Elizabeth Pearson – “the Gainford poisoner”.

On the morning of Monday August the 2nd 1875, a small piece of legal history was made within the walls of Durham prison.  A woman was to be hanged with two men, all for unrelated crimes and this was to be the last such occasion of this in England. 

The woman was twenty eight year old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Pearson and the men were 36 year old William McHugh, who had been convicted of drowning Thomas Mooney at Barnard Castle and 22 year old Michael Gillingham who had murdered John Kilcran at Darlington.  All three had been tried and convicted at the Durham Summer Assizes the previous month.

Elizabeth had been born in 1847 in the village of Newsham but from the age of just fifteen months old had been brought up by her aunt Jane, in the neighbouring village of Gainford, halfway between Barnard Castle and Darlington.  She had left Jane's home as soon as she was old enough, somewhere around 1860 and married a local agricultural labourer, John Pearson by whom she had four children.  In the meantime aunt Jane remarried to a widower, James Watson who worked as a groom on one of the local estates.  Elizabeth and James appeared to get on well together and he was very fond of her.  She was described in the press as being of middle height, inclined to be stout and having dark eyes and hair.

When Jane died James took a lodger, George Smith, to help him make ends meet and pay the rent on his house in Church Row, Gainford.  However in early 1875, James fell ill with pneumonia at the age of seventy four.  Elizabeth went to nurse the old man and took her husband and a child to live at his house.  She looked after him very well and he started to make a recovery, even managing to negotiate the stairs.  James was attended by Dr. Francis Homfray at his home who noted the improvement in his condition when he visited on Monday the 15th of March 1875.  Elizabeth asked Dr. Homfray to give James a something for his constipation and Dr. Homfray offered her pills.  She asked him for a powder instead and this was duly prescribed.  The good doctor was therefore very surprised when James died just four hours later.  He reported the unexpected death to the coroner and an inquest was held at the Lord Nelson Inn on the 19th of March.  It was normal practice to hold inquests at local inns at this time.
The post mortem did not find any obvious disease of the major organs but the lining of the stomach was unusually red and contained a small amount of an unidentified liquid.  Dr. Homfray reported his findings to the deputy coroner, Thomas Dean, who ordered an analysis of the stomach contents and adjourned the inquest. The stomach, intestine and liver were sent to Thomas Scattergood in
Leeds for analysis and he found that the unusual liquid contained strychnine and Prussian blue but no sign of the substances in the powder that Dr. Homfray had prescribed.  Strychnine is a colourless chrystalline alkaloid the ingestion of which causes severe and painful spasms of the neck, back, and limbs and convulsions.  Death comes either from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the nerves that control breathing, or by exhaustion from the convulsions. The patient typically dies within two to three hours after ingesting the poison as it is quickly absorbed by the body.

When the inquest resumed on the 16th of April, Mr. Scattergood informed the coroner that he had found traces of strychnine and Prussian blue.  But where had it come from and how did it get into James?  As it was a now a potential murder Superintendent Thompson became involved and was able to obtain a packet of Battle's Vermin Killer from the village shop at Gainford.  This was found to contain both strychnine and Prussian blue which is a colouring put into the mixture to warn people of the danger of the substance.  In other words the rat poison contained both chemicals found in James’ stomach.  As Elizabeth was the person most likely to have administered the poison she was arrested and charged with the murder. 

She came to trial at the Durham Summer Assizes on the 9th of July 1875 before Mr. Justice Archibald in proceedings that were to last just one day.  The prosecution was led by Mr. Milvain and the judge appointed a Mr. Ridley to defend Elizabeth.  The prosecution took the jury through the forensic evidence and the discovery of Battle’s Vermin Killer in the Pearson household and its purchase from the village shop.  They offered as a motive for the killing the idea that Elizabeth had murdered James to prevent him moving into a smaller house and selling off the furniture that had originally been her aunt Jane’s.  Mr. Ridley contended that Elizabeth had no motive for killing her uncle and the poison must had been administered by James’ lodger, who had since left. The jury were unimpressed with this and brought in a guilty verdict within an hour.  The judge passed the death sentence on Elizabeth who remained composed but is reported to have wept in her cell below the court whilst awaiting transfer to prison where she was housed in the south east wing and looked after by teams of wardresses.

As was by no means unusual a petition to save Elizabeth had been got up by local people but this was rejected by the Home Secretary.  Elizabeth tried the pregnancy claim but was examined by the prison doctor, Mr. Boyd, and found not to be.  As poison was the instrument of James’ death there could be no reprieve.  Richardson Peele, the Under Sheriff of Durham received a letter from the Home Secretary on the Sunday morning prior to execution informing him that there were to be no reprieves. Elizabeth was visited in prison by her husband and one of her children a couple of days before the execution.  She continued to assert her innocence of the murder to him.

William Marwood arrived at Durham on the Friday afternoon and was able to stay at a local inn, the requirement for the hangman to stay within the prison having not yet been introduced.  These executions brought the number carried out at Durham by William Marwood to seven.  The gallows was set up in the condemned prisoner’s exercise yard close the prison’s female wing.  The platform was level with the ground, with the trap doors opening into a brick lined pit that had been made deeper to suit long drop hangings.  It was the same gallows that had been used for the executions of Charles Dawson, Edward Gough and William Thompson on January 5th 1874 and unusually had two beams.

On the Monday morning the three prisoners were given breakfast, reportedly comprising of a lamb chop, bread and butter and a cup of tea at 7 a.m.  It was reported that Elizabeth only managed the tea.  They were allowed time to pray with their respective priests, Elizabeth being looked after by the prison chaplain, the Revd. J. C. Lowe.  Just before 8 a.m. "the three prisoners were led forth from their respective cells to the pinioning room, where their limbs were securely tied," according to the Northern Echo’s reporter. "Hence they were taken by the warders to the quadrangle, in which the gallows were erected, and where William Marwood stood ready to perform his task." The Durham County Advertiser reported that Elizabeth “walked to the scaffold without assistance and, indeed, throughout the whole proceedings remained the most self-possessed of the three.”  We do not know if Elizabeth was aware that she would be hanged with a measured drop or whether she would have still expected to strangle on the rope.  It was reported that the men were prepared first and that Elizabeth witnessed this before being led past them to her position on the trap where she was placed under the second beam with her back to them.  Warder Cox assisted Marwood in the strapping of the prisoners legs. All three prayed with their ministers until Marwood gave a signal, whereupon the ministers shook hands with the prisoners and stepped off the trap.  A moment later Marwood pulled the lever.  Gilligan was seen to struggle for a moment or two before becoming still, Elizabeth and McHugh made no movement.

Some three hundred people had gathered outside the prison and apparently heard the drop of the trap doors.  At 8.03 a.m. they were rewarded with the sight of the black flag being hoisted and the bell tolling to show that the executions had been carried out.

The Northern Echo of Tuesday the 3rd of August, reported "After the rope and the cap had been adjusted, the bolt was withdrawn, the woman dropped in the air, and died without a struggle.”  The concept of a measured drop breaking the prisoner’s neck was obviously still a very new one in 1875.

The three bodies were left hanging for the usual hour before being taken down and placed in plain black coffins.  It was noted by one reporter that "The head of each was covered with a cap (white hood), leaving the face and neck free, the countenances of the deceased were remarkably placid and betokened only the quietest of deaths." The mandatory inquest was held at 10 o’clock before John Graham, the coroner.  The Under Sheriff was present and was asked if the prisoners struggled much to which he replied “no, not at all.”  All three bodies were identified as being those of the prisoners.  Elizabeth was buried in an unmarked grave, close to Mary Ann Cotton’s, later in the day.

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