When Joshua Bowers left for work in March 1881, he did not expect to be summoned home to be told that his second wife had taken her life and murdered two of their children. The day began like any other with Joshua walking to the farm of J Walter Hills where he was employed as a horseman. Around midday he was called back to the village to be told the awful news.
Born in Great Waldingfield, Suffolk in 1836, Joshua was the son of Peter Bowers, an agricultural labourer. He married his first wife, Emma Bird in 1859 and they moved to Upsher Green a small hamlet of red brick houses just outside the village. Their first child Henry Bird Bowers was born in 1859 and his brother Phillip Edmund Bowers followed shortly after in 1861. In 1863 Emma gave birth to her third and last child Elizabeth Sarah Bowers. The little girl died after a week and was buried on 24th March 1863. A week later Emma also died aged just 24 years.
With two small children to take care of, Joshua did not spend long looking for another partner and by May of 1864 he had married Susannah King, another resident of Great Waldingfield.
Their union produced six children, two boys and four girls. They lived together with the sons from Joshua’s previous marriage. Susannah’s health had been poor since the birth of her daughter Laura in 1880. She was both weak in body and prone to severe bouts of depression which, if treated today, might be diagnosed as post natal depression.
On Saturday 26th March 1881, Joshua Bowers left the house at about 9 o’clock to go to work. He was joined by his sons while his four daughters stayed at home with his wife. She had been complaining of a pain in her head and was lying upstairs in bed when he left.
The previous month, Susannah voluntarily admitted herself to St Leonard’s hospital in Sudbury. She had only recently come home. Her mother, Sarah King had cared for her since her return. Sarah was at the house that morning but left to collect her parochial relief just after Joshua departed. Susannah remained upstairs with the three younger girls while the eldest Elizabeth aged 13, scrubbed the floor downstairs.
Shortly after her grandmother left, Elizabeth was interrupted by her sister, 7 year old Ruth. Susannah had asked Ruth to fetch a razor to trim her corns. Elizabeth refused to let her younger sister have the razor so her mother came downstairs to collect it herself. Unconcerned, Elizabeth carried on with her chores. Moments later she heard a piercing scream coming from the upstairs bedroom.
She rushed upstairs to see two of her sisters covered in blood with their throats cut. Her mother was standing over the baby with the open razor, ready to cut its throat. Elizabeth tried to take the razor from her mother and her hands were badly cut in the struggle. She pleaded with her mother to stop but Susannah just said “Leave me alone, Lizzie”. Then she cut the throat of Laura, the youngest child. She turned towards Elizabeth who jumped from the top to the bottom of the stairs in fright.
Elizabeth’s screams alerted the next door neighbour, Mrs Carter, who ran upstairs and into the bedroom where she saw the three children with their throats cut. Susannah Bowers was still alive and walked towards Mrs Carter with her arms outstretched. Mrs Carter ran downstairs as fast as she could and ran straight into the path of another neighbour, Thomas Day, a beer house keeper.
By the time Day arrived upstairs, Susannah Bowers had cut her own throat and was dead on the bed beside her children.
Although two of the children were lifeless, Ruth Bowers was still mobile and required urgent medical attention. Mr Joseph Horsford, a surgeon of Long Melford was called and he tended to Ruth who was eventually saved. Nothing could be done for the other children who had died quickly. Susannah had cut both the trachea and jugular veins of baby Laura so her death was virtually instantaneous. The left hand jugular vein of four year old Emily was still intact so she may have lived for two or three minutes.
An inquest was held on Monday 28th March 1881 at Thomas Day’s Beer house in Great Waldingfield. It ruled the deaths of the children as “wilful murder by the mother”. A second inquest was held immediately afterwards in front of the same jury to decide on the cause of death for Susannah Bowers. The jury returned a verdict of “Temporary insanity”.
By the time of the 1881 census on 3rd April 1881, the surviving members of the family were living apart. Joshua was still living in the same cottage at Upsher Green with his eldest son Henry and his injured daughter Ruth. The other three remaining children from his marriage to Susannah King were staying with different relatives within the village. Elizabeth, who had been so brave during both the killings and as principle witness at the inquest, was living with her Uncle James Bird and Aunt Mary (nee Bowers).
On the night of the census, Phillip Edmund Bowers, second eldest son of Joshua from his marriage to Emma Bird was living with his grandparents George and Elizabeth Bird. His aunt, recently widowed Anna Maria Gallant, was also staying with her parents George and Elizabeth. Once again Joshua Bowers selected a new partner quickly and by May 1882 Anna Maria had given birth to the first of five children that she had by Joshua. Registered in the 1891 & 1901 census as his housekeeper they applied to the local vicar to marry. Under the 1835 Marriage Act it was against the law for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister so the vicar refused the marriage and entered his decision into the parish records where it can be read today.
Joshua and Anna Maria lived together as man and wife until her death in 1902. He died in 1914 at the age of 78. Frances Ruth Bower survived her ordeal and married John Butcher in 1893. She died in 1958 at the ripe old age of 85 despite her earlier trauma. For Elizabeth Bowers, the memory of the loss of her mother and two younger sisters never left her. In 1888 she married Albert Edmund Day at Great Waldingfield. Her eldest daughter was born shortly after. She was christened Emily Laura Susannah Day.
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