There are very few occasions in my research into violent and premeditated criminal behaviour, that I stumble across a case so packed with mixed emotions and tragedy as that pertaining to Mr. and Mrs. Stent.
There are some rare, heart-warming moments, albeit under the relentless gaze of the media and stern-faced judges, and I think that you might ponder this story for some time to come. I do hope so, I have a soft spot for these two characters.
Henry and Maria Stent’s apparently blissful seven years of domestic life in London’s Pimlico in the 1800’s was to take such a sudden turn, it seemed almost as if a malevolent spirit had invaded their world, intent on turning it into an evil and despicable hell.
Henry and Maria lived at number 3, Arabella Row in Pimlico, London. It was a smart area, being just a mile from fashionable Buckingham-gate and Grosvenor-place. Writers, artists and skilled tradesmen such as stone mansons, printers and produce traders of all kinds were their neighbours and Henry at twenty-nine was a renown slaughterman and butcher, and generally a very popular man.
However, the first bad turn in their life together was Maria’s decision to run away with her husband’s best friend Sam Sweeting – a market broker* – to America. Sam was a friend that Henry had supported through financial difficulties and virtually treated as his brother. Also, Sweeting, who only lived next door to Stent,was married with four children and his wife was pregnant with their fifth child.
*(market broker was someone who mediated between buyer and seller; a ‘middle-man’)
After the scandalous ‘elopement’ of Sam and Maria at the end of August 1818, following a jovial and happy evening of eating, drinking and card playing at Sweeting’s home – during which Maria had slipped next door to finish her surreptitious packing – this treacherous ‘friend’, secretly returned in the dead of night around three weeks later and stripped his wife of her clothes, threatening her and searching for money which she had hidden in her corset bones.
He took her savings of sixty pounds and fled back to Liverpool and Maria to catch a ship to American and on to Philadelphia. This terrifying episode so traumatized Mrs. Sweeting that it triggered the birth of their fifth child and Mrs. Sweeting had to be restrained in sudden violent distress fits by use of a ‘strait waistcoat’.
Henry Stent had assisted the doctor as a concerned neighbour and she had subsequently died in his arms whilst he consoled her. Her new born baby died shortly afterwards. Sweeting’s four children were sent to the workhouse, one of them dying soon after admittance. Tragic does not even describe what this man caused to his best friend, and his family. The Times newspaper reported how Mr, Stent would walk the streets night after night, “Being unable to forget his wretchedness in sleep.” (The Times, London, England, 16th August, 1819, p.3)
Henry was devastated but had no option but to continue his trade to live and support his and Maria’s three young children. He had discovered that Maria had been secreting money for some considerable time by helping in the shop and had saved up enough for this ‘elopement’ and the prospect of a new life in America with Sam Sweeting. It was now early August 1819, almost a year after this devastating episode had left him bereft and his many friends had worried about his depression over this time.
However, unknown to Henry, Maria was beginning to seriously regret her impulsive actions. After leaving with her so- called ‘paramour’ initially to France, then returning with him some months later to Liverpool in preparation for eventually sailing on the S/S William to America, Maria had written to her sister Matilda about her anger with Sam Sweeting’s indifferent attitude towards her, and even recounted a recent dream that had worried her:
On arrival in Philadelphia, Sweeting soon deserted her leaving her in great distress in this foreign land. She eventually managed, with great difficultly, to obtain a passage back to England.
The journey was horrendous, with the ship almost wrecked in a storm but it managed to limp into Liverpool and she was extremely frightened but saw this as an omen that she was home and now had a chance to make amends to Henry and their children.
Maria Stent decided to throw herself on her husband’s mercy and on August 5th, the day after her arrival back in England, took a coach back to Pimlico, arriving at the Saracen’s Head Tavern in nearby Snow Hill.
It was from here on that same day of August 5th, that Henry received a letter from Maria hand-delivered by a porter: It read as follows:
“August 5th 1819
Henry, you no doubt will be offended at my writing to you – one that I have used so ill; but, believe me, I have considered of my crimes, and will repent, if possible. Oh Henry, I have suffered more than I can tell you in crossing the seas; there was nothing but storms and trouble, and the ship was lost. But you, perhaps already know that I have put my trust in God for safety in crossing them again and have got safe to England once more to throw myself at your feet, and implore your pity, if you cannot pardon me.
But oh! for one moment consider before my doom is fixed. Indeed I am penitent and sorry for my sins, and hope you will hear my prayer, for mercy as well as that God which I have offended. But if my story was told by any other than me, you would see what a villain he was. If you find you cannot forgive – but oh! that thought makes me tremble; do not let my dear father and mother know you have heard of me, for that would bring their trouble afresh to their minds (that is, if their lives are spared), and I hope I have not got that to answer for.
All I wish is, to pass the remainder of my days in obscurity, or in the workhouse, if you think proper, or in any other place. Do not desert me – for God’s sake do not. I have come from America, landed on Tuesday morning, and at night left Liverpool and this morning got to the Saracen’s Head Snow-hill where I shall await your answer with the greatest distress.
If you please to let me have some of the clothes I left, as I have not a gown to wear. Oh! Henry, think well before you say what shall be my fate – only ask your heart -do not tell any body that you know of my being in England; but think what a journey for a lone woman to take.
I do not know when you will get this ; but if you can let me know tonight what is to be my lot:- indeed I will be content on bread and water if I can but obtain your forgiveness. Oh! Henry be not deaf to my prayers. I know it is a crime I have often heard you say you would never forgive – only write to say you will pardon me, and do what you like after, but do not let any of my friends know that I have wrote to you – grant me that request if you cannot grant any more – let me know for I had only two pounds five shillings to bring me to London
One O’clock Maria Stent.”
Maria stayed in her room all that afternoon and early evening, taking some tea at around six-thirty. Henry arrived at the Tavern and inquired after Maria Stent. He was shown into the parlour where she sat alone.
Violent shrieks told those outside that not all was well and that Henry was not in any mood for mercy, nor forgiveness. Armed with a large knife he had furiously began stabbing her in the neck and her left-side. A servant rushed into the room, crying out to his master, “Thomas, the man has a knife.” Maria called out at the same time, “Oh, he will kill me!”
Others rushed in to wrestle Henry to the ground and seize the murderous weapon but not before he had managed to stab her with great violence in the throat. Maria collapsed senseless to the floor, blood pouring from her gaping wounds.
Henry then said calmly, “I have accomplished my purpose; I wish for nothing but to suffer, I know I shall suffer.”
Maria, came around to semi-consciousness and murmured, “Yes you have, Henry, and I freely forgive you, come and kiss me.”
Henry knelt down and kissed his wife twice. She whispered, “I hope the law will not take hold of you, you are the best of husbands, and I am the very worst of wives, and I hope my fate will be a warning to all bad wives.”
People began to flock into the tavern, hardly able to believe what they had either witnessed or been told by the agitated crowds. It became so confused, Henry could have made his escape but he stood still and waited for the police. When they came, he said immediately, “I am the man.” He was hand-cuffed and taken to the local prison (known as a compter) in Giltspur Street.
Maria was covered with a tablecloth and taken on shutter to St. Bartholomew’s hospital for immediate surgical attention. On her way to hospital she still called for Henry and for him to kiss her – she was drifting in and out of consciousness and asked Henry to hold her hand unaware he was not there. One of the men carrying her held her hand, and Maria thinking it was Henry, murmured, “God bless you, I shall now die happy.”
It was while in Giltspur Street Compter, awaiting his hearing before the Guildhall Magistrates, that Henry wrote to his sister Elizabeth:
“Dear Eliza, I have been to the Saracen’s Head and seen Maria, and from what has passed between us, I am now in the Giltspur Street Compter. I must leave it to you to break the matter in the best way you can to our dear father and mother.
However, on the back of the letter he had written;
“I have stabbed her but would not put that on the other side for fear of shocking you too suddenly. It is of no use to come tonight, as you cannot be admitted but I shall be glad to see some of you in the morning.”
It was Monday, August 9th, 1819 that Mr. Henry Stent appeared before Alderman Heygate, Magistrate at the Guildhall, to be questioned. However, given the nature of his crime, it was necessary for Mrs. Stent to be available to answer questions as she was still alive and Henry was not, as yet, subject to a charge of murder.
The knife Stent had used was shown to the court and was known in the butchering trade as a ‘sticking knife’ used for slaughtering calves. This one was covered up to the hilt in blood with its point now bent from the fierce stabbing to Maria’s rib bones. However, examination of Stent and the alleged weapon was not possible without Maria Stent present in court to answer the Alderman’s questions.
The magistrate had been handed the following note from the surgeon at St. Batholmew’s hospital dated that very day, it said:
Alderman Heygate now needed to wait until the fate of Maria Stent was known so he had no option but to remand Henry Stent in custody back at Giltspur Street Compter.
Under what was known as Lord Ellenborough’s Act, if Mrs. Stent lived, Henry would need to be charged with ‘Cutting and Maiming, with Intent to Kill’ – this still carried the death penalty, just as if he had murdered her. Stent seemed resigned to his fate either way. He was remanded until the following Wednesday to appear once more at the Guildhall.
The Saturday, edition of the Caledonian Mercury, led with the simple headline, MR AND MRS STENT and attempted to update their readers on Mrs. Stent’s condition and Mr. Stent’s frame of mind: Regarding Mrs. Stent, they did not hold back on reporting her injuries:
They reported that Mr. Stent seemed resigned to his fate and somehow felt relief after his former despondency at his wife’s desertion. He found it hard to believe he had stabbed her more than once – he could not recall doing that.
Wednesday, August 18th, saw the re-examination of Mr. Stent at the Guildhall now that his wife, Maria was fit enough to attend the hearing and give her evidence as to the attack. By 10 o’clock in the morning, all roads, alleys and passages to the Court were blocked by crowds of people, so much so, it made it extremely difficult for the court personnel themselves to enter for the 11am hearing.
Mrs. Stent was worried about being further injured in the crush but with the assistance of her father and sister who accompanied her by coach from the hospital – they hurried her into the Magistrate’s parlour:
The Morning Chronicle reported the following description of her: “Her appearance is by no means interesting, She is short of stature, about twenty-six years old, light blue eyes, small nose and fair complexion. She looked remarkably pale and was more annoyed than fatigued by the curiosity of the surrounding spectators; her voice and manner is remarkably mild and fascinating.” Source: The Morning Chronicle: London, England, Thursday, August 19th, 1819.
They continued their fascination with Maria Stent’s appearance, the moment she was called for examination by Aldermen Smith, ie: “She was dressed in a blue spotted cotton gown, with a shawl over her shoulders, and wore a black poke bonnet nearly concealing her face from this circumstance, and her continually holding her head down, very few of the spectators were gratified by a view of her countenance.” Source: Ibid.
It was clear that Maria loved Henry and she was firm in her answers that she knew nothing about her husband’s attack, but found herself wounded and in hospital. The court accepted her answer that she had no recollection of anything that passed in the interview with her husband at the Saracen’s Head.
In contrast, her father, James Beecher, wished to see justice for the attack on his daughter, but clearly Maria wanted his insistence for that course of action to cease. Bursting into tears she laid her hand on her father’s arm and pleaded with him, “Don’t you father.” She begged the magistrates for an opportunity to speak with her husband but they could not grant this in view of the distress it might cause them both.
Henry Stent remained silent and composed. Described by the Morning Post as respectably dressed in an olive brown coat, clean white waistcoat, grey trousers and shoes, he looked remarkably healthy. He had told the court that he holds no further resentment against his wife but desires never to see her or speak with her again and wished the officer to let him stand down when she was present so he would not see her. He said he was grateful for the kindly disposition of the public towards him as well as the magistrates. He was returned to the Compter to await the date of his trial. The magistrate really should have committed him to the notorious Newgate prison but kindly allowed him to remain in the small local prison he had become accustomed to.
Maria was so very anxious to see Henry that she persuaded the officials to let her visit him in prison Henry, despite his earlier comments, agreed to meet with her. Maria seized his hand and kissed him affectionately asking eagerly after his health. Henry tried not to return any affection but was very polite and calm with her. She asked to see him again and he said that would be fine. The very next day at 9 am, she returned to the Giltspur Street Compter for a short visit, again obtaining permission for a further visit and showing great affection for him. Henry remained unmoved but of a kindly disposition.
As time went by, waiting for his trial date, Henry Stent was the subject of many newspaper articles and published letters from those supporting his release or at least a lesser sentence than death for his actions. He attracted so much public support that the Giltspur Street Compter was visited daily by well-wishers wanting to speak with him.
The trial date was set at the Old Bailey for Saturday September 18th and early that morning, immense crowds had gathered, anxious to catch a glimpse and hopefully grab a seat to watch the events unfold.Stent pleaded “Not Guilty.”
The appearance of Mrs. Stent as the first witness in a trial of her husband immediately threw the court into a lengthy debate about the legal minefield of a wife giving evidence when – in this case – she clearly wants to win him back and not see him suffer the death penality for, ‘Cutting and Maiming, with Intent to Kill’.
The judge ruled that Mrs. Stent’s evidence was admissible because, “The ends of public justice required the admissibility of her evidence, or how could the inquiry be adequately prosecuted?”
Justice Best apologized for giving any pain to her but it was her duty to answer his questions which ran as follows:
Again Maria had told the court that the first time she knew she had a wound was in hospital. She claimed his appearance in the room at the Saracen’s Head had “...overpowered her and took away her recollection.” She also added, “He was one of the best of husbands – indeed he was!”
A long queue of witness testified as to the kindly, honest and steady character of Henry Stent. James Lee; James Baker; Caesar Underwood; Thomas Trentham; Thomas Mason; and eighteen other such friends and supporters of Henry Stent filed through the witness box, one after the other, testifying as to his excellent character. All were tradesmen of repute and all had known him for at least eight years.
But, in his summing up, Justice Best reminded the jury that, “Whatever weight the goodness of the Prisoner’s character might have elsewhere, in this place it could have no effect whatever. This was one of those melancholy cases in which a man, after sustaining a humane character for many years, forfeited it in a moment.”
He further reminded the jury that any person, stabbing another with an intent to kill or do some grievous bodily harm was subject to the penalty of death.
“Could there be any doubt that the Prisoner at the bar had intended to take away the life of this woman?”
It took the jury twenty minutes to return a verdict of “Guilty.” The Foreman recommended mercy on account of the prisoner’s good character. The Judge agreed to forward that recommendation but as it stood, the only penalty available to the charge facing the prisoner was death by hanging.
While Maria wept and endured her anguish at her dear Henry’s fate and his unwillingness to truly forgive her, his many friends quickly organised letters and petitions to support the trial jury’s recommendations for mercy.
The newspapers were full of their story continually emphasizing the distraught wife who had sinned and then repented and the stalwart husband who had departed momentarily from his good nature in a situation of extreme provocation – almost claiming it was a justifiable rage at his wife’s actions.
This view alone generated many other debates about whether his actions, however provoked, should be excused from the death penalty. Had he caught Maria’ in flagrante delicto,’ literally translated and accepted in law as ‘in blazing offence‘ – the heat of such a discovery, ie: witnessing his wife in actual sexual conduct with her paramour – who also happened to be his best friend – would allow the law to recognize this as temporary insanity fueled by the ultimate provocation and the Judge would have excused his actions of grievous bodily harm and even murder. His many friends’ testimonies as to his character would have certainly seen him released as a free man.
Henry, however, had brooded and then calculated and then attacked Maria, already viciously armed with that intention – it was truly a debate that went as viral as it could given the nature of media outlets in 1819.
There was also another ‘social media’ side to this. While the whole of Pimlico and beyond organised a petition of mercy to to lay before the Prince Regent through the offices of Lord Sidmouth – the Home Secretary – (not a man known for possessing a merciful temperament), Henry – too straight and honest for his own good – was actually dismissing some petitioners as being ‘over the top’ and exaggerating his right to be saved from the death penalty! Here is Henry’s note returning a petition that he felt was not acceptable in commiserating with his fate:
“I do not like the petition at all; there are many things in it that I could not say, with any regard to truth: and as for the petition to Sir B. Bloomfield,* if I was in his place, I should say, ‘The fellow was a pitiful dog, and deserved to be hung out of the way.’ I am quite willing to suffer the sentence of the law, but will never consent to save my life by any means.”
*(Sir Benjamin Bloomfield (1768-1846) was Private Secretary to the Prince Regent)
However, the main ‘Pimlico Petition’ that began with an advertisement in The Times newspaper, eventually collected the unbelievable figure of fourteen thousand individuals pleading for Henry’s life and mercy from the Sovereign.
Meanwhile Henry, resigned to his fate, had written to his mother:
“Adieu my dear mother. That God may take you and my dear father into his holy keeping and grant you every blessing this world can bestow, till he thinks fit to remove you to everlasting happiness, is the fervent prayer of your affectionate son.“
Well, dear reader, the Prince was touched by the passion of the ‘Pimlico Petition’ and its genuine signatories and he commuted Henry Stent’s sentence to a mere two years in the House of Correction.
No betting tout would have given odds on such an outcome. It caused a storm and a strange trumpet-blowing gong-banging, moralizing tone from the media:
“There was exhibited the sterling worth of character in a common British subject: then shone forth the glories of British sympathy, purified and brightened by the beams of Christian charity. A whole neighbourhood, accompanied by the cordial prayers of other districts, approached the throne of their Sovereign with petitions in the behalf of a poor offending (and much offended) fellow creature. The Ministers of their Prince, placed those petitions before the eyes of Majesty and the Fountain of Mercy was not approached in vain. A valuable life has been prolonged: and over it may the dread King of Kings and Lord of Lords and only Ruler of Princes, henceforth diffuse the effulgence of his acceptance, pardon and peace!” Source: The Morning Post, December 10th, 1819.
Mr and Mrs. Stent were a couple no more but their respective journeys through the vagaries of passion, deceit, lies and love is worthy of any playwright’s literary endeavours.
A small report hidden in the columns of The Times newspaper for November 20th, 1821 noted: “The imprisonment to which Stent, the butcher of Pimlico was sentenced for an attempt to kill his wife expired yesterday morning.” (p.3)
So Henry did his two years to the day and what of Maria?
I wish I could discover what happened next and will, no doubt, stumble across their subsequent fates and fortunes one day – please be sure to let me know if you do.
Meanwhile, with lessons learned, lives lived and real friends revealed in the extraordinary true tale of Mr. and Mrs. Stent of Pimlico, I would be interested to learn your views on this extraordinary case.