Modern retellings paint Charlotte Bryant as highly promiscuous and immoral. Her real story is one of motherhood and mystery, someone who deserves to be remembered as more than just a figurehead of 19th and 20th century prejudices against women.
Born Charlotte McHugh in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on 11th February 1903. Charlotte worked in a factory when she had met her husband, Fredrick Bryant, who was stationed there with the Dorset Regiment. Upon finishing his tour of duty, Charlotte and Fredrick would return to England and marry in 1922 in Frome, Dorset. Charlotte could not read or write and so signed her marriage certificate with an ‘X’.
The couple moved to Coombe near Sherborne in Dorset. Charlotte, her husband and their 5 children, along with a lodger named Leonard Parsons lived there together. Charlotte and Leonard had been openly having an affair, something which Fredrick appeared to pay little mind too.
Towards the end of 1935, Fredrick had fallen ill on three separate occasions. His condition deteriorated and on the 22nd December, Fredrick died in Hospital. A post-mortem revealed 4.09 grams of arsenic in his bloodstream. An investigation of the Bryant residence found traces of an arsenic-based weedkiller in a pile of rubbish. Traces were also found on the shelves, in the boiler and in Charlotte’s coat pockets. Charlotte was arrested for murder on 10th February 1936.
In front of an all-male jury, the circumstantial evidence proved to be devastating. Leonard had confirmed their adulterous relationship and her friend, Lucy Ostler, claimed that Charlotte had spoken of a desire to rid herself of her husband. Furthermore, a woman had bought an arsenic based weed-killer from a nearby chemist, signing for it with an ‘X’, though this could not be identified as Charlotte.
Additionally, an expert witness, Dr Roche Lynch, testified to the high levels of arsenic found in the boiler. It took the jury only an hour to come to a decision. Charlotte was found guilty and sentenced to death, sources tell us that Charlotte’s primary concern was her children, stating “I hope to God, they will not take them from me”.
There was however a glimmer of hope. Professor William Bone of Imperial College had read about Charlotte’s trial and had contacted her lawyer, Joshua Caswell QC. Bone explained that the evidence against Charlotte was flawed, the arsenic levels found within the boiler was actually very low and suggested that Dr Lynch may have misheard the results of the original test.
In light of this new evidence, Joshua Caswell attempted to appeal the decision. These attempts were unsuccessful, with even the House of Commons dismissing his case. Strangely, Charlotte would not be held or hanged at Dorchester Prison but would instead be taken to Exeter. Whilst awaiting her execution, Charlotte began to learn to read and write with the help of the female warders at the prison.
Charlotte was executed at 8am on Wednesday 15th July 1936.
Modern retellings of Charlotte’s story fixate on her apparent highly sexual, promiscuous, and immoral life. In fact, these narratives mirror the many of the 19th and 20th century social and culture prejudices placed upon women. However, contemporary sources show sympathies for Charlotte as a mother of five children, and their welfare.
Accounts also discuss her lack of education and poverty. Much like Martha Brown, Charlotte’s execution reignited the debate not only over the practice of capital punishment, but also over the lack of representation for women within the justice system. Sparking a petition by 7,000 Dorset women, spearheaded by Mrs C.D. Day, for better representation within the justice system.
Charlotte’s left us with one final mystery. Charlotte had written a letter where she explained who she believed the real killer to be however it had been permanently blotted out. There was however one last letter, marked ‘PRIVATE – DO NOT OPEN’, with instructions for it not to be opened until 2036. Charlotte’s story is still unravelling.
To find out more about Charlotte Bryant, come and visit Shire Hall Museum, Dorchester.