Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro
It was a snowy morning in Lancashire, as the two women were brought out to the scaffold in the prison yard. They showed no sign of the cold, though, as they climbed up onto it, and were pinioned. Displaying a little nervousness, they stood there, eyes closed, their mouths moving silently as they repeated prayers over and over, over and over. Then their white caps were pulled over their pale faces, and, as the snow fell, their executioner pulled back a lever, and they fell to their deaths.
There they hanged, motionless, as the snow continued falling around Kirkdale Gaol, a gentle, floating snow that was at odds with the violent scene that had taken place in its midst.(1)
The women were not strangers, or even friends. They were sisters. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins both lived in Liverpool, but there was considerable debate about where they were originally from. In the xenophobic, anti-Irish late 19th century, it was speculated that they were both Irish born; but other sources said that they were Scottish, from Dumfries, where their relatives still lived.
Some reports, though, had Higgins admit to being from a village near Belfast, and having migrated to Liverpool with her parents and sister when she was ten. What was known was that Catherine was the elder sister, being around 55 years old; Margaret was some 14 years her junior.
Mrs Flanagan had one trait that in other circumstances would have been commended – she was rather frugal. She spent little, to the extent of being regarded as miserly, and it was said that her favourite occupation was that of acquiring money.
Late 19th century Liverpool
With savings she had accumulated when young, she opened a beer house near Liverpool’s docks – a poor area but one that would guarantee good custom from the local workers. However, she did not like rules and regulations, and soon came to the attention of the police for opening on Sundays, and for the illicit activities that took place in her tavern. After several convictions, she was forced to close her beer house down.
She then put her financial skills to better use by setting up as a money lender. She borrowed money from local loan offices, and then lent it to her hard-up neighbours, in small sums, but charging interest of fourpence in every shilling. She then started dealing with burial societies – with rather a grim result.
The most noteworthy thing about her sister Margaret was that she had had two husbands – her first was a labourer, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. He died under suspicious circumstances, and it was rumoured that she may have murdered him. She then married again – one Thomas Higgins. He soon died, after insurance policies had been taken out on him.
Suspicions were aroused, and in a dramatic fashion, his funeral was halted by police in order for his body to be examined. At this point, Flanagan disappeared – it took a week for her to be apprehended. An inquest was duly held on Thomas Higgins’ body, starting just after Christmas in 1883. On 4 January 1884, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against both sisters.
It then emerged that Flanagan had previously taken in a young lodger at her home on Skirvin Street – 18-year-old Margaret Jennings, who had also died under suspicious circumstances (2). Once the sisters had been charged with Thomas’s death, an order was submitted for Margaret’s body to be exhumed. It was believed that the women had killed both in order to get their life insurance.
Two more charges came; one that they had also poisoned Catherine’s son John, and the other, that they had also killed Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary Higgins. John, aged 22, had been buried four years earlier (3); his body was exhumed from its grave at Ford Cemetery, near Liverpool, and was found to be ‘wonderfully’ preserved. His corpse was found to be full of arsenic. John had been insured with a number of burial societies and insurance agents for a total of £71.
Madame Lafarge – another woman accused of using arsenic to kill
Mary Higgins (called Sarah in some reports) had died in November 1882, aged 12 (4), shortly after Margaret had taken out various death insurance policies on her. Her body was exhumed towards the end of January 1884, and again found to contain arsenic. Both Sarah’s and John’s bodies were reinterred after their post-mortems; no inquests were allowed to be held as more than a year had passed since their deaths.
Faced with the evidence of the insurance policies, Catherine now turned against her sister, offering to give evidence against her, and admitting that she had used arsenic from fly-papers to poison the insured. The Crown, however, refused to let her become a witness.
The two women went on trial at the Liverpool Assizes in February 1884. Both women were charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings, and John Flanagan; Margaret was additionally charged with murdering Mary Higgins (sic). Crowds attended the trial, eager to hear the details of the two middle aged sisters’ alleged offences.
One of the witnesses was Margaret Jennings’ father Patrick, who confirmed that he and his daughter had lodged with Catherine, and had known her son John. In court, he had to describe not only John’s agonising death, over two days – which both the accused women had watched – but his own daughter’s.
The two women murdered him by poisoning; and were sentenced to death on Saturday 16 February 1884 for doing so. Realising there was no chance of their sentences being commuted, they freely admitted their guilt. They were sent to the nearly 70-year-old Kirkdale Gaol to await their execution, and were said to have been ‘dejected’; because they were both completely illiterate, ‘the time has hung more heavily on their hands than it would have done had they been possessed of any education’.
Kept in separate cells, they had little to keep them occupied, apart from thinking about their impending deaths. They ended up asking the female warders who watched them 24 hours a day to read to them, and were said to have ‘much appreciated’ the stories.
Their own stories, however, were about to end.
It is 3 March, a bitterly cold Monday morning. It’s early, and barely light, but even so, a crowd has gathered in the snow in front of the gaol. They cannot see the execution itself, for hangings have been held away from the public gaze for nearly two decades now. (5) Yet there they stand, blowing on their hands, stamping their feet, to keep warm; the women are huddled into their shawls. They have their eyes gazing upwards; not to the sky, but to the spot where, shortly after 8am, a black flag will be hoisted to tell them that the murderers are dead.
Behind the gaol walls, they know that Binns, the executioner, is finalising arrangements, assisted by Samuel Heath, a man from the other side of the Pennines. They have sorted the drop – nine feet six for Flannagan, and two inches more for Higgins. Now they are waiting for the two women to walk the steps to the scaffold… they are adjusting the ropes, placing the nooses under the women’s chins…
And on the outside, as the snow continues to fall, a black flag climbs into the air, watched silently by the crowd. (6)
Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News
- Press reports of the day stress the cold and snowy conditions of the morning the execution took place – see, for example, the Illustrated Police News of 8 March 1884.
- Death of Margaret Jennings: BMDs, Liverpool, March quarter of 1883, vol 8b, page 17.
- Death of John Flannigan: BMDs, Liverpool, December quarter of 1880, vol 8b page 40.
- Some reports said that she was 10, but BMD records state that she was 12 (BMDs for Liverpool, December quarter of 1882, vol 8b, page 30).
- Public executions in Britain ended in 1868 (see Capital Punishment UK).
- Press coverage taken from: Yorkshire Gazette, 10 November 1883, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 February 1884, Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1884, Dundee Courier, 22 February 1884, Cornubian and Redruth Times, 25 January 1884, Dundee Courier, 19 February 1884, Dublin Daily Express, 5 January 1884, Portsmouth Evening News, 29 December 1883, Fife Herald, 5 March 1884.