The trial of these prisoners, which took place at the Warwick assizes, on the 9th of August, 1831, excited the most intense interest in the county in which it occurred, owing to the peculiar circumstances under which the crime, with which they stood charged, was committed, and the relative position of the persons accused, and the deceased. The female prisoner, Mary Anne Higgins, was rather a good-looking girl, with a fresh complexion, and pleasing, though un-intellectual expression of countenance, and her appearance produced almost universal sympathy. Clarke, however, was the object of very different feelings; and although previously to the trial his guilt was involved in much doubt, the indifference which he exhibited on being introduced to the dock, procured for him a very unfavourable consideration amongst the crowd of persons assembled.
The indictment charged that the prisoners had been guilty of the wilful murder of William Higgins, at Coventry, on the previous 22nd of March, by administering to him three drachms of arsenic. In a second count Clarke was charged as an accessory to the murder, by aiding and abetting Higgins in its commission. Clarke was twenty-one years of age, and his fellow-prisoner only nineteen years.
Upwards of forty witnesses were called, and the investigation lasted from nine o'clock in the morning until an advanced hour in the evening; the material facts of the case, however, as elicited from the evidence, may be stated in a comparatively small compass: --
William Higgins, the deceased, was a man in an humble station of life, who had saved a little money, upwards of 100l. of which he had placed out at interest. Upon the death of his only brother, who left four or five children behind him, the deceased, being unmarried, took one of the children (the female prisoner) to live with him, and reared her as he would his own child, intending also to leave her the little money he possessed at his death.
About the beginning of the year 1831, a courtship commenced between the girl and the prisoner Clarke, who was an apprentice at the watch factory of Messrs. Vale and Co. at Coventry, in the course of which he evidently acquired considerable influence over her mind. He was observed, in the months of February and March, in the possession of more money than usual, including one or two golden guineas, a denomination of coin of which the deceased's savings were supposed principally to have consisted; and he boasted, on more than one occasion, that he had only to go to the old man's house whenever he wanted money.
On Tuesday, the 22nd of March, the female prisoner went into a druggist's shop, and asked for two-pennyworth of arsenic to destroy rats. The young man in the shop told her that she could not have it except in the presence of a witness; upon which she went away, and did not return. She afterwards went to another shop of the same description, and made a similar application, to which she received the like , answer. Upon which she observed, that she did not know what she was to do, as she came from the country. She added, however, that she had a sister residing at Coventry, and she would go and fetch her. She then left the shop, and, when passing through Spon-street, she met a girl named Elizabeth Russell, who told her that she was going to the factory (Vale and Co.'s); upon which the prisoner said, "Just come with me as far as Messrs. Wyly's, the druggists, and I will then accompany you to the factory." Elizabeth Russell asked her what she wanted at the druggists'? To which she replied, that she wanted some arsenic to destroy rats. The girl then accompanied her to the druggists', where she received the arsenic in her presence, with a label upon the paper having the words, "arsenic, poison," printed on it. She inquired of the shopman how she was to use it, in order to destroy the rats; and he told her she might mix it up with some bread, or some substance of that kind. She then left the shop, and on going into the street she tore off the label, saying at the same time to the other girl, "What has he stuck this on for?"
They walked as far as the factory, which they reached just as the men were coming out of it to go to dinner, it being then about one o'clock in the day; they here parted, and the prisoner Higgins was joined by the prisoner Clarke, who walked with her towards her uncle's house; a waggoner who. was passing along the street shortly afterwards, observed Clarke entering the uncle's house, and the niece the next moment closing the door, which Clarke had left open, after him.
At two o'clock Clarke returned to his work at the factory, and remained there until eight in the evening; about nine he was observed standing at the entry which led from the deceased's house to a yard where there was a certain convenience, from which the old man was seen apparently returning. The niece was also observed standing at the entry. Whilst the old man was in the yard, a particular kind of noise was heard, and the place afterwards exhibited the appearance of a person having been vomiting there.
At about one o'clock at midnight the female prisoner knocked up an old woman named Green, who lived a few doors off, and implored her, for God's sake, to come to her uncle, who was taken very ill. Mrs. Green accordingly got out of bed, put on her gown, and followed her to her uncle's. On her way, Mrs. Green was met by a man, who, when passing by Higgins's door the moment before, heard two voices, as he thought, in the house; but could not tell whether they were male or female voices, or the voices of a male and female. Upon Mrs. Green going in, she found the deceased lying upon his niece's bed, with his head resting on his left hand, in the attitude of a man who had been vomiting. Upon going up to him, she thought at first she heard him breathe, but found, when she stirred him, that he was stiff. She called to him, but received no answer. Observing some water on the floor near the bed, and knowing that the old man had been subject to a complaint which she called the water-swamp, she proposed going down stairs and making some tea for him. She and the niece went down accordingly, and, while below, the latter said, "Oh! I hear my uncle groan."
They immediately returned to the room, but on Mrs, Green again going to the bed, she found that the old man was dead; and also concluded, from a more particular examination of his body, that he must have been dead for at least half an hour. The niece wept bitterly, exclaiming, "Oh my dear uncle! my dear uncle! now he 's gone, all my friends are gone!" She told Mrs. Green that she and Edward Clarke were to have been married on Easter Monday, and that had it not been for her poor uncle's death, they were all to have had a jovial day of it. She said that they must still be married, however, on that day, as she was in the family way; that she would put on mourning for her uncle, but put it off on the day of her marriage, and then resume it again, it being unlucky to be married in black. The statement of her being in the family way was untrue.
In answer to previous inquiries from Mrs. Green, she said that her uncle had had some pea-soup for supper; that he had been taken very ill, and gone to bed; that after she had retired to her own bed, her uncle came into her room, and becoming very sick, she got up, and placed him on her bed, Mrs. Green observed the bed in the deceased's room very much tumbled, as if by a person who had been tossing from side to side in great pain. There was also a quantity of water on the floor, with two little lumps of bread in it, which appeared to have been discharged from the stomach. Some other of the neighbours being called in to assist in laying out the deceased, Mrs. Green went away.
In the course of the morning, between six and seven o'clock, another neighbour, a Mrs. Moore, called, and, on seeing the niece, asked if it was true that her uncle was dead? She said it was, and that she was then going out to purchase mourning. She went out accordingly, and when she was gone, Mrs. Moore, seeing the place in a state of confusion, set about putting the things to rights. On going into the pantry, she perceived a basin on the shelf about three quarters filled with pea-soup. She took it to the window, and stirred it up with a spoon that lay in it; upon which she perceived that it was of a whitish colour and thick substance, different from the usual appearance of pea-soup. She replaced it on the shelf, and then examined another basin containing a similar quantity of pea-soup, which, however, was of the usual yellow colour, and of the ordinary substance. This basin she also replaced on the shelf, and said nothing until the niece returned, when she asked her the cause of the different appearances of the two soups; to which the latter replied, that she had thickened one with flour, and the other with oatmeal.
Mrs. Moore's suspicions having been excited, she gave the soup into the charge of a carpenter who had come to measure for the coffin, who locked it up in the room in which the corpse lay. A surgeon was then sent for, who opened the body, and found the coat of the stomach extremely vascular and red. He also found within the stomach a pint and a half of fluid, which he put into a bottle, and which he sent, together with the basins of soup, in a basket, to his surgery, for the purpose of having them analysed. The fluid taken from the stomach was afterwards submitted to several chemical tests, in the presence of four or five professional gentlemen, all of which led to the same result -- namely, that it was impregnated with arsenic. The pea-soup was not analysed, but was given to a dog, which immediately threw it off its stomach, and consequently survived it.
When the female prisoner was taken into custody by an officer named Gardiner, she was questioned on the subject by him, in a manner which was severely reprehended by the learned judge, and excited a feeling of strong indignation in the minds of every person in court, including the learned counsel on both sides. She told him, in reply to his questions, first that she had not purchased any arsenic; and on his saying that Elizabeth Russel could prove that she had, she admitted it, but said that she had only used it to destroy rats, and that one lay dead under a particular chair, A dead mouse was found under that chair; but on its being opened, there was no appearance of inflammation in the stomach, which there must have been had it died from having swallowed arsenic. She also denied having any money in her possession; but on being searched, a box was found in one of her pockets, containing five guineas; another box contained three; and in a purse were one guinea, a half-guinea, and a seven-shilling piece. Gardiner, afterwards, when conveying her to prison through the street, no other person being present, said to her, "How could you be over-persuaded to do such a thing?" to which the unfortunate girl replied, that she had not been persuaded by any person, she had done it herself. She said she had put two tea-spoonfuls of arsenic into a basin, and poured the soup over it, and then gave it to her uncle.
There were no circumstances in the case, as against Clarke, to lead to a positive conclusion that he had been aware of the poison having been put into the soup, or of its having been purchased at all.
When called on for his defence, he put in a written address, in which he principally dwelt upon the vagueness of the evidence adduced against him, and asserted his innocence of the crime with which he stood charged. The female prisoner merely said she was innocent, and left the rest to her counsel. Several witnesses gave Clarke a good character; but none appeared for Higgins.
The learned judge summed up the case to the jury with the most anxious care and minuteness.
The jury, after deliberating for about five or six minutes, returned a verdict acquitting Edward Clarke, but finding Mary Anne Higgins Guilty.
The learned judge then, in the usual form, sentenced the wretched girl to be executed at Coventry, on Thursday, and her body to be dissected.
Throughout the whole of the trial the unhappy girl appeared to be sensibly affected by the position in which she was placed; and during the period occupied by the learned judge in passing sentence, she wept bitterly. Upon being removed from the bar, her lamentations were of the most piteous description, and she appeared deeply to deplore the death of her uncle, and the crime of which she had been guilty.
The wretched convict, during the short period intervening between her trial and execution, conducted herself in a becoming manner, and made no efforts to excuse her unnatural conduct. She declined, however, to make any statement accounting for the dreadful deed; but there can be little doubt that her object was to prevent her uncle's discovery of the robberies, of which it was perfectly evident she had been guilty, upon him. At the place of execution she appeared to be sincerely repentant, and prayed with great devotion.
She was executed at Coventry, on the 11th of August, 1831.
It has been frequently observed with great truth, that secret poisoning is one of the worst of crimes; because it is an offence against which even the most wary can provide no safeguard. In the case the particulars of which we have now laid before our readers, one is at a loss to account for the crime of which the wretched convict was guilty: and no less must we be surprised at the means taken by the unhappy girl to secure her object, than at the circumstance of a person in her position, with regard to her victim, engaging in so fearful a transaction. Poisoning is universally looked upon as a crime of peculiar atrocity; but the following anecdote will exhibit the diminution of the frequency of its occurrence in recent years.
In the year 1670, the Marchioness of Brinvilliers, a lady of noble family, resided in Paris. An officer named St. Croix, of good family but ruined reputation, having formed an intrigue with her, her friends procured his confinement in the Bastille, where he acquired from some Italians the art of compounding poison. On his liberation he hastened to the marchioness, and imparted to her his acquisition, as a means of revenging themselves, and of bettering their ruined fortunes. She eagerly entered into his views, and carried on the horrid trade with a diabolical activity. Her husband, father, brothers, and sister quickly perished. She is said to have disguised herself as a nun, and distributed poisoned biscuits to the poor, in order to try the efficacy of her poisons. Her career was cut short by an accident. A glass mask which St. Croix wore while preparing his poisons fell off, and he was found suffocated in his laboratory. A casket was also found there, which was directed to Madame Brinvilliers, but opened by the police. It contained poisons sufficient to destroy a community, labelled differently, according to their effects, as ascertained by experiments on animals. St. Croix's servant was seized, tortured, and confessed the crimes of his employers, in which he had aided. The marchioness escaped, but at last was captured; and having undergone the torture with inflexible courage, was beheaded. On her person was found a full confession and detail of her horrible crimes. This punishment did not put a stop to the crime of poisoning in France, which was very common between the years 1670 and 1680.