CASE 8: UNHOLY LOVE
A day’s walk southwest from the river town of Morpeth brought colonisers to the modest valley of Mulberry Creek, where the red-moon faced John Thornton moved with his wife Mary Baker in 1842 to work on a small farm lease run by the Cutts family. For his various felonies in the Midlands, Thornton had been transported in 1830 and ended up as a government man in Newcastle, a tatty and rundown coal town. His excellent carpentry skills made him ideal for a town in a permanent state of disrepair, one where he would also find a miracle made flesh in the form of Mary Baker.
Mary was transported in 1838 for pickpocketing. Her victim, Samuel Adams, was a headwaiter at the King’s Head Pub, popular with literary and men’s clubs. Adams claimed he had been taking a constitutional walk when Mary Baker accosted and lured him into the front room of a dilapidated terrace in Hackney. Adams paid a shilling to enter and sit down with the young lady for the sole purpose of chatting without taking liberties. On leaving he realised all his money was gone. Mary was arrested by a passing police constable, Joseph Smalley, after he ‘heard noise, and went into the house — I asked the prisoner if she had taken the money, and said, if she had, she had better give it up — the landlord and landlady came into the room — I said, “This girl has been robbing this man, and if she don’t give it up, I will take the whole three of you to the station-house” — the landlady begged I would not for the sake of her husband’s character — I then heard them whisper together, and someone said, “The ashes” — I then got a bit of paper, and found this money in the ashes.’
Mary had been alone on the cross-hard South London streets for a couple of years after being thrown out of home by a violent and sexually inappropriate father. She survived on her good looks and savviness. A year previous she had been arrested along with two friends for holding expensive stolen clothes and jewellery. They had drawn attention and been arrested wearing the out-of-place finery around their local borough. Mary’s persuasive and smart answers to the judge reinforced a lack of clear evidence that saw the girls walk free.
Mary Baker trained up as a cook in Sydney Town and was sent on to Newcastle in 1840. With her options and future hopes imploding she met the uncomplicated and enthusiastically smitten John Thornton. Ten years her senior, John offered something more safe and substantial compared to the ramshackle coal port’s usual offering of drunken soldiers, visiting sailors and chain gang lags. John was granted his freedom and the couple married at Newcastle Cathedral in the late summer of 1841.
After the stalemate life of Newcastle, the Thornton’s took a steamboat upriver to the triangulated townships of Morpeth, East Maitland and West Maitland. At this gateway to the new Promised Land of the Hunter Valley, the couple established themselves as honest hard workers, despite the soft-hearted John’s infuriating positivity — a stout, hale and hearty disposition — which he supplemented with bad puns and old jokes, and never-ending words, words, words, which meant there was never a pause in the conversation. Mary accepted this for the habitual certainty marriage provided. She felt a genuine fondness for John, even if what she said too often went over his head. She was also kept busy tracing firm borderlines around his half-thought plans and the costly undercharged promises he made. She filtered his dull humour with vacant laughter and pitted lips.
The Thornton’s union did reflect an established social template in a place that over one hundred thousand Europeans now called home. The colony’s abrupt and confronting mix of ex-convicts and new chums (along with the eternally low ratio of women to men) made marriage a ruddy, unromantic and utilitarian reality for most. This was partly due to the decades of convicts earning themselves the semi-freedom of ticket of leave holders, making them almost citizens with limited rights and liberty of movement. After ‘the hanging decade’ of the thirties, when reoffending convicts could look forward to the misery of the treadmill or the isolated prison hell of Norfolk Island or Port Arthur, transportees like John and Mary Thornton embraced unpaid assignment work as a chance to unrealised ambition and a second life of rights without attaint. By the early 1840s, the Thornton’s future merged with a world fundamentally recasting itself. The end of transportation was being agitated for, Sydney was declared Australia’s first city, and its workers protested openly for changes to the heinous Masters and Servants Act. Gas lighting illuminated and extended the commercial and social day beyond the sun and the candlelight haze. Locals were electing their own political officials while an obsessive rush into new farming land saw peaceful cohabitation with Natives (so proudly proclaimed in the original 1788 Letters Patent) discarded and replaced by forced and sometimes violent dispossession. Promise replaced the penitentiary culture. Australia offered the ex-felonry and settler alike the unique opportunity of fortune through hard work and government subsidies, without blue bloodlines or family trust accounts.
The abundant Australian sunshine and clean air had also transformed Mary Thornton’s pasty London complexion. Her arrival in Morpeth set local men gushing: ‘prepossessing in appearance, and fond of amusement. Reared as she had been, in the fresh air, amid the meadows green, there was none of that city paleness on her pretty face, but the glow of health and happiness imprinted on every feature gave her a’ most charming and pleasing air’. It was said she didn’t need a dress to show off her fine figure, which, combined with her petite cheek mole and strong hazel eyes, made her a dream dropped miraculously from a London stage to the frontier. Frank and compassionate, Mary flirted authentically without being coquettish, frivolous or choosy. She made all the people she met feel momentary like royalty.
It would be Mary who convinced John to accept the Cutts’ offer of work on their Mulberry Creek farm. Fifteen miles from Maitland, the creek was in a fine farming valley, still isolated enough from town for the ruthless, frontier musket which had helped move stubborn Indigenous inhabitants on, and remained the arbiter for sorting runaway convicts, bushrangers and personal disputes. It was also briefly infamous for a potent sly-grog made in nearby bush which caused the death of a few assigned convicts, including Catherine Coombes, who burned to death after falling into a campfire in a beastly state of intoxication.
The Cutts family was Thomas and his wife Rebecca, brother Robert, and father William. The hard nailed and well-respected family took quickly to Mary and John, and soon had them set up in the main farmhouse. They soberly encouraged John’s dream of his own farm, while Old Man William and Rebecca provided Mary with the sustenance of conversation to keep her barely sane.
The Thornton’s arrival coincided with blessed and abundant seasonal rains that rewarded the valley farms with healthy cattle and solid harvests of tobacco and hardy, long life vegetables for trading. Muscle-weary nights were drunk down with dreams of finely mapped paddocks echoing to the moans of contented livestock and the chunking pistons of gleaming, modern machinery imported from Britain. The Cutts’ gambled on the prosperous seasons by leasing and clearing more land. In early 1844 they put up notices in town for more labourers. The offer of good conditions and single lodgings took the interest of a drifting, ex-government local called Joseph Vale.
The thirty-year-old Vale was a freeman who served seven years serfdom in Newcastle and Maitland. The smart tongue and good looks that kept him in women, clothes and beefsteak in London didn’t cut it among his new peers, who were often wise to his moves. Like the Thorntons, transportation reinvented him as a vaguely square citizen, contented enough to ghost about the district’s small settlements and farms, working to stay a month’s wages in advance. He once or twice earned big money joining the legal (and illegal) posses that were forcibly moving Native groups off the river flats and into the harsher, more arid hills. Offers from flash-mobs or bushranging gangs did threaten to lure him back to his old cross-hard ways, so Vale sated this by running an occasional sly fence and gammoning naïve settlers at cards or with dispatches (weighted dice).
Vale was known to flaunt and strut in public to highlight his particular build, which combined great strength with good health. Rich brown complexion, with chestnut tinted hair, strongly inclined to form itself into wavy rings, and merry brown eyes shaded with long lashes. Locals marked him loosely in the company of wives and daughters. He appeared once in a local assize court as witness over fighting cocks stolen from a friend. It was not long after the inquest into Catherine Coombes dramatic death that Owen Flanagan had charges dismissed, despite Vale’s assertion that Flanagan tried to sell him one of the prize birds, whose identity was clearly established from a peculiarity in the back part of its head, the effects of various battles, in which the animal had been engaged, and in which he had suffered so severely as to render if impossible (according to the witness) that he could ever be the same bird that he formerly had been.
Joseph Vale always imagined the comfortable hills and small farmhouses of places like Mulberry Creek as being like the German fairy tales that he would never tell the children left behind from his previous relationships. They suited his need to nomadically escape town for a few months each year. He especially disliked the increasing number of new chums and ingrate settlers who openly scorned him as felonry class, and as socially beneath them. In the Cutts he found straight up people who showed him mutual respect while providing good wages, clean accommodation and stomach filling meals. He worked hard under the supervision of John Thornton, who was performing a more managerial role under the Cutts’ expansion. Vale charmed his new boss with his solid wit, work ethic, silky conversation and London stories – tall, and sometimes true. He amused the collective at meal times by teasing and gaming Mary Thornton’s polite but pronounced disinterest towards him.
Most religions treat humanity as the mongrel template of Gods who birthmark the human heart as good or evil. This simple binary gave uncomplicated validity to the blind obedience of faith, going to war, killing or starving your enemy, and love gone wrong. Enlightened scepticism challenged this as being a diversion from our collective inability to accept the fickle compositions of chance and context, nature and nurture, which weave our short and tempestuous lives together. By the nineteenth century, science and mathematics was combining to systemically question the narrow vitalism inherent in the Aristotelian-Christian view of human nature and the universe. The world was more complicated than phlegm and humours. This could be explained. Even the eternal social phenomenon of crime began to use reason and science to solve its cases. Even the historically elusive poisoner was no longer safe.
Murder by chemistry was most famously linked to antiquity’s ‘Poison of Kings’, arsenic. By the nineteenth century arsenic was a manufactured powder and a staple of daily life, used in medicines, food additives and as rat bait. Unlike the rustic Mary Thornton, for a time women mixed it with vinegar and chalk to achieve a fashionably pallid complexion. Women were generally thought most likely to use arsenic (and similar poisons) to commit murder. Murder was usually a masculine act, requiring brute strength or weapon skill. Newspapers, broadsheets and novels found the enfeebled feminine in the act of poisoning. Seen as the only option for female killers, poisoning became socially regarded as effete, arcane and artfully sneaky — a cultural fusing of industrial age chemistry with ancient witchcraft. As courts throughout Britannia, France and America became increasingly sophisticated and required clear evidence to make a verdict, poisoning proved difficult to sentence without eyewitnesses or leftover bottles. Being physically absent from the death, the poisoner was a sort of ghost, while the potions used were similarly elusive to unmask. Arsenic, for example, was odourless and tasteless, while its symptoms — bloody urine, muscle and stomach cramps, loss of hair, convulsing and problems swallowing — imitated many common ailments, illnesses and diseases.
This began to change in 1773 when the Swedish chemist Carl Sheele developed a method for detecting simple arsenic oxide in corpses. By 1806 a German chemist had detected the poison in stomach walls. By 1844 the ‘Marsh test’ expanded this so that a suspect sample was mixed with sulfuric acid and zinc to produce a gas which, when ignited, decomposed into pure metallic arsenic. Henry Marsh claimed his test was sensitive enough to detect one-fiftieth of a milligram. Similar straightforward tests were available for newer, industrially produced poisons, such as morphia. Enlightenment chemistry had transcended alchemy to produce something magically theatrical and understandably definitive for the general public. Court reporters claimed scientists as wizards of the age. The idea that the last thing a dying person saw was imprinted on their retina could be discarded to the superstitious past.
While court cases provided tantalising reading, the ubiquity of poisons in everyday life meant purchasing them rarely raised a chemist’s eyebrow in concern. So it was when Joseph Vale asked Maitland chemist Charles Earle for strychnia powder on behalf of his old employer Lieutenant Biddulph (as Vale had done many times before in the recent past), to help deal with native dogs attacking the retired officer’s sheep herd. Being completely out of stock, Earle sold Vale ten grams of Morphia acetate as a more than reliable alternative. Back on the street in the dry January heat, Joseph Vale pocketed the three paper wraps and sauntered to the pick-up where John, Mary and some other Mulberry Creek workers waited for the coach to take them on the half day’s ride back to the main creek turnoff.
As the cart rolled off, Joseph Vale jumped on last and sidled up front confidently next to Mary Thornton. She smiled expectantly and the two set into a long and honeyed conversation, punctuated by intimate laughter and shared snickering. John Thornton sat grumpily in the back with rest of the men who tried to distract his fierce, frozen gaze into the middle distance with songs and grog. At the drop-off, Joseph and Mary jumped quickly out ahead of the group, playfully chasing each other between fits of laughter. Back at the farm John threw a fit at them, but settled once some bottles of wine were brought to the table along with some reassuring boiled eggs, cooked by Mary.
The following morning John sat down to breakfast before work and felt the satisfaction of the alcoholic fuzz from the previous evening dissolve in a dull fog of dissatisfaction or something absent, a feeling that had increasingly consumed him for months now. His future with Mary, once the plan guiding him forward was now a series of vague, uncatchable moments. Farm work got him through each day, but his easy nature was usurped by jealous pangs and dumb confusion about his wife. He could not leave for work each morning before knowing Mary’s daily comings and goings in detail. As for Joseph Vale, John had confided in him as a friend, even trying his charming and smart sayings on Mary. At first John believed Joseph’s assurance his friendship with Mary was innocent, until Vale brashly started presenting Mary with small gifts: a ladies companion to aid her needlework, books to read, and dressmaking linen in fashionable and costly bright prints. This increasing familiarity accentuated John’s hapless response of telling anyone and all that his wife had been seduced, but he had no authority to dismiss the seducer from service.
John acted as if being apart Joseph and Mary was worse than being cuckolded, and his unhinged behaviour alienated Mary, who confided to Rebecca Cutts that she made a vow to be faithful and loving, but not to the ugly stranger her husband had become. Despite it being more petulant than dangerous, Vale argued to the Cutts that he had to remain on the farm to protect Mary from John when they were not around. Rebecca Cutts did try placating John by suggesting he harden up and accept Mary and Joseph’s intimacy as part of close quarter living in relative isolation, but the household’s camaraderie had been replaced by a vague tension stretching firmly around them like an overstrung bull-wire fence.
It was Christmas Eve when Mary saw the white powder being poured from a bottle into a cup of tea. The following morning she was given an ultimatum: if her husband died would she marry him. Mary thought long into the morning before saying yes.
Joseph Vale had bought the arsenic on his last trip into Maitland and had poured in what he thought would be enough to settle him for good. When John showed no symptoms, Joseph, with a still reluctant Mary now in partnership, planned mixing the powder in a hot spirit and herb drink made by Mary. John still showed no effect, which Vale blamed on Mary for having made the drink too hot and neutralizing its poisonous effect.
Over the next couple of weeks, Vale gathered herbs and bush vines and advised Mary on how to boil them down into a thick syrup. She disguised the process easily as part of her daily cooking regime before mixing it into John’s tea and morning gruel, dissolving its acridity without trace or taste. Despite increased doses over the following weeks, John remained physically immune and bullock strong. It was perhaps ironic considering his constant public proclamations that the way his life was, Mary and Joseph would soon enough be scheming to do away with him.
After the homemade botanicals failed, Joseph Vale brought the half crown of morphia from Earle’s chemist. This was folded into three papers which he slipped to Mary on the ride home. He told her to combine and hide it in an unmarked jar and to burn the advertised wrappings. As the drinking that night turned into a carousal, no one noticed John drinking exclusively from a bottle Vale had provided, even though John commented the wine was very good and he wished he had some more of it. The next morning John Thornton ate quietly and heartily of Sunday meat, beans, potatoes and three helpings of peach pudding, but after a meditative tobacco pipe he complained of being weary and retired to bed. He slept until Monday and complained of great pain in his head, and that he felt sleepy, and could not go to work. The farm went to work and Rebecca Cutts checked on John throughout the day. By evening he claimed to be feeling much better though still heavy in his head and sleepy. Thomas Cutts now wanted to call a doctor from Maitland, which Joseph Vale volunteered to find. Thornton refused the fuss, but just after two in the morning Vale woke the Cutts up with desperate news that John had taken a turn for the worse, with parts of his body swelling up like a bloated goat. Cutts immediately rose, and went into the Thornton’s room, joined shortly after by Rebecca. Cutts found Mrs. Thornton in bed with her husband, holding a handkerchief before his eyes; soon after she left the bed, saying, “Oh God, he is dying.” Cutts went and called up a neighbour, and after returning sent Vale off to Maitland for a doctor, but it was too late; long before he could arrive, the unfortunate man expired. Cutt’s suspicions had been so strongly aroused by all that passed, and he would not allow Mrs. Thornton to wipe her husband’s mouth, or wash his body, especially after unnatural looking yellowish foam oozed from the dead man’s nose, ears and mouth. Contrary to Cutts’ repeated warnings not to touch John’s body, Mrs Thornton removed it before Dr Alfred Oke Edge performed his post-mortem examination, and certified cause of death as apoplexy.
John was buried at a well-attended funeral in Mulberry Creek, but the Cutts were increasingly suspicious about his death. Mary had blatantly disobeyed Thomas in cleaning the body before Dr Edge arrived. William Cutts suggested that Mary was too serenely unaffected by her husband’s death, which Rebecca then rebuffed, saying that this was not so strange if you consider Mary’s hard life had made her stoically Spartan with her grief. Overall, the Cutts found it difficult to accept that Mary and Joseph would murder John, despite their abandoned behaviour. William told Rebecca her friendship made her blind, especially after a conversation the two women had on the Sunday evening before John’s death, when they went out together after tea, and Mary asked her “What she supposed her husband had said to her?” She asked “What is it?” “Why,” said Mary, “he says I am too young for his wife, and that when he’s dying he has something to say to me.” Supposing,” she continued, “he dies, which I hope he won’t, what will become of me and Joseph I suppose they would hang us.” Rebecca answered, “I don’t know if they would hang you, but if they found out anything wrong against Joseph Vale they would hang him.”
Farm life could not stop long to mourn death. Mary stayed in the house and Joseph continued to bunk in an adjoining shed. William forced Rebecca to heed the increased secrecy of Joseph and Mary’s intimacy and meetings. Dinner talk was a business-like dirge and furtive glances replaced unexamined laughter. The Cutts’ increasing unease about Mary and Vale flowed along Mulberry Creek’s translucent waters into the Maitland triangle, where the apoplexy verdict was now openly being questioned, and the whispered judgement of Joseph Vale and Mary’s brash relationship turned from astonished prurience to that of unholy villainy. The gossip finally reached the crusty ear of Charles Earle. When the chemist learned that Vale hadn’t been in Biddulph’s employ for some time, he felt cheated and compelled to contact Maitland police about the 10 grams of Morphia he had sold Vale the fortnight before Thornton’s death. Mary Thornton and Joseph Vale were arrested and charged with having poisoned John Thornton. In the coincidental symmetry of numbers, it was two weeks after John’s death. A small girl, Mary Kirton, who was in the chemist shop when Joseph Vale purchased the Morphia, picked him out in a gaol yard full of prisoners. This was after another chemist told police that a man resembling Vale had asked him for prussic acid, and he had refused to serve him. Despite doctors being unable to confirm if Thornton died from apoplexy or poison, the Attorney General sent down Mary Thornton and Joseph Vale to stand trial for murder by poisoning.
The trial in March of 1844 was one of the first to take place in the newly built East Maitland courthouse. The case was to be tried by Chief Justice Dowling, who arrived by Morpeth steamer the day before. Like a child’s pageant of Christ and the magi, the esteemed Chief Justice was escorted into Maitland by the Police Magistrate E.D. Day along with a large cavalcade of magistrates and gentlemen mounted on horseback.
After two church services on the Monday morning, Dowling parted a huge crowd surrounding the courthouse before delivering a most learned discourse on various subjects connected with justice and crime before commencing the trial. It had caused enough of a sensation for the Sydney newspapers to send their own reporters, one who covered trial as a case of “illicit love, the disturbing spirit of the world”. Despite the clamour and expectation, the prosecution case did rest entirely on circumstance. After various witnesses built a narrative linking the deterioration of the Thornton’s marriage empathically to Joseph Vale’s cuckolding arrival, some expect doctors dazzled the courtroom with the wondrous chemistry of poisons. The prisoners said nothing in their defence. It appeared to be over before it had started when Dowling sent the jury away, only for them to return a guilty verdict against both prisoners within a few minutes. According to one newspaper, the most remarkable evidence was presented by Doctor Edye, who had originally certified death by apoplexy. He thrilled the courtroom in explaining that with the frothing at the mouth, he concluded that death arose from apoplexy, especially from the state and turgid appearance about deceased’s neck. Apoplexy, he said, may be produced by slow poison, as its usual effects are drowsiness, headache, and sickness. Five grains of morphia would kill a person in about 12 or 14 hours, and it usually produces sickness and congestion of the brain. He had tested the stomach from Thompson’s medical work, and had tried the test for opium, but there was no evidence of any poison having been on the premises. His test would not have discovered strychnia or prussic acid. There had been cases of poison where the poison could not be discovered, and, in fact, its absence could have been produced by absorption or rejection while living. If morphia had been in the stomach his test would have detected it, if it had operated on the food. Still, the traces of it might not be found, and a dose of 10 grains of morphia would in 24 hours be absorbed by the system. William Henry Mutlaw, a chemist, had assisted the doctor to analyse the stomach, and Dr Francis Campbell also saw the contents of the stomach, but did not stop to analyse it.
In his summing up, Dowling advised the jury there was no evidence whatever to show that either of the prisoners had administered poison of any kind to deceased. The case rested entirely on circumstances, and they therefore would weigh them with that care, discrimination and judgement which as men of the world anxious to administer justice he was sure they would exercise? It was important to note that the deceased was in good health up to a short period before his death.
All the reporters made mention of Mary’s exquisite looks, which some found difficult to reconcile with the crime. The Chief Justice commended the jury’s bravery before telling Mary and Joseph it was just twelve months since the painful duty he passed the sentence of death upon a wife and her guilty paramour in a case as nearly as might be similar to that against the prisoners, in which they conspired to dip their hands in the blood of the husband. He could hold out no hope to them on this side of the grave and sentenced them both to death. On hearing their sentences Mary and Joseph maintained a deportment of great firmness, unmixed however, with any symptoms of unnatural courage or bravado. They were removed to Newcastle Gaol before sun-up the following day, with squabbling birds the only witnesses to see them on their way.
In the month at Newcastle awaiting their execution, both Mary Thornton and Joseph Vale made full confessions. Joseph’s was succinctly to the point: “The prisoner Joseph Vale who was tried with Mary Thornton on the same charge, confesses himself equally guilty with her of the crime for which they are sentenced to suffer.” Mary’s confession was rambling and reflective, torn between guilt and disbelief at what happened when thoughts became actions. She admitted that while Joseph frightened her to join in, she had been a willing partner in poisoning John. By the second week, Mary had accepted calmly and completely that they would kill John, fully aware they might well be caught. Despite their friends turning against them in the days after John’s death they remained at the farm. Mary remembers being taken aback, but not frightened, when Joseph suggested ’they will hang us without judge or jury … we will both die together.’
The couple’s hanging drew an immense concourse of persons to the dilapidated stones of Newcastle Gaol that jutted gothically on a cliff running down to the Pacific Ocean shore. Once atop the scaffold, Mary and Joseph seemed almost drugged by the solemnity and mechanics of the process and freely acknowledged their guilt to the crowd. Despite a month out of the sun, Mary Thornton infatuated the crowd with her sweet face and graceful demeanour. They gave each other a final glance before the ropes were adjusted around their necks and caps drawn over their faces. After a final prayer of mercy to God, the bolt was withdrawn, and in a minute or two the wretched malefactors ceased to exist. They met death with much fortitude and resignation. In fact, the firmness of Mrs. Thornton, both in ascending the drop and when upon it, was exceedingly great. They had conducted themselves with much propriety in the prison. As it was with most public hangings, the spectacle of the drop was accompanied by gasps and shrieks from the enveloping, and somehow mystically audible, silence. People lingered, unable to turn their eyes from the excruciating sight of both prisoners frantically kicking their tied legs into stillness. A huge piss stain soaked around Joseph Vale’s groin, while Mary Thornton was reduced to a faceless, sackcloth angel, caught and tethered inescapably to a heavy beam.
The Cutts would always argue that Joseph Vale had seduced Mary Thornton into believing there was a dream world beyond Mulberry Creek, even though it was never a place on any map. In the end, Mary had perhaps reconciled that dying for her crime was the only way she could make sense of it.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 01 July 2016), February 1840, trial of MARY BAKER (t18400203-681).
David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts Phd from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the Mascara Poetry Journal.
Murray treats historical true crime creatively as a cultural marker of everyday life. It’s a process concentrating on ordinary lives while reflecting Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.