A Victorian mystery

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WAS it murder most horrid?

Did the doctor do it? Who placed the poison in harms way of the wife?

Sheffield General Cemetery taken in 1970

Sheffield General Cemetery taken in 1970

These are the questions from a 19th century murder mystery which could come straight from the pages of a Conan Doyle novel – but which was actually a very real case.

And the bodies are buried in Sheffield’s General Cemetery.

A one-off tour of the Victorian graveyard will this weekend look at the fascinating case of William and Lucy Booth – two well-to-do city siblings who died within four days of each other in October 1880.

“Even today,” says Ven Crane, the archeologist and cemetery volunteer who will lead the walk, “even after so much research, this case raises far more questions than it answers.”

The puzzling case started in 1878 when William, a medical student and the son of a prominent Sheffield doctor, also called William Booth, contracted syphilis while cutting himself during a post-mortem.

Returning from his studies at a London college to the family’s home in Paradise Square, Sheffield city centre, he was looked after by sister Lucy and a student nurse, Mary Ann Wilmot of Glossop Road.

But his death was inevitable and in 1880 he passed away aged 27 in great agony.

“And that really might have been that,” says Ven, as she leads us through the 17-acre site, in Cemetery Road, where more than 87,000 bodies are buried. “Except two days later Lucy, 25, suddenly showed similar symptoms, died almost instantly and was buried next to her brother.”

In the initial confusion and grief no investigation was launched, but four days on their mother Eliza was taken ill.

Her husband, the older William, was called for and sprung into action immediately, pumping her stomach and thus saving her life – but discovering in the process a quantity of morphine in her body.

Within a day police arrested the nurse Mary Ann on suspicion of attempted murder and then exhumed the two siblings bodies to examine if they too had been poisoned.

But the early forensic techniques could not establish for certain whether there had been foul play, and when Mary Ann stood trial in Leeds four months later she was found guilty simply of administrating poison to Eliza Booth.

“No motive was ever found why she would do it,” says Ven. “But it seems incredible to believe Lucy’s death – and probably William’s in hindsight – wouldn’t have been murder in light of what happened to Eliza.

“One theory is Mary Ann was after the doctor for herself – perhaps they were having an affair, perhaps he even knew about the plot – and wanted the family out the way, but it’s something that will probably never be known.”

The case is just one of several fascinating but gruesome tales which Ven will discuss during the Sudden Death Tour of the cemetery.

Another of the stories involves an illegal prize fighter murdered at Old Park Woods while brawling, while a third is about an Irish labourer who picked up apparently mysterious injuries while in police custody at a Sheffield station.

Each tale draws on decades of research by dozens of volunteers to identify every body buried in the cemetery and create a small summary of that person’s death and funeral.

It is the fourth year the tour has been run, but the first time details of any of these mysteries have been revealed.

“We hold several kinds of tour each year but this one has always been one of the most popular,” says Ven, who is now looking to turn the idea into a book featuring 70 of the most mysterious deaths found within that research. “I just think people are attracted to the blood and guts element of something like this. It is fascinating. I call it the Chat magazine tour because it appeals to that human love of scandal.”

n The Sudden Death Tour takes place Saturday at 2pm, starting at Cemetery Avenue Gate House. Free entry.