Many murder cases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to be famous – or infamous – today, with books devoted to them, and television programmes salivating at titillating facts surrounding the cases. In many cases, the attraction of these murders perhaps lies, at least partly, in the fact that photographs survive of the protagonists in these stories. Photos of murderers and their victims bring a case to life, helping us picture who these individuals were, and why they might have done what they did.
Perhaps that also helps explain the relative obscurity of one case that grabbed the headlines in 1936. In the case of Charlotte Bryant, the case should have had a lasting impact on our consciousness. She was young – 33 – when she was hanged for murder on 15 July. She was that rare thing, a female murderer, and she had killed her husband after becoming dissatisfied with her marriage and starting an affair with her lodger.
And yet, she does not feature in many books or television programmes today – there is only the odd local newspaper story that occasionally brings up her story, and even Wikipedia remains silent when it comes to her.
In part, I think, that is because there are no photos of Charlotte; during her trial, it was noted that she turned her head away, or covered it up, when she saw the press photographers gathering like vultures; and also, her trial was not at the Old Bailey, but in the relatively isolated south-west, at the Dorchester Assizes, her hanging taking place at Exeter Gaol. There may have been fewer resources, fewer available photographers, or fewer willing to travel to Dorset and to Devon to attempt an image of this murderess than in London.
The other factor in this case that may have affected press coverage then and now was class. Charlotte was an illiterate, working-class woman, married to a humble cowman, and having an affair with a traveller – a gypsy, in the contemporary parlance. She was a mother of five young children, having been married young, and without a decent education.
As a working-class, poorly educated woman from south-west England, she was not a romantic figure, but a rather plain one to the press and public. Unlike Alma Rattenbury, acquitted of her husband’s murder a year earlier, pictured emerging from court in full length fur coat, she was not moneyed or glamorous. She was what she was: a poor woman who had poisoned her husband with weedkiller when the romance – if there had ever been any – had died, and she felt stifled by the monotony and grinding poverty of her life.
It was on 5 October 1922 that Charlotte McHugh married Frederick John Bryant in Somerset. She was just 19 years old, a migrant from Derry in Northern Ireland, now making a home in south-west England. Left at home in Derry were her parents, John and Sarah; now she was taking on Frederick’s family, who were based in the Sherborne area of Dorset. Her new husband, born in Sherborne, was a few years older than her, being 25 at the time of their marriage. He would be dead before 40.
Children soon arrived: Ernest Samuel in the winter of 1923; Lily Elizabeth two years later, George Alfred in 1928, William John in 1931, and Edwin Frederick in the winter of 1934.
My sympathies at this point are very much with Charlotte; a girl born in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, good looking but without an education, who was brought up in a society where women were supposed to look good and get married, raise children, and to not expect much more than that.
She was brought up in an area where British soldiers – who may have represented something ‘exotic’ to local girls – roamed near Republicans; and where a young, attractive girl who got the attention of the soldiers might also cause resentment amongst others.
Modern coverage of Charlotte’s case has focused on her sexuality; Richard Clark, who runs the Capital Punishment UK website, has described her as having capturing the heart of her husband while he was serving as a military policeman in the Dorset Regiment. He is described positively as a ‘simple country lad’, yet Clark describes Charlotte, after their marriage, in the following terms:
Charlotte was very highly sexed and soon became bored with village life [in Dorset], compared to the excitement of life around the Londonderry barracks, with plenty of attentive and free spending soldiers and a good sex life. She didn’t work as such and spent her days drinking and indulging in a little prostitution – one feels as much for the sex as for the money.
This echoes coverage both in the early years of the 20th century and since in terms of ascribing to any criminal behaviour on the part of women as being due to excessive and thus dangerous sexuality. There is also clearly a double standard; many men of the time would have engaged in casual sex – indeed, they were encouraged to sow their seed young, before marrying – but women were castigated for any similar behaviour, and it is often used later to demonstrate early signs of criminality or deviancy.
Charlotte is here described as spending her days drinking, when authors such as Clark freely admit that social life in a Dorset village at this time would have centred around the local pub, and so drinking would have been a common occupation for both men and women, and certainly not just for Charlotte.
Charlotte’s husband does not seem the epitome of respectability either, in terms of his alleged approval of possible casual prostitution; according to Clark, he told a neighbour that her earnings this way were substantially better than his own wages as a cowman.
And money must have been fairly tight for them (which suggests that Charlotte was not regularly soliciting, if at all); they took in lodgers, and in 1933, a horse trader and gypsy named Leonard Parsons became the family lodger. Charlotte started an affair with Leonard, and the menage a trois caused, unsurprisingly, occasional conflict, and suggestions that the relationship was one-sided, with Charlotte far more interested in Parsons than he was in her.
Whatever the truth of this relationship, Frederick Bryant died on 23 December 1935, after several suspicious spells of illness over the course of the previous six months. He was found to have been poisoned by arsenic – a popular ingredient in weedkiller.
Charlotte was charged with murder, whilst she was being housed in the Sturminster Newton Poor Law Institution (workhouse), where she and her children had been taken after Frederick’s death to help avoid public and press attention – although it seems that this move would have been inevitable anyway, given her and her husband’s meagre household income.
Her trial, at the Dorset Assizes in May 1936, saw Leonard Parsons commit the ultimate betrayal of his former lover, detailing their sex life, and encouraging the jury to see her as a woman who had committed adultery and thus was disloyal towards her husband. Two of her children – Ernest and Lily – were also called to give evidence against their own mother; evidence that damned in describing how their mother may have owned and used bottle of poison.
Charlotte was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. An appeal failed, and she was sent to Exeter jail to await her execution. During the six weeks she spent here, she received more of an education than she had ever been given before, being taught to read and write by female warders. She was finally hanged on 15 July 1936.
There were no winners in her case; she only left five shillings to her children, and they were now left orphaned and destitute. They were taken into the care of the county council, becoming the legal wards of the Dorset Public Assistance Committee. (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936) At this time, they were aged between 18 months old and 12 years.
Richard Clark has stated that Charlotte’s ‘lowly status and acknowledged promiscuity’ may have influenced the decision to carry out the death sentence against her, rather than commute it or allow her appeal. But he then goes on to write,
Sadly, Britain was very much a class ridden society in 1936 and Charlotte was virtually at the bottom of the social pile – an illiterate, immoral slut.
No trial report described her as an ‘illiterate, immoral slut’ and I feel this is Clarke’s own interpretation of how he thinks 1930s England would have seen her, rather than actually what did happen. In describing her thus, however unintentionally, he reiterates the view that being interested in sex makes a woman a ‘slut’.
No press coverage of the trial or its aftermath that I can find refers to Charlotte as engaging in promiscuity or prostitution; indeed, the focus is on her status as a mother, desperate to see her children and check that they are being looked after, as she awaits first her trial, and then her execution.
Looking at the coverage of Charlotte’s case from the time, then, there is a more sympathetic, more nuanced, tone than Clarke takes. For example, on the morning of her execution, she was described as making a ‘despairing last-minute plea to the King’ via telegram, repeated in full in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, in which she refers to herself as the King’s ‘lowly, afflicted subject’. Rather than being depicted as a ‘slut’, she is simply ‘Mrs Charlotte Bryant, the 33-year-old mother of five children’. (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 15 July 1936)
Even when allegations were made about Charlotte’s life, it was as a transcription of what someone had said in court – for example, when the Sheffield Independent stated that Parsons ‘was the father of the appellant’s [Charlotte’s] last child’, it was directly quoting Lord Hewart, in announcing that Charlotte’s appeal was being dismissed, when he summed up what the murder case was about. (Sheffield Independent, 30 June 1936) There was a factual tone, rather than a condemning one.
In addition, when, in court, attempts had been made to highlight that Charlotte had been Parsons’ mistress, the Solicitor General had stopped them, ascerbically commenting, “You are not a court of morals.” (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)
Although Charlotte’s affair was brought up in court, it was not done so to depict her as a slut, or as an evil woman, but mentioned as part of a prosecution case to suggest that because Charlotte was in a relationship with Parsons, in love with him, and wanted to marry him, she was motivated to kill her husband. Killing him would enable her to marry her lover. This would be a common motive for murder, and thus an obvious approach for the prosecution to take. (see Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 May 1936)
Charlotte’s class is, to me, more of a factor in how she was treated. She was unable to read or write; she had to have it explained to her what an ‘inquest’ was. During her trial, she had to ask the prison wardresses to help explain procedure to her.
She suffered from a lack of education that gave her no prospects, and yet she was clearly an intelligent woman in that she wanted more than she knew she could get within the confines of Northern Irish or Dorset rural society; when given the opportunity to improve herself in jail, she made the most of it, taking only a short amount of time to learn to write letters; and she surprised the court when she appeared on the stand and gave a coherent, strong account of her actions.
The coverage of her execution in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette made no mention of her sex life, but focused on her lack of education; in the hour before her death, she had received the Sacraments in her cell:
‘During those last moments on earth, this uneducated and illiterate woman, who had never been taught to read or write or spell, recalled the faith which she learned when a child attending the Roman Catholic Sunday School in her native Ireland, and she murmured the responses to the Litanies in a low voice.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936)
My conclusion is that Charlotte had indeed killed her husband; she had made comments to friends that she disliked her husband, and was in love with Parsons – but could not face simply running away with her lover because she did not want to leave her children. If her husband lived, he would keep the children; so he had to die, in order for her to have both lover and loved children.
Her honesty and straightforward nature, however, hanged her: she made it obvious that she was ‘forcing’ her husband to drink poisoned Oxo, at one point, and telling people, “I hate Fred” before bemoaning her plight, saying about another local woman, “She is lucky. She has not got a husband.” (Leeds Mercury, 28 May 1936).
But it’s not true that the jury convicted Charlotte because she was immoral, or a slut, or because they thought she was a prostitute. The most they appear to have heard in court was that she was the mistress of Parsons, who may have fathered her youngest child, if gossip was to have been believed. This appears to have been the only sexually-related gossip about Charlotte that was heard in court.
She was convicted, though, because the evidence against her was overwhelming. She had talked about her hatred of her husband, and her wish to not be married to him. She had spoken of her desire to run away with Parsons; she also feared that his feelings towards her had cooled. She was known to have had bottle of what could be weedkiller and arsenic; even her children said so. And she had been insistent on her husband drinking and eating certain food and drink even when he was ill and reluctant to do so. It was evidence such as this that convicted Charlotte, and the jury had even been warned not to act as a court of morals, but as a court of law.
Charlotte’s case frustrates me, because it seems that where it is written about in recent times, it focuses on rumours or speculation about her sex life, and assumes bias or prejudice on the part of her contemporaries towards her sexuality. In fact, in looking at press coverage from the actual time, it appears that her life may not have been as salacious as some sources might suggest, or if it was, then that was not something that was brought up in court, covered in the press, or used to convict her of murder. It was one specific relationship that was focused on, and that was in order to build a convincing motive as to why she might have killed.
So it seems that some of the biases against female murderers such as Charlotte are not necessarily of their time, but of our own; we assume that our forebears must have demonstrated prejudice against certain lifestyles, and we assume that those convicted of crime must be more interesting than, perhaps, they were. Charlotte may have been a working-class woman who took a drastic, ill thought out action because she thought she was in love; but that did not make her a slut or a prostitute, then or now.
The wealthy London anti-capital punishment campaigner Mrs Violet Van Der Elst was reported as being keen to adopt all five children, although it seems that she only wanted to send them to a convent abroad for their education. She was concerned that going into council care would condemn the children to the same lowly life as their mother: ‘The County Council have no right to take these children. They are going to be taken to awful homes, and there is nothing worse.’ (Sheffield Independent, 18 July 1936).
She later told a reporter that she would find the children foster parents, and would pay for their maintenance and education; in addition, she would start a fund, giving it an initial £50,000, to ‘provide for the children of people who have been murdered or executed’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936).
Before Charlotte had been executed, there had been an attempt by the NSPCC to take the children to one of their homes, but Charlotte had refused permission via her solicitor, wanting them to stay near to her geographically. She had presumably hoped, at this point, that she would be freed to take back the care of her family. (Gloucestershire Echo, 11 February 1936)
After Charlotte’s death, an inquest was carried out to ensure that she had been ‘judicially and humanely executed’. The prison governor had suggested that the coroner’s jury might wish to donate their fees to the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society; when the jurors expressed a wish, instead, to give their fees to Charlotte’s five children, they were discouraged; the coroner stated that the fees were only small, and that ‘provision had already been made for the care of the children’. (Northern Whig, 16 July 1936)
Mrs Van Der Elst had stated that she wanted the children to be educated abroad ‘to that the circumstances of their parents’ death with never be known to them’, although the eldest children must have known about what had happened; especially as Charlotte had requested to see them whilst being held in prison, and that request had been granted.
Marriages, 1922, 5c 971; deaths Jun 1936, Sherborne – Frederick J Bryant, 39 – 5a 367; born Dec 1897 Sherborne, 5a 319). [births for Ernest S Bryant, Frome, Dec 1923, 5c 585; Lily E Bryant, Frome, 5c 533; George A Bryant, Sherborne 5a 474; William J Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 467; Edwin F Bryant, Sherborne, 5a 426, all listed as having a mother whose maiden name was McHugh or MacHugh).