Dorset Assizes – John Hounsell was indicted for the wilful murder of Mary Hounsell, his wife

This post is a follow up on two previous articles I published here on The Lives of my Ancestors, and covers the well known Dorset story of ‘the murder that never was’ (or so claimed).
This is a transcription from a Newspaper Article, published on the 29th July 1839 in the Dorset Assizes of the Sherborne Mercury – Sherborne, Dorset, England. This is an interesting article because it includes all of the witness statements many of which I relate too.

The two previous posts were;

(i) John Hounsell Timeline

(ii) Widowed Lovers Accused of Poisoning their spouses

Dorset Assizes
29 July 1839 – Sherborne Mercury – Sherborne, Dorset, England

Tuesday July 23 1839
John Hounsell was indicted for the wilful murder of Mary Hounsell, his wife, by administering arsenic to her, of which she died on the 15th of November, 1838, at Powerstock.
Mr. Bond and Butt conducted the prosecution, and the prisoner was defended by Mr. Stock, the following is the evidence –
Robert Gale, sexton of the parish of Powerstock, in this county – I knew Mary Hounsell 8 or 9 years; she was buried about the latter end of last year, and I covered in the grave; I opened the grave again about 13 weeks afterwards; it had not been disturbed; the body was taken out in the presence of Henry Down and Mr. Southcombe, the surgeon, and others; I recognized the body as that of Mary Hounsell.
James Southcombe – I am a surgeon, residing at Bridport; on the 28th of February last I attended at the Church at Powerstock, and saw the body of a woman; the last witness was present; the body was much decomposed; I examined the body; the external appearance of the stomach denoted inflammation to a great extent; it had a green and yellow appearance on some parts of it; I then divided the stomach into two portions, by making two ligatures, and dividing between them; I examined the lower part; on dividing the stomach I found numerous gritty particles adhering to the inner coat of the stomach, which was excessively inflamed; I submitted these gritty particles to different tests: one part was mixed with charcoal and potash; they were placed in a clean glass tube, which was submitted to the heat of a spirit lamp, on which a metallic crust was formed in the tube, which is one of the indications of arsenic, the metallic crust exhibiting the appearance of arsenic in its original state; I boiled another portion of the gritty particles and applied the nitrate of silver to the liquor, and observed a yellow appearance in it immediately, denoting arsenic of silver, thus confirming the opinion that these gritty particles were arsenic; there was a very slight precipitate; I also placed some of the liquid on a piece of white paper, to which I applied lunar caustic, followed by ammonia, which produced a darker yellow appearance, which likewise confirmed the opinion; I tested another portion with sulphate of copper and ammonia, in a glass tube; I used three grains of ammonia, and five grains of sulphate of copper; this produced a grass green precipitate, which was the arsenite of copper; to another portion of the liquid I added sulphureted hydrogen, and a portion of distilled vinegar, which produce3d a golden yellow precipitate, leading to the same conclusion; I then divided the lower part of the stomach into several portions, and boiled the whole in water, afterwards applied the same tests to the liquid as I had to the previous liquid; the results corresponded with those of the former experiments; the other portion of the stomach was placed in a clean earthen jar, covered down and given to the constable, Champ, who was instructed to take it to Mr. Herapath; I saw no appearance of disease on the body with this exception, and can only attribute death to the poison indicated by the state of the stomach; the stomach was sufficiently diseased to produce death.
Cross examined by Mr. Stock – The analysis of the stomach took place at the house of Mr. Coppock, at Bridport; I have made experiments on arsenic, similar to those made in this instance; I saw no contents of the stomach, either fluid or solid; I have seen several cases of cholera, but have never examined the body of a person dying of it; considerable inflammation of the intestines accompanies that disease; I did not subject the precipitates obtained to any further test; I have heard that some tests have been considered unsatisfactory by some eminent chemists; I am aware that arsenic is sometimes used as a remedy for cutaneous diseases.
Henry Down – I am a carpenter living at Powertsock, and knew Mary Hounsell; I made a coffin for her, placed her in it, and screwed it down; I attended the funeral; I saw the same coffin taken up and opened; the body of Mary Hounsell was in it.
Samuel R. Champ – I am chief constable of Bridport; when the body of Mary Hounsell, was opened in Power Stock church, portions of the intestines, in two jars tied down, were given to me by Mr. Southcombe; I took them to Mr. Coppock’s at Bridport; I afterwards took a jar containing half of the stomach another portion of the intestines, to Mr. Herapath, at Bristol.
William Herapath: – I am a philosophical chemist, residing at Bristol, and have given particular attention to the subject of poisons, among other subjects. On the 2nd of March, the last witness, Champ, brought to me a jar tied down and labelled “part of the esophagus and part of the intestines of Mary Hounsell”, I also received a letter, in consequence of which I examined the contents of the jar. (the witness produced the part of the stomach.) In one part of the stomach, there was considerable extravasation; and in another part much inflammation; on opening the stomach first I found a yellow pasty matter, of which I have saved a specimen; the appearances of the stomach satisfied me that the foreign body in the stomach was arsenic in an altered form, and the inflammation and extravasation of the stomach were sufficient in my opinion to cause the death of the party; I proceeded to remove the whole of the yellow pasty matter by introducing the stomach into water, thus washing off the matter, which was the whole contents. I then observed that the arsenic had infiltrated the coats of the stomach; although the principal quantity of the substance was yellow there were a few perfectly white grains adhering to the surface; I selected a small portion of one of those 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, I proceeded to separate those foreign substances; by the assistance of ammonia I removed from it picromie of bile and sulphuret of arsenic, and the husk of the common oat. I then had left arsenious acid, slightly tinged with yellow, and freed from animal or vegetable matter. I then reduced the arsenic to the metallic state, I heated it with a current of air in a glass tube, by which the metal became converted into white arseious acid, by the oxygen of the air; I dissolved a small quantity of this in the water, testing it with the ammoniacal sulphate of copper, when I obtained pale “Scheele’s green” arsenite of copper; to another drop I added ammoniacal nitrate of silver, when I obtained yellow arsenite of silver; through a third drop I passed a stream of sulphureted hydrogen, and obtained the well-known orpiment called the sesquis ulphuret of arsenic; I have never found anything equal to these tests in efficacy; I have not the slightest doubt from these tests, of the presence of arsenic; the quantity of the arsenic found in a stomach is no indication of the quantity taken; the time required for destroying life after arsenic has been taken into the stomach varies very much; I have no doubt judging from the state of the stomach, and the quantity of arsenic found, that death was produced by arsenic; the husks of oats were those of oatmeal, and the arsenic might have been introduced in gruel; the symptoms of arsenic are vomiting, burning heat of the esophagus, over action of the intestines, intense pain in the stomach, and variable symptoms; the time necessary for arsenic to produce vomiting varies.
Cross examined – Metallic arsenic is not soluble at all. Arsenious acid or the white oxide of arsenic of the shops, is soluble only in small quantities, differing accordingly to the temperature and the state of the acid; there are two varieties, the glacial or transparent state, and the other opaque; the glacial or transparent state, and the other opaque, the transparent state will crystalize and become opaque by keeping; the quantity soluble is about nine parts in 100; it would be less soluble in cider than in water, because of the acid; arsenic is most commonly administered in gruel or other pasty substance. From experiments I have made, I cannot discover any taste from arsenic on the tongue, but there is afterwards a burning sensation in the esophagus. I am satisfied from the state of the stomach that considerable vomiting must have taken place. There must have been twenty grains found: some in the stomach, in the esophagus, and in the duodenum, and I am satisfied that some must have been decomposed; so that it is impossible to say how much might have been taken.
Elizabeth Gale – I am a widow, living at Powerstock. James Gale, my husband, died about old Christmas last. I knew Mary Hounsell and her husband. They also lived at Powerstock. I attended Mary Hounsell on the Monday of the week she died. Earlier in her illness I made a sweat for her. The prisoner was present. She was taken ill on a Sunday, and the sweat was made for her on the Tuesday after; and it was on the Monday after that I was again sent for. Her husband carried the seat to the bed room to give her; I afterwards went upstairs; her husband was there. She said she was sick and could not take anymore; she was vomiting; I saw her again on the next day or the day after that; she was still Ill; her husband then got some castor oil which I gave her. After Mr. Hounsell, the surgeon, came on Friday, I sat up with her all night. Mr. Hounsell sent some medicines which were given to her, and on taking which she vomited every time. The mixture was taken every four hours. The next night. On Sunday she was better. On Monday morning I went and made some broth. I then went home afterwards returned and made a cup of tea which I carried to her with a slice of bread and butter, and remained whilst she took it. She died about twelve o’clock at night on the Thursday, I was not then present; but was there before she died: her husband was then in the kitchen. Prisoner sent me to Mr. Roper, a druggist, at Bridport, before the illness of his wife, with a note. Mr. Roper gave me a small parcel in paper, which I put in my pocket. The paper afterwards broke in my pocket, and some part of the contents came out; I cannot tell what it was like when I afterwards examined my pocket, as I carry so many things in there. I afterwards gave the parcel to the prisoner. The day on which Mary Hounsell died I ate some pears, which I had in my pocket at the time I fetched the parcel, and they made me sick all the afternoon and night. I felt a flutter at my heart. There was no peculiar taste in the pears that I noticed. I examined my pocket the next morning, and found some white powder stuff, which I shook out near the window, I afterwards saw the prisoner. I sent for him and he came to me whilst I was in bed. I asked him what was in the parcel I brought from Bridport: he told me it was poison. After my husband’s death I was intimate with the prisoner, and went to Radipole with him. This might be a fortnight after my husband’s death. Prisoner had made me an offer of Marriage. Banns were published.
Cross examined – The sweat was made at the desire of the deceased, It was made of rosemary, hyssop, and beer. Prisoner is a cattle doctor, and people went to him for such complaints as the itch. At the head of Mary Hounsell’s bed was a shelf, on which I saw bottles, and pots, and boxes. Prisoner and his wife appeared to live happily together, and during her illness, he was very kind and attentive to her. Mr. Hounsell was sent for at his desire. Prisoner had frequently sent me to the druggist with notes for parcels.
John Abraham Roper – I am a chemist living at Bridport. I delivered at the coroner’s inquest a note I found on my file from the prisoner. I produce some common arsenic in a paper labelled as we sell it. I also produce some corrosive sublimate; we keep our corrosive sublimate in a wide-mouthed stoppered bottle. It is in grains somewhat larger then sand. The arsenic is in white powder.
Cross-examined – I have never known arsenic used for cutaneous diseases. Country people sometimes purchase small quantities.
Elizabeth Gale re-called – The parcel I had from the druggist was like this (arsenic). I fancy the powder in my pocket was rather rougher than this. It was gritty like this (corrosive sublimate) but not so rough.
Henry Mintern – Elizabeth Gale is my daughter. I went to her when she was ill, and examined her pocket. I found a little light powder there like meal; it was like this (arsenic) but not so white, from being in her pocket. I went the next day to Hounsell at my daughter’s desire. He went upstairs, where my daughter was in bed. I remained below, but heard her ask him what she had brought from town for him; he answered that it was poison. She said she had taken some in the pears she had eaten, which he advised her to take some castor oil.
James W. Daniel – I am a surgeon living at Bearminster, and was called in on the 16th November, to attend Elizabeth Gale, whom I found labouring under inflammatory action of the stomach and bowels. From what she told me she had been eating, and her symptoms, I should say distinctly the symptoms were those of poison from arsenic. She was seriously ill. There is no particular taste about arsenic. Corrosive sublimate has a peculiar burning and coppery taste.
Cross-examined – I saw James Gale twice during his last illness. I believe his death to have resulted from an hepatic affection. I was present at a post-mortem examination and there was an effusion in the chest and a considerable enlargement of the liver.
Elizabeth Biles: – I live at Powerstock, and was acquainted with prisoner and his wife before her death, I was there on the Friday that Mr. Hounsell was sent for. Deceased refused to have a doctor, but her husband was determined to have medical advice, and Mr Hounsell, the surgeon, was accordingly sent for. The deceased was still ill the next day (Saturday) being easier on Sunday. On Monday I gave her some medicine out of a bottle on the shelf. On Tuesday she was much worse. On Wednesday she said she had been very sick: she died on Thursday night.
Cross-examined: – Prisoner always appeared very kind to his wife. He seemed hurt at her death. She died on the 15th and was buried on the 20th of November.
John Hounsell – I am a surgeon living at Bridport; I was called in to visit Mary Hounsell, who complained of great pain in her stomach and bowels, and retching. I called again on the following day and found her better, with a basin of gruel in her hand. I was then desired not to call again, as she was much better. On the 14th I was desired to send some more medicine, as the symptoms had returned. I sent some, and said if she was not better the next morning, they send to me. I heard of her death on the 16th. I called at the prisoner’s house sometime afterwards, and expressed my surprise at his not having sent to me as he ought to have done. He said she was in a dying sate, and he thought it was no use to send. I assisted at the post mortem examination, and considered from what I saw that her death was occasioned by arsenic. My opinion agrees with that already expressed by the medical men who have been examined.
Cross-examined – I considered her, to be suffering from general inflammation, in which the bowels were involved. Sickness is sometimes observed in such cases.
Edmund Hounsell – The prisoner is my uncle. I remember the Sunday my aunt was taken ill. My uncle and aunt drank tea together in the little room adjoining the kitchen. I was in the kitchen. Elias Gale and George Biles called for some beer which my aunt drew for them, and then returned to her tea. After my aunt went up stairs to bed in the evening, I heard her vomiting.
Henry Gale – I was with my Uncle at the prisoner’s house on a Sunday, about 4 o’clock The prisoner and his wife were in the little room adjoining the kitchen. I called for some beer, which the deceased brought; she said something and went out at the back door, where I heard her very sick. Elizabeth Gale came in the evening.
Elias Gale corroborated the testimony of the last witness.
John Frampton – I am a coroner for this county. At the inquest on the body of Mary Hounsell, the prisoner made a voluntary statement which I took down: I did not, on that enquiry, receive any note from Mr. Ro???
The statement of the prisoner was read, in which he stated that he was in the habit of curing mangy du??? that the drug procured by Elizabeth Gale was used for that purpose; that he was also in the habit of curing the itch; and he instanced several cases in which he had been employed for these purposes.
This closed the case for the prosecutor.
Mr. Stock, for the prisoner, then addressed the jury contending that there was no evidence whatever to affect the prisoner. He would attempt to cont??? vert the opinion of Mr. Herapath and the medical gentleman as to the cause of death; but argued that all evidence was not such as to connect the prisoner with the administering of the arsenic.
Mr. Justice Erskine most ably and impressively summed up; and the jury, after a few moments deliberation, returned a verdict of Not Guilty. This concluded the business of the Assize.

Transcribed by Stephen Dawe-Kuta – May 2014

The Sherborne Mercury is out of copyright, but the compilation, the annotation and the textual, editorial, and introductory matter are the copyright of the editors, whose work should be acknowledged in any quotation or reproduction of this work.


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