How I wrote Poison Panic by Helen Barrell
Poison Panic is perhaps best described as Victorian true crime…
It was a note scribbled in the margin of a burial register that first alerted me to the Essex poison cases of the 1840s. A man had died from arsenic poisoning, and his close relative had been executed for his murder. I had only been looking through the burials to put together my family tree, and suddenly I was drawn into a Victorian whodunit. Except they were fairly sure who had done it: in 1848, it took them only a couple of months from William Constable’s death for the culprit to be caught, tried and hanged.
William Constable’s death was not an isolated incident, and the more I read, the more I found out just how dangerous life in the 1840s was. If the cholera didn’t get you, then the arsenic left out for the rats might. I had discovered that, although none of my family were directly involved in any murders, they had been witnesses at trials and inquests. Their neighbours had died of arsenic poisoning, and in some cases, at the hands of infamous Victorian hangman William Calcraft. I even discovered that a relative of mine was on trial for arson at the same time that one of the alleged poisoners was in the dock.
My research initially began in the pages of old newspapers; fortunately, many are digitised so I could access them from the comfort of my own home over a cup of tea. But in one case, a rummage was required in a county archive for a missing page, which, it turned out, contained useful clues. I used my genealogical sleuthing skills to reconstruct the families of those caught up in Poison Panic, which meant I could explode some of the myths that cling to these cases. In the overheated press hoopla that surrounded the Essex arsenic poisonings, it was said that one of the accused women, Mary May, had killed sixteen of her own children. This number seems ridiculous, and when I traced her through the parish registers, it seemed that she had only borne eight children. Six of them had died, it was true – but certainly not sixteen!
Once I was happy that I had found out as much as I could from the newspapers, parish registers, censuses, and criminal registers, I was able to start writing. It took me a couple of attempts to get the voice right. I didn’t want to send my readers to sleep by being dry and boring, but I didn’t want to sound too casual or light-hearted – after all, people had died. Neither did I want to exonerate or accuse, as I wasn’t there at the time and didn’t have much in the way of new evidence, but it’s impossible not to question some of the verdicts.
As the newspaper reports were often verbatim, there are some splendid examples of direct speech that I was able to use, and in some cases I could reconstruct alleged conversations. It brings these people back to life, and they – almost – speak for themselves. Suddenly, we’re in a cottage, overhearing the desperate protestations of a woman who’s about to be arrested: “Oh Lor’, you think I got something and gave him, and killed him, I know that’s what you think. Poor old soul, I never hurt a hair on his head, he was the only friend I had in the world.”
I’d already begun the first chapter when I started to think about the layout of the book. How much background information could go in the introduction, and what could be woven through the ‘story’. For the book’s structure, it made sense to devote a chapter to each main case – there’s four, with a concluding chapter to tie everything up neatly at the end.
I had a deadline and I had a certain number of words to write. It’s amazing how this galvanises one’s mind! I set to work. By day, I’m a librarian, so I spent my lunchtime on supplementary reading, then in the evening, after attending to my partner and my cats, I would dive into the 1840s.
Interspersed with the actual writing of Poison Panic, were fieldtrips around Essex. I was born there, but I had never properly visited the villages in the book. Aside from getting some nice contemporary photos for Poison Panic, of the pubs and churches which are still there today, it was important for getting a feel for the places.
I could stand in the churchyard and close my eyes, and transport myself back. In the rural quiet, it wasn’t difficult to picture the solemn group standing at the graveside as another body was exhumed, and another arrest was made.
Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex was published by Pen & Sword on 30th June 2016.
Helen Barrell is an author of historical crime fiction and non-fiction. She is fascinated by the extraordinary in the lives of ordinary people. She has written for magazines such as Fortean Times and Family Tree, and is a guest blogger for Findmypast. She is currently writing Fatal Evidence, the biography of Victorian forensic scientist, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor.