The Black Beetle Pie Case, 1863
“Disgusting charge against a lady” runs one of the headlines regarding “The Black Beetle Pie case” of 1863, and that just about sums it up.
Whilst fruitlessly looking for more information about the real Dr Frankenstein of 1863, I came across this riotous story. Dashingly-dressed Mrs Elizabeth Wilton of Brixton was charged with making a pie filled with black beetles and then giving it to her servant to feed to next-door’s coachman, for some reason. The unfortunate recipient of the pie, Edward Gardiner, “swallowed six or seven mouthfuls, but finding the taste exceedingly unpleasant, he looked and saw that the pie was filled with black beetles.” A mere six or seven mouthfuls to find that out?
Mrs Wilton said she’d made it “for a lark” but was charged with “intent to aggrieve and annoy” Mr Gardiner. She claimed she never thought he’d actually eat the thing and he would realise immediately it was a joke – but hang on, she’d not only filled the pie with beetles, she also put 30 grains of gamboge in it too. Gamboge being a yellow tree sap used as a laxative, the addition of which would seem to be unnecessary if it wasn’t intended to be eaten. Mr Gardiner said “…it was nasty stuff resembling mustard, but it was not mustard.” He took the uneaten pie to the police station, where the sergeant on duty said “…anything more filthy and disgusting he had never seen. The stench was so intolerable that he had to open all the Station-house windows to get rid of it.”
Her pie-madness didn’t stop there however. The article goes on to say that she voluntarily brought a new pie to the police station, “intended for sale at a bazaar, but which she wished to leave for approval.” I think we can guess what was in it, but it was even stranger than the first one. Inspector Smith decided to investigate and found inside “a painted toy pear quite full of black beetles.” Where was she getting all these beetles from?
The case was briefly notorious, with crowds outside the court shouting “Who made the black beetle pie?” and inside “the court was crowded to suffocation”.
The court heard that Mrs Wilton had had a dispute with this neighbour, on account of the bands she engaged to play loud music at her house two or three times a week until the early hours. She had also been spotted throwing bricks at the neighbour’s windows. One of the articles mentions that she also baked a pie for one of these bands, but this time instead of beetles it contained ladies knickers, which the performer put on and then proceeded to dance in front of her door for a bit.
Somehow she got off the charge, her practical joke defence having worked.
However, “the crowd in front of the court was so immense, and the feeling against her so strong, that it was not considered safe for her to leave. She in consequence felt it prudent to send home her carriage and take her station in the gaoler’s room, where she remained with her friends, and having been supplied with some creature comforts, departed in an hour in a street-cab, accompanied by a stylish young man, and thus ended the black beetle pie case.”
And yet it wasn’t the end, quite. She got into trouble again a month later, for getting drunk and knocking off a policeman’s hat. Which ranked extremely highly on the shocking crime scale in 1863. Asbo-material, she was.
One thing continually mentioned in the reports is that she was Mrs Elizabeth Wilton, “alias Hyde”. Well, if you’re going to have an alias, isn’t Hyde the best one to have? However, this was 20 years before “The Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was written. In my imagination, a 13-year-old Robert Louis Stephenson read the widely circulated reports of this case, and the alias of a madwoman stuck in his subconscious mind.
I was delighted to find out after reading all this that there was a folk song written about Elizabeth Wilton. Of course there was. And even more delighted that a version of it, Black Beetle Pies, was recorded very recently by Bellowhead – see below. It reminds me of brilliantly strange circus music, and that’s just about one of my favourite things.
Bellowhead’s John Spiers said of the song “It’s about this woman who set herself up as an altruistic helper of the poor. So she started her own soup kitchen and boarding house, but despite appearances to the contrary she had complete contempt for the people she was purporting to help and would put all sorts of horrible things like black beetles into their food to see how hungry they were.” I’m guessing this was a fictionalised version of the truth, or at least I can find no mention of this particular angle on The British Newspaper Archive. But then again, I wouldn’t put it past her, quite frankly.