It is April 1899, and we are in a sparsely inhabited area of England known today as South Holland. This is the southernmost part of England’s second-largest county, Lincolnshire, and it is a flat landscape with endless sky interrupted only by the odd spire or tower of a church. In Weston Marsh, a few miles from the bustling town of Spalding, live Edward Bell and his wife Mary. Bell is an agricultural labourer, employed by farmer Thomas Clayton. They live in a simple cottage, built and owned by the Clayton family, who have farmed the fertile soil for generations.
Bell and his wife, Mary Eliza, marry in 1893 in the church of All Saints, Orby – a village still in the Lincolnshire Marshland, but further north. Mary’s father works for the Great Northern Railway as a level-crossing keeper.
In the six years since their marriage – almost incredible to us in 2022 – Mary Bell has given birth to six children. Four perished, but the two surviving infants live with their parents. The family have only been at Weston for a matter of weeks, having moved from the employ of another Lincolnshire farmer, Thomas Snushall of Pulvertoft Hall, Gedney (below), a few miles to the north.
We know that all is not well between Edward and Mary Bell. Living in an adjacent cottage at Gedney, with her father, was a young woman called Mary Hodson. Attractive, and no doubt receptive to the attentions of 26 year-old Bell, Mary Hodson struck up a relationship with Bell, and evidence would later emerge that Bell had begun to mistreat Mary. I will return to this at the end of the story, but it is a sad reflection on the sexual politics of the time that we have a decent woman – Mary Eliza Bell – no doubt permanently worn out with childbirth and childcare, perhaps having put on weight, no longer the attractive person that she was, struggling to meet what her husband thought were his “rights”.
Edward Bell clearly saw a golden future in the person of Mary Hodson, and all that stood in his way was the presence of his wife. On Saturday 22nd April, Bell walks into Spalding and visits a shop in Spalding. Its manager, Algernon Molson, represents the Talboy Herbal Remedies Company. Bell says he has two problems. Firstly, toothache, for which he buys a quantity of laudanum (a tincture of opium in wine), and a plague of rats, for which Mr Molson sells him some mercury. The following Monday, Bell returns to the shop, and buys more mercury. He says his rat problem hasn’t been solved, and so the obliging Mr Molson sells him some strychnine. Come Wednesday, Bell pays another visit to the Talboy Herbal Remedies Company and asks for some prussic acid, saying he needs to poison an ailing dog. Finally, Mr Molson says, “no”, but does sell Bell another dose of strychnine.
NEXT: The agonising death of Mary Eliza Bell,
a funeral -and an exhumation.