British Executions

Mary Ann Ansell

Age: 22

Sex: female

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 19 Jul 1899

Crime Location: Leavesden Asylum, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire

Execution Place: St Albans

Method: hanging

Executioner: unknown


Mary Ann Ansell was convicted of the murder of her sister 26-year-old Caroline Ansell and sentenced to death.

She sent her a poisoned cake by post.

Mary Ansell had been employed  at a house at 42 Great Coram Street in London.

Caroline Ansell had been an inmate at Leavesden Asylum in Abbots Langley. She had been in Ward 7.

Charge Nurse

A charge nurse at Leavesden Asylum said that Caroline Ansell had been under her care and that part of her duty was to hand letters to patients and open parcels.

She said that she remembered a parcel of sugar and tea arriving for her and that the next day Caroline Ansell brewed some tea and complained that it tasted very bitter. The nurse said that the tea had been very dark and she advised her to throw it away.

She said that about three weeks after that a letter came for Caroline Ansell on 24 February 1899 stating that her father and mother were dead and that the same afternoon she wrote a letter back, after which she received a letter from her father and replied to it. She said that Caroline Ansell received another letter on 28 February 1899.

She said that on 9 March 1899 a parcel came addressed to Caroline Ansell, wrapped in brown paper and that she opened it for her. She said that it contained a small piece of cake or pastry, like a flat jam sandwich, and that the middle layer was very yellow.

She said that she handed it to Caroline Ansell the same afternoon, 9 March 1899 and that the following day, Friday, at 6.30pm, tea time, she ate some of it. She said that the following day, Saturday 11 March, that she noticed another woman eating some of it, and noticed that the cake was yellow and very hard.

She said that on the Saturday morning Caroline Ansell complained of sickness and that she noticed that the white of her eye was yellow. However, she said that Caroline Ansell went about her work as usual.

The nurse said that the other woman who also had some of the cake also complained of sickness on the Saturday, stating that she felt sick and complained of pains in her stomach, and told her that she had had some of the cake.

She said that two other inmates, both women, then also complained of being sick, with one of them saying that she had tasted the cake, but had spat it out because it was bitter.

The nurse said that at dinner time Caroline Ansell seemed to be suffering from a bad bilious attack and so she gave her some dry toast and black draught, but she vomited at once.

However, she said that on the Sunday, 12 March 1899, Caroline Ansell told her that she felt much better, and she went to church in the morning, noting that she seemed a little better in herself but that her eyes were still yellow.

She said that Caroline Ansell had dinner and tea and then had Monday off. However, she said that on Tuesday, 14 March 1899, when she saw her at 7.30, she seemed very ill and that her lips were dark and the white of her eyes were a deeper yellow. She said that Caroline Ansell seemed to be in great pain and so she reported and a doctor was called and Caroline Ansell was removed to the infirmary.

The nurse noted that the woman who had had some cake on the Saturday also vomited that night and continued to vomit from time to time until the Tuesday, and that she noted that her eyes were yellow. She was taken to the infirmary on the Thursday.

The nurse noted that the three women that also had some of the cake could not give evidence due to their mental condition.

The nurse noted that there were no other sicknesses in her ward. She later noted that the small quantity of the cake, which she thought had been seed cake, struck her, as well as the small quantity of tea and sugar.

Head Attendant

The head attendant to part of Leavesden Asylum where Caroline Ansell was said that she remembered a letter coming for Caroline Ansell on 24 February 1899, which she signed for and then handed it to the nurse. She added that a parcel also later came for her on 9 March 1899 which contained a cake. She said that her attention was called to the parcel and that she noted that the cake was like a jam roll.

Charge Nurse

A charge nurse at the infirmary said that Caroline Ansell was admitted on 14 March 1899 after which she got worse, and complained of great pain in her abdomen. She said that her lips were dark and the white of her eyes was yellow.


A doctor that saw Caroline Ansell on the day that she died said that he didn't suspect poisoning and that he had thought that she had been suffering from peritonitis, although agreed that what he saw of her symptoms had been consistent with phosphorous poisoning.

He said that he assisted at the post mortem and came to the conclusion that her cause of death had been due to irritant poison and that it was phosphorous. He added that following the post mortem that he was certain that it was not peritonitis as there had been no inflammation of the peritordium.

Assistant Medical Officer

An assistant medical officer at the asylum said that he was called on Tuesday 14 March 1899 to see Caroline Ansell at 8am and that he found her on a sofa in a living room in great pain. He said that she was too ill to say much and that she was suffering from abdominal pain and was in a collapsed condition with a weak pulse.

He noted that the white of her eyes was discoloured and her lips looked black and her face was a dirty clay colour and her tongue very foul.

He said that he sent her to the infirmary at 11.30am, at which time she was worse. He said that she understood what he said, but could hardly answer. He said that he saw her again half-an-hour before her death at 8pm.

He said that he thought that she had died from peritonitis and had no suspicion of poison and added that her symptoms were consistent with poison by phosphorous. However, he said that after the findings he agreed that her death was due to poison by phosphorous.

He said that on 16 March 1899 Mary Ansell and her mother came to the asylum and that he saw them together and told them that Caroline Ansell had died somewhat suddenly and that it had since come to his knowledge that she had partaken of some cake some days before her death and that another patient that had also partaken of the cake had also been ill and that that was suspicious and that he would be glad to have permission for a post mortem examination. He said that Caroline Ansell's mother said that she had been unwilling, but promised to consult her husband and get him to write that evening, 17 March 1899. He said that he later got the letter, refusing permission for the post mortem.

The assistant medical officer said that he then saw the other woman that had partaken in the cake and found that her symptoms were similar, although she had not been in the same physical distress, but noted  that her jaundice was deeper than in the case of Caroline Ansell and came to the conclusion that she had been suffering from phosphorous poisoning.

He said that he then obtained authority from the Coroner to hold a post mortem on Caroline Ansell.

He said that Mary Ansell had been in the room when he had been speaking to her mother and asked about the cake and noted that he had asked her mother whether anyone else at home had partaken of a similar cake, but said that the mother told him that she knew nothing about the cake.

Police Constable.

A police constable said that on 20 March 1899 he searched a dust heap on the female side of the asylum and found a piece of brown paper which was addressed to Caroline Ansell.

Police Sergeant

A police sergeant said that on 17 March 1899 he went to 1 Tankerton Street, Cromer Street where he saw Mary Ansell's father and collected a number of letters and post cards as well as brown paper which he later handed to the police superintendent.

When Mary Ansell was questioned she said that she had not written to Caroline Ansell in months and not sent her anything except a card. She was also shown the letter that was supposed to have been sent by her cousin claiming that her parents were dead, but denied any knowledge of that as well.

After the letters were examined it was found that the handwriting in the letter claiming that her parents were dead and the address on the brown paper were similar to samples of Mary Ansell's writing and a warrant was issued on 2 April 1899. When the arrest warrant was read out to her and she was cautioned, she said, 'I am as innocent a girl as ever was born'.

Documents In Evidence

The documents given in evidence were:

  1. Letter signed 'Harriet Parish'.
  2. Letter from Caroline Ansell dated 24 February 1899.
  3. Letter from Caroline Ansell dated 28 February 1899.
  4. Christmas card.
  5. Letter and cover to doctor regarding post mortem.
  6. Brown paper wrapper.
  7. Blue paper questions by Mary Ansell.
  8. Statement taken by police sergeant.
  9. Insurance proposal form.
  10. Insurance premium book.
  11. Letter from Mary Ansell to Premiums Collector.
  12. Cover of K.
  13. Bottle of phosphorous paste.
  14. Letter and cover written by Gate Porter and signed by Mary Ansell.
  15. Letter and envelope from Registrar of Deaths to Mary Ansell.
  16. Copy of policy.
  17. Small letter from Mary Ansell to Registrar of Deaths.
  18. Large letter from Mary Ansell to Registrar of Deaths.
  19. Label of jar.
  20. Postal order.
  21. Letter from Father to Caroline Ansell.
  22. Letter from asylum regarding Caroline Ansell, very ill.
  23. Letter from asylum regarding Caroline Ansell, dead.

Premiums Collector

A premiums collector said that he collected premiums from the house that Mary Ansell worked at. He said that on one visit he suggested that she insure her life, but she refused. However, he said that when he called on 6 September 1898 that she suggested that Caroline Ansell's life was insured, stating that she should like to provide for her funeral should anything happen to her. He said that he then proposed £22.10.0 at 3d per week and she agreed.

The policy was with the Royal London Friendly Society.

He said that Mary Ansell then paid a month’s premium and he drew up the proposal which she signed. She described her sister as a general servant at the asylum. He said that he delivered the policy a month later along with a book and that she paid up to 20 February 1899.

He said that following Caroline Ansell's death that Mary Ansell sent him a letter, letter 'K', detailing the death and that he advised her to take her policy and book to the nearest agency office.

He said that when he later saw Mary Ansell on 20 March 1899 he asked her whether she had been to the agency office and she told him that she had not, noting that there was no use in going until after the inquest.

He said that he saw her again on 21 March 1899 when he told her that she had made a false statement, stating that her sister had been a general servant at the asylum and not an inmate at the asylum. He said that Mary Ansell said that she was very sorry as she had not known the difference. He said that he then asked her to return her policy and book and he would return her premiums, but said that she told him that she could not find them.

Gate Porter

The gate porter at the asylum said that on 16 March 1899 Mary Ansell visited with her mother and that he passed them in and saw them when they left. He said that he also wrote a letter for Mary Ansell to the Registrar of Deaths at Rickmansworth. He said that Mary Ansell asked him where the Registrar of Deaths lived and that she also spoke to him of a certificate and that he told her that an insurance certificate would be 2/6 whilst an ordinary certificate would be 1/3.

He said that when he passed them in Mary Ansell told him that she had no paper or envelope and that he told her that he would get her both by the time they came out. He said that she seemed so upset then that he asked her if he should not write for her and so he did, but she signed the letter, which was exhibit 'N'.

Registrar of Deaths

The registrar of deaths at Rickmansworth said that he received a letter with a postal order for 2/6 and wrote back in reply, exhibit 'O', and received two responses that were put in evidence, 'Q' and 'R'.

Expert In Handwriting

An expert in handwriting said that he had 14 years' experience and was employed by Scotland Yard and examined all the documents and in particular noted that  exhibits 'A', 'E', 'F' and 'K' were all written in the same handwriting. He added that 'Q' and 'R' were also in the same handwriting and that the word 'Ansell' in 'N' was also in the same handwriting.

He noted that he could also point out other similarities, in particular, exhibits 'A' and 'K' had the same watermark, 'Lockwood and sons'.

He added that exhibit 'D', the Christmas card was also in the same handwriting as was the address on the brown paper, exhibit 'F'. He said that the post marks were duplicates, but not legible.


The mistress at 42 Great Coram Street said that Mary Ansell had been in her service for more than three years. He said that she had never instructed Mary Ansell to buy poison. She noted that she had had phosphorous some years earlier but that she had never instructed Mary Ansell to buy phosphorous for rats, noting that she had set traps.

She said that Mary Ansell later told her that Caroline Ansell was dead and that she had a policy and was going to write about it. She added that Mary Ansell also later told her that she had accidently burnt the policy and the book. She said that she told her that she was foolish but that the company would pay her as she was innocent.

The mistress noted that Mary Ansell could have made pastry without her knowing of it.

She said that Mary Ansell had expected marriage at Easter but that it was postponed to Whitmastide.

She said her wages were £13 a year.


The daughter of an oil and colour merchant who lived at 43 Marchmant Street said that they were just a few yards from Great Coram Street and that the people at 42 Great Coram Street dealt with her.

She said that she also knew Mary Ansell and that she often came in and that in the beginning of March 1899 Mary Ansell bought phosphorous paste from her in a small bottle, saying that she wanted it for rats they had in the house. She said that she bought four or five bottles from her during March 1899, all within a few weeks.

Mary Ansell

In her statements, Mary Ansell denied that the letter, exhibit 'A', had been in her handwriting, and said that she knew nothing about it. She added that she didn't write the address on the brown paper, exhibit 'F'. She admitted buying the phosphorous paste, but said she made them for her mistress. She said she first bought it in January 1899 and that it was for rats, stating that she slept in the kitchen and that there were rats there and that she was annoyed by their presence. However, she said that she didn't tell her mistress about the poison. She said that she had complained about them but that no notice had been taken. She said that she laid the poison down near the holes, but didn't see any rats killed. She said that the rat holes were all round the place.

With regards to her relationship with Caroline Ansell, she said that no sisters could have been on better terms. However, she said that she didn't often see her and had no memory of sending her a Christmas card, but admitted that the handwriting was hers.

She admitted having insured Caroline Ansell's life, noting that that was no secret to anyone. However, she said that the premium collector had pressed her to insure somebody and so she said she would insure her sister, stating that she would like to give her a nice funeral.

She said that her wages were £13/year and that she had not been in want of money between September 1898 and March 1899, stating that she had plenty of everything.

She said that she was engaged to be married but that her young man was not earning enough to start housekeeping and that they postponed their marriage until his wages were better.

She denied having sent the cake.

She said that she burnt the policy and book by accident.

She said that she would be alone in the kitchen when her mistress went to bed.


Mary Ansell appeared at the Herts Assizes on 29 and 30 June 1899 and was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. There was no interference with her sentence and she was executed at St Albans on 19 July 1899.


Her execution was deemed to be controversial with many people petitioning for a reprieve based on her age, alleged insanity and also her position in life. A petition signed by 100 Members of Parliament was also put forward without effect.

The Eastern Post on Saturday 22 July 1899 described her execution as 'legal murder', stating that her execution was carried out despite a remarkable amount of indignation throughout the whole of East London. The article described Mary Ansell as more than half an imbecile, and as being wholly irresponsible for her actions. The article stated that the actions of the Home Secretary in refusing to listen to the appeals was little less than a public scandal. The article compared her case to that of Miss Petersen, who, it was claimed, because she had been well-connected, and had influence behind her, was detained during Her Majesty's pleasure for a far more deliberate and cold-blooded murder. Her case was also compared to that of Mrs Maybrick. The article concluded that the only difference was that Mary Ansell had been without a friend in the world with influence and questioned whether or not there was one law for the rich and another for the poor.

One letter dated 18 July 1899 read:

I intend to be present at the hurriedly summoned Cannon Street Hotel meeting today, and am handing over a brief at the Law Courts to be able to attend.

I think if Mary Ansell is executed, it will be an iniquity, and so horrible is it that a friendless girl should be simply done to death, that I respectfully state I shall, if she is executed, fulfil a duty upon me as a tolerably wealthy and independent member of the Bar, to analyse in the form of a publication the circumstances attending and following her conviction. I shall collate the facts which have appeared in the 'Times', Daily Mail' and other papers, carefully analyse the circumstances, and compare your previous exercises of the Royal prerogative, and shall not spare pains in having such circumstances widely known.

I would respectfully say here, how can you ignore the strong representations made, including the debate on the Asylum Board, and the statements to you of jurymen?

As to the report of the Superintendent of Broadmoor, it is open from his official position and for other reasons, to very serious objection. His taking part in the inquiry invalidates it, as for one thing he is not an independent doctor, there are also other objections to him.

I feel so strongly for the friendless position of this unfortunate girl, that I shall devote a considerable portion of my time, if she is hung, to impressing upon the country the utter insecurity which exists for justice being done, or even the reasons for justice being inquired into, a short respite being all that we seek, to be accompanied by an independent inquiry.

The communication was accompanied by a newspaper clipping entitled, 'Broadmoor Too Full':

The medical superintendent of Broadmoor and a superintendent in the same establishment, decided the fate of Mary Ansell.

It is well-known to people in the East Hampstead district that Broadmoor is full to overflowing with lunatics, and additional buildings have been sanctioned to accommodate the new arrivals. Numbers are in Broadmoor at the present time who are not insane. Persons who have committed the most horrible murders are today using edge tools in the several working parties, with attendants looking after them, who are not armed with even a stick to defend them. Prince, the murderer of poor Terriss, is one of the sanest men in Broadmoor, and there are several related to wealthy people, who are no more insane than the attendants themselves.

Persons are continually being sent to Broadmoor, writes a correspondent, who ought to have had the rope round their necks for the vile crimes they have committed, and I am particularly referring to the men criminals. As many men as possible are being sent to their county asylums because there is no room for them at Broadmoor. Why should the officials, therefore, be burdened with additional people when they have a chance to stop it? I do not say they have thought of this in Mary Ansell's case. But this inference may be drawn.


It was reported that before the execution that Mary Ansell made a full confession to the murder, detailing the motive that prompted it. However, the confession was disputed by supporters of Mary Ansell who denounced its validity unless it were published in full by the Home Office, which had not been done.

see National Archives - HO 144/277/A61150

see Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser - Wednesday 26 July 1899

see Edinburgh Evening News - Wednesday 26 July 1899

see The Salisbury Times - Friday 07 July 1899

see Eastern Post - Saturday 22 July 1899

see Cornishman - Thursday 03 August 1899

see Hucknall Morning Star and Advertiser - Friday 21 July 1899

see Penny Illustrated Paper - Saturday 22 July 1899

see Illustrated Police Budget - Saturday 29 July 1899, p 8 - 9

see Sheffield Evening Telegraph - Friday 07 April 1899