Mary Ann Milner - a case that changed condemned cell procedure.


Mary Ann Milner was due to go the gallows atop the Cobb Tower of Lincoln Castle at noon on Friday the 30th of July 1847 for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her sister in law.  However on the eve of her execution she hanged herself with a silk scarf that she had worn at her trial.  This caused great disappointment to the many who had come to watch her die.


At the time of the crimes, 27 year old Mary Ann lived with her husband in the north Lincolnshire village of Barnetby le Wold where he was a farm labourer.  According to contemporary reports she was an attractive woman.  She was a serial poisoner who had in all four victims, three of whom died and her father in law who survived but was paralysed.  Her parents in law had become ill and were ordered to eat sago which Mary Ann prepared for them.  When Mary, her mother in law, died it caused suspicion and her body was subsequently exhumed and found to contain arsenic. 



Mary Ann was tried in a packed courthouse before Mr. Justice Rolfe at Lincoln on the 20th of July 1847 on three separate indictments.  These were the murders of Mary Milner on the 5th of June, her sister in law, Hannah Tickels on the 26th of June and her niece Ellen Tickels on the 15th of June to all of which Mary Ann pleaded not guilty.  (In some reports the Tickels name is given as Jickels)  The prosecution was handled by Messrs. Wildman and Dennison and the defence by Mr. Miller.  The murder of Mary Milner was tried first and Mr. Wildman presented the bare facts of the cases and asserted that the motive was purely to obtain money from the burial society.  Mr. Miller highlighted the deficiencies in the evidence and maintained that Mary Ann had no motive for wanting her mother in law dead.  Mr. Justice Rolfe summed up favourably to Mary Ann and the jury quickly bought in a not guilty verdict.  The second indictment was therefore heard.  The jury heard that Hannah Tickels had been poisoned by arsenic in a pancake on the 26th of June and that the arsenic had been purchased from the village grocer, William Percival, on the pretext of poisoning rats.

Hannah had eaten the pancake at breakfast with Mary Ann and quickly became ill and started vomiting.  However she was able to tell her friend, Mary Winter, about the pancake.  Another of her neighbours gave evidence that Hannah had told her about the pancake and she had mentioned this to Mary Ann who turned pale and was almost unable to walk.  Mary Ann went to Hannah’s house and reportedly asked her “O Hannah, do you think the pancake has caused you to be so?”  Hannah survived until around 6 pm that night.  As the death was suspicious a post-mortem was held by James Moxon and the presence of arsenic in Hannah’s body was confirmed by Mr. Patterson, a surgeon from nearby Brigg.  Thus Mary Ann was arrested and charged with the crime.  In his second summing up Mr. Justice Rolfe told the jury that there could be little doubt that Hannah’s death was caused by eating the pancake with arsenic in it but the real point that they had to determine was whether the arsenic was knowingly or accidentally mixed into it.

The jury took 20 minutes to convict Mary Ann and as she received the mandatory death sentence, the third indictment was not proceeded with.



From 1817 on, the gallows at Lincoln was erected for each execution on the roof of Cobb Hall, a large tower forming the north east bastion of the Castle and visible from the street below.  It was accessed by the prisoner and officials via a spiral stone staircase within the tower leading up to the roof level.  William Calcraft had travelled up from London to execute Mary Ann.

Strangely it was reported in some newspapers that her hanging had been carried out with all the usual details given.  For some reason it had been assumed that she was hanged in private, although why such an assumption could be made 21 years before the ending of public executions is beyond me.


Mary Ann made a written confession to all three murders but asked that it not be made public until after her death.

At about 7.45 on the Friday morning a matron discovered Mary Ann hanging from a metal staple in her cell.  It was reported that she was naked and that her clothes were neatly folded up.  She had last been seen alive around 9 pm the previous evening by the prison chaplain.  An inquest was held the following day and returned a verdict of felo-de-se (suicide).


As a result of this suicide and the near riot that ensued as a result, it became the practice to guard all condemned prisoners around the clock, one which continued until abolition. 


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