In the middle of March 1899 Caroline Ansell died at Leavesden asylum in Hertfordshire and a post mortem concluded that her death had been caused by Phosphorous poisoning. The Ansell family lived near St Pancras in London. One daughter, Caroline, had been an inmate at Leavesden asylum. Their other daughter, Mary Ann, was employed as a servant by Mr & Mrs Malony in Great Coram Street, a short walk away towards Russell Square.
By April 15th Mary Ann was in custody on the indictment that ‘she did wilfully murder her sister Caroline by means of a poisoned cake’. When charged she replied, “I am as innocent a girl as ever was born”.
Her trial took place in front of the Hon. Sir James Charles Mathew, on the 29th and 30th June 1899 at Hertford assizes – the last murder trial to take place at the county assizes in the Victorian era. Reading the press reports of the time a story of careful planning, or a series of damning coincidences, unfolds.
In the autumn of 1898 Mary Ann Ansell had insured the life of her sister for £22.10.0. through an insurance agent named Cooper. She told the court she took out the policy so that she would be able to give Caroline a good funeral, to bring her to London and to bury her with the rest of the family. She said that she told Mrs Malony of the policy on the night she had paid the first premium. Under the policy she would receive £5.12.6 if Caroline died within three months or £11.5.0 if she died six months after the policy came into force.
During January, February and early March 1899 she purchased phosphorus paste from a shop near Great Coram Street. ‘It’s to kill rats’, she told the shopkeeper. In each case, it was claimed, the bottle contained enough Phosphorous to kill three adults. She claimed she put the Phosphorous on a sack in the kitchen but had never actually succeeded in killing any rats.
Neither Mr Cooper nor the shopkeeper is reported as appearing as witnesses for either the prosecution or the defence.
From the witness box Mrs Malony, Mary Ann’s employer, stated that she had not instructed her servant to purchase the Phosphorous paste. Mary Ann confirmed that she had not asked her mistress to pay for the purchases. Mrs Malony also stated that her servant had been due to marry at Easter but, for some reason, the wedding had been postponed until Whitsuntide – seven weeks after Easter. She did not know the reasons for the delay.
While all this was happening in London W.C., Caroline Ansell continued her life as an inmate at Leavesden asylum, where she had been for a number of years. On 22nd February 1899 a parcel, with nothing to say who had sent it, had arrived for her. It contained a quantity of tea and sugar. When Caroline tried the tea she complained that it tasted bitter and did not drink much of it.
Two days later, 24th February, she received a letter signed by a Harriet Parish, reporting the death of both her mother and father. This letter got passed to the still very much alive Mr Ansell who immediately wrote to tell her they were both still alive and well and indignant that ‘anyone could be so cruel as to tell such an untruth’. Based on the handwriting it was alleged that the letter had been written by the accused but at no time during the trial was any ulterior motive attributed to the letter.
On March 9th another parcel arrived for Caroline – a pastry wrapped in brown paper. Again there was no mention of the sender. She ate a portion and divided the rest among her companions at the asylum. Within a short space of time all became ill but only one – Caroline Ansell – died. Although no one seems to have checked the cake itself, suspicions were aroused and permission was sought from Mr Ansell to carry out a post mortem.
In reply, Dr Case, the medical superintendent at the asylum, received a letter signed Mrs Ansell declining to give authority. Despite this, a post mortem examination was carried out. Following the post mortem, it was concluded that Caroline Ansell had died from Phosphorous poisoning.
When Mary Ann Ansell took the witness box she again pleaded her innocence. She confirmed she had written the letter to Doctor Case refusing the post mortem adding that it had been written at her father’s dictation. From the records available, it is not clear why Mr Ansell did not write the letter himself, nor why Mary Ann should sign it Mrs Ansell. Although we know that Mrs Ansell was in court, neither her nor Mr Ansell appear to have been called as witnesses.
She denied, however, any knowledge of the letter and parcels received by Caroline. She claimed the last time she had sent anything to her sister had been a card at Christmas. Her attention was drawn to a police comment which alleged she had said that she was not very good friends with her sister. She replied that ‘Two better sisters never lived together, so help me God’. This contradiction appears to have been left as a ‘my word or theirs’ alternative. There is no reported explanation, either, for this discrepancy nor, if she thought so fondly of her sister , why she had not written since sending the card at Christmas.
Asked about the delay in her wedding she said that her young man was not earning enough to start housekeeping at the time and they had agreed to delay the wedding until he got a better position. She denied she wanted the insurance money to help them out. In fact, both the policy and the premium book had been burnt by accident so she could not claim anyway. However, under cross examination by the Crown’s representative, Mr J P Rawlinson QC, she admitted writing to the agent before the post mortem asking what she had to do to get the money.
Summing up for the defence, Mr Clarke Hall pointed out that only the similarity of the handwriting linked the accused to the fatal parcel. The jury were asked to remember the mistake made five years earlier in France when the greatest handwriting experts in Europe had attributed certain documents to Captain Dreyfus, a fact now very much in doubt. Did the jury of Hertford assizes wish to make the same infamous error?
In the words of Mr Rawlinson himself, the case against the prisoner was based on the coincidences of the purchase of phosphorous paste, the alleged cause of death, for a perfectly normal use, and the motive of gain of £11.5.0 insurance money. He asked the jury to say that this was an altogether inconceivably inadequate sum to make a person commit such a crime.
In modern eyes the one and a half day trial for murder was skimpy and full of inconsistencies. Potentially significant witnesses seem not to have been called. Contradictions in evidence, and the use of hearsay evidence, seem to abound.
Be that as it may, following the summing up by Mr Justice Mathew the jury retired to consider their verdict. A little over two hours later they returned and delivered a unanimous verdict of ‘Guilty as charged’.
Almost as soon as the death sentence was pronounced, an appeal was prepared and lodged for the Queen’s clemency on the grounds that the ‘petitioner is of a weak mind and not responsible for her actions’. A hundred members of Parliament signed the petition along with people from across Hertfordshire and in London.
But no reprieve came and so, at 8.00am on Thursday 19th July 1899, Mary Ann Ansell became the second, and last, person to be executed within the walls of the Hertfordshire County Prison at St Albans.
Hundreds of people were assembled outside the walls of St Albans prison on the morning of Thursday 19th July 1899. Early trains from London had been full. The station bridge was crowded, as was the road in the front of the prison. All were waiting for sight of the black flag signalling the sad end of Mary Ann Ansell.
Was this a reliable decision? Why were significant individuals not called to give evidence? Was it a mis-carriage of justice? We’ll never know now.