The Mysterious Case of the Lawyer and the Heiress

Spencer Cowper and Sarah Stout

By Ruth Herman

The Mysterious Case of the Lawyer and the Heiress

The Background

One morning in March 1699 in Hertford a rich, young, single heiress was found floating in the river clothed but without her outer garments.  In a matter of minutes it seemed the rumour went around that she had been pregnant and had killed herself.  Three strangers were reported to have been talking about the deceased woman in very suspicious terms. The last person to see her alive, a young lawyer from a prominent local family, testified at the resulting  Coroner’s  inquest that he could not think of a reason why she should kill herself.  Meanwhile, the victim’s mother, determined to clear her daughter’s name (and support the honour of their religious sect) had the body examined independently by two physicians and a midwife for signs of pregnancy.  This proved to be negative.  The Coroner’s verdict was suicide while the balance of her mind was lost.  Not surprisingly these events caused a sensation, not least because the lawyer was Spencer Cowper, the brother and son of two local MPs and the dead heiress, Sarah Stout, was from a prominent Quaker family with strong political connections to the Cowpers.


The story does not end there.  Mary Stout, Sarah’s ‘busie and uneasie’ mother, was still not content with the aspersions cast upon her daughter’s moral and mental deficiencies.[1]   Six weeks after the death she had the body exhumed and called in a number of local physicians to perform a private autopsy.  The results of their investigation revealed that not only was there no sign of pregnancy but the lungs were entirely free from water suggesting that Sarah had not drowned.  Moreover there was bruising around the neck indicative of strangulation.  In Mrs Stout’s mind these facts  added up to foul play and with an affidavit signed by her medical witnesses she had Spencer Cowper and the three strangers arraigned for murder.  The resulting trial was still being discussed 150 years later as a curiosity of English legal history.[2]

In fact, Cowper and his three friends were  acquitted of murder,  but the conflicting evidence left doubts in many minds.  It smacked of a falling out political allies taken to extreme. The depression that appeared to beset the victim and cause her to take her own life was not typical of the woman in question.   Alternatively, there was also the nagging doubt that she was an inconvenient mistress cast off by the married lawyer.  Furthermore there was a suspicion that he had in some way defrauded her of a substantial sum of money because he was known to act as her financial advisor.  Contemporary pamphleteers were quick to take up the scandal and had not forgotten the case even upon Cowper’s death nearly three decades later.

The facts of the case appear to be fairly simple.  On the 13 March 1699 Spencer Cowper,  a 29 year old lawyer,  rode into Hertford to attend the Spring Assizes.  Being a long standing friend of the Stout family he had written on ahead to say he would be visiting them.  Arriving early he refused an invitation to stop before going on into town but, having stabled his horse at the Stout house,  he returned to dine with them.  He went out again at four o’clock and by nine he was back.  Spencer then sat alone with Sarah, the daughter of the house, until sometime between ten and eleven and then she asked the maid to warm his bed.  The maid went upstairs and subsequently heard the door slam. Coming down she saw that Sarah and Spencer had gone out.  Sarah was never seen alive again.

The Trial   

Cowper was accused alongside three other men who seemed to have no good reason to be in Hertford that day. The prosecution’s main case was predicated on the fact that Sarah’s body had no water in the lungs indicating that she had not drowned but was already dead when she entered the water. The marks round her neck suggested that she had been strangled.  In the words of the prosecution the accused had put the rope ‘about the neck’ of Sarah and had then ‘feloniously, voluntarily, and of your malice aforethought, did put, place, fix and bind,… the neck of the said Sarah and …  by the squeezing and griping of the neck and throat … did kill and murder’ her  and then cast the body into the river. This was one of the first trials in English courts to bring in expert witnesses. Much of the argument rested on the results of the autopsy and the two opposing camps called upon their own physicians who gave entirely conflicting opinions.[3]

The prosecution

Along with Cowper, the accomplices were named as Marson, Stevens and Rogers, Cowper’s associates from the legal profession, two lawyers and a scrivener.[4]   The case against them was straightforward if circumstantial.  Having previously asked where to find the victim, their overheard conversation was suspicious. It was alleged that they said that their ‘friend’ was ‘even with her by now’, and that Mistress Stout’s courting days were over. They had a very large sum of money with them which one witness claimed they said they could now spend because their ‘business was done’. They also had inexplicably wet shoes, a rope in their baggage (suspicious in the light of the possible strangling) and an unexplained bundle of clothes (Sarah Stout’s body was missing some over garments).[5]  There were also queries about unexplained absences from Cowper and his three friends and time discrepancies (common in days when time varied from clock to clock and all were acceptable).  Much of these accusations were later discounted.

In addition to this the prosecution called in various witnesses who had experience of drowned bodies.  One testified that a recently drowned child had been found at the bottom of the river, badly swollen with water.  A ship’s doctor confirmed that in his experience all drowned bodies were full of water.  A veteran seaman testified that bodies killed in battle and thrown overboard floated while those who hit the water alive subsequently drowned and then sank. In addition to all this ‘expert evidence’ it was revealed that Cowper had ridden out of town the next morning without bothering to talk to the victim’s mother.  This was deemed surprising given Cowper’s previous intimacy with the family.

The Defence

Cowper, as an experienced and distinguished barrister defended himself and he argued that not only was there scientific evidence to prove his innocence but malicious rumours had played their part in bringing the case to court.  His argument rested on two points.  The first was that the dry lungs did not necessarily indicate that the individual had not drowned and he called in his battalion of seven well-known London doctors who argued that as a result of their exhaustive experimentation they had concluded that Spencer’s point was valid.[6]

However, the most interesting part of his defence concerned the financial and mental issues that evidenced his guilt. The first implication was that he owed Sarah Stout money. This point was dismissed summarily as a misinterpretation of a mortgage which Cowper claimed to have organised purely from the position of a friend with no personal benefit. He claimed in addition that his former political allies, the Quakers, were using the case as a convenient means to blacken his name while hypocritically trying to preserve the illusion of innocence of one of their number.

The arguments concerning Sarah’s mental state were more complex.  The original Coroner’s verdict was that, in effect, Sarah had been suffering from severe depression brought on by her obsessive amorous attachment to Cowper and the putative pregnancy. To prove this Cowper suggested that Stout’s servant who declared that her mistress was ill rather than depressed was an unreliable witness, and that some poison in the house had been bought as part of a suicide attempt  rather than to destroy a stray dog. In addition a London shopkeeper said  that Sarah had admitted that her apparent ‘melancholy’ was due to an unhappy love situation and that she would ‘never live to wear’ the material she had bought for a gown.  Another acquaintance declared that Sarah had deemed herself ‘melancholy’ because she was in love with someone she could not marry, not because he was not a Quaker (the implication being that as a married man he was not free).  Further witnesses (including Cowper’s sister-in-law) attested to Sarah’s suicidal disposition.

Finally Cowper produced letters, said to be in Sarah’s handwriting, but with no addressee.  Surprisingly the Stout family were equivocal on their authenticity, neither confirming nor denying it. One of the letters railed at him for his unkindness. Crucially a further letter pleaded with him that she knew of ‘no inconveniency that can attend your cohabiting with me, unless the Grand Jury should hereupon find a will against us but I won’t fly for’t, for come Life, come Death, I am resolved never to desert you’.  Underpinning this scenario it was claimed that Sarah had fainted at the disappointing news that her would-be lover had been diverted from a visit to Hertford.

Having said all this, the evidence was confused and conflicting.  Even the Judge while suggesting that the conduct of Cowper’s three companions was ‘suspicious’ he had himself ‘omitted many things’ in his summing up because he was ‘a little faint’ and could not ‘repeat any more of the Evidence’.

And so the jury retired.  It took them only thirty minutes to declare the accused as entirely innocent of the charges.

The aftermath

This was not a popular verdict with everybody and pamphlets appeared questioning every aspect of the trial including the integrity of some of the witnesses.[7]  Questions were asked such as to why Sarah was on such good terms with Cowper’s wife if she was his mistress? (The two women would spend considerable amounts of time together). There were questions on the likelihood of her drowning with or without water in her lungs; her mental state was discussed and the political subtext was aired.  Even ten years later the story lingered as a centre piece in a particularly salacious scandal novel  where a key ensured that readers knew the identity of the central characters (the novel was so outrageous that the author was jailed briefly for sedition).[8]   In addition to the obvious sensational elements of a murder trial public interest was raised because it involved the Quakers who were suspected (in collaboration with the local Tories) of manipulating the evidence. Nor did it help that the Cowper family already had a reputation for loose morals; Spencer’s brother William, the MP and later Lord Chancellor was rumoured to have seduced and bigamously married Elizabeth Culling of Hertingfordbury Park and fathered  two children by her.[9]  This latter story may have been mere village gossip but it resonated with Spencer’s situation.

Given that there were powerful people standing behind the Cowper brothers it is perhaps not surprising  that the trial did not ultimately harm Spencer’s very successful career.   He became an MP a few years later and rose in the legal ranks to hold several important and lucrative positions.  However scandal takes a long time to disappear and on his death in 1728 the gossip mongers could not resist one last fling. Two poems appeared very soon, the first in (somewhat dubious) defence of Sarah’s poor ghost:

Now more than twice ten Years, by Thee betray’d
Have I wandered, a dejected Shade; …
I lov’d a Traitor, who with barb’rous Art,
First labour’d to seduce then broke my Heart[10]

The answer from Cowper’s ‘Shade’ followed shortly after:

Then, for Us Both, take this my last Reply;
Nor more to groundless Accusations fly;
On Us, Your Ruin is unjustly thrown:
Murther’s a Guilt indeed; – but ‘tis Your Own[11]

We will probably never know the full truth but the case stands out as an interesting example of political, financial and possibly sexual intrigue in the county town of Hertford.


[1] The Case of Mary Stout Widow, Wing C0961

[2] Paget, John. Judicial Puzzles: Gathered from the State Trials. Vol. 3. S. Whitney, 1876, pp 19-32

[3] Vanessa McMahon, ‘Reading the Body: Dissection and the ‘Murder’ of Sarah Stout, Hertfordshire, 1699’, Social History of Medicine Volume 19, Issue 1, Pp. 19-35.

[4]Somebody whose job involved writing or making handwritten copies of documents, books, or other texts


[6] These included Dr Hans Sloane, physician to Queen Anne and the first two Georges and  Dr Samuel Garth who later became physician to George I.

[7] The Hertford Letter: Containing Several Brief Observations on a Late Printed Trial, Concerning the Murder of Mrs. Sarah Stout (1699) and A Reply to the Hertford Letter: Wherein the Case of Mrs. Stout’s Death is More Particularly Considered; And Mr. Cowper Vindicated From the Slanderous Accusation of Being Accessary to the Same (1699)

[8] Delarivier Manley Secret memoirs and manners of several persons of quality, of both sexes. From the New Atalantis, an island in the Mediterranean. In two volumes. … Written originally in Italian. London 1709

[9] Dictionary of National Biography

[10] Charles Beckingham, Sarah, the Quaker, to Lothario, Lately Deceased, on Meeting Him in the Shades (London, 1728); Lothario’s Answer to Sarah the Quaker, in the Shades (London, 1729).

[11] Lothario’s Answer to Sarah the Quaker, in the Shades (London, 1729).

This page was added on 02/01/2015.

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  • I am the 8th great granddaughter of Sarah Stout. DNA talks. There was a child before Henry died in 1695 and that is why the dowry pot was so over sweetened. My family has carried this oral tradition since then. The child was a boy.

    By Suzan Porter (09/05/2019)
  • Very well presented explanation of this intriguing case.  Deserves a TV series.

    By Elaine Smith (04/05/2015)