Great excitement and extraordinary interest was created at the Bristol Assizes, held in the month of April, 1835, before the Recorder (Sir Charles Wetherell), by the trial of a woman named Mary Anne Burdock, who stood indicted for the wilful murder of an old lady named Clara Anne Smith, who had been her lodger, and whom, it was alleged, she had poisoned with yellow arsenic, to obtain possession of her property. The trial commenced on Friday the 10th of April, and was continued through the whole of that day and Saturday, and the Recorder did not proceed to sum up till Monday, the jury having been kept under the care of the proper officers during the whole of the time.
The evidence was circumstantial, but perfectly conclusive. It appeared that the deceased, a widow aged sixty, went to lodge with the prisoner at Bristol, in the year 1833, and was known to be possessed of considerable property, in sovereigns and bank-notes. She had a brother-in-law residing at Oporto, and a nephew in this country. She died on the 23rd of October. Shortly afterwards an undertaker, named Thompson, was sent for by the prisoner, who told him she had an old lady dead in her house, who died very poor, and had no friends, and who must therefore be buried at as little expense as possible. A coffin and coffin-plate, on which were the deceased's name and age, were in consequence provided, and the lady was interred in St. Augustine's church-yard, at eight in the morning, of the 80th of October. The prisoner, previous to this, was very poor, and lived with a man named Wade. Subsequent to the funeral of the deceased, she suddenly became possessed of wealth, and said she had been left a large property by her uncle. Wade went into business, but died in the April following, and made a will, by which he settled considerable property on the prisoner, including stock in trade, valued at 700l. She was also proved to have 600l. in cash. She told one of the witnesses that a rich old lady had died in her house, and left her property to Wade.
Matters went on thus till December 1834, when the relatives of the deceased, hearing of her death, went to make further inquiries respecting her fate and property. This led to investigations which created suspicions of foul play, and it was determined that the case should undergo a searching scrutiny. Inquiries had previously been made of the prisoner, who gave up some papers of the deceased, but denied that she had left any property. The body was exhumed, the place of interment and the coffin being distinctly sworn to by the undertaker, who also swore to the shroud and other articles on the person of the deceased. The body was then opened by Dr. Riley, the physician of the Bristol infirmary, assisted by Mr. J. J. Kelson, surgeon. Dr. Symonds, and Mr. Herapath, a lecturer on chemistry, and was found in an extraordinary state of preservation, notwithstanding the time which had elapsed since its interment. There was a quantity of water in the coffin, which covered part of the body and legs. The stomach and abdomen were laid open at once, and it was discovered that the integuments had been converted into adipocire, which is a hardening of the fat, or animal soap. The stomach was carefully taken out, and found to contain a quantity of yellow arsenic. The contents of the stomach were submitted to various chemical tests, all confirming the belief that yellow arsenic had been administered, and was, in fact, the cause of death -- in all other respects the subject was healthy, A beautiful preparation of the stomach was produced in court.
This fact established, other witnesses were called to bring the crime home to the prisoner. A seaman, named Evans, proved that he lodged with the prisoner when she passed as Mrs. Wade; this was in October 1833. She asked him to purchase two-pennyworth of arsenic for her about six days before Mrs. Smith died, saying there were rats in the house (this was proved not to have been the case). He accordingly purchased the arsenic from a druggist named Hobbs, in the presence of two witnesses, all of whom confirmed his statement. He gave the arsenic to the prisoner, and she put it in her pocket. He was in the house when Mrs. Smith died, and heard Wade and the prisoner laughing during the night. The prisoner said the deceased died poor, and she should sell some plate she left to pay the funeral expenses. He had seen the deceased with a gold watch and chain about a month before.
The actual administration of a yellow powder (the arsenic no doubt) was proved by a girl named Mary Ann Allen, who had been engaged to wait on the deceased, and who saw the prisoner put some yellow powder out of a paper, which she took from her pocket, into a basin of gruel, which she subsequently gave to the deceased -- shortly after which the poor creature was seized with dreadful convulsions and died. After her death the prisoner opened a cupboard and drawers, and applied abusive epithets to the deceased, and conducted herself in the most unfeeling manner, exclaiming, "Only think of the drunken old b--- having this," &c. She told witness never to tell anything of Mrs. Smith, or who she was, or what she was, nor that she had ever lived with her; and, if any one asked, to say she was a stranger and a foreigner, from far away in the East Indies; "Nor don't you ever tell any one," said she, "you saw me put anything into the gruel, for people might think it was curious."
These details were confirmed by other witnesses, including the mother of the girl, and a servant who at the time lived with the prisoner. Mr. Charles Read, a wine-merchant, who knew the deceased's brother-in-law in Oporto, then proved that in November after her death, he went to the prisoner's house and saw her and Wade. He made inquiries as to Mrs. Smith's property. The prisoner said she died very poor, and that her clothes were in so bad a state that she was compelled to burn them, and that she would not produce anything belonging to her till he paid the funeral expenses, which amounted to 15l.; he went again the next morning, when Wade said there was a box which contained some papers belonging to the deceased; she ultimately agreed that they should each get a professional man to meet. They went again the next morning, and the box was at length produced and opened, and the papers were examined, and there was an old will of Mr. Smith's in favour of his wife. There were no deeds. Mrs. Smith had dressed very respectably since the death of her husband, five years ago. He knew she had possessed property. He had paid her 700l. in 1829. He paid her an annuity of 15l.
The case having been brought to a conclusion, some witnesses were examined to the character of the prisoner, who strongly protested her innocence.
On Monday the recorder summed up the evidence with great perspicuity, going through the whole of the testimony of the witnesses, and finally remarking on such parts as required explanation. He observed in his address to the jury -- "The issues of life and death were, by the constitution of the realm, committed to them, and not to him. The prisoner was charged with having murdered, by means of poison, a lady of the name of Clara Ann Smith, the poison being yellow arsenic mixed in water gruel. They would have to make up their minds upon the three following points:-- First, whether Mrs. Smith's death was occasioned by poison; secondly, whether that poisoning was carried into effect by the prisoner; and, thirdly, whether the prisoner knew that she was poisoning Mrs. Smith. If they were of opinion that she did administer the poison knowing it was poison -- if their consciences were made up on these points, however fatal and tremendous the consequences might be to the prisoner, they were bound to make a true deliverance between the king and the king's subjects, and they were bound to pronounce her guilty. They would have to exercise their judgment. The verdict was theirs, and not that of the court. They were charged with the duty of pronouncing the question of guilty or not guilty."
The jury retired for rather more than a quarter of an hour, during which time great and more than ordinary excitement was manifest in the court. The prisoner apparently retained the most perfect composure, her solicitors and other persons were crowded round her, with whom she appeared in most anxious communication; but her eyes were constantly wandering towards the door, in expectation for the jury's return, upon the countenance of each of whom she was observed, upon their leaving the court, to have looked with a steadfast wish to discriminate the opinion each had formed of her case. -- Upon an intimation that the jury were about to return, there was a general anxiety to obtain a sight of the prisoner throughout the Court, which occasioned so much noise, and cries of so various a nature, that some time elapsed before order could be obtained, or the judge had any power to proceed. The noise having somewhat subsided, the names of the jury were called over, and they were then in the usual manner asked what verdict they had to return, when the foreman, in a most solemn manner, and evidently with a great degree of feeling, returned the verdict of "Guilty."
The prisoner's countenance at this interesting and awful moment was slightly changed, but she addressed the judge in an audible voice, although rather faltering, saying, "My lord, I am innocent, I am innocent. Standing at this bar, I call upon the Almighty to put his judgment upon me if what I am now saying is not true. I know nothing of it; I am innocent; and the Almighty, I hope, will put his judgment upon me at this moment if I am not innocent."-- The learned judge then passed upon her the awful sentence of the law, directing her to be executed on Wednesday, and her body to be buried within the precincts of the jail. The prisoner said, in an audible voice, "May the Lord have mercy upon my soul." She was perfectly unmoved during the passing of the sentence. She was then removed, and immediately partook of refreshment under the dock. An immense crowd of persons was waiting in every avenue leading from the court; and, upon her departure from the Guildhall, on her way to the jail, she was assailed with the most frightful and discordant yells, the carriage in which she was conveyed being followed by a great concourse of people.
On Wednesday, the 15th of April, the unhappy wretch was hanged. During the religious service before execution she sat sullenly silent, never once rising or kneeling. At the conclusion of the sermon she got up without betraying any emotion, and left the chapel with firmness. But afterwards, when in the room under the platform, having her dress arranged, when the fatal cap was placed on her head, and the rope round her neck, she certainly joined in the prayers which the chaplain continued, with something like feeling -- repeating the responses of "Lord have mercy on my soul!" "Christ have mercy on my soul!" with earnestness. In this room she lingered long, and appeared to lengthen the time, and it was here generally expected that she would have confessed the justice of her sentence -- but, alas! she made no statement whatever. She ascended to the fatal drop with comparative firmness, but looked pale and ghastly, and evidently now felt intensely. She quickly dropped the handkerchief, and the fatal bolt was drawn at exactly twenty minutes before two o'clock in the afternoon. Her weight evidently caused instant death.
The wretched woman, it appears, was a native of Bristol, in which city she passed her life. She was forty years of age at the time of her execution.