Sarah Freeman - The Shapwick Murders.
Sarah Dimond had
been reportedly born in 1817 to “poor but honest parents”, Charles and Mary Dimond and had received some education at the village
school at Shapwick near
Sarah is thought to have administered arsenic to her husband Henry, brother, Charles, illegitimate son, James, and her mother, Mary, all of whom had died, although she was technically only convicted of poisoning her brother, Charles Dimond, at her one day trial, as in the usual way the Crown only proceeded with the strongest case. The murders of her husband and son had taken place some 18 months earlier and it was only the murder of Charles that alerted the authorities to the possibility that they may have been other victims and their bodies were exhumed and the organs for analysis, which proved positive. Henry had been a member of a death club and Sarah would have benefited from the £20 proceeds of what was an early form of life insurance.
While on remand it was reported that Sarah suffered from several epileptic fits and at one point was not expected to live to stand trial.
The Somerset Lent Assizes opened in
Sarah’s case came before the court on Saturday the 5th with Mr. Sergeant Kinglake and Mr. Rawlinson appearing for the Crown and Mr. Stock for the defense. Evidence was given by William Hare who worked at the chemist’s in Bridgwater of Sarah purchasing three pennies worth of arsenic from the shop on the 9th of December 1844. She obtained the poison by saying that she knew Edmund Durston, the local postman, who also gave evidence against her.
Next up was her brother John Dimond who testified that Sarah had gone to live with his family at Shapwick on a Monday in December 1844 as an unwelcome guest. On the following Sunday their mother died and approaching Christmas it was decided that Sarah would have to leave the house. Charles Dimond now fell ill and soon died, having eaten various foods prepared by Sarah. Various other witnesses gave evidence against her in relation to the poisoning and Charles’ rapid deterioration. Constable James Eardley related how he had arrested Sarah on January the 1st, 1845 and when he had told her that she was charged with the murders of her mother and brother she remained silent. He had searched her belongings and the Dimond’s house but did not find any arsenic.
Surgeon Edward Phillips attended Charles
prior to death and described his symptoms as at first being like English
Cholera. After death he took samples for
analysis which were sent to Mr. Herapath of
This concluded the prosecution’s case and Mr. Stock then opened for the defence. He explained to the jury that they had to be satisfied that arsenic had indeed been the cause of death and if they were that Sarah had administered it. He also tried to persuade the jury that there was no evidence of motive or malice in the killing and that there was at least reasonable doubt. Mr. Justice Coleridge then gave a careful and painstaking summing up for the jury, who retired for just a quarter of an hour before returning with a guilty verdict. Sarah was then sentenced to death and afterwards exclaimed to the judge “Justice has not been done me, my life has been unfairly taken away” before being returned to Wilton Gaol.
In the condemned cell.
On the 10th of April she made a statement in which she implicated her brother John and continued to maintain her own innocence. Brother John visited her on the 14th and got a very hostile reception, according to contemporary reports. Sarah had made a new cap for herself while in prison and told the female warders that “she was not going up there (to the gallows) looking a perfect fright.” Sarah slept well on the Tuesday night prior to execution and rose at 6 am and managed some breakfast. She was visited by the chaplain, the under sheriff and the governor to all of whom she continued to protest her innocence. She admitted that she had bought the arsenic but claimed that her brother John had stolen it and administered it to her mother and Charles. At 10 am she attended a service in the chapel and received the sacrament.
Just before 11.00 am on the Wednesday morning the 23rd of April 1845 Sarah’s arms and wrists were pinioned and then the usual procession ascended the stairs to the top of the gatehouse of Wilton Gaol where the gallows had been erected. Sarah prayed with the chaplain while William Calcraft made the final preparations. Her last words were “I am as innocent as a lamb.” Calcraft drew the white hood over her head and placed the noose around her neck. He then drew the bolt and she died after a brief struggle in front of an estimated at 10,000 witnesses, including reporters. At noon her body was taken down for burial within the prison.
Was Sarah innocent or was she a serial killer who was simply in total denial of her crimes? Although arsenic poisoning could be proved in Charles’ case and Sarah admitted purchasing it, no one actually saw her administer the poison to his food (or to the other victims) so the evidence was largely circumstantial although there was a plausible motive in that John and Charles wanted her to leave the family home and she had no where to go so if her mother died the men in the family would allow her to stay to keep house for them. As was often the case there were far too many victims and this was widely reported in the press, prior to trial. Does reading such information influence the minds of jurors?
On the Thursday after Sarah’s execution one
George Davis made a statement which was published in the press telling how
Sarah had wanted to be with him in 1840 . They lived
together for six weeks. Some three years later, after the death of her husband,
Sarah wrote to George and suggested that she had money including the £20 from
the death club on which they could get married.
He replied that he was going to be working in