Seamus Breathnach’s examines Irish society through its norm-creating as well as its norm-breaking agencies. These include the Church controls of Ireland’s State -- its Schools, Law, Police, Courts, Prisons, Media and much more...


15.) Addenda

15a.) Memorable Irish murders (Book #17)

15b.) Memorable Irish trials (Book #18)

15c.) The Carlow calendar (Book #19)

15d.) Irish American cases (Book #20)

15e.) The criminology of selected Irish writers



Sarah Anne Pearson


Agnes Black


A Case Of Nerves

30.03.1905 Sarah Anne Pearson (38) and Agnes Black ( ) were capitally sentenced for the murder by poisoning of Alice Pearson (74) at Mullalelist near Richill, Co. Armagh on 27th January 1904.

Judge: Mr Justice Wright, Co. Armagh
Hangman: Sentences Commuted
Trial Date: 30th March, 1905, Co. Armagh
Archives Ref: P – 4 –1905
+ (B –9- 1906) + (B – 27 –1910)

At the time of her death Alice Pearson was 74 years of age. She had worked as a domestic servant for a respectable farmer named John Troughton for 20 years. Troughton lived at a place called Troughton`s Hill, Mullalelist near Richhill, Co. Armagh .By all accounts Alice had been a careful, thrifty and an industrious employee, and when she left Troughton`s employment in 1899, she had £103.0.4 in her account with the Post office saving bank.

Too old for further service in 1899, Alice left John Troughton and settled down in a small cottier’s house not far from where she had worked. She was a widow with two grown-up children - a son, Isaac Pearson, who at the time had been married to Sarah Anne Pearson for some 10 or 11 years, and a daughter, Agnes, who got married to George Black.

Up to 1903 Alice lived alone in the cottier’s house. In April she decided to send for her daughter Agnes and to pay her fare to Richhill. At that time Agnes and George Black lived in Scotland. When she came to Armagh, she stayed with Alice as planned. Indeed, she stayed on until February 1904, when she left the cottage. Around this time also Sarah Anne came to live in Alice’s cottage.

The two younger women -- that is, the daughter, Agnes Black, and the daughter-in-law, Sarah Anne Pearson – began to fight. The quarrels were frequent, and continued for about a month. Then Agnes and George left the cottage and took up residence in another cottage about a half mile away from Alice’s place.

This meant that Alice shared her house with Sarah Anne for some five months from the end of January or the beginning of February 1904, until the 27th June , when Alice Pearson died. The only other person – apart from the neighbours -- who visited the cottage was Isaac, Alice’s son and Sarah’s husband. Isaac was employed as a labourer in Portadown and when he visited the cottage, it was invariably on weekends. He would arrive on a Saturday afternoon, remain on until the following Sunday evening, and then he would return to Portadown.

On the 27th June 1904 Alice Pearson died under suspicious circumstances. It wasn’t for another four months -- until October, in fact - - that District Inspector Thomas Cottingham of Portadown RIC had any notion that anything was amiss ;for by this stage Alice had been well and truly buried and all the parties had fled the scene. Sarah and Isaac took themselves to Canada and Agnes and George took themselves to England. It was when Sarah was arrested on something minor in Canada that she mentioned the poisoning of Alice.

On October 14th Inspector Cottingham, now appraised of a possible murder in his district, made up his mind to apply for an exhumation order.. An exhumation order – not always easy to acquire -- proved to be absolutely necessary. In his sworn Information Inspector Cottingham of the RIC swore that he had reason to believe

“That she (Alice) died from the effect of poison which was unlawfully administered to her by her daughter-in-law Sarah Anne Pearson of Mullalelish, and who is now living in or near Montreal, Canada, and her daughter Agnes Black late of Mullalelish and now residing at No. 6 Hodgen Street, Wellington Quay near Newcastleon- Tyne, England, and I pray a warrant for the arrest of the said Sarah Anne Pearson.”

The subsequent post mortem examination carried out on November 7th confirmed the fact that Alice had died from an intake of strychnine. After Sarah’s extradition both defendants were duly indicted for murder in Armagh. The crown elected to try Sarah Anne Pearson separately, stating that it would prejudice the case of both prisoners if they were tried together. When first arraigned (on the morning of Thursday 9th March, 1904), Sarah Anne Pearson ` distinctly and audibly pleaded guilty. `

The Judge of trial, Mr. Justice Wright, was uncomfortable with this early capitulation and would not accept the plea. After some preliminary discussion, he directed that Sarah’s solicitor explain to her the gravity of her position and, of course, the consequences of such a plea. After a short interval Sarah Anne was again put forward and this time she pleaded `not guilty ` - whereupon her trial commenced.

The motive behind the murder was never conceived as anything else but greed. That old Alice had some money in her Post Office account was well known. And if her account had seriously diminished, it had diminished mainly because of her generosity and the withdrawals made during the period her daughter and daughter-in-law’s visit. The withdrawals notwithstanding, Alice still retained the sum of £38.3.10d in her account, a fact that was not overlooked by Sarah Anne!

According to John Troughton, her old employer, Alice was a pale and hearty woman for her time of life. Throughout all the years he knew her, she never had any serious ailment - but from the time that her daughter came to live with her, she was constantly suffering from acute diarrhoea, complain-ing uncharacteristically of what country folk called a `cutting of the bowel`. Even her doctor conceded that he had not treated her for some eight years. `The only time I ever treated her`, he said, ` was for an infection of the eyes -- and that was more than eight years before her death.`

Things had surely changed. Troughton, who was the dispensary warden for the district, issued a `red` ticket to her on 12th June 1903, under which the dispensary doctor treated her. He issued a further ticket on 23rd January 1904.. And throughout 1904 these symptoms and complaints became more frequent.

Of course it may have meant nothing but people noticed that from the time they ceased to live together, the two accused persons, Agnes Black and Sarah Anne Pearson, were very friendly toward each other.

They constantly met and were most intimate with each other. On one occasion, in March 1904 James Troughton met the two accused and Agnes Black asked him in the presence of Sarah Anne to go into Richhill and buy quicksilver for her. She even gave him a bottle to take with him

- ‘ Who are you going to poison?’ He asked jocosely.

- ‘No one,’ said she; ‘I want it to mend a looking glass that my husband uses for shaving’.

Agnes Black hadn’t the money to pay for the quicksilver and Sarah Anne Pearson handed it to her. She in turn gave it to Troughton, who bought the quicksilver that day in Richhill and handed the bottle and its contents that night to Agnes Black, again in Sarah’s presence.

The trouble with the evidence was that it suggested – not one, but two means of murder, quicksilver and strychnine. The medical experts tried to elucidate. According to Thomas Richardson Griffiths, a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and of the Royal College of surgeons Edinburgh...........

“I am of the opinion that the cause of Alice Pearson’s death was strychnine

Strychnine is excreted very slowly. Strychnine acts entirely on the spinal cord, and would not cause the inflammation found in the small bowel and rectum, in my opinion -- nor would the mercury that was found in the body be the cause of the inflammation as it had not got that far. Continuous small doses of metallic mercury given earlier would be sufficient to account for the inflammation. The mercury found in the stomach must have been taken very recently. In my opinion it was taken with the last meal the woman had before her death or very shortly after that meal. Successive doses of metallic mercury would cause diarrhoea. A large single dose might cause diarrhoea. The symptoms of strychnine poisoning are violent contractions of all the voluntary muscles with great anxiety of countenance and perspiration and great difficulty in breathing. These attacks are intermittent with complete cessation between them. The sufferer knows when an attack is approaching. This metallic mercury is commonly known in the County as quicksilver.”

This medical evidence helped to clear up some of the misgivings between the two competing substances and the evidence tendered. That Alice Pearson was given mercury with her last meal or shortly afterwards was also helpful in confining the murder to her in-laws, while the evidence of Alice’s neighbours, Elizabeth and Annie Troughton (widow and daughter), captured the desperation of her final moments.

Elizabeth Troughton said:

“ I remember the day Alice Pearson died. It was a Monday she died - before two o clock. I went into her house to see her about a quarter of an hour after she took the illness that ended in her death. Just as I was going in I heard Alice Pearson shouting `Sarah Anne don’t leave me`, and when I went in I found Sarah Anne Pearson in the kitchen. Sarah Anne was in the outer kitchen. Alice was in the sleeping room off the parlour as they call it. She was in bed with all her clothes and her boots and bonnet on her. When she took the turns she every bit shook and she would give loud screams and clutch the bed stick with her right hand. She took a turn nearly every two minutes when I was there, and I stayed more than a quarter of an hour.

Alice said to me: ‘ Bess, its the nerves’”

Annie Troughton, described by the police as "a single woman resident with her mother”, also remembered the day Alice died. She happened to be "carrying water " that day, which meant that she was carrying two empty cans past the Pearson house on her way to the well. Alice cried out `You are carrying a lot of water today`. Elizabeth said she could hear the voice of Sarah Anne Pearson admonishing her from within the cottage : `you could not let the girl pass by.’ She then saw Alice Pearson sitting on a chair at the in front of the door:

"That was about 11 and half o clock. In the morning and she then appeared to be in her usual condition of health. Later in the day, that is about one o’ clock or a quarter past it, I went into Alice Pearson’s house and saw Alice Pearson in her bed. She was dressed in her ordinary clothes and her boots on her. I remained about half an hour there was no other person in the house but the old woman and Sarah Anne Pearson .The old woman was tossing about on her bed. She asked me to sit down and said she was going to die; that she would not get out of this. I said to her it was sudden. And she said she had taken a hearty dinner. When I went into the house Sarah Anne Pearson was in the kitchen and before I went into the room where the old woman was, Sarah Anne said to me: “You have been weak yourself and you are better.” Without seeing her -- and while I was in the room with Alice Pearson -- Sarah Anne said to her: “You had better keep praying.” Sarah Anne lived with her for a few months and if Sarah Anne went out and stayed too long, they would have some loud words when she would return. I was not there when Alice Pearson died, as I went for a neighbouring woman Mary Troughton, and when we came back in about five minutes she was dead. When I left to go for Mary Troughton Agnes Black was standing beside her mother’s bed."

Sarah Anne Pearson was convicted at Armagh Assizes on March 9th, and sentenced to be hanged on March 30th, 1905 by Mr Justice Wright.

In the meantime a rather monster list of signatures against the hanging began to fill out the Petition for clemency. Artisans from Armagh, Portadown, and Lurgan signed up. There were farmers and farm labourers; there were weavers, hairdressers, and teachers. Others signed as housewives, housemaids, spinsters, and widows. They signed from Tandragee, Derryhale, Lisavague, Artabrack, Drumkelly, Derrylard, Liskeyboro, Annaboe, Mullalitra, Kilmore, Money. Others still came from Cavan, Tullygarden, Corglass, and Ballywilly. A winding master and 16 winders put their names to the petition, and 25 soldiers from barracks made up the list that spread over 200 foolscap pages.

Their prayers were answered, not by God but by Drs. O’Farrell and Sir George Courtenay, Inspectors of Lunatics, who helped to have both , sentences after examination commuted to Penal Servitude for life.


You are visitor number  
© 2007 by - Last Update: 28/09/08 - Contact  Webmaster - Cpanel - Mail Login