Good Friday 1753 and Thomas Harper, a farmer, was at home at Ingleby Manor and ready to receive his neighbouring farmers as guests for dinner as was the custom at Easter. Amongst the guests was to be his son-in-law, William Smith who had a farm in Great Broughton, a few miles south. It was also the custom for one of the guests to bring the cake. William offered. It may have been a Simnel Cake, a cake traditionally eaten to break Lent but which is since more attributed to Easter but the local superstition was the Good Friday cake brought luck and anyone who had a slice should never want money or “victuals” all the year round.
It so happened that only William and one other guest, the local butcher, came to dinner, for one reason or other the other farmers could not make it so only Thomas Harper and his two children, William and Anne, had a share of the cake. The maid servant was also invited to a piece but she did not like the taste and Thomas laughed at her for saying so.
Soon Thomas and both the children became severely ill. Thomas died at six o’clock, Annie three hors later and young William lingered until six o’clock in the morning. A Coroner’s Jury was held later that day and recorded a verdict of “Wilful murder by persons unknown”. William Smith was not a suspect until he disappeared on Easter Day and a orders was sent out for him to be apprehended.
Smith was 22 years old and had a wife (Harper’s other daughter) and a child. He had intended to flee to Ireland but got as far as Liverpool before his conscience got the better of him He returned to North Yorkshire where he confessed. The motive was money, he wanted the inheritance of Harper’s estate. He therefore devised his plan to mix arsenic with the flour used in the cake; at that time the poison could be brought opening over the counter for use in killing rats.
At York assizes that Autumn, Smith was found guilty of poisoning Thomas Harper and his two children, William and Anne Harper, and received the death sentence. He was subsequently hanged at York on 14th August, 1753. Before he died he left a final letter to his wife:
“My Dear Betty, I am an undone man; I have brought shame on myself, and on you, and my dear infant. But do not think any more of such an unworthy person as I am. It is well I am dead, for who knows I might have poisoned you and my child. Think no more of me. Look on me as quite lost, and as though there never had been such a person. But let me recommend to you farmer Alcock’s son, who courted you before I did. Marry him and carry on the farm, and as my son grows up, pray do not let him know there ever was such an unhappy person as I am. Farewell! Walk in the paths of virtue and sobriety; go to church, and mind what is good. You know I did not love to go to Church, and you see now what is come of it.”
In the photo, taken from Turkey Nab, Ingleby Manor is hidden away left of centre in the trees. More than likely parts of it date from the 16th century but substantially modifications have been undertaken in intervening centuries. According British History Online in the 18th Century it was the residence of the Foullis family. It likely that Harper did not actually live in the manor house but on one of the farms on the estate.