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 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!!

… daily PhD?

… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.

Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:

Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.

Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.

I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.

Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.

One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!

Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.

The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?

Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂

new beginnings

Part of the way through my part time MA studies, I’m now at the point where the topics for my MA dissertation and general area for my PhD research have been decided on. This will be roughly in the field of parochial conflict in the Early Modern period. The MA dissertation will focus on a particular village in Shropshire, where the parishioners went to extraordinary lengths to try to get rid of their clergyman in the post-restoration period. The PhD will focus on clergy-parishioner conflict throughout the whole of Herefordshire.

This summer needs to be about putting in the prepatory work for the next year or so, with several aims:

  • Doing the general literature reading for both my MA dissertation and PhD proposal;
  • Establishing the availability of primary source material for MA dissertation and PhD;
  • Beginning the research process for my MA dissertation (which is not due till Jan 2017, so I have time);
  • Writing my PhD proposal;
  • Doing a little extra research for an article I have already done a lot of work on, and just needs some extra to finish off;
  • Preparing to deliver my first conference paper in November 2015.

The record office that I will be primarily working from is closed (they’re in the process of moving to a new building and I cannot WAIT to see it) so its been suggested that I spend the time working on the background literature.The general aim is to try to get this finished by the end of July; or to at the very least get to the point where I can a) put information from primary source material into context and b) understand the finer points of the material I will be reading when I get to the record office.

I primarily work from home, where I am lucky enough to have my own little study and can work uninterrupted. That solitude, while welcome (and I know a few people who would give their right eyeteeth for it) can also be very isolating and it can be terribly easy to procrastinate, hence the blog – if I have to report my achievements at the end of the day to something (if not someone), then I’m much less likely to procrastinate! Hopefully this will work and help encourage me to keep my nose to the grindstone, as well as giving people an insight into what is required to work on and complete both an MA and a PhD.

Richard III’s Reinterment

Today is the beginning of Richard III’s reinterment; the beginning of an end to the tumultuous journey that began when the skeleton was discovered two and a half years ago. Watching this on a range of media (from news sites to social media like twitter) the most interesting thing about it all is the modern day reaction to it all. From the grumpy (‘he should’ve been in York!’) to the breathless (‘history in the making!’) to the spoof (‘Get on with it……it’s bloody cold out here and there’s a large warm Jaguar hearse waiting for me’) to outright jokes (‘A hearse! A hearse! my kingdom for a hearse!’) everyone seems to have something to say about it. [Me included.]

As a historian, my hackles immediately rise when I hear the phrase “history in the making”. This reinterment changes nothing about Richard III’s past. His body may have revealed new information about the man he was (e.g. his health, his diet) and how he died, but the reinterment itself? No. All it is doing is placing some bones into a position of respect, so that they can rest in peace. Surely most people would agree that the reinterment, and the battle for it (Leicester vs York) has been far more about the modern day than the man himself, regardless of which location one feels he should have been reinterred in.

I’ve seen too, the comment that ‘today for Richard‘, but watching this event is making me think anew about history: about the wider issues. Who does today belong to? Is today really about Richard? The Dean of Leicester Cathedral has commented that funerals are about goodbyes. Having attended far too many funerals of close relatives in the last few years I am inclined to very much agree. On the other hand, as David Monteith says: today, ‘the dominant motif is much more hello‘.

If one argues, therefore, that history belongs to all, then it should be recognised that for many people, history is indeed in the making in one sense. It is extremely unlikely that a king will be reinterred in quite the same way again, certainly in this country. It’s one of those seminal events where people will remember – particularly people who have any sort of connection with the event, such as local people, students of the university, Ricardians, and so on – where they were when they heard, when they saw, what they thought. And while this isn’t world changing in the same way that it was when (for example) JFK was shot, it has a meaning to the individual. That meaning is going to be largely redriven by one’s social identity and how they connect to what Richard represents to them. We’ve already seen the local, regional response: how people from York associated strongly with Richard, identifying him as one of their own; how Leicester claimed him as theirs because of modern-day regulations stipulating reburial in the nearest consecrated ground; other places such as Gloucester and Fotheringhay were even briefly mooted as suggestions because of associations that Richard himself had with the places in his lifetime. In Leicester and the towns and villages surrounding today we’re seeing people paying their respects in a way that certainly wasn’t done after his death: people carrying white roses, ringing the bells as the cortege moves around the county, laying flowers at his statue outside the cathedral. There seems to be a celebration of the local, of Leicester and Leicestershire, as well as Richard himself. Connections being made that were certainly never forged when he was alive. As a result, there are real oddities: no royal standard, as this flag post-dates his life, yet his coffin is being moved around in a modern funeral hearse with modern day pallbearers. While we are only, at this point, less than half way through the initial day, the dominant motif seems much less “hello Richard” and much more “Hello World, we’re Leicester!”. Here, what is being celebrated is popular history, encouraging people to learn about their past, their cultural history, and part of me sees that as wonderful, as a way to encourage future generations of historians. Part of me, a very little bit of me, the stuffy, dry academic bit that cherishes a more scholarly approach, shudders – as unpopular as it may be to admit that, because the idea of having history as a preserve of those in the ivory towers of academia have long disappeared. These days academic proposals, particularly for history, must include popular dissemination. The Charnwood Roots project is a classic example of how this is done very well. But then, Richard III’s reinterment isn’t history in that sense: there are no documents being read; no digs being conducted; no surveys; no interviews; no reports.

I think too that today opens up bigger questions. How to handle human remains with respect is one that has been oft discussed in both news media and academic texts. How much involvement do the greater public have a right to, in situations like this, especially when it is something that the individual concerned cannot consent to. Richard III cannot consent to either his reinterment in Leicester; or the events of today, or even his manner of initial burial and eventual (temporary) burial place. Who has the right to decide what happens to an individual after death? Richard himself made plans for a tomb, as most kings did, but they were never carried out. Henry VII, the man who beat him, rests in Westminster Cathedral. In history, the resting place of a monarch has often been decided by their successor; Henry VIII completed the tomb of Henry VI, for example, but Edward III made sure that the tomb of the somewhat disgraced Edward II was tucked away out of (what was then) public view at Gloucester. Others have had their resting places determined by those who controlled them in life: Catherine of Aragon was buried at Peterborough on the orders of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots in the same place on the orders of Elizabeth I. Bring that forward to the modern day. Diana’s death showed, very clearly, the right that the general public felt they had to grieve, and to access the royal family at a time of immense sorrow. In the first ‘funeral’ (which is what everyone is calling it, although it is strictly speaking, a reinterment) of a King of this country since 1952, one has to wonder: what will happen when our present queen dies? How much ‘right’ will the general public have to her funeral ceremonies? Will her coffin, disasteful as the idea may sound, be carted around the world for all to pay their respects? What differences will be shown because of the immediacy of her life, and her death?

It will be very interesting to keep watching the events of this week, and to consider the questions raised by the events, and what they mean for historians working in various fields.  If I’m quite sure about anything, its that far from settling anything, the discovery of Richard’s bones, the study of them and popular reaction to him, this journey and his reinterment has and will only serve to keep discussion about him, his life, and his implications alive for quite some time to come.

Impact of a simple egg

The severity of life as a soldier during the First World War was highlighted for me just now, when, in doing some research into the local history of a small village in Shropshire, I ran across the following entry. It seems that during that war, schoolchildren in the village would collect eggs to send to military hospitals for patients there; it helped to enliven their diets. They would write their names and addresses on the eggs in the hope of a reply. These are some of them. They testify to the impact that a simple egg gave to their lives; something that we today take completely for granted.

‘I happen to be boiling a few eggs for the patients so I thought I send you this pc. Many thanks for your kindness.’ E. Morgan, Private RMAC Orderly, Royal Herbert Hospital, Woolwich.
‘How I did enjoy my egg for breakfast this morning sunday with your address on. I thank you so much.’ Private A Trollope, Military Hospital, Hampstead.
‘Dear Friend, I must thank you very much for the eggs, they were very nice. This is a terrible war but hope it will soon be over and of course we shall be victorious. Yours, a Tommy’, L/Cpl H. E. Leake, sent from somewhere in France, on a postcard of a church. The name of the town was erased. Dated 8th August 1915.

The entry also relays that some of these messages led to ongoing correspondence with the men, sometimes even after they had returned to active service.

[P. M. Ray, Ashford Carbonel: A Peculiar Parish, (self published, 1998), p. 43.]