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.
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:
Based 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.
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.