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Welcome to criminalize a production of scandal and audio in partnership with I Heart Radio.


Hello and welcome to Criminality. Exploring the intersection of history and true crime. I'm Holly Fry. And I'm Maria Aramaki. In this season, we have been talking about Lady Poisoners and we still are.


And in today's episode, we're going to look at the life of a young woman named Sarah Chesham.


You may also sometimes hear that pronounced as Chisum, and she went on trial more than once after continued accusations that she didn't just use arsenic to poison the rats in her house.


So Sarah, who was born Sarah Parker with 19 and pregnant with her first child when she married Richard Chesham, a 21 year old farmer, in the summer of 1828. They named their first born daughter, Harriet, in the next 10 years. They went on to have five more children who were all boys.


Philip was born in 1830, John in 1832, Joseph in 1834, James in 1837, and finally George in 1839.


They lived in Clavering, a small rural village in northwest Essex, and we mean very small. In 1841, there were barely more than a thousand people living in the village, and most of the population was under the age of 20.


Sarah and Richard eked out really a meager living. Sarah, and possibly Richard as well, was illiterate. There was little food and little work, and most people farmed just to get by.


Right. And not even always on their own farms. Sometimes they would work for farmers. They were that poor.


In January of 1845, two of their boys, Joseph, who at that time would have been about 10, and James, who was probably about eight, both came down with severe stomach pains and vomiting and they were seen by their local doctor. Yet they still both passed away. Both, it was believed, had died of cholera. They were buried together in the same coffin. Most stories report, and they were buried in their local churchyard.


This is, of course, incredibly tragic, but it was also not really out of character with the Times. Cholera was a very common bacterial disease at this point in England's history, and it was easily spread through contaminated water in general. This was a time when people were unaware of the ways in which diseases spread. Medicine was not really very sophisticated yet.


And because of poor sanitation and poor diet nutrition as well as dangerous working conditions, the overall British population at this time was actually pretty unhealthy.


Life expectancy was pretty low. And the fact that Sarah and her husband both lived into their 40s is kind of remarkable.


And if you were a baby at this time, things are pretty grim for you, too.


As many as three out of 20 babies didn't live beyond their first birthday.


So the death of the two boys was considered a family tragedy and there was no suspicion at the time against Sarah or her husband, at least not by the authorities.


The small town gossip mill was beginning to run, though.


The trouble all started during the summer of 1846, about a year after the boys died, when another young woman in town, her name was Lydia Taylor, who may or may not have been the ex-girlfriend of Sarah's husband, Richard, began accusing Sarah of poisoning her infant son.


That baby named Solomon Taylor was healthy when he was born, but his good health began to deteriorate rapidly. In late June that year, his mother reported, Sarah had visited Lydia and her son three times, and Lydia was certain that her son's death was linked to the gifts of rice pudding and apple turnovers that Sarah had brought along.


Lydia reportedly also told authorities she was certain she saw a white, slimy substance on her son's lips before he became ill. Sarah, she continued, insisted that that was just sugar from the desserts. But because Solamente died shortly after eating Sarah's food. Lydia suspected her of murder.


OK, two questions. Should a baby be most things right for one year?


Right. Like your digestive system is still forming, but absolutely have a spoonful of rice pudding. I guess that's that's the more likely of the two to be digested.


Not it's not my place to judge what she fed her son. Right. Less than a year old. That's really young to be eating those any kind of rich dessert. Right. It just seems weird to me. Again, I'm not a parent. So any parent that is fed your child these things, please don't think I'm judging you. My understanding is just that babies should not be eating food that rich.


But this whole accusation kicked off a series of events, none of which were good for Sarah in August of that year.


Based on Lydia's story as evidence, Sarah was investigated by local authorities who decided that there was enough in Lydia's report to move forward. So because of the rumblings of Sarah's guilt around town, it was at this time, too, that the magistrate requested the bodies of her two sons be exhumed. The remains were examined by local authorities and a local doctor who sent the stomach contents of each child to London for analysis. So while we're pondering that makes me want to take a little bit of a break and when we return, we're going to talk about how Sarah went on trial for the deaths of three boys.


Welcome back to criminality. Let's get back into how Sara stood trial for the poisonings of three children, two of her own. The infant, Solomon Taylor's body was tested for arsenic, but none was found, the bodies of Sara's own children, Joseph and James, were also tested and the outcome in those tests was not so good.


Expert and forensic scientist Dr. Alfred Swain Taylor, no relation to Lydia and Solomon Taylor, told the court that he had found sufficient arsenic in both James and Joseph stomaches to have proved fatal.


So Alfred Suyin Taylor's work in this case is actually a really big deal because he himself was a big deal during this time in England, specifically for his work in the very early days of toxicology.


So toxicologists are experts on poison and poisoning, and they come up a lot, as you can tell, in our episodes. So Taylor had become the go to expert witness for coroners in this country. He appeared at trials and in newspaper articles so often that he became a minor celebrity himself. Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both used him for inspiration in their writing. And today he's considered the father of British forensic medicine. And Dr. Taylor testified that he had found yellow arsenic in the boy's stomachs, which apparently meant, he explained that they had ingested white arsenic while they were still alive.


The sulfur released by the body, he said, was what turned it yellow. So Taylor may have been good at his job one time, but this is not exactly the kind of testing you would get from a modern day toxicologist.


Here's a little bit of guesswork involved, right.


I'm still sure that it must have been pretty amazing if you were in the courtroom and you had your witness, you know, pulling out all of this scientific fact about arsenic and there was no reason to think he was wrong.


And so based on his evidence, it was decided then that Sarah should be arrested and put on trial, actually.


Let's talk about those trials for just a minute, because Sarah was put on trial three times in something like two days or a day and a half. It was really compressed, but there were three trials, one each for each victim.


While the evidence seemed clear to the court that her two sons had died of arsenic poisoning, there was no way to prove how the boys had ingested the arsenic to begin with. The jury deliberated quickly in both cases, and Sarah was acquitted of the charges that she poisoned her son.


Despite the findings of the court, locals still believed that Sarah did, in fact poison her sons and that she did so to collect life insurance money in 19th century England.


There were such things as burial clubs, which were societies that had sprung up to help poor working class families give their deceased family members a proper funeral.


So these clubs worked like this. You paid into an association and your weekly payments would be used to cover the funeral expenses of your deceased loved ones. When the time came, parents were known to cover sick children under several plans if they could afford it so that they would get a good payout.


So then there was the third trial. This one was for the poisoning of Solomon Taylor. And if you remember, there was no trace of arsenic found in Solomon's body. So the prosecution withdrew that case, too. And Sarah was cleared of these charges as well.


And then for a few years, things seemed to go pretty quietly, but when Richard passed away at the age of 43 after a long illness, the rumor mill sprung right back into action, having been previously accused of poisoning Lydia Taylor's baby as well as her own two sons.


The villagers were convinced, like with all caps convinced even years later and after Sarah had been found legally innocent, that the 41 year old farmer's wife had to be responsible for her husband's death.


So Richard had suffered from chronic lung disease, which, you know, was probably tuberculosis. But because he complained of stomach pain and vomiting before his death and because Sara was his wife. Authorities ordered an autopsy and that autopsy did indeed reveal that he had tuberculosis, which may or may not have been hastened by arsenic poisoning because there was a scant amount of arsenic in his stomach. And so Sara was arrested again.


And although she had been cleared on all of those previous charges, the acquittals from her first three trials were not well received in the local community, sort of as we've been saying.


And in 1850, she was brought back into court. And technically, this was now her fourth four trials.


So during this fourth trial, it was reported that Sarah cared for Richard during his illness. That is not that unusual at all.


She was his wife, OK? And she fed him milk that was thickened with rice and apparently had a strict rule that no one else was to bring him food.


As in her previous trials, they brought Dr. Taylor back in to analyze the evidence here as well.


And he confirmed that there was a trace amount of arsenic in Richard's body where he found a huge amount of arsenic was actually in the bag of rice that was retrieved from the Chesham home and tested as evidence.


So arsenic, just in case you didn't know, is a naturally occurring thing in rice.


Right. You know, rinse your rice. It's not supposed to be huge amounts of arsenic in your rice, but it does naturally occur. So.


Right. We don't know if that huge amount is like if it is a 30 pound bag of rice. If you go, I found X amount of arsenic, but no one's going to eat the 30 pounds of rice at a time. So it would not be a fatal amount or is it a cup, you know?




Yeah, huge is a very variable word at this point.


We don't know if they're saying huge in relation to the whole volume or just a huge isn't. If I say I've driven 20000 miles, you go, wow, that's amazing. And I go well over 10 years.


Like it's yeah, yeah, yeah. It is.


It is interesting that no one in the court or at least it's not recorded, actually ever asked the question how much should be in rice and how much was in rice.


So it's. It's cited, interestingly, that Taylor noted in his report that there wasn't enough arsenic found in Richard's body to warrant a murder charge. He just sort of noted that arsenic rice existed.


And despite these things, the trial just kept moving forward.


Why ask questions? On top of this kind of dicey arsenic evidence, another local woman named Hamma Phillips told the court about conversations she said that she had with Sarah regarding how to get rid of a husband if the need arises, and that those conversations had indicated that it was with arsenic.


It was also whispered around the village that Sarah had a reputation for putting a special ingredient into the minced meat pies that she gave as gifts.


And that ingredient was not brandy. The prosecution did their best to present her as a disagreeable, angry and quarrelsome woman. They even had strangers take the stand against her. And appearing in her own defense, Sarah addressed the jury herself. But her statement, which it's said was long and a bit rambling, did not win anyone over.


And although she wasn't able to pull together a list of her own witnesses, which would have been in her legal right, she did speak about how the evidence against her was based only on and we quote her from her trial, spite and revenge.


The court, like the town, believed that Sarah had murdered before and also believed that unless she was executed, there would be and we again, quote, no safety for mankind. The coroner, too, couldn't see any other outcome than execution.


No other outcome. Nothing, just the kind of court system is this?


There was no court of appeal in England in 1851 when Sarah was convicted, and she would have had no means of challenging the outcome of her case in any of these instances.


So that's a little bit of a downer, and I want to take a break and walk away from it for a second. When we return, we are going to talk about Sarah's execution and the possible problems with this whole case. Welcome back to criminality. We're talking about the poison panic that gripped England at the same time as Sarah's trial.


OK, let's take a minute and talk about what life was like in England at this time. So this was kind of the early end of the Victorian age. And economic conditions in England were pretty dreadful. As we talked about earlier, a lot of people were living in really abject poverty. There was high unemployment in the 1940s, which led to an alarming public health crisis as the number of child and infant poisonings began to increase both accidental poisonings and intentional ones.


Still, most people, though, who died from arsenic poisoning did so because of accidents or mistakes or long term exposure to the poison. In everyday items such as cosmetics, it was a common ingredient or often from contaminated groundwater, which still happens today.


Most people who died from arsenic poisoning weren't murdered, but that didn't prevent growing social unease about arsenic.


In 19th century England, the country became gripped in a poison panic. Sarah was hardly alone as an accused. Between 1840 and 1850, as many as 240 individuals were charged with murder or attempted murder by poisoning.


Right or wrong, national hysteria surrounding poisonings was growing, and Sarah's trials caught the public's interest.


They just they got swept up in this.


The Times newspaper commented that Sarah was, quote, an accepted and repeated murderess who walked abroad in the village unchallenged and an accused.


We don't really need to say it, but this was a time when journalistic standards were a little different. Very different. And if they had click beat back then, these headlines would have been for that. We talk about that as a modern thing, but I really do feel like Victoria, the Victorian age news industry was the origin point of click. Absolutely.


It's just a little bit different form. So they also went on to say in these articles that Sarah just did not have the kind of disposition that a mother should have toward her child, and thus she was nicknamed Salli Arsenic.


So during the years that Sarah was allegedly poisoning three children and a husband, the Times published 132 articles about poisoning crimes in the U.K. So that's just a couple of years if we compress it down. So around this time period as well, there were about 500 to 600 people who died from being poisoned each year in those years. So we don't really know what the breakdown was of how many of the poisoner's were women and how many were men.


But what we do know when we hear about this press was that they ran 73 articles about women who were on trial for poisoning crimes and only covered 59 men who were accused of the very same crimes.


What I what I uncovered when I was doing this research was there's not a lot of numbers.


There's numbers of deaths, but there's not a lot numbers of trials.


But if you were a female and you were accused of a crime, you were immediately more interested.


And while it might be an indication that women were more likely to poison in Victorian England, their editorial calendar may also simply reflect that stories about female criminals, as Maria just suggested, were more sensational and would draw more readers than those of males. Like we said, kind of like click bait, but 19th century style.


Right. So let's get back to Sarah's trial. Sarah was convicted in her fourth trial, a single count of administering poison with intent. And it's that statement rather than murder, because Dr. Taylor didn't find enough arsenic to prove fatal in Richard's body. She was sentenced to death by hanging.


It's reported also that thousands of people came to watch her public execution and possibly as many as 10000 people in March of 1851. I have to say that if that number is true and how does it feel high, particularly considering how small their village was, there were a thousand people who live there and most of them were under the age of 20. Where did these 10000 people came from?


That's more people than can legally fit in the Miami Beach Convention Center.


So I'm not sure if they were bussing them in.


You think you think, well, exaggerated.


There was actually an illustrated verse recounting Sarah's final moments that was distributed among the spectators. One stanza read like this wicked based deceitful way, barbarous and cruel mother doomed to die in the prime of life.


Poor Sarah. She was the last woman to be executed for attempted murder in England.


So as we have just uncovered, there was a lot of gossip and only a little bit of evidence in each of Sarah's trials.


So was she just hanged as a result of hearsay and rumor, although she was convicted of a single count of attempted murder, the public believed that she was responsible for more than that and maybe also for teaching other women how to kill with arsenic in a deadly poison ring in her small town. There was no proof of that, but that didn't really matter who.


Sarah's trial sparked a moral panic about poison.


And this is kind of the the interesting and important thing about her going on trial for four times up until 1851. Arsenic was really cheap and it was really easily available around England.


You know, like a small town. You would have found it there, too.


And although its intended uses were for things like killing rodents and surprisingly treating acne, it quickly became known for its off label uses, such as killing family members.


And it was often for inheritance.


And again, it was also a thing to be talked about because it's very sensational. Who doesn't love a little drama? Very Victorian. England was like the era of the drama, Malama. I think we all know.


And this this whole set of trials fits right in. Yep.


So the London Medical Gazette at the time reported that with just two pence you could buy enough arsenic to kill about 100 people. Two pence is the equivalent of two and a half cents in today's dollars. So for, you know, 100 bucks, you could kill those 10000 spectators. Right. Alleged spectators.


You could at least kill everybody in your town. So Sarah's trial was one of several actually at this time that caught the attention of both the media as well as parliament.


And in early 1851, the Earl of Carlisle introduced the sale of arsenic regulation bill. And this bill put a few rules into effect.


There had been no poison rules before and it broke down like this.


So first it required arsenic suppliers to keep a register of names of people who bought the poison, as well as the amount they purchased and their reason for buying it. And they had to provide a signature.


Second, there were no restrictions on who could sell arsenic even under the bill. But now. Sellers were only legally allowed to sell it to people whom they already knew, and third, arsenic, which we have talked about before in its natural state after it's been processed, is white and it often resembled sugar. And so at this point, it had to be dyed with indigo or soot before it could be sold in individual packets. No more mistaking it for a household sweetener.


So this bill was intended to address the growing public concern over both accidental and deliberate arsenic poisonings. And it was actually in place until it was repealed, replaced with the Pharmacy and Poisons Act of 1933.


So quite a long time because of the way investigations and trials are conducted today, it can sometimes seem easier for us to look back on the past and cry injustice.


Sarah had four trials and they didn't know what they were doing and we just cry. Everything was wrong.


But there really does seem to be evidence in Sarah's case that things could have been done better. There wasn't a lot of evidence against her.


And her one sided trial surrounding the death of her husband found trace amounts of a poison that often doesn't have to do with being poisoned.


So a conviction based on hearsay from locals, including bogus and uninvestigated stories like the one that we found, which was Sarah kept a stash of arsenic in a tree stump outside her house. It's hard to see her execution as a fine practice of law.


So that said, there is an interesting twist to Sarah's story that we actually did not know about when we originally chose her for this season.


I love this. Yes.


Recently, Rosalind Powell, a descendant of Sarah, approached the producers of BBC One's show Murder Mystery and My Family, and asked for help in re-examining the circumstances of serious case.


So it's been more than 160 years since her execution.


And with new eyes on the evidence, investigators from that team found that the tests carried out at the time of Sarah's trial were actually pretty inconclusive, citing that today we now know that it's not unusual to find small traces of arsenic in a human body like what was found in Richard's body.


Sarah's alleged victims, the barristers and judge, determined there are two barristers and a retired judge who were the investigators had likely died from natural causes like cholera and tuberculosis, like we expected.


Ultimately, Sarah's family did get an unsafe verdict, and that means the original guilty verdict should be overturned.


And while this isn't a binding judgment, it has inspired her family to continue to pursue her case and get her name cleared permanently.


It's really exciting, you know, I mean, it is the guy, the retired judge and the two barristers, you know, the retired judge who came down with this. He was like, I realized that, you know, I can't just make a proclamation right now and say that, you know, let's overturn it.


But I think everybody's hoping that the evidence and the sort of, you know, off record trial will really help her family in this manner.


I hope so.


It's one of those ways. One of the things that I love about studying history is that we think of it as settled business that happened in the past. But history is alive and it's affecting people today and it can still shift in what we understand of the past can still change. So this is a prime example of that.


Absolutely. You know, ultimately, with that in mind and you look back at her story, she just was she just moved to a different town. Right. Just just moved to London.


Maybe the town next door, like the people in this village, are terrible. Just try again.


Try again. So with that in mind, what did you come up for a four hour cocktail this week, Holly? So this what's your poison is brought to you by my desire to sweeten Sarah's story? Oh, yes.


So I started to look at I wanted to come up with a cocktail that was sort of pretty and lovely. And I searched around on the Internet for some ideas. And the cocktail that kept coming up that I thought was most interesting to me was the arsenic and old lace, which is an existing cocktail that a lot of people make. You'll find different variations on the recipe. Obviously, that that play that it is named after is a 20th century play and does not apply to the Victorian era.


But the arsenic ness of it and the there's it's got a very sweet list of ingredients, not literal sweet taste, but just it's a beautiful assortment.


So it starts with two ounces of gin, one ounce of dry vermouth.


One ounce of violent liquor, oh, some people will do creme de Vialet, sometimes you can just get a regular Vialet liquor.


You can actually make your own liquor not that hard and then varying degrees depending on the recipe. All of these amounts shift from recipe to recipe for this cocktail under different different bartenders versions, a little split anywhere from a splash of absinthe to one and a half ounces.


One and a half seems very heavy to me and is an outlier.


But most of them are like an eighth of an ounce, a tenth of an ounce, half a spoon, splash, splash.


And so normally to make an arsenic and old lace, you would stir all these ingredients with ice and then string them into a chilled glass, normally like a coupe glass.


But I wanted to make it a little bit sweeter and softer. And this is also inspired by the fact that gin is not my natural choice in spirits. It's a little bitty for me.


It's not mine either. So I'm curious about where you get it. I added a spoonful of simple syrup. Oh, and it just softens up the edges of the gin a little bit and makes it a little more palatable. Now I will say my husband said it tasted like Children's Robitussin.


But again, keep in mind, I always have to caveat that he is not a drinker and doesn't really like the taste of any alcohol.


So, you know, he's he's definitely one of those people that I would say 80 percent of drinks.


He goes taste like medicine.


So keep that in mind. Noted. But it is it was a really it's a nice the I'm always a fan of any floral liqueur.


Yeah. I just love them. I like to use them in everything. I love to make a rose liqueur and just keep it on hand. It occurred to me as well, if you like me, are not a gin person. This same recipe would be beautiful with vodka.


That's good to know. Yeah, that's my thing. I always well I'm not a bartender. I just I enjoy cocktails and I like learning about them. So the one thing I always encourage people is like there aren't really like rules. You know, don't don't be foolish and drink too much and please drink responsibly. But like, you can make substitutions and try different stuff. You're not going to go to cocktail jail like my. This is a victory in England.


Thousand people are going to come watch you die.


It's not Victorian England. You're not going to go to cocktail jail. So, yeah, give it a whirl any or any variation on it.


That sounds delightful. I had a I had one with lunch so I could test it before we recorded.


It's delightful. If you would like to make this, we highly encourage it.


But also we wanted to thank you once again for spending time with us today and hearing about Sarah's story, which to me has like one of the best Danimal of any of the stories we've talked about so far and maybe in the future, too, like she just her and is a pretty good one is really pretty good.


Yeah, it's pretty good. If you would like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do so.


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