Sarah Chesham the last woman to be hanged for attempted murder.
Sarah Chesham (nee Parker) was born at Clavering near Saffron Walden in
In January 1845 two of the boys, Joseph and James, became ill with vomiting and severe stomach pains. They were attended by a the local doctor, Dr. Hawkes, who ultimately issued a death certificate saying that they had died of English cholera, which was a common disease at this time. At this stage there was no official suspicion against Sarah and the two boys were buried in the same coffin in Clavering churchyard. However there was considerable gossip in the village. The authorities began to take notice after the death of another child 18 months later.
In August 1846 Sarah was
investigated in the death of Solomon Taylor who was the illegitimate child of a
woman named Lydia Taylor from the nearby
Sarah was tried for the murders of her sons at the Essex Lent Assizes, beginning on Thursday the 11th of March 1847, before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Denman. Dr. Taylor from
2nd arrest and trial.
Richard Chesham died in May of 1850 and was buried at Clavering on the 24th of May, at the age of 43. Richard had lung disease but also had various bouts of severe stomach pain and sickness over the preceding year. The local police were suspicious and ordered an autopsy which revealed traces of arsenic in Richard’s stomach. After Sarah’s arrest the house was searched by Superintendent John Clarke from
Sarah, now aged 41, once more came to trial at the Essex Lent
Assizes in March 1851 before Mr. Justice Campbell. Messrs Bodkin and Clark
appeared for the prosecution and the court appointed counsel for Sarah. She was charged with feloniously administering
poison to her husband Richard with intent to kill him. Mr. Hawkes, a
doctor from Saffron Walden gave evidence that Sarah had fed Richard with milk
thickened with flour or rice and that she would not allow anyone else to feed
him during his illness. Hannah Philips
told the court of conversations she had had with Sarah regarding the murder of
Richard. In her defence Sarah made a
lengthy and rambling statement that singularly failed to impress the jury who
took little time to convict her. Mr. Justice Campbell seemed overcome with
emotion, unlike the woman he was about to sentence and had some difficulty
passing the death sentence on her.
However he did and told her that he concurred with the verdict and stated
that she had confessed to the murders of her two children. She was thus returned to
The gallows was erected on the flat roof of the prison gatehouse on
the Monday the 24th of March 1851. The prison had been built in 1825 and the gatehouse
was in the centre of the frontage of the building on
Sarah, protesting her innocence till the last, shared the scaffold
with Samuel Drory who had been convicted of
strangling his pregnant girlfriend, Jael Denny at Doddinghurst near
Just after 9 am on the Tuesday morning (the 25th of March 1851) the
pair were pinioned by William Calcraft
in a room below the gallows. Drory mounted the
scaffold at 9.20 am followed by Sarah a few moments later, supported on either
side by female matrons as her legs had become badly swollen in the condemned
cell and she had difficulty walking. The
two were quickly hooded and noosed and Calcraft went below to operate the
drop. Sarah’s struggles lasted some
three minutes, although Drory struggled only very
briefly. A crowd estimated at 6-7,000
watched the execution with a majority of the audience being female. It is reported that several
The activities of “Sally Arsenic” as Sarah was dubbed by the media and other female poisoners, finally reached the notice of parliament. Up to 1851 arsenic was cheap and freely available from chemists and other sources. It was used to kill vermin, dip sheep, as a tonic and as a colourant for wall paper. However it was also being widely used to kill unwanted husbands and children and thus after sustained pressure from the media, the Earl of Carlisle introduced the Sale of Arsenic Regulation Bill in early 1851. This required the supplier to keep a register showing the name of the person making the purchase, the amount bought and the reason for buying it. The purchaser had to sign the register. The seller could only sell to persons they knew or if they didn’t know them to persons accompanied by a witness who could verify their identity and who had also to sign the register. From now on arsenic had to be coloured for normal sized purchases. Uncoloured arsenic could only be bought in a minimum quantity of 10 lbs. The Bill received the approval of the House of Lords on the day before Sarah was hanged and was originally to have contained a clause banning women from purchasing the substance although this was later dropped.
In the decade from 1843 to 1852, 23 women were hanged in
On Monday the 14th of August 1848, 31 year old Mary May from Wix, near Harwich was hanged at
Mary Emily Cage was hanged at
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