was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1904, her
maiden name being McHugh. Little is known of her childhood, but by age 19 she
was a nice looking girl with raven black hair and attractive eyes who
fraternised with the British soldiers in the Province and was nicknamed
"Darkie" by them. She was illiterate, ill educated and notably
promiscuous. Her activities were strongly disapproved of by the Republicans and
she was threatened with tarring and feathering - a fate that befell quite a few
girls who went out with British soldiers during "The Troubles." Charlotte is pictured right
with one of her babies when she was in her late 20's.
she met Frederick Bryant who was eight years her senior. Frederick was serving
as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He had served in the army
during the 1st World War and was described as a simple country lad. He
immediately fell for Charlotte's physical charms. When Frederick's tour of duty
ended, he returned to England and Charlotte went with him.
They married a little while later at Wells in Somerset. Frederick resumed civilian
life as a farm labourer and by 1925, was working as a cowman at a farm near
Yeovil, in the village of Over Compton. Like most small
rural villages there was little to do and even less excitement. Social life
revolved round the local pub. In the 13 years of their marriage, Charlotte gave Frederick 5 children,
although whether he was the father of all of them is open to question.
Charlotte was very highly sexed and
soon became bored with village life, compared to the excitement of life around
the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending
soldiers and a good sex life. She didn't work as such and spent her days
drinking and indulging in a little prostitution - one feels as much for the sex
as for the money. She was known as Black Bess or Killarney Kate by the
villagers and was thought of as a drunken slut. Surprisingly, Frederick seemed
indifferent to these "goings on" to use an expression of the time. As
he told a neighbour "I don't care what she does. Four
pounds a week is better than 30 shillings" (£1.50 a week, which he earned
as a cowman).
December 1933, Charlotte met Leonard
Edward Parsons, a horse trader and gypsy, who took up lodgings in the Bryant's
cottage and with whom she had an affair. In 1934, Frederick Bryant was sacked
from his job as a farm labourer, as his employer was not happy about what was
going on in his tied cottage. They then moved to the village of Coombe, near Sherborne, where again
Frederick found employment
as a farm labourer. The move did not change the domestic circumstances, Parsons
simply moved with them and his and Charlotte's affair
Parsons did not live with the Bryants on a permanent
basis but rather stayed there between business trips. He had a common law wife,
Priscilla Loveridge, by whom he had fathered four
children. Initially Parsons and Frederick Bryant appeared to get on quite well
and drank together in the local pub. Domestic life, however, was somewhat
different with Charlotte and Parsons sharing the marital bed while Frederick had to sleep on
the sofa on occasion.
Frederick could stand the
situation no longer and ordered Parsons to leave. Charlotte went too and she
and Parsons rented rooms in Dorchester. She soon
returned to the family home however. A few days later all three had a meeting
and Parsons was allowed back into the house. It appeared that Charlotte had become
totally besotted with Parsons,† and though he enjoyed her sexual
favours, her love was not returned and the relationship began to deteriorate.
This was something however, she was to deny at her trial.
The murder. In
May 1935, Frederick, who was then 39 years old, was taken ill for the first
time, immediately after eating the lunch that Charlotte had cooked. He had
severe stomach pains. Helped by a neighbour who induced vomiting, he began to
feel a little easier. The doctor came to see him and diagnosed
gastro-enteritis, and after a few days, Frederick Bryant returned to work. A
further attack followed in August and again Frederick made a full recovery. In
November 1935, Parsons dropped a huge bombshell into Charlotte's life by
announcing that he was leaving. His stated reason was the lack of work in that
part of Dorset, although the deterioration in Charlotte's looks may have
had far more to do with it.
On December the 11th, 1935, Frederick was again taken
ill with severe stomach pains from which, once more, he recovered. Charlotte continued to
search for Parsons in the local pubs but without success. She did, however,
form a new relationship with a woman called Lucy Ostler
who was a widow with 7 children. Lucy moved into the Bryant's home and
witnessed Frederick's final attack on
the night of December the 22nd, 1935. He once again
suffered extremely severe stomach pains. This time it was so bad that he was
admitted to hospital in Sherborne where he died in the afternoon of the 23rd.
His death was regarded as suspicious by the doctors and therefore a post mortem
was carried out. Analysis of his tissues by Home Office pathologist, Dr. Roche
Lynch, found 4.09 grains of arsenic in the body. These findings were reported
to Dorset Constabulary who visited Charlotte and removed her
and the children to a workhouse in Sturminster Newton
while they conducted a minute search of the Bryant's cottage and garden. Of the
150 odd samples sent to the Home Office laboratory, 32 contained arsenic. Among
the items recovered was a burnt tin which had contained an arsenic-based weed
killer. Armed with this vital piece of information, the police systematically
visited all the local chemists shops to try and establish where the weed killer
had been purchased and by whom. Their efforts bore fruit and they discovered a
Yeovil chemist who had sold a tin of the weed killer to a woman who only signed
the poisons register with an X. (remember, Charlotte could not write,
a fact known to all who knew her). The chemist, however, was unable to identify
either Charlotte or Lucy Ostler in a subsequent
On February the 10th, 1936, Charlotte who
was still at the workhouse in SturminsterNewton, was arrested and charged with the murder of her
husband. She is reported to have told the officers that arrested her, "I
haven't got poison from anywhere and that people know. I don't see how they can
say I poisoned my husband."
The trial. The
trial opened on Wednesday, May
the 27th,1936, at the Dorset Assizes in Dorchester before Mr.
Justice MacKinnon. It was to last just four days, which was by no means unusual
in capital murder trials in those days. As it was a high profile poisoning
case, the prosecution case was led by the Solicitor-General, Sir Terrence
O'Connor. Charlotte was defended by
the well known barrister Mr. J.D. Casswell KC.
Charlotte is shown here at
argued that the case was a classic eternal triangle and that Charlotte poisoned her husband
to be able to have Parsons. They could not show direct evidence that Charlotte
either bought or administered the arsenic although the circumstantial evidence
supported this theory. Lucy Ostler testified against Charlotte and told the
court that on the night Frederick died, Charlotte had made him an Oxo drink and that he was violently sick after taking it.
She also related how she had explained to Charlotte what an inquest
was and alleged that Charlotte had told her that
she hated Frederick and only stayed
with him because of the children. She told the court about the tin of weed
killer and how Charlotte had said that she
would have to get rid of it.
She mentioned how she had found the remains of burnt clothing in the boiler and
then discovered the remains of the tin amongst the ashes which she had thrown
into the yard where the police discovered it. The burnt remains of the tin are
Mr. Casswell was unable to shake Lucy Ostler
who stuck to her damning allegations against Charlotte. Leonard Parsons'
testimony did not help her case either. He told the court how they had
intercourse on numerous occasions. Nowadays, this may not seem shocking but in
1936, promiscuity and adultery were considered totally unacceptable and had the
effect of painting Charlotte as a
"scarlet" woman - something that probably bore considerable weight
with the jury.
evidence was presented by Dr. Roche Lynch who had analysed the various samples
taken from the Bryant's home. He demonstrated to the court how arsenic could be
dissolved in Oxo and not be spotted by a person
drinking it. He also told the court that he had found that the ashes from the
boiler in which Charlotte was alleged to have tried to destroy the weed killer
tin contained 149 parts per million of arsenic whereas ashes normally contained
around 45 parts per million. Altogether 30 witnesses had testified for the
prosecution and painted a dire picture of the woman in the dock.
Mr. Casswell called Charlotte as a witness with some
trepidation, but in fact she did much better than he expected. She denied
knowing about poison or possessing any weed killer. She also demonstrated to
the court that an old coat in which traces of arsenic had been found and which
it was alleged that she had worn when she bought the weed killer, did not fit
her at all.
Interestingly, she told the court that she was pleased when Parsons left their
house and that she had lost interest in him, rather than the other way round.
older children gave evidence next, but their testimony was in fact very
damaging to their mother's case. They related how she had asked Ernest, her
older son, to dispose of some blue bottles in late December. Her daughter,
Lily, told how she had seen Parsons with a blue bottle whose contents had fizzed
when poured onto a stone by Parsons in front of Charlotte.
Once all the evidence had been heard and the closing statements made by
both sides, Mr. Justice MacKinnon commenced the summing up. He asked the jury
to consider two principle questions - was Frederick Bryant poisoned with
arsenic and if so, was that arsenic administered by Charlotte. He noted that Charlotte had been present
on each occasion her husband had been ill and that two of the bouts of sickness
had occurred before Lucy Ostler (a possible suspect)
had come into the household.
Saturday the 30th, the jury after deliberating for just an hour returned a
verdict of guilty against Charlotte. When asked if
she had anything to say before sentence was passed, she replied in a calm voice
"I am not guilty." Mr. Justice MacKinnon had the black cap placed
upon his wig and then passed the only sentence the law permitted in 1936. He
sentenced her to be taken hence to the prison in which she had been last
confined and from there to a place of execution where she was to be hanged by
her neck until she was dead. Her body to be buried in the
precincts of the prison in which she was last confined. To which he
added the customary rider "and may the Lord have mercy upon your
soul" There was considerable emotion in the court and Mr. Justice
MacKinnon seemed to have difficulty saying these dread words to her. On hearing
her sentence, Charlotte broke down and
was led sobbing from the dock.
the trial, Mr. Caswell received a letter from a Professor Bone who had read
about the case in his Sunday paper. He told Mr. Caswell that far from 149 parts
per million of arsenic that Dr. Roche had found in the ashes was on the low
side for ashes and certainly not an unusually high amount, as Dr. Roche had told
the court. Professor Bone later provided the defence with a signed statement to
this effect. Charlotte's appeal was
heard on the 29th of June at the Appeal Court in London. Amazingly, the Appeal Court refused to hear
the evidence of Professor Bone and concluded that even if the jury had been
correctly advised by Dr. Roche, that the outcome of the trial would have been
the same. Thus her appeal was denied and her sentence stood. At this time, it
would have been unprecedented for the Court of Appeal to admit new evidence -
it just concerned itself with the conduct of the trial. However, one could
argue that Professor Bone's statement was not new evidence but rather a
correction of flawed evidence that had already been given at the original trial
by the prosecution's "expert" witness.
In the condemned cell. Charlotte spent almost 6
weeks in the condemned cell, where her once raven hair had turned completely
white, presumably due to the stress of her situation. She decided, after much
agonising, against seeing her children as she felt it would be too much for
them to bear. She was visited regularly by Father Barney, a Catholic priest,
who prayed with her and had a small altar set up in her cell.
She began to learn to read and write with the help of the shifts of female
warders who looked after her round the clock and was able to dictate a telegram
to the King asking for clemency. She also wrote a letter in which she said
"It is all fault ............ I'm here. I listened to the tales I was
told. But I have not got long now and I will be out of my troubles. God bless
my children." The Home Office obliterated the name in this note so we will
never know whose fault Charlotte thought it was.
A lot had
been going on behind the scenes to try and save Charlotte. Sir Stafford
Cripps, at that time a Member of Parliament, had applied to the Home Secretary
to declare a mistrial and order a new one on the grounds of the flawed
evidence. Questions had also been raised in the House of Parliament about the
case and the usual petitions got up.
There appeared to be an unwritten rule at the Home Office that poisoners should
not be reprieved and this practice was followed in Charlotte's case. On the Tuesday (the day before her execution), the Home Secretary,
Sir John Simon, declined on the advice of his officials to grant a reprieve or
a new trial. The prison governor had the unpleasant job of communicating
this to Charlotte and telling her
that the execution would take place, as planned, the following morning.
Charlotte was neither confined or hanged at Dorchester prison (in the county in
which she was convicted and sentenced) although it continued to have an
execution chamber which was last used for the hanging of David Jennings in July
1941. Instead she was sent to Exeter jail, in
neighbouring Devon, to await execution.
Although nobody was executed at Dorchester during this time,
the condemned cell may have been in use for a prisoner who was subsequently
reprieved. Charlotte was led to the
gallows at on Wednesday, July the 15th, 1936 by Tom
Pierrepoint assisted by Thomas Phillips. By an odd coincidence, a man called
George Bryant (no relation) had been hanged the previous day at Wandsworth.
the norm, by 1936 Charlotte's execution was
an entirely secret affair and there were no reporters present. However, she was
attended by a Catholic priest, Father Barney, who was not bound by Home Office
rules of secrecy. He later described her last moments as "truly
edifying." "She met her end with Christian fortitude." He
reported, however, that she never confessed to the murder.
In accordance with her sentence, after autopsy, her body was buried in the
grounds of the prison, probably at lunch time, that same day. Charlotte left the tiny sum
of 5 shillings and 8 pence halfpenny (about 29p) to her children, who being now
orphaned, were taken into the care of Dorset County Council.
Arsenic poisoning. Arsenic
is a metallic poison and was one of the most frequently used poisons by
murderers. It was still quite readily available in 1936, particularly in the
agricultural and leather tanning industries. The poisonís register had to be
signed when arsenic weed killers and rat poisons were purchased from chemist's
It causes vomiting and diarrhoea and its effects are cumulative. Thus it can be
administered little by little over a long period of time, rather than in one
large and noticeable (to the victim) dose. It builds up in the tissues and
particularly in the hair and nails of the victim. By 1936, it was easily
spotted by forensic scientists. A century earlier in 1836, English chemist,
James Marsh, had developed a reliable test for arsenic in body tissues. His
process was very sensitive and could detect as little as a fiftieth of a
milligram of the substance. Prior to that it often went undetected when stomach
upsets, dysentery and gastro-enteritis were all common and quite often fatal.
This was due to the poor hygiene standards and lack of refrigeration in those
most prolific female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, used arsenic to poison
anything up to 20 victims in 1860's and early 1870's and nearly got away with
view of the seriously flawed forensic evidence, should Charlotte have been granted
a re-trial? Personally I think that on the balance of probability, she was
guilty, but this piece of totally incorrect evidence surely made her conviction
unsafe and unsatisfactory to use the modern term. The witness evidence and
circumstantial evidence remains strong and it is probable that the right
decision was reached. However, flawed evidence leads to a lack of public
confidence in the justice system.
wonders how much Charlotte's lowly status
and acknowledged promiscuity played in the decision to neither
reprieve her or grant a new trial. Sadly, Britain was very much a
class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at
the bottom of the social pile - an illiterate, immoral slut. Were people like
her simply expendable and their well publicised executions considered as a good
lesson to other women not to stray from the "straight and narrow"
paths of morality, as perceived by a male dominated society? It is noteworthy
that Edith Thompson too seems to have been hanged more for immorality than