The trial of John Sagar, a Keighley workhouse master accused of poisoning his wife, shocked Victorian Yorkshire to its core. Lurid details emerged of the Sagars’ life together; sex, violence, adultery, illicit menage a trois relationships and a string of suspicious infant deaths going back decades. Author and editor Lisa Firth recounts the story in The Keighley Poisoner, from her miscellany entitled Tales of Old Airedale.
When blushing bride Barbara Scarborough wed her childhood sweetheart John Sagar at the age of 20, life seemed to stretch out before the young couple in a future full of hope and promise. But two decades later, the marriage ended abruptly in death, infamy – and the black shadow of the noose.
The events surrounding Barbara Sagar’s death unfolded like the plot of a Penny Dreadful story: that favourite Victorian entertainment known for its sensationalism and gore. On the morning of 19th December 1857, the mistress of the Exley Head workhouse was found stark in her bed. She was discovered curled in the foetal position with fists clenched and tongue protruding from between her teeth, drenched in cold sweat and with an expression of agonising pain across her features.
Less than a week before, Barbara had been fit and well, attending to her duties as usual. On Monday she had taken to her bed complaining of biliousness and a mild sore throat. The following Saturday, she was dead.
Tongues began to wag as town gossips shared ever more prurient stories of the Sagars’ married life. Barbara’s husband John had been seen ‘keeping company’ with a workhouse guardian’s daughter nearly 25 years his junior. He had tortured his wife both mentally and physically for years, even chaining her to the bed in a lunatic’s bonds and, on one occasion, locking her in the ‘dead house’ – the workhouse mortuary.
Barbara had told friends and relatives that she believed her husband was trying to poison her, and that ‘if owt happened to me you might think it was murder.’ The Sagars’ nine children had all died before the age of four – perhaps, it was whispered, at their father’s hand.
It wasn’t long before rumours of foul play reached the district coroner, Mr Thomas Brown, who felt the circumstances suspicious enough to halt the funeral plans and demand Mrs Sagar’s body be submitted for an autopsy. When Barbara Sagar was finally committed to the soil of Haworth churchyard shortly before Christmas, she was missing her stomach, liver, kidneys and intestines.
The organs were sent to an eminent Leeds surgeon, George Morley, for analysis, and what he revealed at the subsequent coroner’s inquest caused a sensation. Barbara Sagar’s body had contained a significant amount of arsenic at the time of death – more than enough to kill.
In addition, witnesses testified that all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning – frequent vomiting, an insatiable thirst, a burning sensation in the stomach and throat, a thick, white fur on the tongue – had been present in the week leading up to Mrs Sagar’s death.
As if this wasn’t suspicious enough, there was also Mrs Sagar’s own testimony. She had frequently told friends and family that she believed her husband wanted to murder her, that her medicine had been poisoned and that it ‘burned her insides out.’ She asked several people to pray with her, stating that she was sure she would soon die. She also blamed medicine administered by her husband for the death of their last child, Samuel.
John Sagar, described as ‘a repulsive, dirty-looking man, about 45 years old and minus his left hand,’ with ‘forehead villainous low, and a square, repulsive countenance,’ had alone been responsible for preparing his wife’s food and spooning out her medicine. He was known to have a history of cruelty towards her, told in more than words by the bruises found on her body during the autopsy.
Witnesses claimed that at different times he had beaten his wife with a poker, threatened to break her legs, dragged her into the house by her hair, kicked her in the stomach, banged her head against a chest of drawers before leaving her unconscious for hours, locked her in the mortuary, and perhaps most degrading of all, chained her to the bed with an insane inmate’s bonds in such a way that she could neither stand nor sit, but was forced into a crouching position for many hours.
And then there was the fact that John Sagar had previously worked as both a painter and a druggist, skilled in the procurement and use of arsenic. Yet despite strong grounds for suspicion, the coroner’s jury ruled that ‘the deceased had died from the effects of poison – arsenic – but by whom administered they could not find.’
The prisoner was proclaimed not guilty, and under normal circumstances would have been immediately released. But suspicion and public opinion were stacked so far against him that local magistrates took the affair into their own hands, and he was once again placed in Keighley lockup to await a further enquiry. If the evidence against him was found to be strong enough, he would be sent to York Assizes to face a criminal trial. A finding of guilt could mean only one outcome – death by hanging.
By the time of the magistrates’ enquiry, weeks spent in the lockup had taken their toll on Sagar, who was ‘miserably dejected and broken in spirit.’ He refused his food and regularly cried out in his sleep, with police deeming itnecessary to place him on suicide watch. Could his anguish have reflected fear for his life – or perhaps guilt over his devilish crimes?
The case caused a sensation in the town. Throngs of people – largely women – flocked to Keighley courtroom daily to witness the proceedings, with hundreds being turned away and police forced to use considerable violence to keep the crowds from riot. But excitement reached fever pitch on the third day of the enquiry, when 22-year-old Ann Bland took the stand.
The facts she disclosed of her relationship with the married couple were described as ‘too disgusting for publication’ by the Yorkshire Gazette. Other newspapers, however, were not so priggish, willingly lingering over every salacious detail. Ann testified that she had been the Sagars’ joint lover for four years, coerced by Mrs Sagar into sharing the marital bed from the age of just 18. It was here, she said, that Mr Sagar had ‘taken her virtue.’ More shocking still, the couple had been in the habit of bedding other young women procured by Mrs Sagar – even, it was said, her own sister: a married woman named Martha Wadsworth.
Ann wasn’t the only Bland to be publicly disgraced at the enquiry. Her father Thomas, one of the guardians responsible for the management of the workhouse, was censured for attempting to enter into improper correspondence with magistrate WB Ferrand. He was also seen trying to prevent his wife from giving evidence, and then refused to answer questions put to him on the stand. His behaviour led to strong words from the bench: “That you have committed the grossest perjury in the witness box is clear to all here; and you leave it a disgraced man… it is clear that you are trying to screen this murder.”
In fact it seemed as though a vast conspiracy to cover John Sagar’s murderous inclinations was afoot.
One workhouse resident, described as a ‘demented-looking woman,’ swore that the prisoner’s sister Hannah Sagar had warned her not to testify ‘not about bottles or anything.’
Martha Bland, mother of Ann, had intimated to friends that she knew Mrs Sagar had been poisoned, and that ‘there is plenty more which I know, but which I will never tell.’
A bottle labelled ‘julep,’ which Barbara Sagar had drunk from during her illness and which may have contained the poison that killed her, had conveniently disappeared.
It was enough for the magistrates. At the end of the enquiry, John Sagar was charged with the murder of his wife and committed to York Castle to await trial at the assizes. However, from day one of his court case things began to go horribly wrong for the prosecution.
First of all the judge ruled that the evidence of Ann Bland, which had caused such a sensation at the magistrates’ enquiry, was inadmissible, since her relationship with John Sagar had taken place with the approbation of his wife. This was despite the considerable evidence that John Sagar and Ann Bland were having clandestine extramarital relations outside of their menage without Barbara Sagar’s knowledge. Their adultery could well have been a motive for murder.
After pressure from Sagar’s defence, it was also ruled that the prisoner’s full history of cruelty to his wife could not be taken into account, a decision that provoked a public outcry.
However, the real stumbling block for the prosecution came when workhouse physician John Milligan, who had treated Mrs Sagar in her final week, gave a completely different testimony from the one he had given before magistrates. He had previously testified that he accepted the deceased had died from inflammation of the stomach caused by poison.
However, to the York courtroom he stated that he did not believe the amount of poison found in the body could kill; that Mrs Sagar’s death was entirely from natural causes. This directly contradicted the testimony of poisons expert George Morley, who had conducted the post-mortem.
From that point the trial was dead in the water. The prosecution, knowing that no conviction could now be secured, withdrew their case, and John Sagar walked from court a free man.
The public were outraged. As far as they were concerned, a murderer who had tortured and ultimately killed his wife – and, it had been hinted in the press, may have dealt the same fate to at least some of his tiny children – had walked away unpunished.
Judgement came down heavily on the man the public blamed for the collapse of the trial: the workhouse doctor John Milligan.
Milligan’s reputation had not come well out of the affair. At best he was seen as incompetent; a doctor who had failed to spot the all-too-obvious telltale signs of arsenic poisoning in his patient. At worst, he was viewed as an accomplice of the accused who had deliberately screened his crimes and allowed him to walk free.
In an attempt to salvage his professional reputation, Milligan opened a bitter war of words in the Leeds Intelligencer with poisons expert George Morley, but only ended up digging a deeper hole for himself when Morley exposed Milligan’ s schoolboy understanding of the chemical tests used to detect poison. Nevertheless he kept his job, continuing as workhouse medical officer for many years.
As for John Sagar, after the trial he returned to his previous profession as a painter and lived out the remainder of his days in Bradford. He married again in later life to a laundress named Elizabeth, 22 years his junior, and eventually passed away peacefully in his bed at the ripe old age of 71.
Was John Sagar a murderer? The clues are there to be seen. His wife displayed all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, and a significant quantity of arsenic was found in her body after death. Her food and medicine were administered almost exclusively by her husband – a man with a long history of domestic violence and adultery. She had stated on numerous occasions that her husband was trying to kill her, and that her medicine had been poisoned.
A court of the time judged John Sagar an innocent man. History may not be so kind.
CLUE 1 – THE VICTIM Barbara Sagar had repeatedly stated that her husband was trying to kill her, that she was afraid she was being murdered, and that poison had been put into her medicine. She displayed most of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning in the last week of her life, and a considerable quantity of arsenic was discovered in her body after death.
CLUE 2 – THE SUSPECT John Sagar had worked as both a painter and a druggist, and would easily be able to procure arsenic. He had a long history of violence towards his wife, beating her with an iron poker when she angered him and chaining her to their bed.
CLUE 3 – THE MISTRESS Ann Bland was the Sagars’ lover, sharing their marital bed – one of a number of young women procured by Mrs Sagar for her husband and herself. Witnesses testified that she had been seen ‘keeping company’ with Mr Sagar, that he was in the habit of writing her love letters, and that their adultery could have provided a motive for murder.
CLUE 4 – THE CHILDREN All nine of the Sagars’ children, born over a 20-year period, had died before the age of four. Gossip suggested their father may have had a hand in their deaths, and Mrs Sagar stated during her illness that Samuel, her last child, would have lived longer but for the medicine given him by her husband.
CLUE 5 – THE ACCESSORIES Anumber of people attracted public suspicion during the court case for their behaviour on the witness stand. Thomas Bland was accused by magistrates of withholding evidence, of perjury, and of trying to screen a murder. His wife was also accused of making ‘an exhibition’ on the stand. Hannah Sagar, the prisoner’s sister, was said to have warned off one of the workhouse paupers from giving evidence. The institute’s medical officer, John Milligan, repeatedly changed his evidence on whether or not Mrs Sagar had been poisoned, ultimately leading to the collapse of the trial.
CLUE 6 – THE MISSING BOTTLE The prisoner John Sagar became anxious whenever bottles taken from the workhouse were produced in court, beating the dock and letting out melancholy
moans. All were tested for arsenic, however, and nothing was found, with the exception of one bottle labelled ‘julep.’ Mrs Sagar had taken medicine from this bottle during her final illness, but despite numerous searches of the workhouse it was nowhere to be found.
CLUE 7 – THE STOMACH PUMP When the Sagars auctioned off the contents of their Cullingworth home in 1851 before taking up their positions at the workhouse – suspiciously setting no reserve despite a number of luxury items being included in the sale – one item listed was a stomach pump. Could this have been used during John Sagar’s time as a publican on customers who didn’t know when to say ‘when’ – or could it have had a more sinister purpose in his chilling campaign of control against his wife and children.
Tales of Old Airedale – A Miscellany, by Lisa Firth, £7.99, Oliphant Publishing Services,