While there’s not much written on the murder of Sarah MacFarlane, it’s still an interesting Victorian murder case that can be pieced together by the trial transcript available on Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Victorian newspapers digitized online, and some secondary sources on the internet (but a researcher really needs to scour the web to find information). My interest in the case was sparked after reading about it in The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones, and Other Victorian Scandals by Michelle Morgan.
Sarah MacFarlane, a widow in her mid-forties living in London, started an affair with her neighbor, Augustus Dalmas, in the months after his wife died in June 1843. Sarah had been close to the Dalmas family, even being present when Mrs. Dalmas lay on her deathbed. She even took in his teenage daughters to help care for them after Mrs. Dalmas’s death. Overwhelmed and distraught with the loss of his wife, Augustus fled his home and abandoned his teenage daughters. He claimed he could not handle her loss and considered committing suicide. However, the neighborhood rumor mill circulated that Augustus had been involved in shady business ventures and fled with all the family’s money.
Sarah found work for his teenage daughters by the time Augustus resurfaced months later. He resumed living next-door to Sarah, and shortly after, they began an affair. According to Morgan’s book,The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones, and Other Victorian Scandals, Sarah created a private entrance between their homes, so she had easier access to Augustus without being seen by the local community or her sister, who lived nearby.
Augustus Dalmas was a man prone to dramatics. He had a very guilty conscience, starting an affair so quickly after his wife’s death, that he wanted to end the relationship with Sarah. However, instead of breaking the news to her, like anyone with a sane mind, he decided to flee (yes, again) to Liverpool and contemplate suicide (yes, again) there. After some convincing from one of his daughters, he returned to London and was engaged to Sarah by the end of 1843.
Augustus often referred to himself as Sarah’s husband in letters and even wrote a contract binding him towards marital intentions. He also bequeathed to her five hundred pounds and two homes in France he stood to inherit from an aunt. However, the marriage never occurred for several reasons.
Sarah’s sister, Ellen, disliked Augustus. Ellen likely saw him for the dramatic character he was, and Augustus blamed her for driving him to flee to Liverpool and commit suicide (yeah, play the victim card, Augustus). Augustus also accused Sarah of stealing money from him and taking advantage of him in the months after his wife’s death. The rumor mill was also spinning again, and this time in Sarah’s direction. She was supposedly having an affair with a man named Meredith. Augustus’s friends also accused Sarah of being a prostitute, a business she ran discreetly from her home. These, of course, could have been nothing but vicious rumors his friends whispered into his ears, because Sarah’s friends never mentioned she was a prostitute in court transcripts or letters.
At first, Augustus ignored these rumors. He continued to treat Sarah as before, writing her love letters, taking her to the theatre, plying her with money, but he was digging himself into a financial hole between this strange courtship and his lifestyle. His jealousy was growing as these rumors about an alleged affair with the man named “Meredith” and her prostitution continued to churn.
On April 20th, 1844, Sarah and Augustus were spending the day together in her home. He asked Sarah’s son, William, to sharpen his knife. This was an innocent favor, one which her son obliged. In the days that followed this incident, Augustus wrote a few letters to Sarah. He asked her to meet him (for what purpose can be speculated on), but she rebuffed him.
On April 28th, 1844, the couple made love in the early morning, but by 10:30pm, on Battersea Bridge, Augustus had slit Sarah’s throat with the knife he’d asked William to sharpen. He fled the bridge, but he didn’t go too far. He waited to see what would happen, and for reasons only known to him, he started to run down the street and shout for police.
Passerby on the bridge found Sarah with blood trickling from the wound. Several accompanied her to a nearby tavern, where she identified Augustus as her attacker. She soon died from the gash across her neck.
Eyewitness testimony and rambling letters found in Augustus’s home, never sent to Sarah but revealing the extent of his simmering hatred towards her, were entered into court as evidence. Augustus was found guilty of murder, but instead of finding himself swinging by a noose, he was sent to Australia.
All About Battersea by Henry S. Simmonds
The Battered Body Beneath the Flagstones, and Other Victorian Scandals book by Michelle Morgan
Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates and Universal Information Relating to All Ages and Nations by Joseph Haydn and Benjamin Vincent
Scandals REVEALED: Ten shocking stories of the Victorian age by Michelle Morgan
Trial of AUGUSTUS DALMAS (t18440610-1775) on Old Bailey Proceedings Online