Fights, arson, poisonings – the career of John Pilley – Part Five

We last left Sarah Chesham in 1847 having been found not guilty of the murders of Solomon Taylor and her own two sons Joseph and James. Despite this, life did not get any better for Sarah.

Three years later in May 1850 Sarah Chesham’s husband Richard died. Richard had been suffering from lung disease, but in the year prior to his death had suffered from bouts of severe stomach pains and sickness. This of course roused local suspicions and a postmortem was performed and an inquest held. The investigation revealed there were traces of arsenic in his stomach. Again, Sarah’s house was searched, and a bag of rice was sent to the same Dr Taylor who had been involved in the previous cases, as well as Richard’s stomach contents. It was discovered that the rice contained around 16 grains of arsenic – enough to kill about six people. John Pilley’s wife had been present in the house when it was being searched. She said that Sarah seemed concerned about the rice being taken, kept repeating “Don’t take the rice, it is my father’s rice.” Sarah’s father Mr Parker had lived with her for the last two years, he had been ill for about 14- 15 weeks. He complained of stomach pains, he first thought he had strained himself cutting chaff. He tried to go back to work but couldn’t. He said that he had eaten two meals from the bag of rice before it was taken away.

Sarah gave evidence to say she had never given her husband any of the rice. She said that she knew her two sons had died from arsenic poisoning, but that it was not by her hand. She also agreed that she had said after the case that Thomas Newport was the cause of her son’s deaths. She said she had never had arsenic in the house. Sarah’s mother in law however, said she had seen Sarah given rice to Richard several times, that it was sometimes given to him in water and in milk, the last time she had seen her give him any was about four days before his death and that Sarah was lying. This was bolstered by evidence given by a Mr Wellings, a relieving officer for the parish who said he had visited Richard, Sarah told him that Richard had taken nothing but rice and milk for the past week. He had said to her “Well, if that is the case it’s no use for him to have his mutton.” Sarah replied with “Poor thing, he’ll never trouble you long for either of them.

A friend of Sarah’s – Hannah Philips, had told the inquest of a conversation she and Sarah had last harvest time, Sarah was crying about her children being poisoned and how she would never get out of it, she said she had hidden the poison under a stub in a neighbouring lane. She had begged Hannah not to say anything about the poison. They had a bit of a disagreement as Hannah had been talking to someone about the poison, Sarah then said it wasn’t under a stub, but hidden somewhere else. When Sarah walked away, she had said “Thank God, the old woman (meaning her mother in law) had got to find him a coffin.

James Parker – Sarah’s cousin, stated that four years before he had sold Richard Chesham two ounces of arsenic. He was asked why he never said this in the previous cases, he thought that as the question was about Sarah, he didn’t need to mention he had sold any to her husband! He later went on to say that after he heard that the boys had died of arsenic poisoning, he asked Richard about this and he said it wasn’t with that arsenic as it had all been used up before then. James’s boss – Master M Newport had told him not to mention the arsenic.

The coroner decided that while the main cause of death was tuberculosis, that his death was accelerated by the arsenic poisoning. It was advised to proceed with a case against Sarah under a recent law act where she could be tried for administering poison with intent. The newly passed law meant that you could be liable to be transported for life, or not less than 15 years, or imprisoned for three years.

Sarah was arrested under that charge on 2nd September 1850. The initial hearing commenced with a recap of Sarah’s notoriety – which these days would not normally be allowed unless granted special permission to discuss previous crimes.

Sarah’s friend Hannah Philips again gave evidence. She stated she had been intimidated before at the previous trials which is why she had not said anything before. She said they had also talked about Hannah’s unhappy marriage; Sarah had said that she would not have lived with her husband if he had treated her in the same way. She added she ought to do what she had done – make him a pie of sheep’s liver, lights etc and that if she brought it down to her Sarah would “season” it for her.  The court agreed to keep Sarah on remand while the police gathered more witnesses.

A later hearing which lasted five hours took place with the press being barred from entering – so details from the papers about that hearing are minimal, however it did state that there was a witness who stated that Sarah had confessed at the prison that she had indeed poisoned Solomon Taylor and intended to “destroy the mother.

The court heard that Hannah Phillips had testified to say that Sarah had often talked about the deaths of her boys and how it was Thomas Newport who killed them. That he had offered her son’s a half penny each to take something he offered them, and that the boys were both buried with those coins. She also said Sarah had told her that Thomas had also asked her to poison Solomon Taylor and Lydia Taylor and that he had been angry with her for not poisoning Lydia.

She again spoke of Sarah’s comment about the pies for the husband and that it “wasn’t a sin to bury husbands who treated you poorly“. Hannah said she had not spoken up before because her husband worked for Thomas Newport. Hannah was adamant that she had never asked Sarah for any poison, that she and Sarah had argued about the situation.

Sarah told the police that Thomas had given her sons the poison on peppermint drops and that Thomas had given her a bottle with which to give to Lydia Taylor. She gave the police the bottle. When Thomas Newport was called – it was noted that he no longer lived in the area, he had moved to Chippenham in Suffolk. He denied having told Sarah to do anything, denied giving her any arsenic – he had only bought it once years before and it had been used. He said that if he had said anything to anyone like James Parker about not saying anything, it would have been more like “don’t tell me anything, tell the coroner.

The hearing concluded that Sarah should be committed for trial for feloniously administering poison to the deceased with the intent to kill and murder. Sarah plead not guilty and said they should take her before a witch who would tell them who really poisoned her husband. She was allowed to see her children before she was taken to the prison, she was in a distressed state and gave her daughter her two gold rings.

Sarah’s trial took place in March 1851. The court were instructed to ignore any of the previous allegations against Sarah, but knew it would be difficult to do so, but it outlined that she had been acquitted of those charges.

Sarah’s mother in law at the trial then said she had not seen Sarah give him any rice, only flour mixed with milk and then before his death, a bit of an orange. Mr George Willings the relieving officer confirmed his previous statement that Sarah had given Richard rice and flour and milk. Seeing how ill Richard was, George summoned the doctor. Again, the court heard the testimonies of the other witnesses, including the medical evidence about the arsenic found in his system. That there wasn’t enough to kill him but could have been residue of a previous earlier dose. That there was no food left in his stomach, but that the rice bag recovered was all contaminated with arsenic.

The jury were instructed to deliberate based on the testimony and evidence presented to them. They only took a few minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The paper reported how the judge handed down his sentence.

His Lordship, having assumed the awful symbol of death, addressed the prisoner at the bar as follows: You have been convicted by a jury of your country of the heinous offence of having administered poison to your husband with the intention to murder him, and I must say the evidence which has been adduced against you is, in my opinion, quite overpowering. Although I did not intimate my opinion till the verdict was passed, I have no doubt in saying that you have been most justly convicted, and there would be no safety for the lives of mankind, if, when guilt so flagrant and heinous were established, such a verdict as this were not recorded. Upon your own confession I am afraid this is not the first time you have committed this crime. According to the evidence which has been given, you confessed that you have murdered your own children, and although you may have escaped justice, at least for a time, you have at least been overtaken, and you have now but a short time to live. I most earnestly implore you to spend that time in repentance and prayer, and in seeking forgiveness for the many crimes you have committed, for there is no hope of mercy for you in this world. His Lordship, then in the usual form passed sentence of death upon the wretched woman, who throughout the trial evinced the greatest firmness and heard her doom unmoved.

During delivery of this brief but impressive charge his Lordship was so affected that he could scarcely proceed, and when the prisoner was removed many ladies sitting upon the bench were bathed in tears. The trial lasted about 8 hours.

Apparently while Sarah waited in prison, she seemed undaunted at the prospect of being hanged. The papers said she “continues to manifest the utmost indifference to her awful fate, apparently hardened by the diabolical transactions in which she has been engaged.” A phrenologist had applied for consent to make a cast of Sarah’s head after her execution.

Sarah was executed at Chelmsford Prison on 25th March 1851. She was hanged alongside a convicted murderer Thomas Drory (sometimes referred to as Samuel), who had confessed after his trial to killing his lover Jael Denny who had been pregnant with his child. It was thought that a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000 people from around the country gathered in the streets surrounding the prison to witness the hangings.

Sarah had not been out of her cell much since her incarceration and her legs had swollen and she found it difficult to walk unaided. Two women helped her up to the gallows. She had become quite agitated and had apparently written a long statement about how she was innocent and continued to blame Thomas Newport for the deaths of her children. There had been rumours that Sarah had admitted to poisoning other people while in prison, but it was confirmed that those rumours were false.

They were both duly hanged and took upwards of two minutes to die according to the papers. The crowd had gasped at the sudden falling of the drop, and after the two had died, the crowd were respectfully quiet and gently dispersed. Thomas Drory was buried within the prison grounds, but as Sarah was not a convicted murderer, her body was allowed to be taken by her family. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Clavering churchyard with no entry in the burial register. There is mention in April 1851 that her friends buried her in what they hoped was a temporary grave, awaiting a Christian burial, as the local clergy refused to bury it as they would normally do. Overnight her body was exhumed, and no one knew where it had gone.

According to the newspapers the crowds that had gathered for the hangings lingered on in Chelmsford till the evening, there were fights, drunkenness, all manner of debauchery, so while they may have “gently dispersed” – the gentleness did not last long. The townspeople petitioned the prison to stop doing public hangings.


Contemporary picture – from and featured on the Daily Mail article about the case

Sarah’s case and several other instances of female poisoners killing off unwanted children and husbands brought about a change in the law about being able to buy arsenic which was passed in early 1851 – the Sale of Arsenic Bill, where people buying arsenic had to fill out their details on a register, along with their reasons for buying it and sellers could only sell to people they knew, or if they didn’t know them – they had to be accompanied by a witness who could verify their identity and they too had to sign the register. Arsenic had to be coloured apart from purchases in larger quantities. Originally the bill contained a clause to ban the sale of arsenic to women, however that was removed. The bill passed the day before Sarah was executed and the subsequent act passed on 5th June 1851.

Brighton Gazette 19 June 1851

Details around the Sale of Arsenic Act from the Brighton Gazette of 19th June 1851 from Findmypast

Sarah was the last woman to be hanged in public at Chelmsford Prison and the last woman in England and Wales to be hanged for attempted murder.

Her case was recently featured in a TV programme on the BBC in the UK, Murder, Mystery And My Family. The Daily Mail reported on the programme – however as is expected of a terrible newspaper like the Daily Mail, it was full of errors and inaccuracies! The programme featured descendants of Sarah Chesham who wanted to clear her name. The case was reviewed by a retired judge who believed the case wouldn’t stand today, as he felt the case had been prejudiced against Sarah and unproven allegations.

While I think the case had many holes in it, there is a lot of information I don’t have – as I have only followed it by the newspaper reports of the time, but the witness statements of Lydia Taylor and her mother about how ill Solomon became after Sarah had put something into his mouth, seem so jarring to me. The forensic testing available at the time was minimal, and I think in modern times much more rigorous testing would have been done at autopsy. I would not be surprised if when they analysed Solomon’s hair and fingernails, they might find traces of previous dosages of arsenic. He had been poisoned on a few occasions, and being so small a baby, the damage caused to his internal organs would have rendered him unable to process food properly – likely leading to his decline and emaciated state. The coincidence of events of Solomon taking a turn for the worst so soon after Sarah putting something into his mouth is telling. Whether or not she was put up to it by Thomas Newport, is another matter.

The case of her two boys, it is hard to say, but they were most definitely murdered. It is not uncommon in the case of female poisoners to want to be rid of the people in their lives who they felt were preventing them from moving on in their lives, be they children or husbands.

Is it too much of a coincidence that two of her boys died of arsenic poisoning, and that a child she came into contact with and seemingly tampered with – died and then later her own husband’s death being accelerated by arsenic? It sounds almost like her own father might have been starting to become ill with poisoning with his stomach complaint, but perhaps had got off lightly.

I think today all of those cases would have been subject to a much more rigorous amount of forensic investigation, and the resulting court cases would have been much more in line with the formal court process we have today than how cases were dealt with in the 1800s.

I believe she was accountable for those deaths, and I would not be surprised if there was something going on with Thomas Newport, whether or not she was actually perhaps having an affair with him, maybe he had promised to be with her if she disposed of certain people and that he would look after her?

So, was “Sally Arsenic” as Sarah became known, the victim or a callous murderess? We will never truly know what happened and who was responsible for what. We do know that a poor young servant girl Lydia Taylor got pregnant by the son of her employer – a common story, and he did not want to be responsible for the child, and that child died after suffering terribly. We know that two young boys met their deaths through poison and several years later their father too had his death hastened by it. All of this is a tragedy.

As for John Pilley, he continued his police career, he had a few cases in the papers during the period of time Sarah Chesham’s cases were going on which I will talk about in the next and last post of this story which you can read here.

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A patient suffering adverse effects of arsenic treatment. Coloured lithograph, ca. 1850 by James Morrison. Credit: Wellcome Collection

7 thoughts on “Fights, arson, poisonings – the career of John Pilley – Part Five

  1. Sometimes circumstantial evidence is so probative of guilt that it cannot be ignored. I surely think there is too much here for it all to be coincidence. But one other question we would ask today—was she criminally insane and thus not guilty by reason of insanity? Quite an amazing story, Alex!

    • I know – it is a hard one to fathom, and I think by the time of her husband’s demise it became too much to be down to coincidence and put the reasonable doubt question to bed. It is a wonder how many other people she came into contact with who may have been on the road to being poisoned – like hearing about how her other sons had not felt well, and later when her husband died – how her own father had been ill too. Raises a lot of questions!

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