In1889, middle-aged Sarah Kibbler was a general servant at the home of Dr and Mrs Horniblow, 76 Clarendon Street, Leamington. Her duties included cleaning and taking care of the family, the doctor, his wife, their only son William – and of the family pet, a rat kept in a cage in the scullery. Mrs Horniblow was known to be extraordinarily fond of the rat – but from the start, Sarah could not bear to be near it. As the family servant, Sarah had access to all parts of the house, and to the doctor’s surgery, where, as was common practice in the 19th century, a large number of chemicals and drugs were kept for dispensing purposes.
In early 1889, Mrs Horniblow had a stroke, and thus became more dependent on Sarah for help in the house. In March, Mrs Horniblow became violently ill, and Sarah confided to Joseph Bellamy, a milkman, that she appeared to be dying, hearing people in the house who were not there, and so on. Mrs Horniblow subsequently appeared to rally, but at the end of March, ‘Tibbins”, the pet rat, suddenly died. The whole family was distraught. Just as suddenly, Mrs Horniblow became ill again, after Sarah Kibbler was alleged to have given her a drink that tasted as she later described it, of “copper and Lucifer matches”.
After the sudden death of their beloved rat, and the strange attacks suffered by Mrs Horniblow, the entire family became suspicious of their servant. On 6th April, Sarah was summarily sacked. The Horniblows began to investigate the death of the rat, and in its cage, found powder granules which later proved to be mercuric chloride, – a strong poison which if ingested even in very small amounts would account for the violent reactions of Mrs Horniblow, her subsequent illnesses and the metallic taste of both drinks served by Sarah Kibbler to Mrs Horniblow when she was feeling faint. It would of course also account for the death of the rat. When Dr Horniblow checked his surgery stocks, he found a great quantity of mercuric chloride missing. (The compound was often used at that time in tiny quantities to treat syphilis, and all doctors kept their own supply of drugs at their surgeries.)
As was later reported in court, further searches by the family revealed traces of the chemical on pieces of a broken cup in the dustbin, as well as those in the rat’s cage. Dr Horniblow took matters into his own hands: he invited Sarah Kibbler back to the house to confront her about his discoveries relating to the death of the rat, hoping to elicit a confession. A terrified Sarah apologised and asked to be forgiven, which the Horniblows were happy to accede to, provided that the Kibbler family moved away from Leamington. Sarah’s husband refused to agree to the sanction, so Dr Horniblow went to the police, who appeared uninterested, then to a lawyer, who instigated a private prosecution for attempted murder. The Leamington Magistrates, Aldermen Flavel (the Mayor), Edelman and Wackrill, and Councillor Dr Thursfield, heard the case on 1st May 1889, and after due process, refused to commit Sarah Kibbler for trial.
Not best pleased by this outcome, Dr Horniblow then left no stone unturned in his efforts to prove that Sarah Kibbler had attempted to murder his wife by stealing and administering chemical products from his surgery. Sarah was eventually tried at Warwick Assizes in December 1889, on three charges: one, administering, on the 7th March 1889 with intent to murder, corrosive sublimate to Elizabeth Horniblow, wife of Dr Horniblow, of Leamington; two, a similar offence on March 22nd; and three, administering poison with intent to grieve and annoy. (Leamington Spa Courier, December 21 1889.)
Sarah admitted poisoning the rat, but claimed that she had been framed for the poisoning of Mrs Horniblow. Her defence counsel argued spiritedly on her behalf that the Horniblow’s accounts of their findings did not tally, and that given the extraordinary attachment that Mrs Horniblow had for the rat, Sarah appeared to be on trial more for killing the rat than for attempted murder. He acknowledged that Sarah was responsible for the death of the rat, and suggested that the broken cup in the dustbin may have been the one used to transfer the poison from the surgery to the rat’s cage, and further, as Mrs Horniblow was known to play with the rat, to feed it biscuits, cakes and sugar lumps, and kiss and cuddle it, (this produced laughter in the court), even taking it to bed with her, that she might inadvertently have become contaminated with the powder administered to her pet, and so taken some of the poison.
The judge, Mr Justice Wills, in his summing up, was clearly unimpressed by the arguments of the defence. He commented that he was surprised that the Leamington Magistrates had refused to commit the prisoner for such a grave offence . When the jury returned a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, however, he commuted her sentence to fifteen years’ hard labour.
Margaret Rushton, June 2013