I find myself delving again into the very murky world of the Victorian serial killer. This case, however, is quite different to the ones I have looked at previously and not just because it deals with the sad crime of infanticide but because it highlights the press's very fickle attitude towards the Victorian murderess.
The woman in question, Rebecca Smith, came to national attention (and notoriety) in June 1849 after the sudden death of her one-month-old son, Richard, in the town of Westbury, Wiltshire. Considering the high prevalence of infant mortality in this period and the poverty of his parents, Richard's death was not immediately noticed by the local authorities. In fact, it was not until the whispers of poison in Rebecca's neighbourhood had grown so loud that the coroner was forced to sit up and take action. On 22 June, he ordered Richard's body to be exhumed and for a post-mortem examination to be conducted.
At the inquest into Richard's death, Rebecca Smith was the star attraction and judged guilty by the press before the evidence had been heard. Described as a "forbidding-looking woman" in her forties, members of the press were struck by her "most indifferent manner" throughout the proceedings. The press were quickly vindicated, however, when it was revealed that Richard had indeed died as a result of arsenic poisoning. Furthermore, on the question of who had administered it, the evidence against Rebecca Smith was overwhelming. Several witnesses testified that Smith had asked them for arsenic shortly after giving birth to Richard. She claimed that her house was overrun with rats and mice which she intended to kill. But nobody had any poison so, on 25 May, she asked a young girl called Caroline Mackey to go to Mr. Taylor's, a local druggists, and buy some arsenic for her. When Mackey's mother found out, she forbade her daughter from going and Smith's hopes of obtaining arsenic were briefly shattered. However, on 7 June, a local woman named Prudence Mead agreed to accompany Smith to Taylor's shop and act as a witness while she bought some arsenic. Smith had no problem buying the arsenic - as the sale of poisons were unregulated at this time - but she changed her story, telling Taylor that the arsenic was for her sister who had problems with mice. Later that evening, Smith's baby, Richard, was seized with pains and vomiting which persisted until his death on 12 June.
Also at the inquest, it was revealed that Richard was not the only baby of Smith's who had died in infancy. In fact, over the last eighteen years, she had given birth to eleven babies, the eldest of whom was the only survivor. All of these babies had died in infancy and some in rather suspicious circumstances. The following deaths were noted at the inquest:
When asked by the coroner, Smith declined to make any comment on her case and had nothing to say directly to the jury. (For the press, this was proof of her guilt). She was committed to trial for the murder of her son, Richard Smith, while the coroner ordered the bodies of two of her other children to be exhumed and examined by a surgeon. The babies in question were Sarah (died 1841) and Edward (died 1844). Like Richard, an examination of their stomachs revealed that they had both died of arsenic poisoning. However, these deaths were not officially linked to Rebecca Smith because it was not clear who had administered it nor when it was administered.
Rebecca Smith stood trial for the murder of her son on 9 August 1849 in Devizes, Wiltshire. With the overwhelming evidence against her, it did not take the jury long to find her guilty of murder and for the judge to pass the sentence of death. The jury did, however, recommend Rebecca Smith to mercy but not because they recommended a reprieve; they wanted her to have a few days to reflect on the horrible crime she had committed. In the words of Mr. Justice Creswell:
"Remember, that in a few days, your life must go, and then you will commence an existence, good or evil, to endure for ever."
While awaiting execution, Smith confessed to the chaplain that she had murdered seven of her children in the same manner as Richard. She also admitted how she had carried out these crimes: by rubbing the arsenic onto her breast so that the child would ingest it while feeding. As shocking as this was (and is), Rebecca Smith believed that she was doing her children a favour by saving them from a life of "want" and deprivation. It was well-known among Rebecca's friends and acquaintances that her husband, Philip, was prone to bouts of drunkenness and thought nothing of squandering the family's meagre finances on alcohol.
On the day of her execution, the press praised Smith's "becoming" demeanour and highlighted the strength of her religious conviction. The press also painted a very sad picture of her domestic life:
"From the first week of her marriage, down to the last…he (her husband) had been given to drunkenness and "it was that", she said, had driven her to her crimes. He scarcely ever brought home a shilling of his wages. She herself toiled hard in the field all day, and at night she came home and washed , and did all the household work. With nothing, then, to maintain the family, but what she herself earned, which was four shillings per week…the fear that the children would come to want operated so powerfully upon her, that she destroyed them."
It is interesting to note that the newspapers did not record any of the gory details of her execution, as was common in other reports. For them, her confession and genuine story of poverty had transformed Rebecca Smith from a cold-hearted killer to a desperate, almost tragic, mother. She was executed on 23 August 1849, in front of a large crowd in Devizes.
The Bath Chronicle, 5 July 1849.
Lloyd's Weekly, 29 July 1849.
The Standard, 11 August 1849.
The Globe, 24 August 1849.
Murder is, by its nature, a secretive and deceptive business. Historically, it is widely accepted that some of England's most prolific murderers and murderesses have killed far more people than they were ever prosecuted for. Let's take Mary Ann Cotton, for example, who is generally regarded as the Victorian era's first serial killer. She was executed in 1873 for the murder of her stepson, Frederick. But, it is widely believed that she killed up to 21 people. Of these, there is strong evidence to show that she was responsible for the deaths of 11 children, three husbands, one lover and her own mother, though she was never charged with these offences.
But after researching the criminal career of Sarah Chesham for an upcoming book chapter (more details to follow soon), I would dispute Cotton's status as England's first serial killer. Like Cotton, Chesham was found guilty of one murder - that of her husband, Richard - and was executed in 1851. Five years earlier, she escaped the gallows after being acquitted for the murders of her sons, James and Joseph, who were poisoned with arsenic. However, all of the evidence points to her guilt but, just like Mary Ann Cotton, we will never know the extent of her involvement.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the case of Jonathan Balls, a serial killer who died in 1846 but was believed to have killed (an estimated) eight people, before taking his own life. This case is of particular significance since it predates both Cotton and Chesham, suggesting that Balls may well have been the first serial killer in Victorian England. Sadly, however, as he never stood trial for these crimes, there is a natural element of doubt and uncertainly. Nevertheless, I believe his story is one worth repeating…
When Jonathan Balls died on 20 April 1846 , the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk breathed a communal sigh of relief. Balls had few friends in the community and was widely regarded as being a man of "peculiar habits and unamiable manners." In his youth, he had been accused of a number of crimes, including arson and theft, but had escape prosecution every time, owing to a lack of evidence.
At the time of his death, Balls was in his 82nd year and his manner of dying did not catch the attention of the local authorities, perhaps because of his advanced age. But the people of Happisburgh reacted in a very different manner and not just because they disliked the old man. His was the latest in a long string of Balls' family deaths: his granddaughter, Ann Elizabeth Pestle, had died just three days before Jonathan; his wife, Elizabeth, had died six months earlier, in December 1845; and his grandson, Samuel, died in September 1845. All of these family members, including Jonathan, had died very suddenly and all had perished after suffering a bout of intense vomiting and pain in the chest.
Locals petitioned the county coroner, Mr. Pilgrim, to investigate these deaths but Pilgrim ignored them. Having recently received a circular from local magistrates on the issue of inquests, he had to think very carefully about investigating a death because of the associated costs. But public feeling in Happisburgh remained strong: Pilgrim received two more petitions and, finally, he relented. In May 1846, he ordered the exhumation of the bodies of Jonathan Balls and Ann Elizabeth Pestle for the purposes of an conducting an inquest.
The inquest began at Hill House (see above) on 11 May 1846 and it was immediately revealed that both parties had died as a result of arsenic poisoning. In fact, according to one surgeon, there was enough arsenic in their stomachs to poison the whole parish, let alone a man and a child. Ann Pestle, Balls' daughter and Ann Elizabeth's mother, testified that she had no idea where the arsenic might have come from and had no reason to suspect that her father would kill her own child. In fact, he had shown kindness to her daughter and had even helped out with feeding her.
The inquest was adjourned pending a further investigation. But, on this next meeting, Balls' son-in-law stated that his wife remembered buying arsenic for her father when she was a teenager. Another woman, Phoebe Ann Neave, told the court that Balls had asked her to write a letter to a local druggist requesting a large quantity of arsenic. Neave was reluctant to help him because she knew that people used arsenic for "bad purposes." But Balls tried to pacify Neave: he said that he wanted the poison to kill rats and that she need not be "afraid" as he would not use it for any "bad purpose."
It was then revealed that over the last fifteen years, there had been even more "sudden" and "unusual" deaths in the Balls family. This prompted the coroner to make further enquiries and exhumations. Over the next few weeks, he investigated the following family deaths:
The examinations confirmed that Maria Lacey and Maria Green had died as a result of arsenic poisoning. As for the three other bodies, the verdict was left open because the surgeons could not find a definite cause of death. It may well have been arsenical poisoning but the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition, making it impossible to say for certain.
On the question of motive, I'll leave you with this summary from The Globe:
During the last fifteen or twenty years , he (Jonathan Balls) was principally dependent on his married daughters for subsistence and the supposition is that he poisoned his grandchildren in order that their parents might be better able to support him. That he committed suicide, fearing his crime would be detected, there can be no doubt, for after having administered arsenic to the infant of Pestle (his daughter), and finding the mother was going to have it examined, he became greatly excited, observing his death was near at hand, although he was in a better state of health than usual. Six hours afterwards, he was a corpse.
The Lancet, 26 May 1846.
The Globe, 12 June 1846.
On the morning of February 15 1939, George Francis Dowler, a 60-year-old farmer from Derrygiff in County Fermanagh, died suddenly after drinking a cup of tea prepared by his wife, Lillian. After examining the body, the Dowler's family doctor cited the sudden cause of death as heart failure but five months later, George's body was exhumed. A post-mortem examination found that George's heart was perfectly healthy and that the cause of death was, in fact, poisoning by strychnine.
The finger of suspicion quickly fell on George's young wife, Lillian, and farm hand called James Willoughby. The investigation which followed not only showed that a "strong affection" had developed between Lillian and James, prompting speculation over the motive, but also confirmed the presence of strychnine in the cup which Lillian had given to her husband on that fateful morning.
The pair were arrested and tried at the Belfast Assizes on December 12 1939. A guilty verdict seemed almost inevitable once the prosecution called its star witness, Jane McPherson, a servant employed by the Dowlers. Jane testified that after George's death, his wife, Lillian and the farm hand, James, began sleeping in the same bedroom and even claimed to be married. Around the same time, Jane stopped sleeping upstairs and instead occupied a bedroom next door to the sitting room. But then, in a strange twist, Jane began talking about ghosts:
Prosecution: You were afraid down there? Didn't you say that you had seen a ghost?
Jane: I heard a foot going upstairs and I think that one night I did see Dowler's ghost.
P: Did he (the ghost) not tell you that James Willoughby had tried to drive a horse and cart over him?
J: That always whispering in my mind.
P: Was it the ghost that told you Willoughby slept in the room with Mrs Dowler?
After Jane's creepy testimony, the prosecution went on to prove that Lillian Dowler had purchased strychnine from a chemist in Enniskillen. In a mysterious twist, however, neither Lillian Dowler nor James Willoughby was found guilty of the murder. Both were freed and the death of George Francis Dowler remained unsolved. As for Jane McPherson, she did not return to the farm in County Fermanagh.
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, December 14 1939
Leicester Daily Mercury, December 14 1939.