Dorothea was born at Hucknall
near Nottingham in 1900 and after leaving school worked in a factory for a while
before taking up a post at the Burton on Trent Workhouse infirmary in
Staffordshire.Here she picked up quite
a lot of medical knowledge whilst working on the wards and afterwards passed
herself off a nurse.She married Thomas
Leech in 1925 and they had three children, Edwin, Alan and Mary over their
eight year marriage.Thomas sadly developed
cancer of the throat and died in 1933.
Click here for a
picture of her in her nurse’s uniform.
Dorothea now reverted to her maiden name
and formed a relationship with their erstwhile lodger, Ronald Sullivan, who was
six years her senior. Together they decided to open a nursing home at 32 Devon Drive,
Nottingham.This was recognised by the
county authorities who considered Dorothea a competent nurse.On the 12th of January of 1935 a Miss Blagg of the County Nursing Association asked them to take
a couple of new patients for thirty shillings (£1.50) a week.The newcomers were Louisa Baguley,
a widow of eighty nine and her daughter Ada who was fifty.Ada was disabled by a progressive disease that left her unable to walk
and her elderly mother could no longer look after her.At the time there was one other resident who
died in February leaving Dorothea with a wholly inadequate income of just the thirty
shillings a week. Ronald helped Dorothea run the nursing home and the couple
were to have two children of their own.
On the 4th of May Ada summoned her solicitor, Mr. Lane and
told him she wished to change her will.She was to leave all of her savings, some £1,600, to Dorothea and Ronald
on the condition that they would look after both Louisa and herself for the
rest of their lives.It is unclear
whether Ada was persuaded/pressurised by Dorothea to
take this step or whether she had decided on this course herself.It had been suggested that Dorothea had
threatened to send the two women to the workhouse as she couldn’t afford to
keep them.The workhouse would have been
a dreadful threat in Ada’s mind.
On Sunday the 12th of May Louisa died of what
was determined to be cardio-vascular problems.In a woman of nearly ninety her death did not arouse any suspicion and a
death certificate allowing her burial was issued.
Ada continued to live happily at Devon Drive
through the summer of 1935 and was visited by a friend of hers, Mrs. Briggs, on
Tuesday the 10th of September who found her in good spirits.The following morning Dorothea called Dr.
Mansfield, Ada’s doctor, and
told him that Ada had gone into a coma.When
he arrived Ada had died and he thought that she had suffered a cerebral
haemorrhage.Dorothea showed him a
letter that Ada had written on the 29th of August, expressing her wish to be
cremated.Dr. Mansfield issued a death
certificate and also certificate permitting cremation.The two certificates together with Ada’s letter were
sent to the crematorium where they were read by Nottingham’s Medical Officer
for Health, Dr. Cyril Banks.He noted
that the words “my last wish is that my relatives shall not know of my death”
appeared to have been inserted after the original letter had been written as
they were in a cramped style.Ronald
Sullivan had written the letter for Ada but she had signed it.Dr.
Banks was suspicious and decided to order a post mortem.This revealed that Ada had actually been poisoned with morphine.Louisa’s remains were therefore also exhumed
and morphine was found in her too.
Both Dorothea and Ronald were arrested and
charged with the murders.Dorothea had
recently given birth to her fifth child and nursed it in prison.
The couple appeared before Mr. Justice
Goddard at Nottinghamshire Assizes on the 24th of February.Mr. Norman Birkett
led the prosecution and Mr. J. F. Eales the
defence.Ronald was discharged by the
judge on the second day of the trial due to a lack of any real evidence against
him, leaving Dorothea to face trial alone.The court heard the forensic evidence of morphine poisoning and the
testimony of Mrs. Briggs and Dr. Mansfield.Dorothea’s defence suggested that Dr. Mansfield had given her morphine
tablets for Ada for when she was in pain.Dr. Mansfield strongly denied having given any tablets to Dorothea for Ada, especially morphine.Dorothea described to the court the last two days of Ada’s life.According to Dorothea Ada
was depressed and in great pain so she had given her up to ten tablets over two
days and in the early hours of the Wednesday morning found her in a coma.This information was contained in a statement
made to the police on the 24th of September, after the post mortem result was
known.Previously Dorothea had told the
police that Ada had eaten a large lunch on the Tuesday and appeared to be
well.Dorothea’s evidence was less than
convincing as was her general performance in the witness box.
On the third day of the trial the jury took
two and a quarter hours to reach a guilty verdict and
for whatever reason added a recommendation to mercy.Mr. Justice Goddard sentenced Dorothea to
death and obviously did not concur with the jury’s recommendation,
neither did the Home Secretary, John
As Nottingham no longer had an execution facility Dorothea was transferred to the
condemned suite at Birmingham’s Winson Green prison to await her fate.Her appeal was rejected and the execution was
set for on Thursday the 16th of April 1936.
Dorothea was the only woman ever to be hanged at Winson Green.
Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew
Albert carried it the hanging. It was to be Thomas’ last female execution and
Dorothea was weighed and measured the day before and was recorded at 4’ 11”
tall and 123 lbs in weight.She was thus
given a drop of 8’ 5”. Large numbers of people had gathered outside the prison
on the Wednesday afternoon to protest the execution of a mother of five, even
though she had poisoned two vulnerable people for financial gain. The protest
was led by the noted anti capital punishment campaigner, Mrs. Violet Van derElst. By the Thursday morning
the crowd outside the prison had grown to an estimated 5,000 and their hymns
could be heard within.
By Dorothea was hanging
limply in cell below the gallows and was examined by the prison doctor using a
stethoscope to ensure that she was dead. The execution chamber was locked up
for an hour.The Pierrepoints
returned at and undressed her and put a rope around her body under her arms,
lifting her up with a block and tackle attached to the chain on the gallows
beam, for removal of the noose and hood.Her body was then lowered on to a stretcher and made ready for autopsy.A formal inquest was held and Dorothea later
buried in the prison grounds.