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Okehampton Poisoner

Okehampton Poisoner

This story was fully reported a March edition of The Times newspaper in 1819 and at the time it caused quiet a stir in the Dartmoor town of Okehampton. The story concerns at 30 year old woman called Mary Woodman who had been married for 8 years to her husband Charles. Presumably the marriage was not the most harmonious because she met a man called Richard Smallacombe. Smallacombe or ‘Smiler’ as he was more commonly known, was an itinerant who travelled around the local fairs playing his fiddle. Mary was described as an “handsome woman” whilst in stark contrast Smiler was considered to be in the vernacular of the time a “ugly squalid-looking fellow.” But Mary must have found some of his good points because she left her husband and took to the road with Smiler as his common law wife. For the next year they travelled the fairs of the Westcountry where Smiler would entertain the crowds with his fiddling skills and earning a meagre living into the bargain. Eventually the fair circuit turned with the seasons and October found the couple back in Okehampton, the very place where they had left 12 months ago.

Somehow, Mary’s husband heard the ‘newsin’ that the couple had returned and sent word to his faithless wife that he would like to “speak with her.” Mary duely went to see Charles where it soon became apparent that he had missed her terribly and would do anything to get her back home where she belonged. At first, the woman would hear nothing about going back to Charles and said that her and Smiler had planned to travel up country after the fair but undaunted he continued with his pleading. After a while, Mary asked him, “Can you maintain me?” Charles, without a thought eagerly replied that “If I starve myself, I will maintain you.” The woman pondered a moment and then agreed that she would come back to her husband, to which news the poor man was elated. Somewhere along the way Mary met a friend who had heard the news that she was coming home and said how pleased she was that her friend had finally seen sense. Mary replied, “The sooner I come home the better, as then I shall be happy; he will be gone, and I shall have Smiler.” At the time nothing was thought of the implications of this ominous statement.

So Mary returned and nothing further was seen of Smiler, everybody thought that he had gone up country as he had previously planned. What they did not know was that the furthest ‘up country’ Smiler had got was Exeter and the very reason he went no further was because he was locked up in Exeter gaol for ‘uttering base coin’ which meant he was a ‘Smasher’ or a person who passed on counterfeit coins. So to all intents and purposes the Woodmans’ were happily reunited and all was well with the world. A short while after there was a wedding at nearby South Zeal and the couple went to the wedding feast. Many of the guests commented on how the couple seemed to be, “on the best terms of friendship.” How wrong you can be, because it was at this very wedding feats that Mary Woodman slipped Charles a dose of deadly poison which did not take long to take effect. But what Mary did underestimate was the exact dose needed to kill her husband because although he was seriously ill the amount of poison given was not lethal. Much to her dismay the doctor told her that with careful nursing Charles would eventually recover although he was suffering, “under agonies that would soften the heart of a savage.”

Mary was undaunted and whilst her husband was still in his sick bed she went into town on a sinister mission. Her first port of call was to enrol Charles in two sick clubs which it transpired would pay out £20 upon his death, the second visit was to a chemist to buy some arsenic. On returning home she cold bloodedly gave her husband a second dose of poison, namely the arsenic. This time the poison did work and Charles Woodman died in agony from a lethal “administration of arsenic.” However, the doctor soon realised what had happened and informed the police who managed to arrest Mary before she could escape the town. Ironically she was sent to the very gaol where her beloved Smiler was incarcerated for his money forging activities.

On Tuesday the 23rd of March 1819, Mary Woodman was indicted for the wilful murder of her husband at Exeter assizes. The following is how the newspaper reported the sentencing;

On the judge passing the dreadful sentence of death on her, she leaned on her arm, and looked him steadily in the face; at its conclusion she exclaimed to the horror of the Court, in a most daring attitude, “Well, I will never forgive any of my persecutors; they have sworn false, and the Devil will drag them into hell; and God will forgive me.” She was taken away by force, uttering the vilest imprecations.”

But the story does not finish there, as the newspaper then gives us a stark reminder of the punishments of the day:

On Monday morning, pursuant to her sentence, she was drawn upon a hurdle, from the door of the cell yard, to be executed, in front of the Devon county gaol. Her conduct after he condemnation was marked by the same obduracy and impenitence as she exhibited at her trial. On ascending the steps to the lodge and approaching the drop, she appeared greatly agitated, but quickly resumed her former daring spirit, and ascended the platform with a firm step. Her eyes were earnestly directed towards the prison, to take her last look at Smallacombe, but means had been taken for preventing his appearing to her view; a disappointment which she seemed to feel severely. She still continued inexorable against all entreaties of the clergyman to make confession; but was at length prevailed on to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, which she did in a manner almost inaudible, and the fatal drop fell immediately at the close of it. An immense concourse of spectators attended the execution.

Smallacombe had invented a plea to bring her off; no less than that of charging the death of her husband on himself; and a witness was to have been produced to swear that he (Charles Woodman) had confessed his repeatedly buying poison and taking it, with the determination of destroying himself; but none could be found hardy enough to appear in court in support of such a plea.

The article then ends with a blood chilling statement:

Her body was given to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomised.”

Walk through the streets of Okehampton today and it seems amazing that just 187 years ago there was poisoning, hanging and anatomisation occurring amongst its inhabitants.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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