Shocking Tragedy in Quiet Suffolk Village
This is the shocking true story of Joshua Bowers and his two wives and third partner in a quiet village in Suffolk in the Victorian era. I’ve researched quite a lot of family trees now, but this is the most horrific story I’ve found, so much so that I worried about imparting the news of it to my customer, aware that she had an elderly mother who my or may not already know something about the story and had never spoken of it.
Joshua, like many people I research in this area, was a farm labourer, and came from a long line of farm labourers, and he lived and worked in the same village all his life. Born in 1835, he married his first wife in, Emily Bird in 1859 when he was 24 and she was 19, they had four children including twins, one of whom died in infancy, their fourth baby, a daughter was born in January 1863 and a couple of weeks later both mother and baby died, leaving Joshua alone with two infant sons, Henry, 4 and Phillip, 2.
Ten months later Joshua married again, this time Susannah King, he was now 29 and Susannah was 21 at the time of their marriage. Six children were born at regular intervals, Robert, Elizabeth, Arthur, Frances, Emily and Laura.
Now also living in the village, was the younger sister of Joshua’s first wife, Anna Maria Bird, who was having a difficult life, she married Henry Gallant at the age of 18, they also had six children, three of whom died in infancy, her last baby with Henry died at the age of six months in June 1871 and her husband died a month later.
Two years after her husband died, Anna Maria gave birth to a son Walter, then three years later an infant daughter, both of whom I believe may have been Joshua Bowers’s.
One day, a man noticed something floating in the village pond, to his horror he realised it was the dead body of a female newborn baby, he got a pole and dragged her body to the edge of the pond and sent for the police. The baby’s body was attached to a land drainpipe and had chord wrapped around her neck, she had been born alive.
The newspaper article reads “It appears from certain information the suspicion of the police fell upon the accused, Anna Maria Gallant, and she was charged on Saturday, as stated above. Evidence was given as follows:
Supt Chapman said: On Monday, the 18th, I received information respecting the finding of a child in a pond at xxx. In Consequence of what I heard I went to the prisoner’s father’s house, which is within about 50 yards of the pond. I saw the prisoner, and asked her if she was Mrs Gallant, and she replied “yes”. I said “I suppose that you are aware that a child was found in a pond near by yesterday?” she said “yes”. I then explained to her that I was a superintendent of police and that she need not answer any question I put to her unless she pleased. I told her that her name had been mentioned in connection with the affair, and also that she was village talk”. She said “I am not; I know nothing about it. I have never had a child since I had that”. She pointed to a child in the room, about three years of age. I asked her if she would allow any medical man to examine her. She said yes”.
Anna Maria was examined by a doctor, and as a result was taken into custody. The doctor testified that she had borne a child within about a fortnight and appeared weak and out of health.
Anna Maria pleaded guilty to having concealed the birth of her illegitimate child, there had been an indictment for murder, but this was thrown out by the Grand Jury, who mercifully returned a bill for concealment of a birth. On the charge being read out Anna Maria said “I delivered myself, and helped my mother to murder it”.
The judge summed up as follows:
Meanwhile, another awful unimaginable tragedy was about to unfold in Joshua’s life. His second wife Susannah had given birth to their sixth child a year ago and was suffering with what we would today call post-natal depression.
Taken from the newspaper report:
A fearful tragedy occurred last Saturday morning, resulting in the sacrifice of three lives, and not improbably of a fourth…About half a mile to the south-east of the Rectory, approached by a winding green lane and a field path nestle about a score of houses in a hollow known as Upshire Green, and one of the houses will for many years be pointed out as the scene of an awful event.
In one of a row of four red brick houses, with pretty little garden plots in front and a large piece of land behind, lives an agricultural labourer named Joshua Bowers, working as a horseman. He has married twice, and had living with him a grown up son by his first wife, and six children (two sons and four daughters) by his second wife.
This poor woman, since the birth of her last child, about twelve months ago, has been in a weak state of health, and has suffered at times from mental depression. For days together she would remain in bed on the plea that she was too ill to get up, when at another time, even in the late cold weather, she would be up by five or six o’clock in the morning. Frequently she would be hysterical, and when sitting up at meals would burst out into an uncontrolled fit of crying, and be unable to eat her food. She frequently complained of her head, and said the noise of the children was too much for her, and she wanted to get away from them. For some time she was an in patient of St Leonard’s Hospital at Sudbury..”
While she was in the hospital, and since her return, her mother has been backwards and forwards to the house, to assist her in the domestic work and in taking care of the younger children. There is an older girl, Elizabeth, aged 14, who also helped and got the meals ready for her father and brothers, who are all farm labourers.
It appears that on Saturday morning Mrs Bowers remained in her bed till after her husband and older children had had their breakfasts, keeping three of the younger children with her-the baby, Laura, Emily aged four and Ruth of the age of seven years. The grandmother went in as usual to help her daughter and grand-children, remaining til nearly ten o’clock, when she left to go for the weekly parochial relief, leaving the eldest girl at home to clear up.
Shortly after the old lady had gone, the mother went downstairs in her night dress into the front keeping-room, and took a razor from the cupboard used by her husband, saying that she wanted to cut her corns. The girl thought nothing of it, the mother apparently never having exhibited homicidal symptoms, and continued scrubbing the floor. A few minutes afterwards however, she heard violent screaming, and on going upstairs into the back bedroom was horrified to see two of her sisters lying on the bed bathed in blood, and her mother leaning over the baby with the razor in her hand, as if she were cutting its throat. The poor girl rushed up to her mother, and tried to wrench the razor from her.
A neighbour named Mrs Carter, hearing the shrieks for assistance, went in, and saw the poor woman stooping down, and her eldest daughter by her side bravely struggling to get the razor from her. In doing this, Elizabeth, the girl, had her hands severely cut. Finding she could not succeed, she, as she says, jumped down the flight of stairs almost at one bound and ran into the road, her clothes streaming with blood, and called wildly for help. Mrs Carter seeing the mother coming towards her, ran into the front room, and also called loudly for help. Mr Bird, of the beerhouse, who lives only two doors off, went in and ran upstairs, but in the few seconds that had intervened the unfortunate woman had cut her own throat and was found on the bed lifeless by the side of the bodies of the three children. On examining the poor little ones, it was found that the baby and Emily, the two younger ones, were quite dead, but that the older, Ruth, though insensible, was alive. The assistants did what they could to staunch the blood, and at once sent for medical aid. Before very long Dr Holden and a Mr Horsford arrived, and the former bound up the child’s throat, and ordered her to be removed to a neighbours house. She was not able to say much, except that her mother when she returned upstairs with the razor, attacked her first and cut her throat, and then, leaving her on the bed for dead, went and repeated the fearful deed on her sisters. The scene was heart-rending and terrible in the extreme. On the bed just as they fell, in pools of blood and in their night-dresses, lay the mother and the three little children, all with frightful gashes in their throats. The floor was also covered with blood. The police officer, Double, who was at once sent for, went in the afternoon to arrange for the inquest. The Rector did all he could to assist by sending women to attend to the bodies, clean the house, and do what was necessary. Inspector Grimwood on hearing of the event, went over and made arrangements for an officer to be on the spot. For several hours after the murders the house was besieged by the neighbours and visitors, most of whom, however, were properly denied admittance by the Rector’s orders. The terrible event has created immense excitement in the whole district, and much sympathy is expressed for the bereaved husband father”.
The Rev. F.J. Braithwaite, who was present throughout the inquiry:
Ten years on, in the 1891 census, I found Joshua Bowers living with a “house- keeper”, Anna Maria Gallant, the younger sister of his first wife, also in the household were his adult sons, Robert and Arthur (his sons from his marriage to Susannah), there was also Walter, 17, Anna Maria’s illegitimate son who I believe was probably Joshua’s son. There were also three infants, Harry Bowers Gallant aged 5, George Bowers Gallant aged 4 and Benjamin Bowers Gallant aged 3. I discovered that Joshua and Anna Maria had also had another son, Peter Bowers Gallant, who had been conceived four months after the death of his wife Susannah, Peter had died at 16 months old.
As for what became of them, on the 1901 census, Anna Maria stayed as “housekeeper” and died in 1902 at the age of 59. Her son Walter also died in 1902, Walter had been married only three years and had an infant daughter. Anna Maria and Joshua’s youngest son, Benjamin Bowers Gallant, died in WW1, their two other sons Harry and George both survived WW1 and went on to live to ripe old ages.
Joshua and Susannah’s daughter Ruth, who had survived having her throat cut, married and stayed in the village all her life, she had eight children, seven of whom lived to ripe old age. However, her husband died in a tragic accident in the village, at the age of 39, leaving her widowed and pregnant with their youngest child, she went onto live until the age of 84. She always wore high necked dresses to cover the scar left on her neck.
Elizabeth, the 14 year old daughter who tried to wrench the razor from her mother, she married Albert Day in the village at the age of 20, went on to have ten children, her first child was named “Emily Laura Susannah” after her mother and sisters, the memory of the loss of her mother and sisters never left her.
Joshua, I found in the 1911 census, in the same village, aged 76, living alone as a widower and pensioner, he died three years later in 1914 at the age of 79.