In 1833, a small village in Kent, England became the focus of attention when the patriarchal head of a wealthy farming family wound up dead, presumed murdered after an attack on the entire household, presumed to be the work of Arsenic Poisoning. The 1830’s were on the eve of a new era in Forensics, and the previously vague symptoms of poisoning were being slowly unravelled and understood on levels far deeper than ever before, but would these new methods of detection prove to be enough to not only detect the presence of poison, but to finger the culprit and see them locked away for their crimes, or would the poisoner simply slip away into anonymity as so many had done in the decades and centuries before?
Hempel S. (2013) The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science. W. W. Norton & Company, London
Hughes, Michael F, et al. “Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: a Historical Perspective.” Toxicological Sciences : an Official Journal of the Society of Toxicology, Oxford University Press, Oct. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3179678/?report=classic.
N Hughes, Michael F, et al. “Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: a Historical Perspective.” Toxicological Sciences : an Official Journal of the Society of Toxicology, Oxford University Press, Oct. 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3179678/?report=classic.
“1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Orfila, Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure.” 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Orfila, Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure – Wikisource, the Free Online Library, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclopædia_Britannica/Orfila,_Mathieu_Joseph_Bonaventure.
The Morning Advertiser – Monday 11 November 1833, Murder of Mr. Bodle. p.3
The Morning Advertiser – Friday 8 November 1833, Murder at Plumstead. p.3
The Morning Chronicle – Thursday 14 November 1833, The Murder by Poison at Plumstead. p.3
Public Ledger & Daily Advertiser – Monday 16 December 1833, The Murder at Plumstead. p.3
If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving us a review over in itunes or your app of choice. It really helps us out. Cheers!
The Death of George Bodle & The Birth of Forensic Toxicology
In 1833, a small village in Kent, England became the focus of attention when the patriarchal head of a wealthy farming family wound up dead, presumed murdered after an attack on the entire household, presumed to be the work of Arsenic Poisoning. The 1830’s were on the eve of a new era in Forensics, and the previously vague symptoms of poisoning were being slowly unravelled and understood on levels far deeper than ever before, but would these new methods of detection prove to be enough to not only detect the presence of poison, but to finger the culprit and see them locked away for their crimes, or would the poisoner simply slip away into anonymity as so many had done in the decades and centuries before? This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Arsenic in the mid 1800’s
Any substance dangerous to living organisms that if applied internally or externally, destroy the action of vital functions or prevent the Continuance of life. This is the modern, legal definition of the term poison. This might seem simple enough, but in fact, it took many centuries to carry such a pinpoint definition. In the 16th Century, it was argued, with some success, that everything in nature had the ability to act as poison provided a large enough dose was administered or consumed. The history of poison and the human relationship with the various substances capable of poisoning has been a long and winding one, stretching back to the very earliest days of human existence.
Ancient humans used poisons to aid in hunting, treating the tips of their various weapons with mixtures to expedite the death of their prey. Various poisons are mentioned in the bible, in the ancient Greek texts, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Hindi Ayurveda and ancient Chinese script. In 399BC, Socrates, one of the earliest and most famous philosophers in western thought was put to death via the use of Hemlock poison. They have been involved with shaping human history and feature in legends universally throughout the world.
Some of the oldest poisons include Hemlock, Aconite, Opium, Lead and Antimony, but perhaps one of the most famous, and one which has littered criminal history for centuries has been the substance Arsenic, depicted with a characteristic emerald glow. The liquid form has such strong associations, that even those unfamiliar easily recognise the threat and meaning of a small, medicinal vial, innocent in all other appearance, except for a deep, green vibrance.
Rising to prominence in Europe during the middle ages, in the 1400’s, it was Arsenic that the Italian Borgias family allegedly used to destroy their political competition to rise to such powerful heights during the Italian Renaissance. Later, in the 1600’s, Giulia Tofana supplied a substance including Arsenic to Italian women that eventually led to the destruction of over 600 unwanted husbands. Though this figure directly linked with Tofana is likely inflated, the figure in general is probably in line with the reality once associated deaths that followed a fashion are taken into account.
Such are the legends of Arsenic and these legends fall in line with most people’s thoughts when the term is heard. In fact, Arsenic exists throughout the natural world, is encountered by all of us on a daily basis and throughout history has had many more uses than just a simple method for the destruction of life, from medicinal to artisanal. Arsenic has been used as a pigment and lines the walls of the Taj Mahal to colour its stonework. In medicine it was used to treat ulcers, abscesses, Leukemia and various skin conditions and in foodstuff it was used for centuries to colour cakes, sweets and various delicacies and yet it is its destructive properties that have preserved more than any other.
One of the primary difficulties for the authorities throughout history has always been in the detection of the use of Arsenic to bring about death. The effects of the poison crossover with so many common illnesses throughout history, that a multitude of poison deaths likely fell under the radar due to the ignorance of the medical profession and the subtlety of the effects, which heavily resembled food poisoning and dysentery, a pair of alarmingly common problems in times before a modern understanding of hygiene evolved. On top of this, it was transparent, flavourless, easily dispersed into hot food and liquids, resembled flour and sugar, was absolutely fatal in tiny doses and readily available. Commonly used as a pesticide, it rose to it’s famous heights in the 19th Century due to the fact it was so easily purchasable over any chemists counter for only a few pence per ounce, with little to no restrictions until the Arsenic Act of 1851, which even then, only introduced cursory measures of control, such as colouring the powder and documenting the details of sales made.
In the 18th Century, Arsenic became traceable with a series of tests involving complex, and unreliable chemistry, or incredibly basic smell tests, whereby the substance thought to contain arsenic was thrown onto an open flame, if the smoke was thought to have a garlic-like odour, then one assumed that the now destroyed sample contained a completely unknown amount of Arsenic.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that real strides began to be made in the detection of Arsenic for toxicological use. In 1811, the surgeon Benjamin Brodie tested various poisons on animals and documented their effects, publishing his work in a paper entitled “Experiments and observations on the different modes in which death is produced by certain vegetable poisons”. In 1814, this was followed by Spanish chemist, Mathieu Orfila, published his work “Traites des poisons”, detailing several tests for uncovering the usage of Arsenic as a poison in samples that led him to become known as the father of modern forensic toxicology. His studies published in 1814 and his continued work in toxicology helped Albert Swaine Taylor in his own work on toxicology, which culminated in the publication of his own paper in 1836, “Elements of Medical Jurisprudence”, that is widely accepted as the quintessential work on forensic toxicology for the time. This work detailed his own experiments and work on criminal cases as an expert. It was written in plain, easy to understand language that made it accesible to journalists, judges and even the most stubborn doctors of the age and listed exhaustive definitions for poisons across the board and their effects, as well as various ways to spot the effects of criminal poisoning, defining signs of death in a victim and how to recognise evidence of murder and foul play in a criminal case.
On 2nd November, 1833, three years before the publication of “Elements of Medical Jurisprudence”, the Bodle farm, on the outskirts of London, was waking for the day. Servants were arriving at the large, farmhouse that stood on the main street of the village of Plumstead, preparing to get on with their work for the day. It was a cold Saturday and before any work would begin for the laborers and farmhands, breakfast was to be the first order of the day. For several members of the household, however, it was to be the last.
The Bodle Farm
The Bodles were a wealthy farming family living in the village of Plumstead, Kent, just a few miles East of Wollwhich and South of the River Thames in what would now be South East London. In 1833, it was far more rural and although it’s population had doubled to around 2,200 since the turn of the 19th Century, it was still a relatively small farming community. At the head of the family was 81 year old George Bodle, a strong, sturdy old man who had spent his entire life working the farmland that he had eventually gone on to acquire. Although still in relative health for his age, most of his daily farmwork had been handed over to his son, John Bodle, affectionately known as “Middle John”. George had begun working as a tenant farmer at an early age, but throughout his life had gradually come to own vast swathes of farm and marshland, a small cottage on the same land, as well as two orchards and a host of farm and outbuildings, including stables, barns, cowsheds. Intotal he held around 40 acres of the local land and through this wealth had dabbled in dealing thoroughbred horses and held £3000 in stocks. In total, the old man was worth around £20,000 in 1833, the equivalent of around 2 million today. He was a well known local figure with a strong reputation as both an employer and a member of the community, previously having held the position of churchwarden for over twenty years.
George lived with his wife, Ann, in the main, two story, red brick farmhouse that backed onto the farms apple and pear orchards. Ann Bodle was 74 years old and finding old age a touch more of a struggle than her husband, throughout the summer of 1833, she had been more or less entirely bed-bound due to failing health. The couples home also consisted of two maids, Betsy, a young, deaf and dumb girl and a granddaughter of Ann Bodles from her previous marriage and 19 year odl Sophia Taylor, a maid-of-all-work who tirelessly looked after the day to day running of near enough every facet of the household. Another of Anns daughters, Elizaberth Evans often stayed over at the farmhouse looking after Ann since she had become increasingly bed bound over the previous months.
George and Ann had several children, Mary Ann Bodle had married a man named Samuel Baxter and the pair lived on their own farm less than five miles from the Bodle farm. Then there was the aforementioned Middle John, who lived in the farms small cottage, down the track from the main farmhouse with his wife Catherine and two sons, 23 year old Young John, 26 year old George and Catherine’s nephew, 15 year old Henry Perks, who also worked at the farm as a general errand boy. Middle John and Catherine had one daughter, Mary, though she had married and moved to Clerkenwell, in East London to open a coffee shop. Mary lived with her own family above the shop, rarely visiting the farm. The family employed a local girl named Mary Higgins as their maid-of-all-work, though hired might seem a touch optimistic. Many young girls in the position of maid-of-all-work found themselves on the bottom rung of the servitude ladder and more often than not worked for a roof over their heads, the position being the only thing keeping them out of the local poor houses.
At 6am on the morning of Saturday the 2nd November, Mary Higgins woke and got up to begin her morning routine of preparing the house for breakfast. When she went into the kitchen, she found Young John, already awake and sitting by the fireplace. This was not entirely unusual, but she was still getting used to seeing the young man so early. A few weeks prior, Young John had begun rising so early in order to visit the main farmhouse and help Betsy and Sophia with their early morning chores. Each morning milk would be delivered from the farmhouse to the small cottage, and when John asked Sophia if the delivery could perhaps include some cream at the same time, she replied that it could, if he were to come and collect it for himself. And so it was that Young John began to rise so early, though whether it really was for the cream or in an excuse to flirt with the young servant girls was a different matter entirely. In 1833, Young John would have been considered a rather vain young man, concerned with slicking back his hair with homemade pomade boiled up from animal marrow and the condition of his skin. Betsy and Sophia were both commented on by the locals as being very attractive young girls, so it’s easy to imagine that this morning routine was more about playful flirtations than dairy products. Young John was himself readjusting to life on the farm himself, as he had recently returned from London, where he had moved in an effort to set up a coffee shop like his sister, though unlike his sister, his efforts had tanked rather rapidly and he had ended up moving back to the cottage.
At 7am, as the sun was rising, Young John traiposed up to the main farmhouse just as Henry Perks and Sophia began their own work in the kitchen. When he arrived, he asked if either of the girls needed any help and was asked by one to go fill up the kettle at the pump for the families morning coffee. This was normally Henry Perks’ job, but that morning having been late to work himself, he had neglected to fill it and so Sophia passed the task over to Young John to get it out of the way of her own chores. Upon his return, not finding the fire yet ready, he hung the now full kettle back on its hook and went to answer the door. A local beggar had come by asking for financial assistance, Young John informed her that, regrettably, the master of the house was not yet awake and sent the beggar on their way. When he returned to the kitchen, Henry Perks returned and placed the now full kettle over the fire, Shortly after, Young John took his leave, collecting the milk he had originally came for to take back to the cottage.
By now the house was in full swing and George himself was awake, preparing for breakfast, though his wife Ann was still in bed, she rarely if ever got up for breakfast in recent times, owing to her health issues. George unlocked one of the kitchen cupboards with a key he kept in his pocket, and took out a jar of coffee to decant the days rations into a teacup, as he did on a daily basis. In 1833, coffee was still an expensive drink, with high import taxes on the beans paired with the fact that the vast majority of British colonial interests were in countries that grew tea over coffee, a supply of coffee was far and away one of the most expensive items in the household expenditure and it certainly wasn’t every family that could afford to stock the drink so readily. In fact, this was precisely why, when the Bodles were finished with it every morning, the kettle was placed outside the back door for a local Charwoman named Judith Lear to collect and take to her daughter’s family, to refill and reuse the coffee dregs for their own children.
When Judith Lear arrived on the morning of 2nd November however, she found the kettle by the back door, along with the two maids, looking incredibly unwell and both vomiting heavily, whilst complaining of burning throats. Judith sympathised with the girls briefly before collecting the kettle as usual and marched off back down the main street of Plumstead in the direction of her daughters small cottage. Fortunately, Betsy was soon sent after her by George Bodle to warn her not to touch the coffee and asked her to bring the kettle back to the farmhouse. When she arrived with the maid, she found George sitting in the kitchen, himself as ill as the servant girls, looking pale and complaining of severe stomach cramps, vomiting and a burning throat. Breakfast had, that morning, consisted of a simple piece of toast and the usual coffee, and as such, george was certain that something was deeply wrong with the contents of the kettle. He ordered Henry Perks to clean it, which he quickly got to work on in a corner of the garden, scraping the contents out onto the grass.
The day continued on with little in the way of recovery for George Bodle and the servants. At noon, Elizabeth Evans returned to the cottage, also sick and immediately went up to bed. As evening rolled in, Middle John showed up at the house to collect his days wages. It was, according to him, the first he had heard of the commotion that had been going on at the farmhouse all day. He found his father gravely ill, still vomiting and complaining of stomach pains and weak eyesight. Shortly after the doctor was eventually called in. Though it might seem strange to have waited all day to inform a doctor of the problems in the farmhouse, it can be easily explained by the prevalence of a disease common at the time nicknamed “The English”. The English referred to English Cholera, a blanket term used for several stomach problems common in the 19th Century, including Ataxique Fever, a form of malaria prevalent around marshlands, “The Bloody Flux” better known today as Dysentery, and “Vomiting Balck Matter”, a term that wrapped up several severe gastric diseases that might have wound up with the sufferer vomiting flecks of blood. Most of these issues had quick onsets and managed to pass just as quickly without the need of costly doctor visits and as such, many people were keen to ride them out rather than inconvenience both doctor and wallet for a cure that was unlikely to make a great deal of difference.
On this occasion, however, George saw fit to engage a doctor and so, at around 6pm, Doctor John Butler arrived at the farm and almost instantly came to a diagnosis that George himself had been suspecting, that the family had been poisoned, most likely with white arsenic, which he suspected had been mixed into the coffee that they all drank that morning. Doctor Butler prescribed egg whites for the situation, one of a group of cures including castor oil, egg whites, sugar water and any other fluid that could be drunk to induce vomiting and hopefully, flush out any irritant from the stomach of the victim. George found little use in the egg whites and instead drank ale, whilst the servants stuck to the prescribed route. The doctor left that night and ensured the family to rest and await his return the next day.
The next day, Sunday 3rd November, however saw little in the way of recovery for George, who if anything looked worse than the day before, though he did remark that the servant girls were looking a little better and seemed to be showing some improvement in their condition. That night, he consulted with a doctor Thomas Sutton from london with whom his family had held close family ties for many years. The next day, Monday 4th November, Doctor Sutton went with Doctor Butler to the farmhouse and confirmed that he too believed George to be suffering from Arsenic poisoning, though it seemed that George had at least finally stopped vomiting and his eyesight too appeared to be slowly improving. He still complained of severe stomach pain, however, and the doctors both noted that he seemed to have a raised pulse. On his next visit, Tuesday 5th November, Doctor Butler was not to issue any advice, but instead was called to the farmhouse to confirm the death of george, who had passed away that evening, with his son, Middle John by his bedside.
The Last Will & Testament of George Bodle
The following day, the last will and testament of George Bodle was opened and the contents likely came as quite a shock to several members of the Bodle family. As it turned out, George had recently re-written his will with the aid of his son-in-law, Samuel Baxter. In short, George Bodle left almost everything to his wife, Ann Bodle, including his liquors and household stores, along with the use of the house, orchards, and all the profits of the farm, for as long as she remained unmarried and his widow, or until her own death.
On the result of Anns death, or her re-marrying, the property would then find itself being split up between Middle John and Samuel baxter, with Middle John faining the farmhouse and the cottage in which he currently lived, 13 acres of farmland including the orchards, along with 3 acres of marshland. He would be entitled to all profits made by the farm, but all of this came with one caveat. He was not able to sell any of the farm, but instead was to act only as overseer until his own death, which would then see his share of the land divided amongst his children, which they were able to do with as they pleased, including selling it off.
Everything else, including all the stables, yards, gardens, 11 acres of land was to be given to Samuel baxter and unlike Middle John, Samuel was permitted to do with these as he pleased. Meanwhile, Samuels wife, Georges daughter was to receive all the stocks and dividends.
Undoubtedly, this would likely have come as a frustrating shock to Middle John, who had laboured the farm for his father for the better part of his life, only to find out that he was little more than a caretaker and whilst the profit would have been a relatively healthy income, the inability to have any freedom with the land at all, whilst his brother-in-law was afforded all the freedom in the world with his share, was undoubtedly felt as something of a kick in the teeth.
Doctor & Detective
In the few days that had passed by while george had slowly died, the rumour mill in the small village had not been quiet on the matter. A well known and respected man, seemingly poisoned was not something to pass up a good gossip about and suspicions and rumours quickly began to fly. Hot at the top of the list was the whereabouts of Young John, who had seemingly run away since the morning the families illness had begun and it had already been noted that he had himself filled the kettle with water before mysteriously going missing. This rumour was not made any the less potent, when it began to circulate that George had told Middle John on his deathbed that he knew he had been poisoned and he knew it to have been Young John.
Doctor Butler, keen to play detective, as all doctors were impressed to do before the formation of the relevant bodies in the newly created Metropolitan police in the 1830s, had throughout his trips already started to collect evidence from the scene after his early suspicion of Arsenic poisoning. He had already collected a sample of Georges vomit, scrapings from the kettle in the garden from where henry Perks had cleaned it out, as well as general questioning of the members of the household in regards to their knowledge of poisons and their suspicions as to who the culprit may have been. In 1830, the first course in forensic medicine made its way into the curriculum for genuinely qualified doctors, though it wasn’t until 1833 that a 3 month course in forensics became mandatory. Although Doctor Butler had qualified long before such courses were part of the training to become a doctor, he was less bumbling than many of his time and had been keen to brush up on his knowledge and stay current and so, fortunately, much of the evidence collected by him over the past days was relatively well collated and collected by the doctor cum detective. That night upon his leaving the farm, he visited the local magistrate and reported the death and his suspicions concerning poisoning. Due to the sheer amount of rumour that circulated the village, the magistrate enlisted the aid of the local constable to investigate the matter.
Doctor Butler returned the next day and sent Judith Lear down to her daughters cottage in the hope that she might still have some of the coffee dregs from Saturday morning, and as luck had it, she did. Judith returned with the scrapings, though fresh water had been added to grains and they had been reboiled, it was better than nothing. The Doctor then took the coffee jar from the cupboard and scraped out an amount of coffee from the side and handed over all the collected evidence to Micxhael Faraday, who was currently working as a Professor of Chemistry at the nearby Military Academy. Michael Faraday, however, was far too busy becoming a world famous scientist in the field of electro-magnetism to become involved with the case personally, and as such, he palmed the work off to his assistant, James Marsh, himself an accomplished chemist and scientist in the field of electro-magnetism.
Meanwhile, rumours in the village were inflating, stating that Young John had recently bought Arsenic from a chemist in Woolwich and had run off to his sisters coffee shop in london. Perhaps more damning was the rumour that he had been overheard boasting about killing his grandfather and that he had spoken out about killing both his grandfather and father, so that he could be a rich man in recent weeks. In light of the rumours, Clerkenwell PC James Morris was ordered to visit the coffee shop and take Young John into custody, which he promptly did on Wednesday 6th November, catching up to him in the rear parlour of the coffee shop,
“Going up to him, Morris said, “John, I want you.” Bodle said, “You can’t want me, you mean George?” “No”, said Morris, “You are the person I want and I arrest you in the King’s name.” The young man was so alarmed that he instantly fell to the ground in a fainting fit.”
After Young John had recovered from his fainting fit, PC Morris took him into custody and set about delivering him to the inquest which was due to begin on Wednesday 6th November. The next morning he took a key from Young John and opened a safety box at the coffee shop belonging to the young man finding inside three packets of Arsenic powder along with a solution in a small bottle. He pocketed the items and then proceeded to get drunk in one of the local pubs, apparently in order to “shelter from the rain” though it seems he visited at least three different establishments and spent up to 7 hours in one. During this time, he would later ensure investigators that he only had one drink and feigned drinking any more, presumably out of reasons of politeness. In truth, however, in a scene that resembled something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he passed the evidence around the pub and watched on as the Arsenic powder was opened up, smeared on drunken faces and spilled down clothing, somehow he actually managed to drop and smash the bottle of fluid, though he did his best to collect the remains. In good spirits, he then picked up Young John and set off to the Inquest, conveniently being held at a pub in Plumstead named the Plume of Feathers.
The first morning of the inquest saw the 17 men of the jury visit the body of George Bodle at the farmhouse, before returning to the Plume of Feathers to see questioning begin proper. James Marsh, the Chemist in charge of testing the samples collected by Doctor Butler told the coroner that he had found a quantity of Arsenic within the kettle, though could not ascertain how much.
Sophia Taylor, George and Ann’s maid was then called, however, she was still to ill to make the trip to the pub and so instead the coroner and jurors visited her at the farmhouse, where she ran the group through her events of the morning, including how she had asked Young John to fill the kettle with water and how she had made the coffee, as she did every morning and had found the coffee pot “perfectly clean”. Events then returned, once again, to the pub.
Henry Perks was next up and similar to Sophia, he told the inquest of the mornings events from his own perspective, though he did include that he had not known Young John to have ever filled the kettle before, before leaving the stand.
Then came the star of the show. Young John was brought into the room, according to the press, looking “firm and unembarrassed.” Woolwhich Chemist, Joseph Evans was called to positively identify that Young John had visited his store on two occasions in the weeks prior to the murder in order to buy Arsenic, which he did, along with stating that Young John was well aware of the “destructive powers of Arsenic” as he intended the powder be used to kill rats, which had been killing his fowl. Evans suggested that “a considerable amount” of the contents from one of the Arsenic packets was missing, though how much had been used by Young John and how much could be found on the floor of a pub in Clerkenwell was anyone’s guess. Further, a third Arsenic packet was missing altogether, though this was eventually explained by PC Morriss and Evans. After visiting the Chemist following Young Johns arrest, perhaps somewhat hung over, Morris had left one packet behind on the counter, which the chemist had later stumbled across and thrown out.
The first day of the inquest ended in a rather difficult exchange concerning who was to pay for the inquest and investigation, which was decided to require the opinion of three “medical gentleman”. Since the Bodles were a wealthy family with adequate means to pay and since the evidence that would be gleaned from the investigation would relate to the death of George Bodle, he assumed the Bodle family would pay the costs. He was sorely misjudging the willingness of both Ann Bodle and Samuel baxter, who both flatly refused to foot the bill, pushing the costs onto the Parish instead. This only went on to later fuel more rumour within the village, when some questioned what the family had to hide. Eventually the proceedings were wrapped up at 6pm, with the inquest adjourned until further scientific evidence could be returned , both from a post-mortem to ascertain the cause of death and the evidence from James Marsh who was busy testing the various samples. Not wanting to commit Young John to jail to await the continuance of the proceedings, the coroner agreed to allow John to stay with PC Morris on the request of his father, Middle John, who agreed to pay his keep during his stay.
On Thursday 7th November, three doctors, including Doctor Butler, the physician who had originally visited the Bodle Farmhouse on the day of the poisoning, gathered around George Bodles body and prepared to perform the post-mortem examination. Doctor Butler worked as an assistant alongside Doctor Francis Bossey, whilst Doctor Samuel Solly, a senior lecturer in medical Anatomy in London took the lead. Upon completion of their examination, they were unable to find any singular cause of death, but did find several inflammations in the gullet, lungs, stomach and intestines, along with discoloration within the stomach that suggested some “irritating matter” had been ingested and ruling out any natural cause for death. Officially, the cause of death was listed as,
“General disturbance of the constitution produced by the introduction of some irritating matter into the stomach.”
They also concluded that it would be likely that the same matter would not have been strong enough to kill a young, healthy person, a fact reflected in the fact that the servants of the farm were all slowly recovering their ordeal. They also confirmed that the only poisons strong enough to have produced the discoloration in the stomach and the level of irritation of the digestive system would have been tartar Emetic or Arsenic. After the examination was complete, the contents of George Bodles stomach was packed up and shipped off to james Marsh, who was busy himself, testing the various samples in an effort to prove the existence of Arsenic.
James Marsh had already completed the burn test on a sample of the coffee and concluded that it did give off a subtle garlic odour. Unsatisfied with the evidence, however, he continued on in an effort to refine his results. First up was the Silver Test. The Silver Test was developed in the late 18th Century and involved pouring a solution of Silver Nitrate over the sam,ple wishing to be tested. The chemist would then wait to see whether or not a yellow cloud would appear in the solution, that would eventually turn the entire, opaque solution, a transparent yellow. If this happened, it was assumed that Arsenic was present.A similar test involved Copper Sulphate, which turned the solution green in a positive reaction. The problem with both of these tests is that it neither quantified the amount of Arsenic present, nor differentiated any natural presence of Arsenic in any sample tested.
The only other tests available to Marsh were reduction tests, a series of tests developed in the 1820’s and early 1830’s that gave similarly shakey results as the Silver Nitrate and Copper Sulphate tests.The reduction test involved heating a sample, which, if any arsenic was contained, would release oxygen, leaving a metallic Arsenic residue on the test tube glass, this would be heated once more, reducing the residue to Arsenious Oxide.
Ultimately, James Marshes tests were the best he could do for the time, but left him with no solid evidence either way, though he did provide results that showed that no Arsenic was found in the sample taken from george Bodles stomach, vomit, nor the scraping taken from the kettle that had been cleaned in the garden. He did, however, discover traces of Arsenic in the sample of coffee taken from the coffee pot retrieved from Judith Lear’s daughter’s cottage by Doctor Butler.
Muddling matters somewhat, Doctor Butler returned to the Bodle farm to see if he could glean any further evidence whilst the inquest waited upon the evidence from Marsh and he discovered that although the cupboard that contained the coffee had been kept locked and the key only held by George and Ann Bodle, the lock was, in fact, broken and entirely dysfunctional.
The inquest resumed on Monday 11th November to great interest. During the adjournment the press had pounced on the story and it had now become national news, interest in the details of the inquest commanded a new level of attention. The piece that was published on the 8th November publicly called out Young John as the primary suspect and painted him in a particularly dim light,
“The person suspected as the perpetrator of the horrid crime is his own grandson, John Bodell, a young man whose character in the neighbourhood stands in very bad repute. It appears that on Sunday morning last the supposed murderer went to the residence of his grandfather at an early hour and long before the servant had arisen, and proffered his services to light the deceased’s fire, boil the kettle,and clean the hearth. He was desired to go away out, but he would take no denial. He had never before made a similar desire. He placed the coffee-pot upon the fire and quitted the house. The deceased and his family, consisting in the whole of six persons, partook of the coffee, and shortly afterwards they became very ill, and retched violently.
“It is ascertained that the Prisoner had made several purchases of arsenic from divers chemists in the vicinity, and it is also conjectured that the identical poison which has proved fatal to the deceased was bought at the shop of Mr. Evans, of Powis- street, Woolwich. His father, in speaking of the lamentable occurrence, has been heard to declare his opinion that it was the intention of the Prisoner to make him the next victim.”
Aside from painting John John as an outright murderer, the piece appeared to highlight Middle John as he casually threw his own son under the bus.
On top of all of this, the second day of the inquest saw Mary Higgins, Middle John’s maid called to witness and she also wasted no time in supplying the rumour mill with their latest confirmations.
“Between dinner and tea on Saturday I heard the prisoner say he would not mind poisoning anyone he did not like. That observation was addressed to my mistress. My mistress said she would not risk her own soul into danger for any one. The prisoner replied, “Oh, I would not mind; just give me the stuff, and you will see.” My mistress said it was light talking. The conversation was then dropped and was not resumed. I heard the prisoner say one day in the week before the Saturday alluded to, that he wished his grandfather was dead, then should have a thousand, or hundred a year, I don’t know which. My mistress, to whom he made the remark, said “John, how can you talk so.” The prisoner replied that should like his grandfather to die one day, and his father the next.” I said “One should die one week, and the other the other, and then you will have time to settle the business.” I did not intend to convey any particular meaning in that observation. The prisoner replied, “Ah, that will do.” I think this took place Friday, November 1, but I cannot remember.”
This what pretty incriminating stuff from the maid and it was not especially appreciated by Mr Colquhon, Young Johns lawyer. He hit back in his cross examination of Mary, alluding to a sexual relationship between herself and Middle John, that previously she had been in love with Young John, but he had knocked her back and came close to straight out calling her a liar.
The remainder of the day saw Doctor Solly confirm the results of the post-mortem examination, along with the cause of death, James Marsh gave his test results.
The next day of the inquest took place the following day, Thursday 12 november, continuing from the previous day at 9:30am. The mornings proceedings commenced with Sophia Taylor giving a statement, now almost entirely recovered from her own effects of poisoning. The days most interesting witness, however, was undoubtedly Middle John, who now saw fit to make public his father’s final words on his deathbed,
“What did he say? – I asked him if he had any suspicion as to who it was. Did your father know he was in a dying state? – I think he did. What answer did your father make to your question? – He said he was satisfied it was not me who did the deed. But he was well convinced who did it. It was, he said, your son John, and I am well convinced he did it.”
Young John now found himself, with anecdotal evidence from both his father’s maid and his own father himself, heavily stacked against him, staring darkly down the barrel. The only light for him throughout the whole day was when his mother was questioned and she strongly knocked back Mary Higgins’ statement, calling it all “pure invention”.
The third day of the inquest resumed the following day, and saw both middle return to the stand for questioning. During his questioning, Young Johns lawyer made a strong attempt at lampooning his character to the jury by mentioning his previous run ins with the law and charges of fraud. The day also saw Middle John pitted against Mary Higgins, whose statement continued to prove to be controversial, as Midle John called her a “False Wench” for fabricating conversations between himself and the various servants.
The fourth and final day of the inquest saw Middle John return to the stand and continue to give evidence. The problem the coroner was finding with Middle John though, was that much of what he was saying was seemingly contradicting his own words, day to day. It seemed as though Middle John was struggling to recall what he had said to whom and when. Whether or not it was innocent was irrelevant, it certainly didn’t look too good to the court when the coroner pointed out, rather sharply,
“Why there is another contradiction in your evidence. Do you know the situation in which you are placed?”
Young John took the final place at the stand and he read a long statement that attempted to clear up much of the facts that had been construed by rumour as suspicious. Principally, he declared that he had bought the Arsenic to cure “the itch”, better known as scabies. He had used the poison to make a solution he rubbed on his skin, a remedy that he had been advised to use by a Doctor Halifax. Finally when asked if he would swear that when he filled the kettle, he did not put anything inside, he replied,
“I swear, I positively did not.”
His statements were all in vain, however, as when the inquest was summarised the next morning and the jury sent out to deliberate their verdict, they came back after just thirty minutes with a guilty verdict of wilful murder against Young John, who was promptly sent to Maidstone gaol to await his trial proper.
Between the Inquest and the trial, George Bodles funeral was held at St. Nicholas Church in Plumstead. The 23rd November also saw PC James Morries, the police officer who had arrested Young John before going on a bender to “shelter from the rain” was suspended from duty due to drunkenness and incompetence.
Young Johns trial began during the winter assizes for 1833, on Friday the 13th December. Having previously seen a dry run go awry, Young John was not especially buoyant upon his appearance in the courtroom next to Maidstone Gaol, though once again, he had enlisted the aid of a lawyer to help him with his defense. The trial took just two days and really only seeing highlights when Middle John was called as a witness, a situation the defense heavily pushed for and that the prosecution had worked to avoid. He explained that he had been quick to accuse his son on account of the words his father had spoken to him on his deathbed and that many of Mary Higgins statements against him were patently untrue. At least one of her statements alluded to Middle John knowing details of the poisoning at the farmhouse several hours before he himself claimed to know them. The final highlight of the trial lay in Young johns defense, he stood and read out a prepared statement to the court,
“Gentleman of the jury – Notwithstanding the time which this trial has already occupied, I feel myself under the necessity of intruding upon you some observations in answer to the case which has been attempted to be proved against me on the part of the prosecution. And when, notwithstanding that case, I can solemnly assure you, not only my conscience acquits me of guilt, but that I have the strongest conviction of being able to satisfy you of my innocence.
“A variety of circumstances have unhappily combined to place my conduct at the time this event occurred in a doubtful light, and, unexplained, to excite and justify your suspicion. Of these circumstances you will find that some were the result of mere accident; but I shall be prepared to show you that others have been fabricated, in pursuance of a deliberate design so to mix up falsehood with truth as to make me the victim of an unjust accusation, and, by sacrificing the innocent, to screen the really guilty from judicial investigation.
It was serious and dramatic stuff, his statement admitted to him having filled teh kettle,m but that it was not unusual for him to do such a thing, he pointed out that in visiting his grandfather’s house in the mornings to collect milk, many “innocent freedoms and familiarities” between himself and the servants, which led him to often helping the girls with their chores whilst he was there and that these innocent flirtations were the motivation for him to visit the house at such an early hour. He made a solid point that no one is even sure if the poison was added to the kettle water, the coffee grains or the coffee pot itself, the second two of which, he had no contact whatsoever.
He then addressed his running away after the poison had taken place. In fact, he pointed out, he had made a previous engagement with his sister in London and that he had always planned to leave the village on that morning all along. He then showed the court a letter that confirmed the invitation. This he said, removed his absence from the village from suspicion and stated that when PC Morris came to arrest him at his sisters home, he made no effort to panic or run away, but instead went peacefully with the officer.
Next he addressed his possession of Arsenic and once again explained that he had used it for some years as an ointment for “The Itch”, he went further in this statement, however, and confessed that he had caught scabies from his father, who had bought the disease into the household some years prior when he was having an affair with another woman from outside the village. He claimed that due to the nature of the disease, the jury would surely understand that he might explain to a chemist that he instead intended to use the poison to kill rats, rather than rub it onto his skin. He had also procured two witnesses who knew him in the years passed who had known him to use arsenic in this manner and this, he said, should prove to the jury that this was no falsehood invented with which to escape him from his current situation, but plain, simple truth.
Young John then turns his attention to the anecdotal evidence provided by his father Middle John and the servant Mary Higgins. Without blinking he straight denied any of the statements made by them, called out their numerous contradictions and then pushed to show his father in the worst possible light,
“every person possessing common feeling, will here be desirous of asking what can possibly be the motive that has induced a father thus to conduct himself towards his child? Even if he really knew me to be guilty, would not a father, under ordinary circumstances, abstain from being the first to prefer an accusation calculated to bring his own son to a speedy and ignominious death? Gentlemen, my father has not, I grieve to say it, set a fit or worthy example to his family. It has been the lot of his children to see him imprisoned for malicious injury, and guilty of profligacy of all kinds ; but still the voice of Nature cannot be so absolutely dead within him as not to have left him the ordinary regard which even the brute creation exhibit towards their offspring. What, then, is the great, the overwhelming motive that has made him thrust himself forward uncalled for—unsolicited —to take away my life through the medium of this prosecution? To this question, gentlemen, I fear will be your painful duty to give a fearful, a dreadful answer. I would fain have avoided this topic, but a sense of the duty I owe to that supreme Being before whom I may (however unjustly) be presently called to appear, as well as the desire of self-preservation, which is the first and most powerful law of nature, compel me to enter upon it. What then, I again ask, could thus operate upon the mind of a father—what could induce him to become not only the willing accuser of his child, but the fabricator of false evidence against him? Can any adequate reason be suggested, excepting the desire to avert from himself the horrible consequences of this horrible offence? Can you, as fathers, imagine any less powerful motive that could actuate a father to sacrifice a son? Gentlemen, taking this, however revolting, to be the only true motive, what extraordinary light does it at once cast upon every part of this apparently mysterious transaction. You will have observed, in every stage of this proceeding, an extraordinary anxiety on the part of my father to show his own innocence of this crime, and my guilt. Before suspicion attached to anybody, you find him the first to ask who filled the kettle that morning—a which he already knew and which could only have been inquired of in order to direct the thoughts of others towards me. You find him proclaiming the fact of his not having been at my grandfather’s house that morning; and you find him lying in bed much later than usual, as if on purpose to be ready to show where he then was. But, Gentleman, how is it not shown that was out at my grandfathers the day before, when arsenic might easily have been put into the coffee jar, and the more easily because Sophia Taylor was out the whole of that day. This idea never occurred to any one for a long time, because the coffee jar was supposed to be kept in a cupboard always locked, and the key of which was in the possession of the deceased ; but on an inspection by the Coroner’a jury, it was found that the lock did not catch, and that the door could readily be opened by any person. My father had completely the run of that house—be knew every part of it—he had it clearly, therefore, in his power to open that cupboard, and do anything he pleased with the jar in which the coffee was kept.”
After watching his father throw him under the bus during the inquest, it seemed that now was the perfect time for Young John to return the favour.
He summed the long statement up with an appeal to the jury to understand the gravity of their decision, to look at the known facts and to make sure they were certain before they condemned a young man to death. When it came time that evening for the judge to begin his summary of the case, the jury stopped him in mid flow to confirm to him that they already had their verdict, without hesitation, Young John was found not guilty of the murder fo his grandfather.
After the excitement of the trial had calmed down, life in Plumstead slowly began returning to a level of normalcy. The authorities were left in somewhat of a bind, with everyone knowing that George Bodle had been poisoned, but there was no remaining evidence that could even begin to point a finger in the correct direction as to who the murderer had been. Young Johns statement had been fairly convincing for the jury, but it did not constitute hard evidence.
Young John went to stay with the Churchwarden, Thomas Cleeve, for a time until, several months later leaving the village with both the financial backing and well wishes of many members of the Plumstead community, aiding him in setting up a shop in Bishopsgate, London. Mary higgins, the servant girl who had been so outspoken in the witness stand during the trial was given financial aid from the local Parish, along with the train fare to her hometown in Broughton, where she went to go and live with her father.
Middle John fared less well, his wife Catherine left him shortly after the trial and took up a small cottage in plumstead, living independently, whilst his mother, Goerges widow, Ann died just three years later, aged 77. The property was left to Middle John, as per the request in Georges will, and he oversaw the land until his own death of Dropsy on the 17th October, 1843, aged just 58. The farm and all the land contained was promptly put up for sale to be divided amongst the surviving grandchildren of geroge Bodle shortly thereafter.
As for James Marsh, the Chemist, he found the case of George Bodle entirely unsatisfactory and set about inventing a test which could give a more definitive set of results when dealing with Arsenic poisoning in the future. In 1836, he published a journal entitled “Account on a method of separating small quantities of Arsenic from substances with which it may be mixed.” This journal documented what was to become the definitive “Marsh test,” a test that could not only test for the presence of Arsenic in substances and internal organs, but would later be able to measure exactly how much was present. Marsh had come up with an experiment that had the chemist introduce Hydrochloric acid to a sample, along with a quantity of Zinc, to create Hydrogen. When Arsenic came into contact with the Hydrogen in the sample, it would create a collectible gas known as Arsine which could then be ignited and the Arsenic collected in the form of crystals on a solid surface. Marsh designed the experiment and all the accompanying apparatus needed to conduct it in any lab throughout the world. Not only was it relatively easy and cheap to perform, but the materials used were simple to acquire. The test was not without its downsides, the gas produced was highly toxic, therefore care had to be taken when performing the experiment and there was a small possibility that the test, sensitive as it was, could detect quantities of Arsenic from the reagents themselves. Regardless, it was the most foolproof method available and far outstripped the previous, highly fallible, colour tests and it won Marsh a Gold Medal at the Society of Arts for his contribution to science and society. Just one year later, a Swedish chemist named Jons Berzelius improved upon Marshes foundations and found a way for the test to measure the precise quantity of Arsenic in a sample by weight. Newspapers, perhaps rather hopefully, claimed it to be a death knell for Arsenic poisoning the world over and in 1840, it was put to the test during a French poisoning case that reached global attention.
The death of Frenchman Charles Lafarge came just months after his marriage to wife Marie, a very well-to-do aristocrat who he had conned into marrying him under the pretense that he was a wealthy chateau owner. The reality, as Marie quickly came to find out after the pair wed, was that Charles was, in fact, on the verge of bankruptcy and lived in a rat infested house with his mother. Destined to live a life far below her station, Marie took it upon herself to seek a way out of the marriage that had quickly turned into a nightmare and very soon after, Charles found himself falling repeatedly ill, until his eventual death in 1840. Suspicion quickly fell upon Marie, and the aristocrat wound up on trial for murdering her husband shortly after. The entire affair made global headlines, mostly on account of a member of the noble class being forced to stand trial, but it stands in history as another, more poignant pivot-point. The trial was the first documented case of the use of the Marsh Test to determine the presence of Arsenic in the body of the victim and though it actually failed on the first two goes round, the third test proved positive. Once the Chemist could show the court that the first two sets of results were negative due to poor practice during the experiment, it was a simple matter for the jury to find Marie guilty and condemn her to hard labour for life.
This case launched the marsh test into the spotlight and saw it become the basis for a series of improvements that saw it as the defacto test for Arsenic poisoning in legal trials right up until the 1970s.
As for Young John, he was seen once more standing trial in 1836 for Larceny, although just like in the case of his Grandfathers poisoning, he was once again acquitted. After that, he disappears. At least, for a time.
Conclusion – The Plot Thickens
On the 5th of February, 1844, 11 years after the trial of John Bodle, just as the farmland was being put up for auction on account of the death of Middle john, a man named James Smyth found himself on trial at the Old Bailey, accused of 7 counts of extortion. He had pushed the buttons of the wrong target in a man named Thomas Robinson, who instead of capitulating to his demands, had set up a sting operation and ha Smyth arrested. Smyths racket was a simple, but evidently, rather lucrative one. In short, he would get chatty with loose acquaintances and then show up at their house late one night, uninvited. After spending some time chatting with them, he would leave the premises and everything would seem as normal. That was until the acquaintance would receive a letter from James the next day claiming that whilst at their home, he had lost a sum of money, in the case of Smyth, it was the insubstantial amount of £15. This money, he wrote, would need to be returned, for if it was not, then Smyth would enlighten the recipients employer and the public at large to the crimes that “committed upon his person” during his visit to their house the previous night. The allusion was clear and given that being gay was still a crime severely punished by law, whilst increasingly rare, it wasn’t until 1861 that the death penalty for those caugfht was officially abolished, the consequences for the victim could be, at the very best absoilute social ostracisation and at worst, a one way trip to the gallows.
As previously mentioned, however, Thomas Robinson was none too impressed with this attempt to extort money from him and so, he contacted friends for advice and with the help of a close friend and PC Joseph Mount, the trio set about capturing Smyth red handed. Robinsons close friend went to meet Smyth with £5, which he offered as a downpayment to buy Robinson a few days to gather the rest of the money to pay off the demands. Smyth agreed to this, but as soon as he accepted the cash, PC Mount stormed into the house to arrest him for extortion, the evidence in hand. Robinson needed only to triumphantly appear at the last to give a positive identification of Smyth and to see him carted off to Newgate Prison to await his trial four days later.
The trial was swift and on account of the seriousness of the crimes, saw little bluster. There was an interesting coincidence in a member of the prosecuting counsel, who was the same Thomas Clarkson who had defended John Bodle during his trial in 1833. James Smyth was promptly found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 20 years transportation, like so many, he was to be shipped off to a penal colony and placed out of sight, out of mind. Since the American War of Independence in 1775, the standard destination for a prisoner sentenced to transportation was Australia and so it was that James Smyth found himself awaiting shipment in Millbank Penitentiary. It was during the time he spent in Newgate, however, that has the most significance to the poisoning case of George Bodle. While he awaited trial, two shocking revelations came to the fore. Firstly, the Governor of the prison made the discovery that james Smyth had, in fact, been a pseudonym. James Smyths real name, was none other than John Bodle and he was the very same John Bodle that had stood trial, and been acquitted, of killing his grandfather 11 years prior. Evidently the shop he had opened with help from all the wellwishers of Plumstead had quickly run into the ground. Young John had then went to work in his relatives coffee shop in Shoreditch, but after a short period, had decided that a life of labour was not for him. He stole the families life savings of £80 and made a run for it and was not to be heard from again, at least, not until he found himself once again standing trial, this time for extortion.
There was to be one other revelation and this one, was perhaps even bigger than the first. At the same time as having his true identity uncovered, young John confessed to having killed his grandfather in 1833. Protected by law, that he couldn’t stand trial for a crime he had previously been acquitted for, James Smyth, AKA, John Bodle freely confessed his crime, the truth of which, according to newspaper reports at the time, “has been perfectly ascertained.”
John Bodle sailed for Australia in April and arrived after three months at sea, disembarking on the 30th July. His exploits here are unknown, at least for a while, until, in 1852, a newspaper report shows up offering the reward of £2 for the capture of escaped prisoner, one James Smyth. Given that the reward was never claimed and this is the final newspaper report on the matter, one can only assume that Young John managed to live out his days a free man, evading justice becoming something of a speciality for the poisoner who had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a judge, jury, village and through reports in the press, an entire nation.