Sarah Westwood.


Sarah (nee 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. 


On Thursday 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. 

John had 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.


The police 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.


Although 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.

The 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.


Mr. Yardley 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.


Sarah was 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.

The Home 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.


Sarah 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.


She was 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 eight o’clock 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 three women).


Thirty 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.


Back to Contents Page