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Saturday 25 June 2011


The death of Catherine Castle, young daughter of my 4x great uncle Michael, triggered an aggrieved, gossipy letter from her cousin Charles, to his sister Julia. Writing on the day of the funeral and will-reading, 28th December 1834, he speculated that there had been much skullduggery, with undue influence exerted on Catherine over her choice of legatees.

Charles Castle (1813-1886)
amateur crime reporter

It’s good juicy stuff for a family historian, and I almost overlooked a short paragraph in the letter in which Charles broke off from outrage to report on local news from the family’s home city, Bristol. “There has been a horrid murder discovered in Bristol committed by the poisoning of an old woman in Trinity Street; but however you will see a better account in the newspapers than I can give you.”

It was a sensational case, a crime committed in 1833 which only came to light in 1834 and which would not be resolved until 1835. The ghoulish details were published in at least eleven broadsides at the time including

THE EXECUTION OF MRS BURDOCK, Aged 34 Years, Convicted at the Bristol Assizes, of the Wilful Murder of Mrs Clara Ann Smith, an elderly Lady, Lodging at her house No 17, Trinity Street, Bristol, and who was Executed upon the New Drop, Bristol Gaol, this day (Wednesday,) April 15th 1835. With 2 woodcuts, one showing the hanging, the other a portrait of Mrs Burdock. Published by John Bonnor, Printer, Nicholas Steps, Bristol.

60-year old Mrs Smith was a wealthy widow who disliked banks and stocks, and kept her wealth in the room in which she lodged – up to £3000 in jewellery and cash, including more than 600 sovereigns (worth a pound apiece). Mrs Wade her landlady (who remarried after Mrs Smith’s death, to become Mrs Burdock) took to making Mrs Smith a bedtime bowl of gruel, in which unfortunately one of the ingredients was arsenic. In due course, on 28th October 1833, after much abdominal pain and vomiting of blood, poor old Clara Ann Smith died and her fortune disappeared.

What made the crime less than perfect was the presence on the night Clara died of Mary Ann Allan, a sixteen-year old servant engaged by Mrs Wade (who you’d think would want as few witnesses as possible) to warm Mrs Smith’s bed by sleeping in it with her. Not only did Mrs Wade hire Mary Ann, but she paid her six shillings and told her not to mention the death to anyone. 

It was only a year later in Autumn 1834 that Mary Ann and Charlotte Thomas, another girl hired by Mrs Wade, began to compare notes and find their suspicions raised. Rumours began to circulate, and it was noticed that Mrs Wade, by now Mrs Burdock, was living rather larger since Mrs Smith’s death than before it.

Clara Ann Smith’s body was exhumed on 22nd December 1834 and an inquest carried out on 1st January 1835 in the Ship Inn. Her stomach was significantly better preserved than the rest of her, and the cause proved on examination to be the remarkably high level of sulphate of arsenic inside it. (Tests were carried out by Dr William Herapath, a pioneer of such forensic use of medicine in crime-busting; he was also, in 1847, the first man to use ether as an anaesthetic in an operation in Bristol, only a few weeks after its first use in London.)

Bristol was abuzz with the story, and the thrill of suspicion and criminal conspiracy might explain why the Castles were so ready to believe that their cousin's will had been tampered with. Julia Castle wasn’t the only person to be written to about the murder; James Surrage, a medical student from Bristol studying in Paris got a letter on 1st January 1835 from his surgeon father back home with all the fascinating forensic details!

The ruins of Bristol New Gaol, built in 1820.
A trapdoor was built into the top of one of the towers
above which a gibbet was erected for public hangings.

Mrs Burdock was convicted on 2nd January 1835 of the willful murder of Mrs Smith and her public hanging on 15th April that year was attended by a crowd 50,000 strong. Her tombstone was displayed for a while later in the century in the Bristol Antiquities Room of the city’s museum, as an illustration of her notoriety. Unfortunately her crime resulted in at least one copycat murder. Almost exactly a year after Mrs Burdock’s hanging, on 20th April 1836, twenty-three year old Sophia Edney met the same fate, having read about the landlady’s crime in the newspaper and been inspired to poison John Edney, her husband.

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