The Sad Case of Sarah FOX, the Husband, and Some Arsenic, 1826

Arsenic bottleFrom The Cumberland Pacquet, September 26th, 1826


‘On Friday and Saturday last an inquest was held at Bankhouse, in Gosforth, before William BRAGG, Esq. Coroner, on view of the body of Sarah FOX, who died on the preceding Tuesday, under circumstances which fully called for this investigation.
Mary PHARAOH, sworn, said – I am mother of the deceased, who, with her husband, lived at our house. On Saturday last deponent and her husband went from home about five o’clock in the afternoon, to attend a christening at a neighbour’s house, and left the deceased quite well and in good spirits, considering her
situation, being pregnant and near her confinement. About half-past seven the same evening, Robert FOX, husband of the deceased, came to the house where we were, and told me I must go home immediately; Sarah was very ill. I considered this illness to proceed from precursory labour, and made no further inquiries, but went towards home with him immediately. On the road I asked Robert how Sarah was held; he said she was very sick, and did not think she would live till morning, and that Margaret (a younger sister) was also very bad. I considered Margaret’s indisposition as a trifling cold, and said to Robert, that Sarah’s illness was merely the beginning of labour.
On arriving home I asked Sarah how she felt herself? She said she was very bad, and that Bob had warmed her some coffee which was left from morning; it had a bad taste; he had put something into it. He said she took fancies, but he would make her a better cup by putting more sugar into it; this cup was worse than the first, she could not drink it. Little Margaret tasted it, and was also sick. The remaining part was put into the pig’s meat, and the pig was the same way affected as my two daughters.
I considered hyssop tea would be of service in allaying sickness, and made some and took it to my youngest daughter, who said that it had the same bad taste as the coffee. I thought the bad taste complained of arose from the water having stood in the kettle the whole of the day. I therefore washed the kettle well out, and made some more cups of tea, of which they both drank, and thought it good.
I then asked the deceased if she would eat any think? and she replied in the affirmative. I made her a posset of milk, bread, and beer, of which she ate, and said it was very good, and what was left she would take after a bit. Robert, her husband, desired me to go to bed, and he would take care of her till the morning. I accordingly went to bed, and on Sunday morning when I arose, I asked her how she had rested, and how she was? Her answer was, that she was very bad, and that her husband had given her the remainder of the posset, and had put some more stuff into it, as it had the same bad taste which the coffee had.
During the whole of Sunday she continued to retch very much, and about four o’clock on Monday morning she was delivered of a still-born child, which had a very unnatural appearance, being quite black. The sickness still continued, and I asked her if she could not eat any thing? She said she could not, her throat was so bad, and was burning. She frequently complained of the head-ache, pain in the stomach, and a burning heat in her throat, attended with great thirst, and drank large quantities of water and beer.
The deceased said, in the presence of her husband, “that the stuff he put into the coffee made her bad.” He said, “I put nothing into it;” but she replied, “You did, and you brought the stuff from Whitehaven on Thursday.” To this he made no answer. The deceased then said, “You have poisoned me and killed my child; but killing me is nothing to killing my child. I freely forgive you, and I hope God Almighty forgives me my sins, and I expect you will suffer as much on earth as I have done.” She died the following day.
Several witnesses were also examined, who attended the deceased during her illness, whose testimony fully corroborated that of Mrs. PHARAOH.
FOX, the husband of the deceased, positively denied having been in any druggist’s shop in Whitehaven.
Mr. SAUL, of Whitehaven, was sworn, and said, I am a druggist in Whitehaven, and perfectly remember FOX calling at my shop, on Thursday, the 14th of September. He wanted some arsenic, he said, for killing rats. I refused to let him have it, but in consequence of a person who was in the shop at the time saying he knew
him, I sold him what he asked for, and wrapped it up in three different papers, and wrote the word “poison” upon them, to prevent any accident.
Mr. WRIGHT, surgeon, of Gosforth, opened the body, in the presence of Messrs. THOMPSON and DAWSON, of Whitehaven, and Mr. LAWSON, of Egremont, who were all of opinion that the deceased came to her death by poison.
After the Coroner had read over the various evidences, the jury retired, and on their return a verdict was given, “that Sarah FOX came to an unnnatural death by poison, and likewise that Robert FOX, her husband, was guilty of procuring and administering the same to her.”
FOX was instantly taken into custody, and committed to Carlisle gaol, to take his trial at the next assizes.’

Robert Fox was sentenced to death at the Lent Assizes of the following year.

(Arsenic) “…reigned throughout the century as the poison of choice for committing homicide… through much of the 1800s, upwards of a third of all cases of criminal poisoning in Britain were due to arsenic… By 1849, a London physician could complain that the odious crime of arsenical murder had become a national disgrace, an offence that had increased so dramatically in recent years as to make it ‘the greatest blot upon the civilisation of the nineteenth century’.” (The Arsenic Century by James C Whorton, OUP, 2010, ppviii-iv).

Diane McIlmoyle 14.06.13

8 thoughts on “The Sad Case of Sarah FOX, the Husband, and Some Arsenic, 1826

    • I know – it’s just grim, isn’t it? I came across a very similar story that happened the following year. A young woman, who was pregnant, met up with her fiancé, sister and brother-in-law to take the required trip up to Gretna, and the fiancé poisoned her. The man wasn’t caught immediately, and I don’t know if he ever was. Certainly couldn’t find his name in the sentencing lists for the relevant year.

      I’m also rather surprised by the report that Sarah Fox said she forgave her husband. I can understand the ‘may god forgive you’ bit, perhaps, but no more! Bless her 😦

      Thanks for coming over.

    • Yes, I think arsenic was worse. The book I quote at the end, The Arsenic Century by James C Whorton, has many accidental and homicidal cases. Basically, I don’t think we want the stuff in circulation!

  1. I guess most poisons are/were dreadful but I believe arsenic was particularly cruel depending on the dose. It is believed Napoleon died from arsenic poisoning, but slowly, over a period of time. Some time after his death it was discovered that the wallpaper paste contained arsenic or a derivative. I think this was a common practice and not done deliberately.
    Going back to the story, Sarah Fox may have forgiven her husband but she wanted him to suffer!

    • Yes, I think that’s the case, Carol. And given the inefficiency of early 19th century hanging, I rather suspect the murderous husband did suffer. But he couldn’t say he didn’t know what the punishment would be for such a heinous crime.

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