Mary Ann Ansell.
In Victorian times attitudes to mental illness were very
different to those of today, the policy being to confine patients diagnosed
with such illnesses to large asylums which were being built all over the
country. One such facility was Leavesden Mental Asylum which had been built at Abbots
Langley in Buckinghamshire by the Metropolitan Asylums Board to serve north
Caroline’s older sister, Mary Ann, aged eighteen or twenty
two depending upon which report you read, worked as a maid to a wealthy
Mary Ann came to trial at Hertford Assizes in
Mary Ann continued to plead her innocence but had no
convincing defence. The jury took two
hours to find her guilty and did not make a recommendation to mercy, despite
her age. She was sentenced to death and
returned to St. Albans Prison. This
prison had facilities for female prisoners but had not had an execution since
1880, when Thomas Wheeler was hanged there. (The father of Mary Eleanor Wheeler). It did not have a gallows and had to borrow
one from neighbouring
Even though it seemed like a clear case of premeditated murder their was considerable public agitation for a reprieve, perhaps due to Mary’s youth and family background. We have seen this before in other cases of the period. There was a resolution passed by the Metropolitan Asylums Board urging for clemency for Mary Ann. Some newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, also asked for a reprieve and tried to paint Mary Ann as the victim of society, being a poor maidservant. It ran the headline “A one-sided investigation” and complained that the Home Office had not made any effort to assess Mary Ann’s mental state. Her mother had told the press that she “had been silly since the time she was at school” and that she sometimes talked to herself. A hundred Members of Parliament had signed a petition on the day before she was due to die, calling for a week's postponement in carrying out the sentence while her mental state was determined. The Home Secretary, Sir Mathew White Ridley was not moved by all this and determined, as usual in the case of deliberate poisoning, that the law must take its course. In a letter from the Home Office, dated July 15th 1889 to Mr. Jobson who had organised the public petition to save Mary Ann, it was stated that “The Secretary of State having carefully considered all circumstances of the case and having caused special medical enquiry to be made as to the convict’s mental condition by Dr. D. Nicholson, Visitor in Lunacy and Dr. R. Brayn, Superintendent of the Broadmoor Asylum under Section 2 of the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884 has been unable to find sufficient grounds to justify him in advising Her Majesty to interfere with the course of law.” In other words she was legally sane under the terms of the M’Naughten Rules.
She was therefore hanged by James Billington within the
Mary Ann secured her place in history as the youngest woman to be hanged in private and the last woman to be hanged in the nineteenth century. She was the fourth of five women to be executed by James Billington. Of the 23 women executed in private between 1868 and 1899, 12 or just over half, had been convicted of murder by poisoning.
A Home Office file made public in 2000 revealed that she had admitted sending Caroline the poisoned cake, mistakenly thinking that the death would not be investigated because her sister was in an asylum.