Witchcraft, Petty Treason and Poisoner? Women on Trial at the Old Bailey, London

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online is a fantastic resource for historians and it is one I return to time and again. I’ve used it as a basis for the study of poisoning crimes in nineteenth-century London and for various assignments that needed the bolstering of a primary source or two. It’s a fascinating insight into centuries of crime in London; the crimes that people were charged with and the punishments meted out. Here, I highlight three trials, from three different centuries, with the accused indicted for offences that are associated with female perpetrators.

Royal Offences > Religious Offences
Sixty-year-old Jane Kent was indicted for witchcraft on 1 June 1682. She was accused of using ‘Diabolick Arts’ to occasion the death of Elizabeth Chamblet, aged five.

Elizabeth’s father testified that Jane Kent bewitched his swine, after what appears to be a business transaction fell through, as Jane was expecting two pigs but Mr Chamblet, unsurprisingly, refused to deliver without money. After this young Elizabeth fell ill, her body swollen and discoloured before dying. He also alleged that Jane had bewitched his wife.

Sourcing a cure for his wife, he visited a Dr Hainks in Spittlefields and was advised to take ‘a quart of his wives [sic] water, the pairing of her nails, some of her hair, and then boyl [sic] them’. Following the instructions of Dr Hainks – whose suspicious remedy looks very much a witches spell, and who appears to twenty-first-century eyes a quacksalver*  – Elizabeth’s father boiled all the ingredients in a pipkin, a small pot or pan, made from metal or earthenware. This action resulted in him hearing Jane’s voice at their door ‘screaming as if she was being murdered’. The next day she appeared swollen and bloated. With this, was she mirroring Elizabeth’s symptoms as reported by her father?

Jane suffered the indignity of being searched by a local woman, a practice commonly used against women accused of witchcraft, as in a credulous society, blemishes on the body could indicate that the devil had possessed a person. For example, a mole could be used by satan to feed off a willing female. On being searched it was found that Jane had a ‘teat on her back, and unusual holes behind her ears’. This ‘teat’ could have easily instilled mistrust and suspicion against the accused.

Elizabeth’s father was helped by a corroborating witness: a coachman who knew Jane Kent. He also testified that after ‘refusing to carry her and her goods, his coach overthrew.’

Jane was able to produce evidence demonstrating that she lived honestly, was a ‘painstaker’, presumably that meant that she was very thorough in all her transactions and that she was a church-goer – which was very important as this supported her claim that she was not in league with the devil. Jane Kent was subsequently found ‘not guilty’.

HistorianRuby Comment: There is no information regarding Jane’s family, if indeed she had one. Women who lived alone, that were older, that were often disagreeable, that may be physically or mentally infirm, could be vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft as they frequently lived on the margins of society. Jane’s age, her standing up to men in a patriarchal society and the probable coincidence of Elizabeth falling ill, all led to the accusation that saw her as a prisoner tried at the Old Bailey. Jane could prove that she was an honest church-goer which showed important community interactions which ultimately gave her her freedom. It is also fair to note that Dr Hainks would have been able to offer only rudimentary assistance in the seventeenth-century, as medicine was barely at science at that time.

Old Bailey Online Reference Number: t16820601a-11

Killing > Petty Treason
Elizabeth Fisher, of Whitechapel, was indicted for the ‘murther’ [murder] of her husband William on 8 September 1714. She was accused of stabbing him on the right side of his body ‘near the pap’, [meaning chest or nipple], on 21 July. He ‘languished’ before dying on 8 August.

Testimony in court heard that a man (a neighbour possibly?) alerted by the noise, headed upstairs as Elizabeth Fisher was heading downstairs. It was on meeting this man that she admitted killing her husband. He carried on upstairs and found her husband injured.

William told the visitor that he had ‘given his wife a very great provocation’ and had ‘got a mischief by it’ when she retaliated. A woman who nursed William Fisher prior to death also testified that he had told her that he had ‘misused’ his wife and beat her to a ‘great degree’. He continued to explain to the nurse that Elizabeth had the knife in her hand as she intended to cut a pair of boots in the room, he tried to stop her and a scuffle ensued, resulting in his stab wound to the chest.

Elizabeth, ‘the prisoner’ was able to attest the same and add that her husband had beaten her with a horse whip, she retaliated by attempting to cut his boots. She could not explain how her husband ended up hurt. Two surgeons further testified that William did not die of his wound, as it hadn’t ‘penetrated the trunk of the body’. They confirmed that he had been infirm for some time since. Elizabeth was then acquitted.

HistorianRuby Comment: In simple terms, petty treason was the crime of a wife killing her husband or a servant or apprentice killing a master or mistress. Elizabeth was able to demonstrate that she had been provoked by her husband’s actions and that she hadn’t intentionally meant to harm him.  Furthermore, she was supported by medical evidence demonstrating that she did not fatally stab her husband and that he sickened from some other cause. Her case was further reinforced by witnesses declaring that her husband had admitted his violence towards her prior to his death.

Reference Number: t17140908-41

Breaking Peace > Wounding
Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Hughes was indicted for unlawfully attempting to poison herself. She was found barefoot, ‘lying down in a state of stupor’ in a yard off Marlborough Road, Chelsea, at six-fifteen on the morning of 19 September. Near her was a half-eaten tart with white powder covering the top of it. Alerted to the collapsed girl by a member of the public, a policeman conveyed her to St George’s Hospital and left her in the care of Dr Winter. Elizabeth carried a note announcing that she had run away from home and intended to destroy herself. It also stated that five shillings would be found in her pocket and it belonged to her mother. The policeman who attended her collapse returned it to her mother.

Elizabeth gave evidence in her defence, stating that she left home as her mother ‘ill-used her and was always drunk’. She also stated that her mother was a street prostitute. Another witness verified Elizabeth’s contention and disclosed that her mother had a man living with her for eleven years and her prostitution earnings supported him. She also divulged that Elizabeth had a sister who worked as a prostitute and walked Regent Street.

Dr Winter from St George’s Hospital was called to give evidence and he stated that Elizabeth presented ‘with symptoms of a mineral poison, commonly called precipitate’, and to the best of his knowledge the tart was covered with ‘white precipitate’. Elizabeth was hospitalised for about a week, it was not recorded if she returned home.

Elizabeth was found guilty. However, the jury recommended mercy and the judgement was respited.

HistorianRuby Comment: Historians have associated females with poisoning crimes as their gendered domestic roles ensured that they were in a prime position to poison. It was also a method of killing that did not require physical strength, something that would be needed if a woman’s intended victim was a larger male or female. Elizabeth was an obviously sympathetic witness, she suffered abuse from her mother who drank excessively, whilst Elizabeth walked barefoot. We  could also speculate that her mother’s profession impacted her life to such an extent that Elizabeth could see no way out other than death. With her sister also choosing to live as a prostitute the examples set at home would be frightening to a sensitive young girl. It was clear that Elizabeth wanted to break the chain of prostitution in her family. There was no information on how Elizabeth obtained the poison but this was several years after the Arsenic Act 1851.  The Act  limited the supply of arsenic for it made it harder to buy.  Any purchase would need to have been subject to a written record of purchaser, quantity and intended use. This ensured that would-be poisoners, whether it be for personal destruction (a crime in 1859) or criminal administration to others, chose an easier-to-source alternative.

Old Bailey Reference Number: t18591024-954

*see earlier post – https://historianruby.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/to-find-the-write-word/


10 thoughts on “Witchcraft, Petty Treason and Poisoner? Women on Trial at the Old Bailey, London

  1. I love this post – a really interesting subject to talk about and an enjoyable jaunt through history. Crime & punishments of the past fascinate me – You might actually enjoy a book I am reading at the moment, ‘His Bloody Project’ which focus on three murders carried out in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Will certainly be visiting your page again!

    Liked by 1 person

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