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The Cheshire Tragedy, 1843

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 14, 2012

Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 160-161, contains a statement given by Jonathan Pugmire, Jr., regarding a dreadful incident that occurred in England in 1843-44: During the baptism of Sarah Jane (Yates) Cartwright, in a rain-swollen stream near the village of Crewe, England, the bank gave way and both Sister Cartwright and Elder Jonathan Pugmire, branch president performing the baptism, were swept into the flood. Elder Pugmire was saved, but Sister Cartwright drowned. Elder Pugmire and Thomas Henry Cartwright, husband of the drowned woman, were arrested, charged, and tried for manslaughter six weeks later.

The statement of Jonathan Pugmire, Jr., son of the branch president, is presented in History of the Church in part as though Joseph Smith had written it in his own words:

Jonathan Pugmire, Senior, and Thomas Cartwright, discharged by Judge Whitehead, at Chester, England. The judge would not allow the costs of prosecution or witnesses to be paid by the Crown. It was very evident that the Church of England ministers were at the bottom of the machinations, and were sorely discomfited at the result. I insert the statement of the unfortunate occurrence given by Jonathan Pugmire, Junior.

I do not know when Jonathan, Jr., gave his statement, but almost certainly it was not given during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (the family arrived in Nauvoo mere weeks before the martyrdom), and it may not have been given until sometime after Jonathan, Sr.’s death in 1876 (it hardly seems likely that Jonathan, Jr.’s statement would have been solicited and used by the compilers of the History of the Church had Jonathan, Sr., the eyewitness and participant, been available).

In any case, Jonathan, Jr.’s statement stands as the formal record of the incident within written Church history, and it has been copied into printed chronologies and histories, and onto the websites of countless Cartwright and Pugmire descendants. The statement preserves some details of the incident that would otherwise have been lost. But like so many narratives that were recorded years after the fact, by Latter-day Saints with the (to me, understandable but unfortunate) urge to claim a share in the persecutions of the righteous, some aspects of the recorded statement are far from accurate, including the evaluation put into Joseph Smith’s mouth concerning the outcome of the manslaughter hearing. A clearer account of the events can be found in the British newspapers of the time, although it is necessary to filter the obvious biases against Mormonism in those accounts.

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The families of Jonathan Pugmire, Sr., (all references from here on will be to the senior Jonathan, unless otherwise specified) and Thomas Henry Cartwright arrived in Crew in 1842 or 1843. Both men were blacksmiths, meaning that they were skilled ironworkers. Rather than beating out horseshoes on anvils, as is our modern idea of blacksmithing, these men were precision machinists who crafted parts for railroad engines – Crewe had only recently exploded in size and importance as the junction of two main rail lines, and the works of the Grand Junction Railway Company at Crewe employed more than 400 men in manufacturing railroad equipment.

The Pugmires were already Latter-day Saints when they moved to Crewe, having been baptized near Liverpool in 1841. Jonathan Pugmire (age 44 in 1843) became the leader of the small group of Mormons who gathered at Crewe, and he baptized a half dozen new members in the first months of his residence there. One of these converts was Thomas Cartwright (age 28), his fellow smith. Cartwright was baptized by Elder Pugmire on November 6, 1843, apparently against the wishes of his wife Sarah who, if Jonathan Pugmire, Jr.’s account can be relied upon, met Thomas returning from his baptism, cursing him and declaring that “I hope to God, if ever I am such a fool, that I’ll be drowned in the attempt!” [1] Nevertheless, Sarah decided to be baptized on November 23.

As with many baptisms in Europe in the 19th century, Sarah’s baptism was planned to take place late at night, to avoid the jeering crowds that so often marred the ordinance when it was performed in public view. Thomas and Sarah Cartwright, Elder Pugmire and his wife Elizabeth, and James Moore, another member of the branch, were the only ones present for the baptism.

At eight o’clock that night, they proceeded to a point where Elder Pugmire had performed earlier baptisms. This may have been a stream feeding the River Weaver, or it may have been on the canal or other waterways in the area; I have been unable as yet to pin it down. The spot was about 3/4 of a mile from the village itself, and downstream of the railroad works. The stream, ordinarily about 12 feet across and relatively shallow, was grossly swollen by heavy recent rains: a witness measuring the water the following day said it was six feet deep then, and probably deeper the day before. The stream had so far overflowed its banks that Elder Pugmire, examining the area – but in the darkness, remember – thought they could attend to the baptism in the overflow, and not even have to enter the watercourse itself.

Assisted by Elizabeth Pugmire, Sarah Cartwright (who was about three months away from delivering her fourth child) removed most of her clothing, until she was dressed only in her flannel vest or undershirt, and her flannel petticoat. Elder Pugmire led her by the hand into the edge of the raging stream until they were about waist-deep, where Sarah was baptized. The pair – Elder Pugmire still holding on to the hand of Sarah – turned to walk to dry ground, but as they did the bank beneath them, undermined by flood waters, collapsed. They both plunged into water over their heads.

Elder Pugmire lost hold of Sarah’s hand. Thomas Cartwright jumped into the water, reaching desperately for his wife. He caught her petticoat, which came off in his hand, but he was unable to grasp her. He was swept downstream in the darkness after her.

James Moore jumped for Elder Pugmire and succeeded in wrapping his fingers in Pugmire’s hair. With the help of Elizabeth Pugmire pulling on Moore’s other hand, they were finally able to drag Pugmire from the water. When he was finally on dry land they all called after the Cartwrights, but there was no response from the darkness.

While Elder Pugmire caught his breath, Moore ran to the village to summon assistance. Quite a number of local men, led by a Captain Winby “of the Crewe [police?] station” headed to the spot. They found Thomas Cartwright about a hundred yards downstream, clinging to a tree stump, near the end of his endurance. One of the rescue party, named George Knowlen, swam out into the flood and brought Cartwright to the bank. They were unable to locate Sarah, however.

What happened next is open to interpretation. The newspapers, not mentioning the fact that Thomas Cartwright had nearly lost his own life attempting to save his wife, reported that Cartwright “walked home with the greatest deliberation and nonchalance, and told his neighbours what had occurred; and, after seating himself in a chair, rolled himself in flannel, and declared his conviction ‘that it was the will of God that she should be drowned.’” I completely discount the description of “nonchalance” in a journalistic paragraph exaggerating the inhumanity of the Mormon “delusion”; if Cartwright did say anything about the “will of God,” I interpret that as a man in emotional shock, near physical exhaustion, trying to find some shred of meaning in what had just happened.

After the sun rose the next morning, searchers continued the hunt for Sarah Cartwright’s body. They found her clothes where she had left them near the water, and eventually found her body about two hundred yards downstream. Curiously, she appeared to be standing in the water, her head visible above water. The fact that she was naked from the waist down, and barely clad from the waist up, became a point of titillating horror, reported by the press with lurid glee. The papers make no mention of the fact that her petticoat came off in the struggle to save her, but only that “she was denuded of all her clothing” and that “she was stripped almost naked” as part of the Mormonite baptism ritual.

Jonathan, Jr.’s statement claims at this point that “a Church of England minister had him [Pugmire, Sr.] arrested and dragged from his family the same evening, and kept in custody of a constable until a coroner’s inquest was held on the body of the deceased.” While a coroner’s inquest was held – as required by law – neither Pugmire nor Cartwright were taken into custody until the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. If any clergyman was involved, that fact doesn’t appear in the records I’ve located. Again, this is one of those details – evil sectarian minister persecuting bereaved Mormon husband – that seems to me to be just a little too pat, a little contrived, casting this part of the statement in the History of the Church into doubtful territory.

Cartwright and Pugmire were both arrested at the conclusion of the inquest. Their arrests are noted in the jurisdiction’s criminal register. (Note that Pugmire’s name appears here as “Pogmore,” a spelling that is repeated throughout the newspaper coverage and apparently in the court records.)

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Pugmire, Jr.’s statement says that Cartwright and Pugmire were imprisoned until their trial six weeks later. Press accounts confirm that they were “committed to Chester Castle.”

I have no record of what happened to the Cartwright and Pugmire families during this period, or the consternation that must have been felt by branch members. The Cartwrights had two small daughters at home (while Sarah was expecting their fourth child, their oldest daughter had died in infancy) – with their mother dead and their father imprisoned, who took care of these little girls? Elizabeth Pugmire had eight living children at home, the youngest just a baby; Jonathan, Jr., was 20 years old, his brother George two years older, so they must have been some support in their father’s absence. Described in the local press as “fanatics” and followers of “a gross superstition,” with scandalous rumors of midnight baptisms of nude women swirling around them, local members could not have had an easy time.

The manslaughter trial of Thomas Cartwright and Jonathan Pugmire came up for hearing at the Winter Assizes at Chester on Tuesday, January 2, 1844, before Mr. Justice J. Wightman. “Precisely at nine o’clock,” the record says,

Jonathan Pogmore, blacksmith (an officiating minister of the Mormonites, commonly called Latter-day Saints), and Thomas Cartwright, blacksmith also, were placed at the bar, charged with the offence of killing and slaying one Sarah Cartwright, at Monks Copenhall, in the vicinity of Crewe.

The courtroom was crowded, “from the very peculiar nature of the offence with which the prisoners were charged.” The prosecutor, a man named Mr. Townsend, explained to the jury that the two men were indicted for “felonious killing,” but it would be up to the jury to decide whether their actions arose from premeditation or negligence. The fact that both defendants were “adherents to a peculiar sect of religionists, called ‘Latter-day Saints,’” was discussed, as well as the Mormon tenet of baptism by immersion.

Then Townsend called for his first witness, James Moore. Moore did not answer the call. Townsend called for his second witness, then his third, then his fourth, but none of the witnesses were there. Justice Wightman called the witnesses’ absence “scandalous”; he ordered an officer to cry the witnesses’ summons in nearby streets, and warned that if they did not appear promptly, the bonds that all of them had filed to guarantee their appearance would be forfeited.

Finally a witness, Michael Kinty, who had measured the depth of the water the morning after the drowning appeared, and testified to his measurements. Then one George Bazley appeared, and testified to having been among the search party that had found Sarah Cartwright’s body. When he testified that “there was nothing on the body but a singlet, which reached down to the waist,” there was a “sensation” in court.

In an apparent attempt to dampen the indignation of the jury over that detail and reinforce the religious motives for the Cartwrights and Pugmires to have gone to the water that night, the defense attorney, a Mr. Temple, asked Bazley whether he had traveled to the Holy Land and could compare the site of this Mormonite baptism to the River Jordan. Bazley had not seen the Jordan, but he testified that the spot where Sarah had died “was very beautiful, and likely to dispose the mind to serious and proper feelings.”

But no further witnesses responded to the Court’s call. Justice Wightman observed that “never in the course of his judicial experience had he witnessed such palpable negligence in keeping the evidence together.” He “expressed his marked displeasure against those who had the conducting of the case, directed that the recognizances should be estreated [i.e., that the witnesses’ bonds be forfeited], and all the expenses of the witnesses disallowed, except those who had attended to give evidence.” [2]

The case was not given to the jury to decide. Justice Wightman told them that the prosecution had produced no evidence of either premeditation or negligence and had failed to connect the defendants to any wrongdoing. He directed the jury to acquit the prisoners, which they did. The prosecutor declared that he would secure his witnesses’ testimony and retry the defendants; Justice Wightman informed him that this was a case of autrefoit acquit (“formerly acquitted”) and no future indictment would be sustained. (In American terms, it was a matter of double jeopardy – the defendants had been tried and acquitted, and could not be tried again.)

The judge did give an unnecessary lecture to Thomas Cartwright: “It is my duty to remark, although with your particular tenets I have nothing to do, you have been most culpable in not having examined the brook in which you had proposed to observe your baptismal ceremony. The pain which you, Thomas Cartwright, I hope have experienced from the dreadful consequences which have ensued will be a warning to you hereafter.”

While sectarian prejudice may have played a role in indicting the two Latter-day Saints, there is no hint in the records that any clergyman of the Church of England was involved. Rumors circulated that the prosecution witnesses were “strongly tainted with the peculiarities of the Mormonite sect, and had purposely absented themselves, in order to defeat the ends of justice.” James Moore, who would have been able to give eyewitness testimony, was a Mormon and did not appear, but it is impossible to know whether the other absent witnesses were LDS, or what relevant testimony could have been elicited from Mormon witnesses. In any case, the History of the Church statement that “the Church of England ministers were at the bottom of the machinations, and were sorely discomfited at the result,” is not supported by anything in the existing record, and seems to me to be an unjustified assertion wrongly attributed to Joseph Smith.

On February 6, 1844, just one month following the trial, the Pugmires – Jonathan, Sr., Elizabeth, and all but their oldest son – sailed from Liverpool headed for Nauvoo. They settled briefly across the river in Montrose, Iowa, then left for Winter Quarters, where Elizabeth Pugmire died. Jonathan married an English widow, Mary Baylis Harwood, in the spring of 1847, and the Pugmires crossed the Plains to settle in Utah. In 1850 they moved to the Iron Mission, where Jonathan Pugmire’s smithing skills were in demand. When the Iron Mission closed the Pugmires moved again; Jonathan died in Salt Lake City in 1876.

On June 2, 1844, five months after being acquitted of manslaughter, Thomas Cartwright married Jane Allen, another member of the LDS branch in the area. That seems sudden from our perspective – but remember, Cartwright had two motherless daughters, ages 2 and 4. The Cartwrights – Thomas, Jane, Sarah’s two little daughters, and more children born to Thomas and Jane – emigrated to Utah in 1850. Like the Pugmires, they moved on to the Iron Mission; Thomas died at Beaver in 1872.

[1] I question the reliability of this statement on this point. As a young man Jonathan, Jr. was old enough to be aware of local Mormon gossip, but his account smells of folklore, or at least exaggeration, here. To me it feels just too neat, too contrived as a morality tale, to be quite believable, and it seems questionable to me that Sarah Cartwright would have evolved from such vehement opposition to willing baptism in only two weeks. Also, the newspapers, which greedily reported every sensational fact about the incident, don’t mention it; if, as Jonathan, Jr.’s statement claims, she made that predictive declaration to non-Mormon neighbors, it is difficult to believe that it was not repeated to reporters. But I include it here because it is part of the story as recorded in the History of the Church, and if I don’t address it here someone is sure to point it out as something I overlooked. I don’t overlook it; I do think it’s questionable.

[2] Note the reason given in court for the judge’s disallowance of witness costs; it is an entirely understandable and expected result of failure to answer summons. The account put into Joseph Smith’s mouth in the History of the Church does not mention that the witnesses did not testify, and incorrectly asserts that “the judge would not allow the costs of prosecution” in general, creating the false impression that the judge disallowed payment for other reasons (the implied reason being, to my mind at least, that the witnesses were so patently lying that the judge discounted their evidence and refused to reward them for it).



11 Comments »

  1. Wow. Right when you’re baptized is not a bad time to go, I guess.

    Comment by Ben S — August 14, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  2. These are my favorite posts of yours, Ardis, where you take a little known event and flesh it out to humanize and provide context. Thanks!

    Comment by iguacufalls — August 14, 2012 @ 10:23 am

  3. Since posting this, I have found five additional articles in newspapers from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. These stories do not change what I have reported here, but do add details — the watercourse where Sarah Cartwright drowned, for instance, is identified as “Coppenhall Brook,” and the charge against Pugmire and Cartwright was that they “seized Sarah Car[t]wright by the neck, and feloniously, wilfully, and negligently cast her into a certain brook, in which she was choked and drowned.” Also, the man whom it had been expected would direct the prosecution of the case was absent along with his witnesses!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  4. Good job, Ardis – both in analyzing/correcting history and in presenting the British legal system. It restores my faith in the common law we inherited in part.

    Comment by Grant — August 14, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  5. Enjoyed this post. I thought that HIstory of the Church was pretty iron-clad, but I guess not, huh?

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 14, 2012 @ 10:48 am

  6. Now that is an impressive piece of historical detective work. But what a tragedy!

    Comment by Amy T — August 14, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  7. There are problems with it, TOClark, especially in the parts that were taken from other people’s diaries, letters, and statements, and rewritten to appear as though Joseph himself had written or dictated them. That was a typical practice of the era, not limited to this History by any means. It may be more problematical in this case than any other, though — few 19th century histories written this way are still used; we *do* use this History, and with its attribution to Joseph Smith we discredit him and his stature at points, like this one, where he is made to say something inaccurate that he never actually said or was ever aware of.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2012 @ 10:59 am

  8. Fascinating story and wonderful detective work, Ardis. I cannot help but think if the same events happened today, the Press would still be there reporting in equally lurid detail, not to mention tv news. There seems to be a growing trend for return to open air baptisms over here- including continental Europe- I know of several such baptisms taking place in the open sea in Denmark, for instance, despite the availability of perfectly good buildings with fonts to hand. For some reason people think it is being true pioneers: maybe the Area Presidency should circulate this Keepa post as a warning!

    And, just to give it a “Keepalink”, (kind of), I once spoke at a wedding in the Crewe Chapel (here we do the “civil marriage first” thing), although “spoke” is probably an exaggeration as I burst into tears after the second line of my talk and couldn’t finish. (The Bride was a longstanding friend and they looked so happy, it got to me). The Groom went on to become the Bishop of the Crewe Ward and is currently a stake president, so it doesn’t look like he suffered much from my un-imparted wisdom!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — August 14, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  9. Ardis, thanks for this. Re Cartwright’s later life, he was one of those sucked into the disaster at Mountain Meadows. Here is the link to my page on Thomas Cartwright at the 1857 Iron County Militia site: http://1857ironcountymilitia.com/index.php?title=Thomas_H._Cartwright

    On my Cartwright page, I’ve crossed-linked to your page on the 1843 baptism debacle.

    Comment by Rob Briggs — August 14, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  10. Interesting, sad, and well, sad.

    I’ve also noticed a tendency for official Church reports to similarly describe anti Mormon activity in 19th century Tennessee as being directed by sectarian clergy when there is no contempory evidence of it. Is it just paranoia, or is there something in LDS history or early sermons that contributed to this? I know the early temple liturgy placed sectarian ministers in larger oppositional role, but that can’t be the only factor.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 14, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  11. My heart goes out to Thomas Cartwright sitting in jail for murdering his pregnant wife, having just lost her to drowning, listening to reports that she was nearly naked, and wondering where his two little children were–assuming that all of this is factual.

    Thanks, Ardis, for not only telling this sad story, but alerting us to the problems of the media (in this case an LDS rendering of Joseph Smith statements) misleading those in the church today.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 14, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

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