fake news

The ‘Female Blue Beard’?: Rumour and sensationalism in the case of Sarah Dazley

dazley-aug25-1843-det

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)

References:

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843

The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843

 

 

 

‘Future focused’ not stuck in the past: Study History because we don’t know what’s going to happen next

As we approach the end of another year I thought I’d reflect on what, if anything we might learn from the events of 2017. This has been (another) tumultuous annum with terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and political turmoil at home and abroad. What I’d like to discuss though, is the value of History as a discipline and the dangers posed by the circulation of fake news and other forms of misinformation.

I’d like to start however, with something I heard on the radio last week. This was an interview aired on Radio Four’s PM show with Sebastian Balfour, historian and Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at LSE. In the course of Eddie Mair’s interview Professor Balfour explained that told his undergraduates that ‘history is about the future, politics is about the past’.

He suggests, a little tongue in cheek perhaps, that social sciences (like sociology, anthropology and political science) have largely based their studies on looking at the past, at past societies, which is then used a way of predicting the future. History, he argues, ‘warns as that the future is not predictable in any way’. The great events of the past are the result of the ‘coming together’ of so many unforeseeable and ‘totally unexpected processes’ and ‘individual decisions’.

I like his analysis because it seems to chime loudly in the modern world. Few political pundits predicted that Donald Trump could actually win the presidency because they weren’t looking in the right places for the clues. David Cameron’s attempt to solve a ‘little local difficulty’ in the Conservative Party gave millions of previously disenfranchised Britons the opportunity to stick it to the metropolitan elites and the European bureaucrats. Across the world we have seen the rise of the Far Right, of extremist religion and populism, all defying the rational logic of very well educated and very well-paid commentators and ‘experts’.

Indeed 2016 and 2017 have been synonymous with the marginalisation of the expert. The psephologists got it wrong in 2015 and 2017 and (mostly) in Brexit and indeed abroad. Guessing the results of elections had assumed the status of a science but recent events have relegated it back to being an art, akin to predicting the outcome of a horse race or even the effects of the planets on our love life.

Of course, there will be some reading this who will claim to know all of this was going to happen. I thought Trump would get in because I have a deep seated (and possibly unfair) low opinion of Americans. Hilary was poor candidate and a woman. Trump was white, sexist, offensive, and racist; a shoe-in in some parts of the USA.

None of what has happened was predictable however and Historians should know that. I think my study of the past (spent mostly it has to be said in the courtrooms of the 18th and 19th centuries) tells me a lot about how people interacted and what they valued and feared. This in turn reveals that while our Georgian or Victorian ancestors didn’t have television, the internet or mobile phones they shared very much more with ourselves than we often consider to be the case.

The people that turned up in the metropolitan police courts that I write about daily, as defendants, victims, police officers or witnesses, were largely just like you and I. They were generally trying to survive in a changing and sometimes scary world, where bad people did bad things, and good people tried to stop them. They had hopes and fears, and they loved and lost, laughed and cried.

The vast majority of people were significantly worse off than the small minority who owned most of the wealth. Society was deeply unequal just as it remains today. History helps me understand the present and its problems very well because it shows me that humanity has been exploiting each other for centuries. Prejudice and xenophobia – both rife in modern Britain – were present in the 1800s as well. Waves of immigrants (from Ireland and Eastern Europe in particular) were marginalised, caricatured, and discriminated against.

The poor were demonised because they were, well, poor basically. They were a burden on the parish (today it is the tax payer’s state) and their poverty and need seen as a personal failing. The only way to incentivise the poor men like Owen Chadwick believed, was to threaten them with the workhouse if they had the audacity to ask for help. Today the ‘benefit scrounger’ will only be ‘helped’ if we remove his benefits and force him to take any job, however menial.

However, if you want to incentivise a rich person you need to pay him more for doing exactly the same as he was doing before. This is capitalist logic.

Marx (Karl not Groucho) argued (and I paraphrase) that it is in the economic interest of the capitalist to pay his workers as little as possible, just enough, in fact, to keep them alive and productive.

I’m not a Marxist (no one is since the Berlin Wall came down – not even John MacDonald and Jeremy Corbyn, despite what the Daily Mail  tells us). But I do think Marx’s explanation of the economic system he saw operating and developing in the nineteenth century is valid today. Even the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts is explained by Marx’s critique of capital.

Finally then I want to turn to the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and misinformation. None of this is new of course. This year the BBC unveiled a statue of George Orwell outside Broadcasting House in London. Orwell understood the value of propaganda and misinformation. He had lived through the Second World War and seen Hitler and Stalin’s propaganda machines in full flow, he even worked for one himself, the good old BBC. Orwell’s 1984 was a chilling vision of the future when it was published in 1948, it’s almost become a handbook for misleading the people today.

There is so much news now and so many ways to disseminate and receive it that it is becoming harder and harder for those that want to, to control it. More and more (as Boris Johnson’s trip to Moscow this week shows) it is becoming ‘weaponised’; a tool in the armoury of warring states and political activists. Isis use fake news, the Russian state uses fake news, the Far Right uses fake news, and now it has permeated ordinary daily life. The British press daily carry false news stories, just as the American press does. Donald Trump selects which bits of news he wants to believe or to ignore, the revelations about cabinet ministers and their extra-curricular activities are dismissed as inventions by the police, or held up as evidence of corruption and nepotism in high office.

So who are we to believe? Believe no one? Trust nobody?

That would make for a very scary world (if a world with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could get any scarier that is). I think we have to educate ourselves and our children so that we are equipped with the tools we need to make sense of what we are being told. The study of History as a discipline gives students the tools they need to unpick the words of tyrants and demagogues; to cut through the rhetoric of clever wordsmiths and orators; to work out who is telling us stuff and why they want us to believe it (as Hilary Mantel recently noted).

So if you have a son or daughter who is thinking of going to university to study a subject that will help them survive and prosper in the 21st Century send them to me and my team at the University of Northampton’s History department and I promise that they will get the chance to question the world around them, understand what they are being told, and learn the skills they need to make up their own minds about what the future might bring.

Merry Christmas and a Happy (if unpredictable) New Year 2018!

                                      Drew Gray (Head of History, University of Northampton)

 

*other History departments are available.