My Tender, Pretty, Smiling Babes.
WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT.
On the 16th May 1849 Rebecca Smith, 42, gave birth to her eleventh child, a boy his parents named Richard. Far from being overjoyed at the birth of her healthy son, however, Rebecca predicted his imminent death.
Rebecca and her husband, Philip Smith, had married in Bratton, Wiltshire, the village they were both from, eighteen years before on 5 May 1831 as Rebecca was turning 24. Their first child, Jane, was born nine months later, on 8 February 1832. After Jane, Rebecca gave birth to nine more children over the next seventeen years but tragically none lived past a few days or weeks. The Smith family were part of the long-established Baptist community in Bratton, Rebecca regularly attended chapel and all her babies were buried in Bratton chapel’s graveyard. Philip worked as an agricultural labourer; this was temporary, seasonal employment that paid little.
In 1843 Rebecca inherited some money and in 1846 the family moved a couple of miles away to Westbury, Wiltshire and rented some land to farm. Philip, who had a reputation as a drunk, squandered what little money the family had, however, so that Rebecca, alongside running the household, was forced into seasonal work growing vegetables and picking crops. As a woman, she earned less than children employed in this same work. Due to poverty and her back-breaking work, Rebecca’s health, both mental and physical, was not good.
The couple’s eleventh child, Richard, at first seemed healthy but, just as Rebecca had predicted, he became ill on the evening of 7 June 1849 with vomiting. Rebecca did not fetch help but Philip, having met a doctor on a trip back to Bratton, arranged for this doctor to visit their home on 8 June. To the doctor, Richard seemed to be in reasonable health but Rebecca seemed very weak: he recommended she obtain some food for herself.
After the doctor’s visit, Richard continued to vomit and died on the morning of 12 June at just under a month old. Rebecca reported his death the next day, 13 June, and the local registrar recorded the cause of death as ‘unknown.’ The baby was buried at Bratton Baptist chapel the next day. Within a week, however, rumours circulating in Westbury led the coroner to order an inquest into Richard’s death.
These rumours said that Rebecca had been trying to obtain or buy poison in the weeks before and after Richard’s birth. On 24 April she tried to borrow mouse poison from a neighbour and nine days after she had given birth to Richard when she was still too weak to leave the house, she asked a teenage girl to buy rat poison for her. Rebecca had managed to purchase some ‘white arsenic’ — an odorless, tasteless powder used as a rat poison and weedkiller — on the morning of 7 June, the same day baby Richard became ill. Those who knew Rebecca in Westbury had also noticed that Rebecca did not seem to have bonded with her new baby: she never called him by his name. She claimed the infant was ‘wasting away’ when he seemed the picture of health.
Richard’s body was exhumed on 22 June, taken to Westbury, and autopsied on 24 June. Traces of arsenic were discovered in his stomach and his cause of death was now recorded as ‘due to arsenic given by mouth more than once.’ The inquest jury returned a verdict of wilful murder, and the coroner committed Rebecca for trial, with the date set for August.
Whilst Rebecca was awaiting trial, inquests into the deaths of two more Smith infants — Sarah, who died in 1841, and Edward, who died in 1844 — were conducted on 18 July. When exhumed, both their remains had also been found to contain arsenic. The inquest jury concluded that their deaths were due to arsenic poisoning, but that it was unknown how or by whom they had been poisoned.
Rebecca went on trial for Richard’s murder at Devizes, Wiltshire on 9 August 1849. Her trial lasted just one day, she offered no defence and the jury took just 30 minutes to find Rebecca guilty. The jury also, however, issued a recommendation of mercy. The judge ignored their request and sentenced Rebecca to death.
A week after her sentencing, Rebecca made a confession to the Anglican prison chaplain; she had used poison to kill seven of her other children. Her second-born, a son, had died of natural causes aged 14 weeks, the next seven babies she had murdered by feeding them what she called ‘blue’ — rat poison tablets she took from hayricks.
The baby born before Richard had also died of ‘natural causes’ whilst being cared for by a neighbour as Rebecca was ill after the birth — although one wonders whether Rebecca let these two babies die from neglect.
Rebecca’s motive? She had poisoned her babies because she feared they might otherwise have slowly starved to death as the family had no money to raise them. This was not an irrational fear: dying of starvation was the fate of many poverty-stricken children and their parents during the decade known as ‘the Hungry Forties.’ It was very cheap and easy to obtain a quantity of poison, especially arsenic, which would be deadly: the over one hundred criminal poisoning cases reported during the 1840s show that these poisons were often put to fatal use.
As a Baptist, Rebecca believed that her dead babies would be going to a better ‘life’ in heaven. Killing them, sparing them a life of extreme poverty, might then be understood as an extreme act of maternal love. By limiting her family to just one living child, Jane, Rebecca could ensure that at least her firstborn daughter would survive and thrive, with her mother also able to stay alive to care for her.
Rebecca also told that her husband Philip had been a drunkard and a brute ever since they married and that he scarcely ever brought home even a shilling of his already meagre wages. His emotionless conduct when visiting her in prison was testament to her account. As a person of strong Baptist faith, however, Rebecca would have believed in obedience in marriage and the sanctity of the family so she could not have separated from Philip.
Two petitions asking for mercy for Rebecca were sent to the British Home Secretary (a position similar to the US Attorney General), the second signed by Rebecca’s firstborn Jane (now aged 17), Rebecca’s brother, and several of her sisters-in-law — but not by her husband of 18 years Philip. The petitions failed. The press and public were heavily in favour of Rebecca’s execution. Counting against Rebecca were: that she was a married woman so need not fear the stigma of birthing illegitimate children, that she had planned the murder of Richard (even before his birth), and that she had poisoned her babies: an unnecessarily cruel form of death.
Rebecca was publicly hanged at Devizes, Wiltshire on the 23rd August 1849 in front of a large crowd. People came from far and wide to see the hanging and the prison yard, the banks of the canal, and also “every tree, hedge, and field that could command a view of the drop” according to one local newspaper was crammed full of people.
Rebecca was the last mother in England to be executed for the murder of her own infant. Her only fear prior to her execution was that her dear daughter Jane would now be neglected. Jane’s fate is in fact unknown; she does not appear on the 1851 census as living in Bratton or Westbury.
Two years later, in the county of Essex, a woman called Sarah Chesham was convicted of poisoning her husband to death with arsenic and was sentenced to be hanged. In 1847, Sarah had been acquitted of murdering two of her sons James, 8, and Joseph, 10 — who had both died in January 1845 seemingly of cholera — because the arsenic found in their exhumed bodies could not be traced directly to her. She was also suspected of having poisoned the baby son of her husband’s ex in 1846 when he died after eating some food she had brought him. She was acquitted of that crime as no arsenic was found in the baby’s stomach.
The crowd of 7,000 at Sarah’s hanging in March 1851 chanted a slogan that, given that Sarah had not been convicted of killing her children, would have been better suited to Rebecca:
“My tender, pretty, smiling babes, With poison I did slay.”
In the same year Sarah was hanged, a new law was passed restricting the sale of arsenic.
Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for more stories from the ‘Weirdshire’ series and check out my previously published stories.
Rebecca Smith (infanticide) - Wikipedia
Rebecca Smith (née Prior; chr. 17 May 1807 - 23 August 1849) was the last British woman to be executed for the…
Poisoning in the Hungry Forties - Wonders & Marvels
By Kaitlyn Berry (Vanderbilt University) My tender, pretty, smiling babes, With poison I did slay. And after that I did…
Katherine D. Watson (2008) Religion, Community and The Infanticidal Mother: Evidence From 1840s Rural Wiltshire, Family & Community History, 11:2, 116–133, DOI: 10.1179/175138108X355148.