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The Sister and the Serpent: continued

Murder Ballads
Secret London

"I went up to see the body. It was on the bed, and was warm. I observed that she had died in a state of collapse. The fingers were clenched, as in a bird's claw. I felt the pulse, and said I was sorry I was not called in before. [...] I examined the body and, on the abdomen, I found marks of recent confinement. It was supernaturally blue.
"These symptoms made me think the woman had died from cholera or poison. I suspected the latter. Something was said about a burial. I said I could not account for the death of the deceased, and that I should not give a certificate of death to the registrar." Cramer asked Mary and Elias if they had any poison in the house, and both denied it.
Cramer took the remains of the loaf Mary had used to make the previous evening's meal with him when he left, together with a sample of Susan's vomit from outside the front door. He returned to the cottage on each of the next two days, removing Susan's stomach and intestines for later examination. Cramer was convinced by now that she'd died of arsenic poisoning, and asked Elias again if he had any arsenic in the house. This time, Elias said he had, and showed Cramer a package in the kitchen pantry.

'When a tin box was brought into court containing his wife's intestines, Elias laughed right out'

"The parcel weighed 15 ounces," Cramer testified. "Reeder said arsenic could not have got in the bowl by accident, for it was on the opposite end of the shelf." He later added: "The parcel appeared to have been opened at one end, and the string to have been loosely tied again. It has the words 'Arsenic - poison' on it in large letters."
Cramer confiscated the package. "I said it was unfortunate for them that arsenic should have been found in the house," he recalled. "Reeder said 'I call God to witness I am innocent of poisoning my sister, though I am aware the world says to that effect." Evidently, the local gossips were already blaming Elias and Mary for Susan's death. This gossip was still playing on Mary's mind four days after the death, when her father brought Mary Carlton to visit the cottage.
"She said 'I hope you do not think me guilty of taking my poor sister's life?'" Carlton told the court. "I said 'I hope you are not, but God only knows. I do not.' We both went in, and she said 'Elias only came home at one o'clock last night, and said my case was worse than his. I said no, his was worse, because he got the arsenic."
Only a few minutes earlier, Carlton had been unsure that the girl she saw waiting in the cottage garden was Mary, so the two women clearly didn't know each other very well. And yet here was Mary, speaking so recklessly in front of a stranger.
Elias was no smarter. The next day, he was working at Cross's farm, when a man called Crick arrived there to collect some chaff. "He said he was in great trouble about his wife," Crick recalled. "They said she was poisoned, and were going to hang him. I said 'They cannot hang you if you did not do it'. Lucas said 'Damn it, I'll stand a bottle of gin if I get off this job. To think that I am a single man again! If the girl and I will keep our tongue, they cannot hurt us'."
Meanwhile, Susan's stomach and other samples had been sent to Alfred Swaine Taylor, the professor of medical jurisprudence at Guy's Hospital in London, who examined them on March 9. "There were two grains of metallic arsenic in the stomach and more in the coat of the stomach," he testified. "As a result of my experiments, I am prepared to say that death was caused by arsenic administered to the deceased in large quantities. I am clearly of the opinion that the deceased died from arsenic and no other cause."
Elias and Mary were arrested, and their trial reached court in March 1850. "Surely was never greater levity displayed by the most hardened criminal than by this man," the ballad sheet says of Elias. "He frequently turned to laugh at his companions in court, and even when a tin box was brought into court which contained some part of his wife's stomach and intestines, he laughed right out."
All the people quoted above gave their testimony in court, and Cramer produced the arsenic package for everyone to see. Cross confirmed that he'd given Elias 16 ounces of arsenic to destroy - not the 15 ounces left when Cramer found it - and Judge Wightman ticked him off for not handling the job personally. Elias claimed he'd kept the arsenic only because he wanted to scatter it around his onion seeds to kill slugs.
The best the defence could do was to suggest that the prosecution had failed to show adequate motive for the murder, and to argue that Elias and Mary would have been mad to make as many incriminating remarks as they did if they were truly guilty. The jury was not swayed by this perverse logic, and quickly found both Elias and Mary guilty of murder when the trial concluded on March 25.
Elias dropped his bravado as soon as the verdict came in, and became very pious, praying fervently that God might forgive him. Mary had been far less blasé than him all along, and confessed her own part in the murder on the day after the trial ended.
"She stated that, persuaded by Lucas, she crumbled the messes and, unseen by her sister, conveyed nearly a tablespoon of arsenic into the basin intended for Mrs Lucas," the ballad sheet says. "But she now bitterly lamented having been led to commit so great a crime. Lucas for some time persisted in his innocence, and declared that it was not his hand that placed the deadly poison in the basin. But, when told of the female's confession that she had done the act under his direction, he remained silent and appeared quite confounded."
The closest Lucas would come to a confession of his own was to admit: "I may have told her to do it. But, if I did, I do not recollect it, and it was in my passion." Elias did confirm that he and Mary had been sleeping together, however, and said that crime alone meant he deserved to die. Mary confirmed the adultery too, saying it was her love for Elias that led her to murder Susan.
The day of the hanging was set for April 13, 1850. Just five days before that date, Mary made a new statement, this one insisting Elias had known nothing about her plan to poison Susan. By now, her accounts had become so confused that no-one was inclined to take anything she said seriously. The authorities played it safe by relaying Mary's latest statement to Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, but he said to go ahead and hang them both anyway.
Mary had a final, harrowing farewell with her father and grandfather on April 8, and Elias asked Reverend Roberts, the prison chaplain, to preach a sermon for him four days later. Elias chose Luke 11 (21 and 22) as the text for this sermon, these verses reading: "When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace. / But when a stronger than he shall come upon him and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils".
By selecting this passage, Elias seemed to be trying to convince people he was basically a good man who'd been overcome by the devil. He made this point again in a final letter to his parents saying: "Remember, when we are left without God for a time, oh how soon will Satan bring evil upon any of us." He wrote a similar letter to his fellow prisoners, full of the same new-found piety and unsolicited advice.
On the morning of their execution, Elias and Mary were taken to a church service and allowed to receive Holy Communion. "The prisoners appeared much consoled," the ballad sheet tells us. "After shaking hands [they] expressed themselves quite happy and perfectly resigned and ready to meet their fate." Elias was now 25 years old, and Mary was 20.
Susan's murder had made little impact on the national stage, but the case remained a very big deal in Cambridge. "Never within the memory of man did so large a concourse of persons assemble to witness an execution," The Times reports. "Long before daybreak, every street and road leading into this town exhibited the appearance of a fair-day. From six o'clock in the morning until the hour appointed for the execution, 12 o'clock, the streets were one living mass.
"The place where the gallows was erected was in front of the debtors' door of the county gaol, which is situated on Castle Hill. It is surrounded by a large green, in the centre of which is an extensive mound, 60 or 70 feet high. The whole of this place, and the mound from the base to the summit, was crammed with spectators, nearly two-thirds of whom were women and children." The ballad sheet adds that the crowds that day "could not be computed at less than from 30 to 43,000."
The size of his audience seemed to surprise Elias as he reached the foot of the scaffold. "On reaching the first flight of steps, he paused for a moment, as if startled by the immense crowd which had assembled opposite," The Times says. "He soon, however, recovered himself, and actually ran up the remaining steps with a firm and elastic tread, and placed himself under the fatal beam."
Mary took her place alongside Elias, and William Calcraft, the hangman, stepped forward. "As the drop fell, shrieks were heard proceeding from some women in the crowd, and the cry of 'Hurrah!' from a single voice in the immediate vicinity of the scaffold," The Times continues. "The bodies, having been suspended the usual time, were taken down, conveyed into the gaol and buried within its precincts."

Elias's remark that he "had a bastard child coming" suggests Mary may have been pregnant, but there's no hint that's the case anywhere else in the records I've seen. The law did not permit pregnant women to be executed, so perhaps Elias was referring to another baby mama here, or was simply mistaken about the pregnancy.
When Mary asked Elias about the morality of poisoning for love, she had in mind the case of 18-year-old Catherine Foster, who'd been hanged for just that crime at Bury in 1847. "Catherine Foster was a simple-minded woman who poisoned her husband with arsenic in November 1846, just three weeks after their marriage," says Foxearth & District Local History Society. "The crime was discovered when he vomited in the garden and the hens mysteriously died. She readily confessed to the crime; she had married him to please her mother, and loved another man, so she cooked his suet dumplings in arsenic."

To hear Mary Humphreys singing The Sister & The Serpent, vist the SoundCloud page here.

Sources and Footnotes
* The Dying Words and Confession of Elias Lucas and Mary Reader (printer unknown, 1850). The sheet spells Mary's surname as "Reader" in its two headlines, but "Reeder" in the bodycopy. The Times uses "Reeder" throughout, and I've taken this as the more reliable source.
* The Times, March 26, 1850.
* The Times, April 15, 1850.
* Foxearth & District Local History Society (
* Capital Punishment UK (
* The Annual Register 1850, edited by Edmund Burke (F&J Rivington, 1851).

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Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
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