Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Black Widows of Liverpool

Two sisters living in a rundown part of Liverpool decided on an easy way of improving their meagre circumstances - and paid with their lives.

In 1881, Thomas Higgins took his wife and ten year old daughter to take lodgings in the house of Catherine Flanagan who, along with her recently widowed sister, Margaret, lived at 5 Skirving Street in the Vauxhall area of the city. In doing so, Thomas had unwittingly signed the death warrants of his wife, child and, ultimately, himself.

Not long after they moved in, his wife died, and he must have sought solace in the arms of Margaret, for, on 28th October, 1882, the couple married. By the end of the following month, Thomas's daughter had joined her mother. On 22 October 1883, having recently increased his life insurance cover, Thomas died, apparently from dysentery, not uncommon in those days of poor sanitation and public health.

But Thomas's brother Patrick, believed something much more sinister was going on and contacted the doctor who had signed the death certificate with his suspicions. The coroner was alerted and Thomas's body was exhumed and examined. No trace of the disease was found and arsenic was proved to be the cause of death. Amazingly, this deadly poison could be found in most homes in those days - as one of the constituent ingredients of flypapers.

Motive? Simple. Money. Thomas was worth far more to the sisters dead than alive.

Following this gruesome discovery, three more bodies were exhumed. All had died recently, all had life insurance, and all had resided with the sisters. Catherine's own son, John, had netted his mother £71, a young female lodger had added £79 and Thomas's little daughter had returned a quick profit of nearly £22. Not inconsiderable sums in the 1880s. Post mortems revealed that every single one of them had died from arsenic poisoning.

Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins were hanged on 3rd March 1884 for the four murders, but this may only have been the tip of the iceberg. It was found that four other women were involved in the scam (although not convicted of any involvement in the poisonings) and there may have been as many as seventeen victims.

The moral of this gruesome tale? Life insurance may not be good for your health!

You can read more about this fascinating story of dark deeds in Victorian Liverpool in Angela Brabin's book, The Black Widows of Liverpool: