Because Mondays are MURDER...

Monday, 4 June 2012

Murderous Monday - Women Who Kill - Mary Ann Britland, First Woman To Hang At Strangeways Prison

On the 9th August 1886, Mary Ann Britland met her maker at the end of James Berry's rope.  The first woman to hang at Strangeways Prison

Mary Ann Britland was born Mary Ann Hague in 1847, Oldham Lancashire.  The eldest daughter of Jonathan and Hannah (nee Lee) Hague.

In 1866 she married Thomas Britland, a domestic servant.  They had two daughters together, Elizabeth Hannah in 1867 and Susannah in 1868.  The 1871 Census shows them living at Park Bridge, Ashton-under-Lyne before they moved to 133 Turner Lane where they can be found on the 1881 Census, later they moved to 92 Turner Lane.  Mary Ann worked two jobs to help make ends meet, a cotton reeler in a factory by day and a barmaid by night.

However by the February of 1886 the Britland home was not a happy one.  Mary Ann had taken up an affair with her neighbour Thomas Dixon, who lived across the street at 128 Turner Lane.  Mary Ann had purchased some Harrison's Vermin Killer from her local chemist supposedly to rid her home of mice.  Harrison's Vermin Killer contained both strychnine and arsenic and thus Mary Ann was required to sign the poisons register.

Soon afterwards Mary Ann's 19 year old daughter Elizabeth Hannah became deathly ill.  Elizabeth was to die on 9th March of 1886, her death attributed to natural causes, leaving Mary Ann free to collect the £10 life insurance policy.  Thomas Britland was to follow his daughter on 3rd May of 1886 from suspected epilepsy.  Again Mary Ann collected the £10 life insurance policy.

Feeling sorry for her recently bereaved neighbour Mary Dixon the wife of Mary Ann's love interest invited her over to 128 Turner Lane for supper and to stay the night.  The kindhearted Mary was soon to become Mary Ann's third victim, she passed away on 14th May after a sudden illness.

Three people in the same street, all dying within a few months of the exact same symptoms could not be ignored.  A paper of the time reports:

"Suspicious Neighbours Alert the Police

Mrs Britland, who worked as a reeler in a factory, lived at 92 Turner Lane, Ashton-under-Lyne with her husband Thomas, and daughter Elizabeth Ann, who died suddenly on 9th March. Mrs Britland’s husband died on the 3rd of May, suffering suspected epilepsy and the third death, that of Mary Dixon, wife of Thomas Dixon, the Britlands’ neighbours, occurred on 14th May [both couples were Thomas and Mary]. It was only after Mary Dixon’s death that suspicions were aroused and other neighbours contacted the police. It subsequently transpired that Mrs Britland claimed £10 life insurance on her daughter’s death and on the day of her husband’s death, but prior to his becoming ill, she paid up arrears on his life insurance policy."

Mary Ann was questioned by police in connection with Mary Dixon's death and the body was examined by a pathologist.  The body was found to contain lethal levels of both arsenic and strychnine, the two main ingredients in Harrison's Vermin Killer.  Mary Ann and Thomas Dixon were arrested on suspicion of murder.  As soon as Mary Ann arrived at Ashton police station she made a full confession, stating that she had first poisoned her daughter as she believed Elizabeth  suspected the affair between her and Thomas Dixon and was about to tell her husband.  She then killed her husband and finally Mary Dixon in the hope that Thomas Dixon would later marry her.

Manchester Assizes 1886  (c) Manchester Libraries

Thomas Dixon was found to have played no part in the murder of his wife and was released without charge.  How much he knew of Mary Ann's intentions is not clear, but he testified against her during her trial at Manchester Assizes.

"Mr Dixon Describes the Last Supper

On the night his wife fell ill, Mr Dixon and his wife had been together until 8 o’clock, and then gone separate ways. Mr Dixon did not get home until 10 and when he got home learned his wife had asked Mrs Britland to come and have supper and get ready for bed. For their supper they had bread and butter, tea and mixed pickles. He could not tell if his wife had anything at Mrs Britland’s house. He had known Mrs Britland for three years, and she had been at his house 10 days before his wife died. His wife was insured in two companies, and he had received more than £29 from them."

On 22nd July, after four hours deliberation the jury found Mary Ann Britland guilty of murder.  She was sentenced to death.  The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported on 24th July:

“Mrs Britland, whose demeanour in the dock had been remarkable for coolness and self-possession, utterly broke down under the capital sentence, and was removed from the dock shrieking loudly.”

Mary Ann Britland was hung at Strangeways Prison on the morning of 9th August 1886.  The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, reported:

“The scene, whilst the procession was moving from the condemned cell to the scaffold, was very painful. The voice of the chaplain as he read the prayers was completely drowned by the wild appeals of Britland as she cried: ‘Oh Lord have mercy! Oh Lord forgive me!’ She was supported on the scaffold by two female warders and, when once there, everything was soon over."

Strangeways Prison 1951 (c) Manchester Libraries

Mary Ann was buried within the grounds of Strangeways, but she was not to rest in peace.  During the 1990 riots much of the prison facility was damaged and had to be rebuilt.  During this time the prison cemetery was demolished and the remains of between 60 -100 executed prisoners were cremated and interred in a communal grave at Blackley Cemetery.

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