Mary Lefley - a Victorian poisoner?
Forty nine year old Mary Lefley from Wrangle in
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.
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
on the morning of
Such was Mary’s state on her final morning
that she was dragged to the gallows in a state of hysteria, screaming “Murder,
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
Mary Lefley was
the last woman to be hanged in
Back to Contents Page