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When your family search turns into an unbelievable story!

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

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 learn 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 any information on this ancestor and until recently without very much success. But what I found ended up being a jaw dropping event involving this one ancestor. In fact, this was one of those stories that you might find in a television soap opera. That was the case about this one ancestor in my Mathews family who were residing in County Down, Ireland in the early 1800s.

My great aunts and grandfather use to tell me they recalled visiting my 2nd great grandparents James and Martha Jane Mathews Kidd on their western Wisconsin farm. One great aunt even provided me with notes years ago containing names and dates on the family along with information on what she remembered after talking to her parents and grandparents. Martha Jane was the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Mathews. Elizabeth is the ancestor I knew almost nothing about including her name. That all changed after a recent trip to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in Belfast, Northern Ireland which led to the discovery of some valuable documents.

Mathews family notes from Ada Anthes in 1984

These family notes that I received years ago from this great aunt only listed the names of Martha Jane along with that of her father Edward. Edward's first wife whose name was Mary is also listed as well as their

children. The notes listed his second wife, who was also my direct ancestor, but only referred to her as "the second wife". Despite several conversations on the subject and this ancestor in particular, no one in my great aunt's generation seemed to know the name or anything about "the second wife."[1] I decided to do some detective work and find out what I could about my third great grandmother this person who was only listed as "the second wife." My research eventually led me back to Belfast. The goal was to find some information on "the second wife" but I never imagined that my research would lead to an attempted murder trial.

Martha Jane Mathews around 1900

My research 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 Marth Jane's father.[2] In addition, I discovered through these family notes and obituaries that Martha Jane also had a sister named Deborah and a brother James. Deborah and James were children of Edward and the first wife Mary. It appears Mary died around 1830 and Edward later remarried the second wife before 1835.

Once again, there was no information on the "second wife."

After completing my initial U.S. search, I continued my research through online Irish records. Searching the PRONI website, I discovered in the name index the will of James Mathews from the townland of Crossgar in the Parish of Dromara. The will was dated back to 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. The James Mathews will was also transcribed and printed into a book called "Matthews Abstracts of Wills, Etc.".[3]

During a previous visit to Northern Ireland, I found the book archived at PRONI. Inside contained transcriptions of several wills involving Mat(t)hews family members, many from County Down. The will of Captain James Mathews from Crossgar in the Parish of Dromara was located on page 438.[4]

Will of Captain James Mathews from 1833
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 names to one of his nieces. The will also indicates James' date of death as 29 July 1833 roughly a week after he signed the will. It further directed Edward Mathews to be one of the trustees and the executor 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.[5]

Many Church of Ireland birth, marriage and death records were destroyed in the previously mentioned 1922 fire. However, that didn’t apply to all parish documents. Although the vital records from the parish of Dromara were destroyed in 1922, the vestry minutes were never archived in Dublin. Those records remained intact and are now available on microfilm today. These vestry minutes contain information on activities of the parish as well as some financial details surrounding the parish. They also mentioned the names of church leaders. The Dromara parish vestry minutes in 1831 listed James and Edward as church wardens. The vestry minutes also confirmed that James resided in Dromara in 1832. James is still listed as 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.

Administration bond from 1842 involving the will of James Mathews

What makes this story more intriguing was on 5 October 1842, Mary borrowed over £2,200 from the estate. This part of the document which showed up on the very next page didn't state the reason for the huge amount borrowed from the estate. After discussing with other researchers in Belfast, it was 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 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 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 was 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 “presecutrix” 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.[6]

This was the first time the name of Edward’s second wife was ever indicated in any public document or family record. The article also stated that Captain James Mathews had purchased the 23 acres farm near Dromara. The article concluded that Elizabeth was acquitted of the attempted murder charge. There was no other information on why Elizabeth was acquitted or what happened to her afterwards. This was the point to which I sat at my laptop for almost five minutes totally stunned by what I just read. Unfortunately, the article didn't indicate more about Elizabeth or what happened to her after the trial.

A most recent trip to Belfast and PRONI uncovered a more detailed account of the trial from the 30 July 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. The article implied that Mary was often placed in a financial burden. It later 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.[7]

At least 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 but also 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 the foot for the British army in the Napolean wars.

The documents and articles further 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 two hundred 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 article provided more light as to Elizabeth. The article mentioned that Mrs. Mathews, meaning Elizabeth, "seemed to be laboring under severe indisposition." It was the defense attorney who later 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 2nd great grandmother Martha Jane left Crossgar around 1848.

The article also indicates 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 with return of 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 that day in 1841 since it would be considered an embarrassment to the family. Such a previously unknown family story would have otherwise remained buried in the archives without a bit of work to even 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 was certainly not what most family historians ever 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 that someone would expect to find in a modern-day television soap opera. #genealogy #wildfamilystories #familyhistory #irishresearch

Descendent chart showing Captain James Mathews and his brother Edeward Mathews

[1] Notes from Ada Anthes, "James Kidd and Martha Jane Mathews family group sheet," in possession; supplied on 9 October 1984, (Oshkosh, Wisconsin).

[2] Martha Jane Kidd death certificate, 25 January 1904; State of Wisconsin, Dunn County Deaths; Volume 1 of Deaths, page 175; accessed 29 April 1980.

[3] PRONI name search; online; (the deputy keeper of the Records, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast; in reference to the estate of James Mathews (T-681/1) of Crossgar, Parish of Dromara, County Down, 1842, accessed October 2017.

[4] Will of Captain James Mathews, 1833; unauthored book; "Matthews Abstracts of Wills-etc;" page 438 (the deputy keeper of the Records, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast), reference T-681/1; accessed October 2017.

[5] Dromara Administration Bond, James Mathews, Crossgare, 1842; unauthored book; "Matthews 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.

[6]COUNTY OF DOWN ASSIZES-Tuesday, ALLEGED ATTEMPT TO POISON; online; The Freeman's Journal"; 30 July 1841, page 4; ( by Ancestry) in reference to Elizabeth Mathews' court appears involving attempted poisoning charge against her; accessed 15 November, 2018.

[7] "ALLEGED ATTEMPT TO POISON"; online; Belfast News-Letter, (Belfast, Northern Ireland), 30 Jul 1841, page 2; ( by Ancestry) in reference to Elizabeth Mathews' court appears involving an attempt to poison charge against her; accessed 1 November 2019.

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