FULL TEXT: Colchester, Saturday Morning.—The discover of a horrible murder by secret poisoning, and the general belief that as many as fourteen or fifteen human beings have fallen victims under a similar diabolical system, has during the week created the greatest excitement throughout the eastern division of this county (Essex). For several days past Mr. Codd, the coroner, has been pursuing a most searching investigation into the whole of the facts, and at ten o’clock on Friday night the inquiry terminated in a verdict of wilful murder against a woman named Mary May, for feloniously administering arsenic to her brother (the deceased) and thereby causing his death.
The subjoined facts, as Collected from the coroner’s deposition, briefly details the whole particulars connected with the dreadful affair. In the parish of Wickes, a small village on the high road to Harwich, about six miles from the Manning tree station of the Eastern Union Railway, lived the deceased, William Constable, alias Watts. He had not been married. He maintained himself by hawking trifling things about the country, and for comfort sake lodged in the house of his sister, Mary May, a married woman. He appears to have prepared his own meals, except tea, which he was in the habit of taking with his sister. On the 8th ult. he returned to his lodgings in good health, and had tea as usual.
Shortly afterwards he was attacked with violent retching and burning pains in his throat and stomach: These symptoms continued till the following Sunday, when he died. The moment he was attacked, the sister called in several neighbours to see him. He assured them that it was almost certain that he would die, but, strange to remark, no suspicion was excited that anything had been administered to him. On the declaration of the sister, that death had resulted from natural decline, the body was interred in the parish churchyard, she officiating as chief mourner. In the coarse of a few days he called on the Reverend G. Wilkins, the incumbent, for the purpose, as she explained, of obtaining a certificate from the reverend gentleman that deceased was in good health a fortnight before his death, and that be was in his 38th year – (48 was his real age.)
This he declined doing, enquiring of her what she wanted it for? She replied that she had entered him in a burial club at Harwich a fortnight before his death, and that the society would not pay the money allowed for the interment of deceased unless they had a certificate of his good health at the time be was entered. He told her that the money did not belong to her. She said no one else was entitled to it, as she had done it all herself, and nobody else knew anything about it. These, and other suspicious circumstances, particularly the number of children she had buried, coupled with the auspicious death of her former husband, and the hasty and earnest solicitations she made in this instance to obtain the fees from the burial society, induced the coroner of the district to direct the exhumation of the body. This being done, the stomach and contents were forwarded to Mr. Taylor, the eminent professor on chemistry at Guy’s Hospital, for analysation. The inquest was opened at the Waggon public house, at Wickes, and very conclusive evidence was adduced. – The secretary of the burial society in question, John Pratt, of Harwich, said it was designated the “ New Mariners’ Society,” and paid £9 or £10 on the death of a member, the sum depending on the number of members in the club. On the 13th of last May, the female, Mary May, accompanied by the schoolmistress of Wickes school, called at the office, and inquired if the club was full. Being told that it had some vacancies, she said she wished to enter her brother in the club. He was a healthy man, and she bad never known him to have a day’s illness in her life, and that he was only 35 years of age. The secretary then entered the deceased’s name, and she paid the fees – 1s 3d for entering and 4d in advance. On the 6th of June, the schoolmistress brought 2s for the payments due, and he (the secretary) heard no more of the party till the 11th of June (Sunday), when a man brought a note signed Mrs. May, stating that Constable had just died from strong inflammation, and that the school mistress had seen him a short time previous.—It was known that the deceased was in good health up to the time of partaking of the poisoned victuals on the evening of the 8th; and in contradiction, of course, to the instructions the sister had given to the registrar relative to the cause of death, she having stated it to be “decline”— duration of sickness, “ three months.”
A man named Simpson, who lived in the same house as the deceased, said that two days before his death, Mrs. May told him that she had entered her brother in a burial club, and counted on getting his burial money, £10, which would set her up in business. She intended to buy a horse and cart, and go about the country higgling. Mr. Professor Taylor, F. R. S., Lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence and Chemistry at Guy’s Hospital, in an elaborate report on the analysis, stated that arsenic was present in the contents of the stomach. That the quantity wan sufficient to destroy two grown up persons. That it was taken during life in the form of a powder, and that it caused death. Other circumstantial evidence being adduced, showing an attempt on the part of Mrs. May to tamper with the principal witnesses, and urging them not to disclose all they knew, the jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder against the sister, Mary May;” and she was accordingly committed to the county gaol at Chelmsford, for trial at the next assizes. The prisoner is a woman of a most forbidding aspect, and throughout the whole of the early part of the proceedings evinced the utmost indifference; but the evidence of the surgeon, when they disclosed the discovery. She has been married twice, and had 16 children, all of whom, with the exception of one, have died under considerable suspicion. Their exhumation is expected, to appease the excitement in the district.
[“Atrocious Murder By Poisoning For Burial Fees. Suspicious Death Of Fourteen Children.” The Weekly Chronicle (London, England), Jul. 15, 1848, p. 7]
For more cases of this type, see Serial Baby-Killer Moms.