Search results

"Mary Eliza Bell"

MARY ANN GARNER . . . A life and death (2)

Mary Ann header

SO FAR: March 1891. Mary Ann Garner, a 32 year-old widow, is living with her three children and teenage step son in a tiny end-of-terrace cottage in Stanley Place, Lincoln. She has been in a relationship with Arthur Spencer, a 22 year-old pork butcher. He has asked her to marry him, but she has refused. Spencer has not taken kindly to the snub.

On the evening of Monday 30th March Arthur Spencer arrived at 19 Stanley Place. He knocked at the door, and Mary Ann’s step son, John Henry Garner answered the knock. The subsequent conversation was later reported in court:
Mary Ann said, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” answered Spencer. (Earlier, Spencer had threatened to shoot Mary Ann and then himself if she wouldn’t marry him. She had not taken him seriously.)
She called out, “Have you got that pop-gun?”
Spencer replied, “No.”
Mary Ann said, “Let him in, John.”

At a court hearing, it was revealed that Mary Ann, despite appearing not to take Spencer’s threat seriously had thought of contacting the police. Spencer had previously lodged at the house, and she assumed that the young man had come back to collect his clothes and belongings. The sequence of events that followed was reported in a newspaper.

The shooting

Mary Ann was, sadly, beyond medical help, and she died in the small hours of the Tuesday morning. Spencer had been true to his word, and turned the gun on himself. It is debatable whether he exhibited the same fatal intent, however, as although he was taken to hospital, he was well enough to appear in court within a few days, charged with the murder of Mary Ann Garner.

At the subsequent coroner’s inquest, the effect of Spencer’s bullets was revealed:

“There is not much to add to the details published yesterday of the dreadful tragedy at Lincoln, except perhaps that later information only tends to intensify the horror which was felt at the cold-blooded premeditation of the murderer, for it was found at the post-mortem examination held on the body of the unfortunate victim that her assailant had fired four shots at her from the revolver. Two of these did no injury beyond causing superficial wounds on the woman’s body, but one fired into her breast and another at her back were both serious wounds. Either of them would have proved fatal.”

The melancholy sequence of events that follows a murder took their course. Mary Ann Garner was buried in Canwick Road cemetery on 3rd April, 1891. Arthur Spencer was brought before a coroner’s inquest, then the magistrates’ court, and finally the Assizes Court at Lincoln in July, where he appeared before Mr Justice Roland Vaughan Williams (below left), an uncle of the celebrated composer. The conclusion was inevitable, and on Tuesday 28th July, Arthur Spencer paid the ultimate price for killing Mary Ann Garner. The hangman was James Berry (below right)



The Gods of Misfortune had not finished their business with Mary Ann’s family, however. On Friday 28th June 1895, a newspaper ran this story:


It is a sad reflection on life that most murderers are men, and their victims are frequently women. The women should not be forgotten in Lincolnshire or anywhere else. Click the names below to read the stories of Lincolnshire women who met their deaths at the hands of men. By doing so, you will not bring them back to life, but at least they will not be forgotten. They are in chronological order according to when they were killed.

Louisa Hodgson
Louisa Hay
Mary Ann Garner
Harriet Rushby
Mary Eliza Bell
Ellen Kirk
Lucy Lingard
Sarah Ann Smith
Catherine Gear
Ivy Dora Prentice
Minnie Eleanor Kirby
Janice Holmes

THE SPALDING POISONER . . . Edward Bell (3)


SO FAR: Spring, 1899. Spalding farm labourer Edward Bell, seeking a relationship with a more sexually attractive woman, has poisoned his wife, Mary Eliza. While playing the part of the grieving husband at her graveside, he has already sent a telegram to the object of his affections, Mary Hodson.

On Sunday 30th April 1899, Edward Bell proposes marriage to Mary Hodson, and she accepts. Less than a week later, Mary Fox – Mary Eliza Bell’s mother receives an anonymous letter. It reads:

In a case full of improbabilities, this is the strangest occurrence of all. Why would Bell, believing that he had fooled everyone, then send a letter to his mother-in-law. virtually confessing to the murder of his wife? Whoever actually wrote the letter, there were immediate repercussions. Mrs Fox wasted no time in bringing the letter to the attention of the Spalding police, and Bell was arrested on suspicion of murder.

One might have hoped that Mary Eliza Bell’s sufferings had ended with her burial in the quiet churchyard of All Saints Orby, but she was to have one final indignity inflicted on her. On the order of the Boston Coroner, her body was exhumed,and she was eviscerated, her internal organs sent in glass jars to a senior pathologist in London, and he found ample traces of the poisons that caused her death.

Edward Bell’s luck had run out, after an improbable series of deceptions of family members, the medical profession, and the police. On Tuesday May 9th, 1899, he was arrested on suspicion of having murdered his wife. After a series of magistrate hearings and coroner’s inquests, he was sent for trial at the summer Assizes in Lincoln.

As Bell made a sequence of public appearances at hearings and inquests, one might have thought that public anger would be directed his way, but the crowds that use such court hearings as entertainment were more exercised about his love interest, Mary Skeels Hodson (below)


Edward Bell was hanged in LIncoln Gaol on Tuesday 25th July 1899. A newspaper reported the solemn occasion:

“The prison bell began to toll at about a quarter to nine, but some time before that Bell had been removed from the condemned call to the pinioning room. It was here that he was engaged in prayer with the Chaplain when the High Sheriff’s representative entered. The process of pinioning was then immediately began, Bell submitting himself with perfect quietness. While this fearful ordeal was in progress Bell turned to Dr. Mitchinson and, in voice that betrayed little agitation, thanked him for his kindness and attention, and then turning to the officials thanked them for their kindness. When all these preliminaries had been duly observed, the procession moved towards the scaffold. Bell walked with a firm step, and as soon as he stood on the fatal drop Billington speedily strapped his legs and adjusted the noose. The white cap was then drawn over the prisoner’s face, shutting out the light of earth from his eyes for ever.”

I  research and write about many historical true crimes. Almost all are committed by men, and with most of those, the victims are women. This story is from 1899, a time where women couldn’t vote, and had few legal rights regarding money and property. What chills my blood with this story is the stark reminder of the dire state of what we would now call sexual politics back in the day. Mary Eliza Bell – the victim in this case had, since she married Edward Bell in 1893, been constantly pregnant for as long as it was medically possible. From their marriage until her death in 1899, she had given birth to six children. Two survived. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to conclude that Edward Bell, faced with his wife’s understandable weariness with sex, would look elsewhere. He was still relatively young, virile, and presentable. Who better to satisfy his needs than a young woman, unburdened and undamaged by childbirth, in an adjacent cottage?

Edward Bell paid the ultimate price for his misplaced sexual energy, and we can only tip our hats to the wisdom of the judge and jury at his trial. He killed a decent and caring woman in, perhaps, the most brutal and excruciating way possible. For me, Edward Bell can rot in hell, but spare a thought for the countless women who, before the days of safe and effective birth control, bore the pain of being the legal victims of what used to be called ‘conjugal rights’.

THE SPALDING POISONER . . . Edward Bell (2)


Timeline new

Spring 1899. Edward Bell, farm labourer of Weston Marsh, Spalding,  is dissatisfied with his wife Mary Eliza, who has borne him six children in six years, and is determined to get her out of the way so that he can pursue a passion for a younger woman. Mary Hodson. He has bought poison from a chemist in Spalding. He has also bought a soda siphon. Over the weekend of 23rd/24th April he begins to administer the poison to his wife, mixed with the soda, saying that it is a tonic which will calm stomach problems from which she regularly suffers.

On Monday 24th April, Mary Eliza Bell begins to suffer agonising symptoms. Her mother is summoned from Orby to be at her side, and Edward Bell fetches the doctor, who diagnoses inflammation of the bowels. Over the next two days, Bell attempts to buy more poison and completely pulls the wool over the eyes of both the doctor and the chemist. What happened next is best described in the words of various astonishing reports in newspaper later in the case when Bell’s crime had been unmasked. These are  from the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent:

Extract 1


Bell’s behaviour might appal the reader over a century after his dreadful crime, but what he did next is little short of unbelievable. After watching his wife die in the extremes of agony, he calmly walked into Spalding again, knocked on Dr Barritt’s door, informed him that his wife had died, and asked for a death certificate, which the medical man duly wrote out, citing the cause of death as the bowel condition for which he believed he had been treating her. Wasting no time, Bell then organised the removal of his wife’s corpse to her home village of Orby. She left the family cottage in a cart, and her remains were conveyed by railway for the remainder of the journey.

Mary Eliza Bell’s funeral was scheduled for Saturday 28th April, and Edward Bell left left Spalding on an early train to play the part of the grieving husband, but not before finding time to send this telegram (facsimile below) to “Miss Hodson, Rectory, Barton-le-Cley”


Bell’s arrogance- or stupidity – is barely credible. And yet, and yet. He had already hoodwinked his wife, the local doctor, a Spalding pharmacist, so it is only to be supposed that he thought he was on a winning streak. What happened next was to show that Bell’s trust in the gullibility of both the law – and ordinary people – was misplaced.

NEXT – An anonymous letter,
the final indignity inflicted upon Mary Eliza Bell,
and, in the end, justice is served.

THE SPALDING POISONER . . . Edward Bell (1)


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.

Screen Shot 2022-01-27 at 19.32.54

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”.

Screen Shot 2022-01-27 at 20.07.48Edward 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.

THE SERPENT’S MARK . . . Between the covers

TSM header042

Modern readers don’t need history degrees to understand the savagery with which followers of different religious views are prepared to torture, maim and kill one another. Sunni against Shia across the Middle East; Roman Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland; both are all too recent in memory.

TSM coverLondon, 1591. Queen Elizabeth has ruled England for over three decades, but the religious fires lit by her father and then – literally – stoked by the Catholic zealots driven on her half-sister Mary, may just be glowing embers now, but the mutual fear and bitterness between followers of the Pope and members of the English church are only ever a breath away from igniting more conflict. Just a few short miles from England’s eastern coast, war still rages between the rebels of The Seventeen Provinces of The Low Countries and the armies of King Philip of Spain.

Nicholas Shelby is a young physician, brought up in the rural calm of Suffolk but, in adulthood, trained in medicine. He has practised his skill among London’s poor but also in the battlefields of Flanders, dressing wounds, binding shattered limbs and offering comfort to the dying. During a dramatic episode in the service of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s spymaster, Shelby has courted death, and endured the trauma of being unable to prevent his wife and child both perishing in childbirth. He has survived a period of suicidal alcoholism and is now slowly putting his life back together in the company of Bianca Merton an Italian born apothecary and keeper of a boisterous tavern – The Jackdaw – on the southern shore of the River Thames.

The arrival of a Venetian ship on Bankside brings not only Bianca’s cousin Bruno Barrani but a violent encounter in The Jackdaw which leaves the Venetian near death with a terrible head wound. Shelby ministers to the grievously wounded Italian, but is then summoned to an unwelcome reunion with the saturnine and deeply dangerous Robert Cecil. Shelby is already aware that Samuel, the young son of his former military commander Sir Joshua Wylde is afflicted with The Falling Sickness (epilepsy) and is being tended in rural Gloucestershire by a controversial Swiss doctor, Arcampora. Shelby has already agreed to give Wylde a second opinion, but when Cecil offers him a large sum of money to do exactly the same thing, he welcomes the opportunity to both repay a favour and line his pockets.

With Shelby is away in Gloucestershire, Bianca discovers that her cousin has brought to England a coded message concealed in the lining of an elegant and expensive pair of gloves. Shelby returns with serious concerns about the welfare of Samuel, and when he and Bianca decode the mysterious message, they realise to their alarm that they have uncovered a plot to use a hitherto-unknown child of Mary Tudor to undermine the rule of Queen Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism.

SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482This is a riveting and convincing political thriller that just happens to be set in the sixteenth century. The smells and bells of Elizabethan England are captured in rich and sometime florid prose, while Nicholas and Bianca are perfect protagonists; she, passionate, instinctive and emotionally sensitive; he, brave, resourceful and honest, but with the true Englishman’s reluctance to seize the romantic moment when he should be squeezing it with all his might. SW Perry (right) has clearly done his history homework and he takes us on a fascinating tour through an Elizabethan physic garden, as well as letting us gaze in horror at some of the superstitious nonsense that passed for medicine five centuries ago.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 21.06.14is a reference to the Rod of Asclepius, which was a staff around which a serpent entwined itself. This Greek symbol has always been associated with healing and medicine, existing even in our time as the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. SW Perry’s novel is published by Corvus and is out now.




Blog at

Up ↑