WEIRD NORFOLK: The Victorian ‘vampire’ serial killer from Happisburgh buried with a cake

PUBLISHED: 18:00 29 August 2020

Happisburgh village views - St Mary the Virgin Church


Happisburgh village views - St Mary the Virgin Church Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Archant Norfolk 2015

The Victorian serial killer who murdered time after time in Happisburgh and who was buried with a poker and coal tongs to use in hell

Famous for its candy-striped lighthouse, crumbling cliffs and prehistoric footprints, Happisburgh also boasts its own roll call of chilling former residents. There was the Happisburgh Torso, the terrifying ghost of a sailor without legs and with his head trailing behind him and today we tell the tale of the ghastly pensionable serial killer whose victims were all family members.

At St Mary’s Church in the village, there is an unmarked grave said to be that of Jonathan Balls, Happisburgh’s infamous serial killer. An unpopular villager who had been accused of a host of petty crimes, Balls had reached the venerable age of 82 before dying on April 20 1846. His funeral was poorly attended: he had precious few friends and many of his family had died – more of which, later. The deceased had asked to be buried with an assortment of items: a Bible, a plum cake and a poker and coal tongs – it seems Mr Balls was prepared for all eventualities whether his soul descended upwards to heaven or downwards to hell.

Jonathan’s death was the latest in a long line of family members who had all died in a similar manner: from a clear blue sky, previously hale and hearty relatives had been struck with severe chest pain and vomiting. Their deaths had swiftly followed. Granddaughter Anne Elizabeth Pestle had died three days before her grandfather, his bedridden wife Elizabeth had gone to meet her Maker five months previously in December 1845 and grandson Samuel had died in September 1845. The locals began to talk and begged the local coroner to take action: after their third bout of campaigning, he ordered an inquest and in May 1846, ordered the exhumation of Jonathan and his granddaughter Ann.

Medics quickly revealed that both Ann and her grandfather’s stomach’s contained enough arsenic to poison the entire population of Happisburgh. When the matter was investigated, it was discovered that Balls had bought huge quantities of arsenic – claiming it was to help him kill rats – over a period of many years, during which time even more members of the family had died. The first to die was granddaughter Ann Pegg, aged eight, in June 1830, five years before daughter Maria Lacey, aged 24, died in July 1835. Granddaughter Maria Green, aged 13 months, died in December 1836 before a double tragedy in October 1841 when Jonathan’s granddaughter Martha Green died aged 13 months along with her three-year-old brother, William.

More exhumations were ordered in what was a grisly chapter in Happisburgh’s history.

The London New Weekly Bell Messenger of June 13 published a report: “The inquiry respecting the appalling deaths by poisoning, in the village and neighbourhood of Happisburgh, was brought to a close on Thursday evening, and further murders have been detected.

“It is not fully known, and probably never will be, the extent to which this poisoning system was carried out. The deceased, old Jonathan Balls, had seven children, four daughters and three sons.

“Three daughters are married, and reside in the vicinity of Happisburgh. One died, as appeared in evidence last week, partly in consequence of the ill-treatment of her husband, W. Lacey, a fisherman, but who is now ascertained to have perished from the effects of arsenic.

“The names of the daughters now living are Green, Pestle, and Pegg. Mrs Green has had eleven children, and seven of them died suspiciously between 1836 and 1845. Mrs Pestle had six children, four of them are dead, three were found to be poisoned. Mrs Pegg had five children, one of whom died in 1839, under circumstances of great suspicion”

The report went on to catalogue Balls’ past crimes and point out his dependency on his married daughters in order to survive for the final 20 years of his life.

“…the supposition is that he poisoned his grandchildren in order that their parents might be better able to support him. In addition to the many deaths charged against old Balls, it is now believed that he disposed of his two sons, who have been dead more than ten years, and his father and mother,” continued the report.

Jonathan’s own death, it was claimed, was suicide following the growing rumours about his involvement in the deaths of so many family members. A local legend says that when the serial killer’s body was exhumed, it was found to be perfectly preserved, leading some to believe the old man had been a vampire. Folklore stated that evil people buried on consecrated ground could transform into the blood-sucking killers, so it is said that he was taken away from the church and reburied at a crossroads.

The practice of staking the bodies buried at crossroads to prevent them becoming vampires after death was outlawed by legislation in 1834, 12 years before Jonathan Balls died.

But no one can vouch for what happened when Happisburgh’s serial killer was reburied – and dead men can’t tell tales.

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