Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Mysterious Death of Mrs Charnley

A unexplained death in Victorian England is an instantly captivating notion. From the fiction of Sherlock Holmes to fact of Mr Whicher, it's proven to be a repeatedly popular topic. Little wonder I became so easily drawn into a world of 19th century intrigue, when I chanced upon a remark in the Victorian Diary of my relative Farmer John.

You can read about the death of the ancestor who connects me to the diarist, but it's not her demise I'm concerned with here. This tangent arose from a recent entry I posted from his journal, as follows:
"Dec 15th 1878. Sunday. Snow this morning. Snowing all day. Mr Edwards of Standish preached for us today. He told us of a poison case at Standish. A Mrs Charnley of Preston left two children."

I have often been interested in the precise nature of these sermons and it strikes me that a poison case would make for a curious topic in church. I wondered what possible moral lesson it might teach. With the British Newspaper Archive having recently gone online, a little searching took me straight to the relevant page of The Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser, dated December 7, 1878.

An inquest was held, on Wednesday, at the residence of Mr Bell, a Solicitor, Highfield House, Standish, on the body of Mrs. F. A. Charnley, widow of the late Mr. W. M. Charnley, solicitor, Preston.

Herbert Booth Bell was acting as Mrs Charnley's solicitor at the time, and he owned the house in which she died. He tells the inquest that the deceased was 34 years of age and that he had known her and her late husband for a long time. He explains the events leading up to that night...
"The deceased has had great domestic troubles during the last 18 months. In November 1877, she obtained a decree nisi for a divorce from her husband. She had alimony after the rate of £500 a year. The husband died about April last. Previously to that her allowance had ceased to be paid. After her husband's death, so far as I know, she had no source of income, but she had furniture and some jewelery. She broke up her house at Reading between two and three months ago. I went over to Reading to arrange about the sale for her, received the proceeds, paid the debts, and have now a balance in hand. She remained at Reading with some friends, for a short time after the sale, but was obliged to leave on account of sickness in the house. I was in correspondence with her husband's relations about arrangements for for her. At this time three of her children were under the care of her husband's father, but the other child she had with her. I invited her to come to my house to see about some settlement of her affairs. She explained whilst at my house that she had to go to Southport. At the time she went to Southport, a trial was pending at the Liverpool Assizes at which it was thought she might be called upon, as her name might be mentioned. She was very much put out of the way about the trial when she saw the report in the newspapers."

Having explained that the deceased first came to stay with him five or six weeks ago, he describes exactly what happened on the night in question:
"I did not see her on Monday until eight o'clock in the evening. At that time she was, as far as I knew, in her usual health. I remained in the house the whole of the evening. Deceased had tea with me about nine o'clock. She remained in the dining-room till between ten and eleven o'clock. She was occupied in reading the Saturday Review. I was also present the whole time and was reading. We had not much conversation together. I complained that I thought I had caught cold, and that my bed had not been well aired, and she asked me if I would like a hot water tin putting in the bed. I replied: No. She said: Well, I will have one in my bed; and she went out of the room, and I heard her call out to the housekeeper about it. She then went upstairs and returned shortly afterwards to the dining-room."
Having established the setting, we then learn of the eerie comments the deceased would make, shortly before her bizarre death...
"She stopped as if listening and said: Is that not some one outside the house? She had made the same remark once or twice before, during the evening. I said: I don't hear anyone. She then walked out of the room into the hall. The gas was lighted there, and the dining-room door was open. I heard her move the venetian blind in the adjoining room, and shortly afterwards came back. She went in the direction of the room where she had previously been sitting and then came towards me, and walked round my chair in the direction of the couch. I noticed a change in her appearance, and asked her what was the matter, but she made no reply. The room was very warm, and I thought she was fainting. I assisted her to the couch, and put her in a sitting position, and she immediately fell back against the head of the couch. I raised her head so that she could breathe freely, loosened her dress, and wheeled the couch between the two doors which I opened. I bathed her temples with water, and then went upstairs and roused the housekeeper. I returned to the dining room, and found her as I left her. I continued to rub her hands and bathe her temples until the housekeeper came. I went to the cellar and got brandy for her, and gave her a spoonful but she did not swallow it. She was unconscious the whole time, and breathed heavily at first. When Dr Rowland came he pronounced her to be dead."
A sudden and inexplicable death, it seems. Although Mr Bell provides some insight into her circumstances and his comments are apparently designed to give some indication that she perhaps had a fragile state of mind. He notes:
"She determined to send her child Mabel to her grandfather, and this seemed to distress her. Since she returned from Southport, I have heard her say it would not be long before she was "at rest." I advised her not to send all her things back to her father-in-law until she had made some arrangements. She said she was willing to give up everything if any allowance was made to her."
Me Bell appears keen to illustrate that she was distressed, and claims she made that portentous comment about soon being "at rest".

The housekeeper Martha Evans gave evidence next, and she provides some rather contrary comments:
"I have not had any conversation with her about domestic troubles. She was generally in good spirits."
Not only did the housekeeper's remarks seem at odds with regard to her general disposition, but Martha Evans was explicit about Mrs Charnley's behaviour on the night of her death:
"She had dinner at one o'clock, alone. After coming back from the station went out for a walk, and was away about three-quarters of an hour. On her return she said she had been as far as the house where Mr Bell used to live. She was naturally a very quick walker, and appeared in good spirits when she returned."
So, whilst Mr Bell paints a picture of a paranoid woman, frantic about her family matters, and even planning her own demise - the housekeeper instead tells of a normal evening and a woman who seemed quite content. The housekeeper continues:

"At nine o'clock she had tea with Mr. Bell. I saw her several times during the evening; she was generally reading. She never complained of anything to me. Ten minutes [after I went to bed] Mr. Bell asked me to come down, as Mrs. Charnley was unwell, and I went down and found her lying on the couch in the dining room. I have not heard any high words between her and Mr. Bell."
Curious that she should specify there was no argument. Did she mean this was never the case? Or did she just mean that there had been no quarrel on that particular evening?

Mrs Charnley was also making plans as usual, as the housekeeper added that she was intending to leave on Friday next, and she said she was going to her father-in-law's.

Dr. T. Oliver of Preston examined the body and found all the organs healthy with the exception of the stomach which was slightly tinged with blood. He says:
"The stomach had a distinct odour of prussic acid, certified as such by all the medical men present. Having heard all the circumstances under which death took place ... I have no doubt that the deceased died from effects of an overdose of prussic acid. Prussic acid, in convention with potassium, may be procured in the form of cyanide of potassium, which is crystalised, and might be carried about for a short time without becoming liquid. If taken in sufficient quantity it would produce the same effects as prussic acid, in fact prussic acid would have been tolerated in the stomach by the action of the acids of the stomach in the fodasime salts. The effects would not be so immediate, as the salts would have first to be dissolved."

If she had taken a fatal dose of something, then surely the container would have to be apparent. Those at the scene of her death made the same assumption, and several people had looked for evidence of the means by which she might have taken her own life. The housekeeper said:
"I was very much surprised to find her in the state she was on the couch. I have not seen any bottles of hers in the house."

The doctors who arrived also checked for poison. Dr Rowlands was sent to Mr Bell's house a little before midnight. He had asked Mr Bell what he believed were the circumstances of the death, and Bell replied heart disease.

Dr Rowlands made a search of the room but found nothing that could account for the death. He smelt the glasses on the table, one of which had brandy and the other whiskey. He searched the adjoining sitting-room but found no bottle or glass.

Dr Price arrived a little later. He too examined the place for small bottles and found nothing except two scent bottles, and two others containing cloves and a tincture of myrrh. He examined the fireplace in the bedroom and found nothing. There had been no fire in it.

The report of the inquest concludes by saying that the jury returned the following verdict:
"Died from the effects of swallowing a certain poisonous substance called prussic acid, but the jurors are unable to say what was the state of mind of the deceased at the time."
The paper's headline of "Supposed Suicide" says it all. The woman was not showing any outward signs of self-harm, and nor was there a discarded bottle of poison. Is it possible that there was foul play? She did fear there were people outside the house. Could either of the people in the house have had a motive to kill her?

She had a curiously familiar relationship with Mr Bell, having stayed for six weeks. When originally asked by Dr Rowlands, Mr Bell suggested her death was of heart failure. But when poison was established as the means of death, Mr Bell then outlined a woman on the edge of despair and hinting at her own suicide.

The housekeeper on the other hand said she was in high spirits. Mrs Charnley had been for a nice walk and eaten dinner before supposedly deciding to kill herself. She allegedly swigged a fatal dose of cyanide and, despite expecting the end at any moment, asked her housekeeper to put a hot water bottle in her bed for later. She then collapsed and died in the presence of the only witness to her final moments.

Another newspaper of the time thought there was little doubting the matter:
"Mrs Charnley, whose name was prominently introduced in a recent action against an officer for horse-whipping another, has committed suicide at Wigan by taking prussic acid."
Going back a month, the Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper gives prominent coverage to what had been called an "Extraordinary Military Scandal."

At the Liverpool Assizes in November 1878, Captain Gildea of the North Lancashire militia brought Captain White of the Dragoon guards before the courts to answer charges of slander. The case itself simply concerned who was telling the correct version of a fight which took place. Captain White said he horse-whipped Captain Gildea, who failed to defend himself.

As a result of this, the recipient of the thrashing, Captain Gildea, had been questioned by his superiors who expected him to resign because of the disgrace. In the desperate hope of saving his career, Gildea was forced to bring a lame court-case against White in an attempt to come out looking less of a coward. His goal was simply to assert that he had not been whipped, and that he had defended himself. But in his attempt to retain his commission, the reasons behind the fight were brought to light, and they were potentially far more damaging than the altercation itself.

Captain Gildea reveals in his opening statement that it all began over a year ago, when he met a woman at Euston Station who was on her way to see the defendant Captain White and his wife.

The woman in question was Mrs Charnley, and at the time she was in the midst of divorce proceedings against her husband - the town clerk of Blackpool. At the station, Captain Gildea had apparently shown good intentions in pleading with her not to sleep under the same roof as Captain White. Gildea claimed that White had "evil designs" on her and that White had bragged that he once partially undressed in her bedroom without her being remotely alarmed. It seemed that Gildea was trying to alarm Mrs Charnley about how White perceived their relationship.

Captain Gildea also thought it unwise for her to go and see him because, he said;
"She had told me that there were spies watching her movements."
Did Mrs Charnley have good reasons to suspect this? Divorce cases can be ruthless. But her husband was also very powerful, and her assertion that he was a drunk could be damaging. The night she died she thought she had seen someone in the dark outside the house. Was this the paranoia of a woman struggling with stress or depression? Or was there a threat to her safety given the enemies she had made both in her divorce and the military scandal?

Captain Gildea explains that this conversation at Euston Station ultimately provided the reasons which provoked Captain White to come looking for him:
"On the 7th May I saw a cab drive up to the door, and two gentleman had been shown into the dining room on the ground floor, and I went downstairs to see them, Captain White had his nephew with him, a young man named Harrison. Captain White told his nephew to read a document that he had in his hand. The effect of it was what I had warned the lady about. Captain White asked me did I admit or deny the statement. I said I admitted it. He then said, "You are a liar and a scoundrel, and I shall horsewhip you." And at the same time he opened his waistcoat and produced a whip, with which he attempted to strike me. I immediately rushed at him and caught him by the throat, and I struck him with my right hand in the face several times. No blow of his whip fell upon me. Two ladies came into the room and called out not to punish him any more. The ladies told them to leave the house."

Captain Gildea had then been told by his superiors to take a leave of absence to clear the whole matter up or resign his commission, at which point court proceedings were begun.

Under cross-examination, the truth of Captain Gildea's relationship with Mrs Charnley began to emerge. He had been close friends with the lady and her late-husband and stayed at their home from Christmas eve 1876 to February 1877. A month later, Mrs Charnley left her husband, allegedly because of his drunken habits. Gildea's warning to Mrs Charnley at the railway station had not been because Captain White had "evil designs" on the woman, but was born purely out of jealousy.

Captain Gildea was asked about Mrs Charnley's disappearance to Reading:
"I did not hear from her at Reading, and did not write to her there."
At which point the defence council dropped a bombshell:
"Have you not heard that on the 19th February in the present year, having left her husband in March of the previous year, she was delivered of a child in Reading?"

Captain Gildea said that he had no idea and claimed that he had been warned to stay away from her, so he had done so.

Captain Gildea was presented with a number of highly affectionate letters he had written to Mrs Charnley, and he found it increasingly hard to maintain the story that they were just friends. As his terms of endearment were read out, they drew laughter from the courtroom. He was repeatedly asked if he had confessed his love for her, or given her reason to think they would be married. Ultimately he went so far as to say that he had perhaps given her hope that they might be together, but only to encourage her though the divorce which she was reluctant to complete. He claimed to have no knowledge of her being pregnant and he insisted his letters were misleading.

But Gildea also confessed to lying about Captain White's telling of the incident in the bedroom. In truth, White had entered her bedroom by accident and left the moment he realised his innocent mistake.

When Captain White had heard Gildea's inaccurate version of events given to Mrs Charnley, that was when he wrote down his grievances, located a horse-whip and confronted Gildea at his house.

Captain White's version of events was somewhat different:
"I drew a whip from behind my coat, and I did horsewhip him. I struck him three or four blows over the shoulders with the whip. Captain Gildea endeavoured to strike me but was unable to do so from shortness of arm. Some ladies then appeared, who endeavoured to separate us. Captain Gildea got behind the ladies, and I saw him no more."
This last remark drew much laughter from the courtroom.

The judge then summed up this bizarre case and the jury delivered their verdict. They found in favour of Gildea.

Curiously though the judge didn't seem quite so inclined to favour Captain Gildea and refused to give a judgement for costs against the defendant.

Regardless of how the fight played out, the motives behind the incident were clear for all to see. Captain Gildea left the courtroom victorious, but it was his relationship with the married Mrs Charnley upon which the spotlight fell. The true father of her baby born in Reading was never discussed.

It was one month after this peculiar trial that she died in the home of another man.

Her death was ruled as poisoning, but the inquest never explicitly said that she killed herself. Only in the news was this assumption reached.

The mind of a depressive can be shrouded in mystery, but the events of the evening seem at odds with the suicide theory. No evidence was found of a container for poison. A suicide victim is unlikely to go to the efforts of concealing their methods - but a murderer would.

Had she seen someone outside the house moments before collapsing? Can we be sure it was she who opened the venetian blinds which Mr Bell heard? And with Mr Bell being the last person to speak to her, how much of her final moments can we be certain of?

But another fragment of information emerged at the inquest into her death. Her solicitor Mr Bell revealed that the legal matters might not be quite done with just yet, saying:
"I met her in Liverpool with a view to taking some proceedings against Mr. Gildea."
Rather than accepting humiliation and defeat, this suggested Mrs Charnley was continuing to fight on over the case. Is this the behaviour of a woman who had given up? Or is this someone prepared to battle for her reputation?

More court proceedings were certain to rile Captain Gildea. Mrs Charnley had been instrumental in the horse-whipping incident, as she had signed the document which outlined Gildea's lies. Captain Gildea had barely managed to salvage his career from the scandal of one court case, and yet here he might be presented with another which could again jeopardise his career.

Was it enough of a motive to murder?

We will never know the truth of how or why that poison was administered, but it was clear from the press coverage what the public thought of Mrs Charnley, which perhaps solves one small mystery at least - why this poor woman's name came to be mentioned in Farmer John's church sermon.

Here was a woman whose marriage had been destroyed by drink. She was enjoying the company of several other men, and she bore a child in secret who could not be her husband's. She had finally - supposedly - taken her own life because of it all, leaving her poor children orphaned.

In reality this was a woman struggling to break out of a loveless marriage, and she had simply met another man before the divorce was finalised. There is even doubt over how she died.

But on that freezing Sunday in December 1878, Mr Edwards would have preached that Mrs Charnley's demise was brought about through a multitude of sins, and all his congregation should be wary of alcohol and promiscuity, for fear of burning in hell.


  1. Can you imagine what Agatha Christie would have done with the Charnley case?

    That's quite an unsettling little story you uncovered--thanks for sharing it with us. One wonders how many other "little mysteries" are buried in the pages of these old newspapers...

  2. Wow. What a story! I wonder what really happened. Guess we'll never know.

  3. Poor, poor woman and family.

  4. Great Blog! I found you thru your guest post at NetworkBlog.

    Would you consider doing a more detailed post on how you use Photoshop to chart your notes? It sounds brilliantly simple :)

  5. Your story drew me right in. Wish Sherlock Holmes would take the case!

  6. Fascinating story, Gav - you pulled together all the twists and turns well. Poor Mrs Charnley. Jo