Charlotte Bryant was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1904, her maiden name being McHugh. Little is known of her childhood, but by age 19 she was a nice looking girl with raven black hair and attractive eyes who fraternised with the British soldiers in the Province and was nicknamed “Darkie” by them. She was illiterate, ill educated and notably promiscuous. Her activities were strongly disapproved of by the Republicans and she was threatened with tarring and feathering – a fate that befell quite a few girls who went out with British soldiers during “The Troubles.”
Charlotte is pictured right with one of her babies when she was in her late 20’s.
In 1922, she met Frederick Bryant who was eight years her senior. Frederick was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He had served in the army during the 1st World War and was described as a simple country lad. He immediately fell for Charlotte’s physical charms. When Frederick‘s tour of duty ended, he returned to England and Charlotte went with him. They married a little while later at Wells in Somerset. Frederick resumed civilian life as a farm labourer and by 1925, was working as a cowman at a farm near Yeovil, in the village of Over Compton. Like most small rural villages there was little to do and even less excitement. Social life revolved round the local pub. In the 13 years of their marriage, Charlotte gave Frederick 5 children, although whether he was the father of all of them is open to question.
Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life, compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money. She was known as Black Bess or Killarney Kate by the villagers and was thought of as a drunken slut. Surprisingly, Frederickseemed indifferent to these “goings on” to use an expression of the time. As he told a neighbour “I don’t care what she does. Four pounds a week is better than 30 shillings” (£1.50 a week, which he earned as a cowman).
In December 1933, Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a horse trader and gypsy, who took up lodgings in the Bryant’s cottage and with whom she had an affair. In 1934, Frederick Bryant was sacked from his job as a farm labourer, as his employer was not happy about what was going on in his tied cottage. They then moved to the village of Coombe, near Sherborne, where againFrederick found employment as a farm labourer. The move did not change the domestic circumstances, Parsons simply moved with them and his and Charlotte‘s affair continued unabated.
Parsons did not live with the Bryants on a permanent basis but rather stayed there between business trips. He had a common law wife, Priscilla Loveridge, by whom he had fathered four children. Initially Parsons and Frederick Bryant appeared to get on quite well and drank together in the local pub. Domestic life, however, was somewhat different with Charlotte and Parsons sharing the marital bed while Frederick had to sleep on the sofa on occasion.
In May 1935, Frederick, who was then 39 years old, was taken ill for the first time, immediately after eating the lunch that Charlotte had cooked. He had severe stomach pains. Helped by a neighbour who induced vomiting, he began to feel a little easier. The doctor came to see him and diagnosed gastro-enteritis, and after a few days, Frederick Bryant returned to work. A further attack followed in August and again Frederick made a full recovery. In November 1935, Parsons dropped a huge bombshell into Charlotte‘s life by announcing that he was leaving. His stated reason was the lack of work in that part of Dorset, although the deterioration in Charlotte‘s looks may have had far more to do with it.
On December the 11th, 1935, Frederick was again taken ill with severe stomach pains from which, once more, he recovered. Charlotte continued to search for Parsons in the local pubs but without success. She did, however, form a new relationship with a woman called Lucy Ostler who was a widow with 7 children. Lucy moved into the Bryant’s home and witnessed Frederick‘s final attack on the night of December the 22nd, 1935. He once again suffered extremely severe stomach pains. This time it was so bad that he was admitted to hospital in Sherborne where he died in the afternoon of the 23rd. His death was regarded as suspicious by the doctors and therefore a post mortem was carried out. Analysis of his tissues by Home Office pathologist, Dr. Roche Lynch, found 4.09 grains of arsenic in the body. These findings were reported to Dorset Constabulary who visited Charlotte and removed her and the children to a workhouse in Sturminster Newton while they conducted a minute search of the Bryant’s cottage and garden. Of the 150 odd samples sent to the Home Office laboratory, 32 contained arsenic. Among the items recovered was a burnt tin which had contained an arsenic-based weed killer. Armed with this vital piece of information, the police systematically visited all the local chemists shops to try and establish where the weed killer had been purchased and by whom. Their efforts bore fruit and they discovered a Yeovil chemist who had sold a tin of the weed killer to a woman who only signed the poisons register with an X. (remember, Charlotte could not write, a fact known to all who knew her). The chemist, however, was unable to identify either Charlotte or Lucy Ostler in a subsequent identity parade.
On February the 10th, 1936, Charlotte who was still at the workhouse in Sturminster Newton, was arrested and charged with the murder of her husband. She is reported to have told the officers that arrested her, “I haven’t got poison from anywhere and that people know. I don’t see how they can say I poisoned my husband.”
The trial opened on Wednesday, May the 27th,1936, at the Dorset Assizes in Dorchester before Mr. Justice MacKinnon. It was to last just four days, which was by no means unusual in capital murder trials in those days. As it was a high profile poisoning case, the prosecution case was led by the Solicitor-General, Sir Terrence O’Connor. Charlotte was defended by the well known barrister Mr. J.D. Casswell KC.
The prosecution argued that the case was a classic eternal triangle and that Charlotte poisoned her husband to be able to have Parsons. They could not show direct evidence that Charlotte either bought or administered the arsenic although the circumstantial evidence supported this theory. Lucy Ostlertestified against Charlotte and told the court that on the night Frederick died, Charlotte had made him an Oxo drink and that he was violently sick after taking it. She also related how she had explained to Charlotte what an inquest was and alleged that Charlotte had told her that she hated Frederick and only stayed with him because of the children. She told the court about the tin of weed killer and how Charlotte had said that she would have to get rid of it.
She mentioned how she had found the remains of burnt clothing in the boiler and then discovered the remains of the tin amongst the ashes which she had thrown into the yard where the police discovered it.
Mr. Casswell was unable to shake Lucy Ostler who stuck to her damning allegations against Charlotte. Leonard Parsons’ testimony did not help her case either. He told the court how they had intercourse on numerous occasions. Nowadays, this may not seem shocking but in 1936, promiscuity and adultery were considered totally unacceptable and had the effect of painting Charlotte as a “scarlet” woman – something that probably bore considerable weight with the jury.
Forensic evidence was presented by Dr. Roche Lynch who had analysed the various samples taken from the Bryant’s home. He demonstrated to the court how arsenic could be dissolved in Oxoand not be spotted by a person drinking it. He also told the court that he had found that the ashes from the boiler in which Charlotte was alleged to have tried to destroy the weed killer tin contained 149 parts per million of arsenic whereas ashes normally contained around 45 parts per million. Altogether 30 witnesses had testified for the prosecution and painted a dire picture of the woman in the dock.
Mr. Casswell called Charlotte as a witness with some trepidation, but in fact she did much better than he expected. She denied knowing about poison or possessing any weed killer. She also demonstrated to the court that an old coat in which traces of arsenic had been found and which it was alleged that she had worn when she bought the weed killer, did not fit her at all.
Interestingly, she told the court that she was pleased when Parsons left their house and that she had lost interest in him, rather than the other way round.
Charlotte’s older children gave evidence next, but their testimony was in fact very damaging to their mother’s case. They related how she had asked Ernest, her older son, to dispose of some blue bottles in late December. Her daughter, Lily, told how she had seen Parsons with a blue bottle whose contents had fizzed when poured onto a stone by Parsons in front of Charlotte.
Once all the evidence had been heard and the closing statements made by both sides, Mr. Justice MacKinnon commenced the summing up. He asked the jury to consider two principle questions – was Frederick Bryant poisoned with arsenic and if so, was that arsenic administered by Charlotte. He noted that Charlotte had been present on each occasion her husband had been ill and that two of the bouts of sickness had occurred before Lucy Ostler (a possible suspect) had come into the household.
On Saturday the 30th, the jury after deliberating for just an hour returned a verdict of guilty against Charlotte. When asked if she had anything to say before sentence was passed, she replied in a calm voice “I am not guilty.” Mr. Justice MacKinnon had the black cap placed upon his wig and then passed the only sentence the law permitted in 1936. He sentenced her to be taken hence to the prison in which she had been last confined and from there to a place of execution where she was to be hanged by her neck until she was dead. Her body to be buried in the precincts of the prison in which she was last confined. To which he added the customary rider “and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul” There was considerable emotion in the court and Mr. Justice MacKinnon seemed to have difficulty saying these dread words to her. On hearing her sentence, Charlotte broke down and was led sobbing from the dock.
After the trial, Mr. Caswell received a letter from a Professor Bone who had read about the case in his Sunday paper. He told Mr. Caswell that far from 149 parts per million of arsenic that Dr. Roche had found in the ashes was on the low side for ashes and certainly not an unusually high amount, as Dr. Roche had told the court. Professor Bone later provided the defence with a signed statement to this effect.
Charlotte‘s appeal was heard on the 29th of June at the Appeal Court in London. Amazingly, the Appeal Court refused to hear the evidence of Professor Bone and concluded that even if the jury had been correctly advised by Dr. Roche, that the outcome of the trial would have been the same. Thus her appeal was denied and her sentence stood. At this time, it would have been unprecedented for the Court of Appeal to admit new evidence – it just concerned itself with the conduct of the trial. However, one could argue that Professor Bone’s statement was not new evidence but rather a correction of flawed evidence that had already been given at the original trial by the prosecution’s “expert” witness.
In the condemned cell.
Charlotte spent almost 6 weeks in the condemned cell, where her once raven hair had turned completely white, presumably due to the stress of her situation. She decided, after much agonising, against seeing her children as she felt it would be too much for them to bear. She was visited regularly by Father Barney, a Catholic priest, who prayed with her and had a small altar set up in her cell.
She began to learn to read and write with the help of the shifts of female warders who looked after her round the clock and was able to dictate a telegram to the King asking for clemency. She also wrote a letter in which she said “It is all fault ………… I’m here. I listened to the tales I was told. But I have not got long now and I will be out of my troubles. God bless my children.” The Home Office obliterated the name in this note so we will never know whose fault Charlotte thought it was.
A lot had been going on behind the scenes to try and save Charlotte. Sir Stafford Cripps, at that time a Member of Parliament, had applied to the Home Secretary to declare a mistrial and order a new one on the grounds of the flawed evidence. Questions had also been raised in the House of Parliament about the case and the usual petitions got up.
There appeared to be an unwritten rule at the Home Office that poisoners should not be reprieved and this practice was followed in Charlotte‘s case. On the Tuesday (the day before her execution), the Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, declined on the advice of his officials to grant a reprieve or a new trial. The prison governor had the unpleasant job of communicating this toCharlotte and telling her that the execution would take place, as planned, the following morning.
Strangely, Charlotte was neither confined or hanged at Dorchester prison (in the county in which she was convicted and sentenced) although it continued to have an execution chamber which was last used for the hanging of David Jennings in July 1941. Instead she was sent to Exeter jail, in neighbouring Devon, to await execution. Although nobody was executed at Dorchester during this time, the condemned cell may have been in use for a prisoner who was subsequently reprieved. Charlotte was led to the gallows at 8.00 a.m. on Wednesday, July the 15th, 1936 by Tom Pierrepoint assisted by Thomas Phillips. By an odd coincidence, a man called George Bryant (no relation) had been hanged the previous day at Wandsworth.
As was the norm, by 1936 Charlotte‘s execution was an entirely secret affair and there were no reporters present. However, she was attended by a Catholic priest, Father Barney, who was not bound by Home Office rules of secrecy. He later described her last moments as “truly edifying.” “She met her end with Christian fortitude.” He reported, however, that she never confessed to the murder.
In accordance with her sentence, after autopsy, her body was buried in the grounds of the prison, probably at lunch time, that same day.
Charlotte left the tiny sum of 5 shillings and 8 pence halfpenny (about 29p) to her children, who being now orphaned, were taken into the care of Dorset County Council.
Arsenic is a metallic poison and was one of the most frequently used poisons by murderers. It was still quite readily available in 1936, particularly in the agricultural and leather tanning industries. The poison’s register had to be signed when arsenic weed killers and rat poisons were purchased from chemist’s shops.
It causes vomiting and diarrhoea and its effects are cumulative. Thus it can be administered little by little over a long period of time, rather than in one large and noticeable (to the victim) dose. It builds up in the tissues and particularly in the hair and nails of the victim. By 1936, it was easily spotted by forensic scientists. A century earlier in 1836, English chemist, James Marsh, had developed a reliable test for arsenic in body tissues. His process was very sensitive and could detect as little as a fiftieth of a milligram of the substance. Prior to that it often went undetected when stomach upsets, dysentery and gastro-enteritis were all common and quite often fatal. This was due to the poor hygiene standards and lack of refrigeration in those days.
Britain’s most prolific female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, used arsenic to poison anything up to 20 victims in 1860’s and early 1870’s and nearly got away with it.
In view of the seriously flawed forensic evidence, should Charlotte have been granted a re-trial? Personally I think that on the balance of probability, she was guilty, but this piece of totally incorrect evidence surely made her conviction unsafe and unsatisfactory to use the modern term. The witness evidence and circumstantial evidence remains strong and it is probable that the right decision was reached. However, flawed evidence leads to a lack of public confidence in the justice system.
One wonders how much Charlotte‘s lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity played in the decision to neither reprieve her or grant a new trial. Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut. Were people like her simply expendable and their well publicised executions considered as a good lesson to other women not to stray from the “straight and narrow” paths of morality, as perceived by a male dominated society? It is noteworthy that Edith Thompson too seems to have been hanged more for immorality than murder.
An illiterate, 33 year old Irish woman with five children was hung at Exeter Prison on 15th July
1936 for poisoning her husband. The anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Van de Elst made
an appearance in her Rolls Royce at 8am outside the prison in protest, with a crowd of
about 2 to 3 thousand.
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