Mary Elizabeth Wilson (pictured) was a remarkably cheerful character
For a woman who had buried three husbands in the space of only two years, Mary Elizabeth Wilson was a remarkably cheerful character.
At the funeral of her third spouse, a wealthy estate agent who died only 12 days after their wedding in Newcastle in the summer of 1957, she jokingly suggested that the undertaker should give her a ‘trade discount’.
Neither did her ‘humour’ appear much dimmed when, only a few months later, she married husband number four, Ernest. Some sandwiches and cakes were left over at the wedding reception, and when a friend asked what she wanted to do with them, Mary had a ready reply.
‘Keep them for Ernest’s funeral. They’ll still be fresh enough,’ she quipped.
Her new husband laughed with her, but within two weeks he too was dead — dispatched with rat poison, although not before his new bride had ensured that she would inherit his bungalow and a tidy sum in life insurance.
She might have got away with the murder, had her breezy attitude towards widowhood not aroused the suspicions of the local police. In 1958, after two of her husbands’ bodies revealed high levels of poison upon exhumation, 64-year-old Wilson was found guilty of their murders. She was spared the death penalty only because of her age.
Wilson died in 1963, living out the last five years of her life at Holloway Prison, that forbidding North London institution which for more than 150 years has been home to some of the most notorious female inmates in Britain.
Amelia Dyer (pictured) was a Bristol-born midwife whose trial in 1896 was one of the most sensational of its time and turned her into a household name and even the subject of popular songs
Few will mourn the passing of the grim jail that serves as a reminder of the evils perpetrated in this world, not just by such infamous 20th century hate figures as Myra Hindley but by twisted women whose crimes date back as far as the Victorian era.
Take, for example, Amelia Dyer — a Bristol-born midwife whose trial in 1896 was one of the most sensational of its time and turned her into a household name and even the subject of popular songs.
Operating under various aliases, she purported to run a fostering service, telling unmarried mothers that for a fee of £10 — a sizeable sum in those days — she would take their unwanted babies and ensure that they were placed in comfortable middle-class homes.
Instead, she strangled the infants with lengths of white dressmaking tape and dumped their bodies in rivers. She was caught only when one of the corpses resurfaced and the police were able to make out her address from a label on the wrapping paper she had used for a shroud.
It was later suggested that she might have killed as many as 300 infants and, despite her plea of insanity, it took a jury only four-and-a-half minutes to find her guilty. Although she was incarcerated in Holloway during her trial, she had to be hanged at nearby Newgate because at that point Holloway did not have its own gallows.
This was soon remedied and a total of five women would subsequently face the hangman’s rope at Holloway.
Ruth Ellis (pictured) was the last woman to be executed in Britain in 1955 for the murder of her boyfriend David Blakely
The first two were Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, better known as the ‘Finchley Baby Farmers’ after the North London suburb in which they operated. Their motive and modus operandi were almost identical to that of Dyer but they plied their terrible trade by poisoning, rather than strangling, the dozens of babies unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.
When they were eventually brought to trial in 1903, the evidence against them included the huge quantity of baby clothes found at their homes.
Amelia Sach protested her innocence to the end. The executioner Henry Pierrepoint noted that she collapsed in her cell on the day of her death and had to be carried to the scaffold crying and screaming. By contrast, Annie Walters seemed unperturbed as she was hooded next to her accomplice.
‘Goodbye, Sach,’ she called calmly as Pierrepoint opened the trapdoor and dispatched the two of them in what became the last double female hanging in Britain.
The next woman to be hanged there was 29-year-old Edith Thompson, a scarlet woman who took a rather imaginative approach to murder. In 1923, the fashion buyer from London was convicted of inciting her lover, an 18-year-old sailor named Freddie Bywaters, to kill her husband Percy.
Holloway was home to some rowdy scenes over the years including this rooftop protest by Pat Breslin, 18
In love letters produced by the prosecution at her trial, she admitted lacing her husband’s mashed potato with fragments of glass from a crushed lighbulb, along with a hefty dose of poison.
When this failed to do the trick, it was agreed that the Thompsons would attend a show at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus, and that Bywaters would drag Percy into a bush as they made their way home and stab him. This he did, paying the price when he and Edith were hanged simultaneously — she at Holloway, and he at nearby Pentonville — in 1923.
Of course, it was not only murderers who passed through the door of Holloway. A number of famous political prisoners were incarcerated, some receiving more favourable treatment than others.
Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, had been force-fed after going on hunger strike during their time there. But Lady Mosley, the beautiful wife of British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, had a rather different experience of prison life.
When the former Diana Mitford was imprisoned for her fascist sympathies during World War II, her friendship with Winston Churchill ensured that she and her husband were allowed to live in a cottage in Holloway’s grounds, with other inmates acting as their domestic staff. It was said that the handsome Sir Oswald drove the female inmates to distraction by stripping off his shirt to sunbathe, and their more lenient treatment caused great controversy at the time.
There was little such outcry when, in 1954, a Greek Cypriot woman named Styllou Christofi became the fourth woman to hang at Holloway, convicted of killing her daughter-in-law by bashing her across the back of a head with a shovel.
It was far from the perfect crime to begin with, given that it was carried out in the home they shared. Blood was spattered everywhere, and Christofi’s fate was sealed when she tried to get rid of the body by dousing it in paraffin and setting it alight in a misguided attempt at cremation.
She set the whole house ablaze, and the discovery of the battered and charred corpse led to her mounting the scaffold at Holloway in December 1954, just seven months ahead of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain.
A 28-year-old mother of two, she was convicted of the murder of her playboy lover, David Blakely, after shooting him four times outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead, North London.
A similar fate might have awaited Myra Hindley, perhaps Holloway’s most infamous resident. But in November 1965, a month after she and her lover Ian Brady had been arrested for the Moors Murders and while they were awaiting trial, the carrying out of the death penalty was halted, ahead of its abolition in 1969 — partly owing to the outcry over the death of Ruth Ellis.
There was little such outcry when, in 1954, a Greek Cypriot woman named Styllou Christofi became the fourth woman to hang at Holloway, convicted of killing her daughter-in-law by bashing her across the back of a head with a shovel
Many would have been glad to see her on the gallows but Hindley clearly believed that she did not deserve even a life sentence, at one point attempting one of the most audacious escape attempts in Holloway’s history. In this, she was helped by Pat Cairns, a lesbian police warder who became her lover.
The plan, hatched in 1973 but only revealed decades later when official files were opened, was for the two of them to flee to Brazil, which had no extradition treaty with Britain.
They took passport photos of Hindley, who wore a wig when posing for them in the prison chapel, and also made impressions of the prison’s master keys in bars of pink Camay soap, smuggled out of the prison in an old tea packet.
The idea was to have metal copies made by an accomplice outside, and the plan was foiled only when the parcel was intercepted by police, suspicious that it might be a bomb at a time when the IRA were terrorising the British mainland.
Hindley would later be moved to other prisons, ending her days at Suffolk in 2003, but there would be no shortage of other evildoers to take her place — most notably the serial killer Rosemary West, who was convicted of ten murders in 1995. Her husband, Fred West, killed himself in his cell while on remand at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.
She has long been transferred elsewhere but for the moment Holloway remains a hulking and formidable presence.
Of those who were executed at Holloway, there is no longer any physical trace, their remains long disinterred from their graves in its grounds and removed to a cemetery in Surrey. But demolition alone will do little to erase the memories of this prison’s dark and terrible past.