Onion Pie Murder in 1852 by Sarah Ann French

In 1852, the Onion Pie Murder occurred. The case involved Sarah Ann Piper who married William French on 14 September 1844 in Hellingly, Sussex, England. She was heavily pregnant at the time and later delivered a strong healthy boy who they named James. As far as anyone knew Sarah and William had a happy marriage, so it came as surprise when she was convicted of feeding William a deadly dose of arsenic in his onion pie, which then resulted in everyone referring to the case as the “Onion Pie Murder.”

Onion Pie Murder - arsenic

Arsenic bottle. Public domain.

Sarah was only one of many females in the nineteenth century who used arsenic to murder someone. There was also a French woman Madame Marie Lafarge, who killed her husband in 1840 by placing arsenic in his soup. Two other well-known arsenic poisoners of the nineteenth century were Lydia Sherman, known as the Derby Poisoner, and serial killer Mary Ann Cotton.

Madame Lafarge. Author’s collection.

In the Onion Pie Murder case no one thought anything about William’s death initially. He had been having a few health problems, but everyone believed he was not sick enough to die and although his death seemed somewhat unusual it did not arouse anyone’s suspicion. Furthermore, according to London’s Observer, there was no reason for anyone to be suspicious after “an inquest was held on the body, and a verdict of ‘died from natural causes’ was returned.”[1]

Yet, the idea that William’s death was natural did not last long. The superintendent of constabulary, a Mr. Flanagan, began to “institute inquiries” about William’s death and the more he investigated the more misgivings he developed. Things did not add up for him and he soon focused on Sarah as the possible killer. He believed foul play was involved and his suspicions sparked the case being reopened and a second inquest began in February.

Supposedly the first thoughts of murder by Sarah may have begun after the Frenches house was overrun with mice. Having a mouse problem was not unusual at the time. They lived in a tenement and neighbors in another flat had experienced a mouse problem about a year earlier. So, on 1 November 1851, William bought arsenic to poison the mice and he did so again on 20 December 1851.

Evidence in the second inquiry showed that Sarah was also interested in purchasing arsenic. She had attempted to obtain the poison a couple of days before William’s death when she went to a Horsebridge shop and told the owner that she needed it for a farmer. The shop owner had none, and she was unable to obtain it. She then visited the wife of a farrier and veterinary surgeon named Naomi Crowhurst* of Stourbridge. While there Sarah told a servant named Harriett Wilmahurst that her house was “overrun with mice” and Crowhurst then sold her a “small parcel” of white arsenic:

“Mrs. Crowhurst did not weigh it, but wrote the word ‘poison’ upon it, and told her to be very careful, as many people might mistake it for magnesia, and that several people had been poisoned by it.”[2]

Also introduced at the second the inquiry was the possible reason why Sarah wanted her husband dead. It had to do with another man she fancied. According to London’s Observer:

“James Hickman, whose very appearance was very youthful, deposed that he had known Mrs. French for twelve months, and that he used to visit her house, as he was courting her sister, Jane Piper. He said that Mrs. French was very fond of him … She had often kissed him, and she said she loved him, but he refused to have any intimacy with her during her husband’s lifetime. She then asked him would he marry her if her husband was dead, and he replied, ‘Yes, as her sister, whom he was courting, had got another man.’ … Mrs. French gave [Hickman] a ring a month before Christmas to keep in remembrance of her, and she said she would expect him to give her a ring when they were married. He repeated, that he never was improperly intimate with her during her husband’s lifetime, but was about a week afterwards.”[3]  

Neighbors indicated that Hickman was often seen at the French home. William supposedly complained to his wife several times about Hickman’s frequent visits. These facts, along with the intimacy that began between Sarah and Hickman so soon after William’s death, coupled with Sarah buying arsenic indicated to police that she was the killer. She was therefore arrested.

The onion pie murder trial began in March of 1852. Sarah was prosecuted by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Creasey. As to her defense it seems she had no “professional assistance,” and, so, “at the request of the learned judge … [he] undertook to watch the evidence on her behalf.”[4] There was also a Mr. Rodwell and Mr. Barron aiding Sarah in her case.

Sarah’s defense included shifting blame onto Hickman. She alleged that Hickman was the main instigator of William’s death and that he had put arsenic in the onion pie when she wasn’t looking. Hickman had also contradicted himself several times during his testimony and information came to light “that when he heard the prisoner [Sarah] was entitled to a sum of money, which would enable him to live without work, he immediately broke off with his former sweetheart, and was evidently aware that he could not have the money unless the husband [William] was dead.”[5]

Testimony showed that William had complained of suffering “pains in his bowels” several days before his death. His first complaints of the pain began a week or so before Christmas, which was substantiated by corroborating statements made by Sarah. But the noticeable bowels pains began in earnest on Christmas Eve. Sarah also stated that she rarely made onion pie and that William saw it as a special treat. However, she noted that she thought the onion pie made him ill because he was sick after eating it.

There were also several other mentions of the onion pie. For instance, William’s brother John testified that he had last seen his brother alive on Christmas Eve and that before he ate the onion pie he was in good health. The day after Christmas, when William returned to work, he was sent home after he told coworkers that he had become very ill after eating his wife’s onion pie on Christmas Eve and that he had vomited “a good deal.” A third mention of the onion pie was made by Hickman during his testimony:

“On the night of the onion pie supper it was going on when I went in, and I think [Mr.] French had some pie on his plate when I went in, but I did not notice what he was eating. [Mr.] French did not offer me any of the pie. I think the crust of the pie was open … I did not see Mrs. French or the child eat any of the pie. … The day before Christmas-day I saw the deceased bring some arsenic into the house, and Mrs. French took it out into the brew-house. There was a small cupboard in that brew-house. The cupboard was under the stairs.”[6]

After William’s death, there were allegations that Sarah was not distressed. Nimrod John Willis, who was an assistant to a surgeon named Holman, was called to the French’s cottage where he discovered William dead. He maintained that he asked Sarah some questions and was surprised to learn that she had never called a doctor:

“I first asked the prisoner what had been the matter with her husband, and she said he had been ill for some days and had had a fit: I then asked if he had died suddenly, and she said he had. I then inquired what he complained of, and she said he complained of violent palpitation of the heart, and sickness, and faintness, and she also said that he had had fainting fits. When I expressed by surprise that she had not sent for a doctor, she said he had been ill before and had got better, and thought he should do the same again, and asked her not to send for a doctor.”[7]

Mary Bennett, a woman who knew both William and Sarah, testified at the Onion Pie Murder trial. She maintained that she had met Sarah in Chiddingly on the Monday before William’s death and that Sarah was going in the direction of Horse-green. According to Mary, Sarah told her that she had to hurry home so that her “old man” would not know that she had been out. In addition:

“[Mary] … also proved that just before the body of the prisoner’s husband was taken up she saw the prisoner [Sarah], who said to her that all she was afraid of was that they should find some poison in him. She likewise said that she had been up to the inquest … [Mary] …  asked her what she should do if they were to find poison … [Sarah] … said, ‘I have never bought any poison in my life, if these were the last words I have to speak’ … [and] afterwards said that she was in hopes they would not find any poison in her husband.”[8]

Among some of other the facts alleged at the Onion Pie Murder trial was information about that state of William’s body after its exhumation. The body was examined by Alfred Swayne Taylor (an English toxicologist and medical writer, who has been called the “father of British forensic medicine” and who was also involved in the case of British poisoner and serial killer Catherine Wilson). He was tasked with finding any signs of foul play and testified that he observed several patches of inflammation in the body and also stated:

“[T]he stomach was stained with yellow marks, and I have no doubt these yellow stains were occasioned by arsenic, which had been for some time in the body. Both ends of the stomach presented these yellow patches. Upon a minute examination of the intestines. I found general inflammation extending throughout the whole of them, and their contents contained arsenic. There were also appearances of violent purging, and the lower bowel was completely empty. I analyzed the yellow patches on the stomach, and produced the arsenic which I have now in my hand. The arsenic had sunk into the substance of the stomach, and had dyed the inner membrane of a yellow colour, and I am of opinion that it was administered in the form of powder in some liquid. I also analyzed a portion of the stomach that was not stained yellow, and I found arsenic absorbed in the very substance of it. The total amount of arsenic I extracted from a portion of the stomach was two grains, and I believe that a third grain existed in the other part of the stomach, which was not examined. I found arsenic also in every portion of the intestines… and there was arsenic in the very substance of the coat of the intestines. By different processes I procured two grains of arsenic, but a great more no doubt remained … Three or four grains of arsenic are quite sufficient to destroy life, and from all the appearances presented in the organs that were examined by me I am certain that the death of the party to whom they belonged was occasioned by arsenic. The poison may have been administered in repeated small doses, but from the state of the bowels I am of opinion that one large dose had at all events been administered twenty-four hours before death. The immediate effect of the administration of all doses of arsenic would be nausea, faintness, loss of strength, and indisposition to exertion.”[9]

Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the jury went out to consider the case, they looked at all the facts that included witness testimonies, Taylor’s findings that the poison may have been given in small amounts for an extended period of time, and the intimate connection that took place between Sarah and Hickman so soon after William’s death. The prosecution also noted that despite all aspersions that were cast Hickman’s way Sarah was the person charged with the onion pie murder. Moreover, the prosecution stated:

“[Sarah] was charged with a most dreadful offence, that of having wilfully and maliciously administered poison to her own husband and so caused his death … [and that] by the provisions of a recent statute, it would make no difference whatever in the result whether the jury should be of opinion that the prisoner actually administered the poison by her own hand, whether she knew of its being administered by any other person, or whether she had beforehand counselled the person to administer it. If, therefore, they should be of opinion even that Hickman had some hand in the affairs, or that he even administered the poison, … they should at the same time think that the prisoner knew of it beforehand, or that she in any manner counselled him to commit the act, she would still, in the eye of the law be guilty of the crime of murder.”[10]

Sarah’s fate was then left in the hands of the jurors. They retired at a quarter-past three and at five o’clock returned to the courtroom where the foreman stated:

“We find the prisoner guilty of murder; but some of the jury are of the opinion that the poison may have been administered by some other party, and that the prisoner was only an accessory after the fact, and we wish to know whether that makes any difference?’”[11]

It did not and the jury found Sarah guilty of “wilful murder.” She hung her head, and she did not reply when the judge asked whether she had anything to say. He then put on his black cap and addressed her stating that she had been convicted of murdering her husband by poison. The Morning Chronicle summed up the case:

“It was a crime, under all circumstances, of the very blackest dye, and she appeared to have committed it under circumstances of great aggravation. She must, therefore, entertain no hope of mercy in this world, and he [the judge] entreated her by a sincere repentance to prepare for the fate which so shortly and inevitably awaited her. He then passed sentence of death in the usual form.”[12]

Sarah had been supported by the turnkeys during the judge’s ruling and when she sank upon the verdict she was carried to the dock. Newspapers reported that Hickman was present when her death sentence was passed. He betrayed no emotion when she found guilty.

Before her execution for the onion pie murder, the prison chaplain maintained that Sarah confessed her guilt in the Onion Pie Murder and stated that she poisoned her husband. Supposedly she confessed her guilt again to the sheriff. She was hanged at the drop in front of the Lewes county goal on Saturday, 10 April 1852.§ A crowd of between 1,000 to 3,000 onlookers was present, as well as Flanagan with a large body of his men. According to the Liverpool Mercury:

“Some few minutes before twelve, the under-sheriff made the usual demand for her body. The wretched creature was then informed that the time had arrived for her sentence being carried into effect. She appeared greatly agitated and excessively weak, and it was matter of doubt whether she would be able to proceed to the drop on foot. [William] Calcraft, the Old Bailey hangman, having pinioned her, a procession was formed, and the miserable woman was led to the scaffold, supported by two turnkeys. … The executioner, with his usual alacrity, adjusted the rope and cap. The bolt, in the course of a minute or so, was then withdrawn, and the miserable woman was launched into eternity. It was some minutes ere she appeared to have ceased to exist, her struggles being rather long and severe. After the body hung one hour it was cut down and buried that afternoon with the precincts of the goal.”[13]


*Newspaper reports also sometimes spelled Naomi’s last name as Ewhurst rather than Crowhurst.
On 29 December William reappeared at work and worked the remainder of the week despite still not feeling well. However, on 6 January he was too sick to go to work. Sarah verified he was ill and told his coworker named William Funnell that he would be missing work that day.
Taylor specifically identified William’s body as having remnants of orpiment, a common monoclinic arsenic sulfide mineral, used as a fly poison and also used as a medicine in China, despite being very toxic.
§Interestingly Sarah had three years earlier been a spectator at the hanging of Mary Ann Gearing, who also murdered her husband and sons with poison.

References:

  • [1] The Observer, “A Wife Poisons Her Husband in Sussex,” February 9, 1852, p. 7.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The Morning Chronicle, “Assize Intelligence,” March 22, 1852, p. 7.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] The Morning Post, “Assize Intelligence,” March 22, 1852, p. 7.
  • [7] The Morning Chronicle, p. 7.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Morning Post, p. 7.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Liverpool Mercury, “Execution of Sarah Ann French for Poisoning Her Husband,” April 13, 1852, p. 2.

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