — if mercy is anywhere found —
Pierce me with weapons, O ye mad Gods!
Take with thy first blow my dreary life.
Pity me thou, oh great father of Gods,
Thrust with thy spear my hated head
Deep into Tartara; else am I bound
Hardly to burst this life’s bitter chains.
This, O my son, was not pledged to thy sire,
Love so unholy to trust with thine all —
Love that has ruined thee, son of my heart!

Wife of a memory blessed and true,
Happy thy death, nor spared for this grief!
I, through this crime, have myself brought disgrace,
O son to our name, for by envy compelled,
Homeland and Lares paternal I left.
Death had I sought for my innocent soul,
But surviving and living I vanquished my fate.

Ages to come will know, son, thy name,
Orient lands will hear of thy fame;
Dead to us thou art indeed —
Life hast thou won through all the earth!

It would be fair to say that this last vow of the grieving father was not kept. Indeed, the misery of losing his son to the executioner cast an enervating pall over the elder Cardano’s remaining years. “My supreme, my crowning misfortune,” he bewailed. “Because of this, it was neither becoming for me to be retained in my office [a professor of medicine at Pavia], nor could I justly be dismissed. I could neither continue to live in my native city with any peace, nor in security move elsewhere. I walked abroad an object of scorn; I conversed with my fellows abjectly, as one despised, and, as one of unwelcome presence, avoided my friends.”

A couple of years on and the unwelcomeness had become overwhelming; he relocated to a professorship in Bologna — nowise happy but at least clear of the omnipresent, suffocating shame associated with his name. The man’s woes were in no way alleviated by his surviving son Aldo, a thief and all-around lowlife whom Cardano ended up disinheriting. (Lone daughter Chiara was A-OK by pops apart from being unable to bear him grandchildren: “from my daughter alone have I suffered no vexations beyond the getting together of her dowry.”)

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1889: Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in New South Wales

Add comment January 8th, 2020 Headsman

The last woman hanged in New South Wales, Australia was the “Botany Murderess” Louisa Collins, on this date in 1889.

A transport convict’s daughter from near Merriwa, Collins was accused in the courts and the common run of opinion of murdering both her husbands with arsenic — first Charles Andrews, 13 years her senior and father to nine of her 10 children* — and then Michael Collins, the lover with whom she scandalously fell into bed while husband’s body was still warm, and indeed before: desperate to relieve the financial pressure of their large family, Charles and Louisa had taken in boarders, of whom Michael Collins was one — at least until Charles threw him out for getting too familiar with the lady of the house.

The fact that this adulterous couple immediately shacked up (and, as our principal’s surname will have signaled, shortly thereafter wed) after a stomach ailment felled the husband set tongues a-wag and eyebrows a-cock. The subsequent death of Michael and Louisa’s only child together,** and then of Michael himself, could not but appear confirmation of the very worst.

Although accused, she was only convicted once over the course of four trials.

Where murder is concerned, any one will do for the law no matter the conviction ratio. But the chain obviously smacks of an unseemly jury-shopping, facilitated by the first three panels’ failure to reach any verdict rather than acquit outright and cinched by the Crown’s convincing the court to admit at her last trial previously-barred testimony.

The hard evidence remained stubbornly circumstantial as usual with arsenic cases: her paramour and an insurance policy on her husband supplied a motive that was positive but far from dispositive, and the alleged means was nothing more than a commercial pest controller called Rough On Rats whose presence in the house would have incriminated half of Australia.† (Arsenic was also used in the sheepskin tanning industry where both of Louisa’s late men sweated their daily bread.) Neighbors fleshed out these bare bones with eye-of-the-beholder judgments against Louisa’s comportment, such as the insufficient-mourning canard that’s still a staple of wrongful convictions.

Moreover, Louisa Collins’s case became enmeshed in the era’s web of gender politics: the campaign soliciting clemency on grounds of femininity overlapped but also contradicted the simultaneous campaign for women’s suffrage, goring oxes left and right.

That gore still spatters latter-day observers of this still-fascinating affair, who in recent years have enjoyed two different volumes illuminating the respective silhouette-halves that Louisa Collins presents posterity: a woman railroaded (Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (author interview)); and, cold-blooded murderess (Black Widow: The true story of Australia’s first female serial killer, by Carol Baxter (author interview)). There’s also a recent historical novel, The Killing Of Louisa, by Janet Lee (author interiew).

Two things that all parties can agree on: first, that her quadruple prosecution makes for a troubling legal spectacle — “a collusion between the prosecution and the state and the judiciary to keep her going to trial until the desired result,” as Baxter put it; and second, that Collins’s eventual hanging at Darlinghurst was a ghastly botch. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald reported how

The executioner signalled to his assistant to pull the lever, but the handle refused to move. It could be seen that pressure was applied, and also that the pin which held the handle in its place was fast in its slot. The assistant endeavoured to remove the pin, but failed, and in a few seconds a mallet was used. Four or five blows were applied Mrs Collins meanwhile standing perfectly upright and motionless-before the pin gave way.

The delay caused could not have been short of one minute, when the lever moved and the body fell through in a slightly curved position. After one swing to the side and in a moment it was suspended perpendicularly, with the face towards the yard. There was a slight spurt of blood, followed by a thin stream which ran down the dress and spotted the floor beneath. Nearer examination showed that the strain of the drop had so far opened the neck as to completely sever the windpipe, and that the body was hanging by the vertebra. Slowly the body turned round on the rope until the front part faced the doorway, and there it remained stationary until lowered by the executioner on to a wicker bier. Death was instantaneous. After hanging for 20 minutes the corpse was conveyed to the inquest room, and again given over to the female warders.


Poor service: hangman Robert Rice Howard, aka “Nosey Bob” after a distinctive disfigurement of that appendage courtesy of a horse’s backheel.

* Seven of these nine children by Charles Andrews survived infancy. At the time of the alleged murders, five of these children still shared the house with their parents.

** The possible murder of the infant Collins child wasn’t on Louisa’s charge sheet but remains an understandable suspicion.

† As a brand name for arsenic, Rough On Rats became a ready resource for numerous aspiring suicides and homicides.

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1832: Elizabeth Jeffery, Carluke poisoner

Add comment May 21st, 2019 Headsman

This broadside comes from the National Library of Scotland’s vast collection of print ephemera, “The Word on the Street”.


Account of the Execution of Elizabeth Nicklson, or Shafto, or Jeffrey, when was Executed in front of the Jail, this morning, for a Double Murder, 1st, with administering, on the 4th October last, to Ann Newal or Carl, residing in Carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with meal and water and whisky, in consequence of which she died; 2d, with having administered to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at’ carluke, a quantity of arsenic, which she mixed with porridge; and Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

It will be recollected that the unhappy woman who has this day justly forfeited her life to the offended laws of God, and of man, was tried at our last Assizes. The indictment against the prisoner ran thus —

You the said Elizabeth Nicklson or Shafto or Jeffrey, lately residing at Carluke, are charged with administering on the 4th of October, last, to Ann Newal or Carl residing in Carluke, a quantity. of arsenic, which you mixed up with meal and water and whisky, and which you pretended was a medicine for her benefit and the said Ann Newal or Carl having drank there of, became violently ill, and died next day in consequence of having swallowed the said mixture.

You are also charged with having on the 28th of October last, administered to to Hugh Munro, then labourer or miner at Carluke, and lodging with you, a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with porridge and the said Hugh Munro having partaken of the porridge became ill and, continued so the two following days. You are likewise accused of having on the 30th, October last, administered to the said Hugh Monro a quantity of arsenic which you had mixed up with rhubarb and the said Hugh Munro died in consequence of having partaken of the same.

The prisoner pleaded Not Guilty, and the trial proceeded. Never before was there so connected and convincing a chain of circumstancial evidence developed in a Court of Justice. The following is a sort of summing up of the facts of the case, as they were sworn to on the trial. It appeared the no suspicion had been excited against the prisoner amongst the villagers of Carluke, on the death of the old woman, Carl, who resided next door to the prisoner — but that when her lodger Munro died in excruciating agony about four weeks after, and was buried by request of the prisoner, (as indeed Carl was also) in a great hurry, reports not favourable to her began to be openly made, and to such a length did the matter go, that both bodies were raised from their graves, and certain portions of the stomachs extracted for medical examination. It afterwards appeared from the evidence of the two surgeonss at Carluke as well as from that of two highly experienced chemists in Edinburgh, to whom portions of the matter found in the stomach s has been transmitted, that minute quantities of arsenic, but quite sufficient to cause death, had been discovered in each of the stomachs. It was also proven that the prisoner had purchased arsenic at two different times, by the hands of another person, for the ostensible purpose, as was alleged, of killing rats, by which she said her house was infested, although none of the witnesses on that spot had ever seen a rat about the premises. These purchases, be it observed, were made immediately preceding the death of Carl and Munro. Add to this it was proven that the prisoner mixed up the dose for the sick woman Carl herself and also made the porridge by which her lodger Munro was poisoned. With regard to this poor highlander, it appeared that he came home on a Saturday, in as good health and high glee as ever he was in his life, looking forward, no doubt to a happy meeting he was soon expecting to have with his friends in Skye, and that having partaken of some porridge made by the prisoner, he was soon after seized with dreadful thirst and pain, in this state the continued for two days when she again tendered him mixture of rhubarb as she alleged; soon after which she expired in great agony. The prisoner owed Munro five pounds, which she could not pay, and this seemed to be the only cause she had for committing so diabolical a crime. About the period of the murder, Jeffrey used many ineffectual tricks to makevthe friends of the deceased believe that she had accounted on the money to the deceased, but it came clearly out that she had not paid a farthing of it. With regard to the murder of the old woman, Carl, the Depute-Advocate’s theory was, that the prisoner had tried her hand on her to discover how much poison it would take to kill the young man, Munro, but the villagers say the houses were very scarce at Carluke, and that the prisoner wished to make room for a more productive lodger. There were many other facts came out in detail, all tending to criminate the prisoner, who after a trial of 18 hours, was found Guilty, and sentenced to be executed this day, but recommended to mercy by the Jury — for what reason, or on what grounds, was not mentioned. On this recommendation the prisoner had great hopes until Thursday, when an answer to an application to Lord John Russell, from a few Quakers and other eccentric individuals in this City, was refused; These characters say it was a mighty piece of unheard-of cruelty to execute BURKE!

But we have no patience with them — their maukish ravings are an outrage on nature and common sense, how humane, and kind, and charitable they are to the cold blooded murderer — while not a sigh is given to the innocent butchered victims!

When the prisoner understood there was no hope, (Which had been so unproperly raised) she betook herself to her devotions, and has continued almost since, engaged in prayer. The crowd, this morning, around the, scaffold was large. After some time spent in earnest prayer with the clergymen who assisted her; she gave the signal, when the drop fell, and in a minute she ceased to exist. The crowd then left the ground in good order.

Muir, Printer, Glasgow.

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1845: Sarah Freeman, Shapwick Murderess

1 comment April 23rd, 2019 Headsman

Hanged April 23, 1845 for poisoning her brother Charles Dimond — and commonly suspected to have offed several other family members by means of arsenic — the “Shapwick Murderess” Sarah Freeman insisted her innocence to her very last breath. “I am as innocent as a lamb,” she said to the hangman William Calcraft as he noosed her.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1831: Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, the Angel of Bremen

1 comment April 21st, 2019 Headsman

The Domshof town square still holds a spuckstein (“spit stone”) where passersby can revile Gesche Margarethe Gottfried, a serial poisoner beheaded in Bremen on this date in 1831.


Ptooey! (cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

Gottfried wielded the 19th century’s weapon of choice for subtle domestic homicide, arsenic, mixed into spreadable fat, a concoction known as Mäusebutter after its intended legitimate use. This delectable served for 15 murders over as many years in the 1810s and 1820s.

The “Angel of Bremen” — so earned for her kindly habit of nursing her victims through the death throes she prepared them — began as is customary with her spendthrift first husband, followed soon by the three children she had by him, her own mother, father, and brother, and her second husband.

After a six-year break apparently because her access to Mäusebutter had run out, Gottfried was able to resume her career in 1823 by offing her second husband followed by a series of less intimate acquaintances: a neighbor, a landlady, a maid, a creditor. All of her murders seemingly had some pecuniary motive, including those early ones of her own kin (think inheritance). But in many instances the apparent profit was very minor, and her motivations remain uncertain to this day. The phrenologists who examined her head after execution certainly had some ideas: “the brain exhibits an enormously large organ of Destructiveness, with a very deficient Benevolence. This combination appears to have rendered its possessor almost a hyena or tiger in her dispositions.” (Source)

At last one of her proposed victims, one Johann Rumpff who was the husband of the “landlady” Wilhelmine Rumpff already poisoned by Gottfried, became suspicious enough of her to have meals she served to him examined by a doctor, which led speedily to her arrest and to all the rest.

Gottfried was the last person (male or female) publicly executed in Bremen. She survives well enough in the cultural memory to earn periodic tribute on stage, screen, and literature …

… and for the discerning Bremener desiring to see upon whom their sputum falls at Domshof, the Angel’s death mask can still be gawked at the Focke Museum.


(cc) image by Jürgen Howaldt.

German speakers might enjoy the Life of Poison-Murderer Gesche Margarethe Gottfried composed by her attorney Friedrich Voget: part 1, part 2. or see archive.org.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Serial Killers,Women

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1852: Hélène Jégado, serial arsenic murderer

Add comment February 26th, 2019 Headsman

Prolific French poisoner Hélène Jégado was guillotined on this date in 1852.

An orphaned peasant, Jegado (English Wikipedia entry | French) made her way as a domestic servant which was a very fine situation for exploring her true passion of insinuating arsenic into folks’ meals.

This Jegado did with astonishing frequency in her 18 years as Brittany’s Locusta: though condemned for just three successful murders, her body count is thought to run well into the twenties or thirties. Although she was a habitual petty thief as well, she was a true serial killer for whom only a handful of her many murders redounded to some palpable benefit for her. She killed from a compulsion.

For example, as the servant of a village cure, she brazenly poisoned off seven people in 1833,* including the priest himself and her own sister Anne Jegado. But the village had been ravaged by cholera in recent months and Helene Jegado by all accounts made for a convincingly bereaved tragic actress. Amazingly, nobody got suspicious, enabling her to poison off her own aunt and two other people when she returned to her own town to bury that dearly departed sister. For the next several years she kept moving and moving, new lodgings in new towns throughout Brittany but over and over again in a position to season the soup. Surprising and sudden deaths repeatedly occurred in her proximity but the pattern never caught anyone’s eye.

Her fire for the inheritance powder mostly burned out by about 1841 when she had a suspected 23 victims to her name. “I am going into retreat,” she’s said to have strangely declared to an employer who caught her stealing in 1841. “God has forgiven me my sins!” Then the suspicious deaths stopped.

At this point, Helene Jegado was pushing 40. Maybe she thought to cleanse her soul and make a fresh and un-homicidal start, or simply to retire her murder spree while she was so very far ahead. Maybe the sensational Marie Lafarge arsenic case of 1840 scared her straight and made her aware of dangerous forensics advances. There was also some idea that she had somehow procured a large stockpile of arsenic at the outset of her career, but discarded it in a panic the first time that she felt herself in danger of being accused.

Whatever the reason for her lull, she seems to have managed the cold turkey program admirably for a good long time … but surely somewhere inside her lurked the hunger to again give rein to her compulsion.

The last days of 1849 find her at Rennes, where she resumed just as suddenly as she had stopped: the ailing son of a couple who employed her as their only servant was suddenly finished off through his porridge, and then the couple themselves sickened by another meal (they survived). Now the bit was again in her teeth and she ran with it through a series of employers: in the course of just weeks she made fresh attacks in the Ozanne household, upon the family’s little son (he died); in the hotel owned by Monsieur Roussell, upon the proprietor’s mother (she survived) and a rival servant (she died).

By the autumn of 1850 she again had her fresh — and her final — employment, with the law professor and sometime politician Theophile Bidard.

Yet it was not the sharp observations or relentless deductions of her scholar-master that exposed Helene Jegado: it was a want of sangfroid downright shocking in one who had already filled so many tombs. When another servant of the Bidards died unexpectedly, Rennes medical men who suspected poisoning called on Bidard. Jegado answered the door, and upon hearing them announce their mission to the man of the house she unnecessarily blurted out an assertion of innocence. Nobody had even mentioned her.

Once she invited everyone’s suspicion the rest followed inevitably. Bodies she had given Rennes households to bury during the preceding year showed clear evidence of arsenic poisoning when exhumed, and the pattern of deaths associated with her — even though they lay beyond prosecution — seemingly confirmed the worst. Helene denied all but went to the guillotine on the Champ-de-Mars at Rennes on February 26, 1852.

* These seven and most of the others attributed to Helene Jegado’s potions are merely irresistible inference; she was detected long past any opportunity to establish direct proof of her hand behind any of the pre-1849 deaths.

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1868: Heli Freymond, the last beheaded by sword in Switzerland

Add comment January 10th, 2019 Headsman

Heli Freymond lost his head on this date in 1868 to an executioner’s sword — the last time that ever happened in Swiss history. (His is also the last death sentence enforced in the canton of Vaud.)

Freymond and his cousin and lover Louise Freymond conspired to murder the man’s pregnant* wife with arsenic.

They might have gotten away with this but avarice for the portion of the wife’s inheritance that had redounded to the wife’s sister led them to make a bid at murdering that sister’s beau. This man survived it, and accurately discerned the hand behind his brush with death; his lawsuit led to the literal and metaphorical exhumation of the late wife’s corpse, too.

Louise Freymond caught a 20-year prison sentence for this, but Freymond was doomed to lose his head. Switzerland had introduced the guillotine as an alternative beheading method some years before, but the old-school two-handed richtschwert blade still remained available for the hands-on touch you only get with hired goons. Twenty thousand souls turned out in Moudon for the occasion.

Heli Freymond was in fact the last person executed at all in Switzerland, for an era: he was still the last when the 1874 constitution abolished capital punishment full stop. However, a crime wave brought the death penalty back in 1879. The last Swiss execution for ordinary crimes occurred in 1940; according to CapitalPunishmentUK’s index of Swiss executions, there were 17 Swiss men (no women) shot during World War II for treason.

* Technically, an initial unsuccessful attempt to poison the pregnant mother Elise Olivier caused a miscarriage; subsequently, another poisoning brought off Elise, too.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Sex,Switzerland

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1888: Not Sarah J. Robinson

Add comment November 16th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1888, Massachusetts almost hanged Sarah J. Robinson.

The reader will easily infer from press appellations such as the “Massachusetts Borgia” or “Sommerville Borgia” that Mrs. Robinson was a prolific poisoner.

The true toll of Robinson’s career remains uncertain to this day but they monstrously included her own son and daughter — the victims that brought her within the shadow of the gallows.

An Irish immigrant, she had discovered the capacity of arsenic for relieving the financial burdens that, then as now, weighed upon the poor. In 1881, her landlord suspiciously died in her care, abating a debt of rent; a few years later, her husband did likewise, leaving her an insurance windfall, and then her sister too.

Still the maintenance of five children — four of her own, plus a nephew — harried her. To keep the wolves at bay she moved frequently, sold off furniture. And last, she enrolled two children in a working-class insurance fraternal and collected so speedily to attract the wrong attention. Her many murders afforded multiple bites at the legal apple, so when a jury hung on a charge of murdering her kids, they just turned around and got her for a nephew instead.

Mrs. Robinson was escorted to the court room … A large rocking chair was provided for her comfort in the rear of the court room outside the prisoner’s iron cage. She languidly sank into it, and as soon as seated requested a drink of water, which was brought her by Sheriff Tidd. Her hands trembled like leaves as she eagerly held the tumbler to her lips. (Boston Journal, June 29, 1888)

Notwithstanding her many victims, the prospect of noosing this trembling-hand, rocking-chair mother discomfited the public. The governor commuted her sentence to solitary imprisonment four days before her scheduled November 16, 1888 hanging.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Massachusetts,Murder,Not Executed,USA,Women

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