‘I did it!’ A young servant confesses to being the Lavender Hill poisoner

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The watching public at Wandsworth Police court witnessed an unusually dramatic case on 23 August 1886. Emily Parry, an 18 year-old domestic servant, was placed in the dock and charged with attempted murder. The girl was an unlikely murderer and what made the matter all the more sensational was that she confessed in full.

Inspector Lusk explained that on the previous Saturday Miss Parry had walked into Battersea Police Station and told the desk sergeant she wished to make a confession in the ‘poisoning case’.  She was referring to the attempted poisoning of Mrs Rose Darling at Lavender Hill in February that year. At the time another servant – Alice Tharby – had been accused and Emily had even given evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The case was thrown out by the Grand Jury and Alice was released but she had been out of work ever since and was living with her mother.

Now Emily admitted that she had put poison in Mrs Darling’s tea and milk because she had fallen out with Alice and wanted to get her ‘into a row’ (into trouble in other words). She’d used laudanum and chloroform that she’d found in the pantry; fortunately Mrs Darling quickly realized that the tea was ‘bad’ and hadn’t drunk too much. She was ill was several days but no serious damage was done. Alice tasted the milk and was ‘a little sick’ as a result.

At Battersea police station Emily declared: ‘I did it; I put the poison in the teapot’. She then made a full statement that was read out before Mr Bennett at Wandsworth.

I, Emily Parry, formerly Vass, understanding the probable serious consequences of what I am about to do, desire to make the following statement:—

On 26th February last I was in service at Dr. Bayfield’s, Soames Villa, Lavender Hill. My fellow-servant, Alice Tharby, and I quarrelled on that day. The same afternoon Alice made some tea for Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Bayfield’s mother, who was staying in the house, which she placed on the dining-room table. She then went upstairs. I was in the scullery at that time, and wishing to spite Alice I determined to put some poison into the teapot, thinking that blame would fall on her. I did not think of what might happen to other persons. I ran from the scullery and took the teapot off the dining-room table out to the surgery. I poured something from several bottles into it, one of which was labelled ‘laudanum, poison,’ and then put the teapot back on the table in the dining-room. I went to the pantry, took the jug of milk into the surgery and put some chloroform into it, and replaced it in the pantry. It only took me about five minutes to do all this. I had no thought or intention of poisoning any one; my only idea was to get Alice into a row. When Alice was locked up I was afraid to tell the truth. I have often since half made up my mind to make this statement, but could not find courage to do it until to-day. I make this statement to clear all blame from Alice Tharby and to ease my own mind.”

She’d given her statement through floods of tears, mindful of what might happen to her but also probably relieved to finally tell someone the truth. It was a straightforward decision for the magistrate: he committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey and she appeared there in October. This time a chemist was called to examine two bottles which contained samples of the tea and milk that been given to Mrs Darling. He confirmed that there were traces of laudanum and chloroform present. Rose Darling, Alice Tharby and the surgeon that treated Rose all gave brief evidence in court but Emily said nothing.

The jury found her guilty on her confession and the other evidence and the judge sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 24, 1886]

The authorities fail in an early attempt to protect fostered children from wilful neglect

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On 11 October 1870 Margaret Waters was hanged for the murder of more than a dozen infant children that had been given into her care. Waters was the the most notorious ‘baby farmer’ of the Victorian age but she was not alone. Many children suffered or died at the hands of neglectful or merely inept baby farmers and after Waters Parliament acted to protect children from this abuse, passing the Infant Life Protection Act of 1872.

Baby farming was a form of early fostering, but one that lacked the checks and controls in place today. The mothers of illegitimate children (or poor women who simply coldly cope with bringing up a child and working) were able to place their offspring with a baby farmer to raise. They would pay a small weekly fee and in return the new born child would be nursed by someone else. Often the money was simply not enough and farmers struggled to keep the children properly nourished. Illness followed malnutrition and death followed soon after in many cases. Women like Waters deliberately allowed their charges to wither and die, but very many infants simply died of unintentional neglect.

The Infant Life Protection Act required foster carers to register with the parish authorities and thus represents the first attempt to regulate baby farming. I wonder if that legislation – or the furore that surrounded the Margaret Waters case – was in the mind of the Hammersmith magistrate Mr Diplock when Annie Wheeler was brought before him in August 1872.

Wheeler stood in dock apparently dressed in mourning. ‘Draped in black’ the ‘middle-aged’ woman was represented by a solicitor, Mr Claydon. She was charged with the manslaughter of a child aged just five weeks.

Evidence for the prosecution began with Dr William Henry Harvey. He testified to visiting Wheeler’s house in Fulham where he examined the child in question. The female baby was dead and, in his opinion, had died of ‘exhaustion for the want of nourishment’. It wasn’t the first time he’d been there, a  few weeks earlier he’d attended to pronounce death on another infant who had died similarly of malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Detective Manley also testified to visiting Wheeler’s property and to seeing the dead child in her care. As he was examining her- later identified as Saran Ann Nash – he noticed another ‘in a cot, very thin, and apparently dying’. He took this child away and placed it with the Fulham workhouse authorities.

Annie Wheeler explained that little Sarah had been in her care for just three weeks. She’d been paid £4 and was to be paid 7s 6d a week thereafter. Wheeler then was fostering children and not making a very good job of it it seems. Two at least had died in her care, and another was now in the poor house infirmary in a very weak state.

Infant mortality was high in the Victorian period so the death of a child, especially an infant in its first year, was not at all unusual. The question here was whether Sarah’s death was caused by neglect (which would be manslaughter) or was simply unavoidable.  It wasn’t a question that a magistrate could rule upon, this had to go to a jury. Wheeler was remanded in custody and set for trial later that summer.

However, the case against her was weak and it didn’t get past the grand jury at Old Bailey. There was insufficient evidence to proceed, the prosecution barrister told the judge, and Wheeler was released and able to return to ‘caring’ for little children. If this was an early test for the Infant Life Protection Act then I fear it failed rather badly.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 03, 1872]