Mary Ann Burdock – The Bristol poisoner.


Mary was born in Ross on Wye in 1805 and moved to Bristol as a teenager to find employment “in service” as domestic work was known at the time.  Her first job was as a house maid to a Mr. Plumley who lived in St. Nicholas Street for whom she worked for eighteen months before being sacked for petty theft.  Here is a drawing of Mary, presumably made at her trial.

She now found a boyfriend, a tailor by the name of Agar, whom she soon married and equally soon left for another man.  She then spent some time in a relationship with a wine merchant before leaving him for Charles Wade who was a ship’s steward.  The couple opened a lodging house in the St. Phillips area of the city and this seemed to do quite well initially.  Mr. Wade died and Mary married for the second time to Mr. Burdock who was one of the lodgers.  Another of Mary's lodgers was an elderly lady of about sixty, called Clara Ann Smith whom Mary and her maid servant, Mary Ann Allen (also given as Alien), looked after.  Clara was quite wealthy but did not trust early banks and kept her money in a locked box in her room.  It is thought that the box contained some three thousand pounds which had been left to Clara by her husband who had been a successful ironmonger. This was indeed a great deal of money at the time. 

Mary’s finances were stretched by 1833 and she decided that the easiest way to top them up was kill Clara and help herself to the money.  As usual arsenic was the cheapest and most readily available means to achieve this.  Clara died on the 26th of October 1833 after exhibiting the typical symptoms of stomach cramps and vomiting.  The cause of death was given as natural and Clara was buried in St. Augustine's churchyard.  Mary’s life style seemed to suddenly improve after the death of her elderly lodger.


Clara’s relatives were suspicious when Mary told them that she had left very little money and in due course reported their suspicions to the police.  It was not until the autumn of 1834, fourteen months after Clara’s burial, that the police actually took any real interest and interviewed Mary Allen who had helped to look after Clara.  Mary Allen told the officers that she had seen Mary Ann Burdock administer a yellow powder to Clara.  As a result an exhumation order was obtained from the coroner and Clara’s body was removed for examination.  The autopsy took place at the Bristol Royal Infirmary on the 22nd of December before several of its leading surgeons. It was immediately noticed how well preserved the body was.  Clara’s internal organs were sent to the Bristol Medical School, where William Herapath was able to confirm that her stomach contained a large amount of arsenic. He appeared as an “expert witness” at the subsequent trial.  William Herapath had a very high reputation as an analyst and was one of the founders of the Bristol Medical School.


Arrest and trial.

Mary was now arrested and charged with Clara’s murder, being remanded in custody to await trial at the Bristol Sessions of Gaol Delivery for the City which were held in April 1835.

Mary came to trial at the Guildhall before Sir Charles Wetherell on Friday the 10th of that month, the proceedings lasting three days and concluding on the following Monday. The prosecution was mounted by three crown lawyers, Mr. Smith, Mr. Rogers and Mr. Cooke, the defence being handled by a Mr. Payne, assisted by Mr. Stone.

The evidence of Mary Ann Allen and William Herapath were crucial in obtaining a conviction.

On Monday the 13th of April 1835, Mary Ann was sentenced to be hanged two days later on the Wednesday.  She impressed the governor and matrons who looked after her in the condemned cell with her courage.  She asked for an elm coffin to be made for her, lined with flannel and the prison matron to make sure that she had a warm, comfortable shroud.



By early Wednesday morning, the 15th of April 1835 a crowd estimated at 50,000 had lined the banks of the New Cut to witness the execution and there was the usual carnival atmosphere.  Mary’s was to be the first female execution on top of the gate house of the New Gaol in Cumberland Road.  The gallows had been erected the night before. 


She chose to wear a long black dress, dark shawl, black bonnet and vale for her execution.  The usual procession consisting of the governor, under sheriff, chaplain, turnkeys, William Calcraft, the hangman and Mary herself ascended the internal stairs of the gatehouse and appeared on the roof.  The crowd became silent as Mary was prepared and the hood and noose applied.  Mary held a handkerchief in her hand which she was to drop when she was ready for Calcraft to release the trap door.  When she had finished her prayers she dropped the handkerchief and the trap fell at 1.40 pm.  She reportedly died almost without a struggle, her suspended body could now be seen by the crowd. She made no confession whatsoever to the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. Jennings, before she died.

Due to the passing of the Anatomy Act a year earlier Mary’s body did not have to undergo the indignity of public dissection but was to be buried within the precincts of the New Gaol.


She was the first woman to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the Gaol, part of which still exists.  Mary’s was the first female execution in Bristol for twenty two years. The previous occasion was when Maria Davis and Charlotte Bobbett were hanged together on the 12th of April 1802 for the murder of Maria’s son, fifteen month old Richard Davis.


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