Evil Female Murderers part 5

Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan
By early 1880 they were running a lodging house; Catherine as landlady, Margaret as a charlady - both women by this time were widows of dubious character.
September, 1883. The hearse, drawn by two horses resplendently decked out with black plumage, slowly drew to a halt outside the terraced house in Ascot Street, a decrepit slum area of Liverpool close to the city centre. The hearse was there to collect the body of one Thomas Higgins, who lay in the parlour surrounded by a group of black-shawled women.
Five insurance policies had been taken out on Thomas Higgins
Liverpool Evening Post.
Liverpool Evening Post.

Higgins, Margaret.

Together with her sister, Catherine Flannagan, they were known as ‘The Black Widows of Liverpool.’

Margaret was born in 1843 and Catherine in 1829. They were arrested and convicted of poisoning just one person and were both hanged on the 3rd March 1884 at Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool.

The investigations raised the possibility that they were only a small part of a much 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 Flanagan and Higgins.

In the early 1880’s unmarried sisters Catherine and Margaret Flanagan ran a ‘rooming house’ at number 5, Skirving Street, Liverpool. During the final months of 1880 the household consisted of Catherin’s son, John and two lodger families – hod carrier Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary, and Patrick Jennings and his daughter, Margaret. John Flanagan was 22 years old and previously very healthy and then suddenly in December 1880 he died. His death did not raise any particular comment, these things happened.

However, Catherine collected £71 from the Burial Society, a decent sum of money, worth today around almost £6,000. He was buried very shortly after his death.

By the year of 1882, a romance had sprung up between Margaret and the lodger Thomas Higgins. It became intense and as a result they were married in October of that year. Thomas’s young daughter, Mary who was 8 years old, died within months of their wedding having suffered a short illness. The doctor signed the death certificate with no thoughts of anything wrong. Once again the Burial Society paid out for the death.

The following year, 1883 the other girl, Margaret Jennings, who was by then 19 years old passed away having been ill just a short while. Catherine also collected the payout from the Burial Society.

By this time the neighbours had started gossiping about the number of deaths in this house, after they all looked fit and well shortly prior to their deaths.

The evil sisters moved away, due to the neighbours gossiping. In fact they moved to 105, Latimer Street and then shortly after, moved yet again to number 27 Ascot Street, Both addresses in Liverpool.

In September 1883, Thomas Higgins, then aged 45 years suddenly fell mysteriously ill. He complained of severe stomach pains, so painful were they that he sent for the doctor. Doctor Whitford called at the houseand examined him at length. He attributed Higgins’s illness to dysentery, related to drinking cheap whiskey and prescribedopium andcastor oil.

Higgins died after two days of severe pains. A few days later, the same doctor was contacted and asked to provide a death certificate. He did so, attributing the death to dysentery.   Though Thomas Higgins’s death by apparent dysentery raised no questions for doctor Whitford, it did for Higgins’s brother, Patrick. He was very surprised that having seen his brother a few days before his death, when he looked and felt so well worried him. He thought something wasn’t quite right. He was a big strong man and he knew he was in good general health. After asking around, he found that his brother was insured with five different Burial Societies. This would amount to a large sum being paid out to the widow, leaving her with a profit of around £100.

He became suspicious and pursued the subject with the Authorities, asking for a post mortem on Higgins body.

To the surprise of the mourners who had gathered for the wake. The Coroner arrived at the house during the wake.

Catherine Flannagan, upon hearing that a full autopsy was going to be performed, in sheer panic, fled the house, moving as fast as she could.

When a full autopsy on Higgins’s body was carried out, evidence of arsenic poisoning was found. Examining Higgins’ organs they showed traces of arsenic, in quantities indicating that the arsenic had been administered over a few days. The house was searched and a ‘bottle containing a ‘mystery white substance and a market pocket word by (Margaret) was examined for poison. It was examined by Dr. Campbell Brown, ho 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 the police, did so for almost a week but was eventually arrested in Wavertree. On the 16th October 1883, the sisters were formally charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

Orders for the bodies of the previously-deceased members of the household to be exhumed were issued when it became clear the arsenic was the mechanism of Thomas Higgins death. The bodies of John Flanagan, 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 bodies of all three family members.

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 the autopsies, they were forced to come up with a new theory. It was unlikely that the illiterate sisters would have been able to acquire the arsenic through the usual method of visiting a chemist, a route more open to doctors and medical people than spinsters. Eventually, it was discovered that common flypaper at that 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 told her solicitor that the murders the sisters had committed were not isolated to family members and then went on to provide a list of 6 or 7 other people that they were able to claim insurance money from the Burial Society, as well as a list of five other women who had either perpetrated those murders or provided insurance to those who did.

The Alleged Conspiracy.

Catherine Flanagan’s list of 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 death. Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley and Margaret Higgins were all named as the poisoners; Margaret Potter, a Mrs fallen and a Bridget Stanton were all the Insurers; and Catherine Ryan was alleged to have obtained the arsenic needed by 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 Margaret Evans administered it.Though Margaret Evans did not personally receive an insurance payout from his death, there were implications that she had dealings with the boy’s father and may have profited from those. 

The women Flannagan had alleged to be involved in this conspiracy all appear often in accounts of suspicious deaths during this period: Mrs. Stanton, for example, was linked to the insurance policies of three of the deaths, and groups of row 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, was greeted at the Higgins home by a woman who was either Flanagan or Higgins, who presented to him ‘Thomas’ who he later realised, upon seeing the deceased Thomas Higgins, was not Thomas Higgins at all.

Flanagan’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 Flanagan’s identification of her, as part of the conspiracy ring, Flannagan ‘exonerated’ Stanton after the police arrested her. Ultimately, it was decided by the Prosecuting solicitor for Liverpool that while the additional deaths were, indeed, likely to be murder, it was going to be extremely difficult to prove that anyone apart from Higgins or Flanagan had committed them, especially considering that the primary evidence against the other women was being by Flanagan, who had every reason to attempt to minimise her own position in such crimes. As a result, only Flanagan and Higgins were tried for the murder of 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.

The Trial.

At the trial in 1884, the prosecutors implicated the two sisters in the three deaths in their household, as well as that of Thomas Higgins, with which they were officially charged. Catherine Flanagan’s offer to provide evidence against the other conspirators for the prosecution in exchange for leniency was refused.

The sisters were found guilty by the jury and sentenced to be hanged. The Judge having no doubt that they were both guilty as charged.

The sentence was carried out on the 3rd March 1884 at Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool. The sisters were attended by a Roman Catholic priest. The public hanging was witnessed by a crowd of some 1,000 people, small by numbers in other public hangings.

They became known as ‘the Black Widows of Liverpool. After their deaths wax effigies of both of them were placed in Madame Tussaud’s chamber of Horrors.

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David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.


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