Evil Female Murderers part 6
One day in early March a neighbour heard a scream coming from the home of Catherine Churchill, a male voice was shouting ‘Murder, murder.’
The following day the body of 82 year old Samuel Churchill who was the husband of 55 year old Catherine Churchill. He was found in the cottage, his head and shoulders burned off. She claimed to the police that it must have been a terrible accident. She said that he suffered with terrible fits and fallen into the fire.
However the police investigators found a blood-stained billhook in one of the rooms in the cottage as well as blood stains on Catherine’s clothes. She was soon arrested and appeared in Court.
After lengthy questioning the investigators found the motive for the murder was her husband’s will. She thought he had changed his will and left her out and left everything to his daughter from a previous marriage. In fact she was totally wrong – she was to be the only beneficiary.
She was executed on Monday, 26th May, 1879 in Taunton Gaol.
Jessie was born Jessie Kean in 1861 and was an orphan when quite young, she moved from one Institution to another, and eventually fell in to prostitution in order to support herself.
She was involved in ‘baby farming.’ If a woman had a baby but didn’t want to keep it, usually because the baby was born illegitimately, then there were people who for a sum of money would look after it until it could be placed with a family who would bring the baby up as one of their own.
Jessie King was 27 years old and worked as a laundry woman in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh. Although not married herself, she lived with a man named Thomas Pearson in Cheyne Street, Stockbridge. Pearson was a lot older than Jessie and was known in the local pub as the ‘odd couple.’ He had a good business but it failed and he took to drinking. He took to living off of Jessie’s immoral earnings. A few weeks after moving in with Pearson in 1887, Jessie’s new baby, Grace suddenly vanished
Two boys found an ‘oil-skin’ package on some waste land and started to kick it about. The younger boy kicked it hard and the other boy opened the parcel, screamed and they both ran to find a constable. Inside the package they had found the badly-decayed remains of a year old baby, Alexander Gunn.
As a sideline she would take on unwanted babies and although some were passed over to real parents, there were others that she killed, being a quick way to get rid of them. This was usually the case when the babies cried a lot, Jessie couldn’t stand the noise.
The Police raided the house and found the remains of a baby girl strangled, and lying in the coal closet. As the police entered the house, they found that Jessie King was feeding her own baby, Thomas who was at her breast. She immediately took on all the guilt.
She was arrested, together with Thomas Pearson for the murder of just three babies although Edinburgh’s Police believed it was many more.
At the police station Jessie took all the blame. The Duty Officer for the poor warned her that her confession would get her hanged but Jessie ignored his advice.
After a while Pearson was released and gave evidence against Jessie King, which helped the jury to convict her. Jessie was delighted when she heard that Pearson had been released.
The trial, in the City’s high Court last barely one day. The jury retired for a total of just four minutes before reaching a ‘guilty’ verdict.
The senior defence lawyer immediately jumped to his feet claiming that Jessie acted under Pearson’s influence and that she was insane. That didn’t wash with the Judge who found her guilty as charged and sentenced her to be hanged for the murder of one year old Alexander Gunn and also a baby girl of just a few months old, named Violet Thompson.
On the night of the 10th March 1889, Jessie said good-bye to her own baby, Thomas and was hanged the next day.
She happened to be the first woman to be hanged in Scotland since 1862 and the last until 1923.
Jessie is still there in Edinburgh, she is buried under the car park of St. Andrew’s House. Nothing is known of her son, Thomas Kean. He was left in the care of The Catholic Church and not with his father, Thomas Pearson.
However, there is an interesting coda. Pearson returned to Glasgow soon after the execution of Jessie King. He died in 1890 of a fractured skull. Elderly alcoholics do have falls, but baby murderers face risks of a different kind. We don’t know but he may have received justice after all. – We shall never know.
Mary was born in Wrangle, Lincolnshire about 1835. She was married to William Wrangle and they lived in a small freehold cottage in the, then tiny, village of Wrangle, which is about 9 miles north east of Boston.
They were a childless couple but appeared to be happily married. They were both very friendly and were often seen about in the village.
William Lefley died suddenly on Wednesday 6th February 1884, after eating a rice pudding that Mary had prepared for him and was left in the oven until he got home.
Meanwhile Mary had gone to Boston, the nearest large town to sell some butter, she had made.
William ate the rice pudding but soon became ill and went as quick as he could to see the local doctor. The time was then about 4.30pm in the afternoon and after being given some treatment felt well enough to return home with the assistance of a friendly neighbour.
With the neighbour’s help he managed to get upstairs and get into bed. By this time he felt so ill.
Mary got home soon after 6pm and when she arrived she found Richard Wright and the friendly neighbour with him. She inquired what was going on and William said to her “You know all about it, my dear. Go downstairs and don’t let me see you ever again.”
Soon after William’s condition rapidly deteriorated and he was seen again by the doctor later in the evening who quickly realised that he was beyond help now. He thought perhaps William had been poisoned but he couldn’t be certain. An hour after the doctor arrived at the house William died. Mary received a visit from a Mrs. Curl, the village constable’s wife, to whom she suggested that William had taken the poison himself in order to commit suicide. The post mortem showed that a fatal dose of arsenic within William’s stomach and tissues.
Mary went with her brother to see a neighbour the following day, who was a local farmer by the name of Saul. She told him that her marriage had not been going to well lately and that he had mentioned ‘suicide’ to her. She said that he had gone into the yard intending to hang himself and Mr. Saul asked Mary if she had gone into the yard in an effort to stop him. She said that she hadn’t – not something that probably went down very well with the jury, later.
The police arrested Mary and charged her with the murder. She argued that was impossible as there was no poison in the house. Her house was searched and revealed some white powder wrapped up in paper which the police sent for analysis, along with the remains of the rice pudding that William had eaten.
The result confirmed that the white powder was not arsenic, but there was a huge amount of poison was in the remains of the rice pudding, a portion of which had been retained for analysis.
Mary appeared at the local Magistrates court and duly committed for trial at Lincoln Assizes. Her case was heard on Wednesday 7th May before Mr, Justice North.
She stood in front of him wearing a long black dress and had to be helped up into the dock because of her severe rheumatism. The prosecution in opening the case stated that her motive was that she simply wanted to rid herself of her husband. They brought forth forensic evidence and also evidence from family and neighbours as to the state of the marriage and to the fact that William was in good health up to eating the dreaded rice pudding.
They were not able to offer any evidence of Mary buying the arsenic, the sale of which was by now much more tightly controlled or anyone actually seeing her administering the poison.
Mary’s defence solicitor claimed that William Lefley had committed suicide. They presented the testimony of William’s nephew, William Lester, who had been lodging with his uncle and aunt until four days before the alleged murder and he related in detail to the court how, on the first of February William and Mary had argued over a cask of ale that Mary had ordered and that William had come into bed with his nephew and told him that he had tried to hang himself. The young man told his aunt of the incident the following morning. The jury didn’t really accept the thought that William had committed suicide.
They retired for just 35 minutes and when they returned the foreman stood up and side ‘guilty.’ The Judge sentenced Mary to death and she immediately shouted back ‘I am innocent, I have never poisoned anybody.’
She was taken back to Lincoln Gaol still protesting her innocence. The Gaol in Greetwell Road had opened in 1872 to replace the old Castle Gaol; she was placed in the condemned cell.
It is true to say that the warders, the Governor and the chaplain all thought she was innocent but none of this held sway with the Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, who decided that there would be no reprieve. He also banned the press from attending the hanging, which he could by law do so.
At 9am on the morning of Monday the 26th May 1884 the hangman entered the condemned cell who screamed that she was innocent, she hadn’t poisoned her husband. She was dragged to the gallows in a state of hysteria screaming out the words ‘Murder, Murder.’ James Berry carried out his very painful duty and her death was recorded as ‘instantaneous,’ in other words there was no visible struggling and no signs of strangulation. The body was left on the rope for an hour before being cut down for the inquest and the burial within the prison.
Now, was Mary guilty? Did her husband actually commit suicide and frame Mary for it? She continued to claim that she was innocent right up to the time of her death.
Interestingly Mary Lefley and Priscilla Biggadyke had actually known each other. They lived just a few miles apart at Wrangle and Stickney. There were a number of similarities between them.
Mary was the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire but male executions continued right up until 1961. On the 27th January 1961 Wasyl Gnypiuk 34 years was executed for the murder of Louise Surgery 62 years.
(He was homeless and had broken into Louise’s house. He said at the time he was looking for somewhere to sleep. He murdered Louise. He then decapitated her and buried her head in a nearby wood, in a shallow grave. He also stole money which he used to pay off his debts and give to his wife. The crime was soon discovered and he was arrested.)
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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.