Black Widows of Liverpool
Catherine Flannagan (1829 – 3 March 1884) and Margaret Higgins (1843 – 3 March 1884) were Irish sisters who were convicted of poisoning and murdering one person in Liverpool, Lancashire, England and suspected of more deaths. The women collected a burial society payout, a type of life insurance, on each death, and it was eventually found that they had been committing murders using arsenic to obtain the insurance money. Though Catherine Flannagan evaded police for a time, both sisters were eventually caught and convicted of one of the murders; they were both hanged on the same day at Kirkdale Prison. Modern investigation of the crime has raised the possibility that Flannagan and Higgins were known or believed by investigators to be only part of a larger conspiracy of murder-for-profit—a network of "black widows"—but no convictions were ever obtained for any of the alleged conspiracy members other than the two sisters.
|Died||1884 (aged 54–55)|
Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, England
|Cause of death||Hanging|
|Victims||4 alleged, 1 convicted|
Span of crimes
|Died||1884 (aged 40–41)|
Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool
|Cause of death||Hanging|
|Victims||4 alleged, 1 convicted|
Span of crimes
In the early 1880s, unmarried sisters Catherine and Margaret Flannagan[note 1] ran a rooming house at 5 Skirving Street, Liverpool. The household in the final months of 1880 consisted of the two sisters, Catherine's son John, and two lodger families – hod carrier Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary, and Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret. John Flannagan, 22 and previously healthy, died suddenly in December 1880. His death did not raise any particular comment; Catherine collected £71 (worth roughly £5984 in 2012 pounds) from the burial society with which he had been registered and he was interred shortly thereafter.
By 1882, a romance had sprung up between Margaret and lodger Thomas Higgins. The pair married in October of that year. Thomas's daughter Mary, 8, died within months of the wedding after a short illness. Once again, the burial society payout was collected upon death, this time by Margaret Higgins.
In the face of neighbourhood gossip about the death rate in the home, Catherine, Margaret, and Thomas[note 2] moved their household to 105 Latimer Street and then again to 27 Ascot street. In September 1883, Thomas Higgins, then 45, became yet another member of the household to fall mysteriously ill. His stomach pains were severe enough that Doctor Whitford was called; the doctor attributed Higgins's illness to dysentery related to drinking cheap whiskey and prescribed opium and castor oil. Higgins died after two days of illness. Days later, the same doctor was contacted and asked to provide a death certificate. He did so, attributing the death to dysentery.
Though Thomas Higgins's death by apparent dysentery raised no questions for the attending doctor, Higgins's brother Patrick was surprised to hear that his brother, who had been strong and in good general health, could have succumbed so easily to illness. When he also discovered that his brother has been insured with five different burial societies, which left his widow with a profit of around £100, he pursued the matter with the authorities. A postmortem examination was ordered on Higgins's body. To the surprise of mourners, the coroner arrived at the home to perform the examination during the wake being held there for Higgins. Catherine Flannagan, upon hearing that a full autopsy was to be performed, fled the home.
When a full autopsy of Higgins's body was carried out, evidence of arsenic poisoning was found: Higgins's organs showed traces of arsenic, in quantities indicating the poisoning had taken place over several days. Evidence from the home, including "a bottle containing a mystery white substance and a market pocket worn by [Margaret]" was examined by poison expert Dr Campbell Brown, who verified the presence of arsenic – dust in Margaret's pocket, and an arsenic solution (containing unusual adulterants) in the bottle.
Margaret Higgins was arrested immediately; Catherine, after moving from one boarding house to another to avoid police for nearly a week, was taken into custody in Wavertree. On 16 October 1883, the sisters were formally charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.
Orders for the bodies of the previously-deceased members of the household to be exhumed were issued when it became clear that arsenic was the mechanism of Thomas Higgins's death. The bodies of John Flannagan, Mary Higgins, and Margaret Jennings all showed evidence of minimal deterioration – a quality associated with arsenic poisoning – and traces of arsenic were found in the remains of all three.
Investigators initially assumed that the arsenic used to poison the victims had come from rat poison, but when common adulterants used in rat poison failed to show up in autopsies, they were forced to come up with a new theory. It was unlikely that the illiterate sisters would have been able to acquire arsenic through the usual method of visiting a chemist, a route more open to doctors than spinsters. Eventually it was discovered that common flypaper at the time contained arsenic, and that by soaking the flypaper in water, a solution substantially identical – including the same adulterants – to that found in a bottle at the Higgins residence could be obtained.
At the time of her arrest, Catherine claimed to her solicitor that the murders the sisters committed were not isolated, and provided a list of six or seven other deaths that she claimed to be murders related to burial society fraud, as well as a list of five other women who had either perpetrated those murders or provided insurance to those who did.
Catherine Flannagan's list of alleged conspirators to the arsenic deaths contained three poisoners other than herself, one accomplice, and three agents of the insuring groups who had provided payouts upon the deaths. Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley, and Margaret Higgins were named as the poisoners; Margaret Potter, a Mrs Fallon, and a Bridget Stanton were the insurers; and Catherine Ryan was alleged to have obtained the arsenic needed by one of the poisoners. According to Flannagan, Margaret Evans had been the instigator of the crime ring, beginning with the murder of a mentally handicapped teenager in which Ryan obtained the poison and Evans administered it. Though Evans did not personally receive an insurance payout from this death, there were implications that she had dealings with the boy's father and may have profited from those. The women Flannagan alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy all appear often in accounts of suspicious deaths in this period; Mrs Stanton, for example, was linked to the insurance policies of three of the deaths, and groups of two or more of the involved women were seen visiting those who died shortly before their deaths. In one case, when an insurance company supervisor requested to meet Thomas Higgins in the course of issuing the insurance on him, he was greeted at the Higgins home by a woman who was neither Flannagan nor Higgins, who presented to him a "Thomas" who he later realised, upon seeing the deceased Thomas Higgins, was not Thomas Higgins at all.
Flannagan's testimony was sometimes contradictory to both herself and to what seemed to be obvious facts of the conspiracy, however; in one case, despite Mrs Stanton's close links to the insurance payouts of murder victims and Flannagan's identification of her as part of the conspiracy, Flannagan "exonerated" Stanton after police arrested the woman. Ultimately it was decided by the Prosecuting Solicitor for Liverpool that while the additional deaths were, indeed, likely to be murder, it would be difficult to prove that anyone other than Higgins or Flannagan had committed them, especially considering that the primary evidence against the other women was being provided by Flannagan, who had every reason to attempt to minimise her own responsibility in such crimes. As a result, only Flannagan and Higgins were tried for the crime of murdering Thomas Higgins, despite continuing suspicion by all investigating parties that there had been more deaths than just the four household ones, and more murderers than just the two sisters.
At the trial in 1884, prosecutors implicated the sisters in the three other deaths in their household, as well as that of Thomas Higgins, with which they were officially charged. Catherine Flannagan's offer to provide evidence against other conspirators for the prosecution in exchange for leniency was refused. The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on 3 March 1884 at Kirkdale Prison, with the sisters attended to by a Roman Catholic priest. The deaths were witnessed by a reported one thousand people.
Contemporary accounts of the Flannagan sisters referred to them as "disciple[s] of Lucrezia Borgia" or as "the Borgias of the Slums", in reference to their use of poison and the tales of how Borgia had been known to do the same. Modern accounts of the Flannagan sisters, such as those by Angela Brabin and the television series Deadly Women, have focused more on the cooperative aspect of the crimes rather than the poison aspect, and tend to refer to them as "black widows" or "The Black Widows of Liverpool", particularly in reference to the allegation that the Flannagan sisters were part of a larger murder ring. Wax effigies of Flannagan and Higgins were placed in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors after their executions.
A radio dramatization of the murders and following events entitled Life Assurance, written by Chrissie Gittens based on the book The Black Widows of Liverpool by Angela Brabin (Palatine Books, 2003 ISBN 978-1-874181-21-7/2nd Revised Edition 2009 ISBN 978-1874181606) and directed by Claire Grove, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2005, with Sorcha Cusack as Catherine Flanagan, Gillian Kearney as Ellen Flanagan, Anny Tobin as Margaret Higgins, Robert Hastie as Inspector Keighley, Stephen Hogan as Thomas Higgins, Hugh Dickson as Dr. Whitford and Nicholas Boulton as Patrick Jennings.
- Rossington, Ben (7 January 2010). "Liverpool Murder Most Foul: Day 4: Black widows Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan". The Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- "More deadly than the male". Liverpool Daily Post via Questia Online Library (subscription required). 21 November 2001. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- "FEMALE POISONERS. An Arsenical Solution of Fly Papers.— Unexampled Cruelty". I (16). Te Aroha News. 19 April 1884. p. 5. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- Brabin, Angela (October 2002). "The Black Widows of Liverpool". History Today (via Questia Online Library).
- "Serial killer sisters murdered relatives". BBC News. 19 September 2002. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- "Arsenic and the Black Widows". Precinct, the University of Liverpool staff magazine. University of Liverpool. November 2002. Archived from the original on 24 November 2010. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- "EXECUTION OF TWO WOMEN". The Evening Post. XXVII. 3 May 1884. p. 4. Retrieved 7 May 2012.
- Pank, Philip (5 February 2002). "Lucretia Borgia". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Chris Thorburn (15 February 2005). "Greed". Deadly Women. Season 1. Investigation Discovery.
- References spell the last name both "Flannagan" and "Flanagan", but most use two Ns.
- Sources are unclear about the point at which Patrick Jennings left the household, but he is not among the deaths attributed to it.