Watching my husband breathe his last was the most satisfying thing I had seen in a long time. I nudged him, pinched his nose and then placed a piece of glass beneath his nose to see if he had any breath left but he was truly gone; for good; or bad.
With Mrs Simpson outside, I was left with two choices. Did I play the grieving widow? Or did I confess my crime? Undoubtedly they would hang me for what I had done. I had no illusions on that account. And yet, there was still cholera in the city. Many had died like him, and still more would.
But if he was diseased, his body would be thrown into the same pit in which he had caused my babies to be put. He would be alongside them, in body although certainly not in spirit. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. That was all that I needed to make my mind. I called Mrs Simpson back into the room.
“You must call the constable,” I said.
“The constable, Mrs Smith? What in heavens for?”
“My husband has been poisoned.”
“Been poisoned, you say?” She looked at me curiously. “What makes you think that, Mrs Smith?”
“Because, Mrs Simpson, I poisoned him myself. And good riddance!”
She gasped aloud. “You wicked, wicked thing.”
“You’re quite right, Mrs Simpson. Quite right. Now please go and get the constable.”
“No shame at all. No remorse.”
“None, I’m afraid. Very shocking, I know. The constable, if you please.”
My neighbour scampered out of the room as fast as her arthritic limbs could take her, and I heard the key turn in the lock. I wouldn’t have ordinarily minded being locked in a room, after all, I had become quite accustomed to it, but being stuck with Thomas galled me more than the smell of sick, piss and shit.
I was surprised when I heard the key turning again, not more than ten minutes later. She must have run like the devil himself was on her trail, or, more likely, sent poor Simon. Although the key had turned, it was a few moments before the door itself was pushed open, and seated as I was, I had a perfect view of it inching wider very slowly.
I was right; it was Simon’s head that first peeked through. He saw me watching, let out a squeak and the door slammed shut again. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“It’s alright, you know,” I said. “You can come in. I won’t hurt you. It was only my bastard husband that I thought to see dead.”
The door was pushed open more rigorously this time, and it was a young man who walked in, not the constable; probably just a watchman, I’d have wagered. He was struck still for a moment as the smell of the sickroom hit him full in the face, and I saw him blanch. Not much older than Simon, about my age perhaps, and I took pity on him as I saw him shrink back.
“Don’t worry. It’s not cholera. It’s tansy that did for him. Ministered by my own fair hand, as you see,” I said, and gestured to the mug on the pallet nightstand, with the dregs still inside. “You’re quite safe.”
Whether it was my words, or some inner courage he managed to plumb, but he straightened up and walked over to me.
“You’ll come with me, Miss, er, Mrs Smith.”
He had nothing on him but the heavy wooden truncheon used to beat unwilling captives, but as I stepped towards him as willingly as a lamb, his uncertainty returned.
“You should probably take me to the parish constable. He’ll know what to do.”
“I know my job!” He said indignantly and stretched himself to his full 5 foot 6 inches. “Come along now.”
There was no carriage waiting outside. I had hardly expected there to be one, instead, I was marched, with a watchman on each side, to the lodgings of the constable, who, to his credit, did indeed appear to know what to do.
Heavy iron cuffs were placed on my wrists, and I found myself at the Castle in less than an hour. It was decided that it was at York Castle that I would be tried so at York Castle I would be detained. I cared not. A prison is a prison, and I had been living in one long before then.
I was placed in a cramped cold cell made of stone. Rivulets of rancid water ran down the walls but I was fortunate that there was a window, albeit barred with iron. I shared the cell with seven other women, all awaiting trial.
There was a single wooden bed in the corner, and a bench stretched across one wall. We took it in turns to sleep, although I, accused of petty treason, that is, murder of my husband, found it difficult to sleep with the iron cuffs.
There was no water to clean ourselves and food was brought but once a day: a thin gruel with hunks of stale bread. Vile filth-covered straw lined the floor and rats made themselves our neighbours.
Being brought so low would once have wrought a terrible change on my mind but then, knowing the crimes I had committed, for I knew them to have been so, I was resigned. I let the minutes, hours, days wash over me. I took no interest in the other women, or the coming and goings of our gaolers. I saw, but didn’t care, when one woman offered herself to a guard, hoping not only for more gruel, but that she would conceive a child, thus granted her a temporary reprieve from the noose. I had no need of more children. I had Rebecca and Joseph with me.
They nestled on my chest. I crooned lullabies to them and cradled them close; these children of mine, who would have been reaching their quarter-year. Every night, as darkness fell, I would put them to bed, and every night, like good babes, they would sleep the night through; and in the morning, I’d waken them to suckle at my breasts. I worried my milk had dried up, and despite knowing the gruel was almost worthless, I begged the guard for extra to feed them. All I received were blows and laughs.
At night, with the children sleeping, I heard voices. Were the same voices that led me back to Samuel all those months ago? I hardly knew. The first time, I started from my sleep, and looked around immediately for Eliza, but she was nowhere to be seen. Soon I learned not to be afeared of the voices; mostly there was the voice of a young girl, her tone well mannered and soft. In real life, I should never have mistaken her for Eliza. Eliza with her dropped ‘h’s and ‘t’s, just like me. Sometimes she cried with me, this girl; sometimes she called my name.
One night, I knew as sure as anything that the girl was Martha. I knew no Martha, but that was her name. Perhaps she had told me. Perhaps I just knew. When I looked down at the dirty bundle in my lap where I wrapped my children, and when I spoke to Martha, I knew that my mind had gone; untethered by my sorrow and guilt. You didn’t need a mind to nurse your dead babies, and you don’t need a mind to dangle from the gallows; only a neck to loop the noose around.
Other nights, Martha was nowhere to be found, and I wept instead for Eliza; pounding my fists against the walls as if that might bring her to me, instead of angry words from the other women. I wept for Samuel too. I would never know who was the twins’ father, but the thought that I had lost more of his precious children, brought my soul as low as I thought it could ever be.
I scraped my nails against the stone floor and gained some small sense of satisfaction when I drew blood from where my nails had been. My body was foul and stinking; crawling with lice and fleas and coated in a thick patina of human waste and dirt. Cholera was as rife within the prison as without, and yet, this time, I escaped while others perished. No one cared who succumbed or who fought through. The rushes were never changed, the buckets hardly emptied, and fresh water unheard of. A dead prisoner only deprived the hangman of his fee.
I had no sense of time. As the weather grew colder, I thought perhaps Christmas was coming, but there was nothing to celebrate.
One day, the mood was different in the prison; tense, unsettled and vibrating with energy, we could hear noises coming from the cells beyond, even through the thick stone walls. I drew my filthy shift tighter around the twins, to shield them from what was to come.
The key turned in the iron lock, and the heavy wooden door swung inwards. The assizes had arrived. It was time. A bucket of water was placed in the cell. Months ago, we would have fought for our turn, instead we shuffled up in silence and I was able to wipe my face as clean as the dirty rag provided would get it.
I made sure the twins looked as presentable as I could too. We were all led from the cell along with several other women from other cells, iron shackles making a great clamour. We were all to be tried together in the same court and by the same counsel. I was the only murderess in the midst; others were there for stealing a bolt of fabric or counterfeiting coins; regardless, we’d all hang from the new drop in the Castle grounds if found guilty.
The courtroom was truly magnificent. It even put the Tuke House to shame. Duck egg blue walls were lined with high wooden benches, each filled with serious looking men. The ceiling was decorated in a delicate white stucco and long windows cast bright light across the room; cruelly it not only reminded me of the Tuke House, the light also showed my dress to be more filthy than I had possibly imagined. There was shit crusted to the bottom and large sweat stains lay under my arms. The water had not helped much, and to see the grime and blood under my destroyed fingernails would have given Ma a heart attack. She was always ever so strict about clean hands and nails. No one would trust a laundress with dirty hands, she reckoned.
We were shuffled into an iron pen to one side of the room, and face the judge’s bench. It lay empty, and it was a full thirty minutes before he made his entrance. All the men rose but we women were already on our feet, and would remain so until sentence was passed.
One by one, the cases were called, and one by one, sentences were passed: transportation, transportation, hanging, transportation. This judge was not a kind one and one by one, women wept as they were led back into the dark prisons below. Soon, I was the only one remaining, and my case was put forward.
“Alice Smith, aged 24, stands accused of the wilful murder of her husband, Thomas Smith, by poison.” The prosecution spoke. “Alice Smith was married to Thomas Smith in the year 1823 at Holy Trinity Goodramgate, York. A constable was summoned to the premises of the prisoner and the deceased after the prisoner confessed to the crime of poisoning her husband to her neighbour, Mrs Simpson.
“John Hindle, a local surgeon, examined the body of the deceased on the 26th of October, the day on which the inquest was held. He opened it, and was enabled clearly to ascertain the cause of his death. The stomach was in a very putrid state; the coats of it much corroded and inflamed. He attributed the immediate cause of Smith’s death to herbal poisoning, which would produce all the effects that he observed. He discovered by tests the poison to be tansy, or tanacetum vulgar, also known as Common Tansy, Bitter Buttons, Cow Bitter, Mugwort, or Golden Buttons.
“Sarah Parker is a herbalist at York and has seen the prisoner before. She approached her several times, and remembers a meeting on Friday the 23rd of October. She wanted some tansy, which she gave to her after an inquiry. She said she wanted it to treat abdominal cramps. She is quite sure the prisoner is who she sold it to.
“Catherine Simpson is the neighbour of the deceased and prisoner, on Low Petergate, York. She was fetched by the apprentice of the deceased on Monday the 26th of October to the house of the deceased. The prisoner told her Thomas Smith was ill and needed nursing. She was also told that the prisoner had also been sick. She nursed the deceased who was crying out, folding his arms across his bowels while the prisoner made several tisanes for his relief. It was in these concoctions that the poison was to be found. Later that day, the deceased passed away. After which, the prisoner confessed her crimes and asked for a constable to be called.
“George Farrow is the watchman of the area. The prisoner was in his charge from Monday the 26th of October. He brought her to the Castle forthwith.”
After all this evidence is given, his Lordship, the judge addressed the court. I was called upon for my defence and was about to speak when another voice cut across. A voice I recognised; a voice that caused me to wish I were hanged already. Samuel Tuke’s.
“I speak for the defence of this woman; the prisoner, Alice Smith,” he said.
“And you are, sir?” enquired the judge.
“I am Samuel Tuke, proprietor of The Retreat and former employer of the prisoner.”
“Alice Smith, then Alice Haxby, came to my household at the age of 19. She stayed with us for more than four years, in which time she proved herself to be a valuable and loyal member of our household. When she left to marry Thomas Smith, it was a great sorrow to myself.
“Since that marriage, she has suffered untold miseries, first a miscarriage, and second the loss of two children to cholera. I have here, the deceased’s apprentice, Simon Blunt, who will attest that the deceased beat the prisoner cruelly. I put forth to you, your Lordship and the honourable men of the Jury that the prisoner be judged as insane, and henceforth, not responsible for her actions or crimes. I propose that her care be entrusted to my lunatic asylum, where she remain for the rest of her life, being a danger to herself and those around her.”
“Alice Smith. Do you have anything to say in your defence?” asked the judge.
I was primed to say that I was guilty of the crime, primed to admit to my sins and be judged for them, but I looked into Samuel’s eyes and I saw something there, a pleading.
I had no real wish to die, only to be left alone with my children. If I hanged, I would leave them behind, with no one to care for them. I was already free of Thomas, and perhaps now, with Samuel’s help, I would be free to end my days peacefully.
I remembered his talk of The Retreat and it was a far cry from the dank cell I had been in. So instead of a defence, or instead of stating my guilt, I stared at the judge in silence until nudged by a watchman, said, “I leave it to God, and my conscience, sir.”
The jury retired and it was only six minutes until they returned.
“We, the jury, find the prisoner, Alice Smith, guilty of petty treason, and murder.” A murmur went round the assembled crowd and I saw Samuel grip the bench in front of him tightly. I met his eyes and tried to send him a message of gratitude, love and regret, but as I did so, the jury continued.
“We also judge the prisoner to be insane and as such, sentence her to spend the remainder of her days in The Retreat.” Hearing these words, I was filled with relief. My knees buckled beneath me, the blood drained from my face and I fell upon the floor of the dock.
The gaoler raised me to my feet and I heard in a blur the judge pass the sentence, demanding I be taken from the Castle prisons to The Retreat with immediate effect. I sagged in the gaoler’s arms and let the darkness flood over me.