The story of an unbalanced, lovesick girl and a blameless young lawyer. Or is it?
At about six o’clock on a cold March morning in 1699 the body of a young Quaker woman was found caught in the stakes of the Priory mill dam at Hertford. Her name was Sarah Stout, and at the coroner’s inquest later that day it was decided that she had committed suicide while the balance of her mind was disturbed.
One of the chief witnesses at the inquest was Spencer Cowper, a young barrister at Hertford for the assizes, member of a prominent Whig family, whose brother William was Member of Parliament for Hertford. He was well acquainted with the Stouts, and had in fact had dinner and supper at Sarah Stout’s home the previous day when he arrived in Hertford. He declared Sarah to be a very modest woman, and that he had not known her to be particularly troubled, discontented or melancholy, nor yet in love; there was no reason he knew why she should drown herself. But he was to change his story later when he found himself on trial for her murder.
After the inquest Spencer Cowper set off for the Essex assizes, making no attempt to offer his sympathy or assistance to the bereaved Mary Stout, Sarah’s mother, whose late husband had been a good friend of the Cowpers and given them great support in parliamentary elections in Hertford. It throws a rather revealing light on his character that his first act on hearing of Sarah’s fate had been to send an ostler from his lodgings round to the Stouts’ stables to fetch his horse, fearing, he said, lest the coroner’s jury might bring in a verdict of felo-de-se (an archaic term for suicide or literally felon to oneself a crime in those days) and the animal might be forfeited to the lord of the manor.
Spencer Cowper’s subsequent indictment for murder was in some quarters considered a “frame-up,” prompted on the one hand by the Tory minority in Hertford wishing to discredit a member of a prominent Whig family and on the other hand by the Quakers. As Spencer Cowper bitterly declared, ” they would rather send four innocent men to the gallows than let it be believed that one who had their light within her had committed suicide. “
And so on July 18, 1699, Spencer Cowper, who was the last person known to have seen Sarah Stout alive, appeared on the charge of murder. Also charged were John Marson and Ellis Stephens, attorneys-at-law, and William Rogers, scrivener, who had, like Cowper, been in Hertford that March for the assizes.
An account of what happened on the day before Sarah Stout’s death was given by her maid, Sarah Walker, as her mother, being a Quaker, was unable to take oath and so could not give evidence. Apparently the Stouts were expecting Cowper to stay with them while he was in Hertford, as his wife had written to Sarah a few days earlier. He dined with Sarah and her mother, and returned again about 9 p.m. for supper, and sat talking with Sarah, who asked the maid to make a fire in Cowper’s bedroom. Then she told the maid to warm his bed, and while she was busy with this Sarah Walker heard the outer door shut and thought Cowper had gone out with a letter he had been writing. When she came downstairs both Cowper and her mistress had gone and, at a loss to know where she was, Sarah’s mother and the maid sat up all night waiting for her return.
As for the other three accused, their behaviour, had aroused suspicion. Two of them had booked lodgings earlier in the day and arrived there between eleven and twelve at night, bringing Marson with them to share their room. They asked for a fire and wine, and invited the landlord to drink with them.
He noticed that Marson’s head and feet were very wet, and he was “all of a reaky sweat.” Marson said he had just ridden hard from London, but he had actually been in the town several hours. The men began questioning the landlord about Sarah Stout. They teased Marson with being her old sweetheart, but he answered” She hath thrown me off, but a friend of mine will be even with her by this time.” Rogers agreed that” her business was done and Sarah Stout’s courting days were over.” Marson asked the others how much money they had spent and was told “What’s that to you? You have had forty or fifty pounds for your share.” They asked Marson if the business was done, and he said he believed it was, but if not it would be done that night.
The accused said they had inquired about Sarah Stout in a jesting way, as they had heard that a mutual friend had courted her. The rest they denied.
Spencer Cowper conducted the defence himself, and the case was lengthy, with much conflicting evidence. Was Sarah Stout drowned? Eye-witnesses were called, some swearing that she had floated, some that merely her petticoats floated, her arm and head being held up in the mill-dam stakes; but it was agreed that there was little or no water in her body, and this was confirmed by doctors who had conducted a postmortem examination six weeks after her death. Scandalous gossip suggested that Sarah was pregnant, and it was to scotch these rumours, that her distressed mother insisted on a post-mortem.
Many doctors were called, also sailors, to give evidence on the condition and behaviour of drowned bodies, but the judge wearily summed up ” I can find no certainty in it,” and it remained doubtful whether she had drowned or had been dead when her body entered the water. There were marks on her neck and behind her ear, conflictingly described as the sort of mark the rubbing of the mill-stakes could have caused, or sufficient to suggest assault and strangulation. Her gown was missing and could not be found. Although the river was well searched several times. A week before the trial it was found, ragged and tom, hanging on a stake, which the miller had cleared of weeds only half an hour before.
No one had seen Sarah Stout since her maid left her sitting in the parlour with Cowper at about half-past ten by the town clock. Cowper said he had left her there after arguing over his decision to sleep at his lodgings. He arrived at the Glove and Dolphin inn just as the clock struck eleven and paid a small bill for horse-keep. Surely this trifling matter could have kept till next day, unless, of course, an alibi might be useful. He went on to his lodgings, where he was in bed before midnight, and witnesses agreed he went out no more that night.
Quite abandoning his statement at the inquest, Spencer Cowper called many witnesses, including his brother’s wife, to describe Sarah Stout’s increasing melancholy and threats of suicide, and with a show of reluctance revealed that she had cherished an unrequited passion for himself, producing two letters to prove it.
The first, dated March 5, said:
” I am glad you have not quite forgot that there is such a person as I in being, but I am willing to shut my eyes and not see anything that looks like unkindness in you, and rather content myself with what excuses you are pleased to make, than be inquisitive into what I must not know. I should very readily comply with your proposition of changing the season, if it were in my power to do it, but you know that lies altogether in your own breast: I am sure the winter has been too unpleasant for me to desire the continuance of it. And I wish you were to endure the sharpness of it, but for one hour, as I have done for many long nights and days, and then I believe it would move that rocky heart of yours, that can be so thoughtless of me as you are; but if it were designed for that end. to make the summer the more delightful, I wish it may have the effect so far as to continue it to be so too, that the weather may never overcast again: the which if I could be assured of, it would recompense me for all that I have ever suffered, and make me as easy a creature as I was the first moment I received breath. When you come to H- pray let your steed guide you, and don’t do as you did the last time: and be sure to order your affairs to be here as soon as you can, which cannot be sooner than you will be heartily welcome to your very sincere friend.”
The second, dated March 9, said:
“I writ you by Sunday’s post, which I hope you have received: however, as a confirmation, I will assure you I know of no inconvenience that can attend your cohabiting with me, unless the grand jury should thereupon find a bill against us, but won’t fly for’t, for come life, come death, I am resolved never to desert you, therefore according to your appointment, I will expect you, and till then, shall only tell you that I am Yours etc.”
Sarah’s mother and brother seemed uncertain about the handwriting, but agreed the terms of the letters were uncharacteristic. Other witnesses described a candid and confiding type of girl, anxious to make the best use of the small fortune her father had left her. Cowper admitted arranging a £200 mortgage for her, the interest on which he paid her the night she died. He denied with some force having any other money or securities of hers. According to a pamphlet published after the trial, both Sarah’s mother and a friend had understood that Cowper was arranging the purchase of an estate for her in ground rents, which he thought a very good bargain, and she was intending this for her portion if she should marry. He had told her to keep the whole matter to herself, but she had confided in both her mother and her friend, and after her death about £1,000 could not be accounted for.
The judge summed up, declaring rather unhelpfuIly that he could not imagine what could induce the accused to commit such a crime, nor yet what could persuade a gentlewoman of plentiful fortune and good reputation to destroy herself, unless her brains had been turned by love. He ended somewhat abruptly: “I am sensible I have omitted many things, but I am a little faint and cannot repeat any more of the evidence.” Half an hour later the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
After the trial various publications appeared showing dissatisfaction with this verdict and giving a good deal of information which we cannot, of course, verify. Spencer Cowper went on to become judge of the Court of Common Pleas, where he showed sympathy and mercy towards those appearing before him in the dock charged with murder. He died in 1728 at the age of fiftynine, and in the Cowper mausoleum in Hertingfordbury church there is a graceful memorial by Louis Roubiliac, erected by his loving second wife, showing him in his judge’s regalia between the figures of Faith and Justice.
The story of the unbalanced, lovesick girl and the blameless young lawyer is the generally accepted one, but no one can deny that there are loose ends. The trial and published contemporary comment leave the reader, with an uneasy question no longer possible to satisfy. Who really did kill Sarah Stout?