Sometime ago Cottontown received an Email from a gentleman in Peru. He was asking for information about a lady named Sarah Ellen Roberts, who had lived in Blackburn in the early part of the twentieth century. Her story was that having been put on trial for murder, witchcraft and being a vampire, she was found guilty by the town’s court and sentenced to death.
Her name was not unknown to the staff of Cottontown; they had first heard it mentioned in 1993 when the story first hit the headlines. That it should appear again after so long was, to say the least, something of a surprise to them.
It was in June of 1993 when Sarah Ellen’s story became news. It appeared in the local paper, and national papers and even television found room for it.
This then is her story and how she found fame long after her death.
Most of the story takes place in the city of Pisco, in Peru, and so I thought it might be in order to write a little about the place.
Pisco, which means bird, lies on the coast of Peru and is the capital of Pisco province. It is a busy fishing port about 125 miles south of the capital Lima. Founded in 1640 by Pedro Alvarez de Toledo y Leiva it was given city status in 1898. It is best known for its extremely strong brandy of the same name, which is the national drink of Peru; the grape used to make it is cultivated in the locality of Pisco. In 1682 it was devastated by earthquake and again in 2007. The population in 2021-22 was 54,857.
The Story Begins:
The story starts at the beginning of June 1913, when 41-year-old Sarah Ellen Roberts, the wife of John Pryce Roberts, of 25 Isherwood-street Blackburn was accused of murder and the practising of witchcraft. At her trial held at Blackburn she was found guilty and sentenced to death. (footnote 1) Her punishment was that she should be chained and sealed alive in a lead lined coffin. The sentence was carried out on the 9th of June 1913. Just as the coffin lid was being put on, she cursed and swore that she would return to avenge herself in 80 years’ time. When John tried to inter his wife’s body, he found the church authorities had little sympathy for him and refused him permission to bury his wife in consecrated ground. John travelled the length and breadth of the country trying to find a resting place for his late wife but could find no one willing to accept the body. In desperation he set sail with the coffin in the hope of finding some country that would allow him to bury his late wife.
Eventually he landed in Peru and made his way to Pisco where he purchased a grave for £5 and finally laid his wife to rest.
Over his wife’s grave he placed a headstone which reads:
In Memory of Sarah Ellen,
Of Blackburn, England.
Born March 6, 1872 and Died June 9, 1913.
After burying his wife John is said to have returned to England and was never heard of again.
For the next part of the story, we have to travel forward 80 years to 1993. Early in that year Cristina Saralegui made a television program about vampirism. One of the stories mentioned on the show was Sarah Ellen’s. One aspect of the programme tried to show the similarities between Bram Stoker's fictional Dracula and the story of John and Sarah Roberts. An event that would certainly have added credence to the programme happened not long before it was broadcast, a large crack mysteriously appeared in Sarah Ellen’s headstone, this, no doubt, would have had some effect on the audience listening to the show at Pisco. After the show interest in Sarah Ellen’s story soared. People began to visit the cemetery; rumours abounded about what would happen when she returned. When asked about the story a British Embassy official was reported to have said. “She died in Blackburn, but the people there were afraid to let her be buried there. I’m afraid the legend has taken hold of Pisco. They firmly believe the woman was a vampire and is coming back to haunt them. People have been arriving from all over the country. It’s quite amazing.”
Days before her predicted return the local shops started selling what they called “Vampire Kits.” These could be purchased for two and a half dollars and consisted of a crucifix, wooden stake and mallet, a string of garlic and a booklet containing the legend, business was brisk. There were t-shirts with pictures of vampires, key rings and other related articles on sale.
People bearing crosses began visiting the cemetery to pray at Sarah’s graveside, in particular a group of women dressed in black and wearing red rings on their fingers had gathered there. After they had placed flowers on the grave, they began to sing hymns accompanied by two violins. As more and more people were visiting the cemetery some local journalists went to the authorities and asked for the body to be exhumed to “prevent the rumours of her return,” but the request was denied.
On the 9th of June hundreds of people spent the day gathered around Sarah’s grave waiting for her return. Throughout the town many people had decorated their house doors and chimney-breasts with large cloves of garlic. Extra police had to be brought in to the town as hundreds of sightseers began to arrive. Radio and television stations from all over Peru set up their equipment in the cemetery, ready for the coming night.
Throughout the day numerous people were interviewed by the media, a priest when asked about the event said "After 80 years Sarah Ellen is either in heaven and holy, or below, in the heat." When the cemetery’s grave-digger, Jose Molina was interviewed, he said, “What scares me is that I think I will be her first victim. I have spent all the day drinking and I will spend all the night doing the same.” The head of Pisco’s main hospital Carlos Castro told reporters that pregnant women were fleeing the town, fearing that Sarah’s spirit might reincarnate in their unborn babies. Overhead a helicopter could be seen flying above the town, from it Paulo Henrique Amorim, a journalist, described the scene below, saying, “The view of Pisco from so high shows a small, sleepy town, but down there people are carrying stakes, crosses and performing exorcism. Are we in Peru or Transylvania?”
As night approached and the people became more restless, Bishop Ricardo Durand called for calm and suggested that the people should prey for Sarah Ellen’s soul.
Crosses and garlic were being sold right up to the last minute, and one man was heard to comment as he bought his cross, “If there were vampires in the past they certainly do not exist today.” At the graveside as midnight approached four women could be seen performing a strange ritual as another woman, who admitted to being a witch, spread flower petals on the grave, while urging people not to be frightened as Sarah Ellen would probably be reincarnated as a good vampire.
As midnight approached the police began to clear an area around the grave, only allowing some “mystics” who began to exorcise the grave, by sprinkling blood on it and chanting mantras.
Midnight came and went and nothing happened. The people were told that the “curse has not been fulfilled.” Singing began and flowers were thrown on to her grave as people paraded past. The mystics proclaimed that their ceremony had prevented Sarah Ellen from rising.
In the early morning the crowds began to disperse, most were disappointed, but some still believed that the curse was not over and that Sarah had decided to be resurrected into a “new life” rather than return from the dead.
At dawn a group of nuns came, they laid a wreath and said prayers over her grave. During the morning people once again began to gather at the graveside, a band came and began to play hymns as the people sang. As the day wore on the crowds began to leave Sarah Ellen’s grave and by late afternoon only a few people could be seen in the cemetery. Over the next few days, the mystics boasted that their rituals had prevented Sarah Ellen’s resurrection. Others weren’t so sure, for months after, sightings of a strange figure roaming the back streets of Pisco were common.
The Mayor of Pisco, Edgar Nunez, told reporters that tourism in the area had increased by over 60% since the vampire scare had started. He said he would very much like his town to be linked with Blackburn and so keep the story of Sarah Ellen alive and suggested that Pisco and Blackburn should be twinned. When the vice-chairman of the sub-committee, which handles twinning issues in Blackburn, heard this he said, “Peru is a heck of a long way away, but if they write to us, we will consider it.” Blackburn’s Mayor, Paul Browne did not seem so sure, he said, “This vampire lark will do our town no good at all. People around the world will think we are bloodsuckers.” The two towns were never twinned.
Before continuing I have to say I have not embellished the above story in any way. It is how it was reported in the newspapers in this country and in Peru and how it was presented on Peruvian television and radio.
About The People:
So, what do we know about John Pryce Roberts and his wife Sarah Ellen?
After 96 years it is hard to get a true picture of the couple. There are no known photographs of either of them, nothing is known about their personalities or of their private lives. However, by using the censuses and other documents we can find a little about them.
John Pryce Roberts was born at Chorley in 1869, the third child of Thomas Roberts and Margaret Eleanor Pryce. There were four other children Sarah E. born at Heapey in 1866; Lucy H. born at White Coppice in 1868; Thomas 1870 and James 1873 who were both born at Blackburn, where the family then settled.
John’s father Thomas, died in 1877. Just over a year after his death Margaret remarried, her new husband being Thomas James Moffatt. They lived at 14 Brook-street Blackburn. By 1891 John and Thomas had left the family home and were living at 22 Charlotte-street. They were boarders with their eldest sister and her husband James Wilson. John aged 22 was a weaver and Thomas 20 was an overlooker. Nothing else is known about him at this time.
William Gargett married Catherine Abbott at Yorkshire in 1864. They had four children, Rose A. born at Ask, Yorkshire, in 1865; Arthur, born at Stockton, Durham, in 1870; Sarah Ellen born at Burnley in 1872 and William born at Blackburn in 1878.
In 1881 when Sarah was 9, they were living at 151 Bolton-road, Blackburn, their father at this time was a coachman.
When and how John Pryce Roberts and Sarah Ellen Gargett first met is unknown. Whenever it was, they married in St. John’s Church Blackburn on 1st March 1892.
By the time of the 1901 census, they lived at 25 Isherwood-street Blackburn and had two children William, born 1893 and Frank, born 1892, Robert and Sarah were both weavers.
In 1901 John’s younger brother Thomas left his job as manager of St Paul’s weaving mill, Nab-lane to take up a similar position at a cotton mill in Lima, Peru. Three years later his wife joined him and he took a partnership with another English man in the cottonseed oil trade. In July 1907 Thomas his wife Mary and two children returned to Blackburn for a holiday, his business must have been a success because they travelled first class. During this visit Thomas gave an interview to the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph about life in Peru. They returned to Lima in December of that same year.
That John went out to Peru at least twice is certain but how long he stayed is not.
On the 14th of December 1911 the list of Alien Passengers entering New York gives John Roberts as “in transit” from Lima, Peru, where he had been staying with his brother, back to his wife at 25 Isherwood-street Blackburn, England.
When he went out is not known but it is doubtful that he intended staying as his name appears on the electoral register from 1909 right through to 1914 without a break, which would suggest that John only went to Peru to visit his brother. John must have gone out to Peru again late 1912 or early in 1913, this time taking his wife Sarah with him. They left their two children in the charge of Lily Gargett, Sarah Ellen’s aunt. I cannot find any record of them going through New York on this trip so perhaps they travelled directly to Peru.
Had they planned to stay there this time? Had John's first visit been to arrange things with his brother, I don’t know. What is known, however is that on the 9th of June 1913 Sarah died in Pisco, Peru. What the cause of her death was is now a mystery. There was a story that Sarah had another son while she was in Peru which they called Thomas so perhaps she died in childbirth or maybe she died of some disease? Without a death certificate it is impossible to say. I have tried to find something about her having a son out there but cannot.
An announcement of Sarah’s death appears in the obituary column of the Northern Daily Telegraph, which reads:
ROBERTS:--On the 9th inst., at Pisco, Peru, Sarah Ellen, the beloved wife of John P. Roberts (formerly of 25 Isherwood-street, Blackburn.) In her 42nd year. Deeply regretted.
The following week an acknowledgment appeared in the same paper from Sarah’s two sons and her aunt who were living at 25 Isherwood-street.
John did not remain long in Peru after his wife’s death; by 1914 his name is back on the electoral register; however, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph of June 10th 1993 says that John returned to England in 1922 but I don’t think that is correct. For two years from 1918 to 1920 John does not appear in the electoral register, Sarah’s aunt, Lily Gargett is shown as living at 25 Isherwood-street and William, who is now of full age is there in 1920. Both William and Frank are on the register. John’s name appears again in 1920 at this time his occupation is a caretaker.
In 1922 the family moved to 107 Johnston Street where John opened a grocer's shop, which he ran until his death in October 1925. He was buried at Blackburn cemetery Whalley Old-road on the 22nd of October of that year.
John’s two sons continued to run the shop until about 1930. Both William and Frank were married while living at Johnston Street.
Frank, the youngest son died in 1950 and was buried with his father.
That then is their story. There seems to be nothing special about them. There are no reports in the papers about them having lived a debauched life, nothing; they were just an ordinary family.
So how did such a story start?
The grand children of Sarah and John knew nothing of this story until they read about it in the newspapers, however when asked for a possible reason they said;
“She probably died away from Pisco and he (John) simply carried her in a coffin to the village where the Mill was, to have her buried. They are very superstitious out there, so they probably thought there was something sinister.”
This explanation assumes that John and Sarah were living and working in Peru at the time, but the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Was the television programme aired six months before the events given above happened looking for a story, and finding an English woman’s grave in the cemetery did they decide to weave a legend around it? Who can tell? They say most legends have a basis in fact but can that be really true about this story? For instance, the courts in Blackburn could not have tried Sarah and sentenced her to death for any crime, and even in those days the worst that could have happened to her for practising witchcraft would have been a prison sentence. Had she been found guilty of murder she would have been executed by hanging certainly not shut up in a coffin lead lined or not.
In my opinion the media of Peru played upon the superstition of the local people and wove a legend around an English woman who had the misfortune to die in that country. But just in case I’m wrong, when you go to bed tonight make sure your windows are tightly shut and the garlic is secured over your front door… You never know!
One source says Sarah Ellen Roberts had two sisters called Andrea and Erica. They were also charged with murder and witchcraft at the same time as Sarah, and suffered the same fate. These were, supposedly the “three brides of Dracula.” In this story John took the three coffins with him, burying Andrea in Mexico and Erica in Hungary or Panama.