The Princess and the Poisoner: early modern wives, capital crime, and autobiography

Georgie Moore, our Graduate Trainee, considers how the voices of two early modern criminalized women, the princess and the poisoner, are collected in the St John’s College Library.

Restoration London, 1663

When a German princess checked into an inn, the innkeeper did what any astute uncle would do: he summoned his nephew to marry her. Posing as an English lord, John Carleton wed the Princess, Mary. There was only one problem: this fake Lord had married a fake Princess.

In order to escape the marriage, John prosecuted Mary for bigamy, claiming that she had already married a shoemaker in Canterbury, where her father worked as a fiddler. In 1663, defendants were not permitted to hire counsel, nonetheless, Mary argued convincingly in court that John was wrong. She contrasted her own regal comportment with that of her lowly husband and begged the court to consider how preposterous it would be for a high-born lady such as herself to marry a shoemaker. When John’s witnesses failed to materialize from Canterbury, Mary was acquitted.

The first page of the pamphlet's text, entitled 'The Life of the German princess, &c.'
‘Tis no wonder the World is full of Impositors, since it’s self at full value is but a Cheat’ – the opening page of the pamphlet

The fascinating story of Mary Carleton captivated the capital. Her tale was told in fourteen pamphlets in the 1660s, including one she wrote herself. Mary’s celebrity was further amplified by her performance on stage, as the writer of our 1673 pamphlet acknowledged:

 ‘with applause she was Acquitted, and after acted her own part on the publique Theater in… The GERMAN PRINCESS… she acted much better to the life in the World than on its Epitome’.

‘Memories of the life of the famous Madam Charlton; commonly stiled the German Princess’ (London: Printed for Phillip Brooksby, 1673).

As this quotation indicates, Mary’s real life ‘act’ was eventually uncovered. The pamphlet at St John’s belonged to a second wave of pamphlets from the early 1670s, critical of Mary and concerned with the ‘truth’ of her life and childhood. Before witnessing the Princess’s demise, enter: the Poisoner.

Georgian Oxford, 1723

Little is known about Joanna Meades, who was burnt on 17th May 1723 for poisoning her husband. For a wife to murder her husband was petty treason, and poisoning particularly was feared because poisons were relatively easily acquired and administered by wives overseeing household kitchens.

Eighteenth-century poisoning cases required significant supporting evidence, which often included admissions of guilt as well as medical testimony. In her hand-written confession, Meades stated ‘I am guilty of that horrid Crime for which I am condemned’. In other contemporary cases of wives poisoning their husbands, the written confessions were read aloud at court and constituted essential evidence in their guilty verdicts. Although we cannot be certain that this confession was read aloud at court, this context illuminates the intriguing second paragraph.

The paper with the handwritten confession is affixed to the page of the scrapbook album. On the album page, Pointer has written 'The Confession'.
The handwritten confession signed by Joanna Meades

Sandwiched between two paragraphs concerned with forgiveness, Meades acknowledges and rebuts additional accusations against her:

And whereas it is reported that I have made Confession, that I have had two Children by my own Father, & murdered them. I do make this publick Declaration, that the said report is entirely false in every particular.

Joanna Meades, in Museum Pointerianum

Thus, Meades used the opportunity of a statement to protect her own reputation and that of her father.

St John’s College Library, 2022

Neither the Carleton pamphlet nor the Meades confession are stand-alone items in our collection. Without the physical incorporation of these items into bound volumes, it is unlikely we would hold them. This context reveals how the collectors who compiled these volumes understood these documents and these women.

Left: a dark brown bound volume, with a label stating 'Several Tracts' on the spine. Right: A marbled softcover scrapbook album with an original label stating 'Museum Pointerianum: Vol.4th'.
The Several Tracts volume and the Museum Pointerianum, side by side

The Meades confession is pasted in an eighteenth-century scrapbook album by John Pointer (1688-1754). Pointer was Chaplain of Merton College but left his collection, Musaeum Pointerianum, to St John’s College: ‘there being such a collection of curiosities in this college already, has induc’d me to bequeath my own collection to be added to it’. His albums include handwriting samples, printed broadsheets, and descriptions of scientific curiosities.

The confession links to two of Pointer’s collecting themes. Assuming that Meades wrote this herself, the piece contributes to Pointer’s collection of handwriting samples from famous (and infamous) people. The theme of ‘human novelties’, such as tattooed islander Giolo, and conjoined twins, is also prominent. Convicted of spousal murder, Meades might have interested Pointer from the perspective of human difference.

The description of 'The Confession' as written by Pointer onto the page of the scrapbook.
Pointer’s caption which accompanies the Meades confession

The inclusion of The Life of Mary Carleton in a volume entitled ‘Several Tracts’ also provides hints as to how the collector understood Mary. The tone of the pamphlet is critical, and occasionally outraged, that Mary willingly manipulated those around her.

Several of the other tracts have a humorous edge: directly before the Carleton pamphlet is The Character of a Quack Astrologer: or, the spurious prognosticator anatomiz’d which pokes fun at the charlatans who purport to be astrological experts (in order to uphold the genuine astrologer’s status). Recent events are a common theme, and the general tone of the tracts in the volume undermines the suggestion that the collector considered Mary’s story credible. This context reminds us that interest in Mary could be mocking and disparaging, although it is more tempting to see her story as one of female agency. We might imagine that the collector found the story’s humour in the gullibility of the men who fell prey to her story. However, by 1673, Mary Carleton’s fate as the tragic heroine was sealed, and her comeuppance had arrived.

The final act

Convicted of theft, Mary Carleton was transported to Jamaica in 1671. Against the terms of her transportation, she escaped back to England two years later, and was arrested for theft once again. Somewhat theatrically, the prison turnkey was familiar with her celebrity, and recognized Mary as the “German princess”, which lead to another trial. She was executed in 1673, fifty years before Joanna Meades.

Both Mary Carleton and Joanna Meades were brought down by their own voices. It would be misguided to laud this as evidence of early modern women’s agency, as neither escaped execution. However, in small ways, both used the attention garnered by the cases brought against them to author aspects of their own life-stories; life-stories now captured in documents stored here at St John’s College Library.

A woodcut portrait of Mary Carleton. She wears 4 beauty marks, a crescent, a cross, a triangle and a star. Her hair is curled, and styled with flowers. She wears a beaded necklace and an over the shoulder dress.
A woodcut portrait of Mary Carleton from the pamphlet

Further reading and references

‘Memories of the life of the famous Madam Charlton; commonly stiled the German Princess’ (London: Printed for Phillip Brooksby, 1673). Available at St John’s College Library in Several Tracts, HB4/3.a.4.4.

John Pointer, Musaeum Pointerianum. Available at St John’s College Library, MS 253.

Gregory Durston, Wicked Ladies: Provincial Women, Crime and the Eighteenth-century English Justice System, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

Jennine Hurl-Eamon, ‘Female Criminality in the British Courts from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century’ Journal of Women’s History 21:3 (2009).

Valerie Wayne, ‘Chapter 15: Assuming Gentility: Thomas Middleton, Mary Carleton and Aphra Behn’ in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700, ed. James Daybell, (London; New York: Routledge, 2016).

Kate Lilley, ‘The German Princess Revived: The Case of Mary Carleton’ in Expanding the Canon of Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. Paul Salzman (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).

Mary Jo Kietzman, ‘Publicizing Private History: Mary Carleton’s Case in Court and in Print’, in Intersections of the Public and Private Spheres in early Modern England, eds. Paula R. Backscheider and Timothy Dystal, (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1996).

A gif of the woodcut portrait of Mary Carleton, animated so that she winks.
The German Princess

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