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’.