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Murder of Clara Ann Smith at 17, Trinity Street, St Philips, Bristol 1835 | by brizzle born and bred
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Murder of Clara Ann Smith at 17, Trinity Street, St Philips, Bristol 1835

Mary Burdock was an attractive, 30-year-old landlady who fell for a young sailor called Charles Wade who was lodging in her house. He told her that, much that he would like to, he could not marry her because he lacked the where with all to open a shop and could not, therefore, keep them both.

 

Another of Mary's lodgers was Mrs Clara Smith. She was elderly but had savings of several thousand pounds which she kept in a cash box under her bed.

 

By early 1835 Mary was becoming desperate for the funds to help Charles. She knew, of course, about the cache under the old woman's bed so decided to get rid of her.

 

This she did with the aid of poison.

 

Once the old lady was out of the way she gave the money to Wade and contemplated a life of marital bliss with the young man.

 

Unfortunately for Mary things did not go according to plan. A relative of Mrs Smith was suspicious when he heard from Mary that the old woman 'died very poor.'

 

He knew that the old woman had a considerable amount hidden away and communicated this information to the police. The body was exhumed and arsenic was found in the corpse.

 

Mary was arrested, tried and found guilty of murder. Her execution, in April 1835, was not attended by her intended.

 

Born near Ross-on-Wye, she was a fresh-faced country girl when she had first arrived in the city looking to enter service.

 

At the Bristol fair she was hired as a house servant by a Mr Plumley, a poulterer, who lived in St Nicholas Street. She stayed with him for 18 months but was eventually dismissed due to thieving. When Plumley refused her a reference she immediately flounced into a solicitor's office instructing him to sue for damages over unfair dismissal.

 

But, bored with waiting for the case to come up, Mary met, and quickly married, a Mr Agar, a Bristol tailor. But she didn't stay with the boring tailor for long - soon deserting him for Thomas, the Mayor's coachman.

 

Next in line was a wealthy wine merchant and Mary soon found that she had enough money to rent her own house in Limekiln Lane, down by the docks in Hotwells. But the constant comings and goings of drunken seamen eventually got too much for Mary's more respectable neighbours and they decided to drum her out of the neighbourhood.

 

Undeterred, Mary then fell in with a Mr Wade, a steam packet steward whom she had met in a dockside tavern. They opened a St Philips lodging house together in Trinity Street and when Wade died she married one of the lodgers, a Mr Burdock.

 

Another lodger there was a sick, elderly widow called Clara Smith. When Mary discovered that the widow had been left a small fortune - £3,000 - by her ironmonger husband, she soon wheedled her way into the woman's confidence.

 

She found time to nurse the widow and soon managed to get her to hand over the money for 'safe keeping'. Within a short while £500 had gone but Mary couldn't wait to get her hands on the rest. She ordered her husband out to buy some arsenic and then mixed it in with warm milk for the frail widow's nightcap.

 

Clara didn't survive long and was buried in St. Augustine's graveyard (this church has now been demolished - the newish extension of the Marriott Royal Hotel covers the site).

 

www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2053435768/

 

Mary and her husband were the only mourners - the widow's relatives, a nephew and three nieces, had not been told of her death. when they found out - and then discovered that her savings had gone missing - they went straight to the police.

 

Questioned, Mary bluffed it out, but her long-suffering servant-girl, Mary Ann, spilt the beans. She told police that she had seen her mistress pour some yellow powder into a bowl and - then give it to Mrs Smith.

 

That night, with doctors and police present, screens went up and the body was exhumed. Arsenic had preserved the body so well that the case went into the medical textbooks.

 

Although Mary's trial at the Guildhall lasted three days, the result was a foregone conclusion.

 

But while awaiting sentence she impressed everyone with her fortitude. She told the carpenter to line her coffin with flannel and the prison matron to make sure that she had a warm, comfortable shroud. She then kept it by her bedside.

 

The elm coffin, made to her own specifications, was carried into the ' condemned cell; the next day she had an appointment with the hangman.

 

ON the day, an incredible 50,000 people jostled with each other, all trying to find the best vantage point. Others tried their hardest not to get themselves pushed into the river as the crowd stretched 200 yards along Coronation Road.

 

www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2059920989/

 

Suddenly an absolute hush fell on the huge crowd. Two figures had appeared on the scaffold - erected overnight above the entrance to Bristol's New Gaol in Cumberland Road. (still standing today)

 

One was a public executioner, the other a woman dressed in black, her face hidden by a white hood and her arms pinioned at her side. In one hand she held a handkerchief, which she would drop when she had finished her prayers and decided that the time had come to meet her maker.

 

Then, as the crowd tensed, the short life of poisoner Mary Ann Burdock came quickly to an end.

 

She was the first woman to be hanged on the New Drop at the Gaol, the gates of which still stand today.

 

The good citizens had not seen a woman die for 22 years, when two had been hanged at Pile Hill for murdering a child.

 

Mary's fatal mistake had been to use arsenic on her victim - for arsenic is the pathologist's best friend, preserving vital organs for future post mortems long after a burial has taken place.

 

WILLIAM HERAPATH

 

He will always be remembered as a famous Chemical Analyst.

 

He gave evidence in many famous court cases involving poisoning and murder.

 

More than able to give a good account of his subject under cross-examination, he was the first person to detect arsenic in the body of a person who had been dead and buried for over fourteen months, as in the trial of Mary Ann Burdock in 1835 who was accused of murdering Mrs. Clara Ann Smith by arsenic poisoning, she was a 60-year-old lady who was lodging at Mrs. Burdocks boarding house at 17, Trinity Street. It was some time after the lodgers death that relatives became suspicious that Mrs Burdock appeared considerably wealthier since Clara had died and they had received no money, so the coroner ordered the exhumation and examination of Clara, when it was proved her stomach contained huge amounts of arsenic.

 

Mrs Burdock was hanged at the New Gaol on April 15th.1835, it is said there were 50,000 spectators.

 

www.bhhg.co.uk/showfiles.php?files=williamherapath

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Taken on October 17, 2010