Arsenic and Old Heytesbury
One of our latest jobs has been at the mill, Heytesbury, a gorgeous location with a clear mill-pond which the locals have traditionally used to cool down on a hot day. This mellow jumble of different brick and stone ranges, and varied roof-lines represents a site continually occupied from at least the early 17th century, and probably earlier. By the mid-C17 Heytesbury was owned by the a’Court family from Ivychurch near Salisbury. They continued to own much property here until the 1920s. During research into the family, an interesting case of poisoning came up.
In 1776, a tragedy had struck the landowner, William P.A. a’Court, Esq. in the shape of the poisoning of his first wife by one of the servants, Joseph Armstrong. There is a manuscript account of the crime and Armstrong’s subsequent arrest in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre (WSHC 635/152) which, though unsigned, appears to have been written by one of the investigating officers.
Mrs. a’Court had arrived with her husband in Cheltenham perfectly well, but had been taken ill on the morning of Friday 13th September, 1776, and after eleven days of illness ‘expired in a fit’ on Monday 23rd September. The account states that:
‘On Tuesday 24th, Mr. a’Court sent for his servant Joseph Armstrong and told him he could no longer bear to see him in the House, on account of his Insolent and Brutal behaviour to his Mistress, and thereupon immediately Discharged him. About 11 o’clock the same day, Armstrong set out on foot for Frog Mill (in order to get a passage to London by the Gloucester stage).’
Armstrong was arrested not far from the house and ‘given in charge to two constables’. Meanwhile, Mrs. a’ Court’s body had been examined but poison, though suspected, could not be proved. On Thursday 26th September, the coroner, Mr. Nailor, summoned a jury and examined several witnesses ‘to prove the prisoner’s enmity to his late Mistress and his buying Arsnick twice in the shop of one Hooper, an Apothecary’. Armstrong claimed his Mistress had ordered him to buy the first parcel ‘to cure a Dog’s Ear that was Sore’ and that the second parcel was for himself ‘to apply to a sore he had in his groin’. (He was examined but no sore was found.) Hooper said that he sold Armstrong the arsenic mixed with calcined hartshorn ‘thus mixed to prevent it doing mischief, but did not apprise Armstrong of the said mixture.’
Hooper’s maid, who was in the shop when Armstrong bought the last quantity of arsenic, ‘asked him how his Mistress did, to which he Answered “Rot her, she is getting better. We shall carry her away alive after all”, or words to that effect.’
The Jury’s verdict was of ‘Wilful Murder against Joseph Armstrong for Poisoning the late Mrs. a’Court by giving her Arsnick’ and thereupon the coroner committed him to Gloucester gaol on Friday morning, 27th September. When asked why he had bought the arsenic, he answered that his Mistress ‘had sent him to buy it in order to destroy herself, but this he afterwards thought proper to deny.’
Captain a’Court narrowly escaped a similar fate to his wife, after eating some jelly which had been prepared for her ‘which the villain Armstrong had certainly poisoned’. On Armstrong’s first night of confinement at Cheltenham he attempted to escape ‘but was prevented by the vigilance of the Constables’. He was eventually executed.
Wiltshire Buildings Record