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Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Britland coveted her neighbor's husband
Number of victims: 3
Date of murders: March-May 1886
Date of arrest: June 1886
Date of birth: 1847
Victims profile: Elizabeth Hannah Britland, 19 (her eldest daughter) / Thomas Britland, 44 (her husband) / Mary Dixon, 29 (her neighbor's wife)
Method of murder: Poisoning (strychnine and arsenic)
Location: Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Strangeways Prison on August 9, 1886

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.

Early life

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

Criminal career

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 Manchester.





Habitual murderer 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 poison register.

Britland's first 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 insurance.

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 neighbourhood.

Britland was 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 the execution.


Mary Ann Britland

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)

In 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.

At 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 building.

In 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!’

As 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



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