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Toxic Assets
Image In 1850 the newspapers were full of stories about James and Ann Merritt of Pear Tree Place in Clapton.  Click here for their story, and these are some extra facts ... 

Nobody really knows what happened all those years ago in Pear Tree Place.  This page will only make sense if you read the page from Issue 22 first (so if you did not click for the story already please click here).   Here are some more details of the very strange story:

Ann cried all through the night when James died.   She always said that she was totally innocent, and that she had loved James.  "Poor dear soul! I loved him too well to wrong him or to injure him," she said when she was arrested.  And when she was in prison, everyone noticed that she never seemed to stop crying.

The poison
The truth was that Ann bought the arsenic from a chemist shop in Church Street (which we call Mare Street nowadays) on Saturday 19th January, just five days before James got so ill.   Frederick Ground had been looking after the shop for his father, and remembered Ann coming in to buy two pennyworth of white arsenic.  She told him it was to kill some of the mice and rats in her house.  Frederick wrote "poison" on both of the packets in very big letters, to make sure nobody could get them muddled up.   When the arsenic was found in the kitchen cupboard, after James had died, the packet was not labelled "poison".  Ann told lots of different stories about the arsenic.  These are some of the things she said:

a.   First she said she had not bought it and it was a case of mistaken identity;

b.   Then she said she had bought it but:
      i.     James probably got it muddled up and ate it by accident;
      ii.    She was depressed and was going to kill herself;
      iii.   James must have decided to kill himself with it.

The boots
The neighbour said that James had bought himself a new pair of boots the day before he became so sick.  Some people thought that, as his family was quite poor, he would not have done that if he was planning to kill himself.

The inquest and the post mortem
Ann told everyone that she had once promised James that she would never allow his body to be examined after he died, as he was terrified at the thought of it.   First of all, Dr. Toulmin said that, although the death was unusual, he would not insist on a post mortem.  But when the inquest started at the Fountain Tavern in Upper Clapton on the day after James had died, Mr. Baker the Coroner told Dr. Toulmin to do a post mortem straight away.   When Ann was told that there would be a  post mortem after all she said "Thank God I am innocent; if there is anything wrong I know nothing about it".   

Dr. Toulmin examined the body, chopped out the bits that he thought were suspicious, and took them round in a jar to Dr. Lethery at the London Hospital.  And Dr. Lethery was absolutely certain that James had been poisoned with white arsenic.  

Mr. Baker thought it was all very suspicious, and he was very interested to hear that two of Ann's children - and James' dad - had all died in the last year.  And he said that Ann must definitely stand trial at the Old Bailey - for murder.

The Trial
When the trial started on March 4th 1850, Ann, who was a "good-looking young woman",  just 31 years old, could only say one thing: "Not Guilty".   Incredibly,  in those days there was a rule that a person accused of a crime could not give evidence in their own defence.    All of the witnesses came to court and told the jury what had happened - the chemist and the neighbours, friends of James, the policemen, the doctors ...... but Ann could say nothing at all.

As well as describing the post mortem, Dr. Toulmin told the jury that he had met both James and Ann before.  James had come to see him for a stomach problem just six weeks before, and,  funnily enough, he had known Ann a long time before that.  He said:   "I knew the prisoner (Ann) some years back, prior to her marriage, living in a family—I have reason to believe that at that time she was well thought of, as a relative of mine lived in the family—she has been married seven or eight years—I have heard nothing to her disparagement since, until this charge—I never saw anything to find fault with, in her conduct to her husband and children."

The jury did not take very long at all to decide that  Ann was guilty.  But, they had watched her during the trial, and they were so impressed by what Dr. Toulmin had said about her, that they made a very strong recommendation that Ann should be shown mercy - and that she should not be hanged.   The Judge said that he thought it was very unlikely that anyone would show Ann any mercy at all after what she had done, and he fixed a date in early April for her to be hanged.   So Ann stayed in prison, knowing her children were in the workhouse, and crying ......

Within a whisker of the gallows
But when her case was looked at again, the doctors disagreed about what had happened to James.  Instead of there being an appeal, the Home Secretary decided to change the death sentence to a  sentence of life imprisonment.   So Ann's life was spared - and who knows what really happened to James in Pear Tree Place.

Abolishing the Death Penalty
There were lots of times when people tried to change the law and abolish the death penalty.  In July 1850, just after people all over England had been reading about Ann and her trial, there was a debate in Parliament about capital punishment.  Amazingly, Mr. Bright, who was one of the MPs who wanted to abolish the death penalty,  used Ann's case as an example of why it was such a bad idea.   He said:

"Take the case of Ann Merritt, the woman recently convicted in London of poisoning her husband.   The jury found her guilty, and the judge sentenced her to be hanged, believing that the execution would take place.  On what ground was she sentenced?  On the opinion of a medical man, who appears to have given a rash of unscientific opinion, and which was afterwards strongly contradicted by the opinions of others of the same profession.   In that case, the proof was at length so strong, not of her being innocent, but of her not having been proved guilty, that the Right Honourable gentleman very properly commuted her sentence.   What is to be done with her I know not, but the case shows that capital punisment is most dangerous, because there are so many accidents that may affect the proof of guilt".

It was more than one hundred years after Ann's case that the death penalty was finally abolished, in 1965.

A lot of information for this story came from the fantastic website Old Bailey Proceediings Online: -

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, 2 March 2009), March 1850, trial of Ann Merritt 
( t18500304-599).

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