Mary Lefley - a Victorian poisoner?


Forty nine year old Mary Lefley from Wrangle in Lincolnshire was hanged at Lincoln County Gaol by James Berry on Monday the 26th of May 1884 in what was to be his third execution and the second at this location.  Previously hangings had been carried out at Lincoln Castle.

Mary had been convicted of murdering her husband, fifty nine year old William, by putting arsenic in his rice pudding at their home in Wrangle. 


The Lefley’s lived in a freehold cottage in the, then tiny, village of Wrangle, some nine miles north east of Boston and appeared to be a happily married, although childless couple.

William Lefley died on Wednesday the 6th of February 1884, after eating a rice pudding that Mary had prepared for him and left in the oven for when he got home.  She had gone to Boston, the nearest large town, some four miles away, to sell butter.   William ate the rice pudding but soon became ill and took himself to the local doctor.  He was seen around four thirty in the afternoon and after treatment was well enough to go home with the help of a neighbour and get upstairs to bed.  When Mary got home around six o’clock she found Richard Wright, the parish clerk and a neighbour with William.  She asked what was the matter and William said to her “You know all about it, my dear.  Go down and don’t let me see you any more.”  William’s condition rapidly deteriorated and he was seen again by the doctor later in the evening who realised that he was beyond help but was not at that time certain that he had been poisoned.  An hour later William was dead and Mary received a visit from Mrs. Curl, the village constable’s wife, to whom she suggested that William had taken the poison himself in order to commit suicide.  The post mortem discovered a fatal dose of arsenic within William’s stomach and tissues.


Mary went with her brother to see a neighbour the day after William’s death, a local farmer by the name of Saul, and told him that her marriage had not been going too well of late and that he had mentioned suicide to her.  She said that he had gone into the yard intending to hang himself and Mr. Saul asked Mary if she had gone after him in an effort to prevent this.  She said she hadn't – not something that probably went down well with the jury.


Mary was arrested and charged with murder on the Friday and protested that she couldn’t have committed the murder because there was no poison in the house.  However a thorough search revealed some white powder wrapped up in paper which the police sent for analysis, along with the remains of the rice pudding.  The powder proved not to be arsenic but a huge amount of the poison was in the rice pudding, a portion of which had been retained for analysis.


Mary was taken before the local magistrate and duly committed for trial at Lincoln Assizes. Her case was heard on Wednesday the 7th of May before Mr. Justice North.  She was dressed all in black and had to be helped up into the dock because of her severe rheumatism. 

The prosecution stated that her motive was that she simply wanted to rid herself of her husband.  They bought forth the forensic evidence and also evidence from family and neighbours as to the state of the marriage and to the fact that William was in good health prior to eating the rice pudding.  They were not able to offer any evidence of Mary purchasing arsenic, the sale of which was by now much more tightly controlled or of her being seen actually administering the poison.
In Mary’s defence it was claimed that William Lefley had committed suicide. They presented the testimony of William’s nephew, William Lester, had been lodging with his uncle and aunt until four days before the murder and he related to the court how on the 1st of February William and Mary had argued over a cask of ale that Mary had ordered and that William had come into bed with his nephew and told him that he had tried to hang himself.  The young man told his aunt of the incident the following morning.

It was also suggested by the defence that if William’s death was not suicide, a stranger had put the poison into the food which was unsurprisingly not believed by the jury at the time who found her guilty after deliberating for just thirty five minutes. 

As the judge sentenced Mary to death she protested “I’m not guilty, I never poisoned anybody in my life.”  She was taken back to the new Lincoln County Gaol in Greetwell Road, that had opened in 1872 to replace the old Castle Gaol and placed in the condemned cell.  Here she was guarded round the clock by wardresses and visited regularly by the Governor, Major MacKay, and the chaplain the Reverend H. Adcock, who no doubt did his best to prepare her for her fate.  It is said that the warders, governor and chaplain all thought that she was innocent, but none of this held any sway with the Home Secretary, Sir William Vernon Harcourt, who decided not to give her the benefit of any of the possible doubts and therefore no reprieve was to be forthcoming.


Nine o’clock on the morning of Monday the 26th of May 1884 was the date set for her hanging and the under sheriff of Lincolnshire had hired James Berry to perform the task.  Mary had been in a state of near collapse the whole of her time in the condemned cell and constantly proclaimed her innocence.  It was therefore decided by the governor to employ an assistant to Berry, which was not the norm at this time, one “Richard Chester”, as this gentleman liked to be known.  It seems that the governor had decided to exclude the press from witnessing the execution as the law permitted him to do.


Such was Mary’s state on her final morning that she was dragged to the gallows in a state of hysteria, screaming “Murder, murder”.  Berry carried out his painful duty and death was recorded as “instantaneous”, in other words there was no visible struggling and no signs of strangulation.  The body was left on the rope for an hour before being taken down for inquest and burial within the prison.


But was Mary guilty?  It is certainly possible that she was but equally possible that she was innocent.  If she really wanted rid of William and if he had really attempted suicide already, wouldn’t it have been easier to let him have another attempt rather than murder him with all the attendant risks that doing so involved?

Did William genuinely commit suicide and frame Mary for it?

Did a stranger go into the cottage and put the arsenic into the pudding?  The latter is not so far fetched as the jury thought it was. It has been alleged that a local farmer had a grievance against William, whom he felt had cheated him over a deal and decided to take revenge.  Just as with the Priscilla Biggadyke case, this person is alleged to have confessed to the crime on his death bed.

We have of course no means of knowing which of the above is the truth, some people go into denial when convicted of a heinous crime, either because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they did it or because they feel that it is the best way of getting a reprieve.  Certainly Mary totally refused to confess to the killing and as stated earlier the prison staff believed her.


Interestingly it has been said that Mary Lefley and Priscilla Biggadyke had actually knew each other.  They lived just a few miles apart with Boston forming the apex of an inverted triangle between their respective villages of Wrangle and Stickney and it is therefore perfectly possible that they could have known each other.  There are so many other similarities in the two cases as well and their ages were the same, both were around thirty one in 1868 so they would have been contemporaries. 

Mary Lefley was the last woman to be hanged in Lincolnshire.  Male executions continued at Lincoln prison up to 1961 when Wasyl Gnypiuk was hanged for the murder of Louise Surgey on the 27th of January.


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