Archive Item of the Month – March 2014


Murder in the Archives!


This month’s archive item is a pamphlet detailing the sensational trail of Mary Reed, accused of poisoning her husband William on 17 April 1794.


BGAS Library – Gloucestershire Pamphlets


The couple lived in Berkeley, south of Gloucester. Mary was suspected of lacing her husband’s broth with white arsenic. It took eight hours for poor William to die a slow and painful death. Mary was accused of


‘not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, and of her malice aforethought contriving and intending the said William Reed, her late husband, in his life time to deprive of his life, and him feloniously and traitorously to poison, kill, and murder’


Mary pleaded not guilty at her trial in Gloucester which opened on 28 March 1796, almost 218 years ago to the day.


The twelve men of the jury were sworn in and a Mr Milles opened the case for the prosecution.


‘It is a crime, Gentlemen, which, next to that which concerns the life of Majesty, is of the deepest dye. It stands very high in the black catalogue of offences, which one must heartily wish had contained no such crime’


However, he urged the jury to treat Mary as innocent and only to find her guilty if the evidence presented ‘satisfies you completely that she is guilty’.


The charge of ‘petit treason’ was in fact the offence of murder, but because Mary was accused of forfeiting her duty to her husband and breaking her allegiance to him, the charge was given this title. She could still be condemned for ‘simple murder’ if the jury did not feel she was guilty of petit treason.


Mary met her husband in 1787, who ‘kept her’ until 1789 when they married. Mary was said to have stopped a marriage between William and a wealthy lady. William himself had inherited a fortune of £6000 from his father. The couple had three children but were reported to live in an ‘expensive manner’ and so William’s inheritance was ‘very much reduced’.


The Reeds were living in Poole when Mary’s brother, James Watkins, and an ‘idle young man’ called Robert Edgar came to live with them. Mary and Robert were suspected of having an affair aided by James, so William ordered Robert to leave the house.


James then planned to murder his brother-in-law by taking him out on a boat and throwing him overboard. Mary’s suspected lover Robert was shocked at this, and was later persuaded that actually William Reed had a terminal health problem and would soon die. Robert promised to marry Mary when her husband died. William was then persuaded to write a will leaving everything to Mary, and also to take out an insurance policy on his life.


The family then moved to Berkeley on 5 April 1794, 6 days before Mr Reed’s death. Mary’s lover Robert left them to take up a commission in the Dorsetshire Militia. Mary and Robert had agreed to meet up when her husband took trips to London.


Meanwhile, Mary’s brother James was seen in possession of a receipt for a poisonous drug he was going to use to ‘kill a dog’.


After William allegedly ingested the poison on 11 April, Mary’s brother James apparently hit him over the head with a stick when the poison did not work immediately. James fled the same day when still he did not kill Mr Reed.


After going into hiding, James was later found shot dead on 3 May, with a verdict of suicide recorded at his inquest. This seems unlikely, as he had been pursued by Mr Reed’s brothers and shot in the back of the head.


Robert Edgar was suspected of being an accomplice to William Reed’s death and was detained but released when he said he would give evidence at Mary’s trial. Robert stated that he had heard James threaten to kill Mr Reed and that he had asked him to procure some arsenic in order to carry out the murder, which Robert refused to do.


Other witnesses were cross-examined, including Mr West, a surgeon, who stated that Mr Reed had been in ‘perfect health’ other than having had a cold.


Mr Jenner, the surgeon who famously discovered the smallpox vaccination, was called to aid William Reed when he was taken ill. Mr Reed vomited, which a dog then ate. The dog was found dead the next morning. Jenner had asked William if the blows to his head had made him sick, but William replied ‘No, No, I was very sick before, and in consequence of what has happened since, I have great reason to believe, I have been taking something’. William asked Jenner if he could come away with him, ‘full of anxiety, and alarmed’, but Jenner thought it best William was not moved.


Jenner performed the autopsy on William after he died. He found his stomach to be inflamed, and administered some liquid from the stomach to another dog, who became very ill and later died. Jenner dissected this dog and the dog who had eaten William’s vomit and found the same inflammation of the stomach present. Jenner believed William had been poisoned.


In Mary’s defence, William’s brother Thomas took to the stand and said he had received a letter from his brother demanding he send money or else William would ‘take fatal measures’. Mary herself stated ‘I never, directly or indirectly, was in any way accessary to the death of my husband, whom I really loved’.

After an hour and a half, the jury returned the verdict of………. not guilty.


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