A BRIEF HISTORY OF ARSENIC

By Tim Lambert

Mary Blandy

Mary Blandy was born in 1720 at Henley-On-Thames in Oxfordshire. Her father Francis Blandy offered a dowry of 10,000 for anyone who would marry Mary. (A huge fortune in those days). However in reality he did not have so much money. Not surprisingly such a large dowry attracted many suitors. Francis Blandy vetted them and rejected them one by one until Captain William Cranstoun came on the scene. Cranstoun was the son of a Scottish noble. Francis Blandy was keen to marry his daughter to a man from such a background. So Cranstoun moved into the Blandy home. However there was a complication. He was already married. When he found out Francis Blandy told Cranstoun to leave and told Mary to forget him.

However Mary Blandy and Cranstoun wrote to each other. Cranstoun persuaded Mary to give her father powder, which he said would make her father more friendly towards him. In fact the powder was arsenic. Mary put it in her father's tea and soup and he fell ill. Francis Blandy duly died on 14 August 1751. Mary then tried to burn some powder in the fire. However a servant managed to retrieve it. Mary Blandy was arrested but Cranstoun fled to France. Mary went on trial on 3 March 1752. A Dr Anthony Addington convinced the jury that the powder rescued from the fire was indeed arsenic. As a result Mary Blandy was found guilty of murder. She was hanged on 6 April 1752.

Gesche Gottfried

Gesche Gottfried was born in 1785. She poisoned at least fifteen people with arsenic in Germany between 1813 and 1827, including both her parents, her brother, two husbands and her three children. Gottfried was beheaded in Bremen on 21 April 1831.

Mary Ann Geering

Mary Ann was born in 1800. In 1818 she married a man named Richard Geering and in 1848 they were living in Guestling in East Sussex. First Mary Ann poisoned her husband. He fell ill and on 13 September 1848 he died of arsenic poisoning. He was 56. However at first his death was ascribed to natural causes. Mary Ann then poisoned her own son, 21 year old George. He died on 27 December 1848. She then poisoned another son, 26 year old James. He died on 6 March 1849.

Mary Ann then attempted to kill her 18 year old son Benjamin, again with arsenic. Fortunately this time his mother was prevented from 'caring' for him. When Benjamin recovered it became obvious that his mother had poisoned him. The authorities then exhumed the bodies of her husband and two deceased sons and found they contained arsenic. Mary Ann was then charged with murder and attempted murder. Not surprisingly the jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to death. Afterwards she confessed to her crimes. Mary Ann Geering was hanged in front of a crowd of thousands in Lewes, Sussex on 21 August 1849.

Helene Jegado

Helene Jegado was born in France in 1803 and she became a servant. It is not known how many people she killed. It is believed she started killing people in 1833. She was finally arrested in July 1851.

At her trial in December 1851 Jegado was only charged with 3 murders. Jegado claimed she did not know anything about arsenic. The jury did not believe her and she was convicted and sentenced to death. Helene Jegado was guillotined on 26 February 1852.

Madeleine Smith (?)

Madeleine Hamilton Smith was born in Glasgow on 29 March 1835. She was the daughter of a well-to-do architect named James Smith. In 1855 Madeleine Smith met a man named Emile L'Angelier in Glasgow. L'Angelier was a nurseryman born in Jersey. The two fell in love but their different social positions made things difficult. Nevertheless they met in secret and they exchanged love letters. Madeleine became engaged to another man and she asked Emile to return the love letters she had sent him. However he refused and threatened to show the letters to her father.

In February 1857 Madeleine obtained arsenic from a chemists shop and Emile fell ill. He died on 23 March 1857. Afterwards love letters from Madeleine were found in his home and she was arrested on 31 March. Madeleine was tried for murder but on 9 July 1857 the jury returned a verdict of not proven, which meant the prosecution had not proved its case but she was not necessarily innocent.

After her release Madeleine Smith moved to London where she married a man named George Wardle. However they separated in 1889. Madeleine moved to the USA where she married a man named Lena Sheehy. Madeleine Smith died on 12 April 1928. She was 93.

Priscilla Biggadike

Priscilla Biggadike and her husband Richard lived with their 3 children in a tiny two room cottage in the village of Stickney in Lincolnshire, England. They also shared their home with 2 lodgers. All of them shared the same bedroom. Richard Biggadike worked as a well sinker and he got up early in the morning to go to work. He began to suspect that one of the lodgers was joining his wife in her bed afterwards. That led to arguments. Then on 30 September 1868 Richard Biggadike came home from work and Priscilla gave him a cake. Afterwards Richard fell ill. A doctor was called but Richard died the next morning.

However a doctor was suspicious of the sudden death and an autopsy found traces of arsenic. Priscilla Biggadike was arrested on 3 October 1868. She claimed her husband had written a suicide note (in fact he could not read and write). When she was asked to produce the note Priscilla claimed she had burned it. She later said she saw one of the lodgers, Thomas Proctor putting a white powder in her husband's tea cup. He then added milk and she poured in tea. She also said she saw Proctor put some white powder into a bottle of medicine but she gave the medicine to her husband anyway.

Priscilla and Proctor were both arrested but at the trial the judge instructed the jury to dismiss the case against Proctor because of lack of evidence. But Priscilla was found guilty and she was sentenced to death. Priscilla Biggadike was hanged in Lincoln Castle on 28 December 1868.

Priscilla Biggadike has the distinction of being the first woman in Britain to be hanged in private. Previously men and women were hanged in public.

Its said that on his deathbead in 1884 Proctor confessed that he did give arsenic to Richard Biggadike. Yet Priscilla saw him and she did nothing to stop him or warn her husband.

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton was born in Sunderland in North East England in 1832. Her father was a coal miner but he died in an accident when Mary Ann was 8 years old. However her mother remarried. When she was 16 Mary Ann moved out of the house to work as a nursemaid. In 1852 aged 20 she married a man named William Mowbray, aged 26. The couple lived in Plymouth, Devon. They had four children there but all of them died in infancy. Their deaths were, at first believed to be due to natural causes. That might seem surprising today but infant mortality was very high in the mid 19th century and it was by no means unusual to lose several children. The couple moved back to the Northeast where 3 more children died. They were followed by William Mowbray. Mary Ann Cotton collected money from his life insurance policy.

Mary Ann worked as a nurse and in 1865 she married a former patient named George Ward. Predictably he died in 1866. Her third husband was James Robinson. They married in 1867. They had a daughter who died and a son who survived. Fortunately Robinson became suspicious when Mary Ann kept insisting he take out life insurance. He threw her out of the house.

Mary Ann married a man named Frederick Cotton in 1870. The unfortunate man died in December. His three sons then died. However shortly before the last boy, Charles Cotton died a Marry Ann asked an official named Thomas Riley if he could be sent to the workhouse to get rid of him. Mary Ann claimed the boy was a weakling but Riley thought he was perfectly healthy. When he heard of the boy's death Riley went to the police and they began to investigate. The body of Charles Cotton was found to contain arsenic.

Mary Ann Cotton was arrested for murder on 18 July 1872. She was pregnant and the law waited till she gave birth to a child in January 1873. She went on trial on 5 March 1873. Not surprisingly she was found guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged in Durham County Jail on 24 March 1873.

Lydia Sherman

Lydia Sherman was born in 1824. Between 1864 and 1871 she poisoned three husbands and several children. In 1872 Lydia was convicted of murdering her third husband, Horatio Sherman. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. Sherman is sometimes called The Derby Poisoner.

Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins

Flannagan and Higgins were sisters who poisoned people for money. They were called the Black Widows of Liverpool. The two of them lived in a rooming house with Catherine's son John, a lodger named Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary and another lodger named Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret. In December 1880 Catherine Flannagan's 22 year old son John died. At first his death was attributed to natural causes and his mother gained a considerable amount of money from his death. Then in 1881 Margaret Flannagan married her lodger Thomas Higgins. The couple continued to live with Catherine Flannagan, Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret.

A few months after the marriage Thomas's 8 year old daughter Mary died. Then in January 1883 Margaret Jennings died. Thomas Higgins followed in September 1883. However his brother Patrick was suspicious. On hearing his suspicions the authorities exhumed the body of Thomas Higgins and found it contained arsenic. They also exhumed the bodies of John Flannagan, Mary Higgins and Maraget Jennings. All three contained arsenic. The two sisters were hanged on on 3 March 1884.

Florence Maybrick(?)

On 11 May 1889 a man named James Maybrick died in mysterious circumstances in Liverpool, England. His wife Florence was arrested. She was convicted and sentenced to death on 7 August. However although some arsenic was found in his body it was not enough to kill him and it was by no means certain that he died from arsenic poisoning. Nor was it certain that Florence administered the arsenic. She admitted buying fly papers but said she wanted the arsenic from them for cosmetics. Doubts about her guilt were so great that the home secretary commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. Florence was released in 1904 and she died in 1941.

Frederick Seddon

Frederick Seddon poisoned his lodger, Eliza Barrow for her money. Frederick Seddon was born in 1870. As an adult Seddon worked as an insurance agent. He was married to a woman named Margaret and they had 5 children. In 1910 the couple moved into a large house in London. Frederick Seddon decided to rent the top floor of his house as a flat. So in July 1910 a 47 year old spinster named Eliza Barrow moved in. Eliza was quite a wealthy woman and she sought financial advice from Frederick Seddon. He persuaded her to transfer her property to him and in return he would give her a fixed sum for the rest of her life. It was perfectly free but if Eliza Barrow died Seddon would be freed from making any payments to her - an obvious motive for murder.

And so in September 1911 Eliza Barrow fell ill. Finally on 14 September 1911 she died. She was 49. The doctor signed a death certificate giving the cause of death as epidemic diarrhea. Frederick Seddon then hastily arranged a cheap funeral. However relatives of Eliza Barrow grew suspicious and finally they went to the police. On 15 November 1911 the body of Eliza Barrow was exhumed and it was found to contain a large amount of arsenic. Finally on 4 December 1911 Frederick Seddon was arrested for murder. His wife Margaret Seddon was arrested on 15 December 1911.

Frederick and Margaret Seddon went on trial at the Old Bailey in London in March 1912. Frederick Seddon was found guilty and he was sentenced to death on 15 March 1912. Margaret Seddon was acquitted. Frederick Seddon was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on 18 April 1912.

Amy Archer-Gilligan

Amy Archer-Gilligan was born in 1869. In 1907 she opened a nursing home with her husband, a man named James Archer. He died in 1910 but 'sister' Amy kept running the home on her own till 1913 when she married a man named Michael Gilligan. He died shortly afterwards. However the very high death rate at the nursing home aroused the suspicion of the authorities. The body of her husband and some former residents were exhumed and were found to contain arsenic. Amy Archer-Gilligan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. However she appealed and was given a second trial in 1919. She was again found guilty but this time she was sentenced to life imprisonment. She eventually died in a mental hospital.

Herbert Rowse Armstrong

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was a solicitor. He practiced in Hay-on-Wye. Armstrong married Katherine in 1907. However she fell ill and died on 22 February 1921. At first her death was thought to be natural.

But on 26 October 1921 Armstrong invited another solicitor called Oswald Martin to tea. Afterwards Martin fell very ill. He suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains. However his father in law was a chemist. He remembered Armstrong had bought arsenic from his shop. Davies told his suspicions to a Dr Hincks who was treating Martin. Dr Hincks sent samples of Martin's urine for testing. Arsenic was found in it.

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. The police now suspected that Armstrong had killed his wife Katharine and so her body was exhumed. The pathologist found arsenic in her body and Armstrong was charged with her murder.

Armstrong went on trial on 3 April 1922. The pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that Katharine Armstrong had been given large doses of arsenic in the last week of her life culminating in a large dose 24 hours before her death. Not surprisingly Herbert Rowse Armstrong was found guilty. He was hanged on 31 May 1922.

The Croydon Poisonings

In 1928-29 three people were poisoned with arsenic in the south London suburb of Croydon. On the evening of 26 April 1928 after a meal 59 year old Edmund Duff fell ill and he died the next day 27 April. His death was attributed to natural causes.

Then on 14 February 1929 Edmund Duff's sister-in-law Valerie Sidney fell ill. She died on 16 February 1929. The last victim was Violet Sidney, Valerie's mother. She fell ill and died on 5 March 1929.

Violet Sidney was buried but soon people became suspicious and her body and that of her daughter Valerie were exhumed on 22 March 1929. Both contained arsenic. The body of Edmund Duff was later exhumed and was also found to contain arsenic. The police investigated but nobody was ever charged.

Charlotte Bryant

Frederick Bryant was a corporal in the military police shortly after the First World War. He was stationed in Northern Ireland and he had the misfortune to meet Charlotte McHugh. They married in March 1921. Charlotte was only 19 while Fred Bryant was 25.

The 1920s was a decade of high unemployment in Britain but Fred Bryant managed to find work as a farm laborer in Somerset. The couple lived at Over Compton near Yeovil. Eventually Charlotte had five children. However she often had affairs. Yet Fred Bryant tolerated his wife's infidelity. In December 1933 a man named Leonard Parsons became a lodger in their cottage. In 1934 the threesome moved to the village of Coombe. However in May 1935 Fred Bryant became ill. The doctor diagnosed gastroenteritis but this time Fred recovered. He fell ill again in August 1935. Once again Fred was lucky and he recovered.

Fred Bryant fell ill again in December 1935. He was taken to hospital but he died on 22 December 1935. This time the doctor was suspicious and he refused to sign a death certificate. He also told the police about his suspicions. They began investigating. A large amount of arsenic was found in the body of poor Fred Bryant. The police searched his home and they found a can in the garden. It once held week killer. Eventually on 10 February 1936 Charlotte was arrested for the murder of her husband Fred. She went on trial at Dorchester on 27 May 1936. On 30 May 1936 Charlotte Bryant was found guilty and she was sentenced to death. Bryant was hanged in Exeter prison on 15 July 1936.

Nannie Doss

Nannie Doss was born in Alabama, USA on 4 November 1905. She was born Nancy Hazle. She was one of 5 children. Doss claimed that at the age of 7 she suffered a head injury which affected her behaviour. She got married when she was only 16 to a man named Charlie Braggs. They had 4 daughters but two of them died. The deaths were ascribed to food poisoning. In 1927 Braggs left taking one of the daughters with him.

Doss married a second time in 1928. Her second husband was called Frank Harrelson. He died in 1945. Her third husband Arlie Lanning died in 1950. He was followed by her fourth husband, Richard Morton who died in 1953. Her fifth husband, Samuel Doss died in October 1954. But this time an autopsy was performed and it revealed a large amount of arsenic in his body. Nannie Doss pleaded guilty to murder on 17 May 1955 but showed no remorse at all for her crimes. (She was called the 'giggling granny). Doss was sentenced to life imprisonment. However she died of leukemia on 2 June 1965.

Marcus Marymont

In 1958 a 37 year old American sergeant, Marcus Marymont, who was stationed in Britain at the time poisoned his 43 year old wife Mary Helen with arsenic. When she died a post mortem revealed arsenic in her body. The authorities soon discovered that Marcus Marymont was having an affair so he had a motive for murder. Marymont was convicted of poisoning his wife Mary with arsenic. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was sent back to the USA to serve his sentence.

Velma Barfield

Velma Barfield was the first woman to be executed by lethal injection. Barfield was born Velma Margi Bullard on 29 October 1932 in South Carolina. In 1949 she married a man named Thomas Burke. However he died in 1969 in a suspicious house fire. Velma then married a man named Jennings Barfield. However he died within a year. Meanwhile Barfield had become addicted to prescription drugs and she stole money to buy them. She murdered people to prevent them finding out. In 1974 Velma Barfield' poisoned her mother.

Barfield began working caring for the elderly and she poisoned two elderly people. In March 1977 she poisoned an old woman named Dollie Edwards. In June 1977 she murdered an old man named John Henry Lee. Next Barfield poisoned her long term boyfriend, a man named Rowland Stuart Taylor. The unfortunate man died in February 1978. However this time her luck ran out. A post mortem found arsenic in Taylor's body. Velma Barfield was executed by lethal injection on 2 November 1984. She was 52.

Elizabeth Short

The Shark Arm Case

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