Widowed Lovers Accused of Poisoning their spouses

On the 22nd March 1839 John Hounsell and Elizabeth Gale, neighbours in Nettlecombe, Powerstock, Dorset were arrested on suspicion of murdering their spouses.

I relate to both Elizabeth Gale (Nee: Minton) and her husband James Gale as 1st cousin 6x removed

Burial of James Gale and Mary Hounsell - 1839

Burial Record for Mary Hounsell – 20th November 1838 and James Gale – 14 January 1839

Marriage banns of John Hounsell and Elizabeth Gale - Powerstock, Dorset, England

Marriage banns of John Hounsell and Elizabeth Gale – Powerstock, Dorset, England – 17th February 1839



On the 27th ult. Mr. Frampton, one of the coroners of this county (Dorset) in consequence of a communication made to him by the magistrates acting for the division of Bridport, proceeded to make preliminary inquires with a view to ascertain whether it was necessary for him to issue a warrant for exhuming the body of Mary Hounsell, aged 34, who was interred in the parish of Powerstock on the 30th of November last, and also the body of James Gale aged 36, who was interred at the same parish on the 14th of January last. The coroner, after consulting with Mr. Samuel Cox, a magistrate, felt it his duty to issue the necessary warrants for the exhumation and holding inquests the following day.

The next morning at 9 o’clock a jury, chiefly obtained from the surrounding parishes, proceeded to the church to view the bodies, after which the coroner directed Messrs. Southcoome and Roper, surgeons, to make the necessary post mortem examination, who did so, assisted by Dr. Symes and Mr. H—sell? Of Bridport and Messrs. Daniel of Beaminster.

At the close of the day the medical gentlemen reported that they found, on opening the body of Mary Hounsell, the oesophagus stomach, and intestines showed external signs of high inflammation and that they discovered numerous gritty particles about the upper and lower orifice of the stomach. The medical gentlemen then requested the coroner to adjourn his court until the 8th inst, to enable them to complete their examination and apply the necessary test in the mean time. The coroner acceded thereto, and will resume the inquiry tomorrow at 11 o’ clock.

Since the adjournment the coroner has issued his warrant for the apprehension of John Hounsell, the late husband of the deceased Mary Hounsell, and Elizabeth Gale, the late wife of James Gale, the late wife of James Gale, who are now both in the custody to await the result of the inquest in the cause of the death of Mary Hounsell. The inquest as to the death of James Gale will not be gone into until after the examination of the other inquest.


On various occasions when the relics of a Saint were translated- the remains dug up from their initial burial site and removed to their final resting-place – it has been claimed that the body was in a perfect state of preservation, even after many years. This “lack of corruption” of the body has been taken as an indication of the sanctity of the person involved. But when the body of Mary Hounsell of Powerstock was disinterred in 1839, three moths after it’s initial burial, and found to be completely preserved, the cause was entirely different.

Mary was the wife of a cattle-doctor, John Hounsell. Over a period of nearly three weeks in November 1838, she was repeatedly taken ill with gastric pains and vomiting, and had twice been treated by a doctor. She eventually died on 16 November and was buried shortly afterwards, with apparently not the slightest suspicion attaching to the manner of her death.

During her illness a neighbour, Elizabeth Gale who prepared herbal medicines for her, as well as encouraging her to eat a little food, had frequently tended Mary Hounsell. This kindly neighbour was herself widowed soon afterwards when her husband, James Gale, died the following January. Again, not the slightest suspicion appears to have attached to his death. But only two weeks later this new widow, Elizabeth Gale, and the widower, John Hounsell, approached the vicar of Powerstock, Rev. George Cookson, with the request that he publish the banns of their forthcoming marriage. Apart from causing immediate local gossip, their indecent haste to remarry also seriously disturbed the vicar. So much so that he took it upon himself to employ someone to forbid the banns at the second publication, in order that a proper investigation might be made. Accordingly, he laid the matter before the County Coroner. Who ordered the disinterment of both bodies. On the night of 19/20 November 1839, the coffins of both the deceased spouses were dug up from the churchyard at Powerstock ready for the inquest and post mortem examination. The latter was particularly gruesome, not just from the nature of its findings, but from the manner in which it was conducted and in particular the site where it took place. The autopsy room was the Chancel of the adjacent Parish Church and the dissecting table was the Communion Table. Among those present in the Church, apart from the Coroner, the Jury of local men, and a Sexton, were half a dozen doctors from the area, most of whom had come out of the pure curiosity to watch their two colleagues perform a post mortem. In addition there were several onlookers who watched the proceedings through the Chancel window – including the anonymous author of the report that subsequently appeared in the Dorset Chronicle.

It can be imagined what a shock it must have been to everyone present when the sexton, after much persuasion, finally opened the first coffin and the body of Mary Hounsell was found in a complete state of preservation, even after three months in the ground. It was therefore with virtual disbelief that the second coffin, that of James Gale, revealed the horrific sight of a decomposed body consistent with its three weeks burial. Even when the perfectly preserved body of Mary Hounsell left no one in any doubt that she had been poisoned by arsenic, the adjoining inquest had to await the official analysis of the organ removed at the post mortem examination. These confirmed that Mary Hounsell had received many times the dose of arsenic needed to kill her, and without a moments hesitation the Coroners jury brought in a verdict of “wilful Murder” against her husband John Hounsell.

The second body, that of James Gale, confounded everyone’s suspicions, for not only did it show the expected amount of decay, but the subsequent analysis revealed not a trace of arsenic. The local people and perhaps the authorities also remained convinced that he had been poisoned by some untraceable poison, but in the absence of any direct evidence, no charges could be bought against his widow.

John Hounsell was brought to trial at the summer assizes at Dorchester. It was clearly established that he had made repeated purchases of arsenic, but this was shown by the defence – with supportive evidence – to be a common medicine used in the treatment of diseases in cattle as part of Hounsell’s work. After a straightforward but weak case for the prosecution, the defence set to work to show that there was an alternative explanation for Mary Hounsell’s death. Himself and his wife kept the arsenic, together with other drugs and medicines used by Hounsell, on a shelf above the bed occupied by himself and his wife. It was suggested that Mary Hounsell herself had taken the arsenic to save herself from a lingering death. When combined with the fact there was no direct evidence to connect the husband with the administration of the arsenic, this alternative explanation threw enough doubt into the minds of the jurors, that they returned a verdict of “Not Guilty. ”

Much to everyone’s surprise, the remaining banns of the marriage between Elizabeth Gale and John Hounsell were read in the Church at Powerstock, but there is no record that the marriage subsequently went ahead, or indeed of what happened to the bereaved widow and widower.


Below is the Times Newspaper report for John Hounsell accused of murdering his wife Mary Hounsell.


John Hounsell was indicated for the wilful murder of Mary Hounsell, his wife, at Powerstock, buy administering to her at different times several quantities of arsenic. Mr. Bond and Mr. Stock defended the prisoner. Several witnesses were called, whose evidence went to show that the deceased died on the 15th of November last, and that she was buried some few days afterwards. That, in the consequence of some suspicious circumstances arising. On the 28th of February the body was exhumed, and he stomach was examined be several medical men, and it being their conviction that the death had been caused by poison, some portion of the stomach was conveyed to Mr. Herapath, the celebrated philosophical chymist, of Bristol. Mr. Herapath in the course of his evidence entered into a very scientific, interesting, and minute detail of the proceedings he adopted with the view of providing the presence of arsenic in the stomach of the deceased, of that statement the following is the substance. Mr. Herapath said I am a philosophical chymist, residing at Bristol, I have given particular attention to the subject of poisons. On the 2nd of March, Champ, the constable, brought me a jar, which was labelled, “Part of the stomach, part of the oesophagus, and the intestines of Mary Hounsell.” I operated upon the stomach. This is the stomach. There is a dark appearance from extravasation, and also a red one arising from inflammation. I found a yellow pasty mater lining the interior surface, of which I have saved a specimen. The appearances satisfied me that the foreign body in the stomach was arsenic in an altered form, and the inflammation and extavasation of the stomach were sufficient, in my opinion, to cause the death of the party. I removed the whole of the yellow pasty matter in introducing the stomach into water, thus working of the matter. I found the arsenic had got infiltrated into the ceat of the stomach; although the principal quantity was yellow, yet there were a few white grains adhering to the surface. I selected a small portion of one of the grains, and from it I reduced metallic arsenic by the ordinary process with soda and charcoal. Having satisfied myself that arsenic was present, and that it was mixed with other substances by assistance of ammonia. I removed from it the picremel of bile and sulpharet of arsenic, and the husk of the coremen oat. I then had asenious acid slightly tinted with yellow, and free from any other mater. I reduced it to the metallic state. I have it here. I heated it with a current of air. The consequence is, the metal becomes converted into white arsenious acid by the oxygen of the air. A small quantity of this was dissolved in water, and tested with the ammoniacal sulphate of copper, when I got “Scheele’s green” pale arsenite of copper. To another drop I added the ammoniacal nitrate of silver, and obtained the yellow aresenite of silver. Through a third drop I passed a stream of sulphuretted hydrogen and I obtained the well-known orpiment called the sesui-sulphuret of arsenic. I have never found anything equal to these tests. I have not the slightest doubt, from these tests, of the presence of arsenic. The quantity found in the stomach is never any indication of quantity taken. It is impossible to say how soon death may’ve occasioned by arsenic. I have not doubt judging from the state of the stomach, and the quantity of arsenic found that the death was produced within the last 48 hours of life. The inflammation and extravasation would be produced by arsenic. Violent sickness, burning heat of the stomach, over-action, of the intestines, and intense pain, and a set of variable symptoms, are produced by taking arsenic. Cross-examination. These symptoms are known to me by reading and well established facts, but I have never seen a patient under its effects. Metallic arsenic is not very soluble in water. Before it fell to the bottom of any liquid it would be seen as a white powder. I have generally found it has been administered in pasty matters, such as gruel, or on bread and butter. I don’t perceive any decided paste of arsenic on the tongue, but it causes a burning sensation in the back part of the mouth and throat. I have no doubt, from the state of the stomach, that there were 20 grains of arsenic in the stomach. Several witnesses were then called, but their testimony failing to bring home the administration of the poison of the knowledge of it to the prisoner, the jury at once found him not guilty.


5 thoughts on “Widowed Lovers Accused of Poisoning their spouses

      • Hello Stephen,
        I have done a little research, mainly via “The Hounsell” website but only managed to get back to my Great Grandfather.
        My Grandfather (Joseph Henry Hounsell) was born in Lyme Regis in 1870 and there appears to be no connection to the John Hounsell, the subject of the suspected poisonings.
        Interesting though, my youngest son is also called Stephen!
        Best regards,
        John Hounsell

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