William Spratt, alias Constable, alias Spratty Watts, died on 11 June 1848 after being ill for some days. His half-sister, Mary May, was convicted of murdering him for the burial club money and hanged at the Essex County Gaol on Monday, 14 August 1848.
The May Family
In 1848, the May household in Wix, Essex consisted of Robert May, his wife Mary May, two children, Mary’s half brother Spratty Watts, alias William Constable and a lodger named James Simpson. Robert May was Mary’s second husband. Mary’s first husband, James Everett, who she had married on 7 September 1825 in Ramsey had died suddenly in 1840, at the age of thirty-six, leaving Mary with two young children. 1Family Search film 1702508, Ancestry.com. England, Select Marriages, 1538–1973 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
In mid-May, Mary May entered her half-brother in the burial club at Harwich, describing him as 38-years-old, rather than his correct age of 45. She was accompanied on her errand by her neighbour Susannah Forster who confirmed that Spratty Watts was a ‘hearty strong man.’
On the evening of Thursday, 8 June 1848, Spratty Watts returned home from his work day feeling quite ill. Racked by stomach pains, he told his sister’s lodger, James Simpson, that he was feeling quite ill. William struggled up to bed and shortly afterwards called down to James that he had been sick to his stomach.
Spratty Watts’ condition worsened throughout the weekend and on Sunday, 11 June, he died. His sister Mary May went to see Reverend George Wilkens and requested that her brother be buried quickly, saying he was ‘a very bad corpse’. Three days after his death, Spratty Watts was buried in a pauper’s grave in the parish churchyard at St. Mary.
Two weeks later, Mary May went to the Reverend to request a certificate confirming that he brother had been in good health when he died. Suspicious, Reverend Wilkins declined and told Mary to request a certificate from the doctor instead. He then went to Inspector Samuel Raison of the Essex Constabulary with his misgivings and the pair went to enquire at the Harwich Burial Club.
A week later, Spratty Watts’ body was exhumed and an inquest was held on Friday, 30 June before the coroner, W. Codd, Esquire. A post mortem examination was performed by Mr. W Thompson, surgeon of Manningtree and Mr. Bird of Harwich but the body was too decomposed to determine the cause of death. The stomach contents were bottled up and dispatched to Professor Taylor at Guy’s Hospital in London for analysis and Professor Taylor confirmed that arsenic had been detected in the sample. 2Essex Herald – Tuesday 04 July 1848
At the inquest, Mary Feint, neighbour to the May family, testified. She said that Spratty Watts had been known to her for a number of years and that she thought he was about 45 years of age and that he lived with his married sister Mary May in Wix. She said that about three days prior to Spratty’s death, she had seen him at work and that he appeared in his usual health. Mrs Feint went on to say that it was on the same night when Mary May had come to her house and said that Watts was very ill, and that she thought he would die and asked her to come and see him. On entering the bedroom, she found Watts looking very pale and told him that he looked very bad. The following morning, Mrs. Feint checked the sickroom and Watts was no better. By Sunday he seemed even worse and he died that evening, just before midnight.
Mary May was tried at the Essex County Assizes on 19 July 1848 and found guilty of murder and held in the old gaol awaiting her execution. The Society of Friends in Chelmsford 3Quakers campaigned for Mary May’s sentence to be commuted, but despite having over 1300 signatures on their petition, plans for the execution continued.
At half-past six on the evening of Saturday, 12 August, Mary May was taken to the women’s prison at the County Gaol in the prison van. When they reached her cell, Mary May fainted, overcome. After she recovered, she was led to the bed and layed down. She tossed restlessly throughout Saturday night after a brief visit with the chaplain, cursing aloud the names of those who had testified against her. In the morning Mary rose and dressed, anxious for a last visit with her husband Robert, but he did not arrive until mid-afternoon. They spoke at length and she told him that she did not wish him to marry again, saying “If you do marry again, I will haunt you.” She gave him directions on how to dispose of her belongings and asked that he and their two children should stay in mourning for two years.
On Monday, 14 August 1848, in front of a crowd of nearly 3000 spectators, Mary May was hanged for the murder of her half brother Spratty Watts.
Her last words were “Good bye. May the Lord have mercy on my soul.” 4Essex Herald – Tuesday 15 August 1848
Our ancestors had far lower life expectancy than we do today. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, even as the industrial revolution was in full swing, the average age at death was only about 45-years-old, and it was not uncommon for young adults to die in their twenties or thirties. As many as 50 mothers out of 1000 could expect to die in child birth. 5Chamberlain, Geoffrey. “British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. November 2006. Accessed April 09, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1633559/. Children too had a high mortality rate with one in five dying before their fifth birthday. With these statistics, unexpected deaths in the family were common and our ancestors lived in fear of not having the funds to give their loved ones a proper funeral. A pauper’s funeral was to be avoided at all cost.
By the end of the eighteenth century, burial clubs became common among the poor working-class. For a small weekly rate, the poor could be assured that should someone in their family die, a death benefit would be paid to pay the expenses of a funeral, which might cost upwards of £3 or £4. 6Edinburgh Evening Courant – Thursday 26 February 1829 The poor frequently went without the necessities of life, just to be able to afford the dues, ironically in some cases starving their children so as to afford to pay for their funerals.
Some burial clubs or societies would not allow entrance of children less than 8 weeks of age, or adults after 55 years of age and most would not enrol a member who was already in poor health. Members had to pay their dues for a set number of weeks before being eligible for the death benefit. These rules, however, were made to protect the burial club, but there were no regulations, laws, or government oversight to protect the subscribers. In some cases, the rules of the clubs changed overnight, making a subscriber ineligible for benefits when they were needed and other clubs went bankrupt, leaving their subscribers without benefits or recourse.
Regulation was clearly needed, but it would be a long time coming.
Some unscrupulous individuals collected burial club payments for family members, claiming they had died when they were still alive and well. Even after the advent of civil registration in July 1838, this fraudulent activity continued since until 1875, there was no requirement to provide proof of death. 7After 1875, official medical certificates certified by a doctor stating the cause of death were introduced. Although it was mandatory that a death certificate be provided before a clergyman could perform a burial, there was no cross-reference to ensure that a burial took place after a death certificate was issued. And since registrars were paid for each registration, they were hardly likely to go out of their way to make sure that a death had actually taken place, or even that the person who died existed in the first place.
Studies done in Preston, Lancashire in the 1830s found that the infant mortality rate was greater for members of the society than it was for the population at large and this became a great concern. It was not unheard of for parents to avoid the expense of medical care, knowing that their children were enrolled in one or more burial clubs. And even worse, a growing number of infanticide cases were being uncovered where parents killed their children for the burial club benefits. An act passed in 1846 banned the enrollment of children under the age of six years in registered burial clubs, however many were not registered, so the law was ineffectual. In 1855, another Friendly Societies Act set maximum amounts payable for the death of children to £5 for children up to 5-years-old and £10 for a child between the ages of 5 and 10 years. The claimant was required to present a doctor’s certificate to the Registrar, after which he would be issued an insurance certificate for the cost of a shilling. The Society was then required to record the benefit paid directly on the insurance certificate with the goal of limiting the number of clubs that a payment could be claimed from. Again, however, the legislation applied only to registered societies and since the requirement included an extra fee, it was routinely ignored.
Not only were parents found guilty of murdering their children for the burial club money, but wives were convicted of murdering their husbands and husbands of murdering their wives. Throughout the nineteenth century, many sensational murder cases involving burial club settlements were described in detail in the newspapers in addition to the Mary May murder of William Spratt. In fact, the number of cases in Essex in the 1840s grew to such a number that there was a ‘Poison Panic’, and many deaths were questioned and investigated. The hysteria was so great that many of the burial clubs in Essex were disbanded by 1850 in the fear that they would incite further people to murder. The subscribers to these burial clubs lost their investment when the clubs folded.
Selection of Burial Club Crimes
11 February 1823
11 February 1823 – Francis Dunn was charged with having obtained money under false pretences from two Friendly Burial Societies. He entered his daughter Bridget Dunn into two burial societies the prior September. He obtained £4 2s from one and £3 12s from the other but neighbours came forward to say that Bridget was still alive. It was alleged in court that a child in his household, Catherine Dunn who was a child of his cousin’s that had died, but that she was entitled to very little from the societies having just been entered, leading Francis to claim that it was Bridget who had died instead. Conflicting testimony from the various witnesses ensued until finally Catherine’s mother testified. She was accompanied by a small child she said was Catherine. After testimony from the collector who had seen poor young Bridget’s body, the payment was declared legitimate, and Francis Dunn was acquitted of all charges.
5 September 1829
5 September 1829 – Abraham Reed was indicted for the murder of his wife Mary. He collected £5 from the Benefit Club at North Molton.
15 December 1838
15 December 1838 – Mrs Bruce was sentenced to 14 days in gaol at the Salford Intermediate Sessions for giving false information. Although her mother was still very much alive, Bruce registered her death with the Registrar to collect the burial club benefit of £3.
1 December 1838
1 December 1838 – Elizabeth Sullivan was convicted of fraud against the burial club ‘The Stedfast Friends’ after having reported the death of her youngest child and collecting the sum of £4 13s. When one of the club officers later went to her home, he did find a dead child but discovered that it was that of her brother-in-law’s and that he too had received money from a club to which the child was subscribed.
2 November 1839
2 November 1839 – William Critchley was convicted of fraud against the overseers of Manchester at the New Bailey. Critchley applied to the parish for the funds to provide a coffin for one Mary Fitzpatrick who had recently died, saying that her friends and family could not afford to bury her. Critchley then also collected the sum of £3 10s from one burial club and a similar sum from another in which the woman had been enrolled as payment for the coffin he provided.
9 November 1839
9 November 1839 – Elizabeth Wilson of Dolefield Manchester was charged at the New Bailey for defrauding the No 1 General Burial Society of Macclesfield of £5. She made a claim for the death of her daughter, but it was later discovered that her daughter was alive and well.
9 September 1842
9 September 1842 – Manchester parents Mr and Mrs John Beaver were found guilty of failing to provide proper nourishment for their child. The child, under one year of age, was enrolled in no less than six burial clubs and upon its death, the parents collected £34 3s. Further investigation showed that another child had died and the parents had been awarded a similar sum not twelve months earlier. In total, seven of their children had died before the age of 18 months.
8 August 1846
8 August 1846 – John Rhodda was executed at York for the murder of his son. The murder was committed for 50s, the benefit from the burial club in which the child had been enrolled.
12 February 1850
12 February 1850 – At the inquest into his death, it was determined that John Merritt, aged 34 years, a turncock for the East London Water Company died from arsenic poisoning. Although his wife was suspected of administering it, the jury found that there was no satisfactory evidence to prove it. Charges were not laid.
2 February 1853
2 February 1853 – At the Manchester Borough Court, Mr Harvey Welman, Superintendent of the General Assurance Burial Society was brought up on charges of obtaining money by fraudulent means. Although weekly payments had been accepted by Welman, there was no evidence that the Society existed and several policies had been denied payment on the death of members.
13 October 1865
13 October 1865 – James Brown, an elderly man, suffered from dropsy and had been receiving relief from the parish. He was quite ill and not expected to recover. His wife, who kept a stall in the market, had taken out a burial club membership for £14 on her husband. When he continued to hang on despite his illness, she decided to hasten his demise. She ordered a coffin for him, had im stretched out in it and had him ‘salted’ to prevent his body from bursting, just as a corpse would have been treated and pennies were placed on his eyes. When Mr Clements, the relieving officer, attended the home, he found the man this laid out, waiting to be buried. He was immediately released and his wife taken into custody.
24 March 1873
24 March 1873 – Serial killer Mary Ann Cotton was executed for the poisoning death of her stepson Charles Edward Cotton and it was alleged that she might have murdered as many as 21 people in total, using arsenic and collecting their burial club benefits.
19 October 1883
19 October 1883 – Thomas Higgins of Liverpool was poisoned with arsenic. His mother-in-law, who collected £100 in burial club payments was thought to be his murderess.
Besides those mentioned above, there are countless other tales of fraud and murder relating to burial clubs appearing in the nineteenth century newspapers, but as the economy improved towards the end of the century and further regulations were passed, the shocking stories eventually stopped appearing with regularity.
Burial Clubs – The Unfriendly Societies
Talk given by Audrey Collins at the National Archives in London
Family Search film 1702508, Ancestry.com. England, Select Marriages, 1538–1973 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
Essex Herald – Tuesday 04 July 1848
Essex Herald – Tuesday 15 August 1848
Chamberlain, Geoffrey. “British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. November 2006. Accessed April 09, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1633559/.
Edinburgh Evening Courant – Thursday 26 February 1829
After 1875, official medical certificates certified by a doctor stating the cause of death were introduced.