Spencer Cowper was born into a prominent Hertfordshire Whig family, and he made the most of his opportunities in life. In 1705, he became a Member of Parliament, and went on to become attorney general to the Prince of Wales and Chief Justice of Chester, winding up his career as Judge of Common Pleas. He is also remembered as the grandfather of poet William Cowper. Despite such achievements, until the day he died in 1728, he was bedeviled by the memory of a tragic incident: a woman’s mysterious and sinister death.
In March 1699, Cowper, who was then a rising young barrister, went to Hertford for the Spring Assizes. His family had a long association with a wealthy Hertford Quaker family named Stout. Cowper generally stayed with the Stouts during the Assizes, and his wife had written to the family telling them of his imminent arrival. However, when Cowper arrived in town, he found that his brother William (who was also a lawyer) had rented rooms with a man named Barefoot. Unfortunately, at the last minute, William had had to cancel attending the Assizes. As this accommodation would still have to be paid for, Spencer thought it most practical to use them himself. He sent his horse to the Stout home to be stabled, along with a note explaining his change of plans.
Among the other attorneys arriving in Hertford were Ellis Stephens and William Rogers. They rented rooms with a family named Gurrey, after which they went to a coffee house, and then an inn, where they met up with a scrivener named John Marson. The trio went back to the Gurreys’ around 11 p.m. There was no spare room for Marson, but the family consented to having him share the room with his two friends.
The Gurreys brought them wine and lit a fire in their room. While performing these tasks, the family later claimed they overheard their lodgers exchanging some curious gossip about one of the Stout family, a young woman named Sarah. Marson--apparently an old beau of hers--commented that “she cast me off, but I reckon a friend of mine is even with her by this time.” Another of the men added, “Well, her business is done, Mrs. Sarah Stout’s courting days are over.” The third man displayed a stack of money, gloating, “I will spend all the money I have, for joy the business is done.”
That same evening, Cowper dined with the Stouts. The current members of the household were Sarah Stout, her mother Mary, and a maid, Sarah Walker. Cowper took the opportunity to give Sarah some two hundred pounds--an interest payment on some money he had invested for her. After dinner, Sarah instructed Walker to prepare a room for their guest. Around 10:45 p.m., the maid heard the front door slam. When she went downstairs, both Cowper and Sarah were gone. Although she and Mrs. Stout sat up all night waiting for her, Sarah never returned.
Sarah’s whereabouts were unknown until early the following morning, when a mill owner named James Berry noticed something floating in the nearby river. When he looked closer, he realized it was the body of a woman, with wide-open, staring eyes and clenched teeth.
When the corpse was pulled from the river, it was quickly identified as Sarah Stout. The interest payment Cowper had given her was still in one of her pockets. A surgeon brought in to examine the body noted that her neck was swollen, and her breasts and collarbone were bruised. As it happened, about two months earlier a little girl had drowned in that same river. Those who had seen the child’s corpse noticed that her condition had been very different. The girl had not been bruised, her eyes were shut, and her body was full of water--which was not the case with Stout.
At Stout’s inquest, Cowper, as the last person known to have seen her alive, was naturally the star witness. He professed complete ignorance of how Sarah had met her death. He said he knew of no reason for her to drown herself. Despite the decidedly odd circumstances, the jury’s verdict was that the unfortunate woman had committed suicide while temporarily insane.
This did absolutely nothing to stem the growing rumors about Sarah’s strange death. There had long been gossip that the married Cowper had been far more than just friends with the dead woman. Now, it was being said that at the time of her peculiar end, Sarah was pregnant with Cowper’s child. In an effort to quash such lurid speculation, the Stouts had her exhumed on April 28. Her corpse was too decomposed for a thorough autopsy, but doctors were able to determine that she had not been carrying a child. However, the absence of water in her body led them to conclude that she had not drowned. In that let’s-not-mince-words way you see so often in the 17th century, one of the physicians declared, “if she had taken in water, the water must have rotted all the guts.”
Townsfolk stopped declaring that Sarah had been pregnant and started declaring that she had been murdered. Eyes once again turned to Spencer Cowper. The strange conversation Stephens, Rogers, and Marston allegedly had about her was recalled. The four men were brought in for questioning. Their--in the eyes of the law--unsatisfactory answers led to all of them being tried for murder at the Hertford Summer Assizes. Overseeing the case was Judge Henry Hatsell. Cowper--ignoring the old adage about lawyers who defend themselves--represented himself and his fellow defendants.
The prosecutor, a Mr. Jones, argued that there was no motive for Stout to commit suicide, and that the bruises around her neck suggested that she had been strangled. He suggested that the fact that she had been found floating in the river proved that she had been murdered. “If persons come alive into the water, then they sink; if dead, then they [float.]” Doctors corroborated this statement, adding that the lack of water found in Stout’s body was further proof that she was already dead when she entered the river. Jones also pointed out the ominous fact that when Marson arrived at Gurrey’s house, he was in a “hot state” and wearing wet, muddy boots.
Cowper stated that Stout had committed suicide. He pointed out that there was no solid evidence against any of the accused. He asserted that this was a political prosecution instigated by the Tories “to destroy, or break at least, the interest of my family in this place.” He brought in witnesses who stated that Stout had not been found floating in the river; rather, she was discovered lying “sideways between the stakes, and almost all under water.” He followed this up with a particularly macabre touch--a surgeon who had prepared for the trial by murdering some extremely unfortunate dogs. A dog was hanged, then placed in water. The corpse sank immediately. Three others were drowned. When the dogs were autopsied, little or no water was found in their stomachs.
Cowper claimed that he himself had an alibi for the time of Stout’s death. He said that after leaving her house at about 10:45 p.m., he went to the Glove and Dolphin inn, arriving there fifteen minutes later, at precisely 11. It would have taken him a minimum of half an hour to go from the Stout home to the river and then to the Glove and Dolphin. As for the other three defendants, witnesses confirmed that they had been in the Glove and Dolphin all evening until 11 p.m. The men stoutly denied having their alleged conversation about Stout. The money they had displayed was merely fifty shillings that Marson had earned from a recent case.
The defense presented witnesses who testified about Sarah’s mental state. Sarah Walker admitted that Stout had been suffering from severe headaches. One Elizabeth Toller stated that she had heard Stout threaten to drown herself. Another woman also stated that Stout “often wished herself dead.” Some witnesses believed that the cause of Stout’s depression was that she was in love with a man she could not marry. The identity of this man was revealed when Cowper himself produced in evidence a letter Sarah had sent him. It included the line, “for come life, come death, I am resolved never to desert you.”
Hatsell’s summing-up revealed only that he was in a fine muddle. He told the jury that he was “very much puzzled in my thoughts.” He could not imagine why any of the defendants would commit “such a horrid, barbarous murder.” He was equally unable to see why Sarah Stout, “a person of plentiful fortune, and a very sober good reputation, to destroy herself.” He closed with one of the most pitiful statements ever uttered by a judge on the bench: “I know not what to make of it...I am a little faint, and cannot remember any more of the evidence.”
After this embarrassing exhibition of judicial vapors, the jury had no choice but to return an acquittal.
The trial did nothing to quell public speculation about Stout’s death. For years afterward, numerous pamphlets appeared arguing either for or against Cowper’s guilt. And to the end of his days, whenever he appeared in public, his political enemies would shout taunts of “Who killed the Quaker?”
Historians still debate whether or not Stout was a victim of murder or suicide. In his book “The Mysterious Death of Sarah Stout,” John Barber proposed a third theory. He suggested that on the fatal night, Stout, knowing her relationship with Cowper was over, fled her house in despair. Sarah’s mother sent the maid Sarah Walker to bring her back home. The two women had a scuffle, during which Stout accidentally fell into the river. In order to deflect Walker from blame, Mary Stout spread word that Cowper, not her maid, had been the last person to see Sarah alive. This is, of course, pure speculation, but so is every other attempt to explain what happened on that fatal March night in 1699.