Sarah Drake, “Murderess of Harley Street”

I found this story in E.S. Turner’s What the Butler Saw.

Turner writes, “In 1849 Sarah Drake, a cook-housekeeper in Harley Street, was brought to court charged with murdering her two-year-old child, who had been farmed out [i.e. she paid someone else to raise it, usually clandestinely]. After strangling the boy, she packed the body in a box, handed it to the butler to address and then sent it by a footman to be dispatched by rail to her sister in the country, with a request that the body be buried.

“The parcel was opened by the sister’s husband. A few years before she had sent a dead child to the porter of the Knutsford Union, with a similar request” (228-29).

And that’s where Turner leaves off. WTF, dude? There are so many questions you didn’t answer:

– Was the sister in on the plan, or was she just as surprised as her husband?

-Was her husband the one to go to the police?

-If the child was being farmed out, what was the reason for her killing him? Was it simply too expensive? Was there an impending scandal?

-Where did she kill the child? At her place of employment? If so, how did she get the child there without inciting gossip? Did she kill him at the “farm”? If so, was no one else around to stop her?

-Who was the father of her child? Her employer?

-What about the first child she killed and posted? What is that whole situation? Why the porter at that town? How was she not arrested then?

So I decided to look into this a little bit. There is surprisingly little information on her (or at least information that is 100% reliable). However, here’s what I gather from the general rumor mill:

Sarah Drake had been working for a family in Oxfordshire, during which point she fell in love with the family’s French butler (it’s always the scurrilous French butler. Except when it’s the handsome, debauched, aristocratic son of the household). One of the main duties of the butler and housekeeper is to monitor other servants for hanky-panky, but (as Jane Russell once fabulously put it) “no one chaperones the chaperone”.

So, of course, she quickly became pregnant.

As far as I can tell, she left her place of employment before anyone knew of her condition, holed up somewhere to give birth, and then gave the baby over to someone else to raise a few weeks later. She got another couple of jobs, with no one being any the wiser. However, farming out a baby is expensive, and Sarah Drake was constantly falling behind in her payments.

According to Tessa Boase’s blog here: “Letters not read in court (but reproduced by the Bucks Herald) reveal an increasingly frantic woman who desperately misses her child Lewis (named after the butler, Louis) but can’t afford the carriage fare to see him. ‘Please to kiss my dear ­– for me,’ she writes to Mrs Johnson. ‘A shilling to me now is a great deal… If I could have walked to you I should have been happy to have done so… You know the difficulties I am placed in… My greatest anxiety is to get out of your debt.’”

She contacted the child’s father, but even between the two of them, it was difficult to scrape together enough cash for the child. The butler thought they should send the child home to his mother in France, but Sarah was desperate not to involve their families, and to keep the child close where she could see him on occasion.

Eventually she tells Mrs Johnson, the baby farmer, that she has to travel to Spain with the family for whom she works (a lie, to avoid having to pay what she owes in arrears) and that Mrs Johnson should take the baby to the workhouse to be raised by the parish.

Mrs Johnson’s husband, however, was having none of it. He saw through the whole, “Sorry, gotta go to Spain now” thing as the ruse it was, so he and Mrs Johnson took the baby right to Sarah’s place of employment. They dropped the baby in the housekeeper’s parlor room and demanded all the money she owed them: more than half of Sarah’s yearly wages.

It was an impossible situation: if she didn’t pay them, they’d alert her employers and possibly bring her to court. Assuming she had that kind of money ready at hand, the child was now hers to look after, in her place of employment. Everyone was about to find out, anyway. So why should she hand over the money that she will desperately need, since she is almost certainly going to be unemployed and homeless within the day?

I don’t know if she gave the money over to the Johnsons. But what I do know is that two-year old Lewis left Harley Street shortly thereafter in a box, without any of the other servants knowing he had even been present. She didn’t do a very good job of covering her tracks–she wrapped Lewis’s body in her apron, which bore her name on the tag. The body, as we know, was sent to her sister, whose husband presumably alerted the authorities.

However, the case was investigated by a celebrated Scotland Yard detective named Jack Whicher, who linked the manner of disposal to her earlier crime: she had (we assume) killed a previous infant and shipped the body to the porter. For this crime, she was caught and spent 6 months in jail.

Why not more time? The article doesn’t say. My guess would be that she claimed the child was a stillborn and that she was merely disposing of his body. If they couldn’t prove that the child was murdered, she could still be arrested for “concealing a pregnancy“, an archaic charge meant to dissuade unmarried mothers from infanticide.

On top of that, Whicher suspected that there had been a THIRD child disposed of at some point, but there was no way to prove it.

What amazes me is that she could have landed several respectable positions after having spent time in jail. And not just any old position as a scullery maid or char-woman, but as a housekeeper, which is a role of extreme trust and discretion. I’d be interested to know if she changed her name after her incarceration or was in some way falsifying her references.

Regardless, she was brought to trial, but managed to avoid the gallows for a second time. She was deemed insane and sent to Bedlam asylum, where I would assume she spent the ret of her days.

If anyone has more information on this story, please let me know!

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One Response to Sarah Drake, “Murderess of Harley Street”

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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