The Murderess Catherine Foster of Acton

Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography

On 27th March 1847 Catherine Foster of the village of Acton, was hanged by the neck before ten thousand on-lookers at Market Hill at Bury St. Edmunds. Her crime was that of murder and her victim was her husband of just three weeks, whom she had married at the church of All Saints in Acton. 

Her justification for this heinous crime was that she wished to return to domestic service and this she could not do if she were married and had a husband in tow. To this end in 1846 Catherine then aged 17, a married lady for just three weeks, cooked up a plate of dumplings for her husband. Dumplings that she had liberally sprinkled with arsenic. Mr. Foster's death was initially put down to 'English Cholera' by the doctor who was called to attend him.

However, this verdict was queried when some of the Fosters next door neighbours hens died. It turned out that just before he died Mr. Foster had been sick in the garden and the neighbours hens had eaten the vomit and subsequently died. Though another theory was that Catherine had disposed of the rest of the dumplings in the garden and the hens had eaten this and died.

An examination of the contents of Mr. Fosters stomach was performed and found to contain arsenic, so naturally the finger of suspicion was pointed at his wife Catherine. Catherine initially pleaded not guilty so a trial date was set.  Unfortunately it was her eight-year-old brother Thomas who was to be her downfall, when he was called into the witness box. The young boys evidence confirmed that he had seen his sister take a paper from her pocket and empty some powder into the dumpling mix.  Catherine was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

On the scaffold Catherine is said to have given a heart rendering speech imploring other young women not to follow her example but to stand firm and stick to their marriage vows. Certainly not to murder their husbands after only 3 weeks of wedlock. 

Interestingly Catherine's father William Morley had been strongly suspected as having murdered one William Kilpatrick in 1838 during a robbery.  In an attempt to cover up his deed it was believed that William had hung the man from a finger post (sign post) at Lavenham in an attempt to make it look like his victim had committed suicide. Strange that some eight years later his daughter should find herself at the end of a rope. 

Catherine Foster was the last woman to be executed in Suffolk, but not the last to be publicly hanged in England, Frances Kidder was the last woman to be hanged in public in England in April 1868 for the murder of her eleven year old step daughter.