134 years ago today – 9th August 1886, Strangeways Prison would witness the first ever execution of a female. In this episode we take a look at the life (and crimes) of Mary Ann Britland – a serial killer, who was found guilty of killing one of her daughters, her husband and also the wife of her accused lover.
Life didnt start out too easily for Mary as her father, Joseph died just over a year after her birth and she seemed to have been moved around from house to house from the years of 1847 up until 1886 when she finally settled in at 133 Turner Lane, Ashton-Under-Lyne.
Married to Thomas Britland, she had two children – Elizabeth and Suzannah and everything in life seemed to be perfect – albeit for a short time.
In March of 1886, tragedy would befall Mary and her family as Elizabeth suddenly, and without warning fell ill and within a few hours she would sadly pass away.
Several weeks later, the same fate would occur to her husband, Thomas – as he, just like Elizabeth before him, would suddenly fall ill. It would take two days but ultimately he also sadly passed away.
Both deaths came as a shock to the neighbourhood and rumours soon started to circulate that something more sinister was going on.
The day after her husbands death, good friends and near neighbours, Thomas and Mary Dixon invited Mary to stay with them until another tragedy would occur.
Mary Dixon, just like that of Elizabeth and Thomas would suffer the same fate. Taken ill on the 13th May, 1886, she would pass away on the 14th May.
All three victims seemingly suffered in the same way. Clenched fists, sickness, complaining of stomach pains and burning up with a fever.
In between all of this, Mary would collect the life insurance of both Elizabeth and Thomas, raising suspicions that she was perhaps involved in their deaths and was killing them simply for the insurance money. Rumours where also circulating that she may have been having secret liasons with Thomas Dixon and that she wanted to be with him, thus taking the lives of not only those closest to her but also the life of his wife, Mary Dixon.
Mary was arrested on the 25th May, 1886 and charged with the murder of Mary Dixon. At this time, Thomas was also charged but on the lesser charge of accessory to murder.
Eventually, as the evidence piled up, the charges relating to Thomas Dixon would be dropped and it would be Mary that would face the courts over the deaths of not only Mary Dixon but also that of Elizabeth and Thomas Britland.
On Friday the 23rd July 1886, Mary would be found guilty of murder and face the ultimate punishment – that of execution by hanging.
The jury took just four hours to find her guilty of willful murder.
Her execution took place on Monday, 9th August 1886 within the walls of Strangeways prison – making her the first female to be executed there. James Berry was the executioner.
Many people have questioned the motives behind the murders of all three people with some saying it was simply for the insurance money. Others say it was because she wanted to be with James Dixon and most recently, people have started to believe that perhaps James Dixon himself was behind the murders, perhaps influencing Mary to administer the poison – but he simply got away with it.
To add fuel to the fire, this is what Mary Ann Britland said to Sergeant Nightingale on the 9th July whilst he accompanied her to the Gaol after asking if he (Thomas) would ‘get off with it’ –
“He has no right to get off, and he would not if I could tell my mind. He ought to be locked up all the while the same as me. It was him that led me into it and he wanted me to go away before I was locked up, and he would go with me when the bother was over. He won’t get off if I can tell my mind. I have nothing to go away for, and if I went away, people would think I am guilty – whether I am or not.”Mary Ann Britland, 9th July 1886
Mary would be buried within the grounds of Strangeways prison but in 1991 her remains, along with many other executed criminals would be exhumed due to a rebuild of the prison, and sent to Blackley Cemetary where they would be cremated. Her ashes, along with the others, where buried within unkmarked graves simply numbered C2710 and C2711.
So, what do you think? Is she guilty of murder or was she an innocent victim with the real killer getting away with it?
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