Catherine Wilson, the last woman to suffer in public outside Newgate.


Catherine Wilson was born in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1822.  As an adult she worked as a nurse, initially in Spalding, Lincolnshire, although it is not clear whether she actually trained or qualified as one.



It is thought that her career as a murderer began in 1853 and lasted until 1862 during which time she claimed as many as nine victims.  Her method of choice was poisoning by colchicine which is a vegetable alkaloid used to treat gout, but which is fatal in overdose.  Initial symptoms include a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, occurring 2 - 5 hours after ingestion.  This is followed by fever, vomiting abdominal pain and kidney failure.


By 1850 Catherine was housekeeper to a retired sea captain, Peter Mawer who lived in Boston.  He suffered from rheumatism and gout and had been prescribed colchicine for this.  Catherine had persuaded him to make his will in her favour and he died in October 1854 after a two week illness.  The death was not regarded as suspicious and could have been accidental, Mr. Mawer, perhaps taking an overdose.  After the funeral Catherine moved to London.

Here she started a relationship with a younger man, one James Dixon, and purporting to be brother and sister the couple moved into the house of Maria Soames in Albert Street, Bloomsbury in late 1855.  Mrs. Soames was a wealthy widow who owned several properties.  During early 1866 Catherine tired of James and his heavy drinking so she administered colchicine to him.  He was attended by a doctor who diagnosed rheumatic fever and to whom Catherine admitted treating him with the poisonous medicine.  Two days after the doctor’s visit in June 1856, James was dead.  Catherine wrote to his uncle, Mr. Atkinson, and told them that he had died of consumption, a common cause of death at the time.  She also managed to persuade the doctor not to order a post mortem by telling him that James had a horror of being cut up after death.


In the late summer of 1856 Mrs. Soames was away on holiday when her house was reportedly burgled and her silver stolen, along with some of Catherine’s possessions.  It appears that the two women were very close by this time and Maria guaranteed a loan for Catherine.  Her daughters claimed that she had begun to worry about money at this time and that she had been forced to borrow £10 from her brother in October.  On the 15th of that month she took tea with her daughters and appeared to be in good health.  The next morning she was ill and took to her bed where she was nursed by Catherine.  50 year old Maria succumbed to her treatment two days later on the 18th.  Her brother, Samuel Barnes was suspicious, as was Dr. Whidborne, her doctor, and both felt that an inquest should be held.  The post mortem revealed nothing sinister and recorded that death had been caused by heart disease and peritonitis.  Maria died virtually penniless.  Catherine even managed to produce an IOU for £10 allegedly signed by Maria.


A further suspicious event occurred in 1859.  Catherine was friends with a Mrs. Jackson in her home town of Boston and visited her regularly.  Mrs. Jackson had withdrawn £120 from her bank and had presumably made the mistake of telling Catherine.  Four days later she was dead.


The next murder took place in 1860, its victim being Mrs. Ann Atkinson, the aunt of James Dixon.  She made an annual trip to London in connection with her millinery business in Kirby Lonsdale.  She had stayed in contact with Catherine and visited her on her trips to the capital in 1859 and again in October 1860.  Her husband received a telegram from Catherine a few days later reading “Come at once. Wife seriously ill.”  Mr. Atkinson did as asked and found that his wife was indeed on her death bed.  She died the following day, the 19th of October, aged 55.  On both of the visits Mrs. Atkinson’s money had mysteriously disappeared.  She was allegedly robbed of her purse in 1859 and most of the quite large sum she had in 1860 had gone too, just around £20 remaining which Catherine gave her husband.  Once again no post mortem was carried out as Catherine had been able to convince Mr. Atkinson that it was his wife’s wish not to be opened up in death.


Her next and last victim was Mrs. Sarah Carnell who had employed her as a nurse and companion in 1862.  Sarah was separated from her husband and was lonely and therefore vulnerable.  As usual Catherine had persuaded Sarah to alter her will in her favour.  For some reason, instead of using her normal poison, Catherine gave Sarah sulphuric acid (vitriol) which instantly causes burning of the delicate skin of the mouth and throat.  Sarah naturally reacted by spitting out the acid and it was noticed that it had burnt holes in her bed sheets.  Catherine immediately fled, raising obvious suspicion.  Sarah contacted the chemist who assured that no mistake had been made and then had the sense to go to the police.  Catherine was arrested six weeks later.  In April 1862, she was charged at Marylebone Police Court with attempted murder. Amazingly she was acquitted as the jury believed her story that the young lad in the chemist’s shop had given her the acid in error.

However it did her no good as she was immediately re-arrested by a detective from Lincolnshire on suspicion of the murders of seven persons. She was remanded in custody while the authorities exhumed the bodies of her known probable victims, finding poison in seven of them.



It was decided to proceed with the case of Maria Soames first as it appeared the strongest and therefore Catherine came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 22nd of September 1862, before Mr. Justice Byles, prosecuted by Mr. Clark and Mr. Beasley with the defence in the hands of Messrs. Oppenheim, Montague Williams and a Mr. Warton.  Catherine pleaded not guilty.

Evidence of colchicine poisoning was given by toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor. Montague Williams for the defence stated that the poison could not be reliably detected after such a long time. In summing up the judge said to the jury: "Gentlemen, if such a state of things as this were allowed to exist no living person could sit down to a meal in safety".

The jury found Catherine guilty and she showed no emotion as Mr. Justice Byles donned the black cap and pronounced sentence of death upon her.  She was returned to Newgate and lodged in the condemned cell.  She made no confession and was completely unrepentant, despite the best efforts of the Ordinary, the Rev. Mr. Davis and the teams of two female warders who guarded her round the clock.  On Saturday the 18th of October, the Under Sheriff of Middlesex, Mr. Mackerell went to the Home Office and was told that there would be no reprieve.  Even the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment considered her case as lost cause and didn’t get involved.  On the Sunday before her execution she twice attended services in the chapel of Newgate and reportedly slept well on the Sunday night despite storms and heavy rain going on outside.



Catherine was scheduled to hang at 8 am on Monday, the 20th of October 1862 and a crowd estimated at 20,000 had come to watch the first female execution outside Newgate in 14 years, (that of Harriet Parker in 1848)

The Sheriff of Middlesex, Mr. Lawrence demanded Catherine’s body from the Governor, Mr. Jonas and then she was taken to a room to be pinioned by William Calcraft.  She showed no emotion whatsoever during the process.  Mr. Jonas asked her if she had anything to confess as this was her last chance, to which she simply replied in a firm voice that “I am innocent”.

The officials with Calcraft and Catherine now made there way out through the Debtor’s Door and up the steps of the gallows.  Again she showed no emotion as Calcraft made the final preparations and when the bolt was withdrawn she seemed to die almost instantly and without a struggle.  The Daily Telegraph reported the event as follows : “She walked with a firm and resolute step; and it may be truly said that she appeared much less concerned than many of those present.”

A broadside was printed as was normal and a wax work displayed in Madame Tussaurd’s.  A full transcript of the trial can be found here.


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