An injustice continues to be perpetrated in the cemetery of St Mary's Church, Godmanchester. Not the fact that Mary Ann Weems was murdered by her husband Thomas in 1819, but that she has been condemned to suffer the infamy of his name for all eternity.
Few people can fail to be intrigued by the epitaph that marks Mary Ann Weems passing at the hands of her husband. Though the headstone is detailed, it gives scant account of the events that led up to Mary's death
It appears that Mary had a very hard start in life. According to the parish records, she fell pregnant to William Thackray when she was only 14 years old. This was most likely her reason for relocating to Godmanchester from Bedfordshire, escaping the stigma of being a single mother in the early 19th century to be near the father of her child.
Six years later, on 3rd January 1818 in Goldington parish church Bedfordshire, Mary Ann Dixon married the second son of George and Susannah Weems, Thomas Weems aged 23 years. The unhappy union was at the behest of the parish, after Mary falsely claimed to be pregnant with Thomas' child. With no child forthcoming, the couple soon went their separate ways, she went back to her aunt's house in Godmanchester and he to Edmonton on the outskirts of London in the pursuit of work in Randall's Mill. With their separation, the countdown to Mary's demise had begun.
Four months after their marriage, Thomas returned to his birthplace to seek reconciliation with Mary with the intention of persuading her to travel with him back to Edmonton. Good fortune seemed to smile on the righteous traveller, when he bumped into his childhood friend John Beck en-route, a post-boy who was able to provide a lift in his chaise from Arrington. It was during this journey that Thomas' real reason for visiting Mary was revealed. He explained to his companion that he had become acquainted with a fine young woman, Maria Woodward, and that he intended to marry her as soon as Mary could be "got rid of".
On the following Friday, 8th May (not 7th May as incorrectly reported on Mary's headstone), Thomas and Mary set out on foot for London along what is now the A1198 towards Royston. Sixteen miles outside of Godmanchester, near a small hamlet called Wendy near the White Gates of Wimpole Hall estate, Thomas suggested that his wife rest and eat the toast that they had left over from breakfast. In an instant Thomas grabbed of his wife's throat, pressing his thumbs into her windpipe for a full five minutes, until the only noise that could be heard was his exclamation "Now I'll be the death of you". Thomas then removed his wife's garter, placing it around her neck, covered her body in grass and continued on his journey; intent on publishing the banns between Maria and himself the following morning.
As he continued onwards, Tomas happened upon the agent of his downfall, Susannah Bird returning from Royston to her home in Wendy. Her interest was piqued after remembering seeing Thomas and Mary together earlier that day. When she enquired as to Mary's whereabouts, Thomas claimed that his wife was tired and would continue without him by coach. After the coach passed Susannah, without Mary inside, she set about searching the area where she had last seen the couple, eventually happening upon the bruised victim's body in a ditch.
At the moment of discovery a magistrate, the Revd Mr Brown, came upon the crime scene by chance. He immediately issued a warrant for the arrest of Thomas Weems, who was quickly apprehended by William Jackson the local constable near Puckeridge. The prisoner was suitably detained in Cambridge Gaol to await trial, now to site of Shire Hall in Castle Hill.
As for Mary, such was the public interest in her murder that her body was displayed in the window of her home in St Ann's Lane prior to burial. Her final ignominy being that the burial records for St Mary the Virgin church do not contain a reference to Mary's interment.
Unsurprisingly, the jury in Thomas' trial took only five minutes to return a guilty verdict after hearing Thomas' gruesome confession which he had previously made to Mr Orridge, his jailer. In mitigation, Thomas claimed that he was disgusted with the conduct of his wife; that she went away with another young man to Fenstanton, and that she picked his pocket of 35s when he went after her.
On the 6th August 1819, a few minutes after midday, Thomas was hanged for an hour over the gateway of the County gaol in front of a vast crowd. After removing his body from the scaffold, it was transported by cart to the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge and delivered into the custody of Professor James Cummings.
Within the Chymical Lecture-room, Prof. Cummings subjected Thomas' body to electrical probing following experimental details published in the Journal of the Royal Institution by Dr Ure of Glasgow. While no account of the actual experiments performed on Thomas' body has survived, the details of Dr Ure's work suggest a gruesome display. In his work, the subject had electricity applied to the supra-orbital nerve whereupon, "every muscle in the murderer's face was thrown into fearful action. The scene was hideous -- several of the spectators left the room, and one gentleman actually fainted from terror or sickness". Similar scientific displays laid the foundations for Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein, written in 1818.
The circumstances surrounding Mary Ann Dixon's murder could just as easily have occurred in modern life, making the warning on her headstone as chilling today as it Was 189 years ago - "Ere Crime you perpetrate survey this Stone, Learn hence the God of Justice sleeps not on his Throne But marks the Sinner with unerring Eye The suffering Victim hears and makes the Guilty die."
This article was made possible through the invaluable assistance of the staff in the Parish Records Office - Many thanks to them all.