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  • Tonya Mitchell

Lady Killers of the 19th Century: Women Who Poisoned (Part 2)

Last month I introduced you to five lady poisoners from the first half of the 1800s. Here are five more cases from the second half of the century. What poisons did they use? What were their motives? And whose 170-year-old case was recently reopened and why?

Sally Arsenic

Who: Sarah Chesham

When: 1851

Poison: Arsenic

Motive: Perhaps financial strife

Result: Hanged

Interesting Fact: A printed verse with pictures made the rounds at the time of her hanging which, in part, went: “Wicked, base, deceitful wife/Doomed to die in the prime of life.”

If you’re going to go down in history as a killer, there’s nothing like you’re very own moniker for the deed. That’s the case for Sarah Parker, who became Sarah Chesham when she married farmer Richard Chesham. The couple had six sons, which put a financial strain on the family.  

Two of their sons, Joseph and James, died after extreme stomach cramps in 1845. But it wasn’t until Solomon Taylor, the illegitimate infant son of Richard, became ill and died suddenly after Sarah fed him rice pudding that suspicions were

raised about all three deaths. Officials began to investigate. Noted toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor (unrelated), tested for poison in Solomon’s body and found none. Even so, Sarah’s sons were exhumed, and Taylor found large amounts of arsenic in both corpses.

Sarah Chesham's hanging with townspeople looking on

At trial, Sarah was acquitted for the murders of Joseph and James on the grounds that the prosecution hadn’t proved she had administered the poison. While this news may have relieved Sarah, public sentiment was against her. She would then go on trial for the death of Solomon, but the judge ruled there was insufficient evidence that Sarah had poisoned the child (no arsenic had been found in his body remember). However, public suspicion only increased and newspapers at the time ran colorful accounts of Sarah’s guilt. She became known as Sally Arsenic.

Three years later, Richard died of tuberculosis. His autopsy revealed traces of arsenic, though not enough to have killed him. Police arrested Sarah nevertheless and investigated rice she’d fed Richard during his illness. Though it’s not clear how much arsenic the rice contained, there was enough for the naked eye to see. That was all the authorities needed to put her on trial a third time, this time for attempted murder. She was found guilty and hanged on the roof of the Chelmsford gatehouse in Essex before a crowd of six thousand. She was the last woman to be executed for attempted murder in the United Kingdom.

In 2020, the British government reopened the 170-year-old case based on pressure from Sarah’s descendants who believed her innocent. In 2022, however, the commission reviewing her case denied the pardon due to a lack of evidence casting doubt on her guilt. 


“The Greatest Criminal That Ever Lived”

Who: Catherine Wilson

When: 1862

Poison: Colchicum, sulfuric acid

Motive: Greed, financial gain

Result: Hanged

Interesting Fact: Catherine was one of England’s first female serial killers

Catherine’s modus operandi was to find employment as a live-in nurse with a person of means and convince them to leave their money to her in their wills. Once this was accomplished, she poisoned them, collected the money, and sought another hapless victim. She is thought to have poisoned as many as seven victims, possibly more.

A similar depiction of Catherine Wilson's hanging

Her first trial took place in 1862, after she’d been looking after a woman named Sarah Carnell. After Sarah had changed her will in Catherine’s favor, Catherine gave her patient sulfuric acid—enough to kill 50 people! However, Sarah spat the medicine out when it burned her mouth. Catherine was cleared of the attempted murder charge because her barrister claimed the pharmacist had mixed up the bottles and given Catherine the acid by mistake.  

Her freedom didn’t last long. The police had been looking into her past and found a long line of previous patients who’d died in her care. She was soon rearrested. In total, she was charged with murdering seven people, but was tried for only one: Maria Soames, who died in 1856. It appeared that Maria and the other victims had suffered from gout and Catherine had administered colchicum—a medicine derived from a plant extract that is poisonous in large doses. She was found guilty. At the conclusion of trial, the judge remarked to her barrister “in my opinion you have to-day (sic) defended the greatest criminal that ever lived.”

Catherine, who denied all charges to the last, was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 at Newgate Jail in 1862 at the age of 40. She was the last woman to be hanged in public in London.

The Chocolate Cream Killer

Who: Christiana Edmunds

When: 1872

Poison: Strychnine

Motive: Jealousy

Result: Life in prison (in an asylum)

Interesting Fact: Christiana suffered from “hysteria” in her twenties, which helped pave the path for her commuted sentence

Christiana was a privileged, well-educated woman living with her widowed mother in Brighton, England when she locked eyes on Dr. Charles Beard. She was past the bloom of life at age 42, but fell for Beard hard. Though no one seems to know the full story of their relationship (if there was one), Christiana wanted Beard for herself. In September 1870, she sent chocolate creams from a local confectionery shop to the doctor’s wife. The problem? She’d laced the chocolates with strychnine. Mrs. Beard became violently ill but recovered.

Christiana Edmunds at trial (copyright Berkshire Record Office)

Christiana continued purchasing the chocolates, this time returning them to the shop after she’d put strychnine in them. They were then innocently sold to others in town. This may have been to deflect attention from herself to the confectioner, John Maynard. In any case, many became sick and tragically, one four-year-old boy, Sidney Barker, died.

Christiana continued her poison crusade, even sending some of the chocolates to herself to avoid suspicion. But by this time the police had connected the illnesses and death to the chocolates, despite Christiana cleverly tasking boys with buying the chocolates on her behalf. When Dr. Beard informed the police of his suspicions, Christiana was arrested for the attempted murder of his wife and the murder of young Barker.

Her trial began in 1872. Dr. Beard testified that he and Christiana had never had a sexual relationship, but she had sent him letters and made vague flirtations. Christiana’s mother admitted that mental illness existed on both sides of the family which is what ultimately saved her from the noose. She was convicted and sentenced to hang, but the charge was reduced to life due to her mental state. Christiana Edmunds died in 1907, after living 35 years as a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

The Black Widow

Who: Mary Ann Cotton

When: 1873

Poison: Arsenic

Motive: Financial Gain

Result: Hanged

Interesting Fact: The rope was set too short for her hanging, so Mary Ann died a slow death by strangulation, possibly a deliberate act of vengeance for her killing spree

Mary Ann Cotton goes down as one of England’s most notorious female serial killers. She seems to have had an unremarkable childhood in Northeast England. At the age of twenty, she married her first husband, William Mowbray, a coal mining laborer. They are thought to have had four or five children who died without their deaths being registered. Only one daughter, Margaret, was registered at birth.   

Mary Ann Cotton circa 1870

William died in 1865 of intestinal issues. Mary received an insurance payout for him and a son, about half a year’s wages for a manual laborer. A short while later she would lose a daughter to typhoid and start work at an infirmary where, seven months after William’s death, she met and married George Ward. When he died a little more than a year later of typhoid and English cholera, she again received an insurance payout.

Mary Ann’s next victims were her mother who died in early 1867, (just nine days in Mary Ann’s care), and her then only surviving daughter, Isabella Mowbray, who came to live with her and a man she would later marry, James Robinson. Two of Robinson’s own children were next. All three children were buried in April 1867. Both her mother’s and Isabella’s death ushered more insurance money into the schemer’s pocket.

If this is reading like a meet-kill list, it is. At which point, you might be wondering: wasn’t anyone paying attention? Not then. Mary Ann was moving around a lot and would go on to marry twice more. When her last husband, Frederick Cotton, died in 1872 followed by his last surviving child, Charles, the game was up. When a parish official began asking questions, a local paper jumped on the story and discovered Mary Ann had lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and at least 11 children (some sources site more) in the space of seven years.

She was soon charged with Charles’ murder, but trial was delayed until the birth of her thirteenth child. She was found guilty and hanged in March 1873 in Durham County Jail.

The Balham Mystery

Who: Florence Bravo

When: 1876

Poison: Tartar emetic (a derivative of antimony)

Motive: Unknown, if she did it

Result: Acquitted, but died two years later, aged 33

Interesting Fact: Dr. Gully performed an abortion on Florence after their affair began which left Florence ill for months. It ended her affair with the doctor

Florence stands out on my list of lady killers of the 19th century in that she’s the only Australian and the only heiress. Her father was a land speculator and made his fortune in gold. When she was seven, her family moved to England. She married, age nineteen, in 1864. By all accounts, it was not a good match. Husband Alexander Ricardo was a philanderer who eventually succumbed to alcoholism. When Florence sought a separation, Alexander fled to Germany and died there in an apparent alcohol binge. Because he hadn’t bothered to change his will, Florence inherited £40,000 (about $8 million today).

The key players in the Bravo case: Florence, Charles, Charles' father, Florence's mother, companion Mrs. Cox, and Dr. Gully

Florence married again in 1875. Her new husband was Charles Bravo, a man who, in short order, would prove to be stubborn, thrifty, and jealous. From the beginning, he wanted control of Florence’s money, but since the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 had been passed by Parliament, Florence was having none of it. Florence’s control of their finances remained a sore spot with Charles, who would later demand she pull back on her spending. Florence refused because she was staying within her means. By this time, Jane Cox had become Florence’s live-in paid companion. She would become important in the saga that followed.

In the first months of marriage, Charles would

lose his temper many times. He became enraged about her prior affair with Dr. James Gully (started after her first husband's death and ending before she married Charles). She'd come clean and confided the fact of her affair before their marriage because she wanted to start fresh with no secrets. Gully, who was 37 years her senior and lived close by, was a constant source of contention. During this time, Florence suffered two miscarriages.

Less than five months into their marriage, Charles died suddenly. On the evening of April 18, 1876, Charles shouted for hot water, vomited out a window, and fainted. Florence and Mrs. Cox sent for a doctor. In all, six doctors would visit his bedside over the next 55 hours, offering their perspective of what Charles had ingested. Mrs. Cox swore Charles had said before fainting that he had ingested poison and “not to tell Florence.”

After Charles died, a coroner’s inquest ensued which found that Charles had died of apparent suicide, given Mrs. Cox’s remarks. The poison: tartar emetic. His family, however, didn’t believe Charles had ended his life. A second inquest was launched. Florence testified for 3 days which took a considerable toll on her health, as she was grilled by the prosecution for her former affair with Dr. Gully—a motive, they argued, for Florence taking her husband’s life. The newspapers of the day were filled with the lurid details of Florence’s sexual dalliances with Gully.

In the end, there was no direct evidence against Florence, and it was ruled that Charles had been willfully murdered by the administration of tartar emetic by person or persons unknown. Florence was a free woman, but she never survived the scandal. She left London for Swansea, Hampshire and died two years later, after drinking herself to death. She was only 33.

As it turns out, Florence Bravo’s case has eerie similarities to the real-life heroine in my forthcoming book, including the same first name. Next month, I’ll share the often murky, rather tragic details of the woman who inspired The Arsenic Eater’s Wife.

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