Tales from the Archive: “Malice Aforethought”
17 December 2021
Wednesday 18th December 1861, The Coventry Weekly Times reports, in minute detail, the trial and conviction of William Beamish.
He stands accused “on the 20th of August 1861, feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought killed and murdered Betsy Beamish. […] also further charged upon the Coroner’s inquisition with the wilful murder of his child Emily Beamish.” The method? Arsenic.
If you have read any of our other blog pieces you may know that this is not the first Victorian murder case involving arsenic that we have investigated. The first was Mary Ball, 12 years earlier, who was hanged for poisoning her husband.
I think today, arsenic and other poisons have a touch of glamour to them since they are regularly used in devious ways in popular crime dramas. However, I feel it should be noted that at this time arsenic was billed as a wondrous cure-all, a lot like Radium in the early 1900s, and seems to have been used in everything from rat poison to food colouring to fashion and wallpaper. It is quite miraculous the human race survived until now.
It might be assumed that arsenic was a favoured poison because of ease of access. Although it was quite abundant I am not certain that is why it was part of a poisoner’s repertoire, particularly as in 1851 a Bill entitled “An Act to Regulate the Sale of Arsenic” was passed which intended to limit the sale of arsenic hopefully preventing deaths, both suicidal and homicidal. This included clearly labelling it poison, making people sign a register when they bought it and in some cases colouring it, usually indigo. Prior to the colouration, arsenic was usually a white powder and it is odourless and tasteless, perfect for mixing with food and confusing with sugar, flour and saltiv. Additionally, the physical effects it produces are extremely similar to a number of stomach complaints and diseases circulating at the time.
The Beamish Case
In 1861 the Beamish Family household consisted of William and Betsy Beamish and their children William Henry, Lizzy and Emily. From newspaper reports it also seems that there was another boy who helped with the weaving called Edward Oswin. Emma Statham and Jane Stokes, Betsy’s Sister-in-Law, who were regularly in the house. Emma Statham appears to have worked as help within the household, assisting with the weaving but other chores as well.
1861 Census showing the Beamish Family at 26 Spencer Street, Coventry
As can be seen from the census William Beamish was a silk weaver and from various newspaper reports it appears that the Beamishs’ had a loom at home but recently Mr. Beamish had been working away from the house. From his son’s testimony, William Beamish Snr. did not have breakfast with the family on the morning they became ill which was the 14th August 1861. The “illness” effected Betsy, William Henry, Lizzy, and the baby Emily. According to William Henry’s testimony, Emily was the first to succumb to illness, then Betsy, himself and finally Lizzy. Towards evening, he and Lizzy began to improve.
William Beamish visited Dr. Goate on the evening of the 14th to plead for a visit for his wife. Dr. Goate examined Betsy the next day when she was in bed finding her “in great pain in the stomach” and that she had felt “very ill and vomited” after breakfast the previous day. Her stomach was rejecting food. On the 17th she reported feeling better but still not quite right, on the 19th she was out of bed and then the next day William Beamish visited the Dr. again to tell him she had died in the night and he wanted a death certificate. Dr. Goate states “he was much surprised at that, and told him it was a matter that ought to be investigated for his own sake” initially refusing to give him a certificate. The child (Emily) was also reported dead. Mr. Beamish kept insisting upon a certificate and eventually Dr. Goate relented and cited cause of death as “Gastritis[?]” intending to show it deserved investigation. He also conducted the Post Mortem. Findings included that the child died of similar causes to the Mother. At some point between the 14th-18th medicine had been prescribed for Betsy Beamish – first Chloride of Potash, then Arrowroot. There is testimony that Betsy did at least take some of the Arrowroot.
As noted in the introduction arsenic produces symptoms akin to common stomach complaints and it is clear from the treatment provided by Dr. Goate that at the time he suspected nothing more sinister. I was curious to know if, had it been suspected at the time, Betsy Beamish could have been saved. Some of the ‘cures’ for arsenic poisoning I have read about are extremely inventive:
“Coxe (1806) discussed applying milk, white eggs, water and opium in treating arsenic poisoned cases. Induction of vomiting was suggested by Wright (1829) by tickling the throat with a feather and drenching the throat with warm water, and later by administering iron 1837.”
It is not clear in this article the effectiveness of those cures, although others that are mentioned do allege success.
After Dr. Goate’s post mortem, the internal organs were sent via Inspector Frederick Payne, to Dr. Francis Wrightson, a Chemist & Dr. of Philosophy, who examined a portion of the stomach first and inferred that a corrosive or instant poison was the cause of the damage he could see. Further analysis revealed arsenic in the tissues of the stomach, liver, blood and transverse colon. He also managed to yield arsenic from these organs and produced it in a vial in court. From what he had examined he was of the opinion that more than one dose of arsenic had been given to the deceased as significant absorption had occurred. The question was not whether she had been poisoned, but whether it had been administered as a powder or a solution. A powder would take longer to absorb.
If this crime had been committed 30 years earlier, it would have been far more difficult to prove if it had been a crime as the tests for arsenic were less reliable until in 1836 James Marsh developed an accurate test.
From the newspapers I infer that William Beamish was arrested on the 23rd August 1861 along with Jane Stokes and Emma Statham. Although Stokes and Statham were bailed. When he was arrested it was discovered he was carrying a packet of arsenic in his coat pocket and another empty packet was present in his best trousers. Beamish claimed that the contents of the empty sachet had been mixed with oatmeal and spread on his garden in Harnall Lane to kill the rats and mice. The police search revealed no traces of oatmeal or “anything of the kind” I suppose one could argue that if mice and rats had been about then there should not have been a trace of the oatmeal as they should have eaten it. Although then there should be rodent remains. Additionally, his son claimed that he had never put any poison about for mice “nor did I ever hear of any one else doing so.”
Although there were strong grounds for suspicion against William Beamish for murder, another line of enquiry had to be pursued which was a letter apparently written by the deceased which read:
“For Jane Stokes. Dr. sister if anything happens to me do not let them blame anyone but me, for God forgive me I did not know what I was doin but the thought of losing my home and to see how the poor lad was fratin to know what to do for the moment drove me mad for to lose my home I could not bare the disgrace, after bin respectful so long and do not tell him if you can help for it will drive him mad. Jane see to the little one for he is so fond of Lisey God bless you all and comfrt my poor Lad. Betsy Beamish Wednesday August 14”
It was debated during the trial what level of literacy Betsy Beamish had. The registrar who presided over their wedding swore she had signed her own name and there was no opportunity for William Beamish to have done so without him witnessing it. No other statement throughout the trial says anyone ever saw or received anything in Betsy’s hand. It is one thing, at this time, for a person to be able to write their own name but it does not signify that they can write. The Rev. P.C. Barker also testified he believed the writing in the letter was the same as William Beamish’s handwriting, just smaller.
Another questionable aspect of the letter is how quickly William Beamish reacted in distress when he “found” it in her dress pocket since it appears he only had time to read a couple of words according to his own testimony. Jane Stokes was with him when he discovered the letter and alleges that before the discovery of the note he kept mentioning Betsy’s pockets. Why would he be so keen to investigate her pockets? The arsenic had already been discovered on his person and in the pocket of his best trousers, so he could not have been expecting to find evidence of that sort.
There is also the matter of the nature of William Beamish’s relationship with Emma Statham. Several witnesses alleged that when they had seen them together, they had the manner and appearance of a courting pair. One went further to say that she had frequently viewed them kissing and other such intimacies.
I think it is clear that if a motive was wanted then the dalliance with Emma Statham is a compelling one as to truly be with her he would need to be free of at least the encumbrance of a wife.
From the testimonies in the newspaper it seems there were numerous opportunities when William Beamish and/or Emma Statham could have tampered with food, drink and medicine.
In this case, I think it does adhere to the rule that murder is likely to be committed by a person known to the victim. I do believe William Beamish murdered Betsy Beamish by poisoning with arsenic. However, I do still have questions. My theory is that William Beamish had been either involved with Emma Statham for a while or at least lusting after her and so he needed to be free of his wife. On the testimony of Dr. Wrightson, Betsy had ingested multiple doses of arsenic. My initial theory was that he had been poisoning her for quite a while in small doses but he had become impatient so on the 14th he increased the dosage. On the other hand, I believe that the 14th was the first time that the children had been dosed and that is because apart from the baby, they recovered within 12 hours. This agrees with Kingston et. al (1993) cited by Ratnaike (2003) who says “small amounts (<5mg) result in vomiting … but resolve in 12 hours and treatment is reported not to be necessary.” I believe that the baby unfortunately died because being physically the smallest, it was a greater proportion of poison in her system, compared to her older siblings. It has also been brought to my attention that Betsy Beamish was most likely still breast feeding which would explain how baby Emily ingested the poison. The question is whether the poisoning of the children was deliberate and if it was, was it to lend credence to the story of a stomach complaint or was it even darker, and he was attempting to free himself of his entire family.
Even though these theories make sense, I do feel that there is still something missing because as far as I can see in the newspapers, the only documented cases of William Beamish buying arsenic are between 14th-20th August.
Alternatively, he administered one bigger dose on the 14th which made everyone ill and then he continued to dose Betsy through the various drinks, food and medicine he gave her afterwards.
Based on the testimony of Jane Stokes, I do not believe she was involved in the death of Betsy and Emily. She drew the doctor’s attention to aspects of Betsy’s condition. As for Emma Statham, I think it depends how much credibility you give to the various testimonies about how involved she was with William Beamish. I am not sure she was involved in murder, perhaps just in over her head with a married man.
After he was sentenced William Beamish reportedly confessed, within which he stated that “he alone did the deed” but that he was led astray by Emma Statham.
However one views this case to have administered multiple doses of arsenic suggests malice aforethought.
- Written by Harriet Davidson