The first of my ‘crime trails’ investigates the alleged murder of local housemaid, Louisa Parsons. On the evening of 13 February 1854 Louisa, aged 23, left her home at Allwright’s Farm in Mapledurham, Oxfordshire to go to a party in the nearby village of Playhatch. She returned home the following morning with Henry Dormer, a young bricklayer, looking ‘like a corpse’. On arrival, Louisa removed her bonnet, fled up the stairs and threw herself on the floor of her bedroom, where she was violently sick.
Louisa remained ill for several days and was unable to keep any food down. She had few other symptoms at first, except a prickly throat and a deep thirst. When the local surgeon examined her, he concluded that she had ingested poison. By the end of the following week, Louisa was in excruciating pain and after exhaustive discussions about what she might have eaten, Dr Hewett suggested that his young patient had taken arsenic. Within a few more weeks she was dead.
Louisa Parsons was a housemaid at the vicarage in Mapledurham, in the employ of the rector, Lord Augustus Fitzclarence. Originally from humble beginnings, Louisa’s father was a shepherd and her family had always lived close by. At the inquest after her death, she was described as: ‘as nice a looking girl as you would wish to see’.
The gruesome details of the post mortem examination were reported in the local press. Her body had been reduced to a skeleton and her skin was covered with dark spots. She had suffered stomach ulcers and perforation of the bowel. However, the absence of diarrhoea or convulsions meant that there was no proof that she had died of arsenic poisoning and in the end, the verdict was exhaustion and tuberculosis (her lungs had been inflamed).
Despite the lack of clear evidence, Louisa’s parents held firmly to the belief that their daughter had been murdered and they had a warning to other young people inscribed on her gravestone: All you young people as you pass by. Pray on my grave now cast an eye. Beware of false lovers and their friends. I died from poison you may depend.
The wording was later covered up and Louisa’s ‘killer’ was never found. The fate of the poisoned maid remains a mystery to this day…