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The scandal of Sarah Stout

To close NESM's season of police, criminology and forensic talks and workshops we have the wise Dr Peter Moore joining us in November for an expert discussion on the history of forensic experts and police surgeons. (Tickets still available on our What's On pages). If that wasn't enough Dr Moore has kindly written this week's guest blog! Read on if you're a lover of true crime, scandal and treacherous class bias.


The idea that we’ve 'had enough of experts' has a long history, although expert historians may disagree with the sentiment. Luckily I’m not an expert historian, just a jobbing GP and police surgeon who got side-tracked into history when looking up legal matters. I’ve found three important messages, all of which were clear in the case of a suspicious death from 1699:

Firstly, conspiracy theories were around centuries before social media.

Wealth buys justice or, as the Irish Judge, Sir James Mathew (1830-1908) was alleged to have said, 'In England Justice is open to all, like the Ritz hotel'.

Finally, some medical experts will say exactly what the instructing lawyer wants them to say. In one twentieth century trial an expert witness was giving evidence when the Judge recognised him from a previous, totally different case. When asked exactly what he was an expert in, he replied 'I’m an expert in giving evidence in Court, your honour'.

At the time of William Harvey (1587-1657) the only evidence doctors used was whether it had been written down by the ancient Romans or Greeks. If they had laptops, they would simply copy and paste. But Harvey was different. The ancient texts had suggested that blood goes out from the heart and back again like the tide. Through numerous experiments and basic logic he proposed that blood circulates around the body. He even proposed that there must be tiny blood vessels linking arteries to the veins. We now know these as capillaries.

But typically his genius and scientific methods were flawed. He believed that the search for evidence should also be applied to finding witches. In the Lancaster Witch Trial of 1634, he was asked to examine the four accused women. He insisted that there must be material evidence. The court did not need to prove whether they had committed a crime only whether they had made a pact with the devil. Even with today’s sophisticated blood tests and MRI scans this would be difficult. If we did develop the technology would DNA stand for Devil Now Absent?

Tragedy strikes

The first trial to involve experts arguing over real scientific evidence from a post-mortem was in Herefordshire in 1699 but here dodgy experts, money and the forerunners of social media were all involved.

On 14 March the body of Sarah Stout was found floating in the river without her outer garments. Wet shoes, a rope and a bundle of clothes were found by the side of the river. The scandal was made worse as she was the heiress of a wealthy Quaker family. Even without social media, conspiracy theories started; was she was pregnant? Had she committed suicide?

To make the conspiracy even worse the last person to see her alive was Spencer Cowper, a 29-year-old lawyer. He was a long-standing friend of the Stouts and had been attending the Hereford Spring Assizes. He was the son of Sir William Cowper, 2nd Baronet of Hertford and brother to a local MP. He was also married.

In a plot which could have come from Midsomer Murders, three strangers were also seen in the area.

Spencer Cowper seems to have treated his hosts as though he was at a hotel. He left his horse at their house, or hopefully their stables, and went out. He returned only to go out again at 4pm, returning five hours later. He was then alone with Sarah. After an hour he asked the maid to warm his bed, which I assume was not a euphemism. When she returned, they were both gone. Sarah was never seen alive again.

To scotch any conspiracy theories Sarah’s mother arranged for two physicians and a midwife to examine her body. She was not pregnant. Spencer Cowper told the coroner’s inquest that he could not think of any reason why she would have committed suicide. So, the trolls with conspiracy theories had plenty to go on. He was an aristocrat and this was a scandal. 'Were Spencer and Sarah lovers?' 'Did he owe her money?' As a Quaker she could not be his mistress, especially as he was married. Perhaps she was a stalker. It’s always popular to blame the woman for any violence against her. The coroner concluded that it was suicide.

But suicide was a sin. Her mother could not accept it and so six weeks after her death her body was exhumed. Her mother paid for several local physicians to carry out a private autopsy.

Examining the evidence

In the earliest episode of Silent Witness, the physicians found bruising on her neck and no water in her lungs. They also confirmed that she was not pregnant. Spencer Cowper and the three 'strangers' were arrested and charged with murder. Was she strangled and already dead when her body was thrown into the river? To make it even more suspicious it was claimed that the mysterious three were overheard saying that Mistress Stout’s courting days were over. They had a large sum of money and were heard saying that they could spend it when their 'business was over'.

The defence also had to explain the wet shoes, the rope and a bundle of clothes found by the side of the river. And where did Cowper go between 4pm and 9pm? There were time discrepancies but, in 1699, clocks were not accurate.

For the prosecution two expert witnesses were called. A ship’s doctor claimed that all drowned bodies were full of water making drowning unlikely. Less believable was a veteran seaman who claimed that people killed in battle before being thrown overboard floated, while those who fell overboard and drowned sank. She was found floating and so she must have been killed before being thrown in the water. It is not known how many battles he had seen or, more worryingly, why people kept falling off his ship.

Suicide or conspiracy?

Spencer was wealthy and could afford seven well-known London physicians, including Sir Hans Sloane, to speak in his defence. They all argued that, following exhaustive experiments, dry lungs do not necessarily mean that she had not drowned.

Despite having said at the coroner’s inquest he saw no reason why she would have committed suicide, at the criminal court Spencer Cowper claimed she was suffering from severe depression brought on by her obsession with him. Not only was he quite willing to change his story he was also none too modest. His sister-in-law also agreed that she was suicidal, even though she had not mentioned anything at the coroner’s inquest and was not an impartial witness.

It was alleged that Sarah told a London shopkeeper that she was low because she was in love with someone she could not marry. No one seems to have thought it strange that she should pour her heart out to a shopkeeper rather than anyone else. It was fortunate that it was before the days of supermarket self-scan checkouts.

Cowper then produced anonymous letters which he claimed were from Sarah saying, 'I am resolved never to desert you'.

The judge in summing up admitted that the three strangers had acted suspiciously but later confessed to omitting things in his summing up because he was a little faint.

It took thirty minutes for the jury to acquit Cowper and the three on all charges. It was never explained why she had bruising on her neck. Did she try to strangle herself and, when that did not work, throw herself into the river?

The conspiracy theories did not stop at the verdict. An anonymous pamphlet appeared claiming that the Tories of Hertford wanted to hang a member of a prominent Whig family. It would have made a good tweet. Spencer Cowper was a Whig, although political parties were less clear cut than today.

Spencer went on to have a very successful career. He became MP for Bere Alston in Devon in 1705 and Truro in 1715. In 1717 he became Attorney General to the Prince of Wales before being appointed a judge. Even today Parliament will not admit that, just possibly, he might have been guilty. The website The History of Parliament claims that 'there was no doubt as to his innocence'. As Francis Urquhart in House of Cards said, 'you might well think that – I couldn’t possibly comment'.


Whetted your appetite? You can hear Dr Moore's talk 'Inexpert witnesses, dodgy doctors and naughty Victorians 'at 2pm and 6pm 5 Nov 2021. Entry is by ticket only and numbers are limited.

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