In July 1928, Beatrice Pace was acquitted of the charge of murdering her husband, Harry. The trial of the working-class woman had attracted considerable press coverage, making her a “celebrity”. Nearly five decades later, John Carter Wood, a historian, became fascinated by the case, especially when he discovered boxes of material that had been kept by her solicitor. The Most Remarkable Woman in England is an intriguing book. It not only raises pertinent questions about the use of “evidence” to build a criminal case but also reveals how debates about gender roles, domestic violence and justice for the poor erupted at one particular cultural moment in inter-war Britain.
The Paces lived with their five children in an isolated farmhouse, Rose Cottage, on the fringe of the Forest of Dean. Harry, a quarryman, supplemented his modest wages of £2 per week by selling sheep herded on common land. Beatrice contributed to the family purse by selling eggs and chickens.
Two years prior to his death, Harry began to suffer gastric problems that the local doctor believed were due to the arsenic in the sheep dip that he regularly used seeping through the pores of his skin. After a spell in hospital, where he lost the use of his hands and feet, Harry was sent home. He died in January 1928. His relatives refused to believe he had died of natural causes - and contacted the police. Elton Pace asserted that Beatrice “was always saying she wished my brother dead” and that “she wished to be rid of the mangy old bugger”. Rumours abounded, including gossip that Beatrice was having at least one affair (with a neighbour’s husband) and that she had prematurely taken her sick husband out of hospital in order to benefit from a “hidden” fortune. A coroner’s inquest concluded that the deceased had met his death by a large dose of arsenic administered by his widow who, weeping, protested her innocence.
During the trial, sensational front-page press coverage depicted Beatrice as a victim, a devoted wife and mother who had endured a violent marriage, a fact further elaborated upon in her subsequent memoirs, sold to the Sunday Express for more than £3,000 (worth about £500,000 today). Her husband, a lustful man who “never gave me any peace”, had regularly beaten her: “Many times he threatened to murder me and the family and to commit suicide.” Yet she claimed to have loved him. “Harry was my man, and I had to stick to him.”
Many female readers identified with her predicament during her trial, with hundreds sending letters of support. Criticism was voiced in the press, too, about the heavy-handed conduct of the coroners and police, and the plight of poor defendants. Funds were raised to employ a top QC to defend her. Questions were even asked in Parliament. And at the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
With the money from her memoirs, she built a comfortable new life for herself and her children, bobbed her hair, wore bright fabrics - and went to the cinema for the first time. She never remarried, dying in obscurity in 1973.
And so, dear reader, did Beatrice Pace really do it? Wood believes the decision to acquit her was correct and that it is plausible that Harry committed suicide in a fit of depression. But, like all good mysteries, it is up to you to make up your own mind after carefully reviewing the “evidence”, sometimes contradictory, presented here. This book will be an invaluable aid to those interested in the history of criminal justice and British society in the 1920s.
The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace
By John Carter Wood
Manchester University Press
2pp, £65.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780719086175 and 86182. Published 31 August 2012