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.

On this day..

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

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1773: Eva Faschaunerin, the last tortured in Austria

Add comment November 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1773, Eva Faschaunerin was beheaded for the arsenic murder of her husband Jakob Kary, mere weeks after their 1770 marriage.

Faschaunerin (English Wikipedia entry | German), who was interrogated on the rack, is distinguished as the last victim in the Austrian empire of official judicial torture: the practice was abolished in 1776 by Maria Theresa.

She’s still well-known in her locale, the Alpine Lieser-Maltatal region and even further afield than that; the town of Gmünd has an Eva Faschaunerin museum in its former jail.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Torture,Women

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1799: Sarah Clark, a melancholy instance of human depravity

Add comment October 30th, 2018 Headsman

The ensuing poem, titled “Melancholy Instance of Human Depravity” and published in an 1805 collection, laments a serving-girl’s murder by arsenic of the master and mistress of her house. It was a crime of unrequited love: the intended victim of the poisoned bread was not this couple but their daughter, whom Sarah Clark fancied a rival for the affections of a young man in her former household. Sarah Clark hanged for the murders on October 30, 1799, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but Miss Isabella Oliver was never punished for her verse.

UPON the bank of a slow-winding flood
The good Alphonso’s modest mansion stood;
A man he was throughout the country known,
Of sterling sense, to social converse prone:
He walk’d the plains with such majestic grace,
When time had drawn its furrows on his face,
‘Twas easy to infer his youthful charms,
When first the fair Maria bless’d his arms:
Maria—Oh! what mix’d emotions rise,
Grief, pity, indignation; and surprise,
At thought of thee! —

Thy sweetness might have mov’d the harshest mind;
Thy kindness taught th’ ungentlest to be kind;
And yet a fiend enshrin’d in female mould
Could thy heart-rending agonies behold;
When by her cruel wiles thy wedded heart
Was basely sever’d from its dearest part.
The lov’d Alphonso’s breathless corpse she view’d,
And yet her harden’d heart was unsubdu’d.
Perhaps, she saw thee sink beside his bed,
Or lean in speechless sorrow o’er the dead;
Or heard thee faintly cry — The knot’s unti’d
Come, gentle death, thou cans’tnomore divide:
But spare our children, our lov’d offspring spare;
They still are young, and life is worth their care.
To me the charm that sweeten’d life is gone;
Weep not, my friends, I cannot die too soon.
Fast through her reins the subtle poison spread,
And join’d with grief, to bow her aged head.
Her children strive her drooping head to stay;
The monster works to rend those props away;
But triumphs not: a greater power sustains
And bears them through excruciating pains.
Oft did Maria, in serener days,
With tender transport on her offspring gaze;
Maternal love was pictur’d in her face,
The happy parent of a blooming race;
Now the fond mother feels at every pore;
Worse than her own, the pangs her children bore.
Yet still herself, sweet, affable, and mild,
The patient sufferer on her murd’rer smil’d;
Who by her bed officiously attends,
Concern and kind solicitude pretends,
Yet still pursues her own infernal ends.

Hence aid medicinal is render’d vain,
By frequent potions of the deadly bane;
While cruel torture rack Maria’s frame,
And by degrees puts out the vital flame.
Now pause, my muse, and seriously enquire,
What could this hellish cruelty inspire!
Why strike at those who no offence had given?
It seems like stabbing at the face of heaven!
In her dark mind what ugly passions breed!
Like gnawing worms, they on her vitals feed.
Without an object, what could malice do?
Alvina’s near, she’s often in her view;
In her polluted soul foul envy’s rais’d;
Because perhaps she hears Alvina prais’d;
A groundless jealousy her breast inflames;
‘Gainst thee, Alvina, she the mischief aims.
The wicked miscreant working in the dark,
Spreads ruin round, but cannot hit the mark:
A power divine restrains the falling blow
Thus far thou may’st, but shalt no farther go.
What deadly venom rankled in that breast!
What worse than poison must the soul infest,
Which still its fatal purpose could pursue,
Tho’ general destruction might ensue!
Oh! sin, prolific source of human woe!
To thee mankind their various sorrows owe;
Thro’ thee our world a gloomy aspect wears,
Ajd is too justly stil’d a vale of tears.
Man was first form’d upon a social plan;
And tie unnumber’d fasten man to man:
None are, howe’er debas’d, in form or mind,
Cut off from all communion with their kind.
Witness the wretched subject of these lines.
Alas! how many suffer’d by her crimes!
Who more detach’d, of less import, than she?
Yet mark her influence on society.
But there are crimes of a less shocking kind,
That find an easy pass from mind to mind:
As fire spreads from one building to another,
The vicious man contaminates his brother;
Why wonder, then, that Adam could deface
His maker’s image in an unborn race?
When his own hand the sacred stamp had torn,
Could he transmit it whole to sons unborn?
In him the foul contagion first began;
From sire to son the deadly venom ran;
Thus poisoning all the mighty mass of man.

The sad effect is dreadful to endure;
But human wisdom could not find a cure:
Thus, Scripture, reason, and experience, tend
To prove, the power that made alone can mend.
Oh! Christ, thou sum and source of every good,
Thou that for sinners shed’st thy precious blood,
In thee our various wants are all suppli’d;
Thy death our ransom, and thy life our guide.
In thee thy followers second life attain;
And man reflects his maker’s face again.
Is sin progressive, spreading every hour?
Has heaven-born virtue no diffusive power?
Our blessed Saviour is a living head;
The streams that issue from him can’t be dead,
But scatter life and fragrance, as they spread.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1909: Martha Rendell

Add comment October 6th, 2018 Headsman

For the last time ever, Western Australia executed a woman on this date in 1909. Her name was Martha Rendell, and she had allegedly murdered up to three of her partner’s five* children.

Although they never got the legal document, we might as well call Rendell and Thomas Nicholls Morris man and wife: the two moved in after Morris’s previous marriage failed, presented themselves as one another’s spouses, and had the four kids call Rendell “mom”. They lived together in a downscale district in east Perth, steps away from an open drain fed by industrial runoff.

And if what they charged her with is true — for Rendell would always deny it and her denials have had found traction with some from her time to ours — then nasty stepmothers of fairy tales might have sued Martha Rendell for defamation of character. Indeed, her step-motherliness clearly weighed against her in the public mind.

In 1907, four of the children took ill with diphtheria. After a relapse, seven-year-old Annie died; the death certificate would put it down to “epilepsy and cardiac weakness” (both diphtheria symptoms). Her little sister Olive, still weakened by her bout with diphtheria, contracted typhoid and bled and vomited to death in August of that same year. The doctors who treated these girls didn’t suspect anything untoward but the following year when yet a third of the children (Arthur, 14) also died of apparent typhoid. Doctors on this occasion conducted an autopsy, curious to find evidence of poisoning — an autopsy that Rendell attended and ordered halted partway through, an action that would play very culpably at her eventual trial.**

Said trial was not to be triggered until the following spring, when another son, George, fled the house to the protection of his natural mother, and told a nightmare tale of the mean stepmother painting the children’s throats with hydrochloric acid and serving them suspicious bitter tea that sent them to their sickbeds.

“In hindsight George’s story seems highly implausible, the feverish imagining of a vengeful mother and stepson newly reunited,” argues a Rendell defender who situates the Morris household’s catastrophe amid a wider social panic over the corruption of Perth’s feminine mores, embracing everything from prostitution to baby farming.

The horrific caustic action of hydrochloric acid was not the sort of stealthy killer chosen by poisoners nor did it fit with the gradual wasting noted by the children’s doctor. And how could the woman have forced a youth of fifteen to submit to such cruelty? If Rendell had used diluted solutions of the acid (and it came to light after the trial that this was a home remedy used as a mild antiseptic and sometimes applied to the throat to treat diphtheria) then how had this uneducated woman calibrated the children’s dosages to create symptoms to fool Perth’s most respected doctors?

The strength of feeling bordering on mass hysteria that lay at the heart of public frenzy about this woman was exhibited in the shrill crowds of Perth women demanding her hanging and worse. Some women even invaded the Morris cottage when it was opened up to auction the contents and souvenired every household item, even the auctioneer’s hat so that only ten pounds were raised for the couple’s legal defence.

Little concrete evidence was ever produced against her — was it thanks to that aborted autopsy? — but neighbors grown prejudiced against the scarlet villainess would color remembrances of her conduct in testimony that also told on themselves as peeping toms: this time a failure to nurture and that time a glow of outright pleasure at a crying child.

Much subtext surfaced in text. The arresting officer noted her “delighted in seeing her victims writhe in agony, and from it derived sexual satisfaction.” One appalling newspaper editorial reviled her as “a type that is seldom encountered in English speaking races … she represents a reversion to the primitive stage of humanity when destructive proclivities are uppermost. Like aboriginals, the Martha Rendells of this world must kill.” It was scarcely a novel formula for anathematizing the female criminal.

It was only Arthur for whom she was formally condemned but after the five-day trial she was popularly understood as responsible for all three of her dead stepchildren. But not all the public, for a vigorous albeit unsuccessful clemency campaign specifically citing doubts about the case’s evidence grew around her during her few short weeks awaiting the gallows. Those doubts have never since been categorically dispelled.

Legend holds that Martha Rendell still haunts Fremantle Prison where she hanged, in the form of a ghostly apparition of her face peering out from a stained-glass window.

* There were five children still in the house. Thomas Morris also had four older children, making nine total.

** Martha Rendell had also fallen ill during the course of treating her children. This of course was read by prosecutors as a feint to deflect suspicion.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,The Supernatural,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

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

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1673: La Chaussee, for the giblet pie

Add comment March 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.

The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.

A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.

That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.

Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:

“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”

“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”

“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”

“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”

“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”

“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”

“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”

“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”

“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”

“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”

“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”

La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.

“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”

The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.

He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.

* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Torture

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1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

Add comment July 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s this vinegar of our latter-day Locusta became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Public Executions,Sicily,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1730: Sally Bassett, Bermuda slave

Add comment June 6th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Perhaps on this day in 1730,* an elderly mulatto slave named Sarah or Sally Bassett was burned at the stake for attempted murder in the British Caribbean colony of Bermuda.

Sally was the property of Thomas Forster, as was her granddaughter, Beck. (Thomas Forster was the grandson of Josias Forster, who was governor of Bermuda from 1642 to 1643.) The Forster family lived in Sandys Parish.

Being so old, Sally wasn’t worth much: her value was appraised at one pound, four shillings and sixpence, or about $160 in modern U.S. currency. She also had the reputation of a troublemaker: in 1713, for example, she was whipped the length of Southampton Parish after being accused of threats, property damage and killing livestock.

On December 18, 1729, Sally allegedly gave two bags of poison, said to be “white toade”** and “manchineel root”, to her granddaughter, Beck, and told her to poison Thomas, his wife Sarah, and Nancey, another slave in the Forster household.

Beck slipped a dose into the master and mistress’s food, “where if her Mistress did but smell on’t twould poison her.” She put the rest of the poison in the kitchen door, where Nancey found it and “by only looking at it ye said. Nancey was poyson’d.” (Quotes are as cited in Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782.)

Sally was not arrested and charged with the crime until June 2, nearly six months later. The victims were all still “sick and Lye in a very Languishing and dangerous Condition,” but Sarah Forster was at least well enough to drag herself out of her sickbed and testify against her slaves.

Beck was acquitted but Sally, “not having the fear of God before her Eyes, Butt being moved and seduced by ye Instigation of the Devil,” was convicted of petit treason for her attempt on her master and mistress’s lives.

Although she maintained her innocence, she was sentenced to death.

Barefoot, wearing only pants and a loose blouse, on the way to the place of execution Sally is said to have looked at the crowds rushing to see the show and quipped, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun ’til I get there!” When she looked at the logs waiting to fuel the fire she supposedly said, “Ain’t they darlin’?”

She was burned alive on an unusually hot day, in public, either on an island off Southampton Parish or at Crow Lane at the east end of Hamilton Harbor. After her death a purple Bermudiana, Bermuda’s official flower, is reputed to have grown in the ashes. Days later, Bermuda enacted new laws to tighten control of the “many heinous and grievous Crimes as of that Secret and barbarous way of Murdering by Poison and other Murders … many times Committed by negroes and other Slaves and many times malitiously attempted by them.”

Sally’s death has passed on into legend and is considered part of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Even today, nearly three hundred years later, a very hot day in Bermuda is sometimes called a Sally Basset day. In 2009, a ten-foot statue of Sally was dedicated at the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton, the first time in Bermuda that a slave was so memorialized.

* There are some shouts for June 21, 1730. If there is an authoritative primary document establishing the execution date with certainty, we have not been able to unearth it.

** The involvement of white toad, as historian Justin Pope observes, points — alarmingly for 18th century white Bermudians; intriguingly for posterity — to transatlantic black (in multiple senses) economies.

There were no indigenous white toads in Bermuda. However, as noted by the Bermudian historian Clarence Maxwell, poisonous toads were used in ceremonies among Akan speaking peoples in the tropical forests of West Africa and carried into the voudou traditions of San Domingue.

… If there really was a white toad used in the Bermuda poisoning conspiracy, then it was almost certainly brought to the colony by a slave mariner who believed he was arming a spiritual practitioner against her enemies. It was not something that Sarah Bassett could have asked for lightly. The person who purchased the item would have easily been able to discover, or at least suspect, its usage. Whoever carried it had to be trusted. The toad would have had to been captured or cultivated in the tropical forests of West Africa or northern South America, purchased in the slave markets of towns like Paramaraibo, on the Surinam River of Dutch Guyana, or in the markets of Elmina, on the southern coast of West Africa. We can only surmise the origins of the poisonous toad, yet its very presence on the island of Bermuda suggests a trade in poisons, betweens slave societies and through the hands of black mariners.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Attempted Murder,Bermuda,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Women

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1679: La Bosse, Poison Affair culprit

1 comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the French soothsayer Marie Bosse went to the stake as France dealt out death for the Affair of the Poisons.

After the disgrace and 1676 execution of that aristocrat Locusta, the Madame de Brinvilliers, Louis XIV set his pathbreaking police chief on the trail of the “divineresses” whose potions were sought and feared as the remedy to every domestic ill.

Over six-odd years some 36 souls would succumb to this investigation, 34 upon the scaffold and two tortured to death in prison. Perhaps the best-known of these was a woman named La Voisin, whom we have met in these grim pages before. Our subject today is the woman who named La Voisin to her prosecutors.

Too deep in her cups at a Christmas 1678 party — a time at which the few arrests of alchemists and folk magicians could not yet really be said to be a Poison Affair — our principal La Bosse dropped some indiscreet braggadocio as to her prowess and market share in the poisoning game.

When word got back to the torchlit cowls at the Chambre Ardente, she’d be arrested and interrogated to great profit for investigators. La Bosse blabbed all about other poisoners, including the king’s own lover, the Madame de Montespan and the aforementioned La Voisin.

This was fatal to La Bosse as well as to La Voisin but proved less so to highest muckity-mucks. Accusations reaching the king’s own bedchamber and perhaps even compassing contemplated regicide were thought dangerous to explore and helped to drop the curtain on the entire poison-hunt: “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard,” in the supposed words of the investigator.

Later in 1679, a Thomas CorneilleJean Donneau de Vise comedy ridiculing poisoners and pretended magicians debuted. La Divineresse, whose title character was named “Jobin” and had an associate named “Du Clos”, was a smash hit, running for several months — which was more than could be said by that time for these characters’ real-life inspirations. (La Voisin went to the stake in February 1680.)

Recommended: an eight-part blog series on Poison at the Court of Louis XIV begins here; scroll down to advance installment by installment.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Women

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1824: John Smith

2 comments March 14th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1824, John Smith, 25, was publicly hanged before an angry crowd at Lincoln Castle for the murder of his fiancee, 24-year-old Sarah Arrowsmith.

John and Sarah had been seeing each other for a long time. Sarah had a three-year-old son by him, and was heavily pregnant with another child. She was under the impression that the wedding banns had been published and they would marry soon, but matrimony was the furthest thing from John’s mind.

On December 4, 1823, he bought a pound of white arsenic from the chemist for nine pence, saying he was going to use it for washing sheep. Instead, Smith mixed the arsenic with some flour and gave it to Sarah. She, in turn, baked some cakes with the poisoned flour and served them to her friends for tea.

Neil R. Storey records what happened in his book A Grim Almanac of Lincolnshire:

In less than a quarter of an hour, Sarah, her sister-in-law Eliza Smith, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Dobbs, and three children—two of them her younger sisters, and one of them Smith’s illegitimate child with Sarah—all suffered intense burning in their throats and excruciating pains in their stomachs. Several medical men were sent for and, immediately on arrival, the surgeons, Mr. Tyson West and Mr. Pell, set about administering antidotes and emetics. They rapidly had to admit that Sarah Arrowsmith was in a hopeless condition and sent for magistrates to take her deposition from her death bed. Sarah told them who had given her the flour and soon two constables were sent to the cottage where Smith lived in Little Steeping; they arrested him.

Although Smith presented two character witnesses at his trial who described him as a good farmhand and a sober, even-tempered and hard-working man, the evidence against him was strong and public sentiment equally so. The London Morning Chronicle reported on Dec. 27, 1823, that as Sarah Arrowsmith lay painfully expiring so heavy was the crush of gawkers that her bedroom’s only supporting cross-joint “snapped in the middle, and had not every person except the sufferer, who was in bed, made a hasty retreat, the floor would have fallen in.”

She succumbed the next day (to the poison, not to a fall) and “a great concourse of persons was assembled from all parts of the country round” to lay her to rest — “and the only feelings displayed upon the solemn occasion, were those of indignation against the unhappy wretch who was the author of the untimely death of the poor woman and her child.”

Smith could surely tell that his goose was cooked, and even as his life hung in the balance there was “an extraordinary apathy about him.” (Storey) Prior to his death he admitted his guilt.

It is believed that the other poisoning victims survived.

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

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!