Sarah Chesham the last woman to be hanged for attempted murder.

Sarah Chesham (nee Parker) was born at Clavering near Saffron Walden in Essex on the 9th of July 1809 and married Richard Chesham at the age of 19 in July 1828.  She was pregnant when they married and gave birth to a daughter whom they christened Harriet on the 8th of February 1829. A further five boys were to follow over the next decade, Philip in 1830, John in 1832, Joseph in 1834, James in 1837 and finally George in 1839.  Richard was a farm labourer so six children must have severely stretched the Chesham’s limited finances.

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 village of Maunden.  Sarah was examined by the magistrates at Newport under the chairmanship of Lord Braybrooke, sitting with Richard Wolfe and the Rev. John Collin.  Lydia Taylor told the court how Sarah had come to visit her during her confinement and of her subsequent actions and conversations.  Mr. Welch, the local doctor explained that Solomon was healthy when born but deteriorated rapidly in late June.  In view of the evidence it was decided to commit Sarah for trial and also to order the exhumation of the bodies of Joseph and James.  This took place a few days later and the bodies were examined by Dr. Brook and Mr. Brown who sent the stomach contents to London for analysis.

1st trial.
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 Guys Hospital told the court that he had found sufficient arsenic in the Joseph’s stomach to have proved fatal.  However Sarah was acquitted after the jury had deliberated for ten minutes as there was no proof that she had administered the poison.  A second jury was empanelled on the following day to hear the case regarding James’ death and came to the same conclusion.  She was further tried for the murder of Solomon Taylor but this case failed for lack of evidence of poison in the child’s stomach and the judge directed that Sarah should be acquitted.  Thomas Newport who was a local farmer was charged with feloniously procuring Sarah to poison Solomon but his case did not proceed.  The acquittals were not well received in the local community and The Times newspaper commented that Sarah was: “an accepted and reputed murderess who walked abroad in a village unchallenged and un-accused, and all the inhabitants had seen her children buried without remark or outcry, though they were clearly convinced that there had been foul play”.

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 Newport police station and a bag of rice and Richard’s stomach contents were sent to Dr. Taylor at Guys Hospital for analysis.  Both were found to contain arsenic and the rice was heavily contaminated with some 16 grains of the poison.  The police also interviewed Sarah’s erstwhile friend, Hannah Philips, who told them of a conversation she had with Sarah about her own unhappy marriage and Sarah’s suggestion for ending it – with arsenic.

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 Chelmsford’s Springfield Prison to await execution.  Clearly Mr. Justice Campbell saw Sarah as a serial poisoner, irrespective of the acquittals in the previous trials.  However there was no Court of Appeal in 1851 and Sarah had no means of challenging his prejudice against her.



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 Springfield Road.

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 Brentwood and who had been tried at the same assizes as Sarah. 

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 London pickpockets were also operating among the crowd.  The bodies were taken down after the customary hour.  Although the law required murderers to be buried within the confines of the gaol, Sarah was convicted of administering poison with intent, rather than murder and therefore her body was allowed to be taken by her son for burial at Clavering. More than 150 spectators apparently watched the body being buried in Clavering churchyard at seven o'clock in the evening, but without any religious ceremony. There is no entry in the burial register. She was the last woman to be hanged in public at Chelmsford and the last woman to die for attempted murder in England and Wales.



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.


Poisoners in East Anglia.

In the decade from 1843 to 1852, 23 women were hanged in England and Wales.  17 were poisoners and of these eight lived in the Eastern Counties of England.  The other seven were Sarah Dazley who poisoned her husband and was hanged at Bedford in 1843.  Eliza Joyce murdered her stepson for which she suffered at Lincoln the following year. Mary Scheming died for the murder of her son in 1845. 17 year old Catherine Foster was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in 1847 for poisoning her husband of three weeks. Mary Ann Milner hanged herself on the eve of her execution at Lincoln Castle having been convicted of the murder of her sister in law.

On Monday the 14th of August 1848, 31 year old Mary May from Wix, near Harwich was hanged at Chelmsford for the murder of her half brother, William Constable who lodged with her for the proceeds of his burial fund.  Some 1400 people had signed a petition to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey but this was rejected as usual in poisoning cases.  Mary claimed that Sarah’s activities had influenced her decision to poison William.

Mary Emily Cage was hanged at Ipswich in 1851 for the murder of her husband, James.


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