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Death By Poisoning
No Reprieve For The Young Woman
Who Murdered Her Sister
As a patient in Watford Mental Asylum, Caroline Ansell, 26, would have enjoyed few of life’s pleasures. So she would have been pleased when she received an unexpected gift by way of a small parcel which, opening, she found to contain a tasty piece of cake. Caroline ate some, then kindly shared it with some of her fellow-patients the next day. Soon after, all who had eaten the pastry felt unwell; two of Caroline’s friends became seriously ill with severe abdominal pains, and Caroline, who had eaten most, died four days later.
It was March, 1899, and Caroline had been a patient in the asylum – later Leavesden Hospital – for four years. She was one of five children, three girls and two boys, of Mrs and Mrs James Ansell, who lived in the Kings Cross area. One of the girls had died in tragic circumstances seven years previously, and not surprisingly the Ansells were distraught at the loss of a second. The third, Mary, 22, lived and worked in Great Coram Street, London, as a servant to the Maloney family, to whom she had provided ‘good service’.
It would soon become apparent that Caroline Ansell had been poisoned. And it was probably not the first attempt on her life by such wicked means. Shortly before, some tea and sugar had been sent to her. On that occasion, the tea had tasted bitter and it had been discarded, along with the sugar, which had a strange, damp appearance. Even stranger, she received a letter, purporting to be from Harriett Parish, Caroline’s cousin, stating that her parents were both dead. Caroline wrote back in reply, expressing sorrow at the news of her parents’ deaths, and asking for some black ribbon so that she could mourn. Yet Mr and Mrs Ansell were still alive, and, as it things would turn out, Mrs Parish would deny writing any such letter to Caroline.
Two days after Caroline’s death, her mother and sister Mary turned up at the asylum. Mrs Ansell was told a post mortem examination was necessary to ascertain the cause of death, which, of course, was unexpected. Just before leaving, Mary Ansell asked a porter how she could obtain the death certificate. She was told it would cost 2s 7d (12.5p), and the porter wrote a letter on her behalf so that she could acquire it. But this was not possible, as no certificate could be issued until the cause of death was known. In fact, Caroline had been murdered by phosphorous poisoning. Not unexpectedly, suspicion was centred on the pastry that had been sent to Caroline. A search was made for the wrapping, which was found in a nearby field. It bore the sender’s handwriting. Superintendent Wood of Watford police took charge, and his attention was drawn to Caroline’s sister, Mary, who, it turned out, had not long before taken out an insurance on her sister’s life.
It was taken out the previous September, through an insurance agent who called on her employers, the Maloneys. Mary had said if Caroline died she could provide her sister with a decent funeral. To acquire the insurance, Mary fraudulently stated that Caroline worked at the asylum as a general servant; to have told the truth, that she was a patient, would have meant the insurance company refusing to issue the policy.
Mary insured Caroline’s life for £22.10s 0d (£22.50) if she lived for twelve months; £11.5s 0d (£11.25) for six months. Mary, therefore, was entitled to collect the latter amount on her sister’s death, not an inconsiderable sum in those days. To establish any sinister reason for Mary’s apparent concern over her sister, Supt Wood had to find a motive, and he did.
Mary Ansell had a lover whom she wanted to marry. Unfortunately they had little money, so he said it would be best to wait until they had saved up sufficient funds. By securing the money on Caroline’s untimely death, Mary could now persuade her fiancée to marry her. At least that’s how it appears. There is a question of her lover’s complicity, if any. It seems we shall never know. In any event, with the discovery that Caroline had been murdered, the game was up for Mary.
There was other evidence of Mary’s complicity. It was quickly established, as she admitted, that she had purchased phosphorous at a shop near her home. Her explanation was that it was to kill rats at her employers’ house, but according to Mrs Maloney there were none. Bitter tea, poisoned cake, a strange letter, a recent, fraudulent insurance policy and the purchase of phosphorus. The evidence was piling up against Mary. But when Supt Wood charged her with murdering her sister, she replied, ‘I know nothing whatever about it. I am as innocent a girl as ever was born’.
More damning evidence followed when a Christmas card, written by Mary, was found to bear the same handwriting as the wrapping paper (containing the pastry) and the fake letter, supposedly written to Caroline by Harriett Parish. The purpose of this letter was apparent, for whoever sent it would have known that when Caroline died the authorities would write to Mr and Mrs Ansell, and an enquiry would surely follow. By leading Caroline, and then the authorities, to believe Mr and Mrs Ansell were deceased, there would be no point in writing, and less likelihood of any enquiry.
Mary Ansell was tried at Hertford Assizes. The prosecution’s case was so compelling it took but half a day to present. Mary was convicted of murdering her sister and sentenced to death, the only sentence the judge, Justice Matthew, could impose for a capital offence. No-one thought Mary Ansell would actually hang. Instead, it seemed a formality that the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew Ridley, the only person who could grant her reprieve, would commute her sentence. He did not. One can only surmise he considered murder by poisoning merited the ultimate penalty.
Many disagreed with Sir Matthew. Indeed, the defence had argued that, like her sister, Mary had within here a degree of insanity. At school she had been known as ‘Silly old Ansell’. Dr Forbes Winslow described her as a ‘mental degenerate’, saying she ought not to be held responsible for her actions, although it is difficult to see how he could possibly have concluded thus since he was not permitted to see Mary in prison.
The press ‘moved heaven and earth’ to try and change the Home Secretary’s mind, saying Mary could not be held responsible for her actions. At least two members of the jury stated that they had considered it a formality that Mary would be reprieved, and that had they known otherwise they would not have found her guilty! The case was mentioned in Parliament, where over 100 M.P.’s signed a petition for Mary to be spared. The Home Secretary was told that Mary’s two sisters had been insane, that her mother’s sisters had died in an asylum and that Mary, too, was ‘tainted with insanity’. A London man, out of pity for Mary’s plight, obtained a 1,000-signature petition asking for mercy. An appeal was made directly to Queen Victoria. She referred the matter back to the Home Secretary, who was unmoved.
Then there were Mary’s parents. The account of their last visit to their daughter is a harrowing one. They went to St Albans prison, where they were permitted to speak to Mary only through the iron grill of her cell. Mary said, ‘Can you forgive me father?’ and he said he could. It seems she didn’t think she would be hanged. After the tragic loss of two of their daughters, one to tragedy, a second to murder, a third would be taken by the state. Mr Ansell described the whole experience as a ‘nightmare’, and who could blame him? He, too, made representation to the Home Secretary, begging for Mary’s life. It did no good. Mary would hang.
The morning of Wednesday, 19th July, 1899, was a sunny one. A large crowd gathered outside St Albans gaol just before 8 a.m. – the curious, the morbid, the angry. Unusually, the press were excluded from the proceedings. Everyone waited in silence as, inside the prison, the executioner, Billington, went to get Mary. She was pinioned and, totally overcome, taken on the short journey to the scaffold, just inside the prison gates. As she walked she repeated the words of the chaplain: ‘God forgive this miserable sinner’.
A hood was placed over Mary’s head, the strap around her dress was tightened, a lever was pulled, and Mary Ansell dropped seven feet to her death, killed instantly by the hangman’s expert hand. St Peter’s church bell tolled the hour, and moments later a black flag was hoisted, a signal that justice had been done. Later, an ‘official’ announcement was made, stating that Mary had made a full confession. To whom it didn’t say.
After her execution, Mary Ansell was buried within the confines of St Albans gaol. In 1931, her remains were interred in St Albans City cemetery.