Harriet Tarver: The Campden Poisoner

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by Carol Jackson

“An affecting Copy of Verses Written On the Body of HARRIET TARVER Who was Executed April 9th, 1836, at Gloucester, for Poisoning her Husband in the town of Camden:

Good people all I pray attend
Unto these lines that I have penned
A criminal confined I lie,
My crime is of the blackest dye.

Harriet Tarver is my name, you’ll hear
From Campden Town in Gloucestershire
I own the dreadful deed I've done
And now my glass is nearly run

A loving husband once I had
Which ought have made a wife's heart glad,
But Satan he tempted him so
That I resolves the deed to do.

To poison him was my intent
And to take his life I was fully bent,
White arsenic I did apply,
Which for the same I'm condemned to die.

By him a lovely child I bore,
And alas I ne'er shall see it more,
O Lord thou be a parent kind,
To my orphan child which I leave behind. 

God grant it may a warning take
Of its mother's untimely fate.
From the paths of vice and bad company
From all such crimes pray keep it free.

When my trial came on you hear
With a heavy heart I did appear;
The jury they did guilty cry
And soon I was condemned to die.

Back to the death cell I was ta’en
Forty-eight hours to remain,
And there my time to spend in prayer
Hoping to meet my Saviour there.

You married women where’er you be
I pray take warning now by me.
Pray love your husband and children too
And God his blessing will bestow.

Hark! now I hear my passing bell
Now I must bid this world farewell,
And when the fatal bolt shall fall
The Lord have mercy on my soul.

Willey, Printer, Cheltenham

The production of verses for sale on this sort of occasion was a regular feature at the time, this example seeming to contain a number of stock phrases and sentiments. 

Who was Harriet Tarver?

There is a baptism on February 19th 1815 for Harriett Tracey, her parents being William, a day labourer, and Sarah Tracey of Campden.  Other children of these same parents were baptised in subsequent years: Thomas on October 13th 1816, Hannah on December 4th 1818, Rhoda on May 16th 1821 and Samuel on May 23rd 1823 – so these were Harriett’s younger siblings.

Thomas Tarver

Thomas Tarver was baptised on January 22nd 1810 and his parents were Thomas and Ann.  The register says he was born on January 1st 1810, so that means Thomas was aged 24 at his wedding in 1834, while Harriett was about 19. There is another baptism on August 9th 1812 of Mary, child of the same parents as Thomas, born on July 7th 1812, so she is Thomas’s sister.  She married William Cooper of Campden on February 23rd 1836, about 6 weeks before Harriett was executed and 10 weeks after her brother Thomas was buried. 

On January 29th 1834 Harriett Tracey of Campden married Thomas Tarver at Campden St James’s Church.  Thomas signed his name, but Harriett made her mark, so it appears she could not write.  Witnesses were Thomas Restall and Sophia Smith and their relationship to the couple is not known.  

On September 21st 1834, 8 months after their wedding, Ann Tarver was baptised, her parents being Thomas and Harriet Tarver of Campden and their daughter appears to be named after Thomas’s mother.  Thomas is listed as a carrier.  It looks as though Harriett might have been pregnant before the marriage or it was a christening very soon after the birth of a premature or ill baby.  

Thomas Tarver was buried at St James’s Church on December 16th 1835, aged nearly 25.  This means the poisoning took place about one year and ten months after their marriage, assuming that the funeral took place soon after his murder.  

So why did Harriett poison her husband?  

Was she mad or suffering post-natal depression?  Was Thomas ‘playing away’, - the ballad says ‘Satan tempted him so’ and as a carrier he might have had opportunity?  

The inquest into the death of Thomas Tarver on 11th December, after a very brief illness, an inhabitant of Chipping Campden, began on 15th December before Mr J. Cooke, coroner.  It was adjourned until 21st December to obtain a more satisfactory analysis of the contents of the stomach of the deceased, who was supposed to have died of poison. On this occasion, the presence of arsenic in the deceased’s stomach was proved and following the evidence of several witnesses it was also proved that Harriet Tarver, wife of the deceased, had recently purchased two separate parcels of arsenic.  No adequate motive for murder was shown, but, as some suspicious circumstances were adduced, the jury, after a long deliberation returned a verdict of “wilful  murder” against Harriet Tarver, who was then committed for trial.  This was reported in the Gloucester Herald and on 31st December 1835 in The Times. 

The Times of 12th April 1836 reported on the Spring Assizes of the Oxford Circuit, which sat at Gloucester on Friday April 8th 1836:

“Harriet Tarver, a woman of very unprepossessing appearance, was charged with the wilful murder of her husband, Thomas Tarver, by poisoning him with arsenic on the 11th of last December.  Mr Alexander and Mr Cripps conducted the  prosecution,  Mr Watson the defence.  On Friday 11th December, the deceased went to his place of work between 4 and 5 in the morning at the Noel Arms in Campden.  By 10 minutes afterwards he became sick and continued to get worse till 2 o’clock the same day, when he died.  He complained of a great heat in the stomach and vomited much.  About a week before, the prisoner bought some arsenic at a shop in Campden and when two witnesses, who proved the fact, were examined before the coroner, she denied she had done so.  She said on several occasions after his death that she hoped to God nothing would be found in her husband when he was opened. She had bought some rice pudding on the Wednesday before and she stated that she gave him some before he went out on the morning of his death. A man of the name of Holland had given the deceased two pills made of scorched wood-laurel, nitre and flour on the Wednesday before, but he was quite well on the Thursday.” 

The report then went into great detail of how Thomas Tarver’s stomach and  its contents were tested for the presence of arsenic. 

Mr Justice Williams summed up the case with the greatest accuracy, and after deliberating for an hour the jury returned a verdict of Guilty.  The learned judge immediately passed the awful sentence upon her in a most impressive manner, and ordered her to be executed on Saturday.  It appears that on her arrival at the gaol she confessed that she administered arsenic to her husband in rice pudding.  

Execution

On Saturday 9th April 1836 at Gloucester Gaol, Harriet Tarver of Chipping Campden aged 21 years was the youngest woman to be hanged in Gloucestershire during the 19th century.

Could an item in the Churchwardens' Accounts relate to Harriet's child or grandchild?

‘At a general Vestry held this 18th day of April 1854, it was resolved that the sum of £4. 6s be allowed out of the Church rate to indemnify the Church-wardens for expenses incurred in Matter of E. Tarver and Child.’

The E. Tarver in the Church Wardens Accounts has not yet been identified, but Harriett’s daughter Ann Tarver can be found in the 1841 census age 6 living in Lezeborne (sic) somewhere near Littlecote, with William Tracey age 60, an agricultural labourer, and Sarah age 60, so these presumably are her grandparents.  A marriage of Ann Tarver, ‘a minor’, to James Smith, ‘of age’ took place at St James’s Church on April 24th 1848; he signed and she made her mark and the witnesses were Samuel Thomas and Eliza Cook.  If her birth is estimated for 1834, then this makes her age 14 at her wedding to James Smith.  Neither she nor her husband have yet been found under these married names in any subsequent Campden censuses, so what happened to them?

(Article in 'Notes & Queries, Vol VI, No. 4, p54)

This page was added on 26/03/2015.