Mary Ann Ansell
In Victorian times attitudes to
mental illness were very different to those of today, the policy being
to confine patients diagnosed with such illnesses to large asylums
which were being built all over the country.
One such facility was
Leavesden Mental Asylum which had been
built at Abbots Langley in Buckinghamshire by the Metropolitan Asylums
Board to serve north London. It was opened in 1870 to house "quiet
and harmless imbeciles" and soon had over 1500 patients, of which some
900 were women. One of these was nineteen year old Caroline Ansell,
who had come from a family with a background of mental health
Caroline’s older sister, Mary
Ann, aged eighteen or twenty two depending upon which report you read,
worked as a maid to a wealthy household in Coram Street in the then
fashionable Bloomsbury area of London and was engaged to a young man.
Neither Mary Ann nor her fiancée had any money and had had to postpone
their wedding because they could not afford the cost of a marriage
licence which was seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p).
This situation did not suit Mary
Ann who devised a plot to insure her sister’s life and then kill her
to obtain the pay out. For a premium of three old pence (1.5p) a week
she would get £22 on the death of her sister. This was to be
accomplished using a phosphorous based rat poison which she bought
from a local shop near where she worked. She stirred the poison into
a cake mix, baked the cake and sent it through the post to her sister
on Ward 7 at Leavesden on the 9th of March
1899. Caroline decided to share the cake with some of her friends and
all became ill. However Caroline ate considerably more of the cake
than the rest had and therefore had far more severe symptoms. The
staff were at full stretch at the time
dealing with an outbreak of typhoid amongst the inmates and it was
some time before Caroline was seen by a doctor. He immediately
admitted her to the infirmary but it was too late to save the poor
An autopsy was carried out by Dr.
Blair who declared the cause of death to be phosphorous poisoning.
This was traced back to the remains of the cake and via the postmark
on the wrapping paper it came in, back to Mary Ann. She was arrested
and charged with the murder by Supt. Wood.
She vehemently denied it telling Supt. Wood “I know
nothing whatever about it. I am as innocent a girl as ever was born”
and saying that she had purchased the rat poison to kill rats
in her employer’s home. Her mistress, Mrs. Maloney, told the police
that the house was not infested with vermin and that she had not asked
for any rat poison to be purchased.
Mary Ann came to trial at
Hertford Assizes in St. Albans on the 30th of June 1899 before Mr.
Justice Mathew, the proceedings lasting two days. The prosecution made
much of Mary Ann’s motive for the crime and brought forward various
witnesses to bolster their case. A shop assistant from Bloomsbury
gave evidence of Mary Ann buying the poison for the purpose of killing
rats, which at the time did not seem in any way unusual. Evidence was
presented as to the cause of Caroline’s death and the origins of the
Mary Ann continued to plead her
innocence but had no convincing defence. The jury took two hours to
find her guilty and did not make a recommendation to mercy, despite
her age. She was sentenced to death and returned to St. Albans
Prison. This prison had facilities for female prisoners but had not
had an execution since 1880, when Thomas Wheeler was hanged there.
(The father of Mary Eleanor Wheeler). It
did not have a gallows and had to borrow one from neighbouring Bedford
Even though it seemed like a
clear case of premeditated murder their was
considerable public agitation for a reprieve, perhaps due to Mary’s
youth and family background. We have seen this before in other cases
of the period. There was a resolution passed by the Metropolitan
Asylums Board urging for clemency for Mary Ann. Some newspapers, such
as the Daily Mail, also asked for a reprieve and tried to paint Mary
Ann as the victim of society, being a poor maidservant. It ran the
headline “A one-sided investigation” and complained that the Home
Office had not made any effort to assess Mary Ann’s mental state. Her
mother had told the press that she “had been silly since the time she
was at school” and that she sometimes talked to herself. A hundred
Members of Parliament had signed a petition on the day before she was
due to die, calling for a week's postponement in carrying out the
sentence while her mental state was determined. The Home Secretary,
Sir Mathew White Ridley was not moved by all this and determined, as
usual in the case of deliberate poisoning, that the law must take its
In a letter from the Home Office,
dated July 15th 1889 to Mr. Jobson who had organised the public
petition to save Mary Ann, it was stated that “The Secretary of State
having carefully considered all circumstances of the case and having
caused special medical enquiry to be made as to the convict’s mental
condition by Dr. D. Nicholson, Visitor in Lunacy and Dr. R.
Brayn, Superintendent of the Broadmoor
Asylum under Section 2 of the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884 has been
unable to find sufficient grounds to justify him in advising Her
Majesty to interfere with the course of law.” In other words she was
legally sane under the terms of the M’Naughten Rules.
She was therefore hanged by James
Billington within the walls of St. Albans prison at 8 a.m. on
Wednesday, the 19th of July, 1899. The press were excluded and thus
we have no actual details of her execution. A crowd estimated at
around 2,000 had gathered at the main gate to see the black flag
hoisted over the prison and the notice of execution posted. Some
knelt silently in prayer at the appointed hour. Mary Ann’s body was
examined by the prison surgeon, Eustace Henry
Lipscombe who, as was required by law signed the death
certificate. An inquest was held at 10am and the Chief Warder told
the jury that Mary’s death hade been “instantaneous” and that her neck
had been broken. She was buried in an unmarked grave within the
prison later in the day. In 1931, her remains were
re-interred in the St. Albans City cemetery.
Mary Ann secured her place in
history as the youngest woman to be hanged in private and the last
woman to be hanged in the nineteenth century. She was the fourth of
five women to be executed by James Billington. Of the 23 women
executed in private between 1868 and 1899, 12 or just over half, had
been convicted of murder by poisoning.
A Home Office file made public in
2000 revealed that she had admitted sending Caroline the poisoned
cake, mistakenly thinking that the death would not be investigated
because her sister was in an asylum.