Poison, Passion, Pie and the Pavilion Theatre

The audience in a cheap London theatre.  Image in Charles Dickens The Uncommercial Traveller (1905 edition) page 24.

At about nine o’clock on the evening of Tuesday the 30th of July 1850 Mr James Henry Walker Elphinstone, one of the popular comedians and actors of the Royal Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, was in his dressing room.  His preparations for the next performance were interrupted by Thomas King, a dresser, who carried with him a small package wrapped in white paper.  Inside the package—a tribute from an admirer—was a raspberry jam pie.  Either Elphinstone was not hungry, or he did not have a sweet tooth, for he refused the offer.  He told King that he could do what he liked with the pie.

Later that night, after King returned home, his wife Charlotte ate a small amount of the crust of the pie.  By the time her husband had woken up the next morning, she had finished off most of the rest of it, leaving nothing for him other than a small piece, which she did not fancy, as it looked unappetisingly green.  Very shortly afterwards Charlotte reported a strange sensation in her body.  She was beginning to feel extremely unwell, and she was vomiting blood and phlegm.  Thomas King rushed to find James Elphinstone, as he was sure that it was the pie that had made his wife so ill.

A scene from Macbeth.  Image in W Harvey The Works of Shakespeare (1825) page 266.

The Royal Pavilion Theatre, or, as it was sometimes called, the Pavilion, had opened in 1827 in what was then Baker’s Row but is now Vallance Street, just off the Whitechapel Road.  In July and August 1850 a wide range of plays supplemented by music and dancing was performed there.  Some of these—Macbeth and Faustus and Richard III—were well known.  Others—Eliza Holmes and The French Revolution—were not.

One of those appearing was Elphinstone.  Actually “Elphinstone” was the stage name of the man born and baptised James Henry Walker at the City of London Lying-In Hospital in City Road in 1819.  His parents—father James and mother Mary—kept a coffee house in Spitalfields.  On his marriage certificate Elphinstone said that his father was a comedian, which suggests that he had a dual career.  In 1847 the younger James married Helen, a fellow professional whose stage name was “Ellen Norman”.  He was twenty-eight, and she was only seventeen, and in the following year they had the first of their seven children.  It would appear that for the early years of their married life they lived with James’s parents at a convenient address in Bishopsgate a mere twenty minutes’ walk from the Pavilion.

A public house in Whitechapel by Gustave Doré.  Watercolour dated 1870.

Also not living far from The Pavilion was Martha Sharpe—or Martha Sharp—a young woman of twenty-six years of age who had been recently  widowed.  She and her two small daughters lodged just off Commercial Road in William Street—roughly where Ronald Street and Steel’s Lane are now—with her close friend Sarah Holborough.  Sarah’s husband was a sailor who was not often at home, and, for all that there were children to look after, the two women were frequently to be seen out and about in Whitechapel, and in particular at the Pavilion and in the King’s Head public house.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, her recent widowhood Martha had developed a passion for James Henry Walker Elphinstone.  We do not know what he looked like, but he obviously had charms that caught her eye.  The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette later reported Sarah as saying that

he was the constant subject of her conversation, and she was in the habit of speaking of him in terms of the warmest admiration.

Not that Martha was content with worshipping Elphinstone from afar.  Early in July she wrote to him, asking him to take a walk with her, and suggesting that they become better acquainted.  Too bashful to deliver the letter herself she sent it via Sarah Holborough.   Elphinstone had no interest in getting to know Martha—he was a married man—and he promptly destroyed the billet-doux.  To put it bluntly, his suspicion was that Martha was a sex worker.

A few nights later the two women were loitering at the stage door, waiting for an answer from Elphinstone, who told them abruptly that he had nothing to say.  He then went about his business, which left Martha feeling very unhappy, and claiming that Sarah must have done something wrong in delivering the letter to make him respond so negatively.  But the clear brush-off did not dampen Martha’s ardour, and a few nights later, when Elphinstone stopped off at a local public house to have a quiet pint of ale before heading home, which was his usual practice after a performance, he was dismayed to see none other than Martha Sharpe and her sidekick.  They asked if he would take a gin and water with them.  He politely declined.

Inside a London gin palace.  Image in Max Schlesinger Saunterings in and about London (1853) between pages 266 and 267.

Martha now became even more desperate.  Racking her brains for ways to get the actor’s attention she decided that her only option was to give him some sort of philtre or love potion.  Summoning Sarah, who was presumably enjoying the vicarious thrill of this unrequited love, she headed to Mr O’Connor’s apothecary shop in Church Street in Mile End, where she asked for some Spanish fly, a preparation popularly supposed to be an aphrodisiac.  At first Mr O’Connor said, regretfully, that he could not sell Spanish fly to a member of the public, as it was for medical use only, but it would seem that on hearing that Martha wanted it for a young man he took pity on her.  He gave her some for nothing, and she came away with one complete fly and some extra bits, which was enough for four doses of a love potion.

The next question was how to administer the fly to Elphinstone without his noticing bits in his food and drink.  Possibly the original plan had been to pop the fly into his pint of ale or his glass of gin and water, there in the public house, but it was abandoned when he refused to have anything to do with the women.  Then on Tuesday the 23rd of July Martha bought a round raspberry jam pie with a lattice top from a local pastry cook.  The pie cost tuppence.

First she carefully removed the jam.  Then she sprinkled bits of Spanish fly over the pastry case.  Finally she replaced the jam and the lattice top.  Her work compete, she went back to the Pavilion, where she lurked around the stage door until William Davis, a pot-boy from the King’s Arms, came along with refreshments for the performers.  Davis agreed to deliver her tribute to Mr Elphinstone, and as a consequence, as we have seen, poor Charlotte King, the wife of Elphinstone’s dresser, became intimately acquainted with what was believed to be an aphrodisiac but was certainly a very nasty poison.

View of Whitechapel High Street by J Findlay.  Watercolour dated 1850.  © British Museum

When on the following morning he saw that his wife was wretchedly ill, Thomas King took the remaining pie to Elphinstone, and explained what had happened.  In his turn Elphinstone took it to a surgeon, Mr Henry Thomas Cornelius, at 71 High Street in Whitechapel.  Cornelius immediately identified the green bits—Charlotte, you will remember, had not wanted to eat these—as Spanish fly.  The peregrinations of the pie were then traced, and James’s dire suspicions about the perpetrator were confirmed.

Martha Sharpe, far from finding herself in the loving arms of an actor, found herself in the not so warm embraces of the law.  On Thursday the 1st of August she was taken before the Worship Street Police Court suspected of poisoning.  When the initial investigations suggested that there was a case to be answered, she was sent to the Old Bailey charged with attempting to murder Charlotte King and James Henry Walker Elphinstone.

Spanish fly is in fact neither Spanish nor a fly but a small beetle—Lytta vesicatoria—a member of the Meloidae family.  The Meloidae are commonly known as “blister beetles” on account of the fact that they secrete a substance, cantharidin, which causes blistering when in contact with skin.  Doctors in the past were keen on blistering their patients—the aim was to draw out infections and fevers—which explains why Mr O’Connor had Spanish fly in his apothecary’s shop.  But this was not the only use for the fly, which when ingested had an interesting effect, as Mr Cornelius, the Whitechapel surgeon, knew only too well.  “There is a vulgar notion,” he explained to the courtroom at the Old Bailey, “ that cantharides stimulate passion.”  When the toxins are expelled through the kidneys into the urinary tracts they cause warmth and swelling, resulting in erections that reportedly refuse to subside.

The “Spanish fly” blister beetle Lytta vesicatoria.

There are numerous cases in nineteenth-century newspapers of people in public houses putting Spanish fly into communal drinks.  No doubt they thought that what they were doing was funny: unfortunately it could also be fatal.  Unrequited lovers hoped that the fly would open the eyes of those they pined for, although it was far more likely to open their bowels.  Other more deliberately sinister uses included sexual assault, not to mention murder.  And death by Spanish fly, which destroys the lining of the stomach, and causes kidney failure, would be a painful affair.  There is no known antidote, and for toxicity the fly compares with cyanide and strychnine, which certainly accounts for Charlotte King’s violent reaction and slow recovery.  Oddly, there was something of a craze earlier in the century for decorating dresses with blister beetles, which are a lovely shiny green.

We have a picture of Martha from the newspaper reports.  She is described as being middle-aged—she was only twenty-six but her life had evidently been hard—and tall—she was five feet five inches—and dressed respectably in widow’s weeds.  Mr Robinson for the prosecution made it very clear what sort of woman he thought Martha was, and we can assume that the hope that he attributed to her of “improper intercourse” with Elphinstone was not meant in the sense of a one-to-one chat.  Although it is not spelled out explicitly it is implied that Martha was a prostitute.

A loving couple.  Image in Charles Maurice Davies Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses (1875) between pages 192 and 193.

But Martha’s behaviour, which had gone on for months, suggests less the prostitute than the obsessive.  She might have been lonely after the death of her husband, or have hoped that a well-paid actor would make a good replacement, or simply have had an all-too-human crush on Elphinstone.  As for the pie with the love potion, she might have been prompted to send it by a report that someone she knew had sent one to another Pavilion actor, whose name was Gaskill, or more likely Gaskin.  At any rate, this was what she wanted the court to believe, and the possibility remains that it was she, or Sarah Holborough, who had tried to dose the unsuspecting Gaskin.  But after hearing from the witnesses the court decided that in the latest case there was no charge to answer: the defendant could not have intended to harm a woman she had never met or even heard of.   The lucky, foolish, humiliated Martha was acquitted.

James Walker Elphinstone no doubt received much ribbing about his admirer, but his wife must have been pleased that he had acquitted himself so loyally.  He continued to work in theatre, not only as an actor who tended to specialise in nautical roles, but also as a playwright who wrote and starred in a London Labour and The London Poor, which was presumably based on the work of Henry Mayhew.  At some point he went into theatrical management, as did two of his sons, and he was for a time a co-lessee of the Pavilion.  Towards the end of his life he was a circus proprietor.  He never remarried after his wife Helen’s early death in 1868, and when he died in November 1892 he was buried alongside her in the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery.  Also with them lay their daughter, Helen Rose, who had died many years previously, aged eight.

Martha remains a shadowy figure.  All we know is that she was born in South Shields, that she was widowed in about 1850 and that she had two small daughters, Margaret and Anna, who were born in Seaham Harbour in Durham.  The 1851 census indicates that following her trial she and her daughters lived in Devonport Street, just around the corner from Sarah Holborough’s home in William Street, and that she worked as a tailoress.  Also in the house was a Mary Sharp—aged sixty and born in North Shields—and her children Caroline and George.  Possibly Mary was Martha’s mother-in-law.  Possibly Martha had never in fact married, and Mary was her mother.  But after 1851 the only potential glimpse of Martha’s family is twelve-year-old Margaret Sharp, a girl in the Limehouse Children’s Establishment, which in all but name was a workhouse.  Martha, in common with all the supporting characters in this story, had disappeared into the mists of time.

© london-overlooked 2021


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