Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins
Looking for an easy way to make money, Catherine
Flannagan, 55, and her sister Margaret Higgins, 41, decided midway
through their lives to go for the big insurance payout. One of the
victims upon whom the sinister sisters alighted was Margaret’s husband
Throughout 1883 they laced his food with arsenic
until, in September, he died. But the police got suspicious and
started investigating. They discovered there had been another
mysterious death in the household, that of an 18-year-old lodger, Mary
Jennings. Her body was exhumed and it too contained arsenic.
The sisters were also suspected of poisoning Mrs.
Higgins’s 10-year-old stepdaughter Mary and one of Mrs. Flannagan’s
sons, John, 22. Each time there was a death they collected on the
After a three-day trial in February 1884, they were
both convicted of murder and hanged on Monday, March 3rd that year at
Liverpool’s Kirkdale Prison. Police inquiries that continued after the
double execution suggested that the sisters might have poisoned
several other family members, friends and lodgers, for the small
Catherine Flannagan (1829 – 3 March 1884)
and Margaret Higgins (1843 – 3 March 1884) were Irish sisters
who were convicted of poisoning and murdering one person in Liverpool
and suspected of more deaths.
The women collected a burial society payout, a type
of life insurance, on each death, and it was eventually found that
they had been committing murders using arsenic for the purpose of
profiting off of the insurance money. Though Catherine Flannagan
evaded police for a time, both sisters were eventually caught and
convicted of one of the murders; they were both hanged on the same day
at Kirkdale Prison. Modern investigation of the crime has raised the
possibility that Flannagan and Higgins were known or believed by
investigators to be only part of a larger conspiracy of
murder-for-profit—a network of "black widows"—but no convictions were
ever obtained for any of the alleged conspiracy members other than the
In the early 1880s, unmarried sisters Catherine and
Margaret Flannagan ran a rooming house at 5 Skirving Street,
Liverpool. The household in the final months of 1880 consisted of the
two sisters, Catherine's son John, and two lodger families - hod
carrier Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary, and Patrick Jennings and
his daughter Margaret. John Flannagan, 22 and previously healthy, died
suddenly in December 1880. His death did not raise any particular
comment; Catherine collected £71 (worth roughly £5242 in 2012 pounds)
from the burial society with which he had been registered and he was
interred shortly thereafter.
By 1882, a romance had sprung up between Margaret
and lodger Thomas Higgins. The pair married in October of that year.
Thomas's daughter Mary, 8, died within months of the wedding after a
short illness. Once again, the burial society payout was collected
upon death, this time by Margaret Higgins.
In January 1883, Margaret Jennings, 19, died. Her
burial payout was collected by Catherine.
In the face of neighborhood gossip about the death
rate in the home, Catherine, Margaret, and Thomas moved their
household to 105 Latimer Street and then again to 27 Ascot street. In
September of 1883, Thomas Higgins, then 45, became yet another member
of the household to fall mysteriously ill. His stomach pains were
severe enough that Doctor Whitford was called; the doctor attributed
Higgins's illness to dysentery related to drinking cheap whiskey and
prescribed opium and castor oil. Higgins died after two days of
illness. Days later, the same doctor was contacted and asked to
provide a death certificate. He did so, attributing the death to
Though Thomas Higgins's death by apparent dysentery
raised no questions for the attending doctor, Higgins's brother
Patrick was surprised to hear that his brother, who had been strong
and in good general health, could have succumbed so easily to illness.
When he also discovered that his brother has been insured with five
different burial societies, which left his widow with a profit of
around £100, he pursued the matter with the authorities. A postmortem
examination was ordered on Higgins's body. To the surprise of
mourners, the coroner arrived at the home to perform the examination
during the wake being held there for Higgins. Catherine Flannagan,
upon hearing that a full autopsy was to be performed, fled the home.
When a full autopsy of Higgins's body was carried
out, evidence of arsenic poisoning was found: Higgins's organs showed
traces of arsenic, in quantities indicating the poisoning had taken
place over several days. Evidence from the home, including "a bottle
containing a mystery white substance and a market pocket worn by
[Margaret]" was examined by poison expert Dr Campbell Brown, who
verified the presence of arsenic - dust in Margaret's pocket, and an
arsenic solution (containing unusual adulterants) in the bottle.
Margaret Higgins was arrested immediately;
Catherine, after moving from one boarding house to another to avoid
police for nearly a week, was taken into custody in Wavertree. On
October 16, 1883, the sisters were formally charged with the murder of
Orders for the bodies of the previously-deceased
members of the household to be exhumed were issued when it became
clear that arsenic was the mechanism of Thomas Higgins's death. The
bodies of John Flannagan, Mary Higgins, and Margaret Jennings all
showed evidence of minimal deterioration - a quality associated with
arsenic poisoning - and traces of arsenic were found in the remains of
Investigators initially assumed that the arsenic
used to poison the victims had come from rat poison, but when common
adulterants used in rat poison failed to show up in autopsies, they
were forced to come up with a new theory. It was unlikely that the
illiterate sisters would have been able to acquire arsenic through the
usual method of visiting a chemist, a route more open to doctors than
spinsters. Eventually it was discovered that common flypaper at the
time contained arsenic, and that by soaking the flypaper in water, a
solution substantially identical - including the same adulterants - to
that found in a bottle at the Higgins residence could be obtained.
At the time of her arrest, Catherine claimed to her
solicitor that the murders the sisters committed were not isolated,
and provided a list of six or seven other deaths that she claimed to
be murders related to burial society fraud, as well as a list of five
other women who had either perpetrated those murders or provided
insurance to those who did.
Catherine Flannagan's list of alleged conspirators
to the arsenic deaths contained three poisoners other than herself,
one accomplice, and three agents of the insuring groups who had
provided payouts upon the deaths. Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley, and
Margaret Higgins were named as the poisoners; Margaret Potter, a Mrs
Fallon, and a Bridget Stanton were the insurers; and Catherine Ryan
was alleged to have obtained the arsenic needed by one of the
poisoners. According to Flannagan, Margaret Evans had been the
instigator of the crime ring, beginning with the murder of a
mentally-handicapped teenager in which Ryan obtained the poison and
Evans administered it. Though Evans did not personally receive an
insurance payout from this death, there were implications that she had
dealings with the boy's father and may have profited from those. The
women Flannagan alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy all
appear often in accounts of suspicious deaths in this period; Mrs
Stanton, for example, was linked to the insurance policies of three of
the deaths, and groups of two or more of the involved women were seen
visiting those who died shortly before their deaths. In one case, when
an insurance company supervisor requested to meet Thomas Higgins in
the course of issuing the insurance on him, he was greeted at the
Higgins home by a woman who was neither Flannagan nor Higgins, who
presented to him a "Thomas" who he later realized, upon seeing the
deceased Thomas Higgins, was not Thomas Higgins at all.
Flannagan's testimony was sometimes contradictory
to both herself and to what seemed to be obvious facts of the
conspiracy, however; in one case, despite Mrs Stanton's close links to
the insurance payouts of murder victims and Flannagan's identification
of her as part of the conspiracy, Flannagan "exonerated" Stanton after
police arrested the woman. Ultimately it was decided by the
Prosecuting Solicitor for Liverpool that while the additional deaths
were, indeed, likely to be murder, it would be difficult to prove that
anyone other than Higgins or Flannagan had committed them, especially
considering that the primary evidence against the other women was
being provided by Flannagan, who had every reason to attempt to
minimise her own responsibility in such crimes. As a result, only
Flannagan and Higgins were tried for the crime of murdering Thomas
Higgins, despite continuing suspicion by all investigating parties
that there had been more deaths than just the four household ones, and
more murderers than just the two sisters.
At the trial in 1884, prosecutors implicated the
sisters in the three other deaths in their household, as well as that
of Thomas Higgins, with which they were officially charged. Catherine
Flannagan's offer to provide evidence against other conspirators for
the prosecution in exchange for leniency was refused.
The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to be
hanged. The sentence was carried out on 3 March 1884 at Kirkdale
Prison, with the sisters attended to by a Roman Catholic priest. The
deaths were witnessed by a reported one thousand people.
Contemporary accounts of the Flannagan sisters
referred to them as "disciple[s] of Lucrezia Borgia" or as "the
Borgias of the Slums", in reference to their use of poison and the
tales of how Borgia had been known to do the same. Modern accounts of
the Flannagan sisters, such as those by Angela Brabin and the
television series Deadly Women, have focused more on the cooperative
aspect of the crimes rather than the poison aspect, and tend to refer
to them as "black widows" or "The Black Widows of Liverpool",
particularly in reference to the allegation that the Flannagan sisters
were part of a larger murder ring. Wax effigies of Flannagan and
Higgins were placed in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors after their
By Peter Dellius, August 2012
So infamous were the crimes of Catherine
Flannagan and her sister Margaret Higgins that they have echoed down
the years and have been much debated in the spoken and written word.
They have been referred to as the Borgia Sisters of the slums and
more frequently as the Black Widows.
The slum districts of Liverpool in the 1880’s
were in the main places where the poor of the town existed rather
than lived. The housing was mostly horrible Court dwellings where
whole families lived in one room, one toilet to serve the whole
street and the only water came from a solitary fountain (Ornamental
Skirving Street stood and indeed still stands on
the east side of Scotland Road, and runs between that road and Great
Homer Street, however, the slums are long gone but not the memories
of the deeds perpetrated there. There was nothing grand about these
crimes, they were Horrific, Despicable and carried out ruthlessly
through pure greed.
The two main characters in this sordid tale were
sisters, Catherine and Margaret Thompson, both were Irish by birth.
Catherine was born c1829 and Margaret c1843; both must have suffered
terribly in their early days due to the potato famine and along with
thousands of others found themselves in Liverpool, like many other
emigrants they remained here.
The year 1880 found the sisters living at 5
Skirving Street, Catherine was landlady of the premises and Margaret
was a charlady (cleaner) both women were widows, drunkards and of
dubious character. (Both Women were illiterate)Also resident in the
house were John Flannagan, 22 years, Catherine’s son, Thomas
Higgins, a hod carrier, his daughter Mary aged 8, Patrick Jennings,
a dock labourer and his 16 year old daughter Margaret lodged at the
Towards Christmas 1880 John Flannagan died, his
death was not a surprise to anyone as his Mother had been telling
people for a while that he was unwell. His Mother then claimed
approximately £70 in insurance money from a number of societies,
this sum would now equate to about £5,000.
In October 1882, Margaret Thompson married Thomas
Higgins. A month later Margaret’s little stepdaughter, Mary Higgins
was dead and her loving stepmother lost no time in claiming the
£22.00 Insurance monies.
In January 1883 16 year old Margaret Jennings
died and Catherine Flannagan who had her insured made haste to
collect the money owed. Mr. Jennings now fades from the story and it
is not known what became of him.
What is left of this household now move to 105
Latimer Street and shortly after move again to 27 Ascot Street,
where in September 1883 Thomas Higgins aged 45, becomes unwell with
severe stomach pains. The Doctor ascribes his illness to dysentery
from drinking cheap whiskey. Thomas died two days after becoming
unwell and the Doctor signed a death certificate to effect that
death was due to dysentery. The grieving widow was now better off to
the tune of £100 (now near £6,000) which came from 4 or 5 different
What the Sisters did not know was that Thomas had
confided in his brother that an insurance agent had turned up with a
Doctor in order to examine him, Thomas being drunk, had given them
short shrift. In a final piece of greed Catherine Flannagan had
tried to insure Thomas in the sum of £50.00 and in consequence the
Insurance Company had arranged the Doctors visit which is normal
with such an amount.
The Brother, Patrick Higgins, seems to have been
a tenacious fellow and made the rounds of the local insurance
Companies, finding that Thomas’s life had been insured with several
of them. He visited the Doctor who had certified death and informed
him of his suspicion and together they approached the authorities.
On the day that Thomas Higgins was to be buried,
a coroners officer and two Doctors entered 27 Ascot Street and found
several females around the coffin indulging in a party, there did
not seem to be much grief in that room, Catherine Flannagan gave a
cry of alarm and made off via the back of the house and was not
traced for several days. The coroner’s officer gave notice to
Margaret Higgins that the funeral was not to go ahead and that there
was going to be a post-mortem.
The post-mortem proved that Thomas Higgins had
died from arsenic poisoning and Mrs. Higgins was arrested, a few
days later Catherine Flannagan was taken into custody and both were
charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.
The police then began to gather evidence, arsenic
was found in the house and clothing of Margaret Higgins. The bodies
of John Flannagan, Margaret Jennings and Mary Higgins were exhumed
and fatal doses of arsenic had been found in each body.
The sisters remained charged solely with the
murder of Thomas Higgins.
The sisters had obtained the poison by the simple
method of soaking arsenic impregnated fly papers in water and using
that water to adulterate the food/drink of the victims. This method
was later used by another famous Murderess, Elizabeth Maybrick, a
woman of a totally different social standing to the Murderous
The trial opened at St George’s Hall on the 14th
February, 1884 it lasted three days and the jury, after forty
minutes deliberation, found against the sisters. On the 3rd March
1884 the sisters were hanged in the execution shed at Kirkdale Gaol.
Catherine Flannagan did her best to blame her
sister and offered to turn Queens’s evidence for the crown, the
offer was declined. Catherine later claimed the murders were not the
only ones committed and provided a list of six or seven other
victims, who, she claimed had been murdered for the insurance money.
She informed the authorities of two other poisoner’s other than
herself and her sister, three agents of the insuring burial fund
Societies and one accomplice.
All the named women appear in and around several
suspicious deaths, in addition those at Skirving Street and Ascot
Street and were involved in the insurance payouts and on one
occasion a man and woman purporting to be Thomas and Margaret
Higgins had met with an insurance agent at 27 Ascot Street and
arranged cover, the agent after viewing the body of Thomas Higgins
stated that it was not the body of the man he had signed up.
It was decided by the Police and the Solicitor
for the City of Liverpool, that while all the deaths were probably
murder a prosecution would be unlikely to succeed as the only
evidence was being provided by Flannagan, whose offer to give
evidence against the other woman in exchange for leniency was
refused. The alleged conspirators, Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley,
(Poisoners) Margaret Potter, Bridget Stanton and a Mrs. Fallon
(agents for Burial society) and Catherine Ryan (Accomplice) were
never proceeded against.
Black widows Margaret Higgins and Catherine
By Ben Rossington - LiverpoolEcho.co.uk
January 7, 2010
SISTERS Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan
knew all about the value of life insurance – and the deadly power of
arsenic. In December 1880 the pair, originally from Ireland and known
to friends as Catty and Maggie, lived in a house in Skirving Street,
close to Scotland Road.
With them were John Flannagan – Catty’s son –
lodger Thomas Higgins who would later marry Maggie, Mary Higgins –
Thomas’ eight-year-old daughter, another lodger Patrick Jennings and
his 16-year-old daughter, Margaret.
Over the next three years only Patrick Jennings
would escape with his life.
The wily sisters hit on a get-rich-quick scheme
through the growing popularity in burial clubs.
In those days the poor were very poor. And the
divide between the very poor and the very rich was stark.
But no matter how poor you were, through a burial
club, you could guarantee that when you went to your maker you did so
The sisters embarked on their murderous path when
they realised a hefty insurance policy spread over several clubs,
coupled with a cheap funeral, meant a sizeable lump sum left over.
The only thing they had to do was wait for those
with such policies to die.
But the sisters didn’t want to wait.
They soon formulated a plot and used Catty’s own
son John as a guinea pig.
That December the previously healthy 22-year-old
died. His mother collected an insurance payout of £71 and John was
buried with minimum fuss or effort.
The following year Maggie married Thomas Higgins.
Within a year of the happy union little Mary took ill and passed away.
With what seemed to neighbours like indecent haste
her stepmother withdrew the burial club payout and consoled herself at
the nearest tavern.
Two months later, in January 1883, Margaret
Jennings was dead. Scarcely cold in her coffin Catty put in the cash
claim and the money came rolling in.
The tragedy that seemed to haunt the tiny
back-to-back house set the district talking. The mortality rate was
high but three deaths in one home? It was time to move on.
What remained of the household moved out and
settled in Latimer Street before moving again the same year to a
cellar in Ascot Street.
As the money began to dry up Thomas Higgins took
With five policies in his name his devoted wife
nursed him for two days before he passed away. A local doctor
certified death by dysentery following his drinking bad whiskey.
But this time the ghoulish pair had over-stepped
Thomas’s brother Patrick heard of the numerous
policies and after a bit of amateur detective work began to put the
pieces of the puzzle together.
First he spoke to the doctor and then to the
police. The result was dramatic.
With the hearse standing outside Ascot Street and
the wake in full flow in the parlour the coroner’s officer forced an
entry, surprising the drinking brood of women inside.
The officer ordered a full post-mortem to be
carried out at which point Catty, realising her number was up, bolted
through the back door dressed in her shabby black gown.
Traces of poison were found in Thomas’s body. In
Ascot Street a bottle containing a mystery white substance and a
market pocket worn by Maggie was examined.
Traces of arsenic were found everywhere.
The sisters had developed and perfected, from
victim to victim, an almost perfect method of murder – distilling the
poison by dissolving flypaper in water.
They used this method nine years before the
infamous “Flypaper Poisoner”, Florence Maybrick, was convicted in
Liverpool of the murder of her cotton trader husband, James Maybrick
using the same technique.
With her sister now arrested, Catherine Flannagan
was a hunted woman.
She moved from one Liverpool lodging house to
another and was finally arrested after a woman who gave her a meal
grew suspicious and alerted police.
On October 16, 1883, Catty and Maggie were charged
with the murder of Thomas Higgins.
After that the horrifying chapter of murder and
money finally came to light. The bodies of the other three victims
were exhumed and examined. All had been poisoned.
At the trial the prosecution painted Catty as the
brains behind the scheme. Even then she tried to save her own skin
offering to turn Queen’s Evidence in an attempt to foist the blame
onto her younger sister.
Unsurprisingly her offer was rejected.
The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to
hang. Flannagan, 55, heard the sentence and was unmoved. Higgins, 41,
In a snowstorm on March 3, 1884, assisted up a
flight of 22 stone steps to the scaffold at Kirkdale Jail, and
mouthing prayers uttered by the prison chaplain, the notorious sisters
were duly hanged by executioner Bartholomew Binns and his assistant.
Together they had planned their dreadful crimes and
together they faced the consequences.
Serial killer sisters murdered relatives
September 19, 2002
An amateur historian is claiming to have unearthed
evidence of a group of Victorian women who killed people for their
life insurance money.
Two sisters - Margaret Higgins and Catherine
Flanagan - were convicted in 1884 of killing Margaret's husband,
But retired criminal lawyer Angela Brabinan, who
comes from Cheshire, believes the pair and their friends were
responsible for killing up to 17 people.
The victims were poisoned with arsenic before life
insurance policies, which were often taken out without their
knowledge, were cashed in.
Ms Brabin makes her claims in an article in History
She said the women saw the murders as a way out of
Flanagan, 55, and Higgins, 41, and their friends
lived in the deprived Skirving Street area of Liverpool.
Life insurance was seen as a way to avoid the
disgrace of a pauper's funeral.
But their scam was discovered after Thomas Higgins'
brother became suspicious and alerted the authorities.
Five insurance policies had been taken out on
Thomas Higgins' life making Margaret Higgins a wealthy widow.
The pair were arrested, tried and hanged at the
city's Kirkdale Gaol.
But it believed at the time that they had murdered
at least three others.
After Thomas Higgins' death, the bodies of
Catherine's son John, an 18-year-old lodger called Margaret Jennings
and Thomas' 10-year-old daughter Mary were all exhumed.
All three were found to have died from the same
cause - arsenic poisoning - and each also had insurance policies taken
out on their lives.
Ms Brabin said: "Their method was very simple -
they used arsenic which they obtained by soaking fly papers in water.
"Then they would administer the solution to their
victims over a period of six, seven or eight days until they died."
But she said evidence found in documents from the
time strongly suggested that others were involved.
After her arrest, Catherine Flanagan made specific
allegations naming six more victims and their killers.
Police documents reveal these women were
investigated but insufficient evidence was found to charge them.
In a letter dated February, 1884, prosecuting
solicitor for Liverpool, William Marks, told the Director of Public
Prosecutions that the six victims were probably poisoned but it would
be difficult to prove anyone other than Higgins and Flanagan
Ms Brabin added: "It was quite clear that there
were three or four other women actively involved in the poisoning of
"Also, another four women were aware of what was
going on and were simply involved in the insurance angle."
The case provoked an outcry at the time and
prompted the Home Secretary to review the law which allowed people's
lives to be insured without their knowledge.