(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.”
On this day..
- 1678: Thomas Hellier, "Groans and Sighs" - 2019
- 1939: Las Trece Rosas - 2018
- 1944: The Wola Massacre begins, during the Warsaw Uprising - 2017
- 1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion - 2016
- 2008: Jose Medellin, precedent - 2015
- 1943: Red Orchestra members, in the Nazi Paradise - 2014
- 1993: Joseph Paul Jernigan, Visible Human Project subject - 2013
- 1623: Daniel Frank, the first hanging in the USA - 2012
- 1909: Georges-Henri Duchemin, matricide - 2011
- 1775: Maharajah Nandakumar, judicially murdered? - 2010
- 1864: Romuald Traugutt and the January Uprising leaders - 2009
- 1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt - 2008