She Stands Accused by Victor MacClure

Being a Series of Accounts of the Lives and Deeds of Notorious Women, Murderesses, Cheats, Cozeners, on whom Justice was Executed, and of others who, Accused of Crimes, were Acquitted at least in Law; Drawn from Authenticated Sources TO RAFAEL SABATINI TO WHOSE VIRTUES AS AN AUTHOR AND AS A FRIEND THE WRITER WISHES HIS
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Being a Series of Accounts of the Lives and Deeds of Notorious Women, Murderesses, Cheats, Cozeners, on whom Justice was Executed, and of others who, Accused of Crimes, were Acquitted at least in Law; Drawn from Authenticated Sources




I had a thought to call this book Pale Hands or Fair Hands Imbrued–so easy it is to fall into the ghastly error of facetiousness.

Apart, however, from the desire to avoid pedant or puerile humour, re-examination of my material showed me how near I had been to crashing into a pitfall of another sort. Of the ladies with whose encounters with the law I propose to deal several were assoiled of the charges against them. Their hands, then–unless the present ruddying of female fingernails is the revival of an old fashion–were not pink-tipped, save, perhaps, in the way of health; nor imbrued, except in soapsuds. My proposed facetiousness put me in peril of libel.

Interest in the criminous doings of women is so alive and avid among criminological writers that it is hard indeed to find material which has not been dealt with to the point of exhaustion. Does one pick up in a secondhand bookshop a pamphlet giving a verbatim report of a trial in which a woman is the central figure, and does one flatter oneself that the find is unique, and therefore providing of fresh fields, it is almost inevitable that one will discover, or rediscover, that the case has already been put to bed by Mr Roughead in his inimitable manner. What a nose the man has! What noses all these rechauffeurs of crime possess! To use a figure perhaps something unmannerly, the pigs of Perigord, which, one hears, are trained to hunt truffles, have snouts no keener.

Suppose, again, that one proposes to deal with the peccancy of women from the earliest times, it is hard to find a lady, even one whose name has hitherto gleamed lurid in history, to whom some modern writer has not contrived by chapter and verse to apply a coat of whitewash.

Locusta, the poisoner whom Agrippina, wanting to kill the Emperor Claudius by slow degrees, called into service, and whose technique Nero admired so much that he was fain to put her on his pension list, barely escapes the deodorant. Messalina comes up in memory. And then one finds M. Paul Moinet, in his historical essays En Marge de l’histoire, gracefully pleading for the lady as Messaline la calomniee–yes, and making out a good case for her. The Empress Theodora under the pen of a psychological expert becomes nothing more dire than a clever little whore disguised in imperial purple.

On the mention of poison Lucretia Borgia springs to mind. This is the lady of whom Gibbon writes with the following ponderous falsity:

In the next generation the house of Este was sullied by a sanguinary and incestuous race in the nuptials of Alfonso I with Lucretia, a bastard of Alexander VI, the Tiberius of Christian Rome. This modern Lucretia might have assumed with more propriety the name of Messalina, since the woman who can be guilty, who can even be accused, of a criminal intercourse with a father and two brothers must be abandoned to all the licentiousness of a venal love.

That, if the phrase may be pardoned, is swatting a butterfly with a sledge-hammer! Poor little Lucretia, described by the excellent M. Moinet as a “bon petit coeur,” is enveloped in the political ordure slung by venal pamphleteers at the masterful men of her race. My friend Rafael Sabatini, than whom no man living has dug deeper into Borgia history, explains the calumniation of Lucretia in this fashion: Adultery and promiscuous intercourse were the fashion in Rome at the time of Alexander VI. Nobody thought anything of them. And to have accused the Borgia girl, or her relatives, of such inconsiderable lapses would have been to evoke mere shrugging. But incest, of course, was horrible. The writers paid by the party antagonistic to the Borgia growth in power therefore slung the more scurrile accusation. But there is, in truth, just about as much foundation for the charge as there is for the other, that Lucretia was a poisoner. The answer to the latter accusation, says my same authority, may take the form of a question: WHOM DID LUCRETIA POISON? As far as history goes, even that written by the Borgia enemies, the reply is, NOBODY!

Were one content, like Gibbon, to take one’s history like snuff there would be to hand a mass of caliginous detail with which to cause shuddering in the unsuspecting reader. But in mere honesty, if in nothing else, it behoves the conscientious writer to examine the sources of his information. The sources may be–they too frequently are–contaminated by political rancour and bias, and calumnious accusation against historical figures too often is founded on mere envy. And then the rechauffeurs, especially where rechauffage is made from one language to another, have been apt (with a mercenary desire to give their readers as strong a brew as possible) to attach the darkest meanings to the words they translate. In this regard, and still apropos the Borgias, I draw once again on Rafael Sabatini for an example of what I mean. Touching the festivities celebrating Lucretia’s wedding in the Vatican, the one eyewitness whose writing remains, Gianandrea Boccaccio, Ferrarese ambassador, in a letter to his master says that amid singing and dancing, as an interlude, a “worthy” comedy was performed. The diarist Infessura, who was not there, takes it upon himself to describe the comedy as “lascivious.” Lascivious the comedies of the time commonly were, but later writers, instead of drawing their ideas from the eyewitness, prefer the dark hints of Infessura, and are persuaded that the comedy, the whole festivity, was “obscene.” Hence arises the notion, so popular, that the second Borgia Pope delighted in shows which anticipated those of the Folies Bergere, or which surpassed the danse du ventre in lust-excitation.

A statue was made by Guglielmo della Porta of Julia Farnese, Alexander’s beautiful second mistress. It was placed on the tomb of her brother Alessandro (Pope Paul III). A Pope at a later date provided the lady, portrayed in `a state of nature,’ with a silver robe–because, say the gossips, the statue was indecent. Not at all: it was to prevent recurrence of an incident in which the sculptured Julia took a static part with a German student afflicted with sex-mania.

I become, however, a trifle excursive, I think. If I do the blame lies on those partisan writers to whom I have alluded. They have a way of leading their incautious latter-day brethren up the garden. They hint at flesh-eating lilies by the pond at the path’s end, and you find nothing more prone to sarcophagy than harmless primulas. In other words, the beetle-browed Lucretia, with the handy poison-ring, whom they promise you turns out to be a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather yielding little darling, ultimately an excellent wife and mother, given to piety and good works, used in her earlier years as a political instrument by father and brother, and these two no worse than masterful and ambitious men employing the political technique common to their day and age.

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Messalina, Locusta, Lucretia, Theodora, they step aside in this particular review of peccant women. Cleopatra, supposed to have poisoned slaves in the spirit of scientific research, or perhaps as punishment for having handed her the wrong lipstick, also is set aside. It were supererogatory to attempt dealing with the ladies mentioned in the Bible and the Apocrypha, such as Jael, who drove the nail into the head of Sisera, or Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes. Their stories are plainly and excellently told in the Scriptural manner, and the adding of detail would be mere fictional exercise. Something, perhaps, might be done for them by way of deducing their characters and physical shortcomings through examination of their deeds and motives–but this may be left to psychiatrists. There is room here merely for a soupcon of psychology–just as much, in fact, as may afford the writer an easy turn from one plain narrative to another. You will have no more of it than amounts, say, to the pinch of fennel that should go into the sauce for mackerel.

Toffana, who in Italy supplied poison to wives aweary of their husbands and to ladies beginning to find their lovers inconvenient, and who thus at second hand murdered some six hundred persons, has her attractions for the criminological writer. The bother is that so many of them have found it out. The scanty material regarding her has been turned over so often that it has become somewhat tattered, and has worn rather thin for refashioning. The same may be said for Hieronyma Spara, a direct poisoner and Toffana’s contemporary.

The fashion they set passed to the Marquise de Brinvilliers, and she, with La Vigoureux and La Voisin, has been written up so often that the task of finding something new to say of her and her associates looks far too formidable for a man as lethargic as myself.

In the abundance of material that criminal history provides about women choice becomes difficult. There is, for example, a plethora of women poisoners. Wherever a woman alone turns to murder it is a hundred to one that she will select poison as a medium. This at first sight may seem a curious fact, but there is for it a perfectly logical explanation, upon which I hope later to touch briefly. The concern of this book, however, is not purely with murder by women, though murder will bulk largely. Swindling will be dealt with, and casual allusion made to other crimes.

But take for the moment the women accused or convicted of poisoning. What an array they make! What monsters of iniquity many of them appear! Perhaps the record, apart from those set up by Toffana and the Brinvilliers contingent, is held by the Van der Linden woman of Leyden, who between 1869 and 1885 attempted to dispose of 102 persons, succeeded with no less than twenty-seven, and rendered at least forty-five seriously ill. Then comes Helene Jegado, of France, who, according to one account, with two more working years (eighteen instead of sixteen), contrived to envenom twenty-six people, and attempted the lives of twelve more. On this calculation she fails by one to reach the der Linden record, but, even reckoning the two extra years she had to work in, since she made only a third of the other’s essays, her bowling average may be said to be incomparably better.

Our own Mary Ann Cotton, at work between 1852 and 1873, comes in third, with twenty-four deaths, at least known, as her bag. Mary Ann operated on a system of her own, and many of her victims were her own children. She is well worth the lengthier consideration which will be given her in later pages.

Anna Zwanziger, the earlier `monster’ of Bavaria, arrested in 1809, was an amateur compared with those three.

Mrs Susannah Holroyd, of Ashton-under-Lyne, charged in September of 1816 at the Lancashire Assizes with the murder by poison of her husband, her own son, and the infant child of Anna Newton, a lodger of hers, was nurse to illegitimate children. She was generally suspected of having murdered several of her charges, but no evidence, as far as I can learn, was brought forward to give weight to the suspicion at her trial. Then there were Mesdames Flanagan and Higgins, found guilty, at Liverpool Assizes in February 1884, of poisoning Thomas Higgins, husband of the latter of the accused, by the administration of arsenic. The ladies were sisters, living together in Liverpool. With them in the house in Skirvington Street were Flanagan’s son John, Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary, Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret.

John Flanagan died in December 1880. His mother drew the insurance money. Next year Thomas Higgins married the younger of the sisters, and in the year following Mary Higgins, his daughter, died. Her stepmother drew the insurance money. The year after that Margaret Jennings, daughter of the lodger, died. Once again insurance money was drawn, this time by both sisters.

Thomas Higgins passed away that same year in a house to which what remained of the menage had removed. He was on the point of being buried, as having died of dysentery due to alcoholism, when the suspicions of his brother led the coroner to stop the funeral. The brother had heard word of insurance on the life of Thomas. A post-mortem revealed the fact that Thomas had actually died of arsenic poisoning; upon which discovery the bodies of John Flanagan, Mary Higgins, and Margaret Jennings were exhumed for autopsy, which revealed arsenic poisoning in each case. The prisoners alone had attended the deceased in the last illnesses. Theory went that the poison had been obtained by soaking fly-papers. Mesdames Flanagan and Higgins were executed at Kirkdale Gaol in March of 1884.

Now, these are two cases which, if only minor in the wholesale poisoning line when compared with the Van der Linden, Jegado, and Cotton envenomings, yet have their points of interest. In both cases the guilty were so far able to banish “all trivial fond records” as to dispose of kindred who might have been dear to them: Mrs Holroyd of husband and son, with lodger’s daughter as makeweight; the Liverpool pair of nephew, husband, stepdaughter (or son, brother-in-law, and stepniece, according to how you look at it), with again the unfortunate daughter of a lodger thrown in. If they “do things better on the Continent”–speaking generally and ignoring our own Mary Ann–there is yet temptation to examine the lesser native products at length, but space and the scheme of this book prevent. In the matter of the Liverpool Locustas there is an engaging speculation. It was brought to my notice by Mr Alan Brock, author of By Misadventure and Further Evidence. Just how far did the use of flypapers by Flanagan and Higgins for the obtaining of arsenic serve as an example to Mrs Maybrick, convicted of the murder of her husband in the same city five years later?

The list of women poisoners in England alone would stretch interminably. If one were to confine oneself merely to those employing arsenic the list would still be formidable. Mary Blandy, who callously slew her father with arsenic supplied her by her lover at Henley-on-Thames in 1751, has been a subject for many criminological essayists. That she has attracted so much attention is probably due to the double fact that she was a girl in a very comfortable way of life, heiress to a fortune of L10,000, and that contemporary records are full and accessible. But there is nothing essentially interesting about her case to make it stand out from others that have attracted less notice in a literary way. Another Mary, of a later date, Edith Mary Carew, who in 1892 was found guilty by the Consular Court, Yokohama, of the murder of her husband with arsenic and sugar of lead, was an Englishwoman who might have given Mary Blandy points in several directions.

When we leave the arsenical-minded and seek for cases where other poisons were employed there is still no lack of material. There is, for example, the case of Sarah Pearson and the woman Black, who were tried at Armagh in June 1905 for the murder of the old mother of the latter. The old woman, Alice Pearson (Sarah was her daughter-in-law), was in possession of small savings, some forty pounds, which aroused the cupidity of the younger women. Their first attempt at murder was with metallic mercury. It rather failed, and the trick was turned by means of three-pennyworth of strychnine, bought by Sarah and mixed with the old lady’s food. The murder might not have been discovered but for the fact that Sarah, who had gone to Canada, was arrested in Montreal for some other offence, and made a confession which implicated her husband and Black. A notable point about the case is the amount of metallic mercury found in the old woman’s body: 296 grains–a record.

Having regard to the condition of life in which these Irishwomen lived, there is nothing, to my mind, in the fact that they murdered for forty pounds to make their crime more sordid than that of Mary Blandy.

Take, again, the case of Mary Ansell, the domestic servant, who, at Hertford Assizes in June 1899, was found guilty of the murder of her sister, Caroline, by the administration of phosphorus contained in a cake. Here the motive for the murder was the insurance made by Ansell upon the life of her sister, a young woman of weak intellect confined in Leavesden Asylum, Watford. The sum assured was only L22 10s. If Mary Blandy poisoned her father in order to be at liberty to marry her lover, Cranstoun, and to secure the fortune Cranstoun wanted with her, wherein does she shine above Mary Ansell, a murderess who not only poisoned her sister, but nearly murdered several of her sister’s fellow-inmates of the asylum, and all for twenty odd pounds? Certainly not in being less sordid, certainly not in being more `romantic.’

There is, at root, no case of murder proved and accepted as such which does not contain its points of interest for the criminological writer. There is, indeed, many a case, not only of murder but of lesser crime, that has failed to attract a lot of attention, but that yet, in affording matter for the student of crime and criminal psychology, surpasses others which, very often because there has been nothing of greater public moment at the time, were boomed by the Press into the prominence of causes celebres.

There is no need then, after all, for any crime writer who wants to fry a modest basket of fish to mourn because Mr Roughead, Mr. Beaufroy Barry, Mr Guy Logan, Miss Tennyson Jesse, Mr Leonard R. Gribble, and others of his estimable fellows seem to have swiped all the sole and salmon. It may be a matter for envy that Mr Roughead, with his uncanny skill and his gift in piquant sauces, can turn out the haddock and hake with all the delectability of sole a la Normande. The sigh of envy will merge into an exhalation of joy over the artistry of it. And one may turn, wholeheartedly and inspired, to see what can be made of one’s own catch of gudgeon.


“More deadly than the male.”

Kipling’s line about the female of the species has been quoted, particularly as a text for dissertation on the female criminal, perhaps rather too often. There is always a temptation to use the easy gambit.

It is quite probable that there are moments in a woman’s life when she does become more deadly than the male. The probability is one which no man of age and experience will lack instance for making a fact. Without seeking to become profound in the matter I will say this: it is but lightly as compared with a man that one need scratch a woman to come on the natural creature.

Now, your natural creature, not inhibited by reason, lives by theft, murder, and dissimulation. It lives, even as regards the male, but for one purpose: to continue its species. Enrage a woman, then, or frighten her into the natural creature, and she will discard all those petty rules invented by the human male for his advantage over, and his safety from, the less disciplined members of the species. All that stuff about `honour,’ `Queensberry rules,’ `playing the game,’ and what not will go by the board. And she will fight you with tooth and talon, with lies, with blows below the belt–metaphorically, of course.

It may well be that you have done nothing more than hurt her pride–the civilized part of her. But instinctively she will fight you as the mother animal, either potentially or in being. It will not occur to her that she is doing so. Nor will it occur to you. But the fact that she is fighting at all will bring it about, for fighting to any female animal means defence of her young. She may not have any young in being. That does not affect the case. She will fight for the ova she carries, for the ova she has yet to develop. Beyond all reason, deep, instinct deep, within her she is the carrier of the race. This instinct is so profound that she will have no recollection in a crisis of the myriads of her like, but will think of herself as the race’s one chance to persist. Dangerous? Of course she’s dangerous–as dangerous as Nature! Just as dangerous, just as self-centred, as in its small way is that vegetative organism the volvox, which, when food is scarce and the race is threatened, against possible need of insemination, creates separate husband cells to starve in clusters, while `she’ hogs all the food-supply for the production of eggs.

This small flight into biology is made merely for the dim light it may cast on the Kipling half-truth. It is not made to explain why women criminals are more deadly, more cruel, more deeply lost in turpitude, than their male colleagues. But it may help to explain why so many crime-writers, following Lombroso, THINK the female more deadly.

There is something so deeply shocking in the idea of a woman being other than kind and good, something so antagonistic to the smug conception of Eve as the “minist’ring angel, thou,” that leaps to extremes in expression are easy.

A drunken woman, however, and for example, is not essentially more degraded than a drunken man. This in spite of popular belief. A nymphomaniac is not essentially more degraded than a brothel-haunting male. It may be true that moral sense decays more quickly in a woman than in a man, that the sex-ridden or drink-avid woman touches the deeps of degradation more quickly, but the reasons for this are patent. They are economic reasons usually, and physical, and not adherent to any inevitably weaker moral fibre in the woman.

Women as a rule have less command of money than men. If they earn what they spend they generally have to seek their satisfactions cheaply; and, of course, since their powers of resistance to the debilitating effects of alcohol are commonly less than those of men, they more readily lose physical tone. With loss of health goes loss of earning power, loss of caste. The descent, in general, must be quicker. It is much the same in nymphomania. Unless the sex-avid woman has a decent income, such as will provide her with those means whereby women preserve the effect of attractiveness, she must seek assuagement of her sex-torment with men less and less fastidious.

But it is useless and canting to say that peccant women are worse than men. If we are kind we say so merely because we are more apprehensive for them. Safe women, with but rare exceptions, are notably callous about their sisters astray, and the “we” I have used must be taken generally to signify men. We see the danger for erring women, danger economic and physical. Thinking in terms of the phrase that “a woman’s place is the home,” we wonder what will become of them. We wonder anxiously what man, braver or less fastidious than ourselves, will accept the burden of rescuing them, give them the sanctuary of a home. We see them as helpless, pitiable beings. We are shocked to see them fall so low.

There is something of this rather maudlin mentality, generally speaking, in our way of regarding women criminals. To think, we say, that a WOMAN should do such things!

But why should we be more shocked by the commission of a crime by a woman than by a man–even the cruellest of crimes? Take the male and female in feral creation, and there is nothing to choose between them in the matter of cruelty. The lion and the lioness both live by murder, and until gravidity makes her slow for the chase the breeding female is by all accounts the more dangerous. The she-bear will just as readily eat up a colony of grubs or despoil the husbandry of the bees as will her mate. If, then, the human animal drops the restraints imposed by law, reverting thereby to the theft, murder, and cunning of savagery, why should it be shocking that the female should equal the male in callousness? Why should it be shocking should she even surpass the male? It is quite possible that, since for physiological reasons she is nearer to instinctive motivation than the male, she cannot help being more ruthless once deterrent inhibition has been sloughed. But is she in fact more dangerous, more deadly as a criminal, than the male?

Lombroso–vide Mr Philip Beaufroy Barry in his essay on Anna Zwanziger–tells us that some of the methods of torture employed by criminal women are so horrible that they cannot be described without outraging the laws of decency. Less squeamish than Lombroso or Mr Barry, I gather aloud that the tortures have to do with the organs of generation. But male savages in African and American Indian tribes have a punishment for adulterous women which will match anything in that line women have ever achieved, and men in England itself have wreaked perverted vengeance on women in ways indescribable too. Though it may be granted that pain inflicted through the genitals is particularly sickening, pain is pain all over the body, and must reach what might be called saturation-point wherever inflicted. And as regards the invention of sickening punishment we need go no farther afield in search for ingenuity than the list of English kings. Dirty Jamie the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, under mask of retributive justice, could exercise a vein of cruelty that might have turned a Red Indian green with envy. Moreover, doesn’t our word expressing cruelty for cruelty’s sake derive from the name of a man–the Marquis de Sade?

I am persuaded that the reason why so many women murderers have made use of poison in their killings is primarily a simple one, a matter of physique. The average murderess, determined on the elimination of, for example, a husband, must be aware that in physical encounter she would have no chance. Then, again, there is in women an almost inborn aversion to the use of weapons. Once in a way, where the murderess was of Amazonian type, physical means have been employed for the slaying.

In this regard Kate Webster, who in 1879 at Richmond murdered and dismembered Mrs Julia Thomas, springs to mind. She was, from all accounts, an exceedingly virile young woman, strong as a pony, and with a devil of a temper. Mr Elliot O’Donnell, dealing with her in his essay in the “Notable British Trials” series, seems to be rather at a loss, considering her lack of physical beauty, to account for her attractiveness to men and to her own sex. But there is no need to account for it. Such a thing is no phenomenon.

I myself, sitting in a taberna in a small Spanish port, was once pestered by a couple of British seamen to interpret for them in their approaches to the daughter of the house. This woman, who had a voice like a raven, seemed able to give quick and snappy answers to the chaff by frequenters of the taberna. Few people in the day-time, either men or women, would pass the house if ‘Fina happened to be showing without stopping to have a word with her. She was not at all gentle in manner, but children ran to her. And yet, without being enormously fat, ‘Fina must have weighed close on fifteen stone. She had forearms and biceps like a coal-heaver’s. She was black-haired, heavy-browed, squish-nosed, moled, and swarthy, and she had a beard and moustache far beyond the stage of incipiency. Yet those two British seamen, fairly decent men, neither drunk nor brutish, could not have been more attracted had ‘Fina had the beauty of the Mona Lisa herself. I may add that there were other women handy and that the seamen knew of them.

This in parenthesis, I hope not inappropriately.

Where the selected victim, or victims, is, or are, feeble-bodied you will frequently find the murderess using physical means to her end. Sarah Malcolm, whose case will form one of the chief features of this volume, is an instance in point. Marguerite Diblanc, who strangled Mme Reil in the latter’s house in Park Lane on a day in April 1871, is another. Amelia Dyer, the baby-farmer, also strangled her charges. Elizabeth Brownrigg (1767) beat the feeble Mary Clifford to death. I do not know that great physical difference existed to the advantage of the murderess between her and her older victim, Mrs Phoebe Hogg, who, with her baby, was done to death by Mrs Pearcy in October 1890, but the fact that Mrs Hogg had been battered about the head, and that the head had been almost severed from the body, would seem to indicate that the murderess was the stronger of the two women. The case of Belle Gunness (treated by Mr George Dilnot in his Rogues March[1]) might be cited. Fat, gross-featured, far from attractive though she was, her victims were all men who had married or had wanted to marry her. Mr Dilnot says these victims “almost certainly numbered more than a hundred.” She murdered for money, using chloral to stupefy, and an axe for the actual killing. She herself was slain and burned, with her three children, by a male accomplice whom she was planning to dispose of, he having arrived at the point of knowing too much. 1907 was the date of her death at La Porte, U.S.A.

[1] Bles, 1934.

It occurs when the female killer happens to be dramatical-minded that she will use a pistol. Mme Weissmann-Bessarabo, who, with her daughter, shot her husband in Paris (August 1920), is of this kind. She and the daughter, Paule-Jacques, seem to have seen themselves as wild, wild women from the Mexico where they had sometime lived, and were always flourishing revolvers.

I would say that the use of poison so much by women murderers has reason, first, in the lack of physique for violent methods, but I would put alongside that reason this other, that women poisoners usually have had a handy proximity to their victims. They have had contact with their victims in an attendant capacity. I have a suspicion, moreover, that a good number of women poisoners actually chose the medium as THE KINDEST WAY. Women, and I might add not a few men, who would be terribly shocked by sight or news of a quick but violent death, can contemplate with relative placidity a lingering and painful fatal illness. Propose to a woman the destruction of a mangy stray cat or of an incurably diseased dog by means of a clean, well-placed shot, and the chances are that she will shudder. But–no lethal chamber being available–suggest poison, albeit unspecified, and the method will more readily commend itself. This among women with no murderous instincts whatever.

I have a fancy also that in some cases of murder by poison, not only by women, the murderer has been able to dramatize herself or himself ahead as a tender, noble, and self-sacrificing attendant upon the victim. No need here, I think, to number the cases where the ministrations of murderers to their victims have aroused the almost tearful admiration of beholders.

I shall say nothing of the secrecy of the poison method, of the chance which still exists, in spite of modern diagnosis, that the illness induced by it will pass for one arising from natural causes. This is ground traversed so often that its features are as familiar as those of one’s own house door. Nor shall I say anything of the ease with which, even in these days, the favourite poison of the woman murderer, arsenic, can be obtained in one form or another.

One hears and reads, however, a great deal about the sense of power which gradually steals upon the poisoner. It is a speculation upon which I am not ready to argue. There is, indeed, chapter and verse for believing that poisoners have arrived at a sense of omnipotence. But if Anna Zwanziger (here I quote from Mr Philip Beaufroy Barry’s essay on her in his Twenty Human Monsters), “a day or two before the execution, smiled and said it was a fortunate thing for many people that she was to die, for had she lived she would have continued to poison men and women indiscriminately”; if, still according to the same writer, “when the arsenic was found on her person after the arrest, she seized the packet and gloated over the powder, looking at it, the chronicler assures us, as a woman looks at her lover”; and if, “when the attendants asked her how she could have brought herself calmly to kill people with whom she was living–whose meals and amusements she shared–she replied that their faces were so stupidly healthy and happy that she desired to see them change into faces of pain and despair,” I will say this in no way goes to prove the woman criminal to be more deadly than the male. This ghoulish satisfaction, with the conjectured feeling of omnipotence, is not peculiar to the woman poisoner. Neill Cream had it. Armstrong had it. Wainewright, with his reason for poisoning Helen Abercrombie–“Upon my soul I don’t know, unless it was that her legs were too thick”–is quite on a par with Anna Zwanziger. The supposed sense of power does not even belong exclusively to the poisoner. Jack the Ripper manifestly had something of the same idea about his use of the knife.

As a monster in mass murder against Mary Ann Cotton I will set you the Baron Gilles de Rais, with his forty flogged, outraged, obscenely mutilated and slain children in one of his castles alone–his total of over two hundred children thus foully done to death. I will set you Gilles against anything that can be brought forward as a monster in cruelty among women.

Against the hypocrisy of Helene Jegado I will set you the sanctimonious Dr Pritchard, with the nauseating entry in his diary (quoted by Mr Roughead) recording the death of the wife he so cruelly murdered:

March 1865, 18, Saturday. Died here at 1 A.M. Mary Jane, my own beloved wife, aged thirty-eight years. No torment surrounded her bedside [the foul liar!]–but like a calm peaceful lamb of God passed Minnie away. May God and Jesus, Holy Ghost, one in three, welcome Minnie! Prayer on prayer till mine be o’er; everlasting love. Save us, Lord, for Thy dear Son!

Against the mean murders of Flanagan and Higgins I will set you Mr Seddon and Mr Smith of the “brides in the bath.”

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I am conscious that in arguing against the “more deadly than the male” conception of the woman criminal I am perhaps doing my book no great service. It might work for its greater popularity if I argued the other way, making out that the subjects I have chosen were monsters of brutality, with arms up to the shoulders in blood, that they were prodigies of iniquity and cunning, without bowels, steeped in hypocrisy, facinorous to a degree never surpassed or even equalled by evil men. It may seem that, being concerned to strip female crime of the lurid preeminence so commonly given it, I have contrived beforehand to rob the ensuing pages of any richer savour they might have had. But I don’t, myself, think so.

If these women, some of them, are not greater monsters than their male analogues, monsters they still remain. If they are not, others of them, greater rogues and cheats than males of like criminal persuasion, cheats and rogues they are beyond cavil. The truth of the matter is that I loathe the use of superlatives in serious works on crime. I will read, I promise you, anything decently written in a fictional way about `master’ crooks, `master’ killers, kings, queens, princes, and a whole peerage of crime, knowing very well that never yet has a `master’ criminal had any cleverness but what a novelist gave him. But in works on crime that pretend to seriousness I would eschew, pace Mr Leonard R. Gribble, all `queens’ and other honorifics in application to the lost men and women with whom such works must treat. There is no romance in crime. Romance is life gilded, life idealized. Crime is never anything but a sordid business, demonstrably poor in reward to its practitioners.

But, sordid or not, crime has its human interest. Its practitioners are still part of life, human beings, different from law-abiding humanity by God-alone-knows-what freak of heredity or kink in brain convolution. I will not ask the reader, as an excuse for my book, to view the criminal with the thought attributed to John Knox:

“There, but for the Grace of God, goes —-” Because the phrase might as well be used in contemplation of John D. Rockefeller or Augustus John or Charlie Chaplin or a man with a wooden leg. I do not ask that you should pity these women with whom I have to deal, still less that you should contemn them. Something between the two will serve. I write the book because I am interested in crime myself, and in the hope that you’ll like the reading as much as I like the writing of it.


In her long history there can have been few mornings upon which Edinburgh had more to offer her burghers in the way of gossip and rumour than on that of the 1st of July, 1600. In this `gate’ and that `gate,’ as one may imagine, the douce citizens must have clustered and broke and clustered, like eddied foam on a spated burn. By conjecture, as they have always been a people apt to take to the streets upon small occasion as on large, it is not unlikely that the news which was to drift into the city some thirty-five days later–namely, that an attempt on the life of his Sacred Majesty, the High and Mighty (and Rachitic) Prince, James the Sixth of Scotland, had been made by the brothers Ruthven in their castle of Gowrie–it is not unlikely that the first buzz of the Gowrie affair caused no more stir, for the time being at any rate, than the word which had come to those Edinburgh folk that fine morning of the first day in July. The busier of the bodies would trot from knot to knot, anxious to learn and retail the latest item of fact and fancy regarding the tidings which had set tongues going since the early hours. Murder, no less.

If the contemporary juridical records, even what is left of them, be a criterion, homicide in all its oddly named forms must have been a commonplace to those couthie lieges of his Slobberiness, King Jamie. It is hard to believe that murder, qua murder, could have been of much more interest to them than the fineness of the weather. We have it, however, on reasonable authority, that the murder of the Laird of Warriston did set the people of “Auld Reekie” finely agog.

John Kincaid, of Warriston, was by way of being one of Edinburgh’s notables. Even at that time his family was considered to be old. He derived from the Kincaids of Kincaid, in Stirlingshire, a family then in possession of large estates in that county and here and there about Lothian. His own property of Warriston lay on the outskirts of Edinburgh itself, just above a mile from Holyroodhouse. Notable among his possessions was one which he should, from all accounts, dearly have prized, but which there are indications he treated with some contumely. This was his wife, Jean Livingstone, a singularly beautiful girl, no more than twenty-one years of age at the time when this story opens. Jean, like her husband, was a person of good station indeed. She was a daughter of the Laird of Dunipace, John Livingstone, and related through him and her mother to people of high consideration in the kingdom.

News of the violent death of John Kincaid, which had taken place soon after midnight, came quickly to the capital. Officers were at once dispatched. Small wonder that the burghers found exercise for their clacking tongues from the dawning, for the lovely Jean was taken by the officers `red-hand,’ as the phrase was, for the murder of her husband. With her to Edinburgh, under arrest, were brought her nurse and two other servingwomen.

To Pitcairn, compiler of Criminal Trials in Scotland, from indications in whose account of the murder I have been set on the hunt for material concerning it, I am indebted for the information that Jean and her women were taken red-hand. But I confess being at a loss to understand it. Warriston, as indicated, stood a good mile from Edinburgh. The informant bringing word of the deed to town, even if he or she covered the distance on horseback, must have taken some time in getting the proper authorities to move. Then time would elapse in quantity before the officers dispatched could be at the house. They themselves could hardly have taken the Lady Warriston red-hand, because in the meantime the actual perpetrator of the murder, a horse-boy named Robert Weir, in the employ of Jean’s father, had made good his escape. As a fact, he was not apprehended until some time afterwards, and it would seem, from the records given in the Pitcairn Trials, that it was not until four years later that he was brought to trial.

A person taken red-hand, it would be imagined, would be one found in such circumstances relating to a murder as would leave no doubt as to his or her having “airt and pairt” in the crime. Since it must have taken the officers some time to reach the house, one of two things must have happened. Either some officious person or persons, roused by the killing, which, as we shall see, was done with no little noise, must have come upon Jean and her women immediately upon the escape of Weir, and have detained all four until the arrival of the officers, or else Jean and her women must have remained by the dead man in terror, and have blurted out the truth of their complicity when the officers appeared.

Available records are irritatingly uninformative upon the arrest of the Lady Warriston. Pitcairn himself, in 1830, talks of his many “fruitless searches” through the Criminal Records of the city of Edinburgh, the greater part of which are lost, and confesses his failure to come on any trace of the actual proceedings in this case, or in the case of Robert Weir. For this reason the same authority is at a loss to know whether the prisoners were immediately put to the knowledge of an assize, being taken “red-hand,” without the formality of being served a “dittay” (as who should say an indictment), as in ordinary cases, before the magistrates of Edinburgh, or else sent for trial before the baron bailie of the regality of Broughton, in whose jurisdiction Warriston was situated.

It would perhaps heighten the drama of the story if it could be learned what Jean and her women did between the time of the murder and the arrest. It would seem, however, that the Lady Warriston had some intention of taking flight with Weir. One is divided between an idea that the horse-boy did not want to be hampered and that he was ready for self-sacrifice. “You shall tarry still,” we read that he said; “and if this matter come not to light you shall say, `He died in the gallery,’ and I shall return to my master’s service. But if it be known I shall fly, and take the crime on me, and none dare pursue you!”

It was distinctly a determined affair of murder. The loveliness of Jean Livingstone has been so insisted upon in many Scottish ballads,[2] and her conduct before her execution was so saintly, that one cannot help wishing, even now, that she could have escaped the scaffold. But there is no doubt that, incited by the nurse, Janet Murdo, she set about having her husband killed with a rancour which was very grim indeed.

[2] A stanza in one ballad runs:

“She has twa weel-made feet;
Far better is her hand;
She’s jimp about the middle
As ony willy wand.”

The reason for Jean’s hatred of her husband appears in the dittay against Robert Weir. “Forasmuch,” it runs, translated to modern terms,

as whilom Jean Livingstone, Goodwife of Warriston, having conceived a deadly rancour, hatred, and malice against whilom John Kincaid, of Warriston, for the alleged biting of her in the arm, and striking her divers times, the said Jean, in the month of June, One Thousand Six Hundred Years, directed Janet Murdo, her nurse, to the said Robert [Weir], to the abbey of Holyroodhouse, where he was for the time, desiring him to come down to Warriston, and speak with her, anent the cruel and unnatural taking away of her said husband’s life.

And there you have it. If the allegation against John Kincaid was true it does not seem that he valued his lovely wife as he ought to have done. The striking her “divers times” may have been an exaggeration. It probably was. Jean and her women would want to show there had been provocation. (In a ballad he is accused of having thrown a plate at dinner in her face.) But there is a naivete, a circumstantial air, about the “biting of her in the arm” which gives it a sort of genuine ring. How one would like to come upon a contemporary writing which would throw light on the character of John Kincaid! Growing sympathy for Jean makes one wish it could be found that Kincaid deserved all he got.

Here and there in the material at hand indications are to be found that the Lady of Warriston had an idea she might not come so badly off on trial. But even if the King’s Majesty had been of clement disposition, which he never was, or if her judges had been likely to be moved by her youth and beauty, there was evidence of such premeditation, such fixity of purpose, as would no doubt harden the assize against her.

Robert Weir was in service, as I have said, with Jean Livingstone’s father, the Laird of Dunipace. It may have been that he knew Jean before her marriage. He seems, at any rate, to have been extremely willing to stand by her. He was fetched by the nurse several times from Holyrood to Warriston, but failed to have speech with the lady. On the 30th of June, however, the Lady Warriston having sent the nurse for him once again, he did contrive to see Jean in the afternoon, and, according to the dittay, “conferred with her, concerning the cruel, unnatural, and abominable murdering of the said whilom John Kincaid.”

The upshot of the conference was that Weir was secretly led to a “laigh” cellar in the house of Warriston, to await the appointed time for the execution of the murder.

Weir remained in the cellar until midnight. Jean came for him at that hour and led him up into the hall. Thence the pair proceeded to the room in which John Kincaid was lying asleep. It would appear that they took no great pains to be quiet in their progress, for on entering the room they found Kincaid awakened “be thair dyn.”

I cannot do better at this point than leave description of the murder as it is given in the dittay against Weir. The editor of Pitcairn’s Trials remarks in a footnote to the dittay that “the quaintness of the ancient style even aggravates the horror of the scene.” As, however, the ancient style may aggravate the reader unacquainted with Scots, I shall English it, and give the original rendering in a footnote:

And having entered within the said chamber, perceiving the said whilom John to be wakened out of his sleep by their din, and to pry over his bed-stock, the said Robert came then running to him, and most cruelly, with clenched fists, gave him a deadly and cruel stroke on the jugular vein, wherewith he cast the said whilom John to the ground, from out his bed; and thereafter struck him on his belly with his feet; whereupon he gave a great cry. And the said Robert, fearing the cry should have been heard, he thereafter, most tyrannously and barbarously, with his hand, gripped him by the throat, or weasand, which he held fast a long time, while [or until] he strangled him; during the which time the said John Kincaid lay struggling and fighting in the pains of death under him. And so the said whilom John was cruelly murdered and slain by the said Robert.[3]

[3] And haifing enterit within the faid chalmer, perfaving the faid vmqle Johnne to be walknit out of his fleip, be thair dyn, and to preife ouer his bed ftok, the faid Robert cam than rynnand to him, and maift crewallie, with thair faldit neiffis gaif him ane deidlie and crewall straik on the vane-organe, quhairwith he dang the faid vmqle Johnne to the grund, out-ouer his bed; and thaireftir, crewallie ftrak him on bellie with his feit; quhairvpoun he gaif ane grit cry: And the faid Robert, feiring the cry fould haif bene hard, he thaireftir, maift tyrannouflie and barbarouflie, with his hand, grippit him be the thrott or waifen, quhilk he held faft ane lang tyme quhill he wirreit him; during the quhilk tyme, the faid Johnne Kincaid lay ftruggilling and fechting in the panes of daith vnder him. And fa, the faid vmqle Johnne was crewallie murdreit and flaine be the faid Robert.”

It will be seen that Robert Weir evolved a murder technique which, as Pitcairn points out, was to be adopted over two centuries later in Edinburgh at the Westport by Messrs Burke and Hare.

% II

Lady Warriston was found guilty, and four days after the murder, on the 5th of July, was taken to the Girth Cross of Holyrood, at the foot of the Canongate, and there decapitated by that machine which rather anticipated the inventiveness of Dr Guillotin–“the Maiden.” At the same time, four o’clock in the morning, Janet Murdo, the nurse, and one of the serving-women accused with her as accomplices were burned on the Castle Hill of the city.

There is something odd about the early hour at which the executions took place. The usual time for these affairs was much later in the day, and it is probable that the sentence against Jean ran that she should be executed towards dusk on the 4th of the month. The family of Dunipace, however, having exerted no influence towards saving the daughter of the house from her fate, did everything they could to have her disposed of as secretly and as expeditiously as possible. In their zeal to have done with the hapless girl who, they conceived, had blotted the family honour indelibly they were in the prison with the magistrates soon after three o’clock, quite indecent in their haste to see her on her way to the scaffold. In the first place they had applied to have her executed at nine o’clock on the evening of the 3rd, another unusual hour, but the application was turned down. The main idea with them was to have Jean done away with at some hour when the populace would not be expecting the execution. Part of the plan for privacy is revealed in the fact of the burning of the nurse and the “hyred woman” at four o’clock at the Castle Hill, nearly a mile away from the Girth Cross, so–as the Pitcairn Trials footnote says-“that the populace, who might be so early astir, should have their attentions distracted at two opposite stations . . . and thus, in some measure, lessen the disgrace of the public execution.”

If Jean had any reason to thank her family it was for securing, probably as much on their own behalf as hers, that the usual way of execution for women murderers should be altered in her case to beheading by “the Maiden.” Had she been of lesser rank she would certainly have been burned, after being strangled at a stake, as were her nurse and the serving-woman. This was the appalling fate reserved for convicted women[4] in such cases, and on conviction even of smaller crimes. The process was even crueller in instances where the crime had been particularly atrocious. “The criminal,” says the Pitcairn account of such punishment, “was `brunt quick’!”

[4] Men convicted of certain crimes were also subject to the same form of execution adulterating and uttering base coins (Alan Napier, cutler in Glasgow, was strangled and burned at the stake in December 1602) sorcery, witchcraft, incantation, poisoning (Bailie Paterson suffered a like fate in December 1607). For bestiality John Jack was strangled on the Castle Hill (September 1605), and the innocent animal participator in his crime burned with him.

Altogether, the Dunipace family do not exactly shine with a good light as concerns their treatment of the condemned girl. Her father stood coldly aside. The quoted footnote remarks:

It is recorded that the Laird of Dunipace behaved with much apathy towards his daughter, whom he would not so much as see previous to her execution; nor yet would he intercede for her, through whose delinquency he reckoned his blood to be for ever dishonoured.

Jean herself was in no mind to be hurried to the scaffold as early as her relatives would have had her conveyed. She wanted (poor girl!) to see the sunrise, and to begin with the magistrates granted her request. It would appear, however, that Jean’s blood-relations opposed the concession so strongly that it was almost immediately rescinded. The culprit had to die in the grey dark of the morning, before anyone was likely to be astir.

In certain directions there was not a little heart-burning about the untimely hour at which it was manoeuvred the execution should be carried out. The writer of a Memorial, from which this piece of information is drawn, refrains very cautiously from mentioning the objectors by name. But it is not difficult, from the colour of their objections, to decide that these people belonged to the type still known in Scotland as the `unco guid.’ They saw in the execution of this fair malefactor a moral lesson and a solemn warning which would have a salutary and uplifting effect upon the spectators.

“Will you,” they asked the presiding dignitaries, and the blood-relations of the hapless Jean, “deprive God’s people of that comfort which they might have in that poor woman’s death? And will you obstruct the honour of it by putting her away before the people rise out of their beds? You do wrong in so doing; for the more public the death be, the more profitable it shall be to many; and the more glorious, in the sight of all who shall see it.”

But perhaps one does those worthies an injustice in attributing cant motives to their desire that as many people as possible should see Jean die. It had probably reached them that the Lady Warriston’s repentance had been complete, and that after conviction of her sin had come to her her conduct had been sweet and seemly. They were of their day and age, those people, accustomed almost daily to beheadings, stranglings, burnings, hangings, and dismemberings. With that dour, bitter, fire-and- brimstone religious conception which they had through Knox from Calvin, they were probably quite sincere in their belief that the public repentance Jean Livingstone was due to make from the scaffold would be for the “comfort of God’s people.” It was not so often that justice exacted the extreme penalty from a young woman of rank and beauty. With “dreadful objects so familiar” in the way of public executions, it was likely enough that pity in the commonalty was “choked with custom of fell deeds.” Something out of the way in the nature of a dreadful object-lesson might stir the hearts of the populace and make them conscious of the Wrath to Come.

And Jean Livingstone did die a good death.

The Memorial[5] which I have mentioned is upon Jean’s `conversion’ in prison. It is written by one “who was both a seer and hearer of what was spoken [by the Lady Warriston].” The editor of the Pitcairn Trials believes, from internal evidence, that it was written by Mr James Balfour, colleague of Mr Robert Bruce, that minister of the Kirk who was so contumacious about preaching what was practically a plea of the King’s innocence in the matter of the Gowrie mystery. It tells how Jean, from being completely apathetic and callous with regard to religion or to the dreadful situation in which she found herself through her crime, under the patient and tender ministrations of her spiritual advisers, arrived at complete resignation to her fate and genuine repentance for her misdeeds.

[5] The Memorial is fully entitled: A Worthy and Notable Memorial of the Great Work of Mercy which God wrought in the Conversion of Jean Livingstone Lady Warristoun, who was apprehended for the Vile and Horrible Murder of her own Husband, John Kincaid, committed on Tuesday, July 1, 1600, for which she was execute on Saturday following; Containing an Account of her Obstinacy, Earnest Repentance, and her Turning to God; of the Odd Speeches she used during her Imprisonment; of her Great and Marvellous Constancy; and of her Behaviour and Manner of Death: Observed by One who was both a Seer and Hearer of what was spoken.

Her confession, as filleted from the Memorial by the Pitcairn Trials, is as follows:

I think I shall hear presently the pitiful and fearful cries which he gave when he was strangled! And that vile sin which I committed in murdering my own husband is yet before me. When that horrible and fearful sin was done I desired the unhappy man who did it (for my own part, the Lord knoweth I laid never my hands upon him to do him evil; but as soon as that man gripped him and began his evil turn, so soon as my husband cried so fearfully, I leapt out over my bed and went to the Hall, where I sat all the time, till that unhappy man came to me and reported that mine husband was dead), I desired him, I say, to take me away with him; for I feared trial; albeit flesh and blood made me think my father’s moen [interest] at Court would have saved me!

Well, we know what the Laird of Dunipace did about it.

“As to these women who was challenged with me,” the confession goes on,

I will also tell my mind concerning them. God forgive the nurse, for she helped me too well in mine evil purpose; for when I told her I was minded to do so she consented to the doing of it; and upon Tuesday, when the turn was done, when I sent her to seek the man who would do it, she said, “ I shall go and seek him; and if I get him not I shall seek another! And if I get none I shall do it myself!”

Here the writer of the Memorial interpolates the remark, “This the nurse also confessed, being asked of it before her death.” It is a misfortune, equalling that of the lack of information regarding the character of Jean’s husband, that there is so little about the character of the nurse. She was, it is to be presumed, an older woman than her mistress, probably nurse to Jean in her infancy. One can imagine her (the stupid creature!) up in arms against Kincaid for his treatment of her “bonny lamb,” without the sense to see whither she was urging her young mistress; blind to the consequences, but “nursing her wrath” and striding purposefully from Warriston to Holyroodhouse on her strong plebeian legs, not once but several times, in search of Weir! What is known in Scotland as a `limmer,’ obviously.

“As for the two other women,” Jean continues,

I request that you neither put them to death nor any torture, because I testify they are both innocent, and knew nothing of this deed before it was done, and the mean time of doing it; and that they knew they durst not tell, for fear; for I compelled them to dissemble. As for mine own part, I thank my God a thousand times that I am so touched with the sense of that sin now: for I confess this also to you, that when that horrible murder was committed first, that I might seem to be innocent, I laboured to counterfeit weeping; but, do what I could, I could not find a tear.

Of the whole confession that last is the most revealing touch. It is hardly just to fall into pity for Jean simply because she was young and lovely. Her crime was a bad one, much more deliberate than many that, in the same age, took women of lower rank in life than Jean to the crueller end of the stake. In the several days during which she was sending for Weir, but failing to have speech with him, she had time to review her intention of having her husband murdered. If the nurse was the prime mover in the plot Jean was an unrelenting abettor. It may have been in her calculations before, as well as after, the deed itself that the interest of her father and family at Court would save her, should the deed have come to light as murder. Even in these days, when justice is so much more seasoned with mercy to women murderers, a woman in Jean’s case, with such strong evidence of premeditation against her, would only narrowly escape the hangman, if she escaped him at all. But that confession of trying to pretend weeping and being unable to find tears is a revelation. I can think of nothing more indicative of terror and misery in a woman than that she should want to cry and be unable to. Your genuinely hypocritical murderer, male as well as female, can always work up self-pity easily and induce the streaming eye.

It is from internal evidences such as this that one may conclude the repentance of Jean Livingstone, as shown in her confession, to have been sincere. There was, we are informed by the memorialist, nothing maudlin in her conduct after condemnation. Once she got over her first obduracy, induced, one would imagine, by the shock of seeing the realization of what she had planned but never pictured, the murder itself, and probably by the desertion of her by her father and kindred, her repentance was “cheerful” and “unfeigned.” They were tough-minded men, those Scots divines who ministered to her at the last, too stern in their theology to be misled by any pretence at finding grace. And no pretty ways of Jean’s would have deceived them. The constancy of behaviour which is vouched for, not only by the memorialist but by other writers, stayed with her until the axe fell.


“She was but a woman and a bairn, being the age of twenty-one years,” says the Memorial. But, “in the whole way, as she went to the place of execution, she behaved herself so cheerfully as if she had been going to her wedding, and not to her death. When she came to the scaffold, and was carried up upon it, she looked up to “the Maiden” with two longsome looks, for she had never seen it before.”

The minister-memorialist, who attended her on the scaffold, says that all who saw Jean would bear record with himself that her countenance alone would have aroused emotion, even if she had never spoken a word. “For there appeared such majesty in her countenance and visage, and such a heavenly courage in her gesture, that many said, `That woman is ravished by a higher spirit than a man or woman’s!’ ”

As for the Declaration and Confession which, according to custom, Jean made from the four corners of the scaffold, the memorialist does not pretend to give it verbatim. It was, he says, almost in a form of words, and he gives the sum of it thus:

The occasion of my coming here is to show that I am, and have been, a great sinner, and hath offended the Lord’s Majesty; especially, of the cruel murdering of mine own husband, which, albeit I did not with mine own hands, for I never laid mine hands upon him all the time that he was murdering, yet I was the deviser of it, and so the committer. But my God hath been always merciful to me, and hath given me repentance for my sins; and I hope for mercy and grace at his Majesty’s hands, for his dear son Jesus Christ’s sake. And the Lord hath brought me hither to be an example to you, that you may not fall into the like sin as I have done. And I pray God, for his mercy, to keep all his faithful people from falling into the like inconvenient as I have done! And therefore I desire you all to pray to God for me, that he would be merciful to me!

One wonders just how much of Jean’s own words the minister-memorialist got into this, his sum of her confession. Her speech would be coloured inevitably by the phrasing she had caught from her spiritual advisers, and the sum of it would almost unavoidably have something of the memorialist’s own fashion of thought. I would give a good deal to know if Jean did actually refer to the Almighty as “the Lord’s Majesty,” and hope for “grace at his Majesty’s hands.” I do not think I am being oversubtle when I fancy that, if Jean did use those words, I see an element of confusion in her scaffold confession–the trembling confusion remaining from a lost hope. As a Scot, I have no recollection of ever hearing the Almighty referred to as “the Lord’s Majesty” or as “his Majesty.” It does not ring naturally to my ear. Nor, at the long distance from which I recollect reading works of early Scottish divines, can I think of these forms being used in such a context. I may be–I very probably am–all wrong, but I have a feeling that up to the last Jean Livingstone believed royal clemency would be shown to her, and that this belief appears in the use of these unwonted phrases.

However that may be, Jean’s conduct seems to have been heroic and unfaltering. She prayed, and one of her relations or friends brought “a clean cloath” to tie over her eyes. Jean herself had prepared for this operation, for she took a pin out of her mouth and gave it into the friend’s hand to help the fastening. The minister-memorialist, having taken farewell of her for the last time, could not bear the prospect of what was about to happen. He descended from the scaffold and went away. “But she,” he says,

as a constant saint of God, humbled herself on her knees, and offered her neck to the axe, laying her neck, sweetly and graciously, in the place appointed, moving to and fro, till she got a rest for her neck to lay in. When her head was now made fast to “the Maiden” the executioner came behind her and pulled out her feet, that her neck might be stretched out longer, and so made more meet for the stroke of the axe; but she, as it was reported to me by him who saw it and held her by the hands at this time, drew her legs twice to her again, labouring to sit on her knees, till she should give up her spirit to the Lord! During this time, which was long, for the axe was but slowly loosed, and fell not down hastily, after laying of her head, her tongue was not idle, but she continued crying to the Lord, and uttered with a loud voice those her wonted words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! O Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me! Into thy hand, Lord, I commend my soul!” When she came to the middle of this last sentence, and had said, “Into thy hand, Lord,” at the pronouncing of the word “Lord” the axe fell; which was diligently marked by one of her friends, who still held her by the hand, and reported this to me.

% IV

On the 26th of June, 1604, Robert Weir, “sumtyme servande to the Laird of Dynniepace,” was brought to knowledge of an assize. He was “Dilaitit of airt and pairt of the crewall Murthour of umqle Johnne Kincaid of Wariestoune; committit the first of Julij, 1600 yeiris.”

Verdict. The Assyse, all in ane voce, be the mouth of the said Thomas Galloway, chanceller, chosen be thame, ffand, pronouncet and declairit the said Robert Weir to be ffylit, culpable and convict of the crymes above specifiet, mentionat in the said Dittay; and that in respect of his Confessioun maid thairof, in Judgement.

Sentence. The said Justice-depute, be the mouth of James Sterling, dempster of the Court, decernit and ordainit the said Robert Weir to be tane to ane skaffold to be fixt beside the Croce of Edinburgh, and there to be brokin upoune ane Row,[6] quhill he be deid; and to ly thairat, during the space of xxiiij houris. And thaireftir, his body to be tane upon the said Row, and set up, in ane publict place, betwix the place of Wariestoune and the toun of Leyth; and to remain thairupoune, ay and quhill command be gevin for the buriall thairof. Quhilk was pronouncet for dome.

[6] A `row’ is a wheel. This is one of the very few instances on which the terrible and vicious punishment of `breaking on a wheel’ was employed in Scotland. Jean Livingstone’s accomplice was, according to Birrell’s Diary, broken on a cartwheel, with the coulter of a plough in the hand of the hangman. The exotic method of execution suggests experiment by King Jamie.

% V

The Memorial before mentioned is, in the original, a manuscript belonging to the Advocates’ Library of Edinburgh. A printed copy was made in 1828, under the editorship of J. Sharpe, in the same city. This edition contains, among other more relative matter, a reprint of a newspaper account of an execution by strangling and burning at the stake. The woman concerned was not the last victim in Britain of this form of execution. The honour, I believe, belongs to one Anne Cruttenden. The account is full of gruesome and graphic detail, but the observer preserves quite an air of detachment:

IVELCHESTER: 9th May, 1765. Yesterday Mary Norwood, for poisoning her husband, Joseph Norwood, of Axbridge, in this county [Somerset], was burnt here pursuant to her sentence. She was brought out of the prison about three o’clock in the afternoon, barefoot; she was covered with a tarred cloth, made like a shift, and a tarred bonnet over her head; and her legs, feet, and arms had likewise tar on them; the heat of the weather melting the tar, it ran over her face, so that she made a shocking appearance. She was put on a hurdle, and drawn on a sledge to the place of execution, which was very near the gallows. After spending some time in prayer, and singing a hymn, the executioner placed her on a tar barrel, about three feet high; a rope (which was in a pulley through the stake) was fixed about her neck, she placing it properly with her hands; this rope being drawn extremely tight with the pulley, the tar barrel was then pushed away, and three irons were then fastened around her body, to confine it to the stake, that it might not drop when the rope should be burnt. As soon as this was done the fire was immediately kindled; but in all probability she was quite dead before the fire reached her, as the executioner pulled her body several times whilst the irons were fixing, which was about five minutes. There being a good quantity of tar, and the wood in the pile being quite dry, the fire burnt with amazing fury; notwithstanding which great part of her could be discerned for near half an hour. Nothing could be more affecting than to behold, after her bowels fell out, the fire flaming between her ribs, issuing out of her ears, mouth, eyeholes, etc. In short, it was so terrible a sight that great numbers turned their backs and screamed out, not being able to look at it.


It is hardly likely when that comely but penniless young Scot Robert Carr, of Ferniehurst, fell from his horse and broke his leg that any of the spectators of the accident foresaw how far-reaching it would be in its consequences. It was an accident, none the less, which in its ultimate results was to put several of the necks craned to see it in peril of the hangman’s noose.

That divinely appointed monarch King James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England had an eye for manly beauty. Though he could contrive the direst of cruelties to be committed out of his sight, the actual spectacle of physical suffering in the human made him squeamish. Add the two facts of the King’s nature together and it may be understood how Robert Carr, in falling from his horse that September day in the tilt-yard of Whitehall, fell straight into his Majesty’s favour. King James himself gave orders for the disposition of the sufferer, found lodgings for him, sent his own surgeon, and was constant in his visits to the convalescent. Thereafter the rise of Robert Carr was meteoric. Knighted, he became Viscount Rochester, a member of the Privy Council, then Earl of Somerset, Knight of the Garter, all in a very few years. It was in 1607 that he fell from his horse, under the King’s nose. In 1613 he was at the height of his power in England.

Return we for a moment, however, to that day in the Whitehall tilt-yard. It is related that one woman whose life and fate were to be bound with Carr’s was in the ladies’ gallery. It is very probable that a second woman, whose association with the first did much to seal Carr’s doom, was also a spectator. If Frances Howard, as we read, showed distress over the painful mishap to the handsome Scots youth it is almost certain that Anne Turner, with the quick eye she had for male comeliness and her less need for Court-bred restraint, would exhibit a sympathetic volubility.

Frances Howard was the daughter of that famous Elizabethan seaman Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. On that day in September she would be just over fifteen years of age. It is said that she was singularly lovely. At that early age she was already a wife, victim of a political marriage which, in the exercise of the ponderous cunning he called kingcraft, King James had been at some pains to arrange. At the age of thirteen Frances had been married to Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, then but a year older than herself. The young couple had been parted at the altar, the groom being sent travelling to complete his growth and education, and Frances being returned to her mother and the semi-seclusion of the Suffolk mansion at Audley End.

Of the two women, so closely linked in fate, the second is perhaps the more interesting study. Anne Turner was something older than the Countess of Essex. In the various records of the strange piece of history which is here to be dealt with there are many allusions to a long association between the two. Almost a foster-sister relationship seems to be implied, but actual detail is irritatingly absent. Nor is it clear whether Mrs Turner at the time of the tilt-yard incident had embarked on the business activities which were to make her a much sought-after person in King James’s Court. It is not to be ascertained whether she was not already a widow at that time. We can only judge from circumstantial evidence brought forward later.

In 1610, at all events, Mrs Turner was well known about the Court, and was quite certainly a widow. Her husband had been a well-known medical man, one George Turner, a graduate of St John’s College, Cambridge. He had been a protege of Queen Elizabeth. Dying, this elderly husband of Mistress Turner had left her but little in the way of worldly goods, but that little the fair young widow had all the wit to turn to good account. There was a house in Paternoster Row and a series of notebooks. Like many another physician of his time, George Turner had been a dabbler in more arts than that of medicine, an investigator in sciences other than pathology. His notebooks would appear to have contained more than remedial prescriptions for agues, fevers, and rheums. There was, for example, a recipe for a yellow starch which, says Rafael Sabatini, in his fine romance The Minion,[7] “she dispensed as her own invention. This had become so widely fashionable for ruffs and pickadills that of itself it had rendered her famous.” One may believe, also, that most of the recipes for those “perfumes, cosmetics, unguents and mysterious powders, liniments and lotions asserted to preserve beauty where it existed, and even to summon it where it was lacking,” were derived from the same sources.

[7] Hutchinson, 1930.

There is a temptation to write of Mistress Turner as forerunner of that notorious Mme Rachel of whom, in his volume Bad Companions,[8] Mr Roughead has said the final and pawky word. Mme Rachel, in the middle of the nineteenth century, founded her fortunes as a beauty specialist (?) on a prescription for a hair-restorer given her by a kindly doctor. She also `invented’ many a lotion and unguent for the preservation and creation of beauty. But at about this point analogy stops. Both Rachel and her forerunner, Anne Turner, were scamps, and both got into serious trouble–Anne into deeper and deadlier hot water than Rachel–but between the two women there is only superficial comparison. Rachel was a botcher and a bungler, a very cobbler, beside Anne Turner.

[8] Edinburgh, W. Green and Son, Ltd., 1930.

Anne, there is every cause for assurance, was in herself the best advertisement for her wares. Rachel was a fat old hag. Anne, prettily fair, little-boned, and deliciously fleshed, was neat and elegant. The impression one gets of her from all the records, even the most prejudiced against her, is that she was a very cuddlesome morsel indeed. She was, in addition, demonstrably clever. Such a man of talent as Inigo Jones supported the decoration of many of the masques he set on the stage with costumes of Anne’s design and confection. Rachel could neither read nor write.

It is highly probable that Anne Turner made coin out of the notes which her late husband, so inquisitive of mind, had left on matters much more occult than the manufacture of yellow starch and skin lotions. “It was also rumoured,” says Mr Sabatini, “that she amassed gold in another and less licit manner: that she dabbled in fortune-telling and the arts of divination.” We shall see, as the story develops, that the rumour had some foundation. The inquiring mind of the late Dr Turner had led him into strange company, and his legacy to Anne included connexions more sombre than those in the extravagantly luxurious Court of King James.

In 1610 the elegant little widow was flourishing enough to be able to maintain a lover in good style. This was Sir Arthur Mainwaring, member of a Cheshire family of good repute but of no great wealth. By him she had three children. Mainwaring was attached in some fashion to the suite of the Prince of Wales, Prince Henry. And while the Prince’s court at St James’s Palace was something more modest, as it was more refined, than that of the King at Whitehall, position in it was not to be retained at ease without considerable expenditure. It may be gauged, therefore, at what expense Anne’s attachment to Mainwaring would keep her, and to what exercise of her talent and ambition her pride in it would drive her. And her pride was absolute. It would, says a contemporary diarist, “make her fly at any pitch rather than fall into the jaws of want.”[9]

[9] Antony Weldon, The Court and Character of King James (1651).

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In his romance The Minion, Rafael Sabatini makes the first meeting of Anne Turner and the Countess of Essex occur in 1610 or 1611. With this date Judge A. E. Parry, in his book The Overbury Mystery,[10] seems to agree in part. There is, however, warrant enough for believing that the two women had met long before that time. Anne Turner herself, pleading at her trial for mercy from Sir Edward Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, put forward the plea that she had been “ever brought up with the Countess of Essex, and had been a long time her servant.”[11] She also made the like extenuative plea on the scaffold.[12] Judge Parry seems to follow some of the contemporary writers in assuming that Anne was a spy in the pay of the Lord Privy Seal, the Earl of Northampton. If this was so there is further ground for believing that Anne and Lady Essex had earlier contacts, for Northampton was Lady Essex’s great-uncle. The longer association would go far in explaining the terrible conspiracy into which, from soon after that time, the two women so readily fell together–a criminal conspiracy, in which the reader may see something of the “false nurse” in Anne Turner and something of Jean Livingstone in Frances Howard, Lady Essex.

[10] Fisher Unwin, 1925.
[11] State Trials (Cobbett’s edition). [12] Antony Weldon.

It was about this time, 1610-1611, that Lady Essex began to find herself interested in the handsome Robert Carr, then Viscount Rochester. Having reached the mature age of eighteen, the lovely Frances had been brought by her mother, the Countess of Suffolk, to Court. Highest in the King’s favour, and so, with his remarkably good looks, his charm, and the elegant taste in attire and personal appointment which his new wealth allowed him lavishly to indulge, Rochester was by far the most brilliant figure there. Frances fell in love with the King’s minion.

Rochester, it would appear, did not immediately respond to the lady’s advances. They were probably too shy, too tentative, to attract Rochester’s attention. It is probable, also, that there were plenty of beautiful women about the Court, more mature, more practised in the arts of coquetry than Frances, and very likely not at all `blate’–as Carr and his master would put it–in showing themselves ready for conquest by the King’s handsome favourite.

Whether the acquaintance of Lady Essex with Mrs Turner was of long standing or not, it was to the versatile Anne that her ladyship turned as confidante. The hint regarding Anne’s skill in divination will be remembered. Having regard to the period, and to the alchemistic nature of the goods that composed so much of Anne’s stock-in-trade at the sign of the Golden Distaff, in Paternoster Row, it may be conjectured that the love-lorn Frances had thoughts of a philtre.

With an expensive lover and children to maintain, to say nothing of her own luxurious habits, Anne Turner would see in the Countess’s appeal a chance to turn more than one penny into the family exchequer. She was too much the opportunist to let any consideration of old acquaintance interfere with working such a potential gold-mine as now seemed to lie open to her pretty but prehensile fingers. Lady Essex was rich. She was also ardent in her desire. The game was too big for Anne to play single-handed. A real expert in cozening, a master of guile, was wanted to exploit the opportunity to its limit.

It is a curious phenomenon, and one that constantly recurs in the history of cozenage, how people who live by spoof fall victims so readily to spoofery. Anne Turner had brains. There is no doubt of it. Apart from that genuine and honest talent in costume-design which made her work acceptable to such an outstanding genius as Inigo Jones, she lived by guile. But I have now to invite you to see her at the feet of one of the silliest charlatans who ever lived. There is, of course, the possibility that Anne sat at the feet of this silly charlatan for what she might learn for the extension of her own technique. Or, again, it may have been that the wizard of Lambeth, whom she consulted in the Lady Essex affair, could provide a more impressive setting for spoof than she had handy, or that they were simply rogues together. My trouble is to understand why, by the time that the Lady Essex came to her with her problem, Anne had not exhausted all the gambits in flummery that were at the command of the preposterous Dr Forman.

The connexion with Dr Forman was part of the legacy left Anne by Dr Turner. Her husband had been the friend and patron of Forman, so that by the time Anne had taken Mainwaring for her lover, and had borne him three children, she must have had ample opportunity for seeing through the old charlatan.

Antony Weldon, the contemporary writer already quoted, is something too scurrilous and too apparently biased to be altogether a trustworthy authority. He seems to have been the type of gossip (still to be met in London clubs) who can always tell with circumstance how the duchess came to have a black baby, and the exact composition of the party at which Midas played at `strip poker.’ But he was, like many of his kind, an amusing enough companion for the idle moment, and his description of Dr Forman is probably fairly close to the truth.

“This Forman,” he says,

was a silly fellow who dwelt in Lambeth, a very silly fellow, yet had wit enough to cheat the ladies and other women, by pretending skill in telling their fortunes, as whether they should bury their husbands, and what second husbands they should have, and whether they should enjoy their loves, or whether maids should get husbands, or enjoy their servants to themselves without corrivals: but before he would tell them anything they must write their names in his alphabetical book with their own handwriting. By this trick he kept them in awe, if they should complain of his abusing them, as in truth he did nothing else. Besides, it was believed, some meetings were at his house, wherein the art of the bawd was more beneficial to him than that of a conjurer, and that he was a better artist in the one than in the other: and that you may know his skill, he was himself a cuckold, having a very pretty wench to his wife, which would say, she did it to try his skill, but it fared with him as with astrologers that cannot foresee their own destiny.

And here comes an addendum, the point of which finds confirmation elsewhere. It has reference to the trial of Anne Turner, to which we shall come later.

“I well remember there was much mirth made in the Court upon the showing of the book, for, it was reported, the first leaf my lord Cook [Coke, the Lord Chief Justice] lighted on he found his own wife’s name.”

Whatever Anne’s reason for doing so, it was to this scortatory old scab that she turned for help in cozening the fair young Countess. The devil knows to what obscene ritual the girl was introduced. There is evidence that the thaumaturgy practised by Forman did not want for lewdness–as magic of the sort does not to this day–and in this regard Master Weldon cannot be far astray when he makes our pretty Anne out to be the veriest baggage.

Magic or no magic, philtre or no philtre, it was not long before Lady Essex had her wish. The Viscount Rochester fell as desperately in love with her as she was with him.

There was, you may be sure, no small amount of scandalous chatter in the Court over the quickly obvious attachment the one to the other of this handsome couple. So much of this scandalous chatter has found record by the pens of contemporary and later gossip-writers that it is hard indeed to extract the truth. It is certain, however, that had the love between Robert Carr and Frances Howard been as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, jealousy would still have done its worst in besmirching. It was not, if the Rabelaisian trend in so much of Jacobean writing be any indication, a particularly moral age. Few ages in history are. It was not, with a reputed pervert as the fount of honour, a particularly moral Court. Since the emergence of the lovely young Countess from tutelage at Audley End there had been no lack of suitors for her favour. And when Frances so openly exhibited her preference for the King’s minion there would be some among those disappointed suitors who would whisper, greenly, that Rochester had been granted that prisage which was the right of the absent Essex, a right which they themselves had been quite ready to usurp. It is hardly likely that there would be complete abnegation of salty gossip among the ladies of the Court, their Apollo being snatched by a mere chit of a girl.

What relative happiness there may have been for the pair in their loving–it could not, in the hindrance there was to their free mating, have been an absolute happiness –was shattered after some time by the return to England of the young husband. The Earl of Essex, now almost come to man’s estate, arrived to take up the position which his rank entitled him to expect in the Court, and to assume the responsibilities and rights which, he fancied, belonged to him as a married man. In respect of the latter part of his intention he immediately found himself balked. His wife, perhaps all the deeper in love with Rochester for this threat to their happiness, declared that she had no mind to be held by the marriage forced on her in infancy, and begged her husband to agree to its annulment.

It had been better for young Essex to have agreed at once. He would have spared himself, ultimately, a great deal of humiliation through ridicule. But he tried to enforce his rights as a husband, a proceeding than which there is none more absurd should the wife prove obdurate. And prove obdurate his wife did. She was to be moved neither by threat nor by pleading. It was, you will notice, a comedy situation; husband not perhaps amorous so much as the thwarted possessor of the unpossessable–wife frigid and a maid, as far, at least, as the husband was concerned, and her weeping eyes turned yearningly elsewhere. A comedy situation, yes, and at this distance almost farcical–but for certain elements in it approaching tragedy.

Badgered, not only by her husband but by her own relatives, scared no doubt, certainly unhappy, unable for politic reasons to appeal freely to her beloved Robin, to whom might Frances turn but the helpful Turner? And to whom, having turned to pretty Anne, was she likely to be led but again to the wizard of Lambeth?

Dr Forman had a heart for beauty in distress, but dissipating the ardency of an exigent husband was a difficult matter compared with attracting that of a negligent lover. It was also much more costly. A powder there was, indeed, which, administered secretly by small regular doses in the husband’s food or drink, would soon cool his ardour, but the process of manufacture and the ingredients were enormously expensive. Frances got her powder.

The first dose was administered to Lord Essex just before his departure from a visit to his wife at Audley End. On his arrival back in London he was taken violently ill, so ill that in the weeks he lay in bed his life was despaired of. Only the intervention of the King’s own physician, one Sir Theodore Mayerne, would appear to have saved him.

Her husband slowly convalescing, Lady Essex was summoned by her family back to London. In London, while Lord Essex mended in health, she was much in the company of her “sweet Turner.” In addition to the house in Paternoster Row the little widow had a pretty riverside cottage at Hammersmith, and both were at the disposal of Lady Essex and her lover for stolen meetings. Those meetings were put a stop to by the recovery of Lord Essex, and with his recovery his lordship exhibited a new mood of determination. Backed by her ladyship’s family, he ordered her to accompany him to their country place of Chartley. Her ladyship had to obey.

The stages of the journey were marked by the nightly illness of his lordship. By the time they arrived at Chartley itself he was in a condition little if at all less dangerous than that from which he had been rescued by the King’s physician. His illness lasted for weeks, and during this time her ladyship wrote many a letter to Anne Turner and to Dr Forman. She was afraid his lordship would live. She was afraid his lordship would die. She was afraid she would lose the love of Rochester. She begged Anne Turner and Forman to work their best magic for her aid. She was afraid that if his lordship recovered the spells might prove useless, that his attempts to assert his rights as a husband would begin again, and that there, in the heart of the country and so far from any refuge, they might take a form she would be unable to resist

His lordship did recover. His attempts to assert his rights as a husband did begin again. The struggle between them, Frances constant in her obduracy, lasted several months. Her obstinacy wore down his. At long last he let her go.


If the fate that overtook Frances Howard and Rochester, and with them Anne Turner and many another, is to be properly understood, a brief word on the political situation in England at this time will be needed–or, rather, a word on the political personages, with their antagonisms.

Next in closeness to the King’s ear after Rochester, and perhaps more trusted as a counsellor by that “wise fool,” there had been Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, for a long time First Secretary of State. But about the time when Lady Essex finally parted with her husband Cecil died, depriving England of her keenest brain and the staunchest heart in her causes. If there had been no Rochester the likeliest man in the kingdom to succeed to the power and offices of Cecil would have been the Earl of Northampton, uncle of Lord Suffolk, who was the father of Lady Essex. Northampton, as stated, held the office of Lord Privy Seal.

The Howard family had done the State great service in the past. Its present representatives, Northampton and Suffolk, were anxious to do the State great service, as they conceived it, in the future. They were, however, Catholics in all but open acknowledgment, and as such were opposed by the Protestants, who had at their head Prince Henry. This was an opposition that they might have stomached. It was one that they might even have got over, for the Prince and his father, the King, were not the best of friends. The obstacle to their ambitions, and one they found hard to stomach, was the upstart Rochester. And even Rochester would hardly have stood in their way had his power in the Council depended on his own ability. The brain that directed Robert Carr belonged to another man. This was Sir Thomas Overbury.

On the death of Cecil the real contenders for the vacant office of First Secretary of State–the highest office in the land–were not the wily Northampton and the relatively unintelligent Rochester, but the subtle Northampton and the quite as subtle, and perhaps more spacious-minded, Thomas Overbury. There was, it will be apprehended, a possible weakness on the Overbury side. The gemel-chain, like that of many links, is merely as strong as its weakest member. Overbury had no approach to the King save through the King’s favourite. Rochester could have no real weight with the King, at least in affairs of State, except what he borrowed from Overbury. Divided, the two were powerless. No, more than that, there had to be no flaw in their linking.

The wily Northampton, one may be certain, was fully aware of this possible weakness in the combination opposed to his advancement. He would be fully aware, that is, that it was there potentially; but when he began, as his activities would indicate, to work for the creation of that flaw in the relationship between Rochester and Overbury it is unlikely that he knew the flaw had already begun to develop. Unknown to him, circumstance already had begun to operate in his favour.

Overbury was Rochester’s tutor in more than appertained to affairs of State. It is more than likely that in Carr’s wooing of Lady Essex he had held the role of Cyrano de Bergerac, writing those gracefully turned letters and composing those accomplished verses which did so much to augment and give constancy to her ladyship’s love for Rochester. It is certain, at any rate, that Overbury was privy to all the correspondence passing between the pair, and that even such events as the supplying by Forman and Mrs Turner of that magic powder, and the Countess’s use of it upon her husband, were well within his knowledge.

While the affair between his alter ego and the Lady Essex might be looked upon as mere dalliance, a passionate episode likely to wither with a speed equal to that of its growth, Overbury, it is probable, found cynical amusement in helping it on. But when, as time went on, the lady and her husband separated permanently, and from mere talk of a petition for annulment of the Essex marriage that petition was presented in actual form to the King, Overbury saw danger. Northampton was backing the petition. If it succeeded Lady Essex would be free to marry Rochester. And the marriage, since Northampton was not the man to give except in the expectation of plenty, would plant the unwary Rochester on the hearth of his own and Overbury’s enemies. With Rochester in the Howard camp there would be short shrift for Thomas Overbury. There would be, though Rochester in his infatuation seemed blind to the fact, as short a shrift as the Howards could contrive for the King’s minion.

In that march of inevitability which marks all real tragedy the road that is followed forks ever and again with an `if.’ And we who, across the distance of time, watch with a sort of Jovian pity the tragic puppets in their folly miss this fork and that fork on their road of destiny select, each according to our particular temperaments, a particular `if’ over which to shake our heads. For me, in this story of Rochester, Overbury, Frances Howard, and the rest, the point of tragedy, the most poignant of the issues, is the betrayal by Robert Carr of Overbury’s friendship. Though this story is essentially, or should be, that of the two women who were linked in fate with Rochester and his coadjutor, I am constrained to linger for a moment on that point.

Overbury’s counsel had made Carr great. With nothing but his good looks and his personal charm, his only real attributes, Carr had been no more than King James’s creature. James, with all the pedantry, the laboured cunning, the sleezy weaknesses of character that make him so detestable, was yet too shrewd to have put power in the hands of the mere minion that Carr would have been without the brain of Overbury to guide him. Of himself Carr was the `toom tabard’ of earlier parlance in his native country, the `stuffed shirt’ of a later and more remote generation. But beyond the coalition for mutual help that existed between Overbury and Carr, an arrangement which might have thrived on a basis merely material, there was a deep and splendid friendship. `Stuffed shirt’ or not, Robert Carr was greatly loved by Overbury. Whatever Overbury may have thought of Carr’s mental attainments, he had the greatest faith in his loyalty as a friend. And here lies the terrible pity in that `if’ of my choice. The love between the two men was great enough to have saved them both. It broke on the weakness of Carr.

Overbury was aware that, honestly presented, the petition by Lady Essex for the annulment of her marriage had little chance of success. But for the obstinacy of Essex it might have been granted readily enough. He had, however, as we have seen, forced her to live with him as his wife, in appearance at least, for several months in the country. There now would be difficulty in putting forward the petition on the ground of non-consummation of the marriage.

It was, nevertheless, on this ground that the petition was brought forward. But the non-consummation was not attributed, as it might have been, to the continued separation that had begun at the altar; the reason given was the impotence of the husband. Just what persuasion Northampton and the Howards used on Essex to make him accept this humiliating implication it is hard to imagine, but by the time the coarse wits of the period had done with him Essex was amply punished in ridicule for his primary obstinacy.

Sir Thomas Overbury, well informed though he usually was, must have been a good deal in the dark regarding the negotiations which had brought the nullity suit to this forward state. He had warned Rochester so frankly of the danger into which the scheme was likely to lead him that they had quarrelled and parted. If Rochester had been frank with his friend, if, on the ground of their friendship, he had appealed to him to set aside his prejudice, it might well have been that the tragedy which ensued would have been averted. Enough evidence remains to this day of Overbury’s kindness for Robert Carr, there is enough proof of the man’s abounding resource and wit, to give warrant for belief that he would have had the will, as he certainly had the ability, to help his friend. Overbury was one of the brightest intelligences of his age. Had Rochester confessed the extent of his commitment with Northampton there is little doubt that Overbury could and would have found a way whereby Rochester could have attained his object (of marriage with Frances Howard), and this without jeopardizing their mutual power to the Howard menace.

In denying the man who had made him great the complete confidence which their friendship demanded Rochester took the tragically wrong path on his road of destiny. But the truth is that when he quarrelled with Overbury he had already betrayed the friendship. He had already embarked on the perilous experiment of straddling between two opposed camps. It was an experiment that he, least of all men, had the adroitness to bring off. He was never in such need of Overbury’s brain as when he aligned himself in secret with Overbury’s enemies.

It is entirely probable that in linking up with Northampton Rochester had no mind to injure his friend. The bait was the woman he loved. Without Northampton’s aid the nullity suit could not be put forward, and without the annulment there could be no marriage for him with Frances Howard. But he had no sooner joined with Northampton than the very processes against which Overbury had warned him were begun. Rochester was trapped, and with him Overbury.

For the success of the suit, in Northampton’s view, Overbury knew too much. It was a view to which Rochester was readily persuaded; or it was one which he was easily frightened into accepting. From that to joining in a plot for being rid of Overbury was but a step. Grateful, perhaps, for the undoubted services that Overbury had rendered him, Rochester would be eager enough to find his quondam friend employment. If that employment happened to take Overbury out of the country so much the better. At one time the King, jealous as a woman of the friendship existing between his favourite and Overbury, had tried to shift the latter out of the way by an offer of the embassy in Paris. It was an offer Rochester thought, that he might cause to be repeated. The idea was broached to Overbury. That shrewd individual, of course, saw through the suggestion to the intention behind it, but he was at a loss for an outlet for his talents, having left Rochester’s employ, and he believed without immodesty that he could do useful work as ambassador in Paris.

Overbury was offered an embassy–but in Muscovy. He had no mind to bury himself in Russia, and he refused the offer on the ground of ill-health. By doing this he walked into the trap prepared for him. Northampton had foreseen the refusal when he promoted the offer on its rearranged terms. The King, already incensed against Overbury for some hints at knowledge of facts liable to upset the Essex nullity suit, pretended indignation at the refusal. Overbury unwarily repeated it before the Privy Council. That was what Northampton wanted. The refusal was high contempt of the King’s majesty. Sir Thomas Overbury was committed to the Tower. He might have talked in Paris, or have written from Muscovy. He might safely do either in the Tower–where gags and bonds were so readily at hand.

Did Rochester know of the springe set to catch Overbury? The answer to the question, whether yes or no, hardly matters. Since he was gull enough to discard the man whose brain had lifted him from a condition in which he was hardly better than the King’s lap-dog, he was gull enough to be fooled by Northampton. Since he valued the friendship of that honest man so little as to consort in secret with his enemies, he was knave enough to have been party to the betrayal. Knave or fool–what does it matter? He was so much of both that, in dread of what Sir Thomas might say or do to thwart the nullity suit, he let his friend rot in the Tower for months on end, let him sicken and nearly die several times, without a move to free him. He did this to the man who had trusted him implicitly, a man that–to adapt Overbury’s own words from his last poignant letter to Rochester–he had “more cause to love . . . yea, perish for . . . rather than see perish.”

It is not given to every man to have that greater love which will make him lay down his life for a friend, but it is the sheer poltroon and craven who will watch a friend linger and expire in agony without lifting a finger to save him. Knave or fool–what does it matter when either is submerged in the coward?

% IV

Overbury lay in the Tower five months. The commission appointed to examine into the Essex nullity suit went into session three weeks after he was imprisoned. There happened to be one man in the commission who cared more to be honest than to humour the King. This was the Archbishop Abbot. The King himself had prepared the petition. It was a task that delighted his pedantry, and his petition was designed for immediate acceptance. But such was Abbot’s opposition that in two or three months the commission ended with divided findings.

Meantime Overbury in the Tower had been writing letters. He had been talking to visitors. As time went on, and Rochester did nothing to bring about his enlargement, his writings and sayings became more threatening Rochester’s attitude was that patience was needed. In time he would bring the King to a more clement view of Sir Thomas’s offending, and he had no doubt that in the end he would be able to secure the prisoner both freedom and honourable employment.

Overbury had been consigned to the Tower in April. In June he complained of illness. Rochester wrote to him in sympathetic terms, sending him a powder that he himself had found beneficial, and made his own physician visit the prisoner.

But the threats which Overbury, indignant at his betrayal by Rochester, made by speech and writing were becoming common property in the city and at Court One of Overbury’s visitors who had made public mention of Overbury’s knowledge of facts likely to blow upon the Essex suit was arrested on the orders of Northampton. In the absence of the King and Rochester from London the old Earl was acting as Chief Secretary of State–thus proving Overbury to have been a true prophet. Northampton issued orders to the Tower that Overbury was to be closely confined, that his man Davies was to be dismissed, and that he was to be denied all visitors. The then Lieutenant of the Tower, one Sir William Wade, was deprived of his position on the thinnest of pretexts, and, on the recommendation of Sir Thomas Monson, Master of the Armoury, an elderly gentleman from Lincolnshire, Sir Gervase Elwes, was put in his place.

From that moment Sir Thomas Overbury was permitted no communication with the outer world, save by letter to Lord Rochester and for food that was brought him, as we shall presently see, at the instance of Mrs Turner.

In place of his own servant Davies Sir Thomas was allowed the services of an under-keeper named Weston, appointed at the same time as Sir Gervase Elwes. This man, it is perhaps important to note, had at one time been servant to Mrs Turner.

The alteration in the personnel of the Tower was almost immediately followed by severe illness on the part of the prisoner. The close confinement to which he was subjected, with the lack of exercise, could hardly have been the cause of such a violent sickness. It looked more as if it had been brought about by something he had eaten or drunk. By this time the conviction he had tried to resist, that Rochester was meanly sacrificing him, became definite. Overbury is hardly to be blamed if he came to a resolution to be revenged on his one-time friend by bringing him to utter ruin. King James had been so busy in the Essex nullity suit, had gone to such lengths to carry it through, that if it could be wrecked by the production of the true facts he would be bound to sacrifice Rochester to save his own face. Sir Thomas had an accurate knowledge of the King’s character. He knew the scramble James was capable of making in a difficulty that involved his kingly dignity, and what little reck he had of the faces he trod on in climbing from a pit of his own digging. By a trick Overbury contrived to smuggle a letter through to the honest Archbishop Abbot, in which he declared his possession of facts that would non-suit the nullity action, and begged to be summoned before the commission.

Overbury was getting better of the sickness which had attacked him when suddenly it came upon him again. This time he made no bones about saying that he had been poisoned.

Even at the last Overbury had taken care to give Rochester a chance to prove his fidelity. He contrived that the delivery of the letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury should be delayed until just before the nullity commission, now augmented by members certain to vote according to the King’s desire, was due to sit again. The Archbishop carried Overbury’s letter to James, and insisted that Overbury should be heard. The King, outward stickler that he was for the letter of the law, had to agree.

On the Thursday of the week during which the commission was sitting Overbury was due to be called. He was ill, but not so ill as he had been. On the Tuesday he was visited by the King’s physician. On the Wednesday he was dead.

Now, before we come to examine those evidences regarding Overbury’s death that were to be brought forward in the series of trials of later date, that series which was to be known as “the Great Oyer of Poisoning,” it may be well to consider what effect upon the Essex nullity suit Overbury’s appearance before the commission might have had. It may be well to consider what reason Rochester had for keeping his friend in close confinement in the Tower, what reason there was for permitting Northampton to impose such cruelly rigorous conditions of imprisonment.

The nullity suit succeeded. A jury of matrons was impanelled, and made an examination of the lady appellant. Its evidence was that she was virgo intacta. Seven out of the twelve members of the packed commission voted in favour of the sentence of nullity.

The kernel of the situation lies in the verdict of the jury of matrons. Her ladyship was declared to be a maid. If in the finding gossips and scandal-mongers found reason for laughter, and decent enough people cause for wonderment, they are hardly to be blamed. If Frances Howard was a virgin, what reason was there for fearing anything Overbury might have said? What knowledge had he against the suit that put Rochester and the Howards in such fear of him that they had to confine him in the Tower under such miserable conditions? In what was he so dangerous that he had to be deprived of his faithful Davies, that he had to be put in the care of a Tower Lieutenant specially appointed? The evidence given before the commission can still be read in almost verbatim report. It is completely in favour of the plea of Lady Essex. Sir Thomas Overbury’s, had he given evidence, would have been the sole voice against the suit. If he had said that in his belief the association of her ladyship with Rochester had been adulterous there was the physical fact adduced by the jury of matrons to confute him. And being confuted in that, what might he have said that would not be attributed to rancour on his part? That her ladyship, with the help of Mrs Turner and the wizard of Lambeth, had practised magic upon her husband, giving him powders that went near to killing him? That she had lived in seclusion for several months with her husband at Chartley, and that the non-consummation of the marriage was due, not to the impotence of the husband, but to refusal to him of marital rights on the part of the wife because of her guilty love for Rochester? His lordship of Essex was still alive, and there was abundant evidence before the court that there had been attempt to consummate the marriage. Whatever Sir Thomas might have said would have smashed as evidence on that one fact. Her ladyship was a virgin.

What did Sir Thomas Overbury know that made every one whose interest it was to further the nullity suit so scared of him–Rochester, her ladyship, Northampton, the Howards, the King himself?

Sir Thomas Overbury was much too cool-minded, too intelligent, to indulge in threats unless he was certain of the grounds, and solid upon them, upon which he made those threats. He had too great a knowledge of affairs not to know that the commission would be a packed one, too great an acquaintance with the strategy of James to believe that his lonely evidence, unless of bombshell nature, would have a chance of carrying weight in a court of his Majesty’s picking. And, then, he was of too big a mind to put forward evidence which would have no effect but that of affording gossip for the scandal-mongers, and the giving of which would make him appear to be actuated by petty spite. He had too great a sense of his own dignity to give himself anything but an heroic role. Samson he might play, pulling the pillars of the temple together to involve his enemies, with himself, in magnificent and dramatic ruin. But Iachimo–no.

In the welter of evidence conflicting with apparent fact which was given before the commission and in the trials of the Great Oyer, in the mass of writing both contemporary and of later days round the Overbury mystery, it is hard indeed to land upon the truth. Feasible solution is to be come upon only by accepting a not too pretty story which is retailed by Antony Weldon. He says that the girl whom the jury of matrons declared to be virgo intacta was so heavily veiled as to be unidentifiable through the whole proceedings, and that she was not Lady Essex at all, but the youthful daughter of Sir Thomas Monson.

Mrs Turner, we do know, was very much a favourite with the ladies of Sir Thomas Monson’s family. Gossip Weldon has a funny, if lewd, story to tell of high jinks indulged in by the Monson women and Mrs Turner in which Symon, Monson’s servant, played an odd part. This Symon was also employed by Mrs Turner to carry food to Overbury in the Tower. If the substitution story has any truth in it it might well have been a Monson girl who played the part of the Countess. But, of course, a Monson girl may have been chosen by the inventors to give verisimilitude to the substitution story, simply because the family was friendly with Turner, and the tale of the lewd high jinks with Symon added to make it seem more likely that old Lady Monson would lend herself to such a plot.

If there was such a plot it is not at all unlikely that Overbury knew of it. If there was need of such a scheme to bolster the nullity petition it would have had to be evolved while the petition was being planned–that is, a month or two before the commission went first into session. At that time Overbury was still Rochester’s secretary, still Rochester’s confidant; and if such a scheme had been evolved for getting over an obstacle so fatal to the petition’s success it was not in Rochester’s nature to have concealed it from Overbury, the two men still being fast friends. Indeed, it may have been Overbury who pointed out the need there would be for the Countess to undergo physical examination, and it may have been on the certainty that her ladyship could not do so that Overbury rested so securely–as he most apparently did, beyond the point of safety–in the idea that the suit was bound to fail. It is legitimate enough to suppose, along this hypothesis, that this substitution plot was the very matter on which the two men quarrelled.

That Overbury had knowledge of some such essential secret as this is manifest in the enmity towards the man which Lady Essex exhibited, even when he lay, out of the way of doing harm, in the Tower. It is hard to believe that an innocent girl of twenty, conscious of her virgin chastity, in mere fear of scandal which she knew would be baseless, could pursue the life of a man with the venom that, as we shall presently see, Frances Howard used towards Overbury through Mrs Turner.

% V

As a preliminary to his marriage with Frances Howard, Rochester was created Earl of Somerset, and had the barony of Brancepeth bestowed on him by the King. Overbury was three months in his grave when the marriage was celebrated in the midst of the most extravagant show and entertainment.

The new Earl’s power in the kingdom was never so high as at this time. It was, indeed, at its zenith. Decline was soon to set in. It will not serve here to follow the whole process of decay in the King’s favour that Somerset was now to experience. There was poetic justice in his downfall. With hands all about him itching to bring him to the ground, he had not the brain for the giddy heights. If behind him there had been the man whose guidance had made him sure-footed in the climb he might have survived, flourishing. But the man he had consigned to death had been more than half of him, had been, indeed, his substance. Alone, with the power Overbury’s talents had brought him, Somerset was bound to fail. The irony of it is that his downfall was contrived by a creature of his own raising.

Somerset had appointed Sir Ralph Winwood to the office of First Secretary of State. In that office word came to Winwood from Brussels that new light had been thrown on the mysterious death of Sir Thomas Overbury. Winwood investigated in secret. An English lad, one Reeves, an apothecary’s assistant, thinking himself dying, had confessed at Flushing that Overbury had been poisoned by an injection of corrosive sublimate. Reeves himself had given the injection on the orders of his master, Loubel, the apothecary who had attended Overbury on the day before his death. Winwood sought out Loubel, and from him went to Sir Gervase Elwes. The story he was able to make from what he had from the two men he took to the King. From this beginning rose up the Great Oyer of Poisoning. The matter was put into the hands of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke.

The lad Reeves, whose confession had started the matter, was either dead or dying abroad, and was so out of Coke’s reach. But the man who had helped the lad to administer the poisoned clyster, the under-keeper Weston, was at hand. Weston was arrested, and examined by Coke. The statement Coke’s bullying drew from the man made mention of one Franklin, another apothecary, as having supplied a phial which Sir Gervase Elwes had taken and thrown away. Weston had also received another phial by Franklin’s son from Lady Essex. This also Sir Gervase had taken and destroyed. Then there had been tarts and jellies supplied by Mrs Turner.

Coke had Mrs Turner and Franklin arrested, and after that Sir Gervase was taken as an accessory, and on his statement that he had employed Weston on Sir Thomas Monson’s recommendation Sir Thomas also was roped in. He maintained that he had been told to recommend Weston by Lady Essex and the Earl of Northampton.

The next person to be examined by Coke was the apothecary Loubel, he who had attended Overbury on the day before his death. Though in his confession the lad Reeves said that he had been given money and sent abroad by Loubel, this was a matter that Coke did not probe. Loubel told Coke that he had given Overbury nothing but the physic prescribed by Sir Theodore Mayerne, the King’s physician, and that in his opinion Overbury had died of consumption. With this evidence Coke was very strangely content–or, at least, content as far as Loubel was concerned, for this witness was not summoned again.

Other persons were examined by Coke, notably Overbury’s servant Davies and his secretary Payton. Their statements served to throw some suspicion on the Earl of Somerset.

But if all the detail of these examinations were gone into we should never be done. Our concern is with the two women involved, Anne Turner and the Countess of Somerset, as we must now call her. I am going to quote, however, two paragraphs from Rafael Sabatini’s romance The Minion that I think may explain why it is so difficult to come to the truth of the Overbury mystery. They indicate how it was smothered by the way in which Coke rough-handled justice throughout the whole series of trials.

On October 19th, at the Guildhall, began the Great Oyer of Poisoning, as Coke described it, with the trial of Richard Weston.

Thus at the very outset the dishonesty of the proceedings is apparent. Weston was an accessory. Both on his own evidence and that of Sir Gervase Elwes, besides the apothecary’s boy in Flushing, Sir Thomas Overbury had died following upon an injection prepared by Loubel. Therefore Loubel was the principal, and only after Loubel’s conviction could the field have been extended to include Weston and the others. But Loubel was tried neither then nor subsequently, a circumstance regarded by many as the most mysterious part of what is known as the Overbury mystery, whereas, in fact, it is the clue to it. Nor was the evidence of the coroner put in, so that there was no real preliminary formal proof that Overbury had been poisoned at all.

Here Mr Sabatini is concerned to develop one of the underlying arguments of his story–namely, that it was King James himself who had ultimately engineered the death of Sir Thomas Overbury. It is an argument which I would not attempt to refute. I do not think that Mr Sabatini’s acumen has failed him in the least. But the point for me in the paragraphs is the indication they give of how much Coke did to suppress all evidence that did not suit his purpose.

Weston’s trial is curious in that at first he refused to plead. It is the first instance I have met with in history of a prisoner standing `mute of malice.’ Coke read him a lecture on the subject, pointing out that by his obstinacy he was making himself liable to peine forte et dure, which meant that order could be given for his exposure in an open place near the prison, extended naked, and to have weights laid upon him in increasing amount, he being kept alive with the “coarsest bread obtainable and water from the nearest sink or puddle to the place of execution, that day he had water having no bread, and that day he had bread having no water.” One may imagine with what grim satisfaction Coke ladled this out. It had its effect on Weston.

He confessed that Mrs Turner had promised to give him a reward if he would poison Sir Thomas Overbury. In May she had sent him a phial of “rosalgar,” and he had received from her tarts poisoned with mercury sublimate. He was charged with having, at Mrs Turner’s instance, joined with an apothecary’s boy in administering an injection of corrosive sublimate to Sir Thomas Overbury, from which the latter died. Coke’s conduct of the case obscures just how much Weston admitted, but, since it convinced the jury of Weston’s guilt, the conviction served finely for accusation against Mrs Turner.

Two days after conviction Weston was executed at Tyburn.

The trial of Anne Turner began in the first week of November. It would be easy to make a pathetic figure of the comely little widow as she stood trembling under Coke’s bullying, but she was, in actual fact, hardly deserving of pity. It is far from enlivening to read of Coke’s handling of the trial, and it is certain that Mrs Turner was condemned on an indictment and process which to-day would not have a ghost of a chance of surviving appeal, but it is perfectly plain that Anne was party to one of the most vicious poisoning plots ever engineered.

We have, however, to consider this point in extenuation for her. It is almost certain that in moving to bring about the death of Overbury she had sanction, if only tacit, from the Earl of Northampton. By the time that the Great Oyer began Northampton was dead. Two years had elapsed from the death of Overbury. It would be quite clear to Anne that, in the view of the powerful Howard faction, the elimination of Overbury was politically desirable. It should be remembered, too, that she lived in a period when assassination, secret or by subverted process of justice, was a commonplace political weapon. Public executions by methods cruel and even obscene taught the people to hold human life at small value, and hardened them to cruelties that made poisoning seem a mercy. It is not at all unlikely that, though her main object may have been to help forward the plans of her friend the Countess, Anne considered herself a plotter in high affairs of State.

The indictment against her was that she had comforted, aided, and abetted Weston–that is to say, she was made an accessory. If, however, as was accused, she procured Weston and Reeves to administer the poisonous injection she was certainly a principal, and as such should have been tried first or at the same time as Weston. But Weston was already hanged, and so could not be questioned. His various statements were used against her unchallenged, or, at least, when challenging them was useless.

The indictment made no mention of her practices against the Earl of Essex, but from the account given in the State Trials it would seem that evidence on this score was used to build the case against her. Her relations with Dr Forman, now safely dead, were made much of. She and the Countess of Essex had visited the charlatan and had addressed him as “Father.” Their reason for visiting, it was said, was that “by force of magick he should procure the then Viscount of Rochester to love the Countess and Sir Arthur Mainwaring to love Mrs Turner, by whom she had three children.” Letters from the Countess to Turner were read. They revealed the use on Lord Essex of those powders her ladyship had been given by Forman. The letters had been found by Forman’s wife in a packet among Forman’s possessions after his death. These, with others and with several curious objects exhibited in court, had been demanded by Mrs Turner after Forman’s demise. Mrs Turner had kept them, and they were found in her house.

As indicating the type of magic practised by Forman these objects are of interest. Among other figures, probably nothing more than dolls of French make, there was a leaden model of a man and woman in the act of copulation, with the brass mould from which it had been cast. There was a black scarf ornamented with white crosses, papers with cabalistic signs, and sundry other exhibits which appear to have created superstitious fear in the crowd about the court. It is amusing to note that while those exhibits were being examined one of the scaffolds erected for seating gave way or cracked ominously, giving the crowd a thorough scare. It was thought that the devil himself, raised by the power of those uncanny objects, had got into the Guildhall. Consternation reigned for quite a quarter of an hour.

There was also exhibited Forman’s famous book of signatures, in which Coke is supposed to have encountered his own wife’s name on the first page.

Franklin, apothecary, druggist, necromancer, wizard, and born liar, had confessed to supplying the poisons intended for use upon Overbury. He declared that Mrs Turner had come to him from the Countess and asked him to get the strongest poisons procurable. He “accordingly bought seven: viz., aqua fortis, white arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus, great spiders, cantharides.” Franklin’s evidence is a palpable tissue of lies, full of statements that contradict each other, but it is likely enough, judging from facts elicited elsewhere, that his list of poisons is accurate. Enough poison passed from hand to hand to have slain an army.

Mention is made by Weldon of the evidence given by Symon, servant to Sir Thomas Monson, who had been employed by Mrs Turner to carry a jelly and a tart to the Tower. Symon appears to have been a witty fellow. He was, “for his pleasant answer,” dismissed by Coke.

My lord told him: “Symon, you have had a hand in this poisoning business—-”

“No, my good lord, I had but a finger in it, which almost cost me my life, and, at the best, cost me all my hair and nails.” For the truth was that Symon was somewhat liquorish, and finding the syrup swim from the top of the tart as he carried it, he did with his finger skim it off: and it was believed, had he known what it had been, he would not have been his taster at so dear a rate.

Coke, with his bullying methods and his way of acting both as judge and chief prosecutor, lacks little as prototype for the later Judge Jeffreys. Even before the jury retired he was at pains to inform Mrs Turner that she had the seven deadly sins: viz., a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon, and a murderer, the daughter of the devil Forman.”[13] And having given such a Christian example throughout the trial, he besought her “to repent, and to become the servant of Jesus Christ, and to pray Him to cast out the seven devils.” It was upon this that Anne begged the Lord Chief Justice to be merciful to her, putting forward the plea of having been brought up with the Countess of Essex, and of having been “a long time her servant.” She declared that she had not known of poison in the things that were sent to Sir Thomas Overbury.

[13] State Trials.

The jury’s retirement was not long-drawn. They found her guilty.

Says Weldon:

The Wednesday following she was brought from the sheriff’s in a coach to Newgate and there was put into a cart, and casting money often among the people as she was carried to Tyburn, where she was executed, and whither many men and women of fashion followed her in coaches to see her die.

Her speeches before execution were pious, like most speeches of the sort, and “moved the spectators to great pity and grief for her.” She again related “her breeding with the Countess of Somerset,” and pleaded further of “having had no other means to maintain her and her children but what came from the Countess.” This last, of course, was less than the truth. Anne was not so indigent that she needed to take to poisoning as a means of supporting her family. She also said “that when her hand was once in this business she knew the revealing of it would be her overthrow.”

In more than one account written later of her execution she is said to have worn a ruff and cuffs dressed with the yellow starch which she had made so fashionable, and it is maintained that this association made the starch thereafter unpopular. It is forgotten that with Anne the recipe for the yellow starch probably was lost. Moreover, the elaborate ruff was then being put out of fashion by the introduction of the much more comfortable lace collar. In any case, “There is no truth,” writes Judge Parry,

in the old story[14] that Coke ordered her to be executed in the yellow ruff she had made the fashion and so proudly worn in Court. What did happen, according to Sir Simonds d’Ewes, was that the hangman, a coarse ruffian with a distorted sense of humour, dressed himself in bands and cuffs of yellow colour, but no one heeded his ribaldry; only in after days none of either sex used the yellow starch, and the fashion grew generally to be detested.

[14] Probably started by Michael Sparke (“Scintilla”) in Truth Brought to Light (1651).

Pretty much, I should think, as the tall `choker’ became detested within the time of many of us. After Mrs Turner Sir Gervase Elwes was brought to trial as an accessory. The only evidence against him was that of the liar Franklin, who asserted that Sir Gervase had been in league with the Countess. It was plain, however, both from Weston’s statements and from Sir Gervase’s own, that the Lieutenant of the Tower had done his very best to defeat the Turner-Essex-Northampton plot for the poisoning of Overbury, throwing away the “rosalgar” and later draughts, as well as substituting food from his own kitchen for that sent in by Turner. “Although it must have been clear that if any of what was alleged against him had been true Overbury’s poisoning would never have taken five months to accomplish, he was sentenced and hanged.”[15]

[15] Sabatini, The Minion.

This, of course, was a glaring piece of injustice, but Coke no doubt had his instructions. Weston, Mrs Turner, Elwes, and, later, Franklin had to be got out of the way, so that they could not be confronted with the chief figure against whom the Great Oyer was directed, and whom it was designed to pull down, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset –and with him his wife. Just as much of the statements and confessions of the prisoners in the four preliminary trials was used by Coke as suited his purpose. It is pointed out by Amos, in his Great Oyer of Poisoning, that a large number of the documents appertaining to the Somerset trial show corrections and apparent glosses in Coke’s own handwriting, and that even the confessions on the scaffold of some of the convicted are holographs by Coke. As a sample of the suppression of which Coke was guilty I may put forward the fact that Somerset’s note to his own physician, Craig, asking him to visit Overbury, was not produced. Yet great play was made by Coke of this visit against Somerset. Wrote Somerset to Craig, “I pray you let him have your best help, and as much of your company as he shall require.”

It was never proved that it was Anne Turner and Lady Essex who corrupted the lad Reeves, who with Weston administered the poisoned clyster that murdered Overbury. Nothing was done at all to absolve the apothecary Loubel, Reeves’s master, of having prepared the poisonous injection, nor Sir Theodore Mayerne, the King’s physician, of having been party to its preparation. Yet it was demonstrably the injection that killed Overbury if he was killed by poison at all. It is certain that the poisons sent to the Tower by Turner and the Countess did not save in early instances, get to Overbury at all–Elwes saw to that–or Overbury must have died months before he did die.

According to Weldon, who may be supposed to have witnessed the trials, Franklin confessed “that Overbury was smothered to death, not poisoned to death, though he had poison given him.” And Weldon goes on to make this curious comment:

Here was Coke glad, how to cast about to bring both ends together, Mrs Turner and Weston being already hanged for killing Overbury with poison; but he, being the very quintessence of the law, presently informs the jury that if a man be done to death with pistols, poniards, swords, halter, poison, etc., so he be done to death, the indictment is good if he be but indicted for any of those ways. But the good lawyers of those times were not of that opinion, but did believe that Mrs Turner was directly murthered by my lord Coke’s law as Overbury was without any law.

Though you will look in vain through the reports given in the State Trials for any speech of Coke to the jury in exactly these terms, it might be just as well to remember that the transcriptions from which the Trials are printed were prepared UNDER Coke’s SUPERVISION, and that they, like the confessions of the convicted, are very often in his own handwriting.

At all events, even on the bowdlerized evidence that exists, it is plain that Anne Turner should have been charged only with attempted murder. Of that she was manifestly guilty and, according to the justice of the time, thoroughly deserved to be hanged. The indictment against her was faulty, and the case against her as full of holes as a colander. Her trial was `cooked’ in more senses than one.

It was some seven months after the execution of Anne Turner that the Countess of Essex was brought to trial. This was in May. In December, while virtually a prisoner under the charge of Sir William Smith at Lord Aubigny’s house in Blackfriars, she had given birth to a daughter. In March she had been conveyed to the Tower, her baby being handed over to the care of her mother, the Countess of Suffolk. Since the autumn of the previous year she had not been permitted any communication with her husband, nor he with her. He was already lodged in the Tower when she arrived there.

On a day towards the end of May she was conveyed by water from the Tower to Westminster Hall. The hall was packed to suffocation, seats being paid for at prices which would turn a modern promoter of a world’s heavyweight-boxing-championship fight green with envy. Her judges were twenty-two peers of the realm, with the Lord High Steward, the Lord Chief Justice, and seven judges at law. It was a pageant of colour, in the midst of which the woman on trial, in her careful toilette, consisting of a black stammel gown, a cypress chaperon or black crepe hood in the French fashion, relieved by touches of white in the cuffs and ruff of cobweb lawn, struck a funereal note. Preceded by the headsman carrying his axe with its edge turned away from her, she was conducted to the bar by the Lieutenant of the Tower. The indictment was read to her, and at its end came the question: “Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, how sayest thou? Art thou guilty of this felony and murder or not guilty?”

There was a hushed pause for a moment; then came the low-voiced answer: “Guilty.”

Sir Francis Bacon, the Attorney-General–himself to appear in the same place not long after to answer charges of bribery and corruption–now addressed the judges. His eloquent address was a commendation of the Countess’s confession, and it hinted at royal clemency.

In answer to the formal demand of the Clerk of Arraigns if she had anything to say why judgment of death should not be given against her the Countess made a barely audible plea for mercy, begging their lordships to intercede for her with the King. Then the Lord High Steward, expressing belief that the King would be moved to mercy, delivered judgment. She was to be taken thence to the Tower of London, thence to the place of execution, where she was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead–and might the Lord have mercy on her soul.

The attendant women hastened to the side of the swaying woman. And now the halbardiers formed escort about her, the headsman in front, with the edge of his axe turned towards her in token of her conviction, and she was led away.

% VI

It is perfectly clear that the Countess of Somerset was led to confess on the promise of the King’s mercy. It is equally clear that she did not know what she was confessing to. Whatever might have been her conspiracy with Anne Turner it is a practical certainty that it did not result in the death of Thomas Overbury. There is no record of her being allowed any legal advice in the seven months that had elapsed since she had first been made a virtual prisoner. She had been permitted no communication with her husband. For all she knew, Overbury might indeed have died from the poison which she had caused to be sent to the Tower in such quantity and variety. And she went to trial at Westminster guilty in conscience, her one idea being to take the blame for having brought about the murder of Overbury, thinking by that to absolve her husband of any share in the plot. She could not have known that her plea of guilty would weaken Somerset’s defence. The woman who could go to such lengths in order to win her husband was unlikely to have done anything that might put him in jeopardy. One can well imagine with what fierceness she would have fought her case had she thought that by doing so she could have helped the man she loved.

But Frances Howard, no less than her accomplice Anne Turner, was the victim of a gross subversion of justice. That she was guilty of a cruel and determined attempt to poison Overbury is beyond question, and, being guilty of that, she was thoroughly deserving of the fate that overcame Anne Turner, but that at the last she was allowed to escape. Her confession, however, shackled Somerset at his trial. It put her at the King’s mercy. Without endangering her life Somerset dared not come to the crux of his defence, which would have been to demand why Loubel had been allowed to go free, and why the King’s physician, Mayerne, had not been examined. To prevent Somerset from asking those questions, which must have given the public a sufficient hint of King James’s share in the murder of Overbury, two men stood behind the Earl all through his trial with cloaks over their arms, ready to muffle him. But, whatever may be said of Somerset, the prospect of the cloaks would not have stopped him from attempting those questions. He had sent word to King James that he was “neither Gowrie nor Balmerino,” those two earlier victims of James’s treachery. The thing that muffled him was the threat to withdraw the promised mercy to his Countess. And so he kept silent, to be condemned to death as his wife had been, and to join her in the Tower.

Five weary years were the couple to eat their hearts out there, their death sentences remitted, before their ultimate banishment far from the Court to a life of impoverished obscurity in the country. Better for them, one would think, if they had died on Tower Green. It is hard to imagine that the dozen years or so which they were to spend together could contain anything of happiness for them–she the confessed would-be poisoner, and he haunted by the memory of that betrayal of friendship which had begun the process of their double ruin. Frances Howard died in 1632, her husband twenty-three years later. The longer lease of life could have been no blessing to the fallen favourite.

There is a portrait of Frances Howard in the National Portrait Gallery by an unknown artist. It is an odd little face which appears above the elaborate filigree of the stiff lace ruff and under the carefully dressed bush of dark brown hair. With her gay jacket of red gold-embroidered, and her gold-ornamented grey gown, cut low to show the valley between her young breasts, she looks like a child dressed up. If there is no great indication of the beauty which so many poets shed ink over there is less promise of the dire determination which was to pursue a man’s life with cruel poisons over several months. It is, however, a narrow little face, and there is a tight-liddedness about the eyes which in an older woman might indicate the bigot. Bigot she proved herself to be, if it be bigotry in a woman to love a man with an intensity that will not stop at murder in order to win him. That is the one thing that may be said for Frances Howard. She did love Robert Carr. She loved him to his ruin.


On a Sunday, the 5th of February, 1733, there came toddling into that narrow passage of the Temple known as Tanfield Court an elderly lady by the name of Mrs Love. It was just after one o’clock of the afternoon. The giants of St Dunstan’s behind her had only a minute before rapped out the hour with their clubs.

Mrs Love’s business was at once charitable and social. She was going, by appointment made on the previous Friday night, to eat dinner with a frail old lady named Mrs Duncomb, who lived in chambers on the third floor of one of the buildings that had entry from the court. Mrs Duncomb was the widow of a law stationer of the City. She had been a widow for a good number of years. The deceased law stationer, if he had not left her rich, at least had left her in fairly comfortable circumstances. It was said about the environs that she had some property, and this fact, combined with the other that she was obviously nearing the end of life’s journey, made her an object of melancholy interest to the womenkind of the neighbourhood.

Mrs Duncomb was looked after by a couple of servants. One of them, Betty Harrison, had been the old lady’s companion for a lifetime. Mrs Duncomb, described as “old,” was only sixty.[16] Her weakness and bodily condition seem to have made her appear much older. Betty, then, also described as “old,” may have been of an age with her mistress, or even older. She was, at all events, not by much less frail. The other servant was a comparatively new addition to the establishment, a fresh little girl of about seventeen, Ann (or Nanny) Price by name.

[16] According to one account. The Newgate Calendar (London 1773) gives Mrs Duncomb’s age as eighty and that of the maid Betty as sixty.

Mrs Love climbed the three flights of stairs to the top landing. It surprised her, or disturbed her, but little that she found no signs of life on the various floors, because it was, as we have seen, a Sunday. The occupants of the chambers of the staircase, mostly gentlemen connected in one way or another with the law, would be, she knew abroad for the eating of their Sunday dinners, either at their favourite taverns or at commons in the Temple itself. What did rather disturb kindly Mrs Love was the fact that she found Mrs Duncomb’s outer door closed–an unwonted fact–and it faintly surprised her that no odour of cooking greeted her nostrils.

Mrs Love knocked. There was no reply. She knocked, indeed, at intervals over a period of some fifteen minutes, still obtaining no response. The disturbed sense of something being wrong became stronger and stronger in the mind of Mrs Love.

On the night of the previous Friday she had been calling upon Mrs Duncomb, and she had found the old lady very weak, very nervous, and very low in spirits. It had not been a very cheerful visit all round, because the old maidservant, Betty Harrison, had also been far from well. There had been a good deal of talk between the old women of dying, a subject to which their minds had been very prone to revert. Besides Mrs Love there were two other visitors, but they too failed to cheer the old couple up. One of the visitors, a laundress of the Temple called Mrs Oliphant, had done her best, poohpoohing such melancholy talk, and attributing the low spirits in which the old women found themselves to the bleakness of the February weather, and promising them that they would find a new lease of life with the advent of spring. But Mrs Betty especially had been hard to console.

“My mistress,” she had said to cheerful Mrs Oliphant, “will talk of dying. And she would have me die with her.”

As she stood in considerable perturbation of mind on the cheerless third-floor landing that Sunday afternoon Mrs Love found small matter for comfort in her memory of the Friday evening. She remembered that old Mrs Duncomb had spoken complainingly of the lonesomeness which had come upon her floor by the vacation of the chambers opposite her on the landing. The tenant had gone a day or two before, leaving the rooms empty of furniture, and the key with a Mr Twysden.

Mrs. Love, turning to view the door opposite to that on which she had been rapping so long and so ineffectively, had a shuddery feeling that she was alone on the top of the world.

She remembered how she had left Mrs Duncomb on the Friday night. Mrs Oliphant had departed first, accompanied by the second visitor, one Sarah Malcolm, a charwoman who had worked for Mrs Duncomb up to the previous Christmas, and who had called in to see how her former employer was faring. An odd, silent sort of young woman this Sarah, good-looking in a hardfeatured sort of way, she had taken but a very small part in the conversation, but had sat staring rather sullenly into the fire by the side of Betty Harrison, or else casting a flickering glance about the room. Mrs Love, before following the other two women downstairs, had helped the ailing Betty to get Mrs Duncomb settled for the night. In the dim candle-light and the faint glow of the fire that scarce illumined the wainscoted room the high tester-bed of the old lady, with its curtains, had seemed like a shadowed catafalque, an illusion nothing lessened by the frail old figure under the bedclothing.

It came to the mind of Mrs Love that the illness manifesting itself in Betty on the Friday night had worsened. Nanny, she imagined, must have gone abroad on some errand. The old servant, she thought, was too ill to come to the door, and her voice would be too weak to convey an answer to the knocking. Mrs Love, not without a shudder for the chill feeling of that top landing, betook herself downstairs again to make what inquiry she might. It happened that she met one of her fellow-visitors of the Friday night, Mrs Oliphant.

Mrs Oliphant was sympathetic, but could not give any information. She had seen no member of the old lady’s establishment that day. She could only advise Mrs Love to go upstairs again and knock louder.

This Mrs Love did, but again got no reply. She then evolved the theory that Betty had died during the night, and that Nanny, Mrs Duncomb being confined to bed, had gone to look for help, possibly from her sister, and to find a woman who would lay out the body of the old servant. With this in her mind Mrs Love descended the stairs once more, and went to look for another friend of Mrs Duncomb’s, a Mrs Rhymer.

Mrs Rhymer was a friend of the old lady’s of some thirty years’ standing. She was, indeed, named as executrix in Mrs Duncomb’s will. Mrs Love finding her and explaining the situation as she saw it, Mrs Rhymer at once returned with Mrs Love to Tanfield Court.

The two women ascended the stairs, and tried pushing the old lady’s door. It refused to yield to their efforts. Then Mrs Love went to the staircase window that overlooked the court, and gazed around to see if there was anyone about who might help. Some distance away, at the door, we are told, “of my Lord Bishop of Bangor,” was the third of Friday night’s visitors to Mrs Duncomb, the charwoman named Sarah Malcolm. Mrs Love hailed her.

“Prithee, Sarah,” begged Mrs Love, “go and fetch a smith to open Mrs Duncomb’s door.”

“I will go at all speed,” Sarah assured her, with ready willingness, and off she sped. Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer waited some time. Sarah came back with Mrs Oliphant in tow, but had been unable to secure the services of a locksmith. This was probably due to the fact that it was a Sunday.

By now both Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer had become deeply apprehensive, and the former appealed to Mrs Oliphant. “I do believe they are all dead, and the smith is not come!” cried Mrs Love. “What shall we do, Mrs Oliphant?”

Mrs Oliphant, much younger than the others, seems to have been a woman of resource. She had from Mr Twysden, she said, the key of the vacant chambers opposite to Mrs Duncomb’s. “Now let me see,” she continued, “if I cannot get out of the back chamber window into the gutter, and so into Mrs Duncomb’s apartment.”

The other women urged her to try.[17] Mrs Oliphant set off, her heels echoing in the empty rooms. Presently the waiting women heard a pane snap, and they guessed that Mrs Oliphant had broken through Mrs Duncomb’s casement to get at the handle. They heard, through the door, the noise of furniture being moved as she got through the window. Then came a shriek, the scuffle of feet. The outer door of Mrs Duncomb’s chambers was flung open. Mrs Oliphant, ashen-faced, appeared on the landing. “God! Oh, gracious God!” she cried. “They’re all murdered!

[17] One account says it was Sarah Malcolm who entered via the gutter and window. Borrow, however, in his Celebrated Trials, quotes Mrs Oliphant’s evidence in court on this point.

% II

All four women pressed into the chambers. All three of the women occupying them had been murdered. In the passage or lobby little Nanny Price lay in her bed in a welter of blood, her throat savagely cut. Her hair was loose and over her eyes, her clenched hands all bloodied about her throat. It was apparent that she had struggled desperately for life. Next door, in the dining-room, old Betty Harrison lay across the press-bed in which she usually slept. Being in the habit of keeping her gown on for warmth, as it was said, she was partially dressed. She had been strangled, it seemed, “with an apron-string or a pack-thread,” for there was a deep crease about her neck and the bruised indentations as of knuckles. In her bedroom, also across her bed, lay the dead body of old Mrs Duncomb. There had been here also an attempt to strangle, an unnecessary attempt it appeared, for the crease about the neck was very faint. Frail as the old lady had been, the mere weight of the murderer’s body, it was conjectured, had been enough to kill her.

These pathological details were established on the arrival later of Mr Bigg, the surgeon, fetched from the Rainbow Coffee-house near by by Fairlow, one of the Temple porters. But the four women could see enough for themselves, without the help of Mr Bigg, to understand how death had been dealt in all three cases. They could see quite clearly also for what motive the crime had been committed. A black strong-box, with papers scattered about it, lay beside Mrs Duncomb’s bed, its lid forced open. It was in this box that the old lady had been accustomed to keep her money.

If any witness had been needed to say what the black box had contained there was Mrs Rhymer, executrix under the old lady’s will. And if Mrs. Rhymer had been at any need to refresh her memory regarding the contents opportunity had been given her no farther back than the afternoon of the previous Thursday. On that day she had called upon Mrs Duncomb to take tea and to talk affairs. Three or four years before, with her rapidly increasing frailness, the old lady’s memory had begun to fail. Mrs Rhymer acted for her as a sort of unofficial curator bonis, receiving her money and depositing it in the black box, of which she kept the key.

On the Thursday, old Betty and young Nanny being sent from the room, the old lady had told Mrs Rhymer that she needed some money–a guinea. Mrs Rhymer had gone through the solemn process of opening the black box, and, one must suppose–old ladies nearing their end being what they are–had been at need to tell over the contents of the box for the hundredth time, just to reassure Mrs Duncomb that she thoroughly understood the duties she had agreed to undertake as executrix

At the top of the box was a silver tankard. It had belonged to Mrs Duncomb’s husband. In the tankard was a hundred pounds. Beside the tankard lay a bag containing guinea pieces to the number of twenty or so. This was the bag that Mrs Rhymer had carried over to the old lady’s chair by the fire, in order to take from it the needed guinea.

There were some half-dozen packets of money in the box, each sealed with black wax and set aside for particular purposes after Mrs Duncomb’s death. Other sums, greater in quantity than those contained in the packets, were earmarked in the same way. There was, for example, twenty guineas set aside for the old lady’s burial, eighteen moidores to meet unforeseen contingencies, and in a green purse some thirty or forty shillings, which were to be distributed among poor people of Mrs Duncomb’s acquaintance. The ritual of telling over the box contents, if something ghostly, had had its usual effect of comforting the old lady’s mind. It consoled her to know that all arrangements were in order for her passing in genteel fashion to her long home, that all the decorums of respectable demise would be observed, and that “the greatest of these” would not be forgotten. The ritual over, the black box was closed and locked, and on her departure Mrs Rhymer had taken away the key as usual.

The motive for the crime, as said, was plain. The black box had been forced, and there was no sign of tankard, packets, green purse, or bag of guineas.

The horror and distress of the old lady’s friends that Sunday afternoon may better be imagined than described. Loudest of the four, we are told, was Sarah Malcolm. It is also said that she was, however, the coolest, keen to point out the various methods by which the murderers (for the crime to her did not look like a single-handed effort) could have got into the chambers. She drew attention to the wideness of the kitchen chimney and to the weakness of the lock in the door to the vacant rooms on the other side of the landing. She also pointed out that, since the bolt of the spring-lock of the outer door to Mrs Duncomb’s rooms had been engaged when they arrived, the miscreants could not have used that exit.

This last piece of deduction on Sarah’s part, however, was made rather negligible by experiments presently carried out by the porter, Fairlow, with the aid of a piece of string. He showed that a person outside the shut door could quite easily pull the bolt to on the inside.

The news of the triple murder quickly spread, and it was not long before a crowd had collected in Tanfield Court, up the stairs to Mrs. Duncomb’s landing, and round about the door of Mrs Duncomb’s chambers. It did not disperse until the officers had made their investigations and the bodies of the three victims had been removed. And even then, one may be sure, there would still be a few of those odd sort of people hanging about who, in those times as in these, must linger on the scene of a crime long after the last drop of interest has evaporated.


Two further actors now come upon the scene. And for the proper grasping of events we must go back an hour or two in time to notice their activities.

They are a Mr Gehagan, a young Irish barrister, and a friend of his named Kerrel.[18] These young men occupy chambers on opposite sides of the same landing, the third floor, over the Alienation Office in Tanfield Court.

[18] Or Kerrol–the name varies in different accounts of the crime.

Mr Gehagan was one of Sarah Malcolm’s employers. That Sunday morning at nine she had appeared in his rooms to do them up and to light the fire. While Gehagan was talking to Sarah he was joined by his friend Kerrel, who offered to stand him some tea. Sarah was given a shilling and sent out to buy tea. She returned and made the brew, then remained about the chambers until the horn blew, as was then the Temple custom, for commons. The two young men departed. After commons they walked for a while in the Temple Gardens, then returned to Tanfield Court.

By this time the crowd attracted by the murder was blocking up the court, and Gehagan asked what was the matter. He was told of the murder, and he remarked to Kerrel that the old lady had been their charwoman’s acquaintance.

The two friends then made their way to a coffee-house in Covent Garden. There was some talk there of the murder, and the theory was advanced by some one that it could have been done only by some laundress who knew the chambers and how to get in and out of them. From Covent Garden, towards night, Gehagan and Kerrel went to a tavern in Essex Street, and there they stayed carousing until one o’clock in the morning, when they left for the Temple. They were not a little astonished on reaching their common landing to find Kerrel’s door open, a fire burning in the grate of his room, and a candle on the table. By the fire, with a dark riding-hood about her head, was Sarah Malcolm. To Kerrel’s natural question of what she was doing there at such an unearthly hour she muttered something about having things to collect. Kerrel then, reminding her that Mrs Duncomb had been her acquaintance, asked her if anyone had been “taken up” for the murder.

“That Mr Knight,” Sarah replied, “who has chambers under her, has been absent two or three days. He is suspected.”

“Well,” said Kerrel, remembering the theory put forward in the coffee-house, and made suspicious by her presence at that strange hour, “nobody that was acquainted with Mrs Duncomb is wanted here until the murderer is discovered. Look out your things, therefore, and begone!”

Kerrel’s suspicion thickened, and he asked his friend to run downstairs and call up the watch. Gehagan ran down, but found difficulty in opening the door below, and had to return. Kerrel himself went down then, and came back with two watchmen. They found Sarah in the bedroom at a chest of drawers, in which she was turning over some linen that she claimed to be hers. The now completely suspicious Kerrel went to his closet, and noticed that two or three waistcoats were missing from a portmanteau. He asked Sarah where they were; upon which Sarah, with an eye to the watchmen and to Gehagan, begged to be allowed to speak with him alone.

Kerrel refused, saying he could have no business with her that was secret.

Sarah then confessed that she had pawned the missing waistcoats for two guineas, and begged him not to be angry. Kerrel asked her why she had not asked him for money. He could readily forgive her for pawning the waistcoats, but, having heard her talk of Mrs Lydia Duncomb, he was afraid she was concerned with the murder. A pair of earrings were found in the drawers, and these Sarah claimed, putting them in her corsage. An odd-looking bundle in the closet then attracted Kerrel’s attention, and he kicked it, and asked Sarah what it was. She said it was merely dirty linen wrapped up in an old gown. She did not wish it exposed. Kerrel made further search, and found that other things were missing. He told the watch to take the woman and hold her strictly.

Sarah was led away. Kerrel, now thoroughly roused, continued his search, and he found underneath his bed another bundle. He also came upon some bloodstained linen in another place, and in a close-stool a silver tankard, upon the handle of which was a lot of dried blood.

Kerrel’s excitement passed to Gehagan, and the two of them went at speed downstairs yelling for the watch. After a little the two watchmen reappeared, but without Sarah. They had let her go, they said, because they had found nothing on her, and, besides, she had not been charged before a constable.

One here comes upon a recital by the watchmen which reveals the extraordinary slackness in dealing with suspect persons that characterized the guardians of the peace in London in those times. They had let the woman go, but she had come back. Her home was in Shoreditch, she said, and rather than walk all that way on a cold and boisterous night she had wanted to sit up in the watch-house. The watchmen refused to let her do this, but ordered her to “go about her business,” advising her sternly at the same time to turn up again by ten o’clock in the morning. Sarah had given her word, and had gone away.

On hearing this story Kerrel became very angry, threatening the two watchmen, Hughes and Mastreter, with Newgate if they did not pick her up again immediately. Upon this the watchmen scurried off as quickly as their age and the cumbrous nature of their clothing would let them. They found Sarah in the company of two other watchmen at the gate of the Temple. Hughes, as a means of persuading her to go with them more easily, told her that Kerrel wanted to speak with her, and that he was not angry any longer. Presently, in Tanfield Court, they came on the two young men carrying the tankard and the bloodied linen. This time it was Gehagan who did the talking. He accused Sarah furiously, showing her the tankard. Sarah attempted to wipe the blood off the tankard handle with her apron. Gehagan stopped her.

Sarah said the tankard was her own. Her mother had given it her, and she had had it for five years. It was to get the tankard out of pawn that she had taken Kerrel’s waistcoats, needing thirty shillings. The blood on the handle was due to her having pricked a finger.

With this began the series of lies Sarah Malcolm put up in her defence. She was hauled into the watchman’s box and more thoroughly searched. A green silk purse containing twenty-one guineas was found in the bosom of her dress. This purse Sarah declared she had found in the street, and as an excuse for its cleanliness, unlikely with the streets as foul as they were at that age and time of year, said she had washed it. Both bundles of linen were bloodstained. There was some doubt as to the identity of the green purse. Mrs Rhymer, who, as we have seen, was likelier than anyone to recognize it, would not swear it was the green purse that had been in Mrs Duncomb’s black box. There was, however, no doubt at all about the tankard. It had the initials “C. D.” engraved upon it, and was at once identified as Mrs Duncomb’s. The linen which Sarah had been handling in Mr Kerrel’s drawer was said to be darned in a way recognizable as Mrs Duncomb’s. It had lain beside the tankard and the money in the black box.

% IV

There was, it will be seen, but very little doubt of Sarah Malcolm’s guilt. According to the reports of her trial, however, she fought fiercely for her life, questioning the witnesses closely. Some of them, such as could remember small points against her, but who failed in recollection of the colour of her dress or of the exact number of the coins said to be lost, she vehemently denounced.

One of the Newgate turnkeys told how some of the missing money was discovered. Being brought from the Compter to Newgate, Sarah happened to see a room in which debtors were confined. She asked the turnkey, Roger Johnson, if she could be kept there. Johnson replied that it would cost her a guinea, but that from her appearance it did not look to him as if she could afford so much. Sarah seems to have bragged then, saying that if the charge was twice or thrice as much she could send for a friend who would pay it. Her attitude probably made the turnkey suspicious. At any rate, after Sarah had mixed for some time with the felons in the prison taproom, Johnson called her out and, lighting the way by use of a link, led her to an empty room.

“Child,” he said, “there is reason to suspect that you are guilty of this murder, and therefore I have orders to search you.” He had, he admitted, no such orders. He felt under her arms; whereupon she started and threw back her head. Johnson clapped his hand on her head and felt something hard. He pulled off her cap, and found a bag of money in her hair.

“I asked her,” Johnson said in the witness-box, “how she came by it, and she said it was some of Mrs Duncomb’s money. `But, Mr Johnson,’ says she, `I’ll make you a present of it if you will keep it to yourself, and let nobody know anything of the matter. The other things against me are nothing but circumstances, and I shall come well enough off. And therefore I only desire you to let me have threepence or sixpence a day till the sessions be over; then I shall be at liberty to shift for myself.’ ”

To the best of his knowledge, said this turnkey, having told the money over, there were twenty moidores, eighteen guineas, five broad pieces, a half-broad piece, five crowns, and two or three shillings. He thought there was also a twenty-five-shilling piece and some others, twenty-three-shilling pieces. He had sealed them up in the bag, and there they were (producing the bag in court).

The court asked how she said she had come by the money.

Johnson’s answer was that she had said she took the money and the bag from Mrs Duncomb, and that she had begged him to keep it secret. “My dear,” said this virtuous gaoler, “I would not secrete the money for the world.

“She told me, too,” runs Johnson’s recorded testimony, “that she had hired three men to swear the tankard was her grandmother’s, but could not depend on them: that the name of one was William Denny, another was Smith, and I have forgot the third. After I had taken the money away she put a piece of mattress in her hair, that it might appear of the same bulk as before. Then I locked her up and sent to Mr Alstone, and told him the story. `And,’ says I, `do you stand in a dark place to be witness of what she says, and I’ll go and examine her again.”’

Sarah interrupted: “I tied my handkerchief over my hair to hide the money, but Buck,[19] happening to see my hair fall down, he told Johnson; upon which Johnson came to see me and said, `I find the cole’s planted in your hair. Let me keep it for you and let Buck know nothing about it.’ So I gave Johnson five broad pieces and twenty-two guineas, not gratis, but only to keep for me, for I expected it to be returned when sessions was over. As to the money, I never said I took it from Mrs Duncomb; but he asked me what they had to rap against me. I told him only a tankard. He asked me if it was Mrs Duncomb’s, and I said yes.”

[19] Peter Buck, a prisoner.

The Court: “Johnson, were those her words: `This is the money and bag that I took’?”

Johnson: “Yes, and she desired me to make away with the bag.”

Johnson’s evidence was confirmed in part by Alstone, another officer of the prison. He said he told Johnson to get the bag from the prisoner, as it might have something about it whereby it could be identified. Johnson called the girl, while Alstone watched from a dark corner. He saw Sarah give Johnson the bag, and heard her ask him to burn it. Alstone also deposed that Sarah told him (Alstone) part of the money found on her was Mrs Duncomb’s.

There is no need here to enlarge upon the oddly slack and casual conditions of the prison life of the time as revealed in this evidence. It will be no news to anyone who has studied contemporary criminal history. There is a point, however, that may be considered here, and that is the familiarity it suggests on the part of Sarah with prison conditions and with the cant terms employed by criminals and the people handling them.

Sarah, though still in her earliest twenties,[20] was known already–if not in the Temple–to have a bad reputation. It is said that her closest friends were thieves of the worst sort. She was the daughter of an Englishman, at one time a public official in a small way in Dublin. Her father had come to London with his wife and daughter, but on the death of the mother had gone back to Ireland. He had left his daughter behind him, servant in an ale-house called the Black Horse.

[20] Born 1711, Durham, according to The Newgate Calendar.

Sarah was a fairly well-educated girl. At the ale-house, however, she formed an acquaintance with a woman named Mary Tracey, a dissolute character, and with two thieves called Alexander. Of these three disreputable people we shall be hearing presently, for Sarah tried to implicate them in this crime which she certainly committed alone. It is said that the Newgate officers recognized Sarah on her arrival. She had often been to the prison to visit an Irish thief, convicted for stealing the pack of a Scots pedlar.

It will be seen from Sarah’s own defence how she tried to implicate Tracey and the two Alexanders:

“I freely own that my crimes deserve death; I own that I was accessory to the robbery, but I was innocent of the murder, and will give an account of the whole affair.

“I lived with Mrs Lydia Duncomb about three months before she was murdered. The robbery was contrived by Mary Tracey, who is now in confinement, and myself, my own vicious inclinations agreeing with hers. We likewise proposed to rob Mr Oakes in Thames Street. She came to me at my master’s, Mr Kerrel’s chambers, on the Sunday before the murder was committed; he not being then at home, we talked about robbing Mrs Duncomb. I told her I could not pretend to do it by myself, for I should be found out. `No,’ says she, `there are the two Alexanders will help us.’ Next day I had seventeen pounds sent me out of the country, which I left in Mr Kerrel’s drawers. I met them all in Cheapside the following Friday, and we agreed on the next night, and so parted.

“Next day, being Saturday, I went between seven and eight in the evening to see Mrs Duncomb’s maid, Elizabeth Harrison, who was very bad. I stayed a little while with her, and went down, and Mary Tracey and the two Alexanders came to me about ten o’clock, according to appointment.”

On this statement the whole implication of Tracey and the Alexanders by Sarah stands or falls. It falls for the reason that the Temple porter had seen no stranger pass the gate that night, nobody but Templars going to their chambers. The one fact riddles the rest of Sarah’s statement in defence, but, as it is somewhat of a masterpiece in lying invention, I shall continue to quote it. “Mary Tracey would have gone about the robbery just then, but I said it was too soon. Between ten and eleven she said, `We can do it now.’ I told her I would go and see, and so went upstairs, and they followed me. I met the young maid on the stairs with a blue mug; she was going for some milk to make a sack posset. She asked me who were those that came after me. I told her they were people going to Mr Knight’s below. As soon as she was gone I said to Mary Tracey, `Now do you and Tom Alexander go down. I know the door is ajar, because the old maid is ill, and can’t get up to let the young maid in when she comes back.’ Upon that, James Alexander, by my order, went in and hid himself under the bed; and as I was going down myself I met the young maid coming up again. She asked me if I spoke to Mrs Betty. I told her no; though I should have told her otherwise, but only that I was afraid she might say something to Mrs Betty about me, and Mrs Betty might tell her I had not been there, and so they might have a suspicion of me.”

There is a possibility that this part of her confession, the tale of having met the young maid, Nanny, may be true.[21] And here may the truth of the murder be hidden away. Very likely it is, indeed, that Sarah encountered the girl going out with the blue mug for milk to make a sack posset, and she may have slipped in by the open door to hide under the bed until the moment was ripe for her terrible intention. On the other hand, if there is truth in the tale of her encountering the girl again as she returned with the milk–and her cunning in answering “no” to the maid’s query if she had seen Mrs Betty has the real ring–other ways of getting an entry were open to her. We know that the lock of the vacant chambers opposite Mrs Duncomb’s would have yielded to small manipulation. It is not at all unlikely that Sarah, having been charwoman to the old lady, and with the propensities picked up from her Shoreditch acquaintances, had made herself familiar with the locks on the landing. So that she may have waited her hour in the empty rooms, and have got into Mrs Duncomb’s by the same method used by Mrs Oliphant after the murder. She may even have slipped back the spring-catch of the outer door. One account of the murder suggests that she may have asked Ann Price, on one pretext or other, to let her share her bed. It certainly was not beyond the callousness of Sarah Malcolm to have chosen this method, murdering the girl in her sleep, and then going on to finish off the two helpless old women.

[21] This confession, however, varies in several particulars with that contained in A Paper delivered by Sarah Malcolm on the Night before her Execution to the Rev. Mr Piddington, and published by Him (London, 1733).

The truth, as I have said, lies hidden in this extraordinarily mendacious confection. Liars of Sarah’s quality are apt to base their fabrications on a structure, however slight, of truth. I continue with the confession, then, for what the reader may get out of it.

“I passed her [Nanny Price] and went down, and spoke with Tracey and Alexander, and then went to my master’s chambers, and stirred up the fire. I stayed about a quarter of an hour, and when I came back I saw Tracey and Tom Alexander sitting on Mrs Duncomb’s stairs, and I sat down with them. At twelve o’clock we heard some people walking, and by and by Mr Knight came home, went to his room, and shut the door. It was a very stormy night; there was hardly anybody stirring abroad, and the watchmen kept up close, except just when they cried the hour. At two o’clock another gentleman came, and called the watch to light his candle, upon which I went farther upstairs, and soon after this I heard Mrs Duncomb’s door open; James Alexander came out, and said, `Now is the time.’ Then Mary Tracey and Thomas Alexander went in, but I stayed upon the stair to watch. I had told them where Mrs Duncomb’s box stood. They came out between four and five, and one of them called to me softly, and said, `Hip! How shall I shut the door?’ Says I, ` ‘Tis a spring-lock; pull it to, and it will be fast.’ And so one of them did. They would have shared the money and goods upon the stairs, but I told them we had better go down; so we went under the arch by Fig-tree Court, where there was a lamp. I asked them how much they had got. They said they had found fifty guineas and some silver in the maid’s purse, about one hundred pounds in the chest of drawers, besides the silver tankard and the money in the box and several other things; so that in all they had got to the value of about three hundred pounds in money and goods. They told me that they had been forced to gag the people. They gave me the tankard with what was in it and some linen for my share, and they had a silver spoon and a ring and the rest of the money among themselves. They advised me to be cunning and plant the money and goods underground, and not to be seen to be flush. Then we appointed to meet at Greenwich, but we did not go.[22]

[22] In Mr Piddington’s paper the supposed appointment is for “3 or 4 o’clock at the Pewter Platter, Holbourn Bridge.”

“I was taken in the manner the witnesses have sworn, and carried to the watch-house, from whence I was sent to the Compter, and so to Newgate. I own that I said the tankard was mine, and that it was left me by my mother: several witnesses have swore what account I gave of the tankard being bloody; I had hurt my finger, and that was the occasion of it. I am sure of death, and therefore have no occasion to speak anything but the truth. When I was in the Compter I happened to see a young man[23] whom I knew, with a fetter on. I told him I was sorry to see him there, and I gave him a shilling, and called for half a quartern of rum to make him drink. I afterwards went into my room, and heard a voice call me, and perceived something poking behind the curtain. I was a little surprised, and looking to see what it was, I found a hole in the wall, through which the young man I had given the shilling to spoke to me, and asked me if I had sent for my friends. I told him no. He said he would do what he could for me, and so went away; and some time after he called to me again, and said, `Here is a friend.’

[23] One Bridgewater.

“I looked through, and saw Will Gibbs come in. Says he, `Who is there to swear against you?’ I told him my two masters would be the chief witnesses. `And what can they charge you with?’ says he. I told him the tankard was the only thing, for there was nothing else that I thought could hurt me. `Never fear, then,’ says he; `we’ll do well enough. We will get them that will rap the tankard was your grandmother’s, and that you was in Shoreditch the night the act was committed; and we’ll have two men that shall shoot your masters. But,’ said he, `one of the witnesses is a woman, and she won’t swear under four guineas; but the men will swear for two guineas apiece,’ and he brought a woman and three men. I gave them ten guineas, and they promised to wait for me at the Bull Head in Broad Street. But when I called for them, when I was going before Sir Richard Brocas, they were not there. Then I found I should be sent to Newgate, and I was full of anxious thoughts; but a young man told me I had better go to the Whit than to the Compter.

“When I came to Newgate I had but eighteenpence in silver, besides the money in my hair, and I gave eighteenpence for my garnish. I was ordered to a high place in the gaol. Buck, as I said before, having seen my hair loose, told Johnson of it, and Johnson asked me if I had got any cole planted there. He searched and found the bag, and there was in it thirty-six moidores, eighteen guineas, five crown pieces, two half-crowns, two broad pieces of twenty-five shillings, four of twenty-three shillings, and one half-broad piece. He told me I must be cunning, and not to be seen to be flush of money. Says I, `What would you advise me to do with it?’ `Why,’ says he, `you might have thrown it down the sink, or have burnt it, but give it to me, and I’ll take care of it.’ And so I gave it to him. Mr Alstone then brought me to the condemned hold and examined me. I denied all till I found he had heard of the money, and then I knew my life was gone. And therefore I confessed all that I knew. I gave him the same account of the robbers as I have given you. I told him I heard my masters were to be shot, and I desired him to send them word. I described Tracey and the two Alexanders, and when they were first taken they denied that they knew Mr Oakes, whom they and I had agreed to rob.

“All that I have now declared is fact, and I have no occasion to murder three persons on a false accusation; for I know I am a condemned woman. I know I must suffer an ignominious death which my crimes deserve, and I shall suffer willingly. I thank God He has given me time to repent, when I might have been snatched off in the midst of my crimes, and without having an opportunity of preparing myself for another world.” There is a glibness and an occasional turn of phrase in this confession which suggests some touching up from the pen of a pamphleteer, but one may take it that it is, in substance, a fairly accurate report. In spite of the pleading which threads it that she should be regarded as accessory only in the robbery, the jury took something less than a quarter of an hour to come back with their verdict of “Guilty of murder.” Sarah Malcolm was sentenced to death in due form.

% V

Having regard to the period in which this confession was made, and considering the not too savoury reputations of Mary Tracey and the brothers Alexander, we can believe that those three may well have thought themselves lucky to escape from the mesh of lies Sarah tried to weave about them.[24] It was not to be doubted on all the evidence that she alone committed that cruel triple murder, and that she alone stole the money which was found hidden in her hair. The bulk of the stolen clothing was found in her possession, bloodstained. A white-handled case-knife, presumably that used to cut Nanny Price’s throat, was seen on a table by the three women who, with Sarah herself, were first on the scene of the murder. It disappeared later, and it is to be surmised that Sarah Malcolm managed to get it out of the room unseen. But to the last moment possible Sarah tried to get her three friends involved with her. Say, which is not at all unlikely, that Tracey and the Alexanders may have first suggested the robbery to her, and her vindictive maneouvring may be understood.

[24] On more than one hand the crime is ascribed to Sarah’s desire to secure one of the Alexanders in marriage.

It is said that when she heard that Tracey and the Alexanders had been taken she was highly pleased. She smiled, and said that she could now die happy, since the real murderers had been seized. Even when the three were brought face to face with her for identification she did not lack brazenness. “Ay,” she said, “these are the persons who committed the murder.” “You know this to be true,” she said to Tracey. “See, Mary, what you have brought me to. It is through you and the two Alexanders that I am brought to this shame, and must die for it. You all promised me you would do no murder, but, to my great surprise, I found the contrary.”

She was, you will perceive, a determined liar. Condemned, she behaved with no fortitude. “I am a dead woman!” she cried, when brought back to Newgate. She wept and prayed, lied still more, pretended illness, and had fits of hysteria. They put her in the old condemned hold with a constant guard over her, for fear that she would attempt suicide

The idlers of the town crowded to the prison to see her, for in the time of his Blessed Majesty King George II Newgate, with the condemned hold and its content, composed one of the fashionable spectacles. Young Mr Hogarth, the painter, was one of those who found occasion to visit Newgate to view the notorious murderess. He even painted her portrait. It is said that Sarah dressed specially for him in a red dress, but that copy–one which belonged to Horace Walpole–which is now in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, shows her in a grey gown, with a white cap and apron. Seated to the left, she leans her folded hands on a table on which a rosary and a crucifix lie. Behind her is a dark grey wall, with a heavy grating over a dark door to the right. There are varied mezzotints of this picture by Hogarth himself still extant, and there is a pen-and-wash drawing of Sarah by Samuel Wale in the British Museum.

The stories regarding the last days in life of Sarah Malcolm would occupy more pages than this book can afford to spend on them. To the last she hoped for a reprieve. After the “dead warrant” had arrived, to account for a paroxysm of terror that seized her, she said that it was from shame at the idea that, instead of going to Tyburn, she was to be hanged in Fleet Street among all the people that knew her, she having just heard the news in chapel. This too was one of her lies. She had heard the news hours before. A turnkey, pointing out the lie to her, urged her to confess for the easing of her mind.

One account I have of the Tanfield Court murders speaks of the custom there was at this time of the bellman of St Sepulchre’s appearing outside the gratings of the condemned hold just after midnight on the morning of executions.[25] This performance was provided for by bequest from one Robert Dove, or Dow, a merchant- tailor. Having rung his bell to draw the attention of the condemned (who, it may be gathered, were not supposed to be at all in want of sleep), the bellman recited these verses:

All you that in the condemned hold do lie, Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die. Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near That you before th’ Almighty must appear.

Examine well yourselves, in time repent, That you may not t’eternal flames be sent: And when St ‘Pulchre’s bell to-morrow tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your souls! Past twelve o’clock![26]

[25] It was once done by the parish priest. (Stowe’s Survey of London, p. 195, fourth edition, 1618.)

[26] The bequest of Dove appears to have provided for a further pious admonition to the condemned while on the way to execution. It was delivered by the sexton of St Sepulchre’s from the steps of that church, a halt being made by the procession for the purpose. This admonition, however, was in fair prose.

A fellow-prisoner or a keeper bade Sarah Malcolm heed what the bellman said, urging her to take it to heart. Sarah said she did, and threw the bellman down a shilling with which to buy himself a pint of wine.

Sarah, as we have seen, was denied the honour of procession to Tyburn. Her sentence was that she was to be hanged in Fleet Street, opposite the Mitre Court, on the 7th of March, 1733. And hanged she was accordingly. She fainted in the tumbril, and took some time to recover. Her last words were exemplary in their piety, but in the face of her vindictive lying, unretracted to the last, it were hardly exemplary to repeat them.

She was buried in the churchyard of St Sepulchre’s.


[27] Thanks to my friend Billy Bennett, of music-hall fame, for his hint for the chapter title.

Born (probably illegitimately) in a fisherman’s cottage, reared in a workhouse, employed in a brothel, won at cards by a royal duke, mistress of that duke, married to a baron, received at Court by three kings (though not much in the way of kings), accused of cozenage and tacitly of murder, died full of piety, `cutting up’ for close on L150,000–there, as it were in a nutshell, you have the life of Sophie Dawes, Baronne de Feucheres.

In the introduction to her exhaustive and accomplished biography of Sophie Dawes,[28] from which a part of the matter for this resume is drawn, Mme Violette Montagu, speaking of the period in which Sophie lived, says that “Paris, with its fabulous wealth and luxury, seems to have been looked upon as a sort of Mecca by handsome Englishwomen with ambition and, what is absolutely necessary if they wish to be really successful, plenty of brains.”

[28] Sophie Dawes, Queen of Chantilly (John Lane, 1912).

It is because Sophie had plenty of brains of a sort, besides the attributes of good looks, health, and by much a disproportionate share of determination, and because, with all that she attained to, she died quite ostracized by the people with whom it had been her life’s ambition to mix, and was thus in a sense a failure–it is because of these things that it is worth while going into details of her career, expanding the precis with which this chapter begins.

Among the women selected as subjects for this book Sophie Dawes as a personality wins `hands down.’ Whether she was a criminal or not is a question even now in dispute. Unscrupulous she certainly was, and a good deal of a rogue. That modern American product the `gold-digger’ is what she herself would call a `piker’ compared with the subject of this chapter. The blonde bombshell, with her `sugar daddy,’ her alimony `racket,’ and the hundred hard-boiled dodges wherewith she chisels money and goods from her prey, is, again in her own crude phraseology, `knocked for a row of ash-cans’ by Sophie Dawes. As, I think, you will presently see.

Sophie was born at St Helens, Isle of Wight–according to herself in 1792. There is controversy on the matter. Mme Montagu in her book says that some of Sophie’s biographers put the date at 1790, or even 1785. But Mme Montagu herself reproduces the list of wearing apparel with which Sophie was furnished when she left the `house of industry’ (the workhouse). It is dated 1805. In those days children were not maintained in poor institutions to the mature ages of fifteen or twenty. They were supposed to be armed against life’s troubles at twelve or even younger. Sophie, then, could hardly have been born before 1792, but is quite likely to have been born later.

The name of Sophie’s father is given as “Daw.” Like many another celebrity, as, for example, Walter Raleigh and Shakespeare, Sophie spelled her name variously, though ultimately she fixed on “Dawes.” Richard, or Dickey, Daw was a fisherman for appearance sake and a smuggler for preference. The question of Sophie’s legitimacy anses from the fact that her mother, Jane Callaway, was registered at death as “a spinster.” Sophie was one of ten children. Dickey Daw drank his family into the poorhouse, an institution which sent Sophie to fend for herself in 1805, procuring her a place as servant at a farm on the island.

Service on a farm does not appear to have appealed to Sophie. She escaped to Portsmouth, where she found a job as hotel chambermaid. Tiring of that, she went to London and became a milliner’s assistant. A little affair we hear, in which a mere water-carrier was an equal participant, lost Sophie her place. We next have word of her imitating Nell Gwynn, both in selling oranges to playgoers and in becoming an actress–not, however, at Old Drury, but at the other patent theatre, Covent Garden. Save that as a comedian she never took London by storm, and that she lacked Nell’s unfailing good humour, Sophie in her career matches Nell in more than superficial particulars. Between selling oranges and appearing on the stage Sophie seems to have touched bottom for a time in poverty. But her charms as an actress captivated an officer by and by, and she was established as his mistress in a house at Turnham Green. Tiring of her after a time–Sophie, it is probable, became exigeant with increased comfort–her protector left her with an annuity of L50.

The annuity does not appear to have done Sophie much good. We next hear of her as servant-maid in a Piccadilly brothel, a lupanar much patronized by wealthy emigres from France, among whom was Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and later Prince de Conde, a man at that time of about fifty-four.

The Duc’s attention was directed to the good looks of Sophie by a manservant of his. Mme Montagu says of Sophie at this time that “her face had already lost the first bloom of youth and innocence.” Now, one wonders if that really was so, or if Mme Montagu is making a shot at a hazard. She describes Sophie a little earlier than this as having

developed into a fine young woman, not exactly pretty or handsome, but she held her head gracefully, and her regular features were illumined by a pair of remarkably bright and intelligent eyes. She was tall and squarely built, with legs and arms which might have served as models for a statue of Hercules. Her muscular force was extraordinary. Her lips were rather thin, and she had an ugly habit of contracting them when she was angry. Her intelligence was above the average, and she had a good share of wit.

At the time when the Duc de Bourbon came upon her in the Piccadilly stew the girl was probably no more than eighteen. If one may judge her character from the events of her subsequent career there was an outstanding resiliency and a resoluteness as main ingredients of her make-up, qualities which would go a long way to obviating any marks that might otherwise have been left on her by the ups and downs of a mere five years in the world. If, moreover, Mme Montagu’s description of her is a true one it is clear that Sophie’s good looks were not of the sort to make an all-round appeal. The ways in which attractiveness goes, both in men and in women, are infinite in their variety. The reader may recall, in this respect, what was said in the introductory chapter about Kate Webster and the instance of the bewhiskered ‘Fina of the Spanish tavern. And since a look of innocence and the bloom of youth may, and very often do, appear on the faces of individuals who are far from being innocent or even young, it may well be that Sophie in 1810, servant-maid in a brothel though she was, still kept a look of country freshness and health, unjaded enough to whet the dulled appetence of a bagnio-haunting old rip. The odds are, at all events, that Sophie was much less artificial in her charms than the practised ladies of complacency upon whom she attended. With her odd good looks she very likely had just that subacid leaven for which, in the alchemy of attraction, the Duc was in search.

The Duc, however, was not the only one to whom Sophie looked desirable. Two English peers had an eye on her–the Earl of Winchilsea and the Duke of Kent. This is where the card affair comes in. The Duc either played whist with the two noblemen for sole rights in Sophie or, what is more likely, cut cards with them during a game. The Duc won. Whether his win may be regarded as lucky or not can be reckoned, according to the taste and fancy of the reader, from the sequelae of some twenty years.

% II

With the placing of Sophie dans ses meubles by the Duc de Bourbon there began one of the most remarkable turns in her career. In 1811 he took a house for her in Gloucester Street, Queen’s Square, with her mother as duenna, and arranged for the completion of her education.

As a light on her character hardly too much can be made of this stage in her development. It is more than likely that the teaching was begun at Sophie’s own demand, and by the use she made of the opportunities given her you may measure the strength of her ambition. Here was no rich man’s doxy lazily seeking a veneer of culture, enough to gloss the rough patches of speech and idea betraying humble origin. This fisherman’s child, workhouse girl, ancilla of the bordels, with the thin smattering of the three R’s she had acquired in the poor institution, set herself, with a wholehearted concentration which a Newnham `swot’ might envy, to master modern languages, with Greek, Latin, and music. At the end of three years she was a good linguist, could play and sing well enough to entertain and not bore the most intelligent in the company the Duc kept, and to pass in that company –the French emigre set in London–as a person of equal education. If, as it is said, Sophie, while she could read and write French faultlessly, never could speak it without an English accent, it is to be remembered that the flexibility of tongue and mind needed for native-sounding speech in French (or any other language) is so exceptional as to be practically non-existent among her compatriots to this day. The fault scarcely belittles her achievement. As well blame a one-legged man for hopping when trying to run. Consider the life Sophie had led, the sort of people with whom she had associated, and that temptation towards laissez-faire which conquers all but the rarest woman in the mode of life in which she was existing, and judge of the constancy of purpose that kept that little nose so steadfastly in Plutarch and Xenophon.

If in the year 1812 the Duc began to allow his little Sophie about L800 a year in francs as pin-money he was no more generous than Sophie deserved. The Duc was very rich, despite the fact that his father, the old Prince de Conde, was still alive, and so, of course, was enjoying the income from the family estates.

There is no room here to follow more than the barest outline of the Duc de Bourbon’s history. Fully stated, it would be the history of France. He was a son of the Prince de Conde who collected that futile army beyond the borders of France in the royalist cause in the Revolution. Louis-Henri was wounded in the left arm while serving there, so badly wounded that the hand was practically useless. He came to England, where he lived until 1814, when he went back to France to make his unsuccessful attempt to raise the Vendee. Then he went to Spain.

At this time he intended breaking with Sophie, but when he got back to Paris in 1815 he found the lady waiting for him. It took Sophie some eighteen months to bring his Highness up to scratch again. During this time the Duc had another English fancy, a Miss Harris, whose reign in favour, however, did not withstand the manoeuvring of Sophie.

Sophie as a mistress in England was one thing, but Sophie unattached as a mistress in France was another. One wonders why the Duc should have been squeamish on this point. Perhaps it was that he thought it would look vulgar to take up a former mistress after so long. At all events, he was ready enough to resume the old relationship with Sophie, provided she could change her name by marriage. Sophie was nothing loth. The idea fell in with her plans. She let it get about that she was the natural daughter of the Duc, and soon had in tow one Adrien-Victor de Feucheres. He was an officer of the Royal Guard. Without enlarging on the all-round tawdriness of this contract it will suffice here to say that Sophie and Adrien were married in London in August of 1818, the Duc presenting the bride with a dowry of about L5600 in francs. Next year de Feucheres became a baron, and was made aide-de-camp to the Duc.

Incredible as it may seem, de Feucheres took four years to realize what was the real relationship between his wife and the Prince de Conde. The aide-de-camp and his wife had a suite of rooms in the Prince’s favourite chateau at Chantilly, and the ambition which Sophie had foreseen would be furthered by the marriage was realized. She was received as La Baronne de Feucheres at the Court of Louis XVIII. She was happy–up to a point. Some unpretty traits in her character began to develop: a violent temper, a tendency to hysterics if crossed, and, it is said, a leaning towards avaricious ways. At the end of four years the Baron de Feucheres woke up to the fact that Sophie was deceiving him. It does not appear, however, that he had seen through her main deception, because it was Sophie herself, we are told, who informed him he was a fool–that she was not the Prince’s daughter, but his mistress.

Having waked up thus belatedly, or having been woken up by Sophie in her ungoverned ill-temper, de Feucheres acted with considerable dignity. He begged to resign his position as aide to the Prince, and returned his wife’s dowry. The departure of Sophie’s hitherto complacent husband rather embarrassed the Prince. He needed Sophie but felt he could not keep her unattached under his roof and he sent her away–but only for a few days. Sophie soon was back again in Chantilly.

The Prince made some attempt to get de Feucheres to return, but without success. De Feucheres applied for a post in the Army of Spain, an application which was granted at once. It took the poor man seven years to secure a judicial separation from his wife.

The scandal of this change in the menage of Chantilly –it happened in 1822–reached the ears of the King, and the Baronne de Feucheres was forbidden to appear at Court. All Sophie’s energies from then on were concentrated on getting the ban removed. She explored all possible avenues of influence to this end, and, incidentally drove her old lover nearly frantic with her complaints giving him no peace. Even a rebuff from the Duchesse de Berry, widow of the son of that prince who was afterwards Charles X, did not put her off. She turned up one day at the Tuileries, to be informed by an usher that she could not be admitted.

This desire to be reinstated in royal favour is at the back of all Sophie’s subsequent actions–this and her intention of feathering her own nest out of the estate of her protector. It explains why she worked so hard to have the Prince de Conde assume friendly relations with a family whose very name he hated: that of the Duc d’Orleans. It is a clue to the mysterious death, eight years later, of the Prince de Conde, last of the Condes, in circumstances which were made to pass as suicide, but which in unhampered inquiry would almost certainly have been found to indicate murder.


Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and Prince de Conde, seems to have been rather a simple old man: a useless old sinner, true enough, but relatively harmless in his sinning, relatively venial in his uselessness. It were futile to seek for the morality of a later age in a man of his day and rank and country, just as it were obtuse to look for greatness in one so much at the mercy of circumstance. As far as bravery went he had shown himself a worthy descendant of “the Great Conde.” But, surrounded by the vapid jealousies of the most useless people who had ever tried to rule a country, he, no more than his father, had the faintest chance to show the Conde quality in war. Adrift as a comparatively young man, his world about his ears, with no occupation, small wonder that in idleness he fell into the pursuit of satisfactions for his baser appetites. He would have been, there is good reason to believe, a happy man and a busy one in a camp. There is this to be said for him: that alone among the spineless crowd of royalists feebly waiting for the miracle which would restore their privilege he attempted a blow for the lost cause. But where in all that bed of disintegrating chalk was the flint from which he might have evoked a spark?

The great grief of the Prince’s life was the loss of his son, the young Duc d’Enghien, shamefully destroyed by Bonaparte. It is possible that much of the Prince’s inertia was due to this blow. He had married, at the early age of fourteen, Louise-Marie-Therese-Mathilde d’Orleans, daughter of Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans and the Duchesse de Chartres, the bride being six years older than her husband. Such a marriage could not last. It merely sustained the honeymoon and the birth of that only son. The couple were apart in eighteen months, and after ten years they never even saw each other again. About the time when Sophie’s husband found her out and departed the Princesse died. The Prince was advised to marry again, on the chance that an heir might be born to the large fortune he possessed. But Sophie by then had become a habit with the Prince–a bad one–and the old man was content to be left to his continual hunting, and not to bother over the fact that he was the last of his ancient line.

It may be easily believed that the Prince’s disinclination to marry again contented Sophie very well. And the fact that he had no direct heir was one in which she saw possibilities