Opium – “Mother’s Friend.”

Glass Pharmacy Bottles with old  Labels

A number of poisons are referenced in Vote for Murder, as one might expect in a murder mystery.  Mary Cage, despite her poverty, was an opium eater.  This use of drugs, among the poorest in Victorian society, might seem unlikely but opium was, in fact, readily available and extremely cheap.  To put it in context, it was possible to purchase a quarter of an ounce of opium for the same price as a pint of beer.  In East Anglia, opium was widely sold in pills and penny sticks.  In other parts of the country it was dispensed as “poppy tea.”

Opiates or laudanum, caused episodes of euphoria, but these highs were followed by bouts of depression, slurred speech, restlessness and poor concentration.  Long term use of laudanum caused addiction but there were other short term symptoms including muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Perhaps the most concerning use of opiates, was as a ‘quietener’ for children.  Mary Cage used opium pills to subdue her children in Vote for Murder:

“…two nights with no sleep has a remembering effect and I crushed the pills down and the children lay torpid and quiet about me, as Mary Ann and James had done those many years before.”

The use of opiates to subdue children was common place in working class households. Proprietary medicines were manufactured for the express purpose of calming children.  Godfrey’s cordial, a preparation of opium, water and treacle, was known as “mother’s friend.”

With the sale of drugs unrestricted and little or no direction on how to use opiates, deaths of children were inevitable.  The article below, from the Nottingham Evening Post 22 June 1907, recounts the sad demise of Aubrey Samuel Barnes:

Nottingham Child’s Death

An inquest was held at Leen-side this afternoon touching the death of Aubrey Samuel Barnes aged ten months, whose parents live at 144, Portland Road, Nottingham.

Kate Elizabeth Frances Barnes, the mother of the child and the wife of Frederick William Barnes, lace manufacturer, said deceased had suffered from bronchitis and constipation and had been under Dr. Roberts’ treatment.  She had also given it a cordial which she obtained some time before for herself.  On the label of the bottle was inscribed, “Infants’ Cordial. Poison.”  She obtained it from Mr. J.G. Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road.  There were no directions on the bottle.  She gave the child a dose at midnight on Wednesday.  On the following day she sent for Dr. Smith, who paid frequent visits, but death took place in the evening.

Dr. Smith stated that when he saw the child on Thursday morning it was in a state of collapse from narcotic poisoning.  It was a puny infant, and had evidently suffered from bronchitis.  Witness ascribed death to bronchitis, accelerated by narcotic poisoning.  The cordial referred to contained opium. Opium was very detrimental to children under twelve months, although it was a common thing for parents to give it.  In some parts of Nottingham, the common use of laudanum amounted to an abuse.

John Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road, said that the cordial which he sold contained a preparation of opium.  A spoonful of the cordial would have about a sixth of a grain of opium.

The Coroner suggested to witness that he ought to put the prescribed dose on the label, especially as the cordial was taken by both adults and infants.

The jury found that death was due to misadventure, and expressed the opinion that the chemist should state in future on the label the amount of the dose that should be taken.

Double booking for the hangman….

NooseDuring my research for Vote for Murder, I came across the following extract  in a letter from P Jones to his friend and cousin Major Jones in which he mentioned murderess Mary Emily Cage, my inspiration for the book.  The letter entitled,  The brutality and cruelty of the British people , describes several British murders during 1851 including two Suffolk murders & the Chelmsford poisoning.  He claims that “such occurrences are seldom or never heard of in our southern states”.

A HIGH-SHERIFF IN DIFFICULTY; OR, A HANGMAN WANTED

“It will no doubt be in the recollection of many persons that the High Sheriff of Suffolk, in March last, was placed in no very pleasant position in consequence of the services of a hangman not being obtainable to carry into execution the last sentence of the law upon Maria Clarke, for the murder of her illegitimate child, by burying it alive in the parish of Wingfield. The high-sheriff, however, on that occasion, was spared an unpleasant duty by a reprieve coming down for the condemned woman two days before that on which her execution was to have taken place. At the assizes held at Ipswich, on the 2d inst., Maria Emily Cage was found guilty of the murder of her husband, James Cage, at Stonham Aspel, by administering to him a certain quantity of arsenic. Her execution was ordered to take place on Saturday (Aug. 16), in front of the Ipswich county jail, but the same difficulty was again presented as in March. Calcraft, the hangman, on being applied to, could not attend, as he had promised to perform a similar office the same morning at Norwich. An application was next made to the hangman at Warwick jail, but that functionary could not attend, as he would be similarly engaged at Shrewsbury on that day. A messenger was then despatched to the Secretary of State’s office, who explained the unpleasant position in which the high-sheriff of Suffolk was placed, and requested that the execution of Mary Emily Cage might be postponed. The answer from the Secretary of State was to the effect that no alteration as to the day named could be made; thus leaving the high-sheriff to get out of the difficulty in the best way he could. To have had the law carried into effect on Saturday would, in all probability, have been repugnant to the feelings of the high-sheriff, for, as no person could be found to supply the place of Calcraft, the high-sheriff must have performed the horrid duty himself. To avoid doing that, the high-sheriff has, on his own responsibility, ordered the execution to be delayed until an early day in the ensuing week. The condemned woman’s demeanor is becoming her awful position. She appears to be resigned to her fate, but protests that she is innocent. The unpleasant position of the high-sheriff, not only on this but on a former occasion, may be attributed to the usual course not being adopted—the making sure that Calcraft can attend before any day be appointed for the execution.”— The Times, August 17th, 1851.

It must have been rare for an execution to be delayed for want of an executioner, but there were an unusually high volume of death sentences that year.  Somewhere in the region of 50 death sentences were handed out in 1851, resulting in the public hanging of 3 women. Despite the delay recorded above, Mary Cage was ultimately executed by William Calcraft – the longest serving executioner.  Calcraft executed approximately 450 people,  34 of whom were women.

Location #1 – Christchurch Park

View of Ipswich from Christchurch Park GainsboroughVote for Murder is set in two main locations; Stonham Aspal during 1851 and Christchurch Park, Ipswich in Edwardian times.  Suffragette Louisa Russell, cousin of Millicent Fawcett, lives in Ivry Road on the outskirts of Christchurch Park.  These two areas, together with Henley Road and Fonnereau Road, account for many settings within the book.

Christchurch Park was the former site of an Augustinian Priory disbanded by Henry Viii during the dissolution of the monasteries.  It was acquired in 1545 by Edmund Withipoll and later in the 18th century, by Claude Fonnereau.  In 1892 Felix Cobbold gave it to the City of Ipswich.

There are various monuments set within Christchurch Park, both the Brett Fountain donated in 1863 and the Burton Drinking fountain, gifted in 1895.  The same year The Cabman’s shelter was moved from Cornhill to Christchurch Park.

Vote for Murder was set in 1911.  One scene in the book describes Louisa walking past the Martyr’s Memorial:

“…The cross-topped monument stretched skywards casting a lanky shadow over the path ahead. Recently completed, the carved round pillars caught the light of the morning sun and the carved inscription stood fresh and clear.”

The Martyr’s memorial was erected in 1903 following a campaign through The East Anglian Daily Times to provide a symbol to remember the protestant martyrs.  The Ipswich martyrs were a group of men and women put to death during Queen Mary’s reign for their refusal to recognise the Roman Catholic doctrines.  Many were burned at the stake.  There are nine martyrs named on the memorial, all of whom are mentioned in Foxe’s book of martyrs.  They were reported to have met their deaths with bravery and spirit.

A cenotaph dedicated to the men and women who fell in World War I was placed in Christchurch Park in 1924 joining the Boer War memorial erected in 1906.  Further features of the park include a fountain, an ice house and an Arts and Crafts shelter known as ‘The Bandstand’.  Prince Albert visited Christchurch Park in 1851, the same year that Mary Cage was hanged in Ipswich Gaol.

Christchurch Mansion, a red brick Tudor House, still houses the museum in which furniture, paintings, and pottery can be found.  Exhibits have a strong Suffolk theme with displays by John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough and cases of Lowestoft porcelain.

Nowadays Christchurch Park is a busy, family orientated area, ideal for indulging in outdoor pursuits, sports and the Arts.  The Park enjoys strong support from The Friends of Christchurch Park.

“Oh may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia.”

(Inscription on the memorial to the Ipswich Martyrs)

Mary Emily Cage – Murderess or victim?

Front cover snipOn 23rd March 1851, James Cage took his last breath, poisoned to death by his wife, Mary.  The Press were quick to report on the murder and  before long produced damning reports of Mary and her ‘depraved’ character, as evidenced in the extract from the 9 August 1851 Norfolk Chronicle, below:

“It will be remembered that just before the last Assizes, Mary Emily Cage, at Stonham, was examined on a charge of murdering her husband, by poisoning him.  The case was remanded until the Summer Assize, and at half-past eight o’clock on Saturday last, the wretched woman was placed at the bar to take her trial for the offence.  She exhibited little alteration in her appearance.  It is not our intention to lift the veil from the domestic history of this woman, any further than the trial itself removed it, for unfortunately there is not a feature in it that is not degrading to our common humanity. – Messrs. Power and Mills prosecuted; Mr. W. Cooper defended.

The case presented features of great depravity.  The deceased was an agricultural labourer, and with his wife, the prisoner, lived at Stonham Aspal.  They had a family of seventeen children, but one of them, now a lad of twenty years of age, was not the result of wedlock.  The deceased was imprisoned twelve months, and during his incarceration she cohabited with another man, and the result was the birth of the boy.  During the last eighteen months, she left her husband not less than three times, and exposed her daughter, sixteen years of age, to be debauched.  In other respects she led a very dissolute and depraved life…”

Vote for Murder” is a murder mystery based on Mary’s life . It takes a more sympathetic view of her behaviour than the Victorian press, taking into account the abject poverty in which she found herself.  The murder of James Cage contrasts with the second (fictional) murder set in a comfortable, middle-class household close to Christchurch Park in Ipswich.  Both lead female characters are headstrong; Mary determined to behave as she sees fit despite the social conventions of the time and Louisa, a suffragist campaigning for the right of women to vote.

Vote for Murder is a work of ‘faction’, where historical fact meets fiction.  From the first moment I read the Mary Cage story many years ago, the circumstances of the crime did not ‘feel’ as black & white as the press implied.  Vote For Murder is my fictional interpretation of Mary’s life and times.

Vote for Murder is now available through the Amazon Kindle Store http://tinyurl.com/pbpzehr

Vote For Murder – Sample Extract

“Alfred said he was afraid of this but continued without preamble stating that Mary had been found guilty of murder by poison and would die within a week. There was nothing that could prevent her execution, so any renewal of our friendship would inevitably be of short and painful duration.”

Extract from the diary of Anna Tomkins, August 1851

A short excerpt from Vote for Murder is available here

VIntage  Apothecary Bottle