The Pemberton Poisoner

Simon Vouet - Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Chalice (1623)
Simon Vouet – Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Chalice (1623)

Sometimes you find a source which is so rich and interesting that you have to share it straightaway.

I was working through the papers of Lancashire’s Quarter Sessions for 1700 yesterday, and I stumbled across an absolutely fascinating document. It was a petition to the local magistrates, produced by (or for?) Margaret Orrell of Pemberton, which was then just a small township near Wigan. It was asking for a pension for her daughter Anne, who was sick.

The cause of her sickness, it was claimed, was that she had been poisoned by her lover. Anne, said the petition, ‘lyes dangerously sick’. Six months ago, she had ‘became intimately acquainted with one Peter Green of the same town webster, who after some time by his continued importunity & promises of marriage to her begott her with child.’

‘Afterwards’, Margaret went on, ‘your petitioners daughter severall times urged the said Peter to marry her & concluded upon a time to marry & resolved together to meet at a certaine place to drink a health in water & sugar where the said Peter Green had procured a certaine portion of poison then unknowne to your petitioners daughter that they accordingly mett & the said Green gave your daughter poison in water which she thought had been sugar & she drank it after the drinking of which she became very sick and vomited & allmost lost the use of her limbs but by help gott home to your petitioners house and there lyes in a most dangerous languishing condicion’. She had, said the petition, ‘since miscarried of a child’.

It continued: ‘That your petitioner by the help of Dr Francis Worton has gott physick for her daughter which she hopes has done her good but whether your petitioners daughter can be recovered of this illness & poison she knowes not for she has wholly lost her limbs & is not able to stand.’

Finally, it noted, pertinently, that ‘the said Green went down upon his knees & begg’d forgiveness of your petitioners daughter. That upon search some remaineing part of poison has been found under the said Greenes bed’. The petition then goes on to say that he has been apprehended, but the document is damaged and becomes hard to read.

There is just so much to get from this – it’s such a vivid picture of a lost world. It shows, for example, that ordinary people had some access to physicians, and that sometimes their treatments did some good. It shows how people used the welfare system of the time as a way of getting support in times of great misfortune (Anne was awarded a pension of two shillings sixpence a week, which was a large amount for the area in 1700). It shows some – admittedly fairly rudimentary – detective work: Peter Green’s house was searched and the poison found hidden under his bed.

And it shows how informal the process of marriage could be. Technically, merely expressing mutual consent in words of the present tense was enough for a marriage to be valid. Peter and Anne never, it seems, intended to solemnize their marriage in church, though they were planning to mark the occasion by drinking a health. This kind of thing was a way of highlighting the importance of the moment, and it might have been brought up later in court had the marriage ever been challenged. But it hardly conformed to the ideals of society and Church.

One of the most fascinating aspects is the gender dynamics. Anne was clearly in a vulnerable position – society took a dim view of single mothers, though they were more common than we might expect, and this helps explain her insistence that they marry.

But it’s also striking that she did manage to persuade him into marriage, despite his obvious reluctance. It’s possible to overplay the power of patriarchy in the historic past. Rather than simply impregnate Anne and disappear, Peter was pushed into a marriage that she evidently wanted more than he did, and the only way out of it was for him to attempt murder. With whom, then, did the real power lie?

There are so many more questions that come out of this. What was Peter’s side of the story? Did he really want to marry Anne at first, or was he using his promises as a way of getting her into bed? Was he trying to murder his future spouse, or was he perhaps trying to abort her baby? What happened to him? What happened to Anne? Perhaps most puzzlingly, why on earth did Peter not get rid of the poison – what possessed him to just stick it under his bed?

One day I’ll try and find out.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. SarahSarah says:

    This is a fascinating story. It would make a thrilling historical novel.

  2. Colleen Ashwin Kean says:

    I agree a fascinating story and look forward to Jonathan’s next installment.

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