Here’s a cheery tale from the British Library collections to entertain you as you tuck into tasty seasonal fare. A Romance of a Mince Pie involves a pastry cook, a dog, and some arsenic.
Travel back with us to Victorian England, to the town of Forty Winks. In the High Street lived pastry cook and confectioner John Chirrup and his niece Pattie. John was a popular man ‘of easy and festive disposition’ and ‘merry good-heartedness’, famed for his Christmas mince pies.
Next door lived ‘snarling, sulky, ill-tempered’ Snitch and his vicious dog Angel. Angel’s howling kept John Chirrup awake at night, so grocer Bob Tanks suggested that Chirrup should feed Angel a mince pie made especially for him: ‘There is some things - as a dog don’t bark arter eating them -’.
So Chirrup ‘bent his furtive way’ to the local druggist and bought some arsenic, claiming it was needed to kill rats. Returning home, he sprinkled arsenic into a mince pie, spurred on by the sight of Angel biting young Tommy Sawyer.
Chirrup was about to lock away the pie when he was distracted by Pattie and left the shop. Returning, he was horrified to glimpse a hungry boy running away with the poisoned pie. Chirrup ‘was not given to gymnastics, but he vaulted into the public part of the shop, and rushed into the street’.
However Chirrup lost sight of the thief. He was convinced that he was culpable of murder and wrote a confession note before attempting suicide by jumping into Drowned Man’s Hole. Luckily he was saved by some fishermen.
Meanwhile Snitch had come across the mince pie thief ‘in the act of opening a pair of pretty capacious jaws for the first bite’. Snitch grabbed the pie and the boy ran off pursued by Angel ‘who always followed any retreating object with cannibalistic designs’.
Soon afterwards Snitch found Chirrup’s confession and had the pastry cook arrested. Wild rumours swept through Forty Winks as to how many people Chirrup had poisoned. After a few hours ‘it was announced on good grounds that the confectioner had entered into a contract with a wholesale London chemist for regular supplies of arsenic and prussic acid’.
Pattie suddenly realised that no-one had actually named her uncle’s victim. Who was dead? The mayor went to the prison to ask Chirrup. Then Mrs Groats, the baker’s wife, found Angel dead after Snitch had fed the poisoned pie to his dog. She realised what must have happened and explained this to the townsfolk. The mayor said he was glad that the troublesome Angel was dead and immediately freed Chirrup.
And there our story ends. Still planning to reach for that second mince pie?
For the full story, see- Angus Bethune Reach, A Romance of a Mince Pie (London, 1848) with illustrations by Phiz