October 20, 1862
Catherine Wilson becomes the last woman publicly executed in London
Wilson was occupied as a sort of caretaker, with responsibilities in both housekeeping and nursing, and used her career to poison those under her care, primarily for financial gain.
Her earliest suspected poisoning occurred in 1854. At the time, Wilson was caring for an elderly man named Peter Mawer. At some point, Peter’s brother John visited the home and, while in Wilson’s company, Peter commented he would leave John all his possessions after he passed “for there’s no one else for it.” Shortly after, John became violently ill and any remedies Wilson provided only exacerbated his condition. John eventually left the home despite his deteriorating health and sought treatment from his own physician. John quickly recovered. For reasons unspecified, however, Peter drew a new will and named Wilson as the sole benefactor. Within a month, Peter Mawer was dead.
In 1856, Wilson found herself living with a young man by the last name of Dixon. The pair posed as siblings and rented a room from a widow named Maria Soames, though Dixon soon fell ill. When he died suddenly, Wilson claimed consumption (tuberculosis) had overtaken him, though his lungs were found to be healthy at the time of his death. Four days later, Soames took a loan of £9 (roughly £1,000 today), which Wilson took notice of. The women spent the evening together socializing, before Soames became ill and died suddenly. The £9 was never recovered.
Soames’ body was examined whereupon it was determined she had been poisoned heavily. Wilson offered an explanation: Soames had been seeing a man who promised to marry her, though he jilted her and left her suicidal. No one, including Soames’ children, knew who this mystery man could be. A letter addressed to Soames from her supposed, absconded lover, was quickly found to verify Wilson’s claim. The letter may have been convincing, however, if it hadn’t be written in Wilson’s handwriting.
Two more possible victims fell prey to Wilson’s poison, in 1859 and 1860. The first was a woman named Mrs. Jackson who died shortly after withdrawing £120 from the bank. The money was missing following her death. The second was a wealthy friend, Mrs. Atkinson, who visited Wilson and died suddenly during her stay. According to contemporary newspapers, Mr. Atkinson did not find anything suspicious with his wife’s death and no investigation was launched.
Finally, in 1862, Wilson’s poisoning career came to a halt. While Wilson cared for Sarah Carnell, the latter became ill. Wilson brought a “soothing draught” to alleviate Carnell’s symptoms. Upon placing the liquid in her mouth, Carnell felt an intense burning and spat out the contents onto the floor, burning the carpet in the process. Wilson fled but was apprehended and tried.
Wilson’s lawyer successfully argued that she was unaware the concoction she administered to Carnell was sulfuric acid, that the druggist has mistakenly given the wrong prescription. For the attempted murder of Carnell, Wilson was acquitted. However, suspicion befell Wilson regarding the other sudden deaths which followed her. She was brought to trial for the murder of Soames, convicted, and sentenced to death.
On October 20, 1862, Wilson became the last woman publicly executed in London. The previous hanging of a woman had occurred 14 years before and the rarity of the execution brought thousands of spectators. The Sydney Morning Herald described the scene: “From Smithfield to Ludgate-hill there was a dense mass of human beings, and at all the windows in the Old Bailey from which a view of the scaffold could be obtained were well-dressed people, many of whom had provided themselves with opera-glasses, which were leveled at the miserable woman when she came forth from the prison to die.”
Wilson meekly stated her innocence on the scaffold before she was hanged.
“The last woman to be publicly executed in London.” Criminal Encyclopedia. November 12, 2016. Accessed: October 20, 2019. https://justcriminals.info/2016/11/12/catherine-wilson-1853-1862/
Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1981
“Some Curious Crimes.” The Times [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]. July 11, 1890
“Secret Poisoning.” The Sydney Morning Herald. December 16, 1862
“Execution of Catherine Wilson.” The Manchester Weekly Times. October 25, 1862
The Glasgow Daily Herald. October 21, 1862
“The Wholesale Poisoner.” The Leeds Mercury. September 30, 1862