Not a 100 yards from where I write this, in this sleepiest of sleepy Suffolk villages, a murder has been committed. The local paper, the East Anglian Daily Times, to which I am ever grateful for being a newspaper of the old school, wrote it up over Christmas.
It would be churlish not to point out that the murder happened some time ago — in 1846 to be accurate, and to be fair I hasten to add the paper was treating it as a delve into local history, rather than news — but it was a murder nevertheless.
As murders go it was a strange one. It was seemingly almost motiveless. Married for just three weeks, a 17 year-old servant girl Catherine Foster poisoned her childhood sweetheart husband, a 24-year old farm labourer John. She poisoned him with arsenic in a steam suet pudding that was his Tuesday night supper. (Seemingly sweetened dumpling with potatoes washed down with mugs of tea was a local delicacy at the time in the county of Suffolk, but that may be another story.)
That mid-November Tuesday the deceased, as detectives might say, John Foster, walked home for the very last time in his life after another long hard day spent from eight in the morning till 6pm in the evening labouring.
Just as an aside and an indication of just why the world is nowadays clinically obese, think on this:- John Foster’s commute for each of the six — yes six — days of his working week was a walk of a mile and a half before he even began pitching hay or lifting sacks of wheat all day. For his two meal breaks, at 10:30am and 3:30pm, he simply had bread which he brought with him from home. And then it was that mile and a half trek to get home — every day.
At the wife’s trial his neighbour who worked at the same farm and made the same journey testified that they were in good spirits and actually sang songs as they walked back to the village that evening — testimony for the prosecution to prove that John Foster was not ill before the evening meal, but testimony too for us that where 21st century schizoid man might be broken by any work that does not include gym membership and the affectionate grasp on a bottle of Evian, those of the 19th thought little of life’s hardship.
And don’t think that it was just the men. On the day of the murder Catherine Foster’s mother had left home before 6:30am to do a day’s work as washerwoman and would not get back until after 7pm.
The whole thing was a local affair. John had been hanging around Catherine for at least three years. While she was still in the village school right next to her cottage (it’s a private house now but still it is called the Old School House)
Foster had been what nowadays might be called grooming young schoolgirl Catherine Morley. He also did a bit of stalking too, following her to her employers where she was living as a domestic servant.
With the blessing of both mothers the couple were married at the church up the road from here, just past the school and the village pub, The Crown, on October 28.
Interestingly neither John’s widowed mother nor his sisters went to the church, though they lived a scant mile away. They were present for the wedding breakfast at the house of Catherine’s mother, where the young couple set up home.
Strange too that straight after the marriage Catherine asked her husband for his permission (yes, I know…) to go to visit her aunt 20 miles away, north of Bury St Edmunds, where she stayed ten days. Whatever she did there changed her mind about marriage to John.
No witnesses ever said that the two ever quarrelled or that John mistreated his new bride.
That Tuesday evening John washed his hands and face outside in the yard (November, remember — tough stuff our ancestors) and sat down to his fateful steamed pudding wrapped in a linen cloth. The only other witness to the meal was Catherine’s eight year old brother whose diverging attempts to tell what happened smack of coaching and intimidation from Catherine and the prosecutors. He variously said that they all ate the same pudding or that there were two; or that he had seen his sister add powder from a paper wrap to John’s dumpling and burn the paper — or not.
The young wife was caught because of a suspicious local doctor who recognised poisoning when he saw it; a dead chicken and high tech forensic pathology.
Though the eponymous inventor of the Marsh Test had himself died that same year, his work on a super-sensitive arsenic detector whose results were permanent — and obvious enough be believed by juries — began to curtail the use of arsenic rat poison aka the ‘inheritance powder’. It got that name because so often it was used as the way where there was a will.
The dead chicken? The squeamish may want to look away now till the next paragraph. The contents of the bowl John Foster was sick in were thrown on the dung heap and, yes you’ve guessed it, the chicken scavenged up the arsenic-laden dough ball vomit and succumbed. — I told you to look away…
Once again historians have so much to thank those court reporters of the 19th century who judiciously took down verbatim notes of the inquest and subsequent trial proceedings. From the newspapers of the days following the crime we learn such extraneous details as the colour of the vomit and the fact that the dying Foster asked his mother-in-law for peppermint tea (and we thought that it was a post-modern beverage of the Twinings generation).
[Next time; the inquest and the trial]