Sarah Ann French.
The French’s had been married some seven years and lived in a cottage at Chiddingly in East Sussex with their one young son. William worked as a farm labourer with his brother, John, on a farm at Chiddingly and was seen in good health by John on Christmas Eve 1851. The next time John saw his brother was on January 7th 1852 after his death. John recounted to the court how when he got to the cottage Sarah was in the living room weeping and was being comforted by a neighbour. The local rumour mill began to run wild as to the cause of William’s death and this led to a visit to her by the Parish constable and also to the body being exhumed for post-mortem. As this found arsenic poisoning Sarah was arrested, charged and held for the next assizes.
On Friday March the 19th 1852, 27 year old Sarah Ann French was indicted for the wilful murder of her husband, William, before Mr. Baron Parke at the Sussex Lent Assizes at Lewis, the case concluding the following day. A Mr. Johnson and a Mr. Creasy conducted the prosecution and the judge appointed a Mr. Rodwell to assist Sarah.
A witness, whose name was not recorded, was called to show that Sarah possessed arsenic.
William’s body was examined by a Mr. Holman, a local surgeon, on the 10th of January and suspected poisoning so retained samples of the stomach and intestines for analysis by one Dr. Taylor. He gave evidence of finding arsenic in the samples.
Sarah’s friend Elizabeth Seale told the court that on January the 5th, she and Sarah were walking past Hollingley church where Sarah and William had married and that Sarah had said that “she had gone down that road once too often.”
Mary Bennett gave evidence that on the Monday before William’s death she had seen Sarah who told her she had to hurry home because she did not want William to find out that she had been out.
Damning evidence was presented by 20 year
old James Hickman who had been the former boyfriend of Sarah’s sister
Jane. He and Jane had split up and he
began to visit Sarah on the pretext of reading stories to the little boy when
he was ill. Sarah made it clear that she
liked him. If William was out she would sit
on his knee and kiss him and tell him she loved him, according to his
testimony. She had also told him she had
some £500 and would like to marry him if she became single again. Under examination he admitted that they had
had sex after William’s death.
Sarah’s counsel, Mr. Rodwell, conceded that William’s death had been caused by arsenic but contended that there was no proof that Sarah had administered it and that it could just as likely have been administered by James Hickman to remove William so that Sarah would marry him.
The jury retired for two hours before returning with a question. Whilst they accepted that William had been poisoned some of them thought that Sarah had done it and some thought Hickman had. Baron Parke explained to the jury that even if they thought that Hickman may have been the one who poisoned William, if they believed that the act was done with Sarah’s knowledge and/or connivance then she was just as guilty as if she herself had killed William and therefore the proper verdict was still guilty of “wilful murder”. In fact no proceedings were ever instituted against Hickman.
They then bought back a verdict of guilty and Sarah was sentenced to die. She was in a state of near collapse and had to be assisted from the dock. On return to Lewis Gaol she was well looked after and made something of a recovery.
Sarah’s death warrant was received on the Wednesday the 7th of April and the execution set for noon on Saturday the 10th of April. The New Drop gallows was erected in front of the gaol on the Thursday.
Before hand she had confessed to the murder and on the day of execution appeared to be very weak and in an agitated state. Just before noon the Under Sheriff demanded her body from the governor. Calcraft then pinioned her. She had to be supported by two turnkeys (warders) for the walk to the gallows and also on the drop. Calcraft made the usual preparations and Sarah was hanged just after midday. She struggled hard for two or three minutes before becoming still in front of a crowd, estimated at between 3 and 4,000. A large body of police were in attendance to control the crowd.
After hanging for one hour Sarah’s body was taken down for burial within the prison grounds.
Reading the newspaper accounts of the case it is unclear whether Hickman had the depth of feeling for Sarah that she had for him. He gave evidence against her and was in court on the Saturday morning to hear her sentenced, apparently sitting emotionless whilst she was. He seemed concerned about the relationship early on as she was still married but probably like most young men was flattered by the attention of an older woman. After William’s death it appeared that he tried to comfort her. Whether he really knew that his death was to facilitate their relationship is not known.
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