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THE SPALDING POISONER . . . Edward Bell (3)

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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:
|Letter

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)

Hodson

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)

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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

Extract2

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”

Telegram

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)

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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.

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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.

Puvertoft

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.

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