During the late 1800’s the rabbit was a staple food on Dartmoor and was favourite dish eaten by all classes of people. However, in 1865 a rabbit pie was made that seriously made folks think twice about ever eating such a dish again. Once again this story is taken from a newspaper report of 1865 which detailed the ensuing court case.
Let’s start the tale back in 1863 when a certain surgeon called Mr Charles Gordon Sprague married Miss Chalker. Upon the marriage a settlement was made on Mrs Sprague by her mother, Sarah, it took the form of a small property at Ashburton, which her death would pass to the daughter. Rather more disconcerting was that upon Mrs Sprague’s death the house would be inherited by Charles Sprague. After the wedding the happy couple moved to Weymouth for a short spell and then went to London. Charles Sprague then relocated to the Isle of Sheppey where he practiced as a surgeon. Shortly afterwards his mind became, “unsettled,” and he was admitted to a lunatic asylum for six months. Meanwhile Mrs Sprague moved back to Ashburton to stay with her mother, and so now the plot is set.
In the early part of 1865, Sprague was released from his private bedlam and he returned to Ashburton to live be re-united with his wife where the family all resided together. On Saturday the 15th of July, Mrs Chalker made pie which was filled with, “rabbit and other meat,” which had previously been cooked. After baking the pie was put in the cupboard until it was the Sunday when it was to make a fitting dinner. On the Saturday, Charles made an unexpected trip to Dartmouth. Come Sunday, the family sat down to dinner and ate with relish the wholesome rabbit pie and as the norm the remainders were given to the household staff. Shortly after the meal, everybody who had eaten it became violently ill and as a matter of urgency the, “medical men,” were summoned. As part of their investigations as to the cause of the illness, the remnants of the rabbit pie were sent to a Mr Herapath of Bristol who carried out various tests on the pie. The results of the tests revealed that the pie contained traces of a poison called atropia. Sprague’s surgery was the searched and a further six grains of atropia were discovered which it transpired, were purchased, along with some aconite, by Sprague at Exeter. Charles Sprague was then arrested on a charge of, “feloniously administering and causing to be taken by Sarah Chalker one grain of atropia with intent to kill and murder her.”
At the trial a servant was called who testified that she had heard Sprague say, “I don’t care if they are all poisoned, and if I were to poison them I should not be taken up or hung because I have been in an asylum once before.” Then Sarah Chalker was called and she testified that she made a pie with a rabbit and some beef. The beef had been cooked on the Tuesday and placed in the safe and the rabbit was also cooked prior to making the pie. She then described how on the Sunday they had all eaten the pie for dinner and by 3 or 4 o’clock all that had eaten it were taken ill, this included herself, Mrs Sprague and a servant called Pidgeon. Sarah Chalker added that she was seized with “trembling and giddiness,” and then lost her, “recollection,” on coming to her senses she found herself in bed.
Under cross-examination it was revealed that Charles had left for Dartmouth before the pie was made and that the source of the rabbits was unknown but one of them showed no signs of being shot. It also came out that there was some doubt about the freshness of the beef and that the mere smell of it had previously made Charles sick. Sarah Chalker then said that in her opinion Sprague would poison her or do any of the family any harm and that indeed her husband stood the £1,000 bail for Sprague. She also noted that she did not, “prosecute him, nor do any of the family. We were not consulted about the prosecution.”
Then the servant, Mary Jane Pidgeon gave witness, saying that she took the pie out of the oven and put it in the cupboard. She then served the pie for Sunday dinner and later ate some herself. About half an hour later she became sick and giddy and took some, “seidlitz,” powder and called for Dr. Jervis. He prescribed some mustard and water which made her sick and after that she could remember nothing until waking up in bed at her mother’s house.
James Chalker the gave evidence declaring that he dined on the pie and then went to church. When he got home he found Mrs Chalker and Mrs Sprague most unwell and he too then became giddy, lost his legs and became insensible. He then went on to say that he did not believe that Sprague tried to poison them and that he was, “a little excited at times, but very forgiving and very good tempered.” Then a doctor called Walter Jarvis from Ashburton testified saying that on visiting the Chalker’s house at about 4.00pm he found Mrs Sprague in bed, she had an eruption like a nettle rash and he gave her some medicine for what he thought was a stomach disarrangement. He was then called to see Mrs Chalker who was in the drawing room and unable to stand, her face was swollen and red and her pupils dilated. She was put to bed an given two emetics which never worked. The doctor then tried a stomach pump but because her throat was so swollen it was impossible to get the tube down. He then found Mr Chalker who was rambling about like a drunken man and he too was given an emetic which made him sick after which he was put to bed. The doctor then explained that in his opinion the symptoms were enough to make him think they were from poison. He also said that he was well acquainted with the effects of atropia and how it acted on the spinal cord causing paralysis The doctor then pointed out that the symptoms of eating putrid meat were nausea and diarrhoea of which the patients showed no sign whereas the symptoms of narcotic poisoning would be incoherence, coma and delirium. A surgeon was then called, and E. F. Beew described how on the Monday he had visited Pidgeon where he found her in bed suffering from a headache, dimness of vision, dilated pupils, sore throat, a slow pulse and generally lethargic. He concluded she was suffering from an overdose of Belladonna and he too concurred that if it was food poisoning was to blame there would be vomiting and diarrhoea of which the patient showed no signs. He went on to say that he was well versed in atropia as he used it to treat Scarlet Fever.
Another Ashburton doctor called M’Gill then gave his evidence where he said how he had visited Pidgeon on the Sunday evening where he found her with a flushed face and in a delirious state. He gave her brandy which was followed on the Monday with a tonic and he to confirmed that he had seen previous patients displaying such symptoms when suffering from narcotic poisoning. Next, Alfred Evans, an Exeter chemist gave evidence saying that he had supplied Charles Sprague with four grains of atropia in March and another ten in July both of which he considered perfectly normal amount for a doctor.
Mr Herapath the professor who tested the pie the took the stand stating that he had received the foreleg of a rabbit and a small piece of beef from Ashburton. He then described the tests that he conducted including dropping some of the diluted pie scrapings in his own eye which resulted in it dilating his pupil to twice its normal size. The defence case was then presented which basically said there was no case to answer because Sprague was not present at the time of the poisoning, he had no motive to commit such a crime and that the prosecution had not tried to prove that he was insane. The judge then decided that as the accused was away before the pie was made and so did not see that it would be safe to ask a jury to decide whether or not the prisoner had dispensed any poison. A verdict of Not Guilty was then pronounced and Charles Sprague was released. Being no expert in medical matters, I was lost as to what atropia was and what relationship it had with belladonna, the O.E.D. came up with the following: “atropine Poisonous alkaloid drug (C17H23NO3N) obtained from certain plants such as Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade). Atropine is used medicinally to regularize the heartbeat during anaesthesia, to dilate the pupil of the eye and to treat motion sickness.” So, was it food poisoning contracted from eating putrid meat or was it deliberate poisoning?
The case provided the theme for a poem written by the poet and director of Methuen publishers, L. A. G. Strong:
He was the doctor up to Combe,
Quiet spoke, dark weared a moustache.
And one night his wife’s mother died
After her meal, and he was tried
For poisoning her.
Evidence come up dark’s a bag,
But onions is like arsenic:
Twas eating they, his lawyer said,
And rabbit, ‘fore she went to bed,
That took her off.
Jury withdrew. ‘He saved my child,’
Says ‘Lias Lee. ‘Think to his wife,’
Says one. ‘I tell ‘ee, a nit’s life
That there old ‘ooman lead ’em both –
Tedious old toad.’
‘Give en six months,’ says easy Joe.
You can’t do that sirs,’ foreman said,
‘Tis neck or nothing, yes or no.’
‘All right then, sir’ says Joe. ”Tis no,
Not guilty, sir.’
‘You, Jabez Halls?’ ‘I brings it in
Rabbits and onions; that’s my thought:
If that didn’ kill her, sirs it ought,
To her age.’ So us brought in
Rabbits and onions.
Doctor went free, but missis died
Soon afterward, she broke her heart.
Still Doctor bide on twenty year
Walking the moors, keeping apart,
And quiet, like.