Arsenic and Old Bureaus

When Sarah Brightwell’s curiosity got the better of her, it would lead her to an untimely end.


Sarah Brightwell was just 15 years old, when on 9th January 1844 in the village of Mepal, Cambridgeshire, and whilst in the employment of Mr William Brown (probably her maternal uncle or grandfather), she stumbled across a pile of firewood ready for burning.

This wasn’t just any old firewood though, it was the remains of an old wooden bureau that hadn’t been used for years. It was broken up and ready for burning to keep those cold fenland draughts at bay.

18th Century wooden bureau
18th Century wooden bureau

Amongst the debris though, was a small packet that caught Sarah’s eye. She picked it up – it’s contents much like a sugar. Sarah’s curiosity overcame her, and she tried it. It was arsenic.

Arsenic in the home

Arsenic was common in the home, and sometimes turns up in old wallpaper or wood preservatives. It may also have had a use as a poison for pests – so buying it was fairly commonplace. It is lethal if ingested.

Arsenic bottle.

If taken in large amounts, it can kill within hours. Numerous criminal cases have been recorded, but when in the home it could sit in its clearly marked container – there was even a market for ornately labelled containers – much like coffee and sugar jars today.

In this case though, we have to assume that Sarah did not check the packet for writing, or that she could not read. Upon it was written “Arsenic – Poison”. She took about a teaspoonful, experiencing “violent retching and pain” shortly afterwards, and “died in a few hours”.

Her death certificate, which was fairly common in that it was written for a child during the 1840s, has a full ’cause of death’ column, reading:

“Died from the affects of arsenic inadvertently taken by the deceased without any motive or knowledge of the effect”

Hugh Robert Evans Jnr, Coroner.
Sarah’s death certificate.

Sarah’s death hit the news, with the inquest appearing along two other terrible tragedies from the same Coroner’s session.

The jury, after a long investigation, were:

“fully satisfied that the poor girl, who was of very simple character, took the poison without any motive, and without any knowledge of its nature and effects, and returned a verdict to that purport”.

Inquisitions in the Isle, The Cambridgeshire Independent Press, 1844.

The newspaper inquest story ends with the line “The bureau had not been used for 30 years at least”. I hope it was swiftly burnt.

As for the other two cases in the inquest, both were for people who had burnt to death, one a 76 year old Elizabeth Kimpton of Ely, and the other happens to be another one of my relatives, Mary Hawkins, aged 10 years. Her story will save for another time.

Author: Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.

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