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.
There’s something very sad about reading a death certificate. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person or not or if he or she died over 150 years ago. Reading the details of a person’s death fills me with a sense of poignancy and, over the last few years, I’ve read so many relating to Christiana Edmunds' nearest and dearest. But there’s one death certificate that has really stood out and not because it had me in floods of tears. Louisa Edmunds, one of Christiana’s younger sisters, allegedly died from having a heavy period and there’s something a little bit WTF about a death attribution like that. In fact, her death certificate cites “menorrhagia for some months” as the primary cause of death and lists “exhaustion and effusion” for five days as the secondary causes.
Menorrhagia is a term still used by doctors to denote heavy menstrual bleeding but I can’t find any modern references to show that death is a possible consequence. That’s not to say that menorrhagia isn’t potentially dangerous but it’s not the period that’s the problem, it’s the underlying cause. We now know that menorrhagia has a wide range of causes, from fibroids and endometriosis, to thyroid disease and cancer. It is very possible, then, that Louisa had some sort of underlying gynaecological complaint but such knowledge has come a century too late.
Louisa wasn’t the only person with a cause of death to make you scratch your head. Yorkshire Archives have recently released the notebooks of Thomas Taylor, who was the county’s coroner from 1852 to 1900. They list the causes of death for over 17000 people and include:
And, my personal favourite:
Sarah Hughes, a lady who was frightened to death as a result of a “riotous mob.”
They sound ridiculous, I know, but they demonstrate the importance of never accepting a death attribution at face value. They are, however, extremely useful in giving us a glimpse into the Victorian medical mindset and, sometimes, a bit of a giggle.
On 12 June 1871, the Chocolate Cream Poisoner, Christiana Edmunds, claimed her first victim. He was Sidney Barker, a four-year-old boy on holiday in Brighton with his parents, and he died suddenly after eating one of Christiana’s chocolate creams. Of course, nobody knew that Christiana was responsible for Sidney’s untimely death nor that she had adulterated the creams with strychnine, one of the most deadly poisons in existence. But they did know that Sidney had been a healthy boy, with no existing medical complaints and the convulsions which caused his death had begun within a few moments of eating the chocolate cream. Their suspicions prompted the doctor, Richard Rugg, to contact the police and the Brighton coroner: the first stage in the process of investigating an unexplained death in Victorian England.
David Back had been Brighton’s coroner since the creation of the office in 1854. Black was a lawyer by trade and a partner in one of the town’s largest law firms, Black and Freeman. Like other Victorian coroners, Black had never received any medical training – a fact which might seem odd to modern readers – but was very much the norm during the nineteenth century. In some respect, Black didn’t really need it: his role was to organise an inquest, not to personally determine the cause of Sidney’s death. He left this responsibility to Richard Rugg, whom he instructed to conduct a post-mortem and which took place the day after the boy’s death. In the meantime, Black issued a warrant to between 12 and 24 “good and lawful men” to act as jurors and arranged for the inquest to take place as soon as Rugg’s results were in.
Victorian inquests were very different to their modern counterparts. For a start, they usually took place in the nearest pub – a far cry from the official surroundings of today’s coroner’s court. The coroner, the jury and the witnesses were not exempt from having a drink or two and some inquests naturally turned into rather raucous affairs. To make matters worse, the corpse was generally taken into the inquest and put on public display, often prompting a stream of onlookers, many of whom were already the worse for drink and feeling rowdy. There are many instances of people laughing at and mocking the coroner, interrupting the witnesses and being generally bothersome and anti-social. In some cases, this rowdiness extended to members of the victim’s family. An inquest into the death of three children in Ely in 1847, for example, was described by one spectator as being “totally devoid of any moral feeling.” The father of one of the children was so drunk that he could only be roused for long enough to say that the murderer had done the right thing while one mother did nothing but utter “obscene language.” There are no such reports in the case of Sidney Barker, suggesting that his inquest was a far more sombre and respectful affair – or perhaps that rowdy inquests were so common it didn’t merit a mention. I’m not going to reveal the details of Sidney’s inquest here – you will have to wait for the book! – but I will say that his death was ruled as accidental, giving Christiana the opportunity to escape detection and prosecution. But Sidney Barker had never been her intended target and, in her mind, she had unfinished business.