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.
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!!