Ethel Lillie Major.


Forty three year old Ethel Major poisoned her husband, 44 year old Arthur, with strychnine on May the 24th, 1934 at their home at No. 2 Council Houses in Kirkby on Bain, near Horncastle, Lincolnshire.

44 year old Arthur was a lorry driver, and by all accounts not a pleasant person, especially when he had been drinking.


Ethel Lillie Brown had a daughter at the age of 23, whom she named Auriel in 1914 but refused to tell anyone who the father was.  She was brought up by Ethel’s parents and passed off as Ethel’s sister.  Here is a photo of Ethel around that time.  Here are two later photos of her 1 and 2.

Ethel married Arthur in the summer of 1918 and gave birth to a son, Lawrence, in 1920.  In the early 1930’s Arthur found out about Ethel’s first child and demanded to know who the father was.  Ethel refused to say and their relationship began to deteriorate.  Ethel accused Arthur of receiving letters from another woman in the Spring of 1934.  It is possible that Ethel herself wrote them.


After eating corned beef on May 22nd Arthur complained of severe stomach pains and died two days later.  The neighbour’s dog had also died after eating the left over corned beef.  Originally the cause of death was given as epilepsy and the funeral was set for the 26th.  However the police got a tip off in a letter signed “Fairplay” and stopped the funeral, taking Ethel in for questioning.  An autopsy carried out by the famous pathologist, Dr. Roche Lynch, revealed that both Arthur and the dog had been poisoned with strychnine.


Ethel’s father kept some poisons at home for use in connection with his work as a gamekeeper and these were in a locked chest, from which the key had gone missing.  A search of Ethel’s handbag revealed it, however.  When asked about the poisons Ethel told Chief Inspector Young that she did not know about them nor that her husband had died of strychnine poisoning, which hitherto had not been mentioned by the police, so she was charged with murder.

She told the police that she could not bear to sleep in the same room as him because of the smell. “I could not stand it. From the smell of him he had a disease.”  “He was a detestable man and I feel very much better in health that he has gone.”


Ethel was tried at Lincoln between the 28th of October and 2nd of November 1934, before Mr. Justice Charles.  She was defended by the famous Norman Birkett QC.  This would be the first murder case he had lost, when the jury took just over an hour to find her guilty. 

They had heard that Ethel suspected that Arthur was having an affair and had told her doctor, “Now you understand why I have been ill. A man like that is not fit to live. I will do him in!”  The doctor didn’t take her seriously.  They also heard that when Ethel was questioned by the police, she said, “I have never had any strychnine poison.”  “I have never mentioned strychnine,” Chief Inspector Young her told her. “How did you know your husband died from strychnine poisoning?”  “Oh, I am sorry,” said Ethel. “I must have made a mistake”.


Ethel was in a state of virtual collapse when the verdict and sentence were pronounced and had to be assisted, sobbing, from the dock.
She appealed on the basis that the judge’s summing up was biased but this was dismissed.  Unusually
, Mr. Justice Charles, wrote to the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, saying "The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy, and I concur with the recommendation." But as usual in poisoning cases there could be no reprieve.


Ethel Lillie Major was hanged by Tom Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew, Albert, at Hull prison at 9.00 a.m. on Wednesday, the 19th of December, 1934.  This was the last of ten hangings and the only female execution at Hull. Ethel’s ghost is said to still haunt the prison where she is buried.

The prison boasts an exhibition called “Within These Walls” which was opened by Ethel’s grandson Lawrence in April 2011.


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