Priscilla Biggadyke - The Stickney poisoner.
Thirty five year old Priscilla Biggadyke became the first woman in
She had been convicted of poisoning her husband, Richard, with arsenic at their home on September 30th 1868.
Priscilla was born Priscilla Whiley in the
The Biggadyke household also had two lodgers, 30 year old labourer, Thomas Proctor and 21 year old fisherman George Ironmonger. All of them lived together in a two room cottage. The four adults shared two beds, very close together in the one room. Relations between Richard and his wife had been steadily deteriorating during 1868. He suspected Priscilla of having an affair with Proctor and that the baby was fathered by him. All she could say when he challenger was “Well, it is mine.” Hardly convincing!
On the afternoon of Wednesday the 30th of September, Priscilla baked some shortcake. Proctor and Ironmonger each ate a piece and the other piece was saved for Richard to eat when he got home from work around 6 p.m. She brewed some tea and put milk into his cup. She left it on the table until he was ready and then poured the tea into it, which he drank.
A few minutes after he
had consumed the tea he became violently ill, the symptoms suggesting
poisoning. Dr Maxwell was sent for, but Richard’s condition deteriorated
rapidly and he died in great pain around six the next morning. Dr. Maxwell suspected poisoning and ordered a
post-mortem which revealed severe inflammation of the stomach. Dr. Maxwell testified at the inquest that
death had been caused by an irritant poison, so the coroner ordered that the
stomach and its contents be sent to
Priscilla tried to blame Proctor for administering white powder to Richard’s tea. She told police that she had seen him put the powder into Richard’s tea and put a second dose into some medicine he was taking for back pain. On Monday the 19th of October both prisoners were brought before the magistrates and remanded in custody awaiting the results of the analysis of Richard’s stomach contents.
It was reported that Priscilla had made a statement to the Governor while in the Spilsby House of Correction where she was being kept, to the effect that she had herself administered the poison to her husband but she also implicated Proctor. As a result he was arrested and also charged with the murder.
The adjourned inquest
was held on Friday the 23rd of October, at the Rose and Crown Inn, before Walter
Clegg, the Coroner, at about 11a.m. Professor Taylor of
Both prisoners were committed for trial at the Lincolnshire Winter Assizes. However Mr. Justice Byles recommended to the Grand Jury that the case against Proctor be dismissed as it was only based upon Priscilla’s accusations. His intention was also to ensure that if new evidence came to light later, that Proctor could then be tried for the murder.
Thus Priscilla stood trial alone in early December 1868. The proceedings lasting seven hours. Mr. Bristowe led for the prosecution and carefully laid out all the evidence against her. Various witnesses testified. James Turner told the court that Richard had been in good health at work on the 30th of September, the day of the poisoning. The jury heard the physical evidence of arsenic poisoning being discovered. Proctor testified that he had not put the poison in Richard’s tea of medicine.
Eliza Fenwick told the court that “I was accustomed to see Biggadike and his wife. I was there three or four months ago, when I remarked the “mice had eaten a hole in my dour bag”. Mrs Biggadike replied “if you like I will give you a little white mercury to kill the mice”. My husband said that he would not have any of the old stuff in the house.”
Priscilla was defended by a Mr. Lawrence who did his best for her. He asked the jury to carefully consider who had put the poison in Richard’s tea. Was it Richard himself, accidentally (he was illiterate and therefore could not read the label on the bottle) was it Priscilla or was it another? The judge then carefully summed up the evidence taking an hour to do so.
In the end the jury did not even need to retire to consider their verdict. They found Priscilla guilty of wilful murder but with a recommendation to mercy. Mr. Justice Byles asked the jury foreman why and he told the judge it was because the evidence was circumstantial.
Mr. Justice Byles donned the black cap, and passed sentence of death.
He told her: “Priscilla Biggadike, although the evidence
against you is only circumstantial, yet more satisfactory,
and conclusive evidence I never heard in my life. You must now prepare for your
impending fate, by attending to the religious instruction you will receive, to
which if you had given heed before, you would never have stood in your present
unhappy position. The sentence of the court is that you will be taken to the
place from whence you came, and thence to the place of
execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, and may the Lord have
mercy upon your soul! Your body to be buried within the
precincts of the prison”.
Priscilla was visited
by her family on Sunday the 27th of December and there were painful
farewells. Here is a photo
of the Condemned Cell at
The execution was set for 9.00 a.m. on
Monday the 28th of December 1868. The gallows had been erected some 200 yards
from the main prison to the east of the
At the foot of the gallows the chaplain, the Rev. H. W. Richter, spoke to Priscilla as follows : “I have spent half an hour with you this morning in endeavouring to impress upon you a proper sense of your condition, for you are about to pass from this world into another, and to stand before God, to whom the secrets of all hearts are known. I implore you not to pass away without confessing all your sins; not only generally, but especially this particular case, for which you are about to suffer. I had hoped that you would have made that confession, and thus have enabled me, as a minister of Christ, to have pronounced the forgiveness of your sins … It has grieved me much to find that you still persist in the declaration, that you are not accountable for your husband’s death; that you still say that you did not administer the poison yourself; that you did not see any other person administer it, and that you are entirely free from the crime. Do you say so, now?” In a firm voice, Priscilla answered, “yes.” The Chaplain continued “There is only one [hope] left, that you have endeavoured to confess your sins to God, though you will not to your fellow creatures. All I can now say is that I leave you in the hands of God; and may he have mercy on your soul. What a satisfaction it would be to your children, to your friends, to your relations, to know that you had passed from death into life, in the full persuasion that your sins were forgiven you … I am sorry I cannot exercise that authority [to pronounce sins forgiven] at the present moment.”
The bell of Lincoln Cathedral was tolling. She ascended the steps to the platform where she said "Surely all my troubles are over" and "Shame on you, you are not going to hang me." But Askern did, placing the knot under her chin instead of at the back or side of her neck. As the Cathedral bell struck the hour for the fourth time Askern released the trap. Priscilla dropped a few inches, struggling for more than three minutes. The black flag was raised to signify to the crowd of some 100 people who had gathered on Castle Hill that the execution had been carried out.
In accordance with the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868,
an inquest had to be held after an execution.
This took place on the Monday afternoon in the Debtor’s Court, and was
conducted by Dr Mitchinson. The jury viewed the body which had been
placed in a cell. It was reported that
the face and hands were quite white, the features well set, and there appeared
to be no distortion whatever.
Mr Broadbent, the surgeon of the Castle, gave evidence, that “the execution, was carried out with decency, humanity, and the average amount of skill. The rope was adjusted in a different manner to what he had hitherto seen it. “The rope was placed round the neck, with the knot under the chin, so that deceased breathed for some minutes before death. The executioner had told him that by the body hanging in that way the head was thrown backwards on to the spine of the back, so that all sensation was destroyed, but at all events it did not prevent the deceased from breathing. She was about three and a half minutes in dying, from the fall of the drop. From what the executioner had told him, it might be that the moment she fell, her head being thrown back, all sensation might be destroyed.” The jury returned a verdict to the effect that they were satisfied as to identity of the prisoner and that the execution was carried out according to the sentence, properly, and with humanity”.
The governor of
Why Askern chose this position for the knot is unknown. There is no scientific evidence to favour this placement in a short drop hanging and it certainly led to a more cruel death in this case.
She was buried in the
Thomas Proctor died in 1882, having made a deathbed confession that he had indeed put the white powder in Richard’s tea cup and medicine. This did not really exonerate Priscilla though, because if, as she claimed, she had seen him do so, why then did she knowingly pour tea into the cup and let her husband drink it? Mr. Justice Byles made this observation in his summing up. It is reasonable, therefore to conclude that they were both guilty, but that Proctor simply got away with murder as there was insufficient evidence to convict him..
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