Mary Ball – Coventry’s
Mary Wright (later Ball) was born in Nuneaton to Isaac Wright and Alice Ward in 1818 and
christened there in June of that year.
She married Thomas Ball in 1837 at the age of 20 and bore him six
children over the next 12 years, of whom only one, Mary Ann Ball,
survived. The marriage was mired in
poverty and was at best tempestuous, there were
frequent fights some of which boiled over into the street. Thomas discovered that Mary was having an
affair with nineteen year old William Bacon which did nothing to improve the
By 1849 Thomas was a labourer helping with
building the Trent Valley Railway. On the 18th of May 1849, Thomas went fishing
after work with two friends. When he got
home he had his supper which consisted of bread and gruel. Soon after eating he began to experience
severe stomach pains and the doctor was sent for. Dr. Prouse,
diagnosed inflammation of the bowels.
Thomas’ condition did not improve the following day and on Sunday the
20th of May Thomas died. Dr. Prouse visited again and issued a death certificate stating
death by natural causes.
Although there was no immediate official
suspicion regarding Thomas’ death there was substantial local gossip and this
led to constables Haddon and Vernon
to question Mary. She made four separate
statements to them which were full of inconsistencies. She initially claimed that she had bought a
pennyworth of arsenic from Mr. Iliffe, a local
chemist, to kill bed bugs (a normal remedy at this time) and afterwards thrown
away the cup she had used to mix it up in and burnt the paper packet it had
come in. In her third statement she told
the constables that she had put the arsenic on the mantle shelf and then
confused it with some “salts”, accidentally mixing it into the gruel. In her final statement she admitted mixing
arsenic with the salts and putting it into the gruel to give Tomas the purge.
An autopsy was performed by Dr. Prouse and Mr George Shaw, Professor of Chemistry at
Queen’s College Birmingham which found between two and three grains of arsenic
in Thomas’ stomach and thus on the 22nd of May Mary was charged with his
Coventry still held its own assizes, distinct from the county of Warwickshire,
at this time, the last assize being held there in 1854. Thus Mary was tried at the Coventry Summer
Assizes held in the County Hall before Mr. Justice Coleridge on the 28th of
July 1849, the case taking just over ten hours to hear. The prosecution was led by a Mr. Hayes, with
Mr. Miller appearing for the defence and giving a powerful speech in favour of
his client who had pleaded not guilty. The jury convicted of her after two
hours of deliberation, adding a recommendation to mercy. When Mr. Justice Coleridge asked them why
they could offer no reason and then returned a verdict of guilty to wilful
murder. She was then sentenced to death
and returned to prison to await execution.
In the condemned cell Mary was visited by
the prison chaplain, the Rev. Chapman as was the norm. However Chapman became frustrated by Mary’s
refusal to confess to the murder and on the 4th of August held her bare arm over
a lighted candle, causing burns and blistering.
News of this disgraceful behaviour reached the governor of Coventry prison, Mr. Stanley,
who asked the visiting magistrate, Rev. Bellairs, to
investigate. As a result Chapman was
dismissed from the prison service. The
following day Mary reportedly made a confession to Mr. Stanley. Asked what made her do it, Mary could only
say: "My husband was in the habit of going with other women, and used me
so ill - no one knows what I have suffered."
As was normal in poisoning cases the Home
Secretary, Sir George Grey, let the law take its course. Mary’s execution was thus set for Thursday,
the 9th of August and she was duly returned to Coventry. She was led the New Drop gallows
set up in front of County Hall in Cuckoo Lane just before 10 am. A crowd estimated at between 15 and 20,000
people had come from miles around to watch the spectacle and a broadside
claiming to detail the “Life, trial and awful execution of Mary Ball” sold
She was hanged by William Calcraft,
assisted by James Japhcote and appeared to die
As was not uncommon at the time a death
mask of Mary’s face was made (see photo) which is
still on display at the West Midlands Police
Museum in Coventry.
She was later buried within the prison grounds. This would be the last execution at Coventry and there is a
plaque on the wall of County Hall commemorating it. See photo. Here is the
broadside printed for the case.
1849 was one of the peak years of the 19th
century for female hangings. No less
than seven women being executed in this year.
In England and Wales
five of the 17 executions during the year were of women, representing over
29%. It is unclear why at this period so
many women decided to commit murder.
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