Parker, born c. 1801) and John Westwood had been married for some twenty years
by 1843 and lived in the parish of Burntwood near Lichfield in Staffordshire.John was a nail maker and was assisted in his
small business by his son, seventeen year old Charles.It seems the family were fairly poor.The household, by 1843, comprised Sarah,
John, Charles and four younger daughters. Three older children had already left
home.Additionally there was a lodger, named Samuel Phillips who had lived with the Westwoods for some seven years and whom Sarah was believed
to be having an affair with.There had
certainly been quarrels between John, Sarah and Samuel.One of these took place on September the 2nd
in the street and was witnessed, the two men fighting and rolling around on the
ground while Sarah watched.John is
alleged to have screamed at Samuel “Damn your eyes, what was you doing at her
when I knocked you down?” Sarah was shouting at Samuel to kill John.When the fight subsided Sarah threatened to
leave John.Another violent quarrel was
witnessed by John’s brother, Robert Westwood, at his home.
the 9th of November John and Charles returned home to lunch as normal and John
had some gruel, bread and meat for his meal.He was in the habit of reading a few pages from the bible after lunch
and then having a brief nap before returning to work.On this afternoon he rapidly complained of
stomach pains and soon began vomiting.Charles came home from work later in the afternoon and heard his mother
ask John if he wanted her to get the local surgeon in to see him.For whatever reason he
refused this and died later in the evening.
been in generally good health prior to this day and so his death was regarded
as suspicious and a post mortem was ordered.This was carried out by Mr. Charles Chevasse
of Lichfield who found a large quantity of
arsenic in John’s stomach so an inquest was therefore held.This took place before the Staffordshire
Coroner, Mr. Thomas Philips, and returned a verdict of poisoning against Sarah
who was arrested on Monday the 20th of November by Inspector John Raymond from
nearby Shenstone police station and taken to Stafford Gaol.On the way Sarah complained to the inspector
that she could not obtain bail.He told
her that bail would be out of the question on a murder charge to which she
replied that no one could prove she had murdered John.
investigated the source of the arsenic and were able to trace the purchase of
it to Heighways Chemists in Walsall,
some ten miles away. On the
1st of November 1843 Sarah had gone to the shop with Hannah Mason
who was Samuel’s mother and known locally as “a wise woman”.Hannah made a special remedy for a common
complaint known as “the itch” which contained four ingredients, hellebore, red
precipitate, white precipitate and arsenic.Hannah mixed up the ingredients in the shop.On the 8th of November Sarah returned alone
to Heighways where she was able to purchase a further
supply of the chemicals, as they remembered her having come in a few days
previously with Hannah whom they trusted.This time the chemicals were left in their separate packets.
there were normally only two assizes a year at Stafford,
when there were large numbers of criminals awaiting trial a third could be
organised and this took place on Thursday the 28th of December 1843. Baron Rolfe was the
presiding judge, Mr. Corbett led the prosecution,
assisted by Mr. Cope and Mr. Yardley led for the defence.Various witnesses were called by the
prosecution, including ten year old Eliza Westwood, who recounted asking her
mother what the white powder was in her father’s gruel.Both she and her brother Charles also told
the court that none of the children suffered from “the itch” which was the
alleged reason for buying the chemicals.Hannah Mason told of the shopping expedition to Walsall
at the beginning of November.
forensic evidence was presented and as usual evidence to show that John had
been in good health immediately before lunch on the day of his death.In his submission to the jury Mr. Corbett
suggested that Sarah wanted to be rid of John so that she could have Samuel
Philips and that this was the motive for the murder.
addressed the jury for some three hours in Sarah’s defence and did all he could
to show that she may not have been guilty.He reminded them that Sarah had asked John if she wanted her to send for
the doctor but that it was he who had refused medical attention.He suggested that John may have committed
suicide as he had been depressed since the early summer.His efforts were to no avail and it took the
jury just fifteen minutes to find Sarah guilty.They made a recommendation to mercy, but when the foreman was asked why
by Baron Rolfe he could offer no reason for doing so.Sarah continued to protest her innocence and
then claimed she was pregnant.A panel
of matrons was sworn and within an hour they declared her not to be with child.
visited in Stafford Gaol by her son Charles and daughter Harriet but Samuel
Phillips was not permitted to see her which caused her much distress.
Secretary, Sir James Graham, found no reason to intervene in the case,
so an execution date of Saturday
the 13th of January 1844 was set.
received the sacrament from the Reverend George Norman on Friday the 12th but
was so weak that she had to be carried to and from the prison chapel.Despite his entreaties she resolutely refused
to make a confession.
reported to have slept little on the Friday night but to have managed two cups
of tea and some bread and butter on the Saturday morning.Sarah had to be helped to the gallows by two
warders and once on the platform was allowed to sit on a stool while George
Smith, Stafford’s hangman, made the
preparations.She was attended by the
usual officials, the under sheriff, the governor and the chaplain.Her last words were reported as “It’s hard to
die for a thing one’s innocent of”.At Smith released the trap
doors and Sarah and the stool dropped.The execution was witnessed by a large crowd, comprising a majority of
woman.It would seem that her sufferings
were quickly over.She was the last
woman to suffer at Stafford and her body was
buried within the precincts of the gaol, the ninth interment there (six men and
women and two teenage girls were to be executed in England and Scotland in the
thirty one year period from May 1838 to the abolition of public hanging in May
1868.Of these twenty one had been
convicted of poisoning (two thirds of the total).A total of twenty two women were hanged in
the decade 1843 – 1852 of whom seventeen had been convicted of murder by
poisoning, representing 77% of the total. There were no female executions in
the years 1840 – 1842 in England.
This rash of poisonings led to a Bill being introduced whereby only adult males
could purchase arsenic.Poisoning was
considered a particularly evil crime as it is totally premeditated and thus it
was extremely rare for a poisoner to be reprieved.