Evil Female Murderers. Part 7

Ethel Lillie Major
Arthur Major
Ethel Lillie Major
William Norman Birkett

Major, Ethel Lillie

Ethel was born in 1891 and was the only daughter of a Lincolnshire gamekeeper and was brought up in a good home with her three brothers on the estate of Sir Henry Hawley.

When she left school she trained to be a dressmaker. She enjoyed this and quickly became very skilful at cutting the cloth etc. However in 1914 she found that she was pregnant and gave birth a daughter. She was 23 year old at this time. Due to the stigma that was attached with illegitimate children, it was decided that her mother would bring up the child as her sister and not as her daughter. She named her daughter, Auriel.

In 1918, aged 27 years, she met Arthur Major, who had just returned from World War I as a hero. However, he had been badly wounded. It was love at first sight and they married on 1st June 1918 and the following year their son was born. She said nothing about her daughter and Arthur firmly believed what he had been told that she was her young sister. The family soon moved to Kirby-on-Bain, Lincolnshire. Arthur became a lorry driver.

By 1934 Ethel became a cantankerous, bad tempered woman who was disliked throughout the neighbourhood. Early in the year Arthur started to hear some of the rumours that had long been circulating about his wife’s younger sister, Auriel.

When Arthur confronted her about it, she eventually admitted that the rumours were true and that she in fact was her daughter. But she refused to tell him who the father was.

After this she would only spend a few hours in the evening with her husband choosing to take her son to her father’s house and stay there the night.

The marriage was all but over

Ethel accused her husband of having an affair with a neighbour, Rose Kettleborough and produced letters to her husband that she said that this woman had written to him. However, every indication was that she had written them herself. Arthur retaliated by declaring in the ‘Horncastle News’ that he would not be held responsible for any debts incurred by his wife.

The marriage was all but over, each one taking jibes about the other. This was followed by bitter rows.

On day in the spring of 1934, Arthur sat down on the edge of a gravel pit, where he worked, to ear his lunch. Another worker sat down next to him. All of a sudden Arthur spat out his first mouthful of his sandwich and said ‘I’m damned sure that woman is trying to poison me.’  He threw the sandwich away and soon after some bids appeared and stared eating Arthur’s sandwich which he had thrown away. They all promptly fell dead around the sandwich.

On the 23rd May 1934, Arthur came home early from work as he felt unwell. He went straight to bed as he felt worse. After a while Doctor Smith was called and found Arthur sweating profusely, convulsive and unable to talk. Ethel told the doctor that she had given her husband some corned beef and that he had been liable to fits for a couple of years. Doctor Smith concluded that Arthur was suffering from a mild form of epilepsy and prescribed a sedative. The following day Ethel went to the doctor’s and told him that Arthur had died during the night. Therefore Ethel started to make arrangements for the funeral.

The next day the police received a note that read’ Sir, Have you ever heard of a wife poisoning her husband? Look further into the death (by heart failure) of Mr. Major of Kirkby-on-Bain. Why did he complain of food his food tasty nasty and throw it to a neighbour’s dog, which has since died? Ask the undertaker if he looked natural after death. Why did he stiffen so quickly? Why was he so jerky when dying? I myself have heard her threaten to poison him years ago. In the name of the law, I beg you to analyse the contents of his stomach. The note was signed ‘Fairplay.’ The Police quickly obtained a Coroner’s order postponing the funeral. The dog and parts of Arthur’s body were sent to Dr. Roche Lynch of St. Mary’s hospital in Paddington London. The Home Office pathologist determined that both the dog and Arthur had died from strychnine poisoning.

Ethel was asked to attend the police station and she was interviewed by Chief Inspector Hugh Young. She went to great pains to point out that she suspected that the corned beef had caused food poisoning to her husband. Also she had nothing to do with preparing his sandwiches; he always did them before he went off to work. Anyway, ‘I hate corned beef; I think it is a waste of money buying it. I only buy it because my husband likes it.’ After the interview Ethel went home.


A little while later Ethel was seen again, she got to clever and gave herself away. She told C/I Hugh Young ’I did not know my husband died from strychnine poisoning. The Officer replied, ‘I never mentioned strychnine, how did you know that?’ She quickly replied ’oh I’m sorry; I must have made a mistake.’ In fact she had just made a terrible mistake. The house was searched but nothing untoward was found. This was quite puzzling to the police. But then C/I had a hunch and contacted her father, Mr. Brown. He admitted that he kept strychnine in the house which he used to kill the mice which invested the property. He said ‘it is kept in a locked box to which he had the only key.’ Whilst listening to what C/I Young were saying, he suddenly remembered that there had been another key which had been lost about 10 years ago. So C/I Young arranged for another search of Major’s house. This time the police were not looking for the strychnine but just a plain simple key. All of a sudden an old key was found which didn’t fir anything in the Major household. It was taken back to Mr. Brown’s home where it was found to fit the locked Strychnine box. She was then arrested for the murder of her husband.

Her trial commenced in November 1934 at Lincoln Assizes. She was defended by the now famous Norman Birkett (Later Sir Norman.) Birkett had never lost a case in his young so far career. However, he was finding it very difficult to find something whereby he could use to effectively defend Mrs. Major. She was found guilty by the Jury and sentenced to death.

The Execution.

Shortly before 9am on Wednesday 19th December 1934, Ethel, barely conscious, was half dragged and half carried before the noose was placed around her neck. She was screaming out ‘I didn’t do it, it was suicide, it was, it was, please no, don’t do it, don’t do it.’

At precisely 9am Albert Pierrpoint had completed all his preparations and pulled the lever and within seconds, she was dead. She stayed hanging for the usual hour before she was made ready for the inquest. She was buried in an unmarked grave inside the prison.


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Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

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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