Catherine Wilson: British Poisoner and Serial Killer

Catherine Wilson was a nineteenth-century nurse who poisoned her victims after encouraging them to change their wills in her favor. Although she was only convicted of one murder, it was generally thought at the time that she killed at least six other victims. Moreover, the sentencing judge, Justice John Barnard Byles, alleged that her counsel had defended “the greatest criminal that ever lived.”[1]

Catherine Wilson execution

Catherine Wilson’s execution. Courtesy of Harvard Library

According to newspapers, Catherine Wilson, alias Constance Taylor, was born in 1817 and baptized Constance Crane. She and her parents lived at Surfleet, a little village in the South Holland district of Lincolnshire, England situated 3 miles north of Spalding. Her father was a carpenter and later became an inmate in one of the Bede-houses of the town, which may be why supposedly, Wilson was in trouble from an early age. It was claimed that at fourteen she committed a “notorious” robbery:

“She had gone to the house of a friend as a child visitor, and whilst there committed a theft. The servant [was] suspected, taken in charge, and convicted of the theft, the evidence against her being that of the child, who on being subsequently examined about the robbery, confessed that she committed it, [but] fixed the crime upon the servant.”[2]

After confessing to the theft Wilson left home, struck out on her own, and went to live in Spalding where she supposedly led a “loose life.” However, it was also in Spalding that she began working as a nurse before she moved to Boston also in Lincolnshire. There she met and married a “respectable” mariner and supposedly, her life improved for time. However, when her husband went to sea, it was alleged she returned to her old ways.

By 1850 both of Wilson’s parents were dead and so around 1853 or 1854 Catherine Wilson went into the service of an eccentric old seafarer named Peter Mawer. He died under suspicious circumstances after being ill a few hours. However, just like Madame Récamier, who died in 1849 from cholera, his death was also attributed to cholera.

Like Wilson’s future victims, shortly before his death Mawer changed his will and named Wilson his beneficiary. He left her about £50 a year, despite having previously made a will out in favor of his brother John. Many people later speculated that Wilson probably poisoned Mawer with colchicum, as he was in the habit of taking it and a bottle containing it was found in his room.

By 1856 Catherine Wilson met a man named Dixon. She began living with him in London and shortly after they became a couple Dixon got extremely ill. The attending doctor, a Dr. Whidborne, was called in and Dixon told him that after eating a meal he was suddenly taken sick with violent “vomiting and purging.” Unsurprisingly, Dixon died a few days later. Whidborne recommended an autopsy be performed but none was done.

Wilson was in the habit of visiting a Mrs. Jackson, who resided in Boston. In 1859, like Dixon, she suddenly became ill after eating. She died four days later and after her death, relatives found that her money was missing. Eventually, it was discovered that Wilson had produced a promissory note signed by two Bostonian persons (later determined to be forgeries) and that the note was for the precise amount of money Jackson was missing.

In 1860, Catherine Wilson became connected with a Mrs. Atkinson. She resided in Kirby Lonsdale but went to live with Wilson at her residence in Kennington. Wilson apparently knew that Atkinson possessed a large sum of money and on 19 October, Atkinson suddenly fell ill. Just like Jackson she suffered extreme retching, vomiting, and purging for four long days before she died.

A year later, Catherine Wilson had her eye on a new victim. She was nursing a man named Taylor. Like Wilson’s previous victims, he began to suffer retching, vomiting, and purging. Fortunately, in his case he took some successful remedies and fully recovered. If he suspected Wilson, nothing was done.

By 1862, Wilson was working as a live-in-nurse taking care of Mrs. Sarah Carnell. She changed her will in favor of Wilson and soon afterward Wilson gave her a “soothing draught.” Carnell reported that after taking a sip it burnt her mouth and she spat it out resulting in a hole being burned in her bed clothes from the draught.

After it was discovered that Wilson had given Carnell sulfuric acid, Wilson fled to London. She denied that it was her fault that Carnell drank acid and Wilson claimed that the acid must have been a mistake made by the pharmacist who prepared the draught. The pharmacist denied such accusations and Wilson was arrested and tried for attempted murder. Lord Chief Baron Pollock didn’t believe Wilson’s story in court and bluntly told the jury that Catherine Wilson was guilty. However, they found her not guilty and acquitted her. She was then free to go but according to Helen Barrell in her book Fatal Evidence:

“The coverage of the Sarah Carnell case had impelled people to come forward. There was the death of Captain Mawer in Lincolnshire; [Wilson] had been his housekeeper. There was James Dixon, ‘a young gentleman’, whom she had passed off as her husband. Two months after Dixon’s death, a Mrs. [Maria] Soames had died ― she had run a lodging house where [Wilson] had lived. And there was Ann Atkinson, a wealthy woman who [Wilson] had ingratiated herself with.”[3]

With all the suspicions against Wilson and with the possibility that she had killed others, police launched an investigation. Thus, as she was being tried for killing Carnell, authorities ordered the exhumation of the bodies of some of Wilson’s former patients, including Soames, who had died on 18 October 1856 under suspicious circumstances. The investigation produced evidence that Wilson likely murdered Soames, so when she left the dock after being found not guilty for Carnell’s murder, she was quickly rearrested for the murder of Soames.

Wilson’s trial for poisoning and murdering Soames began on 25 September 1862. It was held before Justice Byles and she was defended by Montague Williams, who had also defended her in the Carnell case. During the trial it was alleged that Soames died from the effects of colchicum after rewriting her will in favor of Wilson. There were also allegations and gossip that Wilson killed others after they changed their wills in her favor, but such evidence was not admitted at trial.

One startling fact came out during Wilson’s trial. Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor, an English toxicologist and medical writer, who has been called the “father of British forensic medicine,” stated that it appeared that many of the deaths registered as “English Cholera” were in fact cases of “secret poisoning.” Justice Byles noted this and stated in his summation:

“I regret to say … that the startling statement made by Dr. Taylor in the course of his evidence is correct, and that in the midst of apparently prosperity and obedience to the law a dreadful crime and vice is rife in this metropolis, the destruction of life by poisoning.”[4]

Catherine Wilson - Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor

Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Once the prosecution presented their evidence against Wilson, Justice Byles told the jury that he had “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 was watched with so much deliberation by the murderer.”[5] The jury took two hours to consider the evidence and this time they agreed with Byles ultimately declaring Catherine Wilson guilty of “wilful murder.”

After their pronouncement Justice Byles dawned the traditional black cap before passing a sentence of death and stating among other things the following:

“I think it right that the jury should know, and that the public also should know, what sort of person it is that the avenging arm of the law has at length overtaken.”[6]

Wilson’s death sentence drew little condemnation from the public. Most people seemingly agreed that she was guilty and that she should be executed. For instance, the Saturday Review, a London newspaper established in 1855, reported:

“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.”[7]

After sentencing only one person succeed in visiting with Catherine Wilson. Her name was Mrs. Williams and she resided in Loughborough Road in Brixton. She had befriended Wilson when she resided in Boston. Apparently, Wilson had little to say to Williams because the visit only lasted about 10 minutes.*

Additionally, while Wilson was in prison, John Mawer, brother to Wilson’s victim, Peter Mawer, hoped to get her to confess to having killed his brother. He therefore wrote a letter asking to visit her and mentioned his brother changing his will. In response to his letter, one from Wilson was received by him from the Newgate gaol dated 13 October 1862. It stated:

“I received your letter this morning. I must decline your visit, with thanks. You say you sincerely forgive the past. You never had anything to forgive me of. I always treated you well … I never had any malice towards you, and now I have none towards those that has falsely swore my life away, for I most solemnly declared I am innocent of those dreadful charges. There has not been any poison ever traced to my possession, or satisfactory proved that anyone had died by poison. At the same time how much better to die innocent than guilty. I have been in prison 6 month, my time has been spent in seeking that Saviour who alone can save my soul. … Next Monday by this time I shall be in Eternity there to give account of deeds done. I am not afraid to die. I care not what man say of me or what they think. …. I have had a few lines from George Kent [a young man who resides in Lincoln] but I was too ill to write and of course I declined to see him if he came. I will not see any of my own relations … I saw all the friends that wishes to see me before my trial, then I never asked any to come to speak for me … I have been very kindly treated by all since I have been in prison … and all my wants supplyed here. … I hope you [know] these sentiments … [are] my earnest prayer, and believe me to be your wel-wisher.”[8]

Despite Wilson’s declaration that she wasn’t afraid to died, she hoped for a reprieve. In fact, she made an appeal claiming that there was no proof that she had killed Soames with poison. She also maintained there was no evidence that she ever possessed any type of poison. Unfortunately, for her she lost her appeal and as no one else was willing to plead for her life, on Monday, 20 October 1862, she was executed in front of Newgate.

It had been fourteen years since a woman had been executed in Middlesex.** So, when Wilson’s execution took place a “vast crowd” eagerly assembled to observe it. Many of the spectators did so the night before, waiting out the incessant rain that finally stopped around midnight. It was then they came out of their shelters and took up positions near the gallows. Of the eager crowds the Cheltenham Mercury reported:

“From Smithfield to Ludgate-hill there was a dense mass of human beings, and at all the windows in Old Baily from which a view cold be obtained were wall-dressed people, many of whom had provided themselves with opera glasses, which were levelled at the miserable woman when she came forth from prison to die.”[9]

While excited spectators gathered outside, mundane preparations for Catherine Wilson’s execution were being made inside. Around 8am a procession went to her cell, and she was taken to a room where the pinioning of her arms was performed. A female warder accompanied her, and it was William Calcraft, the executioner, was who trapped her arms. After doing so, the warder asked Wilson if there was anything else she could do and when she said no, the warder kissed her and left. The governor then asked if she wanted brandy, but she declined. She was then asked if she had anything to say and that is when she defiantly declared, “I am innocent.”

Catherine Wilson - William Calcraft

William Calcraft, the executioner. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As the procession moved outside to the gallows the Ordinary read the burial service for the Church of England. At the gallows Catherine Wilson ascended the steps with little emotion. Calcraft placed a white cap over her head, put the rope around her neck, and tied her legs. When the bolt was withdrawn according to the Cheltenham Mercury, although there was a little bit of noise made by the crowd, Wilson was quiet, “fell heavily and died apparently without a struggle.”[10]

Another version of Wilson’s death was given by the Saturday Review and stated:

“When Catharine Wilson stood pinioned in her long, loose gown on that ghastly stage ― when the hangman fastened a cord or strap round the skirt of her dress, a little below the knee, so as to keep the folds together and to prevent her struggling in the last agony ― when he drew a long white cap over her head, the mob at once saw, recognised and laughed at an image exactly resembling a figure with which the walls and hoardings of London are placarded. It was low stifled laugh, that ran through the brutal concourse; and in the tone of its deep cynicism there was, as we fancied, a rough harsh kind of pity.”[11]

After hanging about an hour, Wilson’s body was cut down and buried within the precincts of the gaol.

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*Two other women attempted to visit Wilson, but she refused to see them.
**The woman executed in Middlesex fourteen years earlier was Harriet Parker. She had been convicted of murdering two children.

References:

  • [1] Recent English Causes Cêlêbres 34 (1890); Harper’s Weekly Magazine, p. 247.
  • [2] Oxford Times, “Execution of Catherine Wilson,” October 25, 1862, p. 3.
  • [3] H. Barrell, Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor & the Dawn of Forensic Science (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2017), p. 174.
  • [4] F. Foster, The Age We Live In; Or, Doings of the Day (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Company, 1863), p. 18.
  • [5] The Saturday Review, “The Gallows,” October 25, 1862, p. 500.
  • [6] Banbury Guardian, “Trial of Mrs. Wilson,” October 2, 1862, p. 2.
  • [7] The Saturday Review, p. 500.
  • [8] Lancaster Gazette, “Catherine Wilson, the Prisoner,” October 25, 1862, p. 8.
  • [9] Cheltenham Mercury, “Execution of Catherine Wilson,” October 25, 1862, p. 4.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Saturday Review, p. 500.

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