Characteristics: Poisoner - She worked as a nurse and poisoned her victims after encouraging them to leave her money in their wills
Number of victims: 1 - 7
Date of murder: 1854 - 1862
Date of arrest: February 1862
Date of birth: 1922
Victims profile: Acquaintances
Method of murder: Poisoning (colchicine - arsenic)
Location: England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Newgate Gaol on October 20, 1862. She was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London
Catherine Wilson was born in 1822 and was a nurse by trade although no-one could say that her life was dedicated to making people better. Her method was to find a sick person of means and befriend them. She would then work on winning them over and try and persuade them to make out wills in her favour. Once this was done she would then feed them various poisons. For a while she lived with a man named Dixon but he began to drink heavily so she poisoned him, as well.
In 1862 she was looking after Mrs Sarah Carnell. As soon as Mrs Carnell had rewritten her will in Catherine's favour it was time to get rid of her. Shortly afterwards Sarah brought the sick woman a 'soothing draught.' Mrs Carnell took a mouthful and promptly spat it out, saying it had burnt her mouth. She called her husband who immediately noticed that what his wife had spat out had burnt a hole in the carpet. Catherine realising the mistake she had made fled.
She was arrested a couple of days later. The mixture she had given Mrs Carnell contained enough sulphuric acid to kill fifty people. Catherine was charged with attempted murder and held while the police continued with their investigations.
She was cleared of the charge of attempted murder because her defence argued that the pharmacist had given her the wrong bottle and as no-one could be sure the charge was dropped. She may have breathed a sigh of relief but if so it was short lived as when she was released she was promptly re-arrested. Post-mortems carried out on people that she had nursed revealed that a variety of poisons had been found in seven of the bodies exhumed. She was tried and this time found guilty.
She may not have been all that popular before but when she was hanged a crowd of 20,000 turned out to see her last moments outside the Old Bailey on 20th October 1862.
Killer-nurse Catherine Wilson was born in Boston in 1822. Her modus operandi was to find a sick person of means and then get them to make out a will in her favour. She would then feed them various poisons.
The year 1862 saw Catherine Wilson in London where she was looking after Mrs Sarah Carnell. As usual Mrs Carnell rewrote her will in Catherine's favour. Shortly afterwards Catherine brought the sick woman a "soothing draught." Mrs Carnell took a mouthful and, as it burnt her mouth, promptly spat it out. She called her husband. What she had spat out had landed on the carpet and burned holes in it. Catherine fled. She was apprehended several weeks later and charged with attempted murder. Her defence was that the boy in the chemist's shop had given her sulphuric acid by mistake. A generous jury accepted this version and found Catherine not guilty. She was not, however, to enjoy her freedom as the police promtly re-arrested her and charged her with murder. While Catherine had been in custody the authorities had explored her background after she had been recognised by Sarah Soames as the woman who had nursed her mother through her final illness several years before.
Twelve years earlier Catherine had been housekeeper to elderly Captain Peter Mawer in Boston. He had died in October 1854 after making his will in Catherine's favour. She then moved to London and became the mistress of James Dixon. Dixon had a serious drink problem but it was still something of a surprise when he died in June 1856 after a short illness - during which he was nursed by his paramour.
James and Catherine had been lodging in the Bloomsbury home of fifty-year-old Mrs Maria Soames who had recently been widowed. The morning of 16th October 1856 saw Mrs Soames complaining of feeling unwell. Two days later the previously healthy woman was dead. Catherine spread the rumour that Mrs Soames had committed suicide.
In 1859 Catherine made several trips back to Boston to visit a Mrs Jackson. During the last of these visits Mrs Jackson died, just four days after drawing a considerable amount of money from her bank account. The money had vanished immediately after her death.
Catherine's next victim was 55-year-old Mrs Ann Atkinson. She was James Dixon's aunt and was in London on business towards the end of 1859. During her visit Mrs Atkinson's purse, containing over £50, disappeared. Mrs Atkinson had her suspicions but it did not stop her coming to London to see Catherine the following year. By now Catherine was living in Lambeth with a new lover, named Taylor. Mrs Atkinson had only been in London a couple of days when her husband, back at home in Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumberland, received a telegram from Catherine telling him that his wife was seriously ill. Mr Atkinson left for London immediately and arrived the day before his wife died, 19th October. Catherine even managed to bilk money out of the widower by telling him that Mrs Atkinson had borrowed money from her before she died.
There was a single charge of murder for forty-year-old Catherine to answer at her trial at the Old Bailey in October 1862, that of poisoning Mrs Soames. Evidence was given that the symptoms suffered by Maria Soames were consistent with colchicum poisoning, even though a post-mortem had failed to find any traces of the poison in her remains. Found guilty, Catherine Wilson was hanged in front of a crowd of 20,000 outside the Old Bailey on 20th October 1862. It was the last public execution of a woman in England. It was later speculated that Catherine Wilson was probably responsible for at least seven deaths by poisoning with either colchicum and arsenic being the agent.
Catherine Wilson (1822 - 20 October 1862) was a British woman who was hanged for one murder, but was generally thought at the time to have committed six others. She worked as a nurse and poisoned her victims after encouraging them to leave her money in their wills. She was described privately by the sentencing judge as "the greatest criminal that ever lived."
Wilson worked as a nurse first in Spalding, Lincolnshire, and then moving to Kirkby, Cumbria. She married a man called Dixon but her husband soon died, probably poisoned with colchicum, a bottle of which was found in his room. The doctor recommended an autopsy but Wilson begged him not to perform it, and he backed down.
In 1862 Wilson worked as a live-in nurse, nursing a Mrs Sarah Carnell, who rewrote her will in favour of Wilson; soon afterwards, Wilson brought her a "soothing draught", saying "Drink it down, love, it will warm you." Carnell took a mouthful and spat it out, complaining that it had burned her mouth. Later it was noticed that a hole had been burned in the bed clothes by the liquid. Wilson then fled to London, but was arrested a couple of days later.
The drink she had given to Carnell turned out to contain sulphuric acid - enough to kill 50 people. Wilson claimed that the acid had been mistakenly given to her by the pharmacist who prepared the medicine. She was tried for attempted murder but acquitted. The judge, Mr Baron Bramwell, in the words of Wilson's lawyer Montagu Williams, Q.C., "pointed out that the theory of the defence was an untenable one, as, had the bottle contained the poison when the prisoner received it, it would have become red-hot or would have burst, before she arrived at the invalid's bedside. However, there is no accounting for juries and, at the end of the Judge's summing-up, to the astonishment probably of almost everybody in Court" she was found not guilty.
When Wilson left the dock, she was immediately rearrested, as the police had continued their investigations into Wilson and had exhumed the bodies of some former patients. She was charged with the murder of seven former patients, but tried on just one, Mrs. Maria Soames, who died in 1856. Wilson denied all the charges.
Wilson was tried on 25 September 1862 before Mr Justice Byles, again defended by Montague Williams. During the trial it was alleged that seven people whom Wilson had lived with as nurse had died after rewriting their wills to leave her some money, but this evidence was not admitted. Almost all though had suffered from gout. Evidence of colchicine poisoning was given by toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor, the defence being that the poison could not be reliably detected after so long. In summing up the judge said to the jury: "Gentlemen, if such a state of things as this were allowed to exist no living person could sit down to a meal in safety". Wilson was found guilty and sentenced to hang. A crowd of 20,000 turned out to see her execution at Newgate Gaol on 20 October 1862. She was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London.
After the trial, Byles asked Williams to come to his chambers, where he told him: "I sent for you to tell you that you did that case remarkably well. But it was no good; the facts were too strong. I prosecuted Rush for the murder of Mr Jermy, I defended Daniel Good, and I defended several other notable criminals when I was on the Norfolk Circuit; but, if it will be of any satisfaction to you, I may tell you that in my opinion you have to-day defended the greatest criminal that ever lived."
Public reaction to crimes
Wilson's punishment, the first death sentence handed down to a woman by the Central Criminal Court in 14 years, drew little condemnation. In the view of Harper's Weekly, "From the age of fourteen to that of forty-three her career was one of undeviating yet complex vice [...] She was as foul in life as bloody in hand, and she seems not to have spared the poison draught even to the partners of her adultery and sensuality. Hers was an undeviating career of the foulest personal vices and the most cold-blooded and systematic murders, as well as deliberate and treacherous robberies." It was generally thought that Wilson was guilty of more crimes than the one she was convicted of. Harper's went on:
We speak without hesitation of her crimes as plural, because, adopting the language of Mr. Justice Byles with reference to the death of Mrs Soames, we not only 'never heard of a case in which it was more clearly proved that murder had been committed, and where the excruciating pain and agony of the victim were watched with so much deliberation by the murderer,' but also because the same high judicial authority, having access to the depositions in another case, pronounced, in words of unexampled gravity and significance, 'that he had no more doubt but that Mrs Atkinson was also murdered by Catherine Wilson than if he had seen the crime committed with his own eyes.' Nor did these two murders comprise the catalogue of her crimes. That she, who poisoned her paramour Mawer, again poisoned a second lover, one Dixon, robbed and poisoned Mrs Jackson, attempted the life of a third paramour named Taylor, and administered sulphuric acid to a woman in whose house she was a lodger, only in the present year — of all this there seems to be no reasonable doubt, though these several cases have received no regular criminal inquiry. Seven murders known, if not judicially proved, do not after all, perhaps, complete Catherine Wilson's evil career. And if any thing were wanted to add to the magnitude of these crimes it would be found, not only in the artful and devilish facility with which she slid herself into the confidence of the widow and the unprotected — not only in the slow, gradual way in which she first sucked out the substance of her victims before she administered, with fiendish coolness, the successive cups of death under the sacred character of friend and nurse — but in the atrocious malignity by which she sought to destroy the character and reputation of the poor creatures, and to fix the ignominy of suicide on the objects of her own robbery and murder.
Catherine Wilson, English Serial Killer - 1862
Conviction of a Wholesale Poisoner
The Nonconformist (London, England)
Oct. 1, 1862
Several days were occupied at the Central Criminal Court last week in the trial of Catherine Wilson for the murder, by poison, of Mrs. Sonnies six years ago. She was found guilty, and sentenced to death. Her case is interesting as exhibiting the depth of wickedness, of cunning, and of criminal audacity to which woman’s nature may sink. Eight years ago Catherine Wilson was living as housekeeper or servant with a gentleman who made his will in her favour, and very shortly afterwards died. Whether he died by fair means, or whether his death was accelerated by the object of his bounty, will never be known.
There appears no positive evidence of his having died of poison, and charity – if charity is worth bestowing upon such an object – would willingly acquit her of such a crime. The gentleman was accustomed to take doses of colohioum, so that his housekeeper knew perfectly well the mode of its operation – and the seems to have been no idle or thoughtless pupil. Left in moderately comfortable circumstances by the will in her favour, she seems to have devoted her life since that period to improving the fortune and practising the lessons she had obtained from her deceased benefactor by a system of he most wholesale poisoning. Mrs. Soames, the woman of whose murder this female Palmer has just been convicted, kept a lodging-house n London. To this home Mrs. Wilson came as lodger, together with a young man of the name of Dixon. They had not been there long before Dixon was taken seriously and suddenly ill. All the symptoms were those of poisoning by colohioum, and in a short time he died. His mistreat represented that he had died of consumption, but his lungs were found perfectly healthy. A abort time afterwards Mrs. Soames herself came home one evening with a loan of £9 in her pocket. It was dangerous to carry money in one’s pocket when in company with Catherine Wilson. The landlady was well and in good spirits in the evening. Catherine Wilson wanted to see her in her room. She went there, and stayed some time. Next morning she was violently ill — again with the symptoms that would have resulted from the use of colohioum.
Medical assistance was called in; Catherine Wilson was indefatigable in her attentions. She gave her medicine, she gave her food; but the most soothing medicines and the most suitable food only seemed to aggravate the symptoms, and Mrs. Soames died. The £9 she had borrowed was not to be found, while an I O U showed that she was indebted £10 to Catherine Wilson. That she should have borrowed £10 of Catherine Wilson, or that Catherine Wilson should have had £10 to lend her, were equally remarkable. But this was found. The affectionate friend hinted that Mrs. Soames had taken poison – indeed her head seemed to be very full of poison. The doctor suspected poison too, but had not skill enough to prove it. Catherine Wilson, however, knew a cause why she should have taken poison. There was a man who wanted to marry her and had jilted her. Nobody else knew the man, and he has never been produced. There was, however, a letter from him dated just before Mrs. Soames’s death. That letter was proved to be in the handwriting of Catherine Wilson. Such facts as these, with other circumstances ably summed up by the Judge, left not a shadow of doubt that Catherine Wilson had both committed the murder, stolen the money, forged the I O U for money lent, and fabricated the evidence by which she hoped to remove the guilt from her own shoulders.
Three years later, in 1859, we find this interesting creature with a Mrs. Jackson, at Boston. Mrs. Jackson had drawn £120. out of the bank, and Catherine Wilson knew that she had drawn it. Mrs. Jackson was taken ill, with the same symptoms as her former victims, and died. The £120 could not be discovered, and a promissory note which was found for the same, signed by two pretended borrowers, was proved to be a forgery. This sum seems to have set her up, for next year we find her receiving lodgers, and one of these lodgers was a Mrs. Atkinson, of Kirby Lonsdale, who in a short time exhibited the same symptoms as Mrs. Soames and the rest, and in a few days died. The evidence of murder in this case appears to have been very strong, for the prisoner was indicted upon it, and had she been acquitted of the murder of Mrs. Soames would have been tried upon this charge. The Judge, in passing sentence, expressed his firm assurance of her guilt.
An attempt at murder was the only exploit of the next year; and an attempt at murder during the early part of this year, for which she was tried and acquitted, is her only known subsequent achievement.
Wilson, Catherine (England)
A poison case again, but this time not arsenic or even white mercury! Catherine Wilson was the lady who administered it, and had ample opportunity, when, in 1853, she was employed as housekeeper to a Mr Peter Mawer, an elderly gentleman who lived in Boston, Lincolnshire. He suffered severely from gout, and when the pain became unbearable, she would give him his medicine, a remedy named colchicum, which was derived from the dried seeds of the autumn crocus. Catherine discovered that colchicum, if taken in small doses, brought relief, but was highly toxic if taken in large quantities. And when Mr Mawer showed his appreciation of her abilities as a personal nurse by promising to make her sole legatee in his will, she wasted no time in showing her appreciation by increasing the dosage!
In the October of the following year, poor Mr Mawer died.
The doctor who had prescribed the colchicum decided that his patient must have been in so much pain that he had taken a larger dose than was safe, and the resultant verdict was one of accidental death. Catherine, shedding tears worthy of any crocodile, cashed in on the property and belongings due to her under the will, then headed for pastures new in London. There she joined the high-spending, heavy-drinking circuit, in one club happening to meet a man named Dixon, to whom she became so attached that together they moved into an apartment at 27 Alfred Place, Bedford Square, just off Tottenham Court Road.
They introduced themselves to Mrs Soames, the landlady, as Mr and Mrs Wilson, and continued to enjoy the London nightlife, but Dixon started to reveal his true colours, savagely beating Catherine when drunk. She, however, had an antidote for such behaviour, and gave him a large dose of the colchicum in her possession. The result was that he started to feel unwell, very unwell, in fact. Their landlady sympathised, especially when Catherine explained that her ‘husband’ had had attacks like that for years and, in fact, was not expected to live for much longer.
Nor did he. The local physician, Dr Whitburn, when asked to sign the death certificate, demurred on the grounds that he was not their usual physician, and, despite the widow’s tearful plea not to cut her dear husband up ‘because he had always been horrified at the thought of his body being mutilated’, he stipulated that a post-mortem should be performed. But Catherine got away with it, nothing suspicious being discovered, and the death certificate was accordingly signed.
Mrs Soames proved such a comfort to the grieving widow that they became close friends, but little did the landlady realise that she was to be the next victim of a cold-blooded serial killer.
Before twelve months had passed, Catherine opened her little box containing colchicum again, and ill health unaccountably overtook Mrs Soames.
Catherine then assumed her role as nurse, mixed more of her special brand of medicine, and five days afterwards her patient died. Dr Whitburn attended again and another post-mortem took place. Death by natural causes being assumed, another death certificate was issued. Catherine must have felt intoxicated with power as it became obvious to her that there was obviously nothing to prevent her from doing it again – and again.
Soon afterwards, in 1860, while shopping in London, she made the acquaintance of a Mrs Atkinson, and while in her company, Catherine sympathised with her new friend for losing her purse, an item which she herself had managed to acquire.
Some weeks later Mrs Atkinson wrote to her from the millinery shop she and her husband owned, in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumberland (now Cumbria), to say that she was coming to London again to purchase a large amount of stock for the shop.
The prospect of increasing her bank balance was not to be missed, so Catherine promptly suggested that her friend should come and stay with her. Mrs Atkinson was delighted to renew her friendship with Catherine, so joined her at her house in Loughborough Road, Brixton. Mr Atkinson was of course only too pleased that his wife would have company whilst going round the wholesale dealers, but his shocked reaction can only be imagined when he received a telegram informing him that his wife was seriously ill and that he should come at once. By the time he arrived, his wife was already dead.
Catherine had already realised that any local doctor, having no knowledge of Mrs Atkinson’s medical history, would refuse to issue a death certificate, so she prepared for that eventuality by telling the devastated husband that on her deathbed his wife had implored her not to let anyone cut up her body. Accordingly, Mr Atkinson refused to give the doctor his permission. And when he later enquired about the hundreds of pounds that Mrs Atkinson had brought with her to buy the new stock, Catherine expressed her surprise that his wife had not written and told him that en route to London she had felt unwell, left the train at Rugby and, while resting in the waiting room there, the money had been stolen. As for the diamond ring Catherine was wearing, well, that had been given to her by his wife for looking after her.
It will never be known just how many more women fell victim to Catherine’s deadly poison, but the end came in February 1862, nine years after her first murder. She had obtained the post of nurse to an elderly and frail lady, Mrs Sarah Carnell who lived in Marylebone. Once again she tended her charge so devotedly that again she was promised a large legacy, but unfortunately she had used up all the colchicum.
Undaunted, and really believing that she was invulnerable, she simply changed her recipe. When asked by her patient to collect some of her usual medicine from the chemist, Catherine did so, and also brought what she said was a ‘soothing draught’ which would make her employer feel better. As it was not yet time for the usual medicine, she poured some of the emollient fluid into a tumbler and handed it to Mrs Carnell who, on holding the glass, exclaimed that it felt warm. Nevertheless she took a mouthful – then spat it out again, only to stare in horror as the drops which had landed on the top sheet started to burn holes in it! Realising her error, Catherine Wilson ran from the room and fled from the house, but a detailed description of her was circulated and six weeks later, in April 1862, she was arrested, charged at Marylebone Police Court with attempted murder, and put on trial.
In court she was accused of administering oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) to Mrs Carnell. Her lawyer suggested that it was accidental and no fault of his client’s; the chemist’s inexperienced assistant must have given it to her by mistake.
The judge scornfully rejected that theory, pointing out that had the lad given a glass bottle of sulphuric acid to the prisoner in the dock, it would have become red-hot and burst while she was carrying it back to the house, and therefore she must have had it in her possession in its own container!
The jury was sent out to consider their verdict, and while they were doing so, the counsel for the defence was approached by a man who identified himself as a detective of the Lincoln police force, the officer then informing the lawyer that in the event of the prisoner being found not guilty, he had warrants for her arrest on no fewer than seven murder charges. Eventually the jurors filed back into the courtroom and for some reason known only to themselves, perhaps giving her the benefit of the doubt, the foreman delivered the result of their deliberations – not guilty! Catherine Wilson, surprised and delighted at having been found innocent, stepped from the dock – and was immediately arrested by the Lincoln police officer.
She was held in prison while investigations into the deaths of Messrs Mawer and Dixon, Mrs Atkinson and Mrs Soames were carried out. Corpses were exhumed and post-mortems conducted. The results were beyond doubt, the doctors agreeing that the colchicum seeds had been infused and probably administered to her patients and partners in such ‘health restoring’ drinks as brandy, wine, or tea. This damning evidence was given to the court at her subsequent trial at the Old Bailey, Catherine Wilson listening apparently unconcerned; not a flicker of emotion betrayed her feelings, even when the judge donned the black cap and sentenced her to death.
On execution day, 20 October 1862, 20,000 spectators crowded the area around Newgate to watch a woman who had committed so many horrific crimes receive the justice she so richly deserved, but she ignored the jeers and catcalls as hangman William Calcraft placed the noose around her slim neck.
Catherine Wilson had needed several drops of colchicum to dispatch her victims – the executioner required only one drop to dispatch his.
Hangmen were usually the target of public abuse and even their wives were reviled by spectators and neighbours, one being Ann Cheshire, wife of executioner Thomas Cheshire. So infuriated was she in August 1829 when four small children shouted ‘Jack Ketch!’ after her, that she promptly picked them up and dropped them into a cellar area ten feet deep, fortunately without hurting them to any great extent. Although in court she claimed that it was all an accident, nevertheless she was bound over to be of good behaviour in future.
Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott
AMONGST female poisoners Catherine Wilson takes a leading place. She had an active career as a professional murderess extending to ten years, perhaps even longer than that, but we do know that she committed murder in 1853, and she was not brought to justice and executed until 1862. A very long career, indeed, for a woman whose ignorance was only equalled by her cunning, and whose gaunt and unfavourable exterior was in keeping with a black heart and a diseased brain.
The first time the public heard the name of this poisoner was in the month of April, 1862, when she stood in the dock in Marylebone Police Court, and was charged with having attempted to murder a Mrs. Connell by administering poison to her.
Mrs. Connell had been living apart from her husband, and, having found a lonely and companionless life irksome to her, she began to long for a reconciliation with the man who had wooed and won her not so many years previously. Of course, to effect this it was necessary to find a sympathetic woman who would be able to approach Mr. Council and delicately and tactfully sound him as to his views regarding a reunion with his wife. For some unexplained reason Mrs. Council asked Catherine Wilson to act as intermediary, and to prepare her for the task Mrs. Council invited the widow to have tea with her. She opened her heart to her guest, did not conceal the fact that she had a little money of her own, and volunteered other information, while the hard-faced creature with the eyes of a tigress sat opposite and planned her death.
The conversation was abruptly ended by a cry of pain from Mrs. Connell. She had not noticed that although Mrs. Wilson was only a guest she had poured out the last cup of tea for her, and she thought that her illness was the result of worry and overstrain.
Of course Mrs. Wilson instantly became sympathetically attentive. The hard eyes even moistened as she helped Mrs. Connell upstairs and laid her gently and tenderly on her bed. Then she ran off to the nearest chemist's shop and brought back a bottle of medicine, but when Mrs. Connell took some of it her sufferings became intensified. Catherine Wilson soothingly offered some more of the " medicine " she had brought from the chemist's, and Mrs. Connell, writhing in her agony, again tried to drink it, but spilt a little of it on the bed-clothes. The " medicine " was so strong that it actually burnt holes in the linen !
Mrs. Connell did not die, though she suffered a great deal, and at one time nearly succumbed.
The matter was too serious to be allowed to rest, and, as she had been told by Mrs. Wilson that it was the chemist's fault for giving her such medicine, she called on him for an explanation. The chemist, astounded and angered by the charge, quickly proved that the medicine he had sold was perfectly harmless, and when the police were sent for he demonstrated conclusively that if anything noxious had been added to the contents of the bottle the only person who could have done it was the woman who had conveyed it from his shop to Mrs. Connell.
After that there was only one thing to do, and that was to arrest Catherine Wilson, who had disappeared a few days previously. Her flight was in itself almost a confession, and for six weeks she managed to evade the detectives who were searching for her, but by chance she was recognized by an ofhcer when he was off duty, and he took her into custody.
After several appearances at the Marylebone Police Court she was committed for trial, and, under close supervision, she calmly awaited the day of the great ordeal.
And while she is in prison we can trace her history up to the spring of 1862.
It was towards the close of the summer of 1853 that a widower of the name of Mawer advertised for a housekeeper. He lived in the pleasant town of Boston, in Lincolnshire, was prosperous, and he would have been quite happy but for gout, an enemy with which he was daily fighting, using as his principal weapon a poison — colchicum — which, taken in small doses, is often prescribed by doctors. In large quantities it is, of course, fatal.
Catherine Wilson was one of the applicants for the post, and she was successful in obtaining it. She called herself a widow, and, perhaps, there had been a husband once who may have been her first victim. Mr. Mawer, however, thought her a respectable, hardworking woman, and she certainly proved unremitting in her attentions to him.
Within a few months they were intimate friends, and the housekeeper was so assiduous and helpful that Mr. Mawer's gout became much better. He told Catherine Wilson that it was entirely due to her, and to prove his gratitude he informed her that he had drawn up a will bequeathing everything to her. It was a fatal disclosure, for had he not disclosed to her his testamentary dispositions there can be little doubt but that he would have lived much longer than he did. The poisoner began her fell work at once, tempted by the prospect of gain, and as she had the poison already in the house there was no way of escape for the unfortunate man.
In October, 1854, he died, poisoned with colchicum, as the doctor discovered ; but, as Mr. Mawer was known to have used that poison to counteract the gout, no suspicion was attached to the " heartbroken " housekeeper.
Mr. Mawer's fortune was not as large as the woman had imagined it to be. Still, it amounted to a few hundred pounds, and the murderess, who had good reasons for not wishing to remain too long in Boston, packed up and came to London.
She did not come alone, for when she took lodgings at the house of a Mrs. Soames, at 27 Alfred Street, Bedford Square, she was accompanied by a man of the name of Dixon, whom she described as her husband. And packed away in her trunk was a large packet of colchicum, which had been left over after Mr. Mawer had been disposed of. There was enough of the poison to kill half a dozen persons. Perhaps if Mr. Dixon had been aware of that he might not have been so anxious to caress this human tigress.
But Catherine Wilson soon discovered that she had very little use for Dixon. He did not make enough money to please her, and when the last of Mr. Mawer's legacy had been spent she began to look about her for a fresh vicitm. Dixon was clearly in the way, particularly so since that Saturday night when he had returned home intoxicated and had struck her. The wretched man had no money, and Wilson had grown tired of him. Besides, their landlady, Mrs. Soames was by now Wilson's intimate friend, and she had learned that Mrs. Soames was by no means dependent on letting lodgings and that she had moneyed relatives and friends. Before she could attack Mrs. Soames it was necessary Dixon should be removed.
One day Dixon was taken ill, a curious wasting illness accompanied by terrible pains in the chest. Wilson hastened to assure everybody she knew that her " husband " had always suffered from consumption, although, as she had to confess, outwardly he appeared to be very strong and healthy. After administering a few small doses of colchicum the monster finished off with a strong dose, and then the " widow " tearfully implored the doctor not to cut her " dear one " up because during his lifetime he had expressed a horror of that " indignity."
But the doctor would not give a death certificate without a post-mortem examination, for, Mrs. Wilson having insisted that the cause of Dixon's death was galloping consumption, the medical man was curious. His curiosity deepened when on opening the body he found the lungs absolutely perfect. Consumption then was not the reason. But what was ? The doctors were puzzled, yet in some extraordinary manner Catherine Wilson wriggled out of danger, and Dixon was buried. No one accused her, and even if the doctor had his suspicions he never gave a hint of them.
The " widow '• went about in mourning, and as she was quite alone in the world now Mrs. Soames was sweeter and more sympathetic than ever, and night after night the two women sat in the cosy little room Mrs. Wilson rented, and there exchanged confidences. The poisoner had a long series of skilful lies ready to impress her friend, but Mrs. Soames, who had nothing to conceal, disclosed the story of her life, and added particulars of her friends and relations.
When she told Mrs. Wilson after breakfast one morning that she was going out to receive from her stepbrother a legacy which had been left her by an aunt the poisoner once again experienced that irresistible desire to take human life. But here there seemed to be no reason why she should run the risk of committing a cold-blooded crime. By killing Mrs. Soames she could not become possessed of her property, for the landlady had children, and she also had several male relatives who would have interfered at once had Mrs. Soames died and made a comparative stranger her sole heir.
Mrs. Soames was paid the money and returned home, where her married daughter had tea ready for her. They drank it alone, but as they were finishing Mrs. Wilson came to the door and asked the landlady to come upstairs with her. The request was complied with at once.
What happened at the interview we can only conjecture. Probably Mrs. Wilson first congratulated Mrs. Soames on the receipt of the legacy. Then she may have invited her to join her in a drink to her continued prosperity. Whatever did happen it is certain that from the time of that secret interview Mrs. Soames was never the same woman again.
The landlady could not get up next morning at her usual time. This was remarkable, because she was noted for her early rising, and she was not happy unless superintending the work of her house. Mrs. Wilson was, of course, deeply concerned for her friend, and she asked the daughter to be permitted to look after her mother.
Without waiting for permission the depraved creature appointed herself the only nurse, and she would not allow anyone else to give the patient her medicines. All the special food, too, passed through her hands, and when compelled by sheer exhaustion to take a little rest Wilson did not return to her own bedroom, but snatched a couple of hours sleep in an arm-chair in Mrs. Soames's room.
On the fourth day of her illness Mrs. Soames had ceased to vomit, and was not suffering any pain. Catherine Wilson pretended to be delighted, though really she was puzzled by the marvellous recovery the landlady had made. By sheer luck she had managed to resist the poison her " nurse " had been giving her. Of course she did not suspect this, nor could she gather from the concerned look on Wilson's face that the truth was that the murderess of Mr. Mawer and Dixon was going to give her a large dose of colchicum that very day and kill her.
Bending over the patient, Wilson offered her another dose of medicine, and the trusting woman took it with gratitude, for she had told her " friend " that her recovery was due to her nursing. But within a few minutes the landlady was screaming in agony again, and an hour later Catherine Wilson was silently weeping by the window while the doctor, who had been summoned in haste, announced that Mrs. Soames was dead.
The same doctor had attended Dixon, and although the symptoms were similar in both cases he did not suspect Catherine Wilson of murder. Mr. Whidburn — that was his name — ^\vas studiously correct, and, as in the case of Dixon, he refused to give a medical certificate without a post-mortem examination. He made the examination himself, and then certified that death had occurred from natural causes. Mrs. Soames's nearest relation received the certificate, and the murderess was safe. She surprised the family, however, by a demand for the payment of ten pounds which she said her late landlady owed her, and when she adduced proof in the shape of a signed promise to pay by Mrs. Soames the money was handed over. Nothing was said as to anything Mrs. Wilson may have owed Mrs. Soames. Later it was known that she had borrowed a fairly large sum from the kind-hearted landlady, and it was suspected with good cause that the promissory note for ten pounds was a forgery. But these were of no importance when later the gravest of all charges was made against the poisoner.
The death of Mrs. Soames resulted in another change of address for Catherine Wilson, and she went some distance away from Bedford Square, engaging rooms in Loughborough Road, Brixton.
The poisoner was well off, and did not stint herself, and it was assumed by her new acquaintance that the late Mr. Wilson had dowered her with sufficient goods to enable her to live independently of the world.
It may be noted here that a few weeks before the death of Mrs. Soames, Wilson had spent nearly a fortnight shopping with a friend from the North, Mrs. Atkinson. One day Mrs. Atkinson had had the misfortune to lose a purse containing fifty-one pounds. It was a terrible blow, and Mrs. Wilson was so grieved for her that she offered to lend her all the spare cash she had. The offer was refused — as Wilson had known it would be — and Mrs. Atkinson had returned home without having breathed a word against her old friend. But when Catherine Wilson came back after seeing Mrs. Atkinson off from King's Cross she was in funds, and the following day she made an extensive purchase of clothes for herself. Picking the pocket of her best friend was the smallest of sins to a woman who could take human life without a moment's hesitation.
It was the custom of Mrs. Atkinson to come to London once a year, and generally during the month of October. She and her husband lived in Kirkby Lonsdale, in Cumberland. Mr. Atkinson was a tailor, while his wife ran a millinery and dressmaking establishment on her own account. Strict attention to business and frugal living were the sources of the prosperity of the Atkinsons, and, on her annual visits to London Mrs. Atkinson never came provided with less than a hundred pounds with which to buy stock. She carried the notes concealed about her person, and, of course, her severe loss in 1859 made her more careful than ever when she came to London in the October of 1860.
Mrs. Atkinson's visit to the Metropolis was exceedingly well-timed from Wilson's point of view. All the money she had obtained during the previous twelve months had vanished, and she was behind with her rent. Her new landlady, fiercely practical, was demanding payment every day, and her affairs were so bad that, beyond the paltry breakfast she extracted from the landlady, she often saw no food during a whole day. It would not have done to have disclosed the true state of affairs to her friend from the North. That might have frightened her away. She invited her to stay with her, and then she told her landlady that her prosperous friend would lend her the money to pay all her debts. In the circumstances the landlady was only too pleased to see Mrs. Atkinson in her house, Mrs. Atkinson left Kirkby Lonsdale in perfect health, and looking forward with zest to her stay in London. A keen business woman, she, nevertheless, knew how to combine business with pleasure, and, having said good-bye to her husband, she departed in excellent spirits. Mrs. Wilson met her at the terminus, and after a substantial tea — for which, of course, the visitor paid — they went by omnibus to Loughborough Road, Brixton, and, as the landlady afterwards testified, Mrs. Atkinson arrived there in the best of health, light-hearted and jolly. She must have been a sharp contrast to Catherine Wilson, whose countenance was repulsive, and whose manner was the secretive one of the poisoner.
The women went about everywhere together, Mrs. Atkinson paying all expenses. On this occasion the visitor had brought a hundred and ten pounds in notes with her, for business had been good and her customers were increasing. The hungry eyes of Catherine Wilson gleamed at the sight of the notes, and her bony fingers longed to clutch them. Every day saw the number of notes grow gradually less as Mrs. Atkinson was buying stock, and the poisoner kneM' that unless she hurried there would not be enough money left to make it worth her while to add to her list of crimes.
On the fourth day Mr. Atkinson was busy in his shop at Kirkby Lonsdale when a telegram was handed to him. He read it anxiously — for telegrams were a novelty — and nearly collapsed under the blow. The message was from Loughborough Road, Brixton, London, S.W., and it said that his wife was dangerously ill. Flinging all business on one side the unhappy man hastened to London, arriving only in time to watch her die. She was unconscious when he entered the room, and passed away without a word to him.
The broken-hearted husband was stunned by the blow, and his poor wife's " friend " was prostrated. Mrs. Wilson, he was informed, had taken to her bed upon being informed of her dearest friend's death, and her grief was so intense that she was with difficulty induced to give a brief account of Mrs. Atkinson's last day on earth.
The doctor assured Mr. Atkinson that no one could be more surprised than he was at the fatal termination of Mrs. Atkinson's illness. An extensive practice had brought him into contact with death in many shapes, but there was nothing like this in all his experience. He advised a post-mortem examination to ascertain the cause of death, and the husband of the murdered woman seemed inclined to sanction that course when Catherine Wilson came forward with a pathetic story of a dying request from Mrs. Atkinson that she, her best friend, would see to it that her body was not " cut up."
In the most natural manner the poisoner told her lie, and Mr. Atkinson, to whom every word of his wife was sacred, withheld his approval, and no examination took place.
Now, Mr. Atkinson was well aware that his wife had brought a hundred and ten pounds to London with her, and he searched for the notes amongst her effects. When he failed to discover a single one he turned to Mrs. Wilson for an explanation. Had his wife paid all the money away ? It was most unlikely that she had. But he was even more astounded when Mrs. Wilson informed him that his wife had arrived in London with only her return ticket and a few shillings.
" Didn't she write and tell you what happened ? " said the poisoner, who was dressed in black, and carried a pocket handkerchief with which she dabbed her eyes every other moment.
" No, I didn't get a single letter from her," said Mr. Atkinson. " I was a bit surprised, but I thought she was too busy to write."
Catherine Wilson knew this, for she had destroyed two letters which Mrs. Atkinson had written to her husband, the unfortunate woman having entrusted them to her to post. She now pretended to fathom the reason for Mrs. Atkinson's silence.
" She was so tender-hearted, Mr. Atkinson," she said, with a catch in her voice, " that she wouldn't tell you the bad news. I'm sorry to say that she was robbed of all her money at Rugby."
" Rugby ! " exclaimed Mr. Atkinson, in astonishment. " What was she doing at Rugby ? I don't understand you."
" She was taken ill in the train," said the woman, lying glibly, " and when it stopped at Rugby she got out. Soon afterwards she became faint again, and when she recovered she found she had been robbed. Then she came on here and told me, and I've been lending her money to get about. She was hoping the money would be recovered before she had to tell you. Oh, she was goodness itself, and I have lost my dearest and only friend."
She sank into a chair, sobbing as though her heart was breaking, and Mr. Atkinson, who had been seized with a suspicion, engendered by a memory of the loss of the purse containing fifty-one pounds the year before, dismissed his thoughts as unfair to the woman who was mourning so whole-heartedly over the loss of the wife he loved. He did not dwell any longer on the disappearance of the notes. After all, his wife was dead, and all the money in the world could not bring her back to him.
He journeyed home again, and Catherine Wilson waited only for a week to go by before she paid her debts, added to her wardrobe, and proudly exhibited a diamond ring which she said Mr. Atkinson had given her as a small token of his gratitude for her care of his wife. It had been the property of the late Mrs. Atkinson, but the poisoner had stolen it before the body of her victim was cold.
It may well be asked how Catherine Wilson could commit so many cold-blooded murders unchecked. It seems to us that it ought to have been impossible for a healthy woman to die in agony and yet be buried without a coroner's inquest. But that is what happened sixty-one years ago, and we must be thankful that nowadays a person of the Catherine Wilson type would have an extremely brief career.
The cases described do not comprise all her crimes. There were two other persons she attacked with her poisons who happily escaped with their lives, and there was an old lady in Boston who died in such circumstances that it is practically certain Catherine Wilson poisoned her. She had been friendly with her, and her sudden death benefited Wilson to the extent of over a hundred pounds.
Such is the history of the woman who was arrested for attempting to poison Mrs. Connell. The period between committal for trial and the proceedings at the Old Bailey was a protracted one, but the prisoner maintained a sullen demeanour whilst under the care of the prison authorities.
Occasionally she protested her innocence, but she was crafty enough not to say much, and when she entered the dock at the Central Criminal Court she was still a human enigma to all who had come in contact with her.
That she appeared confident of a favourable verdict was obvious, and it had to be admitted that whilst the prosecution had plenty of surmise and suspicion they had very little legal proof. The defence relied almost entirely on the absence of motive and the fact that no one had actually seen the prisoner place the poison in Mrs. Connell's medicine. There were a great many suspicious circumstances which the prosecution rightly demanded an explanation of, but the prisoner's counsel pointed out that his client must be assumed to be innocent until her guilt was proved. It was no part of his duty to incriminate her or assist the prosecution. The judge summed up in a way which indicated that in his opinion the prosecution had not established beyond all doubt the guilt of the prisoner, and the jury, realizing that if they made a mistake and sent an innocent woman to the gallows they could not undo it, decided to be on the safe side. They, therefore, returned a verdict of " Not Guilty," and Catherine Wilson, poisoner, forger and thief, left the dock with a smile on her hard face and a glint of triumph in her eyes.
How she must have laughed in secret at her victory ! What fools she must have thought the twelve good men and true were ! Her character was vindicated, and she was safe. She was to suffer a severe shock, however.
A few days later an amiable-looking man stopped her just as she was leaving her lodgings.
" Excuse me," he said politely, one hand in his pocket wherein lay an important legal document, " but are you Mrs. Catherine Wilson ? "
" Yes," said the poisoner, who feared no one after her Old Bailey triumph. " What do you want with me ? "
" I am a police officer," he answered, producing the paper, " and I must ask you to accompany me to the station. I have a warrant for your arrest on a charge of murder."
" Murder ? " she gasped, terrified for a moment. Then she laughed. " Whose murder f " She might well ask that question seeing that there were several with which she could have been charged.
" That of Mrs. Soames, of 27 Alfred Street, Bedford Square," he answered, glancing at the warrant.
The police had not been idle during that long remand following the mysterious poisoning of Mrs. Connell. They had delved completely into Catherine Wilson's past, and when they had compiled a list of her crimes the authorities decided that they would arrest her again and charge her with Mrs. Soames's death. They could have added others, but, knowing with whom they were dealing, they thought it better to keep the cases of Mr. Mawer and Mrs. Atkinson in reserve. Should her first trial for murder result in acquittal they would charge her with having caused the death of Mrs. Atkinson, and so on, until they had removed this danger to society.
But the prosecution made no mistake this time, and Catherine Wilson was in the coils from the moment she listened to the outline of the case against her at the Police Court.
Further facts were brought forward at the Old Bailey, and so skilfully did the authorities present their case that when the jury returned their verdict of guilty, and Mr. Justice Byles was passing sentence, he could say : " The result upon my mind is that I have no more doubt that you committed the crime than if I had seen it committed with my own eyes."
With a smile of contempt the poisoner left the dock and when she was led forth to die in pubUc, and twenty thousand persons watched her List moments, she presented the same cool, sneering manner, absolutely indifferent to her fate, quite unafraid of death, and without a word of sorrow or repentance for her terrible crimes.
Charles Kingston - Remarkable rogues; the careers of some notable criminals of Europe and America