Mary Ball – Coventry’s last hanging.

 

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 relationship.

 

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 murder.

 

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 of 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 well.

She was hanged by William Calcraft, assisted by James Japhcote and appeared to die easily.

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.

 

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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