"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Trial of Jane Butterfield: An 18th Century Murder Mystery

A classic poisoning case is the death of James Maybrick in 1889. Although his wife Florence was tried and convicted for his murder, an element of mystery still surrounds the story, as many true-crime researchers have plausibly argued that Mrs. Maybrick was in fact innocent. James had the unnerving habit of dosing himself with what he was pleased to think of as "theraputic" amounts of arsenic, strychnine, and other unwholesome snacks. According to the pro-Florence team, her husband essentially accidentally murdered himself. Unfortunately, we will likely never know for sure if Mrs. Maybrick was a villain or a martyr.

A similar murder trial, renowned in its day but now long-forgotten, took place in England in 1775. Although the case was "closed" in the legal sense, there were enough ambiguities to ensure that there are still questions about what really happened. The story reads like one of Samuel Richardson's contemporary novels, complete with a real-life Pamela or Clarissa.

Jane Butterfield was an extremely pretty girl. Great beauty is very often a mixed blessing, as Jane would soon discover. When she was only 14, a professional procuress lured Jane away from her home and into the bed of a wealthy rake named William Scawen, old enough to be her grandfather. Through what she later described as a "variety of artifices," Scawen persuaded the girl to remain in his home, as combination housekeeper/mistress.

Fortunately, this arrangement (which was hardly uncommon in those times) worked to the satisfaction of both parties. Scawen developed a genuine affection for Jane. He provided her with a fine education, a wardrobe fit for a great lady, and, in her words, "shewed her so many instances of friendship and kindness, that she sincerely loved him, and gave him many unquestionable proofs of her gratitude, fidelity and affection." Jane stood so high in Scawen's regard, he made a will leaving her the bulk of his not-inconsiderable estate. Jane was entirely dependent on Scawen's good will. Her status as a "fallen woman" caused her family to disown her. Without her much-older "protector," she would be left "naked and defenseless on the world."

Jane was a sweet-natured, generous woman who inspired the high regard of Scawen's neighbors, who were willing to overlook her irregular status and treat her with all the respect due a legitimate Mrs. Scawen. Jane gave generously to the local poor, and even came to the rescue of a pervious mistress of Scawen's who was living in poverty. Jane gave the woman (known only to history as "Mrs. F.") money out of her own allowance, and persuaded Scawen to leave the daughter he had with "Mrs. F." a handsome bequest in his will. In short, everyone had reason to be highly pleased with the relationship between Jane and William, with one important exception: Scawen's sister, Lady Mead. As Scawen's closest living relative, she felt she had a right to be named his chief heir. Lady Mead grumbled about the prospect of his fortune going into the hands of a mere concubine. This attitude may--or may not--have played a significant role in the tragedy to come.

For some fourteen or fifteen years, Jane and William lived together quietly and peaceably. Then, in 1775, Scawen's health, which had been poor for the past few years, took a dramatic downturn. He had been taking a tincture containing mercury prepared by his apothecary, Robert Cochran, to counter his rheumatism, but it made Scawen so ill he stopped taking the medication. He blamed his sickness on the mercury. He also consulted his doctor, Edmund Sanxay, for his rheumatism, as well as an ulcer on his arm which had "bred maggots"[!!!] Sanxay gave him plasters for his arm and a sarsaparilla-based tonic for the rheumatism. However, Scawen discontinued this draught as well. It--as well as everything he had been drinking lately--had a disgustingly metallic taste to them. Jane acted as Scawen's nurse, tending to him constantly, and seemingly most affectionately.

Scawen's illness persisted for weeks, which aroused Cochran's suspicions. He felt the mercury in Scawen's tonic could not be responsible for such a prolonged sickness. The apothecary went running to Lady Mead with startling, and highly ominous, news: he believed her brother was being deliberately poisoned, and urged her to share this theory with Scawen's doctor.

In June, Sanxay visited Scawen, who was now too ill to leave his home. Scawen was feverish, nauseated, and his mouth was full of ulcers. Although Sanxay had been alerted to the apothecary's dark fears--and after examining Scawen the doctor was inclined to share them--he said nothing to the patient. He merely prescribed some innocuous medicines, all of which were served to him by Jane.

Scawen continued to complain that everything he drank seemed to have that same strange, metallic taste, and he noted that he always felt worse afterwards. Sanxay--over Jane's protests--insisted on having a professional nurse brought in to tend to Scawen.

When a rich man becomes seriously and mysteriously ill while in close proximity to someone who would gain great financial benefit from his death, it is inevitable that unpleasant things will be said. Gossips were having a field day. Lady Mead began openly declaring that her brother was being poisoned with mercury. She did not--yet--name any names, but it was not difficult to guess who she believed was responsible.

Sanxay brought in a colleague, Robert Young, to examine his patient. Young was familiar with the symptoms of mercury poisoning, so would be in position to know if Sanxay's suspicions were correct. After examining Scawen, Young was able to confirm that the mouth ulcerations, as well as the metallic flavor of Scawen's drinks, were most likely indeed due to chronic mercury poisoning.

Sanxay wasted no time. The doctor persuaded Scawen to immediately leave his home--and his mistress--and move in with Sanxay's household. However, this change in scene did nothing to alleviate Scawen's condition. The ulcerations, brassy taste in his mouth, and general debility continued. Sanxay did what he could for the patient, but William Scawen was beyond all human aid. He died on June 21, 1775. Shortly before his passing, Sanxay and Lady Mead persuaded him to write a new will, making Lady Mead his principal heir and cutting Jane off without a penny. Scawen's body was scarcely cold when Jane Butterfield was arrested for his murder.

Sadly for the course of justice, the state of forensic knowledge regarding poisons was in its infancy, if it could be said to have been born at all. It was more a matter of personal opinion rather than established scientific fact, something which was very much to this particular defendant's advantage. Cochrane, Sanxay, and Young were the main prosecution witnesses at Jane's trial. They stated unequivocally that Scawen died as a result of deliberate mercury poisoning. On the other hand, the defense presented their own expert witness, one Dr. Saunders, who testified with equal authority and certainty that Scawen's symptoms could very well be attributed to other causes. The dead man's excess salivation could have resulted from a "paralytic state, a palsy in those parts." Older people frequently had a "relaxation of the throat" which made it difficult for them to swallow saliva. ("They call them drivellers.") Saunders recalled that he once had a patient who showed all the classic signs of mercury poisoning, only to have it turn out that her symptoms were from a completely different cause. Saunders' testimony was corroborated by three surgeons, one of whom said that Scawen confided to him that as the result of "repeated venereal injuries," he had dosed himself with mercury.

Further complicating matters was the fact that Scawen had been taking various medical hellbrews for his many physical problems, and no one had been able to make a definitive diagnosis of what, exactly, his fatal ailment had been. (Rather curiously, his body was never autopsied.)

The defense also brought on several witnesses attesting to the genuine fondness between the prisoner and her alleged victim. As was the custom in those days, Jane did not take the stand. However, a statement of hers was read in court. In it, she described her relationship with Scawen, and how despite its sordid beginnings, she came to have a sincere affection for him. She wrote, "I will thus publicly do him justice, that, except in the instances of our first acquaintance and conclusion of it, he sought by all means to make me happy: nor was the improvement of my mind neglected; in this he faithfully supplied a parent's duty to which I will add, that he was by nature generous, and, to myself, that generosity was unbounded. Judge then, my lord, what I must have felt when charged with a crime of the most shocking heinous nature! Not only of murder, but of murdering this benefactor and my only friend."

Jane's beauty, coupled with her gentle, modest, and seemingly virtuous demeanor, had made her a very popular defendant. The excellent impression she made in court, coupled with the conflicting medical evidence, led the jury to return an acquittal. The "Derby Mercury" reported that when the verdict was read, "the Hall rebounded with Acclamations and Shouts of Applause; the Ladies burst into Tears of Joy, and there was the most general Expression of Satisfaction ever heard on any occasion."

The trial was over, but the mystery about Scawen's death remains. Despite Jane's sterling reputation, it is just possible that she did poison her "protector," after all. Even for the most estimable young lady, the prospect of becoming a rich and independent woman may be very, very tempting. Perhaps there was some truth to the contemporary gossip that Jane had found a younger man she wished to marry. On the other hand, Scawen was aged and infirm. Jane must have known that if she merely let nature take its course, he would surely pass away before long.

And what of Lady Mead? She had a powerful motive to see Scawen disinherit Jane and die before he could change his mind, with the young mistress getting the blame for his demise. And that is exactly what happened. Was she entirely guiltless?

Of course, it is possible that Scawen was inadvertently responsible for his own death. He was fond of taking numerous quack "remedies," and 18th century medical aid was often enough to finish off even the strongest constitutions. His medicines may well have been fatal to a man already weakened by rheumatism and venereal disease. We will never know.

Also unknown is what became of Jane Butterfield after her trial. She filed suit to overturn the will Scawen made just before his death, but after three years of litigation, a judge ruled that this testament was perfectly valid, leaving Jane alone, notorious, and penniless. She subsequently vanished from history. Eight months after her trial ended, a rather sad item appeared in the "Kentish Gazette" on April 13, 1776. It read:
Some of the friends of James Scawen [William's nephew] having propagated a report that he had made a provision for Miss Butterfield; and others having intimated that he would do it upon a proper application, she was induced to send him the following by James Howell, of Surry-street:

To James Scawen, Esq.

Surry-street, March 16, 1776.

I am told by my friends that you have said, "if I made application to you, it is your inclination to do me a kindness." You can easily judge of the feelings an innocent mind, loaded with accumulated distresses, must endure on such an occasion; and you will allow, that if my opinion of your generosity were not equal to my own sufferings, I could never take the step I now do of appealing to you, rather than justice and the law, for an alleviation of my sufferings. Behold me then, Sir, your supplicant for such provision as you think due to me for my long and affectionate care and attendance upon your uncle: and if you will not take into your consideration the sense your uncle entertained, during all the uninfluenced hours of his life, of my desert on those accounts, and the compensation he owed me for the tender sacrifices I had made him, place it to the sense of your own bounty, and your compassion for my hard fake; a fate, upon which I could say what must move the most obdurate. But the delicacy of this address binds me to say nothing which can either give you offense, or depart from what I owe to my own innocence. I shall therefore conclude with assuring you, that I take this step with the less regret, because for the greatest part of my life I have been solicitous to gain your esteem, and I long flattered myself that I had obtained it. I am, Sir,

With the utmost anguish and respect,
Your unfortunate and
Obedient humble servant,

Mr. Howell's account of his success when he delivered the above:

"I waited on Mr. Scawen in South Audley-street with the foregoing letter, which I delivered to his servant, he himself refusing to see me; and after waiting near half an hour, the same servant brought me verbally from his master the following answer:

'My master [Mr. Scawen] has read the letter, and burnt it, and that is all the answer he will ever send; and had he known from whom it came he would have burnt it unopened.'"

Whether Jane was guilty or innocent, odds are very good that her subsequent fate was not a happy one.

1 comment:

  1. A mystery indeed. Why Jane would wait fourteen or fifteen years to poison Scawen, when she probably could have done it earlier, with beneficial results, suggests that she didn't do it. And of course, as was pointed out, Scawen was nearing the end of his time anyway. Lady Mead, on the other hand, seems not to have had a recurring opportunity to poison her brother. Perhaps it was Scawen's own doing.


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