Mary Ann Britland - the Lancashire serial poisoner.

 

Mary Ann Britland (see drawing) was born in 1848 and had married in her late teens to Thomas Britland, five years her senior, to whom she had born two daughters, Elizabeth and Susannah a year apart.At the time of the murders the Britlands were living in a rented house at 92 Turner Lane, Ashton under Lyne near Manchester where they had moved in late 1885 when Mary Ann was thirty eight.At this time Mary Ann and Elizabeth both worked at Fisherís Mill in Turner Lane whilst Thomas drove a cart and also worked as a barman at a pub called Heaps Vaults. Eighteen year old Susannah was in service in Oldham.They seemed like a normal hardworking, happy family and were delighted with their new home except for the fact that it was infested with mice.

 

Like many families of the time the Britlands had small life insurance policies which would cover the cost of a simple funeral for each member, in their case with the Prudential Insurance Company. Nineteen year old Elizabeth was to be the first of Mary Annís victims.It is thought that Elizabeth suspected that her mother was having an affair with Thomas Dixon.She became ill with severe stomach cramps on the evening of Monday the 8th of March 1886 and because of or despite her motherís attentions died two days later in great agony.No inquest was held and the death certificate signed by the family doctor, Dr. Thompson, gave the cause as vomiting, convulsions and spasms of the heart.Mary was able to collect ten pounds from the insurance company upon Elizabethís death.As was normal at this time, most areas had a usually middle aged or old lady who laid out the dead.In this case it was a Mrs. Sarah Lloyd and she noticed that Elizabethís hands were tightly clenched.Interestingly the doctor hadnít noticed this particular symptom.

 

On the 30th of April, Mary Ann bought some Hunterís Infallible Vermin and Insect Destroyer from Kilvingtons the local chemist. Thomas came home from work that evening and after his dinner began displaying the same symptoms as Elizabeth had, finally succumbing on the 3rd of May.A Dr. Tucker attended Thomas and the cause of death was inexplicably diagnosed as epilepsy.His death yielded nearly twenty pounds insurance.Mary Annís friend Mary Dixon had helped nurse Thomas and offered Mary Ann a great deal of sympathy and support in her bereavement, inviting round to their house when ever she wanted to go.

 

The third and final of Mary Annís victims was her friend, Mrs. Mary Dixon, who became ill on Thursday the 13th of May 1885.Mary Ann had eaten supper with the Dixonís that evening and it was after the meal that Mary Dixon became ill.Mary was also attended by Dr. Thompson but died from similar symptoms to the others in the early hours of the following morning.Her death certificate gave the cause as abdominal spasms.Mrs. Lord again laid out the body and noticed the same things she had seen with Elizabeth Britland, the clenched hands etc.Thomas Dixon seemed to be genuinely distressed at the loss of his wife.A local cafť owner, John Law, had been asked to do the catering for Maryís funeral and visited the Dixonís house on the 15th of May.He was admitted by Mary Ann and was taken aback by her strange questions about poisoning.She told him that she had bought rodent killer and he asked her if she had told Thomas Dixon.She hadn't but did so immediately afterwards when Thomas came home and according to John Law who later gave evidence, Thomas was horrified.A post-mortem was performed in the Dixonís house on afternoon of the 15th of May and various organs sent away for analysis.

Mary Dixonís demise did raise suspicion locally and was reported anonymously to the police and as a result Mary Ann was interviewed by them.The analysis found both arsenic and strychnine in the stomach and tissues and therefore Mary was arrested and charged with her murder.Thomas Dixon was also initially charged with being an accessory to the crime but the case was not proceeded with.

Subsequent police investigations found that Mary Ann had purchased Harrisonís Vermin Killer which contained both arsenic and strychnine and Hunterís Infallible Vermin and Insect Destroyer which contained just strychnine, ostensibly for killing the mice which infested 92 Turner Lane.By this time the chemist was required to obtain a signature on the poison register when anybody required lethal poison mixes such as this.Mary purchased some more Harrisonís Vermin Killer on the 30th of April and again this was recorded.She had also mentioned that she intended to buy the poison to her friend Mary Hadfield, as the mice were still a problem.

 

Mary Ann was tried at Manchester Assizes on Thursday the 22nd of July 1886, before Mr. Justice Cave, with Mr. Addison leading for the prosecution and Mr. Blair for the defence.Dr. Harris told the court of his findings of poison in the bodies of Thomas and Elizabeth Britland.By the time of the autopsies there was no trace of strychnine, as it is quickly absorbed, but arsenic was shown to be present.In Mary Annís defence Mr. Blair told the jury that she had no motive to kill the three people that she was supposed to have killed.However Mr. Justice Cave explained to them that they did not need a motive to convict her and only had to be certain that she was the killer.Having deliberated for two hours the foreman of the jury returned to tell Mr. Justice Cave that they had been unable to reach a verdict.He sent them back to deliberate further but even by ten oíclock on the night they had still not come to a conclusion.After some further direction and clarification from his lordship they returned a verdict of guilty.Mr. Justice Cave then proceeded to sentence her to death and she was asked if she had anything to say and told the court "I am quite innocent, I am not guilty at all". However Mary Ann confessed to all three murders in the condemned cell to her mother and surviving daughter.

 

Strangeways became the place of execution for the Manchester area after the closure of Salford prison. It had a purpose built execution shed in one of the yards, as this was the normal practice for private executions from 1868 up to around the end of the first World War. Mary Ann was hanged by James Berry on Monday the 9th of August 1886, the first woman to be executed there and his second female execution. She was in a state of near collapse and wailed piteously as she was prepared for death.She was assisted by two female warders on her walk from the condemned cell and supported by two male warders on the trap doors.Her final words were ďOh Lord save me! Have mercy upon meĒ.Berry gave her a drop of seven feet and death appeared to have been instantaneous.Only three more women were to be hanged at Strangeways, they were Louie Calvert, Margaret Allen and Louisa May Merrifield.

 

The simple facts of the case are outlined above but what of the motives for three murders?They were much more complicated and involved a love triangle in which one player was, it seems, almost unaware of the others. Mary Ann wanted Mary Dixon's husband, also Thomas, although there is no evidence that he wanted her, although he been seen out with her on a few occasions.Mary Ann thus needed to get rid of husband Thomas and Mary Dixon.It is thought that the reason for murdering Elizabeth is that Mary Ann suspected that her daughter knew about her plans and therefore had become a threat to her.

 

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