The Case of the Peppered Potato

As a student historian, I’m always juggling projects in various stages, some related to specific assignments, others are more vague, not connected to my MA or PhD. One of the things I do as part of this is to manage the social media page of a local history related group, which involves researching local history stories.

In the course of doing that, I stumbled across one newspaper story that rather surprised me, and that I wanted to dig into further (although it’s not really suitable for use on the local history social media group, so I’m doing it here instead). I think this quite often happens for historians, by the way – something small, a spark, that triggers a question or a sense of curiosity that sends us chasing down the research tunnel. It was a small story, reported in The Illustrated London News, from Saturday April 26th, 1862. A lad had been hauled into court; he’d given a potato to two children and forced them to eat it. It eventually transpired that what the two children had been told was ‘pepper’, sprinkled on the potato, was actually arsenic. Bit gruesome, bit unusual, attempted murder via poisoned potato, but so far, not unduly eyebrow-raising. Then I read the unusual bit. ‘The boy was taken before the magistrates and discharged with an admonition’.

Uh…. discharged? He committed what amounted to attempted murder and he was discharged?

Naturally, I had to dig further! Delving into newspaper reports via the fabulous British Newspaper Archive, further details soon came tumbling out‡. The lad in question was ten years old, with the surname of Letts. The two children he poisoned were listed as being the Hales children, a boy, aged 5 and a half, and a girl, aged 2 and a half, who were on their way home from school down Harvey Lane, around midday. The Letts boy told the Hales boy that it was a nice potato and that he was to eat it there and then. Hales did, and gave a little to his sister, but when they got home, they began to vomit so their mother went for the doctor. He applied the usual remedies. When they recovered, they told their mother about the potato and the boy and she went looking for the Letts boy, and met a girl with the surname of White, aged 8 years old, who told her that the Letts boy had earlier offered her the same potato and when she refused, he struck her on the nose and made it bleed. This led to the discovery of the Letts boy who admitted giving the Hales children the potato but could not say why he gave it to them. It turned out that the mother of the Letts boy had bought arsenic coloured with soot to kill vermin, and he had put it on the potato to make it appear peppered. The children being ‘quite recovered’, he was released with the already mentioned admonition.

This story was reported in a number of newspapers around the country – the Glasgow Herald, 19th April, 1862; the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18th April, 1862; and the London Evening Standard of the same day, and the Glasgow Herald reported that it got the story from the Daily News, and the London Evening Standard that it got it from The Leeds Mercury. It was clearly well, and widely reported.

Thornton_Lane_1965

Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane, copyright Dennis Calow, part of the University of Leicester ‘Vanished Leicester’ Special Collection, shared under a creative commons media licence. More information can be found at the Vanished Leicester homepage.

No further news sources were found, so I turned to the census to see if I could obtain christian names for the people involved. I was delighted to find that I actually could: It soon transpired that the Letts boy was in fact Oliver Letts, the son of John and Sarah Letts; he was a foundry man and she was a baker, and he was part of a large family living on 42 St. Nicholas. The two Hales children I soon identified as Francis and Mary Emily Hales, the children of Edwin and Elizabeth Hales, a labourer and seamstress respectively, living at 51 Thornton Lane. This, and Harvey Lane, the scene of the ‘crime’, no longer exist – they were part of the old parish of St. Nicholas in Leicester, and they were possibly taken out by the development of the ring road in the 1960s. They probably lay somewhere around what is now the Holiday Inn on St. Nicholas Circle, near the Jewry Wall. The picture, which shows Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane in 1965, prior to their destruction, shows how close they were. Sadly I was unable to conclusively identify the White girl – there are five possibilities living in Leicester at the time.

The ‘coloured with soot’ part of the articles intrigued me, so I kept digging further, and came across a book called The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play by James C Whorton (Oxford, 2010). In it, he described the easy availability of arsenic for multiple purposes, including killing vermin, from pharmicists, and the way that society seemed to accept its readily availability and use as a tool of murder (and suicide). It was the March, 1849 murder of Henry Marchant in Bath that seems to have been the trigger for the removal of this ready availability. He was murdered by his wife, through colourless arsenic, but three days after his funeral, she married another man, which aroused suspicions. Eventually Marchant was exhumed and inquest carried out; the wife was tried and convicted by August. Pleading pregnancy, the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The 1851 Arsenic Act followed; pharmacists were required to keep a register of sales of arsenic, and arsenic sold in quantities of less than ten pounds in weight was to be coloured with soot or indigo to prevent accidental consumption. The thought of it being used as a ‘pepper substitute’ seems not to have occurred to lawmakers!

So the soot question was easily settled. The motive, however, was much less clear cut. Was the arsenic employed because Oliver Letts was trying to make the potato look like it had pepper on it, and he didn’t understand that arsenic was so deadly, i.e. a prank? Or did he fully understand that arsenic would make someone ill, and was trying to pass it off as pepper? The newspaper reports are less than illuminating on the subject, and sadly, a search for Oliver Letts after the date proves less than illuminating. An Oliver Letts is found in the 1871 Census, ‘visiting’ the Doores family with a Robert Letts – both were  described as ‘Shoe Finishers’. He doesn’t hit the news again – at least, as far as I was able to find in the British Newspaper Archive – and there is no Oliver Letts listed in the 1881 Census. No Olivers are listed as having died, but there is a William O Letts who was born in the same year, who died in Wednesbury in June 1937, which raises the possibility that Oliver, perhaps tired of his notoriety, or perhaps for more nefarious motives, changed his name and moved on. Regardless; the fact that he offered the potato to more than one child, and thumped the girl who refused, suggests that this was important to the ten year old Oliver for some reason, and it goes beyond a mere joky type prank. It also suggests that it wasn’t the Hales children themselves that were in any way a particular victim, although the fact that Elizabeth Hales, the mother, was able to find Oliver Letts with no real difficulty suggests that perhaps the White girl and Francis Hales knew Oliver Letts – by sight at least. It may have been a cruel-type prank; perhaps Oliver wanted to make his ‘victims’ vomit in the street or something like that, which would explain why it seemed so important to him that someone ate the potato. From here, we can move into the area of Victorian working class children; how much were pranks a prevalent part of their culture, and what type of pranks prevailed?

But for The Case of the Peppered Potato, there it ends. These research quests quite often end this way because of the limitation of documentary sources. Sadly, the reality of documentary historical research is that unless you have a diary or some similar document where the writer has poured out their heart and soul, questions of inner motive and emotions and ‘whyyyy?!’ quite often remain unanswered. The historian can speculate, sometimes with some accuracy when they’re able to build up a solid picture of a person and their life, but no more. To some, perhaps, that’s deeply dissatisfying. Like a crafty, mystifying whodunnit with no answer. To me, it speaks of the enormous variety of human emotions and human lives. The reasons why we do anything are always myriad, and although it can be tempting to think that emotions largely do not change over time (we all love, feel sadness, anger, and so on), and therefore can be detected in the documentary record, the Case of the Peppered Potato shows quite clearly that it can’t. I don’t know why Oliver Letts did what he did. For that matter, even HE might not know what he did. But part of me wants to have faith that that Victorian Mayor, who let Letts off with a ‘stern admonition’, Mr Samuel Viccars, knew what he was doing. That the Peppered Potato was accidental, a prank gone wrong, rather than the ugly alternative, a glimpse of a ten year old psychopath-to-be.

 

‡ The British Newspaper Archive has a £1 offer on for a month till 2nd April this year – well worth a mooch around!

Edit: typo on the dates corrected. Thanks due to my eager proofreader!!

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PhD funding: The Result

An email fell into my email box yesterday.

You know… that gives the wrong impression. Like I didn’t care if it arrived, like I wasn’t eagerly watching for it. Like I hadn’t spent the entire previous 28 hours watching for it.

Wednesday and Thursday of this week proved to be agonising. For one reason or another, I’d gotten the date wrong for the result – I thought it was Wednesday, turned out to be Thursday. Feeling of total doom and conviction all day Wednesday that the answer was going to be NO led to tears and upset on Wednesday evening as I reached out to someone to find out that the correct date was the following day. I consoled and medicated myself with Ben and Jerry’s and snuggles with my partner. And on Thursday morning I decided, after a day of agonisingly, continually hitting the refresh button on my email, to approach it differently.

I got on with stuff. Went to the doctors, picked up a routine medication prescription, took it to the pharmacist to get it filled, went to the shops to get food for dinner. Went home. Did some prep work for the next project. Refused to look at my phone except every hour, on the hour. Ran a bath, and went downstairs to get my lunch (a salad). Came back up.. and there it was.

sitting my email inbox. blinking. The email that would control the rest of my career.

I took a deep breath, a very deep breath, and opened it.

The first line revealed the result, no, the second WORD revealed the result. ‘pleased’. Funny how the pleasantries and manners of official documents like this reveal results far more than words like ‘offer’ and ‘successful’ and ‘congratulations’. No, my brain fixed on ‘pleased’.

A moment where the world went still, and I tried to take in the enormity of it. What it meant, how my life would change. Totally failing in that, but still struggling to deal. Tears pouring down my cheeks. A moment where I hugged it to myself, tight, a precious jewel of knowledge that … just for a moment, I didn’t want to share with anyone else, not even my nearest and dearest.

And then it began: notifying people. Family. friends. Facebook. My email went crazy. Social Media went crazy. Invites out to celebrate (which I couldn’t take up as I had my final MA class). Congratulations. Well dones. Sending emails to say thank you to those people who had helped with advice, with support.

And ‘pleased’. Yes. I’m pleased. I’m happy. I’m overjoyed!

And overwhelmed.

((and truth be told, just a little bit scared.))

Early Modern Charitableness – a lesson for today?

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy – I’ve had two paid jobs to work on, one is very temporary (lasting only a week, but almost full time work during that week), and the other is also temporary but only 5 hours work per week over the course of about 5 weeks. Between the first two jobs I’ve spent almost an entire week on campus, and my studies have had to fit inbetween those jobs. And if I’m honest, they’ve fitted in quite well. The week-long job required me to do some survey work, which was around 15-20 minutes out of every hour. I managed to find a computer most days at uni which I could use, and the remaining 40-45 minutes out of every hour I succeeded at working – transcribing or making notes, the kind of thing where the constant stop-start doesn’t matter too much.

One of the documents I’ve been working on is called ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘. This was a long document written by a chap called Robert Foulkes during January 1679, and published after his execution on 31st January 1679. Foulkes had been found guilty of the ‘horrid murther’ (murder) of his just-born child on 15th January 1679(1), and had been sentenced to be hung. What was unusual about Foulkes is that he was a married vicar, and the child had been born to one of his parishioners, not his wife. Indeed, the relationship with his mistress (Ann Atkinson) had been subject to a lengthy court case in Herefordshire (the parish they lived in was subject to the Hereford Diocese), and Foulkes and Atkinson had celebrated their way when they thought the case was defeated, leading to pregnancy and, eventually, the scaffold. Atkinson pointed the finger squarely at Foulkes when they were arrested and she was found not guilty of the baby’s murder. Before his execution, Foulkes receved a number of visitors from the leading authorities in the Church of England; because the scandal had occurred during the Popish Plot/Titus Oates affair when the Church was still feeling under seige, the divines who visited had asked Foulkes to write a document extonerating the wider Church from all blame. An Alarme for Sinners is the result.

The copy I had saved onto my computer was made up of a series of PDFs; each double page spread being saved as one file. This, together with the problematic print and preponderance of fs instead of s made me decide to retype it – not difficult for me, as I learned to touch type years ago. In the event it took me slightly over a day and a half to type the entire thing, inbetween surveys. This is for my MA dissertation, and my research is focusing more on the relationship that Foulkes had with his parishioners as a whole, and what the case can reveal about clergy-lay relations rather than the scandalous behaviour of Foulkes and Atkinson. Still, having gone through the process of typing the document, a number of thoughts have come to mind. At least one of these is the difference by which we regard a document like this now, compared to 1679, and what the document reveals about general society and crimes in that period.

In An Alarme for Sinners Foulkes had – or so he said – a number of objectives. His primary objective was to ensure that the church was not blamed for his crimes. His pamphlet decried his actions and attempted to warn other people from following on his path. He gave thanks that his sins were discovered so that he had a chance to realise his errors before he died (and was inevitably sent to hell), and he addressed those people who he thought had done wrong (on a general level), to try to advise them on where to go right from that point on.

One thing that was very clear in Foulkes’s document was that sexual relations with prepubescent children was regarded as a horror; something very very wrong, especially when said child had been handed into one’s care. In his pamphlet, Foulkes went to some length to deny a group of accusations which said: that Akinson’s father had made Foulkes her guardian; that he had that he had used his position as her minister to persuade her that polygamy was lawful (a persuasion that today might be referred to as grooming); and finally, that he had ‘attempt and endeavour to vitiate’ Atkinson when she was nine. The accusations clearly upset Foulkes a great deal – it ‘imbittered my Cup both at my Trial and at my Sentence’. He also said that while he accepted that he was guilty of many other things, he took comfort in being innocent of both of these accusations, even though he had sins that had ‘exceeded’ them – i.e. the murder of his child. What is clear is that Foulkes’ horror of the charges, and his anxiousness to deny them, despite already being found guilty to hang for murder speak volumes about how those crimes were regarded by his contemporaries and society at large.

[While it is impossible to be sure at this remove, it has to be said that recent work by historians does support Foulkes’s claim of innocence of these charges. Foulkes was not made the incumbent of his parish until Atkinson was around ten years old, although Klein felt he first met her when she was around seven. He was certainly never made her guardian, (although he was, of course, her minister), and the two historians who have written about the case regard the affair has having begun around 1669 – when Atkinson was around 19 or 20.]

Interestingly, the document seemed to suggest that it was because Foulkes was placed in a position of trust, that the accusations were so serious. In other words; it would not have been deemed so serious if Foulkes had attacked a stranger. Did they regard the breach of trust as the more serious crime, or was the breach of trust deemed more as what we would now call ‘an aggravating factor’ in the sexual assault? Interesting questions. I have to admit that I have done no research into this topic at all; but it certainly shows, for those non historians that bewail a ‘plague of modern paedophilia‘, that social awareness of the crime existed at least as far back as 1679.

Moving now to the issue of charitableness, as promised in the title – when I first read the entire document, I reflected on how it would be regarded if an equivalent document was produced today by a man condemned to life imprisonment for the same crime – infantcide. Foulkes is clearly trying to restore his honour and the honour of the Church in this document and admits as much. Today, a document like this would be regarded with a great deal of cynicism. (Just imagine the tabloid newspaper headlines!) In 1679 there was some cynicism – Foulkes even anticipated this, as he preceded one section with: ‘For satisfaction to those who were at my Tryal, and may have their belief warpt to uncharitableness…’ and then addressed  various accusations (including the ones discussed above). At the same time, Foulkes clearly believed that publishing this pamphlet would let his voice be heard. He admitted to horrible crimes, crimes that he abhorred, and even a crime that he was not charged for, a crime that he said no one else considered or felt was a crime at the time. As he pointed out, he murdered his child without baptising her first. In doing so, he ‘murther its Soul’. In 1679, as it had been for centuries, it was strongly felt by many – including Foulkes – that unbaptised children could not enter heaven (which is why midwives had long been permitted to baptise children where it was clear that a child would not live long enough to permit baptism by a clergyman, although this permission was starting to disappear by the seventeenth century (2)). By murdering his child before baptism, Foulkes ensured his child could never enter heaven. He had failed the child on two levels, as both a father, and as a minister. His sheer anguish and pain at having failed his child on both levels leaps from the page; the reader almost has to accept that he felt as he did, his misery is utterly convincing.

He did not have to write this. He was originally asked to assist the wider Church by making it clear that she played no role in his crimes – no more, no less. Foulkes made the choice to try to reach out to people, to show them where he had gone wrong, to confess where he had gone wrong (and where he had not gone wrong). In this, he succeeded in his aim of restoring his honour; he was prayed for throughout the City of London on the night before his death – a day that also marked the anniversary of the death of Charles I. (3) Public pamphlets, which widely published not only the Alarme for Sinners, but details of the crime, his sentence, and pre-execution actions, also suggest that Foulkes succeeded in restoring his honour. The final line of one reads: ‘Thus ended this unfortunate Gentleman, who by the temptations of Satan was thus brought like Holy David into the horrid sin a Adultery, but as his sin resembled his, so did his Reptentence, and we hope they are now both singing Hallelujahs in the glorious Region of Eternal joy’ – i.e. we (the publishers) hope that this chap has gone to heaven. The message here is: if he, who committed such a dreadful crime, can repent and reach Salvation … maybe we, who are guilty of much lesser crimes, can too.

And therein lies the main difference between 1679 and today, I think. Today, we – as a society, I mean – regard a document like this, and cynically ask what the author got out of it, and question it no further; any thought of repentance is dismissed with ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. In the Early Modern society, perhaps, people were more charitable, more willing to accept that there could be multiple motivations for it, but that they are not all ultimately self-seeking and self-serving, and that perhaps repentence could be real. Perhaps, in the western society that we have today, more charitableness towards people’s motivations would not be a bad thing.

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