Evil Female Murderers. Part 12
‘Lizzie,’ as she was known, was born in 1847 in the small village of Newsham. Since the age of about 15 months she had been brought up by her auntie Jane, in the neighbouring village of Gainford which was about halfway between the Barnard Castle and Darlington.
Just as soon as she was old enough she left her Auntie’ Jane’s house. That would be in 1861, when she was just 14 years of age. She married a local agricultural labourer, John Pearson, with whom she had four children.
In the meantime, her Auntie Jane remarried a widower, James Watson. He worked as a groom on one of the big local estates. Elizabeth got on very well with James and he was very fond of her. Lizzie was described by the press as being ‘middle height’ and inclined to be stout with dark hair and eyes.
When Jane died James took in a lodger, named George Smith, to help him make ends meet and to pay the rent on his house in Church Row, Gainford. However, in early 1875, James became unwell with pneumonia; he was then aged 74 years. Lizzie went to nurse him and her husband and one of her children moved to live in the house also. Lizzie was doing a good job and after a while he started to get better, so much so he was even managing to climb the stairs. James was attended by Dr. Francis Homfray at his home and commented on the improvement in his condition when he visited him on Monday the 15th March 1875. at that time Lizzie asked Dr. Homfray to give James something for his constipation and the doctor offered her pills.
Instead, she asked him to prescribe the medicine in powder form which was duly prescribed. The good doctor was therefore very surprised when James died just over four hours later. He reported the unexpected death to the local coroner and an inquest was held at ‘The Lord Nelson’ public house on the 19th March. It was the normal practice to hold Inquests at the local inns and public houses.
The post mortem
The post mortem did not find any obvious disease of the major organs but the lining of the stomach was unusually red and contained a small amount of an unidentified liquid. Dr. Homfray reported his findings to the deputy coroner, Mr. Thomas Dean, who ordered an analysis of the stomach contents and then adjourned the inquest. The stomach, intestines and liver were sent to Thomas Scattergood in Leeds for analysis and he found that the unusual liquid contained Strychnine and Prussian Blue but no sign of the substances in the powder that Dr. Homfray had prescribed.
Strychnine is a colourless crystalline alkaloid, the indigestion of which causes severe and very painful spasms of the neck, back and all the limbs and finally convulsions. Death comes either from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the nervous system that control the breathing of by exhaustion from the convulsions. The patient typically dies within two or maybe three hours after ingesting the poison as it is quickly absorbed by the body.
When the Inquest resumed on the 16th April, Mr. Scattergood informed the Coroner what he had found in the parts of the body he examined. The big question was how did James get the poisons from, he was confined to his bed.
As a result of the inquest, it was now a murder inquiry, led by Superintendent Thompson. He was able to obtain a packet of ‘Battle’s Vermin killer from the village shop in Gainford. This substance was found to contain both Strychnine and Prussian blue, which is a colouring put into a mixture to warn people of the danger of the substance. In other words; the rat poison contained both chemicals that were found in James’s stomach.
As Elizabeth was the person most likely to have administered the poison she was therefore arrested and then at the police station, she was charged with the murder of James.
Durham Summer Assizes
On the 9th July 1875 she appeared in front of Mr. Justice Archibald at the Durham Summer Assizes. The trial lasted just one day. The prosecution was led by Mr. Milvain and the Judge appointed a Mr. Ridley, he was quite well known at the time as a defence lawyer.
The prosecution took the jury through the forensic evidence and the discovery of Battles Vermin killer in the Pearson household and its purchase from the village shop. They offered as a motive for the killing, the idea that Elizabeth had murdered James to prevent him moving into a smaller house and selling off the furniture that had originally been her auntie Jane’s Mr. Ridley then stood up and addressed the Jury that Elizabeth had no motive or reason for killing James and the poison must have been administered by James’ lodger, who had since, strangely not long before James’ death.
However, the Jury were not impressed. After Mr. Ridley had completed his defence on behalf of Mary, the Judge directed the Jury to retire, which they did. They returned within the hour. The foreman stood up and was asked if they had reached a verdict. ‘Yes, your honour, Guilty as charged.’ The Judge thanked the Jury and told Mary to stand up. He addressed her and donning the black cap, he sentenced her to be hanged by the neck until dead. She remained very calm and composed as she was led away to the cells. It was reported that she wept when she reached her cell.
A petition to save Elizabeth was got up by local people but was rejected by the Home Secretary. Elizabeth then tried the pregnancy claim but after being examined by the prison doctor, that too was rejected.
William Marwood arrived at Durham prison on the Friday afternoon and was able to stay at a local Inn; the requirement for the executioner to stay within the prison had not yet been introduced… The gallows were set in the condemned prisoner’s exercise yard and close to the female wing. The platform was level with the ground, with the trap doors opening into a brick lined pit that had been made deeper to suit the new ‘long drop.’ These were the same gallows that had used for the execution of Charles Dawson, Edward Gough and William Thompson on the 5th January 1874.The gallows usually had two beams.
Two days before her execution Elizabeth was visited in her cell by her husband and one of her children. During their visit she continued to assert her innocence to them.
On the day that Elizabeth was to be hanged she two men with who were also being executed with her. These were William Mc Hugh, and Michael Gilligan.
The day of their execution
At 7am on the Monday morning, the day of their execution all three prisoners were given their breakfast which consisted of a lamb chop, bread and butter together with a cup of tea. The two men devoured their breakfast but Elizabeth had no appetite for food and so just drank he tea.
All three were allowed time to pray with their respective priests, Elizabeth was looked after by the Rev. John Lowe. Just before 8am the three prisoners were led from their cells to the pinioning room, where they had their limbs securely tied. Not a word was uttered by any of the prisoners at this time… They were led out to the Quadrangle by two male warders, where the gallows had been erected and also where William Marwood stood ready to perform his tasks.
The local newspaper, The Durham County Advertiser reported that Elizabeth ‘walked to the scaffold unaided and with an upright back.’ They reported that she remained the most possessed of the three of them. They said that the two men were prepared first and that Elizabeth witnessed this before being led past them to her position on the trap doors. She was so positioned that she was placed under the second beam with her back towards them. By this time everything was now ready, having had their legs strapped together. Warden Cox had assisted William Marwood with this, with Marwood checking to make sure the strapping was tight, before he fitted the white hoods on their heads.
All three prisoners prayed with their ministers until William Marwood gave the signal whereupon the prisoners shook hands with their ministers as they stepped back off the trap doors.
With that Marwood pulled the lever sending all three down through the trap doors. Gilligan was seen to struggle for a moment or two before becoming still, as the other two were.
About 300 people had gathered outside the prison and apparently heard the click of the trap doors opening. At 8.03 am they were rewarded with the sight of the black flag being hoisted above the prison and the bell tolling to show that the executions had been carried out.
The Northern Echo newspaper of the 3rd August reported that ‘After the rope and the cap had been adjusted, the bolt was withdrawn; the woman dropped in the air, and died without a struggle.’ The concept of a measured drop breaking the prisoner’s neck was obviously still a very new one in 1875.
The three bodies were left hanging for the usual hour before being taken down and placed in black coffins. It was noted by one reporter that, ‘The head of each was covered with a cap (the white hood) leaving the face and neck free, the countenances of the deceased were remarkably placid and betokened only the quietest of deaths.
The mandatory inquest was held at 10am and overseen by the Coroner, Mr. John Graham. The under sheriff was present and was asked if the prisoners struggled much? He replied’ no, not at all.’
All three bodies were identified as being those of the prisoners. Elizabeth was buried in an unmarked grave, close to that of Mary Ann Cotton, later that same day. The other two prisoners were also buried within the walls of the prison.