Mary Ann Britland
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|Mary Ann Britland|
Bolton, Lancashire, England
|Died||9 August 1886
Strangeways Prison, Manchester, Lancashire, England
|Cause of death||Hanged|
|Criminal penalty||Death sentence|
Span of killings
|March 1886–May 1886|
Mary Ann Hague was born in Bolton, Lancashire the second eldest daughter of Jonathan and Hannah (née Lees) Hague. She married Thomas Britland at St Michael's Church, Ashton-under-Lyne in 1866. They lived in a rented house at 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's 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.
- What The Judge Saw by Edward Abbott Parry. Smith, Elder & Co., 15, Waterloo Place. 1912