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
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.
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
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 continued unabated.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 identity parade.
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
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
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
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. The LPC4 form
height as 5' 0 1/2" and her weight 123 1/2 lbs. †She was given a drop 8' 5". †Measured afterwards it was 8' 7Ē from her
heels to the top surface of the platform.†
Cause of death was stated as "Definite dislocation of the cervical
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
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 murder.