Sussex Express
Saturday January 31st 1852
Suspected Case of Poisoning at Chiddingly

William French, a labourer, residing near the Gun Inn, Chiddingly, died suddenly on the 1st instant. An inquest was held on the body, before F. H. Gell Esq.: but nothing transpired to induce a suspicion of foul play, and a verdict was returned of “Died from natural Causes”. Circumstances have since come to light, which induced Mr Flannagan, the Superintendent of our County Constabulary, to institute inquiries (in conjunction with Mr Lower, the Parish Constable,) and the result has been the apprehension of the deceased’s widow, Sarah Ann French, on a charge of poisoning her husband.

Information of the facts he had collected, having been communicated by Mr Flannagan to the Coroner, the latter directed the body to be exhumed, and a fresh jury be empanelled for further investigation.

The inquest took place on Thursday, at the Six Bells, Chiddingly, before a highly respectable jury, of which the Rev. J. H. Vidal was foreman.

The Six Bells - Courtesy Carol Harrison
The Six Bells

The first witness called was

John French deposed – I have this day seen the body of my brother in the belfry of Chiddingly Church; he was a labourer and had resided at Chiddingly; he was 35 years of age, and lived about one and a half miles from me; he died on the 7th inst. He was a married man, and was married about nine years ago; his wife’s name was Sarah Ann Piper before she was married. He worked upon the same farm with me; the name of the farm is Stream Farm. The last time I saw him was on Christmas Eve, at Stream Farm; he appeared to be in good health. I never knew he was affected with rupture until after the morning of his death. I told the deceased’s wife I never knew of it before. I did not know that the deceased was ill until about 20 minutes past 12 at night on the 8th, and Wm Pelling called me up, he lives under the same roof as my late brother did. He called and said my brother was dead, and that I was to come directly; before that I did not know my brother was ill. I got up and went directly; I got there about one o’clock. When I got to the house I saw the deceased’s wife. I asked her how he went off. She said , he had been unaccountably sick, and that before he died he turned in his bed and said, “You be my wife, beant you?” and that he then died away. She told me that he was ruptured, and I said I never knew it until that time. The deceased was lying on the right side in bed. He looked very natural, but was swollen on each side of his throat. Mrs French appeared to be agitated. I did not look for any bottle. Mr Funnell came in before I went away, and wished to see him. I missed my brother from his work on Tuesday. I saw there was a fire in the kitchen. I felt the body, and it was cold. I know a young man named James Hickman; he lives about half a mile from my brother’s house. Deceased’s hands and face were cold when I felt him. I did not feel the rest of his body.

Tabitha Pelling said – I am the wife of William Pelling, a shoemaker at Chiddingly. I lived in a tenement under the same roof as the deceased and his wife. I very often used to see him, bur seldom spoke to him. I used to go into Mr French’s house occasionally to see his wife. The last time I went in was on Wednesday evening. That was on the 7th. That was the time he told me he was better. I have no reason to think, but that the deceased and his wife lived upon good terms; we have a good many mice in our house. I know a young man of the name James Hickman; he has been often at deceased’s house; he came out of deceased’s house between eight and nine on Tuesday evening. I have seen him there frequently. I saw him there on Thursday after the death of the deceased. He generally came in the evening. Mrs French appeared loosely dressed when I went in; she never asked me upstairs when her husband was ill. I heard Mrs French say a little before Christmas Day, that he had bought a 1/2d of arsenic at Mr Hooper’s to kill the mice. I have used it for that purpose myself. I have not had any in my possession for 12 months. I have none left now. I saw the deceased and his wife between one and two on Saturday before coming up the road. I did not speak to him, as I always did; about five o’clock on Tuesday morning, I heard Mrs French open the bed room window, and call out to a man named Funnell, and said, French was not well today, and could not go to work. I went out to work on Tuesday, and about 9pm I went into French’s house, and asked her how her husband was? She said, he was very sick. I did not see him. I went into the house once or twice on Wednesday, but saw no-one there but Mrs French, and her little boy; who said that her husband was better, this was about four o’clock, about half past 11 on Wednesday night, Mrs French rapped at the partition – she rapped two or three times; she said make as much haste as you can. I got up and went into her house, and she let me in the back door. I went into the bedroom in which deceased was lodging. Mrs French said when she let me in, “I think my husband is gone”. She also said that they had not been to sleep all night. I was only about a minute in the room, and came downstairs and remained down stairs until the next morning. Mrs French seemed very much alarmed. My husband came when I called him, and I sent him for Mrs Funnell, and also to go to East Hoathly for a surgeon. Mrs Sale and Mrs Funnell came in. I heard the deceased retch on Wednesday morning when I went in.

Mary Funnell said – I am the wife of William Funnell, who is a labourer, and lived close to the deceased. I have known him about seven years. I was frequently in the habit of speaking to him; the last time I saw him was the Sunday before his death, about nine or ten o’clock, he was then going in the direction of the Chapel, the deceased’s wife was with him. I did not speak to him. I saw deceased’s wife on Tuesday morning, about eight or nine, and she then said that deceased was ill. I said, “Good morning, Mrs French, you be very fond of going out these fine mornings,” and she said, “Yes, I am going over the Dicker to my sister’s, for my husband is so ill that I did not like to be with him alone,” She said he had got a very bad complaint and she did not wish it to be known; she said the deceased was ruptured. In the afternoon I saw her going along the road to her own house whilst I was in the garden. Her sister lives about four miles from her house. I saw her again between seven and eight on Wednesday morning; she came down to my house; she brought her flour bag for my husband to carry down to the Sheem. I asked her how her husband was? She said he was a deal better and had eat and drank. Master Pelling came for me about half past 11 on Wednesday night; he said, Mrs Funnell do get up and pray, for I do think Master French is dead. I got up immediately and went to deceased’s house and found him dead; his head and feet were cold. I saw Mr Pelling in the house. While I was in the bedroom Mrs French came in and made this observation; she said, “Is he gone,” and I said, “Yes poor dear;” she said that deceased said, “Lord have mercy upon us”. These were the last words he spoke; she cried and took on, as if she was much hurt. Mrs French told me after his death, that he was first taken ill on Christmas-eve, and that he vomited. I have seen him since repeatedly, and he has complained of being very sick and weak. I did not know that he was suffering from rupture until his wife told me. He never complained as to being unhappy with his wife; there was a fire downstairs when I got there. When I saw her on the Tuesday she wore a plaid shawl, a black bonnet with blue ribbon, and a grogram gown. I know James Hickman; he has frequently gone to the house of deceased. When I saw him there the deceased was at home; I never heard the deceased complain about Hickman being there. Hickman came for me one evening and wished me to go to the deceased’s house as Mrs French had fainted. I saw Mrs French pass by my gate on Monday, about eight or nine o’clock, going down the road. A person would go that way to Horsebridge; we stood and talked together some time. She said nothing about her husband’s illness; she said she was going to Horsebridge. She wore the same dress as she had on the next day; she went towards Horsebridge. A child named Hannah Russell was with her. I saw her again between four and five o’clock and Hannah Russell came back with her; I saw Mrs Seal pass about ten minutes after Mrs French had passed along the same lane towards Horsebridge.

Nemour (sic) John Willes – I am assistant to Mr Holman, surgeon, at East Hoathly. I recollect the deceased coming to Mr Holman’s about a week before Christmas. He stated that he came for some medicine for his son, who has been under my hands for some time. He then told me that he was unwell and asked me if I could give him anything that would do him good. He stated that he felt faint and sick in the morning and had pains in his bowels. I gave him some aperient pills. He said nothing about being ruptured.

Henry Holman said – I am a surgeon, and reside at East Hoathly. I have this day examined the body of the deceased; there are no external injuries. I have also made a post mortem examination. I found the whole of the intestine dark, in some cases presenting a gangrenous appearance. I examined the stomach; it contained nothing; the coat is rather reddish. I examined the chest, heart and lungs. They were perfectly sound. On examining the head I saw considerable congestion of the membranes of the brain. The appearance of the brain was otherwise healthy, but with considerable softenings, which might arise from the length of time the body has been buried. I cannot discover any traces of arsenic in the stomach; but I cannot take upon me to say there is not some in the stomach without analysis.

(Mr Holman recommended that the stomach should be sent to Professor Taylor, of Guy’s hospital, for chemical analysis. The coroner and jury concurred and desired Mr Holman to undertake the task of seeing it safely delivered to him. Mr Holman consented.)

Elizabeth Sale (sic) deposed – I am the wife of Wm Sale, (Sic) who is a labourer, and lives at Chiddingly. I have known deceased for six or seven years. I did not hear until after his death that he had been ill. I recollect going to Horsebridge on the Monday before he died. I went to Hailsham to shop. As I was going along, when arrived at the Crossways by Mr Wrotton’s, she said she had been that way once too often; that way led to the church. I said was that when you went to get married? And she said yes. I went with Mrs French as far as Deadman’s shop. She went into the shop, and I went on to Hailsham. She said if she did not get what she wanted there, she would go on to Hailsham. I saw Mrs French at the Gun after the death of her husband. She told me that the object of her going to the shop at Hellingly was to match a piece of ribbon. Mrs French laughed at the time she spoke to me near Wrotton’s house. I thought she was joking at the time.

Uriah Clark said – I am a shopkeeper, on the Dicker. I recollect Mrs French coming to my shop. I have known her several years. It was on the day before the death of her husband she came and asked if I sold arsenic. I told her I did not keep it. She said she wanted it for a farmer. She then went away. I did not see which way she went. I should think that it was between nine or ten o’clock in the morning. Mrs French might have said that her husband said he wished her to get it for a farmer.

Naomi Crowhurst – I am the wife of Owen Crowhurst, Farrier, at Horsebridge, one day in the beginning of the week, and as I think, about three weeks back, I recollect seeing Sarah Ann French, who is now present; she was a stranger to me; she came into the kitchen to see my servant, Harriett Wilmshurst; when she came into the kitchen she asked for two-penny worth of arsenic. I said at first I had not got any. I think I said what do you want with it? She said she was overrun with mice. I asked her how she laid it, and I think she said in lard. I said I thought it was dangerous to lay it on bread and butter where there was a family. I think she said she had but one, and that her child was about nine or ten years old. I remember her saying it was an afflicted child. I did not ask her her name. She offered me one shilling in payment. I gave her a small parcel of white arsenic. I never weighed it. I wrote poison on it. I told her it might be mistaken for magnesia, and that there had been many people poisoned by it. She said, oh, has there. I saw Mrs French at the Gun public house, on the 27th instant. She was brought to the Gun by Mr Lower, the parish constable. She was dressed in her widow’s clothes, and Mr Lower asked me if I should like to see her in the clothes she came to our house in? I said I should. She afterwards came in a different dress. When she was in her widow’s dress, I said, I believe you are the person who came to me for arsenic. She said she had never seen me before; neither did she know where Mr Crowhurst lived. When she came the second time I still said it was her, and she said it was not; and, that if I took an oath, I should take a wrong oath if I swore to her. She said she had a girl with her, and that the girl never left her, but there was no girl with her when she came to my house. I believe that the prisoner is the same woman I sold arsenic to.

Harriett Wilmshurst deposed – I am servant to Mr Crowhurst. I recollect about three weeks back Mrs French coming to my master’s house at Horsebridge. She asked me for two-penny worth of arsenic; my mistress was present, and told her at first she had not got any; that master was not at home. Mistress asked her what she wanted with it, and she said she was so over run with mice and rats, and mistress asked her how she laid it. She replied in lard. Mistress said she thought it was to dangerous to lay it on bread and butter. She said she laid it out last thing at night, and took it away first thing in the morning. My mistress gave her three-penny worth of arsenic it was white. She tendered one shilling to pay for it and I went out and got the change which was ten pence. I went with my mistress last Tuesday to the Gun and saw Mrs French dressed in a half mourning dress. She afterwards changed her dress and when she came the second time she had the same dress as she has now, with the exception of her widow’s cap. When she came to our house she had blue ribbons, with a yellow stripe in it, in the bonnet. When my mistress saw her at the Gun she said she was the same woman to whom she had sold arsenic. Mrs French denied that she was the same woman; She said she did not even know where Mrs C’s house was. My mistress said to Mrs French that she was confident she was the same woman. I have no doubt but that the prisoner is the same person that came to my house for the arsenic. I saw my mistress write something on the paper, which was light.

Hannah Russell deposed – I am the daughter of ……… Russell; I recollect going on the second Monday after Christmas with Mrs French to Horsebridge. We staid at Mr Deadman’s shopping, she went in and I stopped outside. She helped me with her clogs and said you stop outside until I go in. We went afterwards to her sister’s where we left about three o’clock. Mrs French was in at her sister’s the whole of the time. I have had no conversation with Mrs French until yesterday, when she called at out house with her sister, found there was no one in the house but my two little ….. …… Mrs French asked me if we went anywhere else but Horsebridge that day, and I said no, she said, she should not stop, and went away, Mrs Seal and Kitty Funnell was with us; When we went to Horsebridge Mrs French, said that if she did not get what she wanted she should go to Hailsham. When we came to the Crossways Mrs Deal asked Mrs French if she had ever been down that road; she said that was the road she went to be married and that she went once too often; She appeared to say this as a joke. She was dressed as she is now, but had a different bonnet on.

James Flannagan deposed – I am Superintendent of the East Sussex Constabulary. From information I received, I went to the house of the prisoner, Sarah Ann French, yesterday morning and saw her. I said, “You have recently lost your husband?” She replied that she had. I then asked if he had been ill for any length of time before his death, and she said, no, he was taken ill on Sunday night, after we came from Chapel, with vomiting and pains in the bowels. He was better on Monday – worse on Tuesday. On Wednesday he was also a little better but died on Wednesday night. She said he had not been attended by any medical man, though he had been in a bad state of health, for a long time previously. When he had complained she had generally given him warm gruel. She stated that on Tuesday evening she gave him a little brandy and water, but he brought it up again. She also stated that they had fried beef for dinner on Sunday previous to her husband’s death. She was on the point of making a beef pudding, but did not. She said she had never bought any arsenic in her life, but her late husband had bought two separate halfpenny worths at the shop of Mr Noakes, for destroying mice; the last time was about Christmas. I repeated the question as to whether she had ever bought any arsenic, and she again said, “No, never in my life”. I said, I suppose you have heard the rumour that has been in circulation about the death of your husband? She said she had, and replied, “If any poison is found in him he must have taken it himself. He was very low at Christmas about some bills he expected coming in; one night he cried, and she had to endeavour to cheer up his spirits. I told her in consequence of the reports in circulation respecting the death of her husband. I should make it my duty to take her into custody on suspicion that she had administered a poison. She made no remark; and did not offer any resistance. One of my men was present with me during the whole of my interview with the prisoner and Sussex Constabulary.

Superintendent Flannagan asked that the inquest might be adjourned for a day, when he had every reason to believe he should be prepared with additional evidence.

The inquest was adjourned.


Transcribed by Carol Harrison

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