Mary Eleanor Wheeler (Pearcey). Can murder run in a family?
Wheeler family is almost certainly unique in having the father and daughter
both hanged, a little over 10 years apart, for two
completely separate murders. Mary's father, Thomas Wheeler, was executed by
William Marwood at
Mary Eleanor Wheeler was born in 1866 and little is known of her childhood or what effect her father's execution had on her. At the time of her arrest, she was 24 and was described as being 5’ 6” tall with "lovely russet hair and fine blue eyes." She was of normal build and had nice shapely hands. Her face was not overly pretty but she seemed to have no difficulty in attracting men.
In her late teens, she had a relationship with a carpenter named John Charles Pearcey and although they never married, Mary took his name and continued to use it after they split up, probably to avoid the stigma attached to her father's name. She was arrested, charged and tried under this name. Mary associated with better off men and had never worked or ever needed to - one of her several admirers, Charles Creighton, had rented rooms for her at 2 Priory Street, Kentish Town in North London around 1888. She was known to suffer from depression and had only her aged mother and an older sister as relatives. She also drank quite heavily. In addition to Mr. Creighton who visited her once a week, she also fell for Mr. Frank Samuel Hogg who was a furniture remover and who impressed Mary by having printed business cards. Mary used to put a light in her window to let Frank know that she was free and he had a key to the house. There was, however, one serious snag to Mary's happiness. Frank was married and had a daughter, both his wife and the little girl being called Phoebe.
Phoebe Hogg was 32 at the time of her death and had been quite ill in February of 1890. She had married Frank Hogg in November 1888 when she was three months pregnant by him and had given birth to their daughter, Phoebe Hanslope Hogg, in the summer of 1889. Frank's affair with Mary had been going on both before and during the marriage.
On the morning of
Frank Hogg and his sister Clara reported Phoebe missing after reading about the discovery of the woman's body in the Saturday evening paper. Frank sent Clara round to Mary's to ask if she had seen Phoebe which Mary denied, but agreed to accompany Clara to the morgue to see if was indeed Phoebe's body. Mary's behaviour there was very strange. Having consented to go with Clara, when first shown the body, Mary reportedly said “That’s not her” although Clara identified Phoebe’s clothes. She did her best to try and prevent Clara identifying the body and became almost hysterical when the full extent of Phoebe's injuries became apparent. The police asked Mary and Clara to view the pram which Clara identified as belonging to Phoebe. A neighbour of Mary's stated that she had seen Mary pushing the pram with a large object in it on the evening of the murder. Frank Hogg was informed of the positive identification of his wife and as a possible suspect himself, was searched by the police. He confessed to having the affair with Mary when the key to her house was found. The police decided to interview Mary next as they were already suspicious of her behaviour in the mortuary and so went round to Priory Street and carried out a thorough search of her home. They found substantial bloodstains and spatters in the kitchen together with a bloodstained carving knife and fire poker. There were also clear signs of a struggle - with two broken windows in the kitchen. A rug showing bloodstains smelt strongly of paraffin where an attempt had been made to clean it. Mary's behaviour became more bizarre during the police search. She sat at her piano singing and whistling loudly and attempted to explain away the bloodstains by saying that she had been "killing mice, killing mice," a hardly credible excuse.
Detective Inspector Banister decided to arrest Mary at this point and charge her with the murders of both mother and child. When Mary was searched, bloodstains were found on her clothes, scratches on her hands, and two wedding rings on her fingers, one of which was later identified as Phoebe Hogg's. Mary was kept in custody and appeared at a committal hearing at Marylebone police court on the 28th of October, for a magistrate to hear the prima facia evidence against her and committ her for trial. While in the police court awaiting the committal hearing, she told Sarah Sawhill, the woman looking after her, that Mrs. Hogg had indeed come to tea that afternoon and that as they were having tea, Mrs. Hogg had made a remark that offended Mary and that an argument developed. Mary realised that she was incriminating herself and declined to say anymore.
Mary was tried at the Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Denman who had 11 years earlier tried Kate Webster, her three day trial opening on
There was no appeal in those days - it was to be 1907 before the Court of Criminal Appeal was set up. However, her solicitor made considerable effort to save her alleging that she was not in control of herself at the time of the killing and that this was due to epileptic fits that she had suffered since birth. On the 16th of December the Home Office wrote to Mr. Freke Palmer informing him that a medical enquiry under the Criminal Lunatics Act had been granted. This was to be carried out on the Friday by three doctors, Bennett, Gilbert and Savage whose hour long interview with Mary did not find evidence of legal insanity and after due consideration of their report, her case papers were marked with the fatal words, "the law must take its course." This decision was communicated to her solicitor on the Saturday. At Mary's request, Frank Hogg was given permission to visit her on the Monday afternoon in Newgate but did not show up, which greatly upset Mary, who wept inconsolably on her bed when she realised he was not going to come. Other than that, she remained very composed through her last day and night. On her final afternoon, Mary was visited by Mr. Freke Palmer, her solicitor, whom she asked to deal with certain bequests and also to place a personal advert for her in the
Mary was to be hanged by James Berry two days before Christmas 1890 (three clear Sundays after sentence) at
The gallows at Newgate was a large structure, constructed in 1881, and capable of taking up to four prisoners side by side, although on this occasion only a single noose dangled from the 6 links of iron chain attached to the metal bracket in the centre of the beam. Mary weighed 9 stone and
reporters were allowed to witness executions the Governor had decided to
exclude them on this occasion as it was a woman being executed. Outside the prison in the bitterly cold
December morning some 300 people, including many women, had gathered to witness
the sounds of St. Sepulchre's Church bell tolling and the black flag flying
above the prison to denote that the execution had been carried out. Mary
apparently evoked little public sympathy, perhaps due to murdering the child
and there was a cheer from the crowd as the flag was hoisted.
Her body was left dangling on the rope for the customary hour in the brick lined pit beneath the trap and then removed and placed in a coffin atop of the now closed trapdoors for viewing by the coroner’s jury. She was buried later in the day in an unmarked grave within Newgate. Madame Tussaud's made a wax model of her for the Chamber of Horrors, (click here for photo) as was normal in celebrated cases and bought the pram from Frank Hogg together with some of the other effects.
Mad or bad?
There was reliable evidence that Mary had been an epileptic since childhood and her solicitor Mr. Freke Palmer unearthed a considerable volume of evidence on her epilepsy and two suicide attempts, which he suggested, indicated that Mary was less than sane. It should be noted, however, that epilepsy is not, nowadays, considered a form of mental illness. To have epilepsy is to have recurrent seizures. A seizure is a temporary state of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. The word "temporary" is important and these occasional seizures do not in themselves amount to mental illness. Epileptic automatism has been successfully used as a defence in murder trials because it proves that the person could not have formed the intent to kill while they were having the seizure.
However in Mary's case, none of this added up to a legal defence of insanity which was governed by the McNaughten Rule. This had arisen from the case of Daniel McNaughten who in 1843 tried to kill the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, against whom he had an imaginary grudge but instead shot his secretary, Mr. Drummond. The court found him not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity because at the time it occurred, he either did not know what he was doing or if he did, he did not know that it was wrong. In McNaughten’s case, it was found that he didn’t know what he was doing at the time of the shooting. The McNaughten Rule was interpreted very strictly in Mary's days (it was to be widened later) and there was little scope for this defence to succeed. Mr. Palmer publicly expressed his disappointment with the Home Secretary saying that it seemed that the whole world was against her. There is a distinct element of truth in this - probably caused as much as anything by the murder of the baby and by her promiscuous behaviour as it would have been seen through Victorian eyes.
If Mary wasn’t insane (at least according to the legal definition in force at the time), was she suffering from a personality disorder? It is impossible to estimate the effect upon a 14 year old girl of having her father arrested, convicted and hanged for murder, but one certainly feels that these events would have had a profound effect on her. As stated earlier, she had twice tried to commit suicide in the 10 years between her father's death and her own.
Like many murderers, Mary was a first time offender - there is no evidence of previous convictions for any offence nor use of violence. Was there, though, some hereditary predilection to violence? Evidence of pre-meditation was put forward at her trial and yet there is very little evidence that Mary tried to cover her tracks or to clean up the house afterwards which one might have expected her to have done. Was she in an epileptic state at the time of the crime or perhaps she had been drinking prior to it to give her courage for the grim task ahead? One of her neighbours said in evidence that she appeared "boozed" when she saw her after the murder and this symptom is also found in people recovering from an epileptic fit and can be seen in the eyes.
interesting questions remain.
Mary was described by James Berry as the calmest person present at her execution. Was she like so many other murderers resigned to her fate and keen to rid herself of the burden of guilt and of the secrets she carried? She did not seem to be seeking a reprieve or welcoming of Palmer's efforts on her behalf.
It was reported in the press and
I believe that she did actually kill Phoebe and the baby, the evidence for her being the killer is very strong, but feel that it was more likely to be because of an argument and fight that developed between the two women rather than it being a premeditated crime. She may well be found to have "diminished responsibility" nowadays although, of course, the concept wasn’t recognised then.
It is, however, quite possible that she was either still in denial of the crimes, which had after all only taken place two months earlier, or genuinely could not remember anything if as Mr. Palmer suggests that she was in an epileptic state at the time. It is not unusual for people to block out the memories of particularly horrible events from their minds and the murder of Phoebe Hogg was certainly an horrific one. Mary's behaviour in the mortuary is odd to say the least - while one can accept that the sight of Phoebe's corpse would be upsetting for anyone, at that stage only Mary and Clara knew who it was on the slab. Her behaviour when the police were searching her house is even more bizarre. Is this strange behaviour evidence of Mary being in denial or revolted by what she had done?
The defence questioned whether a woman of Mary's size and build would have the physical strength to inflict the appalling injuries on Phoebe Hogg and it does seem a fair question, although there is no evidence that anyone else was involved. Phoebe was said to be 5' 6" tall and seemed to have put up quite a fight as witnessed by the broken windows, etc. in the house when the police examined it later.
Evidence of premeditation was given to the court - the written invite to Mrs. Hogg to come to tea and the alleged pulling down of the blinds to provide privacy during the attack. But what was it that made Mary lash out with such violence against Phoebe Hogg on that particular occasion? Did they quarrel over Frank or was it something one of them said that started an argument as suggested by Mary in the conversation with Sarah Sawhill. Was it, as the prosecution alleged, a premeditated plan hatched by Mary out of jealousy to eliminate her rival. She had, from the age of 14, been acutely aware of the punishment for murder but made virtually no effort to destroy the evidence of the crime nor take a lot of trouble in the disposal of the bodies which seems strange if she had planned the murder and had hoped to escape the consequences. Sadly, we will never know the answers to these questions.
With special thanks to Monty Dart for helping with the research for this case from contemporary newspaper accounts.