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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

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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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