Gypsys, arsenic, horse-theft and murder: the 4th January blog story exposed

The Blog for 4th January carried this piece from Thomas Moore’s edited: ‘Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron’:
‘I was out of spirits – read the papers – thought what fame was, on reading, in a case of murder, that Mr Wych, grocer of Tunbridge, sold some bacon, flour, cheese, and, it is believed, some plums, to some gypsy woman accused. He had on his counter (I quote faithfully) ‘a book, the Life of Pamela, which he was tearing for waste paper, etc, etc. In the cheese was found, etc, and a leaf of Pamela wrapt round the bacon.’ What would Richardson, the vainest and luckiest of living authors (i.e. while alive) – he, who with Aaron Hill, used to prophesy and chuckle over the presumed fall of Fielding (the prose Homer of human nature) and of Pope (the most beautiful of poets) – what would he have said, could he have traced his pages from their place on the French prince’s toilets (see Boswell’s Johnson) to the grocer’s counter and the gypsy-murderess’s bacon!!!’

I said that I would expand separately on this story. I didn’t quite realise what I was letting myself in for – but I am pleased I did. The research took me through a collection of pieces from the: Sussex Advertiser; the Norfolk Chronicle; the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette; the Caledonian Mercury; the Morning Chronicle and finishing up in December with the Oxford Journal, the Stamford Mercury, the Westmorland Gazette and the Glasgow Herald. I am sure there were many more pieces that could have been found – although the Maidstone Journal is not in the British Newspaper Archives, nor is it anywhere else that I could find! However, this is a distillation of those that I used. In the main I have used the words that appeared in the various newspapers

On Thursday 12th October a flag basket, directed to Mr Greentree, New Prison, Maidstone, was taken by a porter to the County Gaol in Maidstone. It was opened by the Gaol porter and one of the turnkeys and was found to contain a boiled current pudding, a piece of cheese, a piece of bacon, some onions, some apples, and a pair of worsted stockings. It was then delivered to William Greentree, a man in confinement on a charge of horse stealing, who had been apprehended at Portsmouth, He expressed surprise, saying, “God bless them that sent it me. I did not know I had a friend in Kent.” He then took the basket to his ward and opened it, taking out the pudding, and exclaiming, “Here is a fine current pudding I have got from my wife.” He offered the ward-man some of the pudding, but the latter told him he would take some at night. He also offered portions to his fellow prisoners but fortunately they had all just dined, and only one, a young man named William Hearn, partook of the food. Greentree cut two pieces off, and gave one to Hearn and they both ate a piece. In a quarter of an hour after eating the pudding both Greentree and Hearn were seized with the most dreadful pains. Information was given to Mr Powell, the Governor, of the circumstance, and medical assistance was immediately procured. Everything was done for the poor men that skill could suggest but Greentree, after suffering the most excruciating agonies died on Friday evening. Hearn expired on Sunday. The bodies were opened, and indubitable appearances of the effects of a mineral poison were evident in their stomachs and intestines.

A small piece of the pudding was given by the Governor to a fowl at four o’clock on Thursday afternoon, , which visibly affected it. Another small piece was given to it about six o’clock, and at ten o’clock it died. The remaining part of the pudding was submitted to the usual chemical tests, when a large quantity of arsenic was detected in the composition. On the Monday inquests were taken on the bodies at the gaol before Coroner J N Dudlow and the Jury, (one half of which were composed of prisoners as is usual in cases of inquests taken in prison). It returned verdicts in each case of Wilful Murder against some person or persons unknown. The coroner said that they were sorry to find that no evidence was given on the inquest that could furnish any clue for the detection of the offenders. Events, however, suggested that the diabolical act was perpetrated by some person who had been connected with Greentree, and feared he might betray him.
Coroner’s verdict: Wilful Murder.

By the time the Sussex Advertiser of 23rd October hits the stands things had moved on and three persons, two men and a woman, belonging to a tribe of gypsies, had been apprehended on strong suspicion of sending the deadly poison to Maidstone gaol. It was felt that there is little doubt that sufficient evidence will be adduced to bring this heavy charge home to them. It is thought that they were implicated with deceased Greentree, in the felony for which he was committed and they, fearing he would divulge his accomplices, resorted to those diabolical and fatal means, to prevent it.

My next step came from the Caledonian Mercury which had picked up the story from the Maidstone Journal telling the readers the story as above and adding that Greenstreet was 48 years of age, and Hughes (sic) just 24. Nothing came out in the least to criminate any one, so that at present the horrid dead remains involved in the greatest mystery.”

The newspapers are quite quiet on the whole story for the next month until the Morning Chronicle of 29th November reports the story in its own way and adds quite a few more pieces of information. It is these ‘few bits more’ that are enlightening,

Not traced earlier was the claim that on Greenstreet (slight name change) being informed that he had taken poison in the pudding, he expressed himself as having no doubt but that it had been done by a man of the name of Proudly, who was connected with a desperate gang of gipsies. He then made all the atonement to society he could by a confession of all the robberies he knew to a Magistrate. He described Robert Hughes, already in custody in that same prison on a charge of horse stealing, as going by the name of Wm. Browne, alias Gipsey Jack, alias One Finger Jack, &c.

The parcel or basket containing the pudding was traced to have been given to the Tunbridge Wells carrier by a tall woman, and that she was a gipsey and told fortunes. Another gipsey woman was proved to have bought an ounce or an ounce and a half of arsenic at Mr Webb’s shop in Tunbridge Wells, a short time previous to the basket being sent, saying that she wanted it to kill rats.

The Chronical stated that although ‘great exertions’ had been, and were still being made in the country to trace the perpetrators of this horrible deed, no trace had effectively been made as regards the planners and the executers. This situation could not continue and the Magistrates of Maidstone decided to apply to the Public Office, Bow Street, for two active and experienced officers to use their abilities and experience to trace, and to bring to punishment, the perpetrators of such premeditated murder. That request had been accepted by the Bow Street Magistrates.

On 17th of October they had appointed Detective Stephen Lavender [one of best men at Bow Street] and with an assistant to go to Maidstone and take control of the situation. They soon established that the basket and its contents had not been sent by Greenstreet’s wife, or any of his relatives or friends, at Rowland Castle. They also established that the arsenic had been bought at Tonbridge Wells, though there was no direct proof that hit had been put into the plum pudding. They also established that all the articles in the basket were purchased by Gipsey women at Tunbridge Wells, and that the directions on the basket were written by a female servant there, at the particular request of a gipsy woman. This was established as being the wife of a gentleman’s servant at Tonbridge.

The 26th October was Romsey Fair day and Lavender decided that a number of gipsies would be there. His objective now was to apprehend Proudly, the gipsey who was already charged with horse-stealing and murder. Lavender remained on the lookout in the fair throughout the day without success. He had been told that Proudly was expected there and, as he had not arrived in the day, he would certainly be there in the night. Lavender decided that he would go out of town and try to meet him on the road. Accompanied by a constable belonging to Romsey, they left town between nine and ten o’clock. I’ll now let the Morning Chronical take up the story:

‘As they were proceeding through a lane two men on horseback approached them, and fortunately, just as they came up to them, they stopped their horses to speak to a man who had called to them to ask a question, when Lavender having no doubt but that one of the men was Proudly, he seized his horse and endeavoured to unseat him. Lavender proved right in his conjecture as to its being Proudly, who resisted most violently; Lavender, however, accomplished his object, and having once seized hold of him, he was determined not to let him go. When he got him on the ground, he resisted even more violently, in which he was assisted by his companion on horseback, and probably a more desperate encounter never took place except with fire arms and deadly weapons. Lavender threatened to shoot him if he did not surrender, but to no effect; he kicked and plunged, and made every possible resistance, and he nearly accomplished the object he had in view, of stripping himself naked, when it is almost impossible to hold a person by any means; he got off all his clothes except his breeches. Lavender with the greatest of difficulty handcuffed him. In the conflict Lavender received several severe bruises.’
The man who was riding in company with Proudly proved to be the brother of Hughes, who had been the first of the gang to be taken into custardy charged with horse-stealing.

Lavender took Proudly before the Mayor of Romsey, who ordered him to be confined in the prison that night. The following morning Lavender took Proudly to Maidstone where he underwent an examination before the Magistrates. He denied that his name was Proudly, claiming it was Pearce. He also denied all knowledge of Hughes. Nevertheless he was committed and locked up.

That part of his brief completed, Lavender now addressed the other challenge: the woman who had made the plum pudding and put the poison in it. It was suspected that she was with a gang of gipsys who had left the Romsey area and were now resettled in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Since beginning his investigation into this whole matter on the 17th Lavender had been on horseback night and day seeking out all the gipsies he could. He now got a piece of good fortune when he met a woman, calling herself Mary Baker, encamped with an old man and woman, and some gipsy children; about three miles along the Wendover road from Chesham; the old man and woman are supposed to be the father and mother of Hughes. Lavender took ‘Mary Baker’ before the Earl of Bridgwater and the bench of Magistrates at Berkhampsted who, after examining her, ordered her to be taken before the Magistrates at Maidstone – a duty Lavender completed.

There were, in fact, two women named Baker, and they were charged with sending the poisoned pudding to Maidstone gaol and were fully committed for trial.


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