Review: Poison Panic, by Helen Barrell

[This story was published on March 10 in the BAVS Newsletter. Read the original article in the BAVS Newsletter 17.1 at]

Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex, by Helen Barrell, (Great Britain: Pen & Sword True Crime, 2016), 197pp., 41 B&W illustrations, £14.99, (paperback) ISBN 147-3- 8520-72

Poison Panic Review Image

Arsenic has connotations inextricably linked with nineteenth century crime, and the origins of this enduring association have been explored in such contemporary scholarship as Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder.

These origins are further elucidated in Helen Barrell’s book Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex, which tells the story of several women from rural Essex and the surrounding areas who were accused of murdering their children, husbands, and siblings with the notorious substance.

Poison Panic opens with the story of Sarah Chesham, who lost two sons after a sudden and violent illness, and was arrested on suspicion of poisoning after another woman’s newborn baby repeatedly fell ill while left alone with her.

Although a learned professor finds that the viscera of Sarah’s two dead children contained arsenic, Sarah is found not guilty of murder at her trials.

The trials of Sarah Bright, Catherine Foster, and Emma Elizabeth Hume are also explored at length, and Barrell’s retelling of the story of Mary May examines the tensions surrounding Victorian ‘burial clubs’, which capitalised on people’s fear of a pauper’s burial by promising to pay out on their deaths.

Burial clubs were treated with suspicion, since they were thought to be open to abuse by those who might register someone and then instigate their deaths in order to cash in on the funeral money.

It is possible that this paranoia led to the arrest of Mary after the death of her brother, William Constable, shortly after she’d registered him into a burial club without his knowledge.

His sudden death, and the subsequent pauper’s burial he was given, were among the suspicious actions which led to Mary being found guilty and sentenced to death.

Given the number of women accused of poisoning their family members, panic around arsenic poisoning ensued, and public attention turned to Mary’s friend Hannah Southgate, who had lost her husband to a swift illness and quickly remarried.

Although Hannah was put to trial and acquitted, Mary Anne Geering from Sussex was put in the dock for supposedly murdering several members of her family, was found guilty and hanged.

Concluding her overview of the Essex poisonings by returning to the Chesham family, Barrell demonstrates how Sarah was put on trial again following what was deemed to be the suspicious death of her husband, and was eventually sentenced to be hung.

A phrenologist is said to have remarked on the prominent ‘destructiveness’ element of Sarah’s skull after her death, an interesting narrative nod to contemporary pseudoscience employed in parallel with a case which demonstrated 33 the modernising practice of forensic science.

Despite featuring multiple gruesome deaths, supposed “death clubs”, and an ‘amateur detective’ reverend, Barrell makes it clear from the offset that this is no sensational Victorian tale with a tidy conclusion. Instead, she states that the aim of her book ‘is not to solve the mysteries but readers can formulate their own theories’(x).

The facts – court proceedings, genealogical research and contemporary documentation of the crimes – are presented methodically alongside additional information which sheds light upon the cases, such as circulating rumours, media misrepresentation and social customs.

This examination of the context surrounding the poison panic of the 1840s (including forensic science advancements and police force development, but also Barrell’s consideration of economic recession and medical confusion between the effects of cholera and arsenical poisoning) is particularly useful, allowing the reader to consider the social nuances leading to and impacting on the book’s events.

For example, the main protagonists in Barrell’s book are female, and the gendering within the cases is made clear by her allusions to contemporary events such as those surrounding convicted husband poisoner Marie-Fortubee Lafarge.

Barrell also astutely draws a clear link between contemporary political upheaval and the impact this had on British notions of domesticity and women’s roles within the home.

‘While mainland Europe in the 1840s was convulsed with revolution,’ Barrell states, ‘the Essex poisonings crystallised the fear that British society was under threat’ (xiii).

Arsenic’s key role in Victorian society is in part due to its variety of uses in the home, and Barrell suggests that the fear of revolution mirrored or manifested in a fear of a corrupted domestic sphere and ungovernable, murderous women: ‘female poisoners were a threat to the safe haven of home’ (xvii) and to the notion of what a Victorian woman should be.

These associations invite the reader to consider the cases with knowledge of contemporary social factors, but Barrell also contextualises the poison panic within a heritage of mass hysteria to further engage her audience.

Barrell links the Essex poisoning occurrences to such cultural and social factors as the publication of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Lucretia and the eighteenth century Cult of Sensibility.

Throughout the narrative, Barrell points out the parallels between the fear and paranoia over arsenic, and witchcraft allegations of the seventeenth century.

As she points out, the Essex community demonstrated a similar hysteria, which was also magnified by inaccurate newspaper reporting.

Obscene claims were made, stating that Sarah Chesham was a poisoner for hire, that she had in her house ‘an assortment of poisons – ointments, powders, and the like’ (22), and that the murders were the work of a local ‘death club’.

This contextual information allows Barrell to posit several thought-provoking rhetorical questions, which further engage the reader in the narrative and in considering wider social concerns of the period. Poison Panic also contains several useful illustrations, including photographs, maps, and copies of key documents from the cases described in the book.

Interestingly, Barrell links the tale with her own family history through multiple figures including Mordecai Simpson, Catherine Foster’s neighbour, and Reason Field, a prisoner tried at the same 34 time as Mary May.

‘As an Essex woman with personal ties to some of the cases, I hope my approach will add a new voice to the body of work that already exists on this subject’ (178) says Barrell in her Further Reading section.

Highly readable and extensively researched, Poison Panic is an extremely engaging book.

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