Just to recap (though it may assist you if you read this and the next couple of episodes by starting from the previous blog), the God-fearing young farm worker John Foster, a one-time neighbour o’mine, swallowed poison from his wife during dinner on Tuesday night November 17, 1846. Within minutes he was sick as a dog in the yard. After a night of agonising pain he died the next afternoon at around 4pm in a downstairs room at his mother in law’s tenement cottage where he had gone to live after his marriage just three weeks before.
The village did not waste much time. On Saturday, that is to say just four days after the fatal suet pudding had touched his lips, John’s inquest got under way. A jury — it had to be comprised of at least a dozen local men — was sworn in. Its role was to decide the cause of death — and like a grand jury, to hand down indictments.
Inquests were almost always held in local pubs — a big table for the body, which was usually on show in an open coffin, spare room for a jury to be sequestered, plenty of chairs for the crowds — and inquests did attract crowds.
First job for any jury was gruesome; they were made to look closely at the body. Whether on this occasion John had indeed been moved the few yards to The Crown Inn from where he had died, or whether the jury traipsed along the lane to peer and poke at the corpse still at home is not known. What is recorded however in very great detail is the testimony of all the witnesses and the summing-up of the coroner. The coroner was a man named Harry Wayman, a solicitor from the nearby town of Bury St Edmunds. Being coroner ran in the Wayman family, as his dad had gained local fame by supervising the inquest 20 years before of molecatcher’s daughter Maria Marten in the infamous ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ — a crime which so grabbed the national public imagination that you could buy china ornaments to remind you of it…
A coroner was required to call a local surgeon as an expert witness where there was no obvious external cause of death. This was so that the doctor could say as they almost always did, that he believed it to be a death from natural causes. The local doctor Mr Jones was called and must have said enough to the contrary to make the coroner adjourn the inquest and instruct the policeman present to “take in charge” young Mrs Foster, while Jones did a post mortem.
On the following Friday the jury was called back to The Crown Inn. Three medical men all agreed that they had found arsenic. Their evidence — that Foster could not have been poisoned before dinner and then ate that meal, as the onset of symptoms is very quick — piled the case up against his wife. Nevertheless her little brother was brought back to say again that there was only ever one suet pudding and everybody ate the same pudding. By the way, this eight-year old was left all through that fateful morning with the dying Foster, while his mother went to the local town on an ‘errand’ and his sister took a couple of hours to visit the same doctor Jones a mile away to get a remedy for her husband. Were they accomplices and had they found excuses to be out of the house while John’s last agonies tore at their Christian consciences over what they had done?
Next: The trial