Mary Reeder was no more than 20 years old when, late in 1849, she quit her job as a live-in maidservant with a Cambridge carpenter called Miller. Elias Lucas, a strong, muscular-looking man in his mid-twenties, was married to Mary's sister Susan, and worked as an agricultural labourer for Mr Cross, a local farmer. Mary and Elias began sleeping together that Christmas and, by the end of January 1850, Mary was working for Cross too.
Mary had complained of a bad chest when leaving her old job. Susan, still concerned for her little sister's health, invited her to come and share the cottage where she and Elias lived in the village of Castle Camps. "That was by her sister's persuasion," Henry Reeder, the girls' father, later said. "I had lost my wife, and she could take better care of [Mary] than I could." When Mary moved in, she was still thought to be "a well-conducted, modest girl", who everyone agreed looked a good four years younger than her real age. Elias was described as a man of "excellent character", noted for his "easy and cheerful disposition".
Elias and Susan's neighbours believed their marriage was a happy one, but the truth was rather different. Susan was already pregnant for the fourth time since her marriage to Elias in around 1846, but only their three-year-old daughter had survived. When Susan delivered the new child, Elias took the midwife to one side, told her he wished he was not married, and said that - if he'd known then what he knew now - he wouldn't have wed Susan for £1,000.
"He afterwards went to [Susan's] room and said the same to her, I believe," the midwife testified. "He then came down and went out to work. I found his wife crying. On the Sunday after, he asked me if the child was like to live or die. I said I thought it did not look like a dying child." According to the ballad sheet, Elias was displeased at this, and muttered that he hoped the child would die. "That the child did die shortly after its birth is a matter of fact," the sheet adds.
Elias helpfully told Mary that all it took to kill someone was enough arsenic to cover a shilling
Mary Butterfield was the midwife's daughter, and would sometimes visit Susan as she recovered from the delivery in February 1850. Occasionally, she'd also feed the eight pigs which Elias kept there. "He came home one day during the week, and said he thought his pigs grew well," Butterfield told the court. "He would keep the little cad-pig till he married again and have a green leg of pork for his dinner.
"He said he would marry Mary Reeder, and went into the house. So did I. He told the deceased he would keep this cad-pig till he married her sister. She said that would never be, for they would never allow him to marry her sister. He said 'They can't help themselves if I go a little way from home'."
One Sunday at around this time, Elias and Susan were returning from church together, when Elias mentioned he had been having bad dreams recently - dreams that he would soon be either hanged or transported. Susan told him to put such thoughts out of his mind. "She was a good and affectionate wife," the ballad sheet tells us. "The prisoner acknowledged she had been a good, kind-hearted and unsuspecting woman."
Even so, Elias clearly wasn't happy. It was also in February 1850 that he was walking his horses along the road from Haverhill when he ran into Anne Ives and her sister. Elias knew Anne, so he placed her bundle up on one of his horses' backs, and they all walked on together for the next half hour. "He said he wished to get rid of his wife," Anne later testified. "He wished she would go away, for he had a bastard child coming. [...] He told me he did not like married life."
Mary later recalled asking Elias if he thought there was any harm in "poisoning for love". She said Elias replied there was no harm in such a deed, and helpfully added that all it took to kill someone was enough arsenic to cover a shilling. As it happened, Elias had some arsenic stored away in the family pantry, which he'd kept for himself after Cross gave it to him for disposal.
By Thursday, February 21, Susan was back to full health, as a neighbour who chanced to meet her shopping that afternoon would later confirm. That evening, Mary prepared herself, Susan and Elias a "mess" for the evening meal, this being a term of the day for any liquid or semi-liquid food. A mess like this would typically be made from shredded bread and water, plus butter or dripping to thicken it, and seasoned with salt or pepper.
The three sat down to eat together, but Susan complained her portion tasted of slack-lime. She gave Mary a spoonful of it to taste, which Mary spat out again. Twenty minutes after forcing her food down, Mary said, Susan stumbled to the front door, lent against its open hinges and vomited into the garden, saying "I am a dead woman".
Next morning, Mary went next door to Thomas Reeder's house, gave him three pence, and asked him to go and buy some brandy for her sister, who was sick. Thomas did so and then, as he was eating his lunch, Mary called his wife to come over to help her with Susan, who'd now fallen out of bed. "I went and found her on the floor in the bedroom," Thomas said. "She was undressed. I helped to put her into bed."
Thomas sent a man called John Casbolt to get Elias from work, and fetched Susan Potter, another neighbour, to help care for the sick woman. "I went to Elias Lucas to say his wife was dying, and he must come directly," Casbolt testified. "He said 'I can't come yet - I ain't got time'. He was doing nothing at that time. I ran all the way after Reeder told me to fetch him. I had got half way back when the prisoner overtook me."
Meanwhile, Potter was doing her best to make Susan comfortable. "She was in bed, and rose up and began to retch violently," Potter said. "She brought up very little, and asked me for drink. I gave her warm tea. She drank it [and] then began to retch again violently."
Elias arrived about 20 minutes after Potter had got there, and Susan quickly told him to go and get a doctor. "He left the room immediately," Potter said. "He did not speak to his wife."
Thomas Pledger was working on the road between Castle Camps and Haverhill when he saw Elias riding hard towards a Dr Robinson's place at about two o'clock that afternoon. A little after 2:30pm, he saw Elias again, this time riding back towards Castle Camps with Dr Martin's assistant, Frederick Cramer, accompanying him in a buggy. Elias explained that he'd come to Martin's place before Robinson's, and decided to grab the first doctor he could find. Pledger confirmed that the geography of that made sense.
By the time Elias and Cramer reached Castle Camps, Susan was already dead. "I was with her when she died," Potter said. "she died five or ten minutes after he [Elias] left the room." Cramer was told about half an hour had passed between Susan's death and his arrival at the cottage.
"I asked the cause of death," Cramer said. "Reeder said her sister had been poorly from disease of the chest, [and] that she became suddenly worse about seven or eight o'clock the evening before. She also said they had a mess of water and bread the evening before. Elias Lucas came in and went out again. He said she had been very sick; she had complained very much of pain in her chest
"I went up to see the body. It was on the bed, and was warm. I observed that she had died in a state of collapse. The fingers were clenched, as in a bird's claw. I felt the pulse, and said I was sorry I was not called in before. [...] I examined the body and, on the abdomen, I found marks of recent confinement. It was supernaturally blue.
"These symptoms made me think the woman had died from cholera or poison. I suspected the latter. Something was said about a burial. I said I could not account for the death of the deceased, and that I should not give a certificate of death to the registrar." Cramer asked Mary and Elias if they had any poison in the house, and both denied it.
Cramer took the remains of the loaf Mary had used to make the previous evening's meal with him when he left, together with a sample of Susan's vomit from outside the front door. He returned to the cottage on each of the next two days, removing Susan's stomach and intestines for later examination. Cramer was convinced by now that she'd died of arsenic poisoning, and asked Elias again if he had any arsenic in the house. This time, Elias said he had, and showed Cramer a package in the kitchen pantry.
'When a tin box was brought into court containing his wife's intestines, Elias laughed right out'
"The parcel weighed 15 ounces," Cramer testified. "Reeder said arsenic could not have got in the bowl by accident, for it was on the opposite end of the shelf." He later added: "The parcel appeared to have been opened at one end, and the string to have been loosely tied again. It has the words 'Arsenic - poison' on it in large letters." .
Cramer confiscated the package. "I said it was unfortunate for them that arsenic should have been found in the house," he recalled. "Reeder said 'I call God to witness I am innocent of poisoning my sister, though I am aware the world says to that effect." Evidently, the local gossips were already blaming Elias and Mary for Susan's death. This gossip was still playing on Mary's mind four days after the death, when her father brought Mary Carlton to visit the cottage.
"She said 'I hope you do not think me guilty of taking my poor sister's life?'" Carlton told the court. "I said 'I hope you are not, but God only knows. I do not.' We both went in, and she said 'Elias only came home at one o'clock last night, and said my case was worse than his. I said no, his was worse, because he got the arsenic."
Only a few minutes earlier, Carlton had been unsure that the girl she saw waiting in the cottage garden was Mary, so the two women clearly didn't know each other very well. And yet here was Mary, speaking so recklessly in front of a stranger.
Elias was no smarter. The next day, he was working at Cross's farm, when a man called Crick arrived there to collect some chaff. "He said he was in great trouble about his wife," Crick recalled. "They said she was poisoned, and were going to hang him. I said 'They cannot hang you if you did not do it'. Lucas said 'Damn it, I'll stand a bottle of gin if I get off this job. To think that I am a single man again! If the girl and I will keep our tongue, they cannot hurt us'."
Meanwhile, Susan's stomach and other samples had been sent to Alfred Swaine Taylor, the professor of medical jurisprudence at Guy's Hospital in London, who examined them on March 9. "There were two grains of metallic arsenic in the stomach and more in the coat of the stomach," he testified. "As a result of my experiments, I am prepared to say that death was caused by arsenic administered to the deceased in large quantities. I am clearly of the opinion that the deceased died from arsenic and no other cause."
Elias and Mary were arrested, and their trial reached court in March 1850. "Surely was never greater levity displayed by the most hardened criminal than by this man," the ballad sheet says of Elias. "He frequently turned to laugh at his companions in court, and even when a tin box was brought into court which contained some part of his wife's stomach and intestines, he laughed right out."
All the people quoted above gave their testimony in court, and Cramer produced the arsenic package for everyone to see. Cross confirmed that he'd given Elias 16 ounces of arsenic to destroy - not the 15 ounces left when Cramer found it - and Judge Wightman ticked him off for not handling the job personally. Elias claimed he'd kept the arsenic only because he wanted to scatter it around his onion seeds to kill slugs.
The best the defence could do was to suggest that the prosecution had failed to show adequate motive for the murder, and to argue that Elias and Mary would have been mad to make as many incriminating remarks as they did if they were truly guilty. The jury was not swayed by this perverse logic, and quickly found both Elias and Mary guilty of murder when the trial concluded on March 25.
Elias dropped his bravado as soon as the verdict came in, and became very pious, praying fervently that God might forgive him. Mary had been far less blasé than him all along, and confessed her own part in the murder on the day after the trial ended.
"She stated that, persuaded by Lucas, she crumbled the messes and, unseen by her sister, conveyed nearly a tablespoon of arsenic into the basin intended for Mrs Lucas," the ballad sheet says. "But she now bitterly lamented having been led to commit so great a crime. Lucas for some time persisted in his innocence, and declared that it was not his hand that placed the deadly poison in the basin. But, when told of the female's confession that she had done the act under his direction, he remained silent and appeared quite confounded."
The closest Lucas would come to a confession of his own was to admit: "I may have told her to do it. But, if I did, I do not recollect it, and it was in my passion." Elias did confirm that he and Mary had been sleeping together, however, and said that crime alone meant he deserved to die. Mary confirmed the adultery too, saying it was her love for Elias that led her to murder Susan.
The day of the hanging was set for April 13, 1850. Just five days before that date, Mary made a new statement, this one insisting Elias had known nothing about her plan to poison Susan. By now, her accounts had become so confused that no-one was inclined to take anything she said seriously. The authorities played it safe by relaying Mary's latest statement to Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, but he said to go ahead and hang them both anyway.
Mary had a final, harrowing farewell with her father and grandfather on April 8, and Elias asked Reverend Roberts, the prison chaplain, to preach a sermon for him four days later. Elias chose Luke 11 (21 and 22) as the text for this sermon, these verses reading: "When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace. / But when a stronger than he shall come upon him and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils".
By selecting this passage, Elias seemed to be trying to convince people he was basically a good man who'd been overcome by the devil. He made this point again in a final letter to his parents saying: "Remember, when we are left without God for a time, oh how soon will Satan bring evil upon any of us." He wrote a similar letter to his fellow prisoners, full of the same new-found piety and unsolicited advice.
On the morning of their execution, Elias and Mary were taken to a church service and allowed to receive Holy Communion. "The prisoners appeared much consoled," the ballad sheet tells us. "After shaking hands [they] expressed themselves quite happy and perfectly resigned and ready to meet their fate." Elias was now 25 years old, and Mary was 20.
Susan's murder had made little impact on the national stage, but the case remained a very big deal in Cambridge. "Never within the memory of man did so large a concourse of persons assemble to witness an execution," The Times reports. "Long before daybreak, every street and road leading into this town exhibited the appearance of a fair-day. From six o'clock in the morning until the hour appointed for the execution, 12 o'clock, the streets were one living mass.
"The place where the gallows was erected was in front of the debtors' door of the county gaol, which is situated on Castle Hill. It is surrounded by a large green, in the centre of which is an extensive mound, 60 or 70 feet high. The whole of this place, and the mound from the base to the summit, was crammed with spectators, nearly two-thirds of whom were women and children." The ballad sheet adds that the crowds that day "could not be computed at less than from 30 to 43,000."
The size of his audience seemed to surprise Elias as he reached the foot of the scaffold. "On reaching the first flight of steps, he paused for a moment, as if startled by the immense crowd which had assembled opposite," The Times says. "He soon, however, recovered himself, and actually ran up the remaining steps with a firm and elastic tread, and placed himself under the fatal beam."
Mary took her place alongside Elias, and William Calcraft, the hangman, stepped forward. "As the drop fell, shrieks were heard proceeding from some women in the crowd, and the cry of 'Hurrah!' from a single voice in the immediate vicinity of the scaffold," The Times continues. "The bodies, having been suspended the usual time, were taken down, conveyed into the gaol and buried within its precincts."
Elias's remark that he "had a bastard child coming" suggests Mary may have been pregnant, but there's no hint that's the case anywhere else in the records I've seen. The law did not permit pregnant women to be executed, so perhaps Elias was referring to another baby mama here, or was simply mistaken about the pregnancy.
When Mary asked Elias about the morality of poisoning for love, she had in mind the case of 18-year-old Catherine Foster, who'd been hanged for just that crime at Bury in 1847. "Catherine Foster was a simple-minded woman who poisoned her husband with arsenic in November 1846, just three weeks after their marriage," says Foxearth & District Local History Society. "The crime was discovered when he vomited in the garden and the hens mysteriously died. She readily confessed to the crime; she had married him to please her mother, and loved another man, so she cooked his suet dumplings in arsenic."