1909: Garry Richard Barrett 995: Tormod Kark

1936: Charlotte Bryant

July 15th, 2015 Meaghan

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

At around 8:00 a.m. on this day in 1936, Charlotte Bryant was hanged at Teeter Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint for poisoning her husband with arsenic the previous year.

“Dying of arsenical poisoning,” writes Stephen Wade in his book Notorious Murders of the Twentieth Century: Famous and Forgotten British Cases,

…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.

Frederick Bryant was to die that way.

Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.

Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”

Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.

This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.

But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.

Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after drinking tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.

In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.

By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.

Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.

A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given

complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.

Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.

While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”

After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.

But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.

The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)

Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.

Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.

At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.

Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.

A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)

She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex,Women

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10 thoughts on “1936: Charlotte Bryant”

  1. Scott Fisher says:

    Was it possible Charlotte was having a lesbian relationship with Lucy Ostler and that Frederick suspected this? Naturally evidence of such a relationship wouldn’t be used in the trial.

  2. Madeline Ware says:

    Watching this again I think this was a miscarriage of justice.
    Lucy Ostler was probably the person as why was she at the house that day. She probably was jealous that that the lodgervwascgoing and Charlotte would be back with her husband and she would be alone again. Why did they no exhume Lucy’s husbands as well. It seems the Police had made their minds up and wanted the case close. The jury did not seem to have the full case put before him. Does arsenic poison stay in bone and for how long?

  3. MARIA says:

    I just watched a programme on this – I think it was Charlotte’s friend Lucy could have done it – I wonder if anyone has every considered how Lucy husbands died four years earlier??? As if I was understanding right Lucy changed her statement when the Police mentioned about her deceased husband – did Lucy kill him /poison him four years earlier ? did anyone investigate or know how he died??? Just a thought ……………

    1. Mick Harrington says:

      The trial judge ((McKinnon) misled the jury in his summing up in connecting both previous illnesses as due to deliberate arsenic poisoning. Mrs Van der Elst was probably right insofar as Frederick probably little by little contributed to his own death from his deliberate contact with arsenic – an known addiction – he was often seen to lick it. The stone quarry where he worked also had high concentrations of arsenic. Lucy Ostler also should have been investigated properly and thoroughly. For me the difficulty there is discovering Ostler’s motive. There is certainly reasonable doubt. In Scotland it would have been Not Proven. The children should never have been placed in a position of giving evidence against their mother. For me this smacks of class issues. Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary refused her appeal for reprieve, yet Rathenbury – a more well to do woman was granted a reprieve a few months earlier. This was a miscarriage of justice against an uneducated simple Londonderry lass whose reputation was smeared and maligned far too unnecessarily.

  4. Fiz says:

    I don’t think he did, though, Michelle. Forensic evidence showed Frederick had been poisoned on other occasions in the past. I can’t remember if they correlate with Charlotte’s fling with Parsons or not.

  5. Michelle Devlin-Rushe says:

    Even though Parsons had an alibi I think he could have done it! He had motive and it’s possible he could of been able to gain entry as he had live there. Then he said he was leaving Charlotte strange

  6. Ej says:

    I’ve just watched the documentary on this in which charlotte ‘s son and grandson appeared. There really wasn’t any evidence other than the word of her friend Lucy that she may have done it. Clearly someone deliberately poisoned frederick, but this could have been anyone of the people that stayed at the home such as the lover or the friend. Not really enough to convict the wife i believe.

  7. Zippy says:

    She was executed at Exeter prison in the county of Devon – not Teeter Prison

  8. Fiz says:

    Lucy Ostler, Charlotte’s erstwhile best friend, gave evidence against her but is just as heavily implicated in the case. Also the forensic evidence about the burning of the can of weedkiller was faulty in the extreme and was the subject of a late attempt at an appeal on Charlotte ‘s behalf. Did she do it? Probably. Was it proved? I am less certain.

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