An attempted poisoning in Bermondsey

The 1840s were famous for the trial of Francois Courvoisier for the murder of his master, Lord William Russell. Courvoisier was executed, in public and his hanging was watched by Thackeray who condemned the behaviour of the crowd that day. Russell’s murder led to a reform of the Detective Branch and the hanging of his killer prompted more calls for the end of public execution in England (not achieved until after 1868).

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However, while the papers mostly concentrated on the high profile murder of a member of the Peerage other, lesser, crimes continued to fill columns in the daily and weekly news sheets.

In May 1844 John Lever was hauled before the magistrate at Union Hall charged with attempting to murder his wife, Margaret, with poison. This was his second appearance and he was represented by a lawyer who challenged some of the evidence given earlier that week.

The court heard that Leaver, a hairdresser from Bermondsey, often purchased arsenic ‘for the purpose of destroying rats’ in his house. His son (George, aged 11) – who had triggered the case by reporting seeing his father put something in his mother’s tea (and so warning her not to drink it) – was cross examined by the defence.

He admitted seeing his father skim the top of the cup rather than add anything to it. The court was told that Lever was ‘in the habit of putting carbonate of soda into the teapot of a morning, to extract all the juice out of the tea leaves’. The boy had witnessed quarrels between the couple and his father threaten his mother on at least one occasion, but he admitted that was a while ago.

Margaret told the court she had taken the cup to Guy’s Hospital to discover if her husband had indeed poisoned it as her son feared. A witness form the hospital confirmed this and said that white sediment had been discovered in the cup, which proved later to be arsenic. It wasn’t enough to kill but was certainly sufficient to cause injury and illness.

However, she added had taken no more than sip and finding it burnt had stopped. She hadn’t wanted to take the drink to the hospital and would not have done so had she realized he would have ended up in court for it. This is perhaps indicative of the difficultly women had in prosecuting their spouses in the period, and the potential of losing the main breadwinner if he was convicted.

John Lever denied the charge of attempted murder and said ‘his wife and her acquaintances’ had fabricated it. At his trial (in June 1844) he was formally acquitted of the charge, we have no idea what happened to the relationship after that but Margaret had already left him to stay with friends in the ‘country’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 31, 1844]

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