Mary May was my introduction to the arsenic deaths in 1840s Essex – I was transcribing the burial register for Wix St Mary when I found a note in the margin referring to “William Constable also known as Spratty Watts.” It explained he had been poisoned with arsenic, and that his sister-in-law had been accused of his murder. (I’ve phrased this so that I don’t give too much away if you haven’t read Poison Panic yet!). I knew that “sister-in-law” at that period didn’t necessarily mean what it does now – as well as the mystery (or perhaps not) of an arsenic poisoning, my interested was piqued as I wondered what family relationship there was between William aka Spratty and this “sister-in-law”. Had that relationship a role in his demise?
How I researched Mary’s family
As I’ve transcribed a large number of parishes in the Tendring Hundred, I thought that finding this out would be straightforward, and hoped that the newspapers would help. Indeed they did – I worked out that Mary May was in fact William’s half-sister. From other details in the newspapers I was able to work out the name of Mary’s husband, which meant I could find the possible baptisms of their children in Wix from my transcriptions. I was then able to spot what could be their marriage on the FreeBMD index. As the Essex Record Office don’t have Wix’s marriage register from June 1837 onwards (when civil registration began) I couldn’t access the scans online as I normally would, so I had to send off for their marriage certificate from the General Register Office. As marriage certificates from 1837 often include the bride and groom’s fathers’ names (although not always, and perhaps not always accurately), I was able to see that Mary’s father was James Ainger. I could also see that when she married Robert May, she was a widow named Mary Ann Everett.((Her name is sometimes Mary Ann, but I found it was mostly Mary in the sources I looked at, so went with that in the book. This variation of names is nothing unusual!))
I was able to find Mary Everett on the 1841 census in Wix – the enumerator had helpfully said that she was a widow, but as this information was not supposed to be included, someone had crossed it out. Fortunately not so that I couldn’t read it. She was living with two children who shared her surname, and so were presumably her children – Eliza aged 10 and William aged 2.
Looking at the 1851 census, (spoiler alert!) I was able to find Mary’s Robert May, and her son, William Everett, from her first marriage. As the 1851 census gives people’s place of birth, I saw that William had been born in Ramsey. This meant I could go back further. Here I found, not only Mary’s first marriage to James Everett, but the baptisms of six children. And then the burials of four of those children, plus her husband.
It was important to find the records relating to her children, so that I could reconstruct her family. The newspapers accused her of murdering 14 – some even said 16 – of her own children. As a genealogist, it instantly struck me that the idea of a woman managing to have 16 children was unlikely anyway, let alone murdering them all. As far as I tell, she had 6 children by her first husband, and 2 by her second.
William Constable’s family
One of the newspaper reports mentioned that William had an illegitimate son, and another newspaper named that son as William Sallows. I located a possible baptism in Great Oakley in 1819, the son of Frances Sallows and shortly afterwards, there’s a marriage between Frances and one William Constable, of the parish of All Saints, Colchester.((At the marriage, Frances’ surname is spelt ‘Sallas’, but that’s probably a literal rendering of her pronunciation.)) It’s entirely plausible, from other families I’ve researched, that this is William, wandering about from job to job. The baptisms and burials of their children shows the family moving about between Great Oakley, Wix and Tendring – all in a tight area in the Tendring Hundred.
I was going slightly off-piste doing this, but it was important to research William’s family too – he died of arsenic poisoning, and whether you believe it was murder or an accident or even suicide, he was once a husband and a father, and not just a corpse to be argued over.
But no baptisms for Mary and William
Despite the children of Mary and William being easy to spot – so it seemed – I’ve drawn a blank in trying to find their baptisms. Mary was vague about her age and that of her half-brother – either wilfully or to hide something, so this doesn’t help, but there are some clues which help us to guess when they may have been born.
We know from Mary’s marriage certificate that her father was James Ainger (this name is also spelt Anger and Angier in Essex). We know from what Reverend Wilkins, Wix’s vicar, said, that William Constable was William’s proper name, and that Spratty Watts was a nickname. Looking for marriages between a James Ainger and a Constable in north-east Essex, we find one on 7 June 1808 at Wix. James ‘Anger’, and Mary Constable. They’re both single. As we know that William was older than Mary, and that as he was going by what we now know was his mother’s maiden name, we can see that he was illegitimate – it was mentioned in the newspapers too. We can also see that Mary was probably born in 1808 or just after, as her first marriage was on 7 September 1825. She must’ve been 16 or 17. She could’ve legally married as young as 12, but it’s very unusual.
There are several James Aingers to choose from in north-east Essex, but following them on for a few years either side of that 1808 marriage, they end up slipping away – they’re different men. James Ainger isn’t an unusual name; neither is Mary Ainger. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about Mary’s parents. It’s plausible that both had died by 1825, which spurred their daughter to marry at a young age.
William, then, must’ve been born before 1808. His estimated age of death – given by people other than his half-sister – suggests he was born about 1800. As Constable was his mother’s maiden name, I wondered if Watts was his biological father’s surname. Notes taken of evidence given at Mary’s trial suggest that it was, in verbal testimony by a Wix local, Mary Feint. Part of Mary’s defence was that rural people were quite vague about their ages – but whilst they might be out by perhaps 3 years either side, being a whole decade out, as Mary May was, does stretch credulity somewhat.
As part of my research, I read Don Budds’ pamphlet Arsenic & Old Wix (out of print). He’s a Wix local (and a distant cousin of mine). He also suggests that 1808 marriage as being that of Mary’s parents.