This week is the 175 anniversary of the execution of Sarah Dazley at Bedford Gaol, the first and only woman to be hanged in public at the prison. Sarah’s crime was the murder of her second husband (William) and the suspected killing of her previous one (Simeon Mead) and their son Jonas. Dazley may well have been guilty but I rather suspect she was convicted for what she was seen to be rather than for any actual crime she carried out. Sarah’s story also exposes a early newspaper industry that was far from particular about which ‘facts’ it reported as ‘truth’ and which it allowed to be aired for sensational effect.
Let’s start with what we think we know.
Sarah Reynolds was born in 1819 in Potton in Bedfordshire. Her farther died when she was very young and her mother had a series of relationships with other men following her husband’s death. This seems to be significant as it contributes to the backstory of Sarah’s life that the newspapers later presented to their readers.
When she was 19 Sarah married Simeon Read and they had a son (Jonah) who died within the year. In October 1840 Simeon died after a short illness. Sarah remarried two years later, but her relationship with William Dazley was apparently fraught. It was suggested that he hit her and that she wasn’t inclined to put up with it (as many wives and partners did in the nineteenth century).
It seems that Simeon Mead had been just as abusive as Dazley was, and the newspapers later revealed a long history of violence against Sarah from both her partners. There were also dark rumours that Sarah had decided to take her revenge on William for his mistreatment of her.
So, when he fell ill and died in October 1842 suspicions began to circulate. When Sarah upped sticks and headed for London to escape from difficult questions a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was picked up and returned to Bedford to face the music.
Now this is where it all gets a little confused and where conjecture and rumour seem to trump facts. Both Jonas and William Dazley were exhumed so that their bodies could be examined for any signs of poisoning. Simeon’s corpse was far too decomposed to be able to be examined but clearly Sarah was suspected of poisoning him as well.
It was alleged at her trial that she’d bought arsenic and mixed it to make pills to use to poison William. On one occasion her step daughter (Ann Mead) had supposedly eaten one of the pills and Sarah had scolded her for it to prevent her taking any more. The Times thought that Jonas was a ‘daughter’ and repeatedly refereed to Sarah as ‘the Female Blue Beard’. A usually sober paper, the ‘thunderer’ was playing this case for every sensational twist it could get.
The papers reported that arsenic was found in the remains of William Dazley but this was also contradicted in some articles so clearly there was some doubt. Forensics was hardly an exact science in the 1840s and Sarah may well have been subjected to the prejudices that surrounded a young woman who had married twice (and was apparently on the verge of marrying again).
Quite simply Sarah Dazely was seen as a promiscuous woman who wanted to control her own life rather than let herself be controlled by men. Having lost her father at seven she’d grown up without that strong paternal figure that all young girls ‘needed’ (or so the rhetoric went). Both her husbands had abused her and while that was hardly unusual in Victorian Britain, her refusal to accept it also spoke to her combative nature.
Sarah was no passive victim, either of domestic abuse or the criminal justice system and a society that had condemned her. She strongly protested her innocence and refused to meekly accept her fate. It did her no good of course and she was hanged at Bedford on the 5 August 1843 in front of thousands of spectators.
The papers reported that 10,000 people watched her last moments:
‘the signal was given, and the moment the drop fell, and the unhappy wretch, after a few convulsive struggles, ceased to exist in this world’.
Well at least that’s what the papers say happened. Given that they also reported she’d been hanged for the murder of two husbands and her daughter (which was false of course) we might take their reportage with some skepticism at least. In fact nearly all reports of executions are the same: the crowd is quiet at the point the executioner ‘turns off’ the condemned; they ‘struggle’ briefly, ‘expire’, and are cut down. There is no description of the awful trauma that a body can experience in a hanging like this, almost as if no one dared to look upon the person dangling at the end of a rope.
Sarah Dazley fitted the image of the Victorian murderess: she used poison, refused to bow to male authority, and seemingly took control of her own sexuality. In other words she challenged the patriarchy and paid for it with her life.
Drew Gray (August, 2018)
Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder
Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843
The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843