Mary Ann Britland
(1847–1886) of Ashton-under-Lyne was the first woman to be
executed by hanging at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, England by
James Berry on 9 August 1886.
Mary Ann Hague was born in
Bolton, Lancashire the second eldest daughter of Jonathan and
Hannah (nee Lees) Hague. She married Thomas Britland at St
Michaels Ashton-under-Lyne in 1866. They lived in a rented house,
133 Turner Lane, Ashton-under-Lyne with their two daughters.
Britland held two jobs; she was a factory worker by day and
barmaid by night
In February 1886, she is said to have had some
mice infest her home; to eliminate these, she went to the nearby
chemist's and bought some packets of "Harrison's Vermin Killer".
As this contained both strychnine and arsenic, she was required to
sign the poison register.
Britland's first victim was her eldest
daughter, 19-year-old Elizabeth Hannah, in March 1886. Elizabeth's
death was attributed to natural causes by the doctor who was
called to attend the teenager. Mary Ann Britland then claimed £10
on Elizabeth's life insurance policy. Her next victim was her
husband, Thomas, aged 44. His death on 3 May was diagnosed as
epilepsy, and once again Mary Ann claimed on the insurance. She
had been having an affair with her neighbour, Thomas Dixon, and
after her own husband's death, was invited to stay at the Dixon's
house just across the street at number 128 by Thomas' 29-year-old
wife, Mary. On 14 May Mary Dixon was to become Britland's third
and final victim.
Trial and Sentencing
The three deaths, all with their near identical
and somewhat unusual symptoms, raised suspicion; Mary Ann Britland
was finally interviewed by the police in connection with Mary
Dixon's death and her body was examined by a pathologist. It was
found to contain a lethal quantity of the two poisons and Britland
was immediately arrested along with Thomas Dixon. She confessed to
Ashton police that she had wanted to marry Dixon and that she had
first poisoned her daughter, Elizabeth, because she believed that
she suspected her intentions. She then killed her husband, and
finally Mary Dixon.
Britland was charged with the murder of the
three victims, but Thomas Dixon was found to have played no part
in the murder of his wife. Britland came to trial on 22 July 1886,
before Mr. Justice Cave at Manchester Assizes. Since there was an
absence of motive, in her defence she argued that the small sum of
money from the insurance payouts were in no way compensation for
the loss of her husband and daughter. According to an eyewitness
at the trial:
The case lasted two days...The evidence was
overwhelming. The three deceased persons had been poisoned by
strychnine. Mrs. Britland had purchased 'mouse powder' in
sufficient quantities to kill them all, and there was no
evidence of any mice on whom it could have been legitimately
used. The case of the poisoning of Mrs. Dixon was the one
actually tried, but the deaths of the others were proved to show
'system' and rebut the defence of accident. Even if there had
not been sufficient evidence to secure a conviction, Mrs.
Britland had had many indiscreet conversations about 'mouse
powder' and poisoning, and had been anxious to discover whether
such poisoning could be traced after death...
It took the jury some time to convict her,
although eventually they found her guilty. After she was
sentenced, she declared to the court: "I am quite innocent, I am
not guilty at all."
On the morning of her
execution, Britland was in a state of collapse and had to be
heavily assisted to the gallows and held up on the trapdoors by
two male warders while James Berry prepared her for execution. She
was the first woman to be executed at Strangeways Prison in
Mary Ann BRITLAND
by poisoning, Mary Ann Britland of Ashton-under-Lyne was hanged by
James Berry on the 9th of August 1886, the first woman to be
executed at Strangeways Prison in Manchester.
It began when
Mary and her husband Thomas Britland had rented a house in
Ashton-under-Lyne, which was infested with mice and she had bought
rat poison ostensibly to deal with the problem. The poison
contained strychnine and arsenic and she had therefore signed the
victim by poisoning in March 1886 was her daughter Elizabeth, whom
the attending physician diagnosed as having died of natural
causes. Shortly afterwards, Britland claimed her daughter's £10
life insurance. Next, she poisoned her husband Thomas. His death
was diagnosed as epilepsy - Britland also claimed on his life
During this time
she is thought to have had an affair with her neighbour Thomas
Dixon. Dixon's wife, also named Mary, was to become the next and
her final victim. This third death raised suspicion in the
subsequently interrogated by the local police about Mary Dixon's
death and the body was examined by the district pathologist. It
was found to contain a lethal quantity of the two poisons and Mary
was immediately arrested.
She was tried for
murder at Manchester Assizes on Thursday 22nd July 1886. She was
inevitably found guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, as was the
rule of the day, but declared to the court "I am quite
innocent, I am not guilty at all".
She had to be
assisted to the gallows in a state of virtual collapse and
physically supported by two male warders on the trap doors during
Mary Ann Britland coveted her neighbor's
husband. Unfortunately her husband and his wife stood in her way.
She lived with her husband and her two
daughters on Turner Lane in Ashton-under-Lyne. In February of 1886
she complained that her house had been infested by mice and went
to the local chemist to purchase "Harrison's Vermin Killer".
Because the compound contained Strychnine and Arsenic she was
required to sign the poison register.
The first to die was her eldest daughter,
19-year-old Elizabeth Hannah. She would later confess to the
police that she killed her daughter because she believed that
Elizabeth was aware of her murderous plan. Her next victim was her
husband Thomas. Shocked by her double loss, her neighbor Mary
Dixon invited Mary Ann Britland and her daughter to move in.
Little did Mrs Dixon know but she was to become Mary Ann
Britland's final victim.
Suspicions were aroused when the 3 deaths
occurred in such rapid succession and with the same mysterious
symptoms. The bodies were exhumed and pathologists found that all
3 had been poisoned. Mary was arrested and charged with 3 counts
of murder. Thomas Dixon was arrested and charged with the murder
of his wife. He was later released and the charges were dropped
when it was proved that he had no part in the murder of his wife.
Mary Ann Britland was convicted and sentenced
to death. On August 9 1886 she became the first woman to be hung
at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, England.
BRITLAND, Mary Ann (England)
his book My Experiences as an Executioner, published shortly
before his resignation in 1892, James Berry expressed the opinion
that those murderers who are most brutal and cold-blooded while
committing the act for which they had been condemned to death,
were the most cowardly when they had to face the consequences.
This was most certainly the case with Mary Ann Britland, whom he
hanged at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, on 9 August 1886.
Mary Ann, her husband and daughter lived in Ashton-under- Lyne,
Lancashire, in the house of a Mr and Mrs Dixon. It might have been
that Mary Ann feared her daughter had discovered the fixation she
had for Mr Dixon which impelled her to poison the girl, and then
remove, by the same means, the next obstacle to her desires – her
husband. But not until Mrs Mary Dixon ad also been removed would
the way be clear, and so out came the poison bottle again.
the trial, no evidence whatsoever was produced to show that Mr
Dixon ever responded to any of Mary Ann’s approaches, and he was
acquitted. But she was found guilty, and when asked whether she
had anything to say regarding why sentence should not be passed,
not only did she burst into a flood of tears, but also continued
to scream for mercy when the death sentence was pronounced. While
being taken down to the cells, her cries still reverberated around
the crowded courtroom and were even heard by those outside the
the condemned cell Mary Ann maintained that she was innocent and
expected a sudden reprieve, but it was not to be, and as the
customary three weeks dragged by she was reduced to a shadow of
her former self, hardly eating or sleeping. On the morning of her
execution hangman James Berry entered the cell to find her almost
in a state of collapse, the two female warders having to support
her while he pinioned her, ready for the ordeal. As he did so she
continued to moan, the only coherent words from her being ‘I must
have been mad!’
the procession made its way to the scaffold, the wardresses almost
having to carry her, Mary Ann sobbed piteously, a reporter
describing how, when Berry pulled the white hood over her head,
‘she uttered cries such as one might expect at the very separation
of body and spirit through mortal terror’. Holding the woman on
the drop while the hangman placed the noose in position about her
neck, the two wardresses were then replaced by two male warders,
who watched Berry intently for the signal. On him giving it, they
instantly released their hold on their prisoner and stepped off
the drop – simultaneously the hangman operated the lever and
before Mary Ann could even buckle at the knees, the trapdoors
opened and down she went into the pit.
Paula Angel might have had an innocuous sounding surname but her
behaviour on the scaffold in 1861 certainly belied it, for as the
sheriff dropped the noose about her neck she suddenly realised
that he had neglected to bind her wrists, so she reached up and
grabbed the rope above her.
Instinctively the officer seized her around the waist and added
his weight to hers in order to tighten the noose and render her at
least unconscious, but somehow she wriggled free from his grasp.
In the frantic struggle that ensued, the sheriff managed to secure
her arms and ankles, and then continued with the execution. By now
the crowd, horrified at the woman’s desperate efforts to stay
alive, threatened to rush the makeshift scaffold and it was not
until the officer had threatened to shoot the first person who
tried to rescue her that the noose finally tightened around Paula
Angel’s neck, plunging her into eternity.
Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott