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Object Walk: Charlotte Bryant's Final Letter Before Execution

16 March 20 photos: Fabrice Gagos

We’ve teamed up with the National Justice Museum to put objects from the past into the hands of people of the present. This month, in a special extended edition to celebrate our history issue, we visited Usha Sood at Trent Chambers with the final letter written by Charlotte Bryant before her execution for murder in 1936…

Born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1904, Charlotte Bryant was executed for the poisoning of her husband, Frederick, in 1936. This letter is believed to be the final one sent by Bryant, who left behind five children,  as she awaited execution. Penned to her mother, it gives details of her trial, and asks that she “must not believe everything she reads in the papers.” The letter finishes, “I have no more to say now, only pray for me and God bless you all.”

I’ve actually read this letter before. It caught my eye the last time I visited the National Justice Museum. It’s very poignant. It’s a remarkable letter, and it’s hard to imagine what would have been going through her mind when she wrote it. From what I understand, she was illiterate, and only learnt to read and write in prison. Part of the evidence presented in her trial was connected with having to sign to obtain the poison.

During her trial, the prosecution lent heavily on the fact that Bryant was caught in a love-triangle with her husband and another man, Leonard Edward Parsons. Forensic evidence presented by Dr. Roche Lynch demonstrated how arsenic could be dissolved in Oxo, the method by which Bryant was alleged to have killed her husband. Even two of Bryant’s children were called as witnesses.

We’re told that it was an open and shut case, but there were so many aspects that are questionable and don't tie up. Most significant is the further evidence that went to the Court of Appeals, where it was medically contested that what happened was impossible. At that time, they didn't have the power to overturn the conviction – they do now. It's like everything combined against her, and that's the bit that's really hard to stomach.

Charlotte spent almost six weeks in the condemned cell, during which time the stress of her impending execution turned her hair from raven black to stark white. After much deliberation, she decided against seeing her children for a final time, considering the situation too much for them to bear. After her pleas for clemency from the King were denied, she was executed at 8am on Wednesday 15 July, 1936, leaving the small sum of five shillings and eight pence (around 29p) to her children.

It’s not just the personal loss for Charlotte, but it’s also her children who are victimised. As a human rights lawyer, I take that very seriously. She clearly had no different maternal links than any other mother. I think obliteration of the family lives of Charlotte's children were even more significant because there was no surviving parent. I deal with it in my work all the time, and, while it isn't quite execution for the children, it is a definite loss.

During her time in prison, Charlotte penned a letter claiming that the murder was another person’s fault, but their name was censored by the Home Office. Coincidentally, the day before our visit to Trent Chambers, The National Justice Museum discovered an unopened, wax-sealed letter inside a diary in their museum stores. It was written by Bryant and labelled “Private - Do Not Open” with instructions to open only in the year 2036…

The point of the name being removed is quite significant because it may name the individual responsible, and there were two suspects at the time. There's very little chance of finding anyone directly connected with her, but my suggestion is that this is no different from the private papers of people who've written things and not given permission for them to be released – all you would be doing is casting new light, so my view is yes, open it...

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