The Death of an Heiress
Case File Overview
On the chilly morning of March 13, 1699, Spencer Cowper, a 29-year-old lawyer, visited Sarah Stout, a rich Quaker heiress, and her family at their home in Hertford, England. Spencer was a long-time family friend. Spencer’s wife had written ahead before he rode to town to let the Stout family know he’d be visiting and attending the Essex spring assizes.
Map of Hertford, 1695
Spencer left the Stout home at 4 p.m. but returned by 9 p.m. Upon his return, Spencer and Sarah visited until approximately 10:30 p.m. Given the late hour, Sarah told the maid, Sarah Walker, to warm Spencer’s bed. After the maid went upstairs to fulfill Sarah’s request, the maid heard a door slam loudly. When the maid returned downstairs, she noticed that Sarah and Spencer had gone out. Worried, the maid sat up all night waiting for Sarah to return.
At roughly 6 a.m. on March 14, 1699, Sarah’s lifeless body was found caught in the stakes of the Priory Mill dam. Her body was not bloated, and during her autopsy no water was discovered in her lungs. There was also bruising found around her neck.
Spencer and 3 of his associates went to trial for Sarah’s murder. They were eventually acquitted.
Sarah’s death remains a controversial mystery to this day.
Case File Theories
Spencer and his legal team argued that he was being framed for Sarah’s murder. They purported Sarah was mentally unbalanced and committed suicide. Rumours started almost immediately after Sarah’s death. Gossip suggested that Sarah was pregnant and jilted by Spencer and took her own life.
The defence insisted Sarah’s parents were actively trying to hide this fact because suicide was considered a heinous act by the Quaker community. Spencer insisted, “They would rather send four innocent men to the gallows than let it be believed that one who had their light within her had committed suicide.” Additionally, the defense argued the Tory minority in Hertford was determined to discredit Spencer, a member of a prominent Whig family.
Spencer’s defence was well-planned and thorough. It included the testimony of 7 well-known London doctors. They argued that dry lungs did not necessarily indicate a person did not drown. Also, the prosecution claimed that Spencer owed Sarah money and that this was a motive in her murder. This point was argued away by Spencer. He claimed it was merely a misinterpretation of a mortgage he’d organized purely out of friendship and from which he gained no personal benefit.
However, a key part of the defence’s case was evidence that suggested Sarah was mentally unstable. The defence argued that Sarah had poison in the house because she intended to kill herself. They also located a London shopkeeper who testified that Sarah had admitted she was melancholy. The shopkeeper claimed Sarah mentioned she was in an unhappy love situation and that she would “never live to wear” a gown she was designing. Another acquaintance of Sarah’s also stated that Sarah was melancholy because she was in love with someone who was married.
Sarah’s mental stability was also called into question by letters presented at the trial. Although the handwriting was never confirmed to be Sarah’s, the letters were admitted into evidence. Some of the letters berated Spencer for his unkindness. A letter also pleaded with him, explaining that Sarah knew of “no inconveniency that can attend your cohabiting with me, unless the Grand Jury should hereupon find a will against us but I won’t fly for’t, for come Life, come Death, I am resolved never to desert you.” In the end, Spencer’s defence team did a good job calling Sarah’s mental stability into question.
Spencer’s motives for murdering Sarah were said to be twofold. There was suspicion that Spencer had defrauded Sarah of a substantial sum of money; he was her financial advisor at the time of her death. Moreover, Spencer needed to end an illicit love affair with Sarah and murder was the only way to ensure her silence after their affair ended.
As previously mentioned, forensics played a large role in this case. An initial inquest found that Sarah had committed suicide and drowned herself in the river, likely because she was pregnant. This enraged Sarah’s mother, Mary Stout. Mary had her daughter’s body exhumed and a thorough autopsy was performed.
At the autopsy it was determined Sarah was not pregnant. Her lungs were entirely free from water. This made it very likely that Sarah was dead before she entered the water. Critically, there was bruising around her neck indicating Sarah had been strangled. Also, it was reiterated that Sarah’s body hadn’t been bloated when it was discovered. Experts at the trial testified bloating was common in drowning cases.
After the autopsy findings, Spencer and 3 of his associates were charged with Sarah’s murder. The accomplices were John Marson, Ellis Stevens, and William Rogers, two lawyers and a scrivener who Spencer knew through his work as a lawyer. It was argued at trial that when the men were asked if they knew of Sarah’s whereabouts, they said that their “friend” was “even with her by now” and that Sarah’s “courting days were over.” The 3 men also had a large sum of money with them, and one witness testified they said they could now spend the money because their “business was done.” Witnesses also claimed that the men had wet shoes, a rope in their baggage, and an unexplained bundle of clothes (Sarah’s body was missing some over garments). At the trial, however, the evidence against Spencer’s associates was considered circumstantial and unreliable.
Other evidence heard at the trial pointed to Spencer’s guilt. For example, the first thing he did after hearing of Sarah’s murder was send someone to fetch his horse; he feared it would be impounded. And, immediately after the initial inquest, Spencer quickly left town without offering any sympathy or help to Sarah’s family. This was considered especially odd because he had been a family friend for years. Also, questions were raised as to why Sarah was on such good terms with Spencer’s wife if Sarah was his mistress. Sarah and Spencer’s wife were friends and spent considerable time together.
Most crucially, the evidence Spencer presented at the initial inquest was quite contrary to the statements he gave at the subsequent trial. At the inquest, Spencer testified that he couldn’t think of any good reason why Sarah would’ve killed herself. During the trial, Spencer changed his story, claiming Sarah was distraught and suicidal.
How do you think Sarah Stout died?
Ultimately, Spencer and his 3 associates were acquitted of murder. It only took the jury 30 minutes to come to their decision. However, the conflicting evidence left many wondering what really happened to Sarah. Even the judge declared that Spencer’s actions and the behaviour of his 3 companions was “suspicious.” Oddly, though, the judge also admitted that he had himself “omitted many things” in the summation because he was “a little faint” and could not “repeat any more of the Evidence.”
Although cleared from any wrongdoing, Spencer was plagued by gossip for the rest of his life. Pamphlets were distributed that questioned Spencer’s innocence and the result of the trial. Nevertheless, Spencer’s career was far from derailed by his trial. Spencer continued practising as a lawyer, was a Member of Parliament within a few years, and later became a judge in 1726.
The trial is famous today for two main reasons. First, both the prosecution and the defence relied heavily on forensic evidence obtained from an autopsy long before this was common. In the 17th century dissection wasn’t frequently used to establish cause of death in criminal cases and wasn’t even typically used in medical schools for teaching purposes. Many still believed that dissections and autopsies would cause the deceased’s soul to be eternally damned. Also, it wasn’t common for people to pay inexperienced medical experts to autopsy a body in hopes of proving or disproving a case. The inclusion of forensic evidence during this trial pushed the debate about how forensic evidence could be used to the forefront.
Second, the autopsy was performed on Sarah’s mother Mary’s request, and this involved women in both the legal system and forensics in a way not typically seen in 17th-century England. This request went against the cultural and religious beliefs held at the time and challenged ideas of modesty. Mary’s mother turned to forensics to battle character assassination and protect her daughter’s good name. Although all of the men charged with Sarah’s death were acquitted, this trial demonstrated that anatomical forensic knowledge could be used by women to protect women. Rather than just being under the control of men in a patriarchal society, the female body was now a possible source of power for women.
Was Sarah a depressed and lovesick woman who committed suicide or a murder victim? Believe it or not, the truth is still being sought today. For example, there was a participatory exhibition held in the Sharpless Gallery of Magill Library at Haverford College in 2013. Visitors were educated about the case and then left to try to determine what caused Sarah’s death.
I’m left wondering how Sarah met her tragic end and if justice was truly served.
“The Sarah Stout Murder Case: An Early Example of the Doctor as an Expert Witness” – Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences article
“Reading the Body: Dissection and the ‘Murder’ of Sarah Stout, Hertfordshire, 1699” – Social History of Medicine article
“Gender and the Development of Forensic Science: A Case Study” – The English Historical Review article