Mary Ann Britland
Died: 9 August 1886
Active: March to May 1886
Method of Disposal: Poisoning
- Elizabeth Britland (daughter)
- Thomas Britland (husband)
- Mary Dixon (neighbour)
Mary Ann Britland knew what she wanted, and how she was going to get it. She worked all day in a factory and moonlighted as a barmaid because she wanted to provide for her two daughters. She married Thomas Britland, a domestic servant, because she wanted a man who knew his way around a dish or two.
And at the age of 39 she wanted her next door neighbour, Thomas Dixon. Unfortunately, she already had a husband and Thomas already had a wife. That was a few too many obstacles for Mary Ann’s liking. She had designs on marrying Thomas Dixon, but for the moment would have to settle on clandestine meetings whenever they could get away from their spouses.
Their affair was not so much of a problem at first. They had carried on for about three years without any issues, because Mary Ann’s bar job had given her an excuse to be out of the house at night. This made it easy for her to meet up with Thomas Dixon without raising suspicion.
This all changed when Mary Ann’s eldest daughter Elizabeth turned 18. Elizabeth was an independent lady in her own right now and sometimes turned up unexpectedly in the very places Mary Ann and Thomas Dixon would meet. They tried to be more discreet, but there were a few times when she was certain Elizabeth had seen them together. It was only a matter of time before Elizabeth told her father what she had seen.
At around the beginning of 1886, Mary Ann noticed that the family home had become infested with mice. She went off to the chemist to request a preparation for disposing of the vermin. She dutifully signed the register that all buyers were required to sign when items containing strychnine and arsenic were purchased.
The poison cleared up the mouse infestation without delay. This got Mary Ann thinking. That poison had been so effective in removing one problem, she thought it might come in useful for getting rid of a few other ‘problems’. Since Mary Ann had signed the register with a valid reason for purchasing the poison, there would be no questions. And that daughter of hers was becoming quite the nuisance, popping up everywhere she and Thomas Dixon happened to be.
By March 1886, Elizabeth was dead. Natural causes, the doctor said.
Mary Ann consoled herself with the £10 she received in insurance from her daughter’s death. But this was no time to rest. Her younger daughter Susannah was due to turn 18 soon, and was already starting to be just as independent as her dearly departed sister had been. Mary Ann would be back to looking over her shoulder whenever she was with Thomas Dixon. However, it wouldn’t do for both of her children to die unexpectedly. There had to be a better solution.
On 3 May 1886, Mary Ann paid up the premium on her husband’s insurance. Almost as soon as she got home from the insurance broker’s office, Thomas Britland was breathing his last. Epilepsy, the doctor said.
Mary Ann collected her £10 of insurance winnings.
Thomas Dixon’s wife Mary took pity on the newly widowed woman across the road. She insisted that Mary Ann come to stay with her and Thomas so she would not be alone during this time of grieving. Mary Ann was touched by this display of caring. She stayed a few days, enjoying the close proximity of her lover and the attentions of his completely oblivious wife.
A couple of weeks after Thomas Britland’s death, Mary Dixon invited Mary Ann back to the Dixon home for supper and to stay the night. Thomas had gone out, and would not be back until late the next morning. Mary Ann helped Mary prepare a meal of bread and butter with pickle preserves and cups of tea. Both women enjoyed the evening and parted ways in good humour the following morning.
Upon Thomas returning to his home at around 10am, he discovered his wife sick unto death. Mary Dixon died that same day. Hmmm, the doctor said, cleaning his glasses thoughtfully.
Mary Ann now had no obstacles in her way, and she knew it was only a matter of time before Thomas got over his first wife and made her his second. Although, Thomas did seem to be taking longer than she’d expected to finish grieving for Mary. Mary Ann couldn’t really understand that. After all, he’d gotten £29 from the death of his wife, which was more than twice what she’d gotten for both of her loved ones. However, Mary Ann had waited 3 years so far for Thomas to ask for her hand. She could wait a little longer.
Unfortunately for Mary Ann, she did not have as long as she thought. The neighbours had been gossiping, becoming alarmed at the fast death rate among Mary Ann’s nearest and dearest. Mary Dixon’s death had been too much, and soon the police were notified. The bodies of Mary Ann’s daughter and husband were exhumed, along with the body of Mary Dixon. All three were found to be riddled with strychnine and arsenic, the same ingredients in Mary Ann’s store-bought poison.
Mary Ann and Thomas were brought in for questioning. Mary Ann was barely inside the door of the interrogation room before she blurted out a confession, admitting that she needed to remove the obstacles between her and Thomas being together. Elizabeth’s death had been unavoidable, given that she would have ruined everything that Mary Ann had worked towards. Mary Ann and Thomas were both charged with the murder of Mary Dixon, with Mary Ann also shouldering murder charges in the deaths of her daughter and husband.
The trial was held over two days in July 1886. In the end, the jury decided that while Thomas was a terrible husband, there was insufficient evidence that Thomas had had anything to do with Mary Dixon’s death, and he was acquitted.
The jury was rather unanimous in its dealing with Mary Ann. Found guilty on all charges, she was sentenced to be hanged. The usually calm and unflappable Mary Ann dispensed with all niceties upon hearing the sentence. She had to be carried from the dock, and could be heard shrieking and carrying on long after she’d been removed from the court room.
Her demeanour did not improve in the few weeks between her trial and the day her sentence was carried out. The prison chaplains prayers were drowned out by Mary Ann’s pleas of forgiveness. She had to be forcibly carried to the gallows and held over the trap door. As she was the first woman hanged at Strangeways Prison, the wardens were probably ill-prepared to deal with such a display.