Elizabeth Berry – A classic murder for gain.


Elizabeth Berry (click here for artist’s impression) has the odd distinctions of being the first woman to be hanged at Walton Prison in Liverpool which had facilities for female inmates and, as far as I know, the only woman to be hanged by a man with the same surname as herself.  She was executed by James Berry in 1887 and even more strangely they had actually met and even danced together. This had occurred in August 1885 at a police ball in Manchester.  James presumably had attended this ball on his own because it is doubtful that his wife, Sarah, whom he had married in 1874, would have approved of him dancing with an attractive woman two years his junior.  They clearly made some impression on each other though, because both of them remembered the other when they next met nearly eighteen months later.


Elizabeth was a thirty one year old widow who worked as a nurse in Oldham workhouse for which she was paid £25 per annum.  Out of this sum she paid £12 a year to her sister in law who looked after Elizabeth’s daughter, eleven year old Edith Annie.  One assumes that this burden put a considerable strain on Elizabeth’s finances and was probably the motive for murdering her daughter.  She had lost her husband, son and mother over the preceding five years and there was a strong suspicion that they too had been poisoned by her.  In each case Elizabeth had received an insurance payment for the death.  These deaths were not investigated further and it was doubtful after that length of time that anything could be proved from exhuming and autopsying their bodies. 


Edith was invited to spend a few days with her mother at the workhouse and she and one of her school friends duly arrived on Wednesday the 29th of December 1886. They were both lively, healthy children who played together in the wards.  However by the Saturday, which was New Year’s Day 1887, Edith had begun to feel unwell and had severe vomiting.  Elizabeth was observed giving the child some milky liquid from a glass.  She took Edith to see the workhouse doctor, Dr. Patterson, that lunchtime and told him that Edith had a stomach upset from something she had eaten at breakfast that morning.  He prescribed some suitable medication and Edith began to recover a little.  Dr. Patterson saw her again the following day.  Elizabeth showed the doctor a towel with blood as well as vomit stains on it at this meeting and while examining these, the doctor noted an acidic smell coming from them.  He decided to give Edith some bicarbonate mixture but needed the key to the dispensary which Elizabeth kept.  Whilst in the dispensary he noticed that the bottle of medical creosote was empty and wrote out a prescription for some more which he handed to Elizabeth.  Edith’s condition worsened on the Sunday evening and Dr. Paterson noticed there were red marks around her mouth.  He consulted another doctor and the pair agreed that it looked as if Edith had ingested a corrosive poison.  Edith’s condition began to deteriorate rapidly during Monday and she sadly passed away in the early hours of Tuesday.  Dr. Paterson had his suspicions as to the cause of death and must have realised that he himself had prescribed the poison that killed her when he wrote out the order for the replacement creosote.  He refused to sign a death certificate and requested a post mortem.  As expected this showed that Edith had indeed been poisoned and therefore a warrant was issued for Elizabeth’s arrest. 


She came to trial at Liverpool Assizes in the famous St. George's Hall, on the 21st of February, before Mr. Justice Hawkins, the proceedings lasting for four days.  Expert medical evidence was presented as to the cause of death.  The jury were also told about two insurance policies.  One was for £10 on Edith’s life with a burial society, which were popular at the time as they meant that the loved ones would get a proper Christian burial.  The other policy was a joint life one which paid £100 to either Elizabeth or Edith on the death of the other.  In view of the fairly overwhelming medical evidence and a strong motive, Elizabeth was found guilty of the wilful murder of her daughter. She received the mandatory death sentence and was taken back to Walton to await execution. 


At this time the two Liverpool prisons, Kirkdale and Walton, shared a gallows which was transported from one to the other as required.  This meant that there was quite a lot of noise as it was re-erected.  At Walton it was housed in the prison van shed which had a brick lined pit in the floor.  The van shed was close to the Female Debtor’s Wing where Elizabeth was being held and she enquired what the cause of all the noise was.  She was then moved to another cell further away until the construction was finished, later returning to the condemned cell.  She was attended by three sets each of two female warders working in three eight hour shifts and was regularly visited regularly by the Chaplin.

Her case was considered by the Home Office but the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, saw no reason for a reprieve and her execution was set to take place on the morning of Monday the 14th of March 1887.


James Berry was required to be at the prison on the Sunday afternoon.  When he arrived the Governor said to him “I did not know you were going to hang an old flame, Berry.”  James was aware of the prisoner’s name but did not apparently realise who she actually was. However Elizabeth knew the name of Britain’s then chief hangman and had told the Governor about their meeting.  As was normal Berry went to look at the prisoner to assess the correct length of drop for her and to see how she was bearing up or otherwise under the strain.  He immediately recognised Elizabeth’s auburn hair, even though it had been cut very much shorter than when he last saw her.  Having been given her weight he decided on a drop of 6’ 6” and went to the van house to set the rope accordingly.  Unsurprisingly Elizabeth passed a restless last night, as did most people in her position.


The following morning James entered her cell and bade her good morning.  Elizabeth came to him, her hand held out in greeting, saying “Good morning, Mr. Berry.  You and I have met before.”  James pretended he had forgotten but she reminded him of the occasion.  Some further conversation ensued and Elizabeth begged James to be quick and not hurt her.  Being a very religious man James asked her if she had made her peace with God but she declined to answer this so he told her to make good use of the few remaining minutes of her life. Just before eight o’clock he returned and pinioned her wrists in front of her with a leather strap before she was led from the condemned cell in a procession consisting of the governor, the chaplain, the under sheriff, at least two warders and James Berry for the sixty yard walk to the gallows.  There was still snow on the ground that March and so sand had been sprinkled on it to prevent an accident.  Initially Elizabeth was able to walk quite well with a warder supporting her on either side but nearly fainted when she turned the corner and saw the noose waiting for her. She recovered somewhat and exclaimed “Oh God forbid, God forbid.” She required help in getting onto the platform and again fainted, having to be held up by the two warders whilst James made the necessary preparations.  He fastened a leather strap around the bottom of her skirt above the ankles. Elizabeth had again recovered a little and her last words were “May God forgive me” as James pulled the white hood over her head and adjusted the Italian silk hemp noose around her neck, with the metal eyelet positioned under the angle of her left jaw, held in position by a leather washer.  The free rope was allowed to loop down her back.  James did not have an assistant and so was required to undertake all the preparations. As all was now ready he pushed the lever, her body disappearing from view with a crash. Death was certified by the prison doctor as having been “instantaneous”.

One of the wardresses present is alleged to have said to James afterwards “There goes one of the coldest blooded murderers – the worst species of woman kind to carry out the deeds she has carried out.”

Outside the prison a crowd estimated at eight hundred people had gathered, although they saw and heard nothing other than the bell tolling and the black flag hosted over the prison to show that the execution had taken place.  Elizabeth’s body was taken down and after a formal inquest, buried within the precincts of the prison.  Berry took the opportunity to cut a small lock of hair from her head to keep as a souvenir.  Although the press were not allowed to watch Elizabeth die, they were permitted to attend the inquest.   The Oldham Chronicle regaled its readers with an account of the scene, reporting that Elizabeth’s corpse was covered by a white sheet that came up to her chin and was tucked up under her left ear (to hide the mark left by the eyelet of the noose).  It noted that the body had been washed and that the hair was still damp and had not been combed.  However her face was at peace and her expression did not give the impression that she had suffered a violent death.


James recorded that he hated hanging women and that he was pleased to get out of Walton as quickly as he could because he was feeling unwell afterwards. Elizabeth was the third of four women that he hanged, the other two being Mary Lefly in 1884, Mary Ann Britland in 1886 and Mary Eleanor Pearcey in 1890.


It is interesting to compare this execution to the later 20th century ones where rarely a word was spoken, never mind a conversation between executioner and prisoner.  An executioner would certainly not have been allowed to visit a prisoner and talk with them in later times.


There was to be only one more female execution at Walton, that of fifty three year old Margaret Walber, who was hanged by James Billington on Monday, the 2nd of April, 1894 for murdering her husband.  However the prison was to be the site of one of the last two executions in Britain, carried out simultaneously on the 13th of August 1964 when Peter Anthony Allen was hanged for his part in the robbery and murder of John Alan West.


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