Wiki tells us that Wrangle Tofts “is a 0.8–1 km-wide band of raised ground along part of the Lincolnshire coast, running between Wainfleet All Saints and Wrangle parallel to the Wash.” Toft is an old English word for homestead, derived from the Norse topf. The 1881 census tells us that one of the cottages on Wrangle Tofts was occupied by William Lefley and his wife Mary.
Mary was from the nearby village of Stickney, but William was born in in East Harling, Norfolk. Not that far away in these days, but far enough in 1884. William was described as a cottager, a person – usually a man – who leased a small plot of land with a cottage on it. The land was usually worked like a family vegetable plot and may have had a pen for a pig or a couple of sheep.
Contemporary accounts suggest that William and Mary shared a rather loveless marriage. There were no children. A modern family history researcher has suggested that Mary, the younger of the two, had another suitor, but there is no evidence for this, and it is pure speculation.
On the afternoon of 6th February 1884, William Lefley went home for lunch. He ate beef and potatoes, and then had some rice pudding. He became violently ill with sickness and stomach pains. He managed to get himself to the doctor’s surgery in Wrangle, and Doctor Bubb’s housemaid (Elizabeth Hill) later told the court:
” I remember the deceased coming to my master’s house on the 6th February. He asked for the doctor, and said he wanted him at once, as he had been poisoned by eating rice pudding. He was ill, and went to lay in an outhouse. He fell in the yard, was sick and very cold. After being seen by the Doctor’s assistant, he was taken home by a man named Chapman”.
Doctor Bubb’s sister also testified:
“I saw Lefley at my brother’s surgery. He said he had been poisoned, and was going to die. He vomited, complained of being cold, appeared be in pain, and groaned. He said he had had some pudding at dinner, and was quite well before he ate it, adding, “My wife has done it.” He said he should like to alter his will before he died. He had left everything to his wife, and his anxiety for the doctor was very great. He brought a portion of the pudding with him in the tin.”
Mary Lefley had prepared the rice pudding and left it for her husband to cook through, while she took the carrier’s cart in to Boston. By the time she returned, William Lefley was close to death. The court heard the sequence of events:
“About 6.30 pm. Mrs. Lefley came upstairs, having returned home from Boston market. Mrs. Lefley said, “Now then, what’s the matter?” William Lefley said, “You know what’s the matter; go away from me, I don’t want to see you any more.” Mrs. Lefley made no answer, and went downstairs. Another doctor was called, and he was at Lefley’s bedside when he died, just after 9.00pm”
Forensic science has come a long way since the death of William Lefley, but the work of the pathologist, exploring the remains of the human body, searching for answers, was well established in 1884, but not, perhaps in Boston. A macabre parcel was sent south, by rail, to Guys Hospital in London. In the shipment was a large stoneware jar containing the stomach, bowel, spleen, kidneys and liver of the dead man. Dr Thomas Stevenson testified:
“The stomach itself was red and highly inflamed, as if from the administration of irritant poison. The large mass of the small and large bowel, intensely inflamed so far regards the small bowel, had the appearance commonly observed after the administration of irritant poison. The jar also contained nine fluid ounces of bloody fluid. I found arsenic, which is an irritant poison. There was arsenic in the fluid in the stomach, the stomach itself, in the fluid the bowels, and the liver. These results, to me, say that arsenic had been administered during life, and had been absorbed into the system.”
Despite there being no trace of arsenic in the house, the police drew the inevitable conclusion, and acted accordingly.
IN PART TWO
Trial and retribution