Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins - the “Liverpool Borgias”.


55 year old Catherine Flannagan and 41 year old Margaret Higgins (her age is also given as 45) were sisters who emigrated from Ireland during the potato famines of 1845 - 1849 and came to live in the Liverpool slums.  They embarked on a plan to make money from life insurance and burial societies which were popular in the late nineteenth century as they assured the poor of a “good send-off”.  Click for photos of them - Catherine and Margaret.


The crimes.

In the early 1880’s the pair, who were both single at the time, ran a rooming house at 5 Skirving Street in Liverpool.  The household consisted of Catherine and her son, John, Margaret, Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret, Thomas Higgins, a widower and his eight year old daughter Mary.

John Higgins was to be the first victim, the previously healthy 22 year old dying in December 1880. Catherine had been telling neighbours for some time that he was in poor health, although there was no evidence that he actually was. His insurance policies netted £71.

A romance developed between Thomas Higgins and Margaret leading to marriage between them in October of 1882.  Thomas’ daughter, Mary was dead within six months of the wedding.  Margaret collected her life insurance of £22.

The next known victim was 19 year old Margaret Jennings who died in January 1883.

Local gossip about deaths at Skirving Street forced the sisters to twice move house.

By late 1883 they were living at 27 Ascot Street in Liverpool where Thomas began having severe stomach pains.  His doctor attributed these to dysentery caused by drinking too much.  He died in early October of that year. 

45 year old Thomas Higgins had been insured by the sisters for a total of £108.19 shillings.  This may not sound like a lot of money now but it was in 1884, roughly equivalent to £8,000.00 today.  Thomas’ brother, Patrick, was suspicious about the death and visited a number of local insurance companies, finding that there were a total of five policies on his brother’s life.  He went to the police with this and with the coroner’s officer, they visited Ascot Street on the day of Thomas’ funeral, while the wake was in progress.  Catherine managed to escape from the house.  Margaret was arrested.  A post mortem revealed that Thomas had indeed died from arsenic poisoning.  The source of this was fly papers from which the sisters leached the arsenic by immersion in water.  The other suspected victims were exhumed and arsenic found in their bodies.  Catherine was duly arrested and on the 16th of October both were charged with murder.



On Thursday the 7th of February 1884, a Grand Jury at Liverpool Assizes returned true bills against Catherine and Margaret for the murders by arsenic poisoning of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings and John Flannagan.

The trial opened at St. George’s Hall on Thursday the 14th of February, before Mr. Justice Butt.  The case of Thomas Higgins was heard first.  It took the jury 50 minutes to reach guilty verdicts on both women on the evening of Saturday the 16th of February.  Margaret collapsed in the dock as she was sentenced.  As both women had been sentenced to death, the other murder charges were not proceeded with, as was the norm.

The pair were returned to Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool to await execution.  Here they were ministered to by Father Bonté, the Catholic chaplain of Kirkdale.


Bartholomew Binns and Samuel Heath arrived at Kirkdale on the afternoon of Saturday the 1st of March, Binns being allowed an assistant
as it was a double execution.  Binns supervised the erection of the gallows in a yard of the prison.  The two women were weighed and measured.  Catherine was 4 feet 11 3/4 inches tall and weighed 113 lbs.  Margaret was 5 feet 3 3/4 inches tall and weighed 130 lbs.  Catherine was to be given a drop of 9 feet 6 inches and Margaret was to receive 9 feet 8 inches.  This should have resulted in drop energies of 1074 ft. lbs and 1256 ft. lbs. respectively.  It is unclear why Binns wanted to give Margaret such a long drop.


The hangings were carried out at 8 a.m. on Monday the 3rd of March, 1884.  At 7.45 the pair were taken from the condemned cells to the reception room to be pinioned.  The prison bell now started tolling as the pair were led out into the prison yard.  The procession was led by Mr. Cranston, the Chief Warder, followed Major Leggett, the governor, Mr. Wilson, the Under Sheriff, Dr. James Barr, the gaol surgeon, Dr. Hammond, his counterpart from nearby Walton prison, Catherine and Margaret, assisted by two female and two male warders and finally Binns and Heath.  It was snowing outside.  Both women wore long dresses.  Catherine had chosen black, her sister a dark brown one.  They had to be assisted up the steps of the scaffold, but coped calmly with the preparations.  Binns hooded and noosed Catherine, Heath dealt with Margaret.  The running noose ropes of 3/4” diameter hemp were arranged with the eyelets beneath the women’s chins.  The drop was sufficient in both case to break their necks and heart action had ceased within seven minutes.  In fact these actual drops as measured afterwards were considerably more than Binns thought he had allowed.  Catherine’s drop was 10 feet 9 inches and Margaret’s was 11 feet and 3/4 of an inch.  It is not known whether Binns had set them incorrectly or whether the knot had slipped where the rope was attached to the beam, as had happened at the execution of Patrick O'Donnell at Newgate, as testified by the Chief Warder, Mr. Ward, in evidence to the Aberdare Committee. Binns had tied the rope in such a way that it slipped 15 inches.  It is more likely that the knots slipped as the length of drop these two woman received would have been likely to have resulted in decapitation otherwise.

A large group of people had gathered outside the gaol to see the black flag unfurled, despite the continued snowfall.

A formal inquest was heard before the county coroner at 10 am.  Waxworks of the pair were soon on display in Madame Tussaud’s wax works.


In the hope of obtaining a reprieve, Catherine implicated three or four other women in a number of poisonings in the area and there may have been as many as 17 victims in all.The police investigated these claims but there was not sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution.  In February, 1884, William Marks, the prosecuting solicitor for Liverpool, wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions saying that six victims were probably poisoned but it would be difficult to prove anyone other than Higgins and Flannagan were responsible for these deaths.

Note : The spelling of Catherine’s surname is given as both Flanagan and Flannagan by different newspapers.


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