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August 2022

“ENOUGH TO KILL FIFTY PEOPLE” . . . The Wrangle Poisoner, 1884 (2)

Wrangle header

SO FAR: Wrangle Tofts, Lincolnshire, February 1884. 60 year-old Willam Lefley has died in agony, after eating what he claimed was poisoned rice pudding. Forensic investigations have discovered that there was a huge amount of arsenic in the pudding. Lefley’s wife Mary has been arrested on suspicion of causing his death.

FIFTY PEOPLE copy

It came to light that Lefley was not in the best of health mentally. There were reports that he had contemplated suicide. Why? We do not know. He was not in any great debt. His marriage was relatively loveless, but many people muddle through that particular situation without seeking to kill themselves. A family member called William Lister later gave evidence under oath:

Suicide

Sir_Ford_North_Vanity_Fair_29_October_1887Based mainly on the question, “Who else could have done it?” Mary Lefley was sent for trial at the Lincoln Assizes. She was to appear before Mr Justice North. Mary’s defence barrister made the point:

“Unfortunately you must know in this county of Lincoln, the possession of arsenic in the country districts is not unusual. Arsenic is used for a of purposes of harmless character; and it Is for that very reason it may get into the possession of persons without exciting suspicions that may render very difficult to trace the particular occasion when arsenic came Into the possession of any individual or any house.”

The main spine of Mary Lefley’s defence had two strands:
(1) Absence of motive. Despite the lack of love between the pair, there was neither a huge sum of money nor commercial prospects coming to Mary Lefley on her husband’s death. There was never any suggestion that there was another man with whom she planned to make a new life after William’s death.
(2) No forensic connection between Mary Lefley and the arsenic overload in the fatal rice pudding.

The Lincoln Assizes jury found Mary Lefley guilty of murder, and Mr Justice North (above right) duly donned his black cap and sentenced her to death. She was sent back to Lincoln gaol to await her fate.

Awaiting death

Newspapers at the time loved a good hanging. It gave them the opportunity to sympathise with the condemned prisoner while, at the same time, signaling their virtue (a condition which is still alive and well in 2022) Despite the fact that no reporters were present at the fateful event, one newspaper was able to report:

“A WOMAN HANGED AT LINCOLN. SCENE ON THE SCAFFOLD. Mary Lefley was executed in Lincoln on Monday morning, for having murdered her husband at Wrangle, near Boston, last February, by mixing arsenic with a rice pudding. A small crowd gathered outside the prison to await the hoisting of the black flag. The execution was entirely private, representatives of the press being excluded. Berry, of Bradford, was the executioner. Berry, it appears, carried out all the arrangements in a satisfactory manner, giving the culprit a drop of 9ft. A Wesleyan minister attended her up to the time of execution, when the chaplain of the prison continued his ministrations to the end. The prisoner was in a very despondent condition. She screamed with terror whilst being pinioned, and her lamentations are described as having been heartrending as she was being led to her doom. She had to be assisted on to the scaffold, and on the white cap being placed over her face, and just the bolt was withdrawn, she gave long despairing cry. She asserted her innocence the Wesleyan minister shortly before he left her, and to the last hoped a reprieve would be forthcoming.”

Mary Lefley was presumably interred along with previously executed men and women in the little burial ground which had been established in the Lucy Tower of Lincoln Castle. Was she the victim of a huge injustice? The only other alternatives to her being guilty are (1) That William Lefley committed suicide in a most elaborate and unlikely fashion, presumably to spite his wife and bring about her downfall. (2) That a third party, un-named and with no apparent motive, had put the poison in the rice pudding.

If Mary Lefley was innocent, she would not have been the first woman from the area to be wrongly convicted. In 1868, Stickney woman Priscilla Biggadyke was hanged for poisoning her husband. Her lodger, Thomas Proctor, was also initially charged with murder, but the charge was dropped. Years later, on his deathbed, Proctor confessed that he had administered the fatal dose.

In part one of this story I wrote that Lefley’s marriage was childless. Mick Lake contacted me and kindly gave me the information that there had been four children, James, Sarah, George and John. Sadly, Sarah died in childhood, but the three boys survived and had left home by 1881. There is no mention of them visiting their mother in prison.

This sad case, if nothing else, makes a departure from the mainstream litany of historical Lincolnshire murders, where men killed women. For other murder cases from Lincolnshire, click the image below.


Wolds

“ENOUGH TO KILL FIFTY PEOPLE” . . . The Wrangle Poisoner, 1884 (1)

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Wiki tells us that Wrangle Tofts “is a 0.8–1 km-wide band of raised ground along part of the Lincolnshire coast, running between Wainfleet All Saints and Wrangle parallel to the Wash.” Toft is an old English word for homestead, derived from the Norse topf. The 1881 census tells us that one of the cottages on Wrangle Tofts was occupied by William Lefley and his wife Mary.

1881 census

Mary was from the nearby village of Stickney, but William was born in in East Harling, Norfolk. Not that far away in these days, but far enough in 1884. William was described as a cottager, a person – usually a man – who leased a small plot of land with a cottage on it. The land was usually worked like a family vegetable plot and may have had a pen for a pig or a couple of sheep.

Contemporary accounts suggest that William and Mary shared a rather loveless marriage. There were no children. A modern family history researcher has suggested that Mary, the younger of the two, had another suitor, but there is no evidence for this, and it is pure speculation.

On the afternoon of 6th February 1884, William Lefley went home for lunch. He ate beef and potatoes, and then had some rice pudding. He  became violently ill with sickness and stomach pains. He managed to get himself to the doctor’s surgery in Wrangle, and  Doctor Bubb’s housemaid (Elizabeth Hill) later told the court:
” I remember the deceased coming to my master’s house on the 6th February. He asked for the doctor, and said he wanted him at once, as he had been poisoned by eating rice pudding. He was ill, and went to lay in an outhouse. He fell in the yard, was sick and very cold. After being seen by the Doctor’s assistant, he was taken home by a man named Chapman”.

Doctor Bubb’s sister also testified:

“I saw Lefley at my brother’s surgery. He said he had been poisoned, and was going to die. He vomited, complained of being cold, appeared be in pain, and groaned. He said he had had some pudding at dinner, and was quite well before he ate it, adding, “My wife has done it.” He said he should like to alter his will before he died. He had left everything to his wife, and his anxiety for the doctor was very great. He brought a portion of the pudding with him in the tin.”

Mary Lefley had prepared the rice pudding and left it for her husband to cook through, while she took the carrier’s cart in to Boston. By the time she returned, William Lefley was close to death. The court heard the sequence of events:

“About 6.30 pm. Mrs. Lefley came upstairs, having returned home from Boston market. Mrs. Lefley said, “Now then, what’s the matter?” William Lefley said, “You know what’s the matter; go away from me, I don’t want to see you any more.” Mrs. Lefley made no answer, and went downstairs. Another doctor was called, and he was at Lefley’s bedside when he died, just after 9.00pm”

Forensic science has come a long way since the death of William Lefley, but the work of the pathologist, exploring the remains of the human body, searching for answers, was well established in 1884, but not, perhaps in Boston. A macabre parcel was sent south, by rail, to Guys Hospital in London. In the shipment was a large stoneware jar containing the stomach, bowel, spleen, kidneys and liver of the dead man. Dr Thomas Stevenson testified:

“The stomach itself was red and highly inflamed, as if from the administration of irritant poison. The  large mass of the small and large bowel, intensely inflamed so far regards the small bowel, had the appearance commonly observed after the administration of irritant poison. The jar also contained nine fluid ounces of bloody fluid. I found arsenic, which is an irritant poison. There was arsenic in the fluid in the stomach, the stomach itself, in the fluid the bowels, and the liver. These results, to me, say that arsenic had been administered during life, and had been absorbed into the system.”

Despite there being no trace of arsenic in the house, the police drew the inevitable conclusion, and acted accordingly.

Arrest

IN PART TWO

Trial and retribution
A mystery

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