Mary Ann Ansell was a maidservant for a prosperous household in Coram Street, in the fashionable Bloomsbury area of central London. The year is 1899 and she was engaged to be married, but the wedding had to be postponed because the price of a marriage licence (7s 6d) was not one her intended husband could afford. Not being an entirely upstanding and forthright person, Mary devised a cunning plan to obtain the money - she would take out an insurance policy on the life of her sister Caroline, who happened to be incurably insane and who had been confined in the Leavesden Mental Asylum in Hertfordshire.
At the cost of three pence a week, she was able to insure her sister's life for just over £11, telling the broker that her sister worked at a hospital in the country. After this, and for a paltry sum, she purchased a tin of rat poison which she took home and baked into a cake. This cake was then sent to the asylum, where it was shared among the inmates of ward 7, although most of it was eaten by Caroline. All became ill unsurprisingly, Caroline seriously so, but at the time there were several cases of typhoid among the patients in the asylum and so it was a few days before she was properly examined by a doctor. Immediately, she was admitted to the infirmary, but tragically too late and died a few hours later. An autopsy
revealed the cause of her death to be phosphorous poisoning. The police were called and were told of the curious circumstances surrounding the cake that had come from her sister. Further enquiries at a shop near Coram Street produced damning evidence that Mary Ann had indeed bought phosphorus-based rat poison there, shortly before she had sent the cake to Leavesden. The lady of the house where she worked denied any need for such a purchase and so Mary Ann was arrested, brought to trial, found guilty and hanged on 19th July 1899.
I wrote this node not only to use the amusing title, but to detail one of the few examples of early female poisoners. Hopefully other people will be vaguely interested by this snippet of history as well.
- "The Shocking History of Phosphorous", J. Emsley
- "The Power of Poison", J. Glaister