Norfolk's historic double murder mystery: who poisoned a mother and daughter?
- Credit: Louise Cocker
Guarded by a gap-toothed crumbling tower, hidden under swathes of wildflowers and thorns is a gravestone which reveals a murder mystery more than 200 years old.
In the oldest part of Hainford All Saint’s graveyard, the tombstone rests for two women who died within hours of each other, poisoned by the same hand.
“Sacred to the memory of Dinah, the wife of James Maxey, aged 45 years, also of Elizabeth Smith (her daughter by a former husband) aged 22 years who on the 20 March 1813 were suddenly deprived of life by means of poison secretly administered to them, they were buried in one grave,” the simple stone reads.
“There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest.”
Below these words are more, difficult to read thanks to foliage and the centuries which have passed since poor Dinah and Elizabeth met their untimely end.
But they include a suggestion: that the murderer of the mother and daughter should come forward and admit their dreadful crime.
The ruin of Hainford All Saints is cloaked with ivy and brambles, a fairytale tower that once formed part of an imposing medieval church which was partly, but not wholly, abandoned in 1840.
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But in 1813, when Dinah Maxey and Elizabeth Smith were buried together, their fate and futures forever entwined, first in love, then in pain and finally in their eternal resting place, the church was still Hainford’s principal place of worship.
Perhaps it is where Dinah married her second husband, James, before the pair set up house in the village along with Dinah’s daughter from a previous marriage, Elizabeth.
We know nothing of James and Dinah’s relationship, other than one was accused of the murder of the other, denied it vehemently and walked away from court, free.
What we do know, is what happened on the day Dinah and her daughter Elizabeth fell ill and died in the most horrific manner after unimaginable pain.
In The Edinburgh Annual Register for 2013, printed by James Ballantyne and Co, the story was recounted via James Maxey’s court case, which began in Norwich on September 1, 1813, little more than three months after his wife and step-daughter’s deaths.
Dinah and Elizabeth’s horrendous ordeal began in the most mundane way, after enjoying their first cup of tea of the morning on May 19, 1813.
Witness Elizabeth Furniss told the court she had been at the house as the pair had their tea, and both had told her that the water had looked “somewhat white”.
Within a short time, both women were writhing in agony, clutching their stomachs.
“Mr Chander, surgeon of St Faith’s deposed, that on the 19th of May he went to the house of James Maxey, and found his wife Dinah Maxey and Elizabeth Smith, her daughter, labouring under the most excruciating pain, with violent retchings, and in spite of medicine, their symptoms increased,” reads The Edinburgh Annual Register.
On hearing that her sister was ill, Martha Yemms rushed to see Dinah and Elizabeth and was horrified to see how unwell both were.
When she asked Dinah what she thought was wrong, she answered: “Oh, my dear sister! I am poisoned, I am dying! I am poisoned with something that was put into the tea kettle – it appeared white.”
Martha asked her sister who she thought had poisoned her. She answered: “I think my husband; it cannot be anybody else because nobody has been here but ourselves…”
All through the day and the night, the mother and daughter were in complete agony, and Mr Chander’s medicine proved to be no match for their escalating pain.
Common ‘cures’ for the symptoms the women were showing – retching, vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, brown blotches, bringing up blood – would have involved more vomiting, this time induced with mixtures of milk, vinegar, linseed, sugar water and egg whites.
But nothing could halt the progress of a poison which, according to Sandra Hempel’s book The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder and the New Forensic Science, turned stomachs into “…a soft, pulpy, cheese-like condition” in a matter of hours.
The pain was unimaginable. Dinah and her daughter were sent to hell and back.
The next morning, Mr Chander returned and the women’s condition had worsened – Elizabeth was fading fast and, by the afternoon, slipped away, her death a mercy after what must have felt like never-ending torture.
Martha was in the house when Elizabeth died, as was James, who came to see his step-daughter in her death bed, wringing his hands and weeping.
Dinah, herself wracked with terrifying pain, was in the same room and looked at her apparently-grieving husband with ill-concealed contempt.
“James, what do you make that piece of work for, when you know you did it to us both?” she said, as Martha mopped her brow.
He made no reply.
When Chander came to the house in the early evening, it was clear Dinah was entering the last few hours of her life and, as her pain reached a crescendo, she told the doctor: “I am certainly poisoned, and dying.”
He asked who she thought had administered the lethal poison but she refused to say: “I will accuse nobody.”
Just before midnight, Dinah died.
James spent the night in the house with his dead wife and step-daughter and the next morning their bodies were collected and they were taken for post mortem.
When the bodies were opened that morning, there could be no doubt that the two women had met their end by poison with the mortician concluding that the poison in question had been a mineral compound. Arsenic, perhaps.
Ten days later, James Maxey was arrested and taken to Norwich Gaol, charged with poisoning his wife and stepdaughter. On September 1, he stood trial for murder.
Witnesses appeared to give evidence, including William Hemmington of Hainford, who had employed James as a blacksmith for 15 years.
He told the court that he had recently bought some “corrosive sublimate” for his business which he had used some of and placed the rest in a container in a cupboard in his workshop.
After the death of Dinah and Elizabeth, he checked the container as – he said – a cat and a dog had been poisoned near the shop and he wanted to check his supply.
When he looked, he was missing around a quarter of an ounce of poison.
Hemmington was asked if James had known just how dangerous the poison was, and answered: “No, I believe he did not know the properties of it.”
He also attested to his employee’s conduct at work, saying he had given him no trouble in 15 years and that the only time he had sworn while at work had been when he was putting shoes on a particularly vicious donkey.
“I’ll he damned if I don’t do something to be hanged for, before I shoe donkeys,” he was reported to have said.
Acquaintance Sarah Steward had visited Dinah and her daughter shortly after they’d taken tea and had made some peppermint water for them as they were complaining of stomach pain.
She took the water out of the kettle which the tea was made from and, before she passed the drink to the women, she tried a sip to test it was cool enough.
The court was told that just a few minutes after she took a single sip her stomach felt “…fit to fly open and she could not get about for nearly a month afterwards.”
When James took the stand, he told the judge that he had never kept poison and knew nothing whatsoever as to why the two most important women in his life had died in such a terrible way.
The judge explained to the jury that although there was circumstantial evidence (quite a great deal of it) “…all the links of the chain must be entire and its connection with the accused party obvious and necessary, before a verdict of guilt could be justly and conscientiously grounded upon it.”
The Edinburgh Annual Register continued: “His Lordship then said that Dinah Maxey unquestionably did receive an impression that it was her husband who had administered the poison: at first, however, she seems to have had no suspicion although she afterwards said she could not think it was anyone else, because there had been no person there.”
But James had, the judge continued, never attempted to flee the house where his wife and step-daughter had died and slept in the house with their bodies “…which was much in favour of the prisoner, for if he had been guilty of the crime his conscience, probably, would not have allowed him to have done so.”
Dinah’s death-bed assertion that her poisoner was her husband was, continued the judge, opinion and not fact and he felt that there was not enough evidence to prove Maxey’s guilt.
The jury, unsurprisingly, agreed.
James Maxey went back to the house where two women had died in agony and ordered a gravestone that told their story and appealed for the guilty party to come forward. They never did.
Villagers continued to whisper about James and he lived for the rest of his life under a veil of suspicion: it is not apparent if he is buried with Dinah and Elizabeth.
In the early 19th century, more women were murdered by their husbands than vice versa (by a huge number – men commited 90 per cent of spousal murders) but it was the murder of husbands by wives that made bigger headlines and attracted bigger sentences.
Women who killed their husbands were accused of petty treason which was punishable by death whereas a man who murdered his wife might receive no more than nine months of hard labour.
There were endless reasons someone living in this period might have felt compelled to take drastic measures: divorce was expensive and poison cheap, a new lover might have been found, an unhappy marriage might also be violent, a new life could be afforded upon the collection of life insurance.
For three pence you could buy three ounces of arsenic and have a long-lasting supply of poison to kill vermin: just a knife-tip of the deadly white powder, however, would also rid you of a troublesome spouse.
Arsenic was a by-product of the metal industry and, by the early 1800s, white arsenic, or arsenic trioxide, an incredibly toxic poison, was readily available to all.
It was inexpensive, had no smell or taste and was easily confused with flour or sugar: in short, it was a perfect secret weapon for those with murder on their minds.
As the century unfolded, the stories of dreadful killings carried out with arsenic began to grow, terrifying the public and filling column inches in newspapers.
In fairness, most deaths-by-arsenic were due to exposure to arsenic compounds in items such as wallpaper and fabric dyes, in the factories that made the products and in the air that polluted towns.
It was used in laundry detergents, toys, cosmetics, clothing, socks, as a pesticide…and then, of course, it was used to treat health issues such as asthma and cancer, skin problems and reduced libidos.
If you were intent on using arsenic for more nefarious purposes, the symptoms your victim might suffer were common enough to be passed off as something else.
Vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal pain, dehydration – all were common enough symptoms of a range of illnesses running riot in the 19th century such as cholera.
During the 1800s, there were hundreds of poisoning trials and debates in Parliament about the problem of arsenic and countless press articles about the perils of a poison which could be purchased without regulation.
Women who poisoned their husbands became as infamous as the ‘witches’ who stood trial two centuries previously – female poisoners became infamous, were denounced as immoral and inhuman and were even made into waxworks for travelling exhibitions.
Norfolk boasted several ‘celebrity’ poisoners such as Mary Wright of Wighton and the Burnham Market poisoners.
Mary Ann Wright, who was born in 1803 in Wighton. She lived a tough life, living with husband William Wright, eight-years her senior, and her father, Richard.
There were children, records aren’t accurate as to how many, but we do know that at least two died as an infants and that a villager said Mary was “never in her right mind” following the birth of her last child, Ellis..
Her mother had also suffered mental health issues and it was possible that Mary was suffering with post-partum psychosis: whatever the reason, she was keen to unburden herself of a husband.
In 1832, Mary went to visit Hannah Shorten.
Shorten was a wise woman who was called on to lift enchantments, cast spells, make charms and look into the future: one of her remedies involved burning arsenic with salt in order to have your wishes granted.
Mary hid the poison she’d told a friend she was buying to kill rats in a plum cake – she then sent William to work with the sweet treat and after he ate it, he died.
So, unfortunately, did her father, who had eaten poisoned food by mistake and who was buried on the same day as her husband in Wighton church on December 4 1832. Cholera was suspected…until Mary’s friend Sarah Hastings mentioned the purchase of the arsenic at which the bodies were exhumed, their stomachs removed and tested. Mary was arrested, charged, tried and found guilty. Hannah was not called as a witness, just as she wouldn’t be in a similar trial (more of which later), either.
Pregnant when she was found guilty, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, and her sentence was reduced from execution to transportation to Australia – she never made the long journey, though, dying in Norwich Castle in November of causes unknown.
She was buried at St Michael at Thorn, the church at the top of Ber Street in Norwich which was lost in the Blitz of January 1942, and there she remains.
Little Elizabeth and her older brother Ellis, who had been born two years before his father and grandfather’s deaths, were sent to live with relatives in Swanton Morley.
Shorten was also implicated in the Burnham Market Poisoners case when Frances Billing and Katherine Frary brought death to the north Norfolk village in the 1830s when they killed three people and planned the murders of more before the finger of suspicion pointed their way and the hangman intervened.
The pair had used arsenic-laced flour to make poison dumplings, a more Norfolk murder you’d struggle to find.
More than 20,000 people watched the pair hang outside Norwich Castle, vast crowds gathering on August 10 1835 to see Frary and Billing step up to the scaffold to be, as the news report put it, “launched into eternity”.
The 1851 Sale of Arsenic Act applied a fairly ineffectual brake to those wishing to use it as a silent killer: all sales had to be recorded and colouring agents were added so it could no longer be disguised as sugar or flour.
However, pharmacists and grocers still sold arsenic in its white powder form and it was still readily available. The poisonings continued until scientists found reliable ways to test for poisons at autopsies.
In 1836 chemist James Marsh developed the Marsh test, which could identify minuscule amounts of arsenic in food and in human remains and in 1841 Hugo Reinsch developed a simple test for arsenic using water, hydrochloric acid, and copper foil.
Both discoveries enabled the authorities to identify a murder after it had happened and follow trails of evidence to the murderers and both discoveries were made too late for justice to prevail in the tragic case of Dinah and Elizabeth.
Did James Maxey get away with murder, or was he as he claimed - an innocent man?
· Thank you to Lou Cocker, who has undertaken a huge mission to photograph every gravestone and memorial in Norfolk , has taken more than 220,000 pictures of Norfolk stones and who forwarded a photograph of Dinah Maxey and Elizabeth Smith’s grave to the EDP.
Now hidden beneath bramble and undergrowth, the story of Dinah and James Maxey and Elizabeth Smith has not been told since 1815 and would have remained buried had it not been for Lou’s dedication to preserving the past.