Churches and churchyards are full of interesting monuments and memorials, but sometimes one really stands out. In this case, a small stone in Cheltenham Minster. It’s a story which should have been all over the press, but no sign of it can be found in the British Newspaper Archive. It has so much romance to it: a beautiful young (32 years’ old) woman who died in the arms of her beloved husband. She was poisoned by a servant in the popular Spa resort of Cheltenham, so I am very surprised by the lack of coverage. A source claimed he had purchased Arsenic from an Apothecary a week before she died, and also the day before, suggesting he bought a considerable amount. The stone states that she and her husband were from Heytesbury in Wiltshire and she died on 23 September 1776 aged 32:
The strictest Honour and Virtue, Elegance of Manners,
Integrity of Heart and Delicacy of Sentiment,
Endeared her to a Select Circle of Friends and Acquaintances
She was Cherished as an only Child by an Indulgent Father;
Beloved from Infancy by a Tender Husband,
In whose Arms She Died an unnatural Death Effected by poison,
Administered by the Hands of a Cruelly wicked Livery Servant,
Whose Resentment at being detected in Theft
Prompted him to Perpetrate this Horrid and Excerable [sic] Crime
A search for information presents a confusing picture. Apparently the murderer Joseph Armstrong was not charged with theft, but this may have been thought unnecessary as murder carried the death penalty. A source claimed he had been accused of stealing Katherine’s jewels, and she asked her husband to dismiss him, so was poisoned out of revenge. An oddity is another source claimed he stole his master’s spaniel which made him easy to trace. Apparently he escaped the noose by committing suicide in his cell, which to some would be a sign of his guilt, and damned him from being resurrected. Executed criminals were often handed over to surgeons for dissection, to prevent their bones being intact for Resurrection, but this was no straightforward murder. Armstrong had poisoned a member of the upper classes, so was charged with petty treason, so it seems his corpse was hung from a gibbet on St Paul’s Road, where coaches passed to maximise the number of people to be warned not to emulate him.
Servants at spas were hired on a temporary basis as by the late 18th century many wealthy people were highly mobile, so were no longer full time gentry, which provided a lot of insecurity for servants who were effectively trying to survive on zero hour contracts.