Charlotte McHugh, born in Londonderry in 1904, was
illiterate and promiscuous. She met Frederick Bryant in Ireland during
the early 1920s when he was serving as a military policeman in the
British Army. They moved to Somerset and were married. He was
twenty-five, she nineteen.
Over the next few years, Charlotte produced five
children, though it is not known how many of these were fathered by
Frederick. In 1925 they had moved to a tied cottage in Over Compton,
east of Yeovil, after Fred obtained a job as a farm labourer.
Charlotte was a slovenly woman who neglected her family while she went
in pursuit of any extra-marital pleasures that might be available. Her
husband ignored his wife's nymphomania and did not even object when
she brought men to the house to share her bed.
One of her numerous lovers was a
crude, unwashed peddler and horse-dealer of gypsy origin named Leonard
Parsons. He started lodging in the Bryant house sometime in 1933.
Parsons did not lodge on a regular basis as his occupation required
him to roam, sometimes even as far as his 'wife', Prescilla Loveridge,
the mother of his four children. Charlotte, however, was besotted with
him and decided that she preferred him to her husband.
Early in 1934 Fred was sacked,
possibly because of the gossip surrounding his wife, who was known
locally as 'Killarney Kate', 'Compton Bess' and 'Black Bess'. They
moved to Coombe, near Sherbourne, in Dorset.
In May 1935 Frederick was taken
ill, with the doctor diagnosing gastro-enteritis. Frederick recovered
within a few days. He was taken ill again on 11th December, again
recovering within a few days. On 22nd December he was taken violently
ill and died. Four grains of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. A
tin that had contained arsenical weedkiller was found amongst rubbish
at the back of the Bryant house and traces of arsenic were found on
shelves in the house and in one of Charlotte's coat pockets.
Charlotte was arrested on 10th
February 1936 and charged with the murder of her husband. Her trial
was opened at Dorset Assizes, Dorchester, on Wednesday 27th May 1936
with Charlotte seemingly unable to follow the proceedings. She
protested that she had been on very good terms with her husband but a
witness, Mr Tuck, testified that he had met Charlotte returning from
the hospital immediately after her husband's demise. Her comment to Mr
Tuck, an insurance agent with whom Charlotte had tried to insure her
husband's life, that "Nobody can say I poisoned him" did her no good
at all. Especially since no one knew at that time that her late
husband had been poisoned.
On Saturday 30th May 1936
Charlotte Bryant was found guilty and sentenced to hang. She was
executed at Exeter Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint and Thomas Phillips on
Wednesday 15th July 1936. She was thirty-three years old.
Poisoners seem to love using
arsenic to dispatch their victims despite the fact that the naturally
occurring chemical is one of the easiest to detect.
Perhaps its favor among
murderers is because arsenic is so easily obtainable. In fact, the
computer used to read this post contains a form of arsenic — gallium
arsenide — in its semiconductors.
In the play and film Arsenic
and Old Lace, the kindly old Brewster ladies murder their lonely
boarders by serving arsenic-laced tea, giving the appearance that this
method of poisoning is somehow humane. In reality, death by arsenic
poisoning is an extremely unpleasant way to die. If subjected to a
large dose of arsenic, the victim suffers from intense
gastro-intestinal distress, dizziness, vomiting blood and other nasty
effects. Smaller doses administered over a longer period make the
victim feel as if he or she is suffering from a never-ending bout of
the worst flu they have ever experienced. Eventually, enough of the
poison accumulates in the body to cause death.
For those readers who know of a
person who is deserving of death by arsenic poisoning, the
Malefactor’s Register — which strongly condemns any murder or attempt
— reminds the reader that arsenic has been detectable by forensic
sciences since the 18th century and undoubtedly will be discovered in
any autopsy — any pathologist will immediately notice the red
brick-colored mucosa and test for the mineral. Because arsenic does
not readily degrade, it remains detectable even after cremation.
Charlotte Bryant, however, was
an illiterate killer of dubious intelligence and little imagination
who lived in a village of about 75 people in Dorset, England, so it’s
not unexpected that she would choose arsenic to kill her husband in
Charlotte had been married for
13 years when she tired of her spouse, Frederick. For the time in
which they lived and their location, the couple had an extremely
liberal relationship because Frederick apparently could not satisfy
Charlotte’s insatiable sexual appetite. A poor farm hand, Frederick
also liked the money that Charlotte brought in as a part-time
prostitute (the fact that Charlotte, a wrinkled, unkempt,
snaggle-toothed woman could bring in any money as a whore demonstrates
how remote and small the village of Coombe-Keynes must have been at
Testimony at Charlotte’s trial
indicated that she was desperate for excitement and that her favors
could be purchased for the price of a lager at the local pub. Her
loose nature was no secret in Coombe-Keynes (could there be any
secrets in a village so small?).
Charlotte entertained her clients in the rural farmhouse she shared
with Frederick and their four children. With the tacit approval of
Frederick, she would wait until he left for work and the older
children headed off to school. Then, after sending her youngest child
off to the candy store for an hour, she would entertain her clients in
the marital bed.
The arrangement was acceptable
to everyone — “I don’t care what she does. Four pounds a week is
better than 30 shillings,” Frederick once told a friend — until the
Christmas season of 1933 when Charlotte met an itinerant peddler named
The day Charlotte met Leonard
she invited him back to the farmhouse for Christmas dinner. Frederick,
apparently feeling especially charitable because of the season,
listened to Leonard’s complaints about sleeping on the road and
impulsively invited the Bryants’ new-found friend to stay with them.
To Charlotte, Leonard was
everything that Frederick was not. He was a swarthy, blue-eyed,
world-saavy travler whose life was in sharp contrast to Frederick’s
stay-at-home, familiar complacency. Naturally, Charlotte fell in love
with Leonard, who may not have loved her back, but enjoyed the sex
without strings that she offered.
At night, Leonard slept on the
couch in the living room, but as soon as the house cleared out in the
morning, he and Charlotte would adjourn to the bedroom for a bit of
This arrangement tested even Frederick’s tolerance. He was willing to
put up with Charlotte’s casual liaisons, particularly when they
brought in extra income, but he was unwilling to play the role of
cuckold when his rival had the audacity to share his home along with
Frederick told Leonard to leave,
which he did. Much to Frederick’s shock, Charlotte took two of the
children and left with her lover. She stayed away for two days before
returning, saying she was worried about the children she left behind.
Frederick forgave his wife, an
act that helped seal his doom.
Shortly after Charlotte returned
home, Leonard began showing up for morning intimacy. Inexplicably,
within a few months, Leonard was once again a resident in the Bryant
household. Frederick and Leonard managed to achieve some kind of
detente and eventually switched places in reference to their sleeping
About the same time that
Charlotte became pregnant by Leonard, in the spring of 1935, Frederick
began to suffer bouts of gastroenteritis. His first attack occurred
when Charlotte was out of the house, but had conveniently left
Frederick’s lunch in the oven. Within minutes of eating the meat pie,
he became violently ill to the extent that a neighbor heard his cries
of agony. The doctor was summoned and gastroenteritis was the
diagnosis. Frederick recovered in about a week.
In August 1935, Frederick was
laid low with another attack but recovered in four days.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s relationship with Leonard was in its final
stages. In November 1935 he walked out of her house and left his
pregnant lover. The next time they saw each other, Charlotte would be
in the dock, accused of murdering her husband.
Within a month Charlotte had
moved on to a new friend, although there is no evidence that the
relationship was sexual. She had made friends with a local young
widow, Lucy Malvina Ostler, who had a handful of children of her own.
Lucy suggested that she (and her children) move in with the Bryants,
which Charlotte endorsed. Frederick, however, was having none of it.
On December 21, 1935, Lucy spent
the night with the Bryants after Charlotte complained of “feeling
nervous.” That night Frederick became ill for the last time. He was
rushed to the local hospital, but within hours, he was dead.
The autopsy revealed significant
traces of arsenic in his system. Immediately, Charlotte was suspected
of the crime and was moved out of her home by police anxious to find
evidence to back their hunches.
The first break occurred when a
local druggist told authorities that he had sold a tin of arsenic to a
woman who signed the required poison register with a cross. However,
when he was shown a lineup of women that included both Lucy and
Charlotte, he could not make an identification.
The lineup spooked Lucy, who
told police that she saw a tin of poison in the Bryant home. Her
description of the tin matched that sold by the chemist. She saw the
tin a second time when she was cleaning out the ashes beneath the
house’s steam heater. She told authorities that she threw the in the
yard and it was quickly recovered. An analysis revealed that it
contained traces of arsenic.
It wasn’t until May 1936 that
Charlotte stood trial for Frederick’s murder. The chief witness
against her was Lucy Ostler.
Lucy testfied that on December
21 she heard Charlotte offer her husband a drink of beef boullion and
that shortly after Frederick was prostrate with stomach pains followed
Charlotte’s two eldest children
also offered evidence against her, telling the court about the strange
sleeping arrangements in the Bryant home.
Leonard Parsons was traced and
brought in to testify for the Crown. He recalled seeing Charlotte with
poison that she said was weedkiller.
Charlotte took the stand in her
own defense and squarely pointed the finger of blame on Lucy Ostler.
She claimed she had gone to bed at 7 p.m. on December 21 and that Lucy
had been the one to care for Frederick during his last night on Earth.
The most controversial witness,
however, was Dr. Roche Lynch, who was a chemist with the Home Office.
He testified that the ashes beneath the boiler contained an
“abnormally large” amount of arsenic — 149 parts per million. The
expected level in ash was about 45 parts per million. Thus, he
explained, something containing arsenic was burned beneath the boiler.
The judge, in his summing up, advised the jury that this appeared to
him that someone had obviously tried to destroy evidence. It was a
fair assumption that this person was Charlotte.
The jury took just an hour to
find Charlotte guilty of first degree murder and she was sentenced to
However, two days after the
verdict was returned, her solicitor received a letter from a college
professor who advised her counsel that the Home Office chemist was
seriously wrong in his estimates of the arsenic content of ash. In
fact, he argued, the normal arsenic content of British household coal
was never less than 140 parts per million and often reached levels of
1,000 parts per million.
Armed with this new information,
Charlotte’s defense team attempted to gain a new trial for her. They
were unsuccessful in swaying the appellate court:
It would be intolerable if this
court, on the conclusion of a capital charge or other case, were to
listen to the afterthoughts of a scientific gentleman who brought his
mind controversially to bear on the evidence that was given. We
adumbrated that possibility and we set our minds against it.
~Lord Chief Justice Gordon
Charlotte Bryant was executed at
Exeter prison on July 15, 1936. She left a letter behind that is
intriguing in its mystery:
“It’s all _____’s
fault I am here,” she wrote. “I listened to the tales I was told. But
I have not long now and I will be out of all my troubles. God bless my
Charlotte supplied the identity
of the person she blamed, but in releasing the letter, prison
authorities blacked out the name. Perhaps somewhere, in an archive
somewhere in England, the unredacted letter could shed the final light
on this crime.