When your family search turns into an unbelievable story!
I have been researching my own family ancestry and others for quite a long time. I've come across a document every so often or learned about a family story that I just never expected to find. I usually sit there thinking "well I've pretty much seen everything now!" That thought changed recently when I discovered information and an event about an ancestor that no one of the previous generation knew anything about. I spent a couple of years researching this ancestor without much success. But what I found ended up being a jaw-dropping event. In fact, this is one of those stories that you might find in a television soap opera. It is about this one ancestor in my Mathews family who resided in County Down, Ireland in the early 1800s.
Mathews family notes
My great aunts and grandfather used to tell me that they recalled visiting my second great grandparents James and Martha Jane (Mathews) Kidd on their western Wisconsin farm. Martha Jane was the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Mathews. Elizabeth is the ancestor I knew almost nothing about, including her name.
One great aunt provided me with notes containing names and dates on the family along with information on what she remembered after talking to her parents and grandparents. These family notes only listed the names of Martha Jane along with that of her father, Edward. Edward's first wife, whose name was Mary, is listed as well as their children. The notes also listed his second wife, who was my direct ancestor, but only referred to her as "the second wife". Despite several conversations, no one in my great aunt's generation seemed to know the name or anything about this person. According to the notes, Edward had two brothers James and John Mathews along with a sister Anne who married Samuel Clelland.
I decided to do some detective work and find out what I could about my third great grandmother. My research eventually led me back to Belfast. The goal was to find some
information on this mystery but I never imagined that my research would lead to an attempted murder trial.
I began by reviewing the records that were available in the U.S prior to my trip. I had located Martha Jane's death certificate from 1904. This vital record indicated her mother's name as Ellen Margret, which later proved to be incorrect.
It confirmed that Edward was indeed Martha Jane's father. In addition, I discovered through these family notes and obituaries that Martha Jane had a sister named Deborah and a brother named James. Deborah and James were children of Edward and the first wife, Mary. It appears that Mary died around 1830 and Edward remarried before 1835. Once again, there was no information or name regarding this unnamed person.
After completing my initial U.S. search, I continued my research through online Irish records. Searching the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) website, I discovered in the name index the will of a James Mathews from the townland of Crossgar in the Parish of Dromara. The will was dated in 1833.
Unfortunately, many original wills and Church of Ireland church records were destroyed due to the Four Courts fire in 1922. However, some wills were transcribed and printed into documents and books prior to the fire. The James Mathews will was transcribed and printed into a book called Matthews Abstracts of Wills, Etc.
During a previous visit to Northern Ireland, I was able to locate the Mathews family in the vestry minutes from St. John’s Church in Dromara. Although the church’s vital records no longer exist, the vestry minutes remain intact and indicate that James and Edward were wardens in the church. The vestry minutes also confirmed that James was still a church warden in May of 1833 which is just prior to his death in July. It also listed Edward as a church warden in 1840 about 7 years after James’ death. Edward is not listed in any of the vestry minutes after 1840 which made me wonder why he was no longer associated with the church.
Will of Captain James Mathews signed 22 July 1833.
The transcribed will listed the names of James' siblings as well as his widow and even the name to one of his nieces. The will indicated James' date of death as 29 July 1833 roughly a week after he signed the will. It further directed Edward Mathews, James’ brother, to be one of the trustees thus overseeing the entire estate. According to the will, Edward and his family were to live in the house located on the property while James' widow, Mary was to occupy the cottage next door to the house. She was also to receive an annual stipend of £30. The will also bequeathed money to James’ brother, John, his sister, Anne and Anne’s daughter, Martha.
Administration bond from 1842 involving the will of James Mathews.
What makes this story more intriguing was an administration bond dated 5 October 1842. Mary borrowed over £2,200 from the estate. This part of the document didn't state the reason for the huge amount borrowed from the estate. After discussing with other researchers in Belfast, we assumed that Mary most likely bought out control of the estate from Edward. This would make James' widow, Mary, the executrix of the estate. There were no additional details and there was no indication whether Edward and his family were even allowed to stay on the property.
I finally discovered a newspaper article online on Newspapers.com that appeared to give more details about the second wife. Located on page 4 of The Freeman’s Journal from 30 July 1841, the article indicated that the wife of Edward Mathews had attempted to poison the widow of James Mathews by providing her a glass of wine that had been tainted with sulphate of copper. The article further stated that upon drinking some of the wine, the widow Mary became ill but eventually survived. It continued to describe Edward’s wife, who is named Elizabeth Mathews, as being around 50 years in age and dressed as “a respectable looking person.” The article implied that Elizabeth was unable to stand on the dock in the courtroom when the charge against her was read and she seemed to be laboring under severe indisposition." Mary was listed through the rest of the article as the “prosecutrix” while Elizabeth was later referred to as “the prisoner.” According to the article, Mary reportedly had notified the Rev. Mr. Boyd who was the pastor at the local parish and the magistrate for Dromara at the time. He reportedly had the wine tested. According to his testimony, the glass was found to have contained some sulfate of copper that had dissolved in Mary's glass of wine. Mary believed that Elizabeth was out to murder her.
This was the first time I found the name of Edward’s second wife indicated in any public document or family record. The article concluded that Elizabeth was acquitted of the attempted murder charge. There was no other information on the reasoning behind Elizabeth’s acquittal or what happened to her after the trial.
On a recent trip to Belfast and PRONI uncovered a more detailed account of the trial from the 30 July 1841 issue of the Belfast News-Letter. This more detailed newspaper account stated that the case had gained considerable interest due to the respectabilities of the parties involved and the nature of the case. The article further implied that Edward did not pay the widow Mary in a timely manner as directed by the will and that Mary was often placed in a financial burden. It also stated that there were other issues between Mary, Edward and Elizabeth. The article concluded that the jury found Elizabeth not guilty mostly by the testimony from Doctor Davison who was the Dromara medical superintendent at the time. Dr. Davison insisted that sulfate of copper would not dissolve in wine and that it would have taken a much larger dosage to cause any type of harm to Mary. That apparently was enough to have the jury return with a not guilty verdict within 30 minutes.
From a family research standpoint, all this information was extremely valuable in tracing my Mathews family. The family notes, will, administration bond, vestry minutes and the newspaper article helped verify where the family was residing in the 1830s and provided a great deal of information about the family. It showed that the Mathews family were "of means" and owned what was considered a rather large estate at the time in the civil parish of Dromara. An 1833 obituary of James Mathews also uncovered that he had served as a Captain in the 38th Regiment of Foot for the British army in the Napoleanic wars.
The documents and articles provided me with the names of other family members. For the first time, I was able to identify Edward's "second wife" as Elizabeth. Plus, it uncovered one of the most incredible stories that occurred almost 200 years ago involving one of my ancestors. By using several different sources, I was able to compile and trace the events that aided in identifying these ancestors. But it was the newspaper accounts from July 1841 that brought to light this very unusual and tragic family event.
The question remained as to what happened with Elizabeth after being acquitted of the charges and to Mary after this event took place in 1841. The Belfast News-Letter article provided more light as to Elizabeth. It mentioned that Mrs. Mathews, meaning Elizabeth, "seemed to be laboring under severe indisposition." It was the defense attorney who stated at the end of the trial that Elizabeth was "in a hopeless state of health" affected by liver disease. Based on that bit of information, it would seem very likely that Elizabeth died shortly after the trial. This would especially be the case since she did not emigrate from Ireland to upstate New York when Edward and the remaining family members, including my second great grandmother Martha Jane left Crossgar around 1848.
The article also indicated how Elizabeth's attorney, whose name was listed as Mr. Tomb, defended her by examining the medical superintendent from Dromara. As previously mentioned, Dr. Davison's testimony that the copper sulfate which was claimed to be in the glass wouldn't have dissolved that easily in wine. Even a small dosage, according to Dr. Davison wouldn't have poisoned James' widow Mary. That seemed to be enough, along with his character and health assessment of Elizabeth to convince the jury to return with a "not guilty" verdict in thirty minutes time. It also highlighted the fact that the two families certainly did not get along very well even before this incident occurred.
I now understand why there was so little information on this ancestor. If previous generations were aware of this tragic event, I'm sure they preferred not to talk about what happened in Dromara in 1841 since it would be considered an embarrassment to the family. Such an unknown family story would have otherwise remained buried in the archives without a bit of work to uncover all the facts. What would be considered a family embarrassment is still a factual event to the family researcher. Thus, this information and the accounts of the events from 1841 need to be acknowledged and recorded.
A major family event like this one is not what most family historians expect to find in their research nor would anyone ever dream of reading about an event like this in their family history. What started out as a discovery of a will of my ancestor's brother led to further discovery of additional wills, civil and church records and later the newspaper accounts of the trial. All these documents eventually led to an unbelievable story about one of my ancestors - one that someone would expect to find in a modern-day television soap opera.
Descendant chart showing Captain James Mathews and his brother Edward Mathews
Thanks to The Septs Magazine for publishing this story in the July 2020 issue!
© 2020 The Ancestor Guy, LLC
 Notes from Ada Anthes, "James Kidd and Martha Jane Mathews family group sheet," in possession; supplied on 9 October 1984, (Oshkosh, Wisconsin).  Martha Jane Kidd death certificate, 25 January 1904; State of Wisconsin, Dunn County Deaths; Volume 1 of Deaths, page 175; accessed 29 April 1980.  PRONI name search; online; (the deputy keeper of the Records, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast; https://apps.proni.gov.uk/ProniNames_IE/ResultDetails.aspx) in reference to the estate of James Mathews (T681/1) of Crossgar, Parish of Dromara, County Down, 1842, accessed October 2017.  Dromara Administration Bond, James Mathews, Crossgare, 1842; unauthored book; “Mat(t)hews Abstracts of Wills-etc.,” page 442 (the deputy keeper of the records, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast), reference T-681/1; accessed October 2017.  COUNTY OF DOWN ASSIZES-Tuesday, ALLEGED ATTEMPT TO POISON; online; The Freeman's Journal"; 30 July 1841, page 4; (Newspapers.com by Ancestry) in reference to Elizabeth Mathews' court appears involving attempted poisoning charge against her; accessed 15 November, 2018.  "ALLEGED ATTEMPT TO POISON"; online; Belfast News-Letter, (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 30 Jul 1841, page 2; (Newspapers.com by Ancestry) in reference to Elizabeth Mathews' court appears involving an attempt to poison charge against her; accessed 1 November 2019.