The Black Widows of Liverpool
Catherine and Margaret Flannagan came to Liverpool from Ireland in the late 1800s to become landladies. They began housing Catherine’s son, John Flannagan, lodger Thomas Higgins and his then 6-year-old daughter Mary, and a Patrick Jennings with his then 14-year-old daughter Margaret. Though they had enough lodgers, the sisters were still extremely poor. As they became more and more worried about their financial situation, they became aware of burial societies in the Liverpool area. A burial society, was essentially a not for profit life insurance group. Where all members paid dues and then the money was given out to those who lost a relative to pay for their funeral services. The sisters realized that they could make money off the life insurance offered by these societies if they had cheap, minimal funeral services.
The first victim was Catherine’s own son, John. To the outside world, it seemed as though the once healthy 22 year old boy became ill quickly, and it was the illness that took his life. Behind closed doors, Catherine had poisoned her son with arsenic. Catherine collected the money from the burial society almost immediately.
Not long after this Margaret Flannagan became Margaret Higgins, marrying lodger Thomas Higgins. A year after the couple married, 8 year old Mary Higgins took ill and passed away in the same quick manner as her housemate had two years earlier. Once again, the money was collected with what some considered disrespectful haste. Only a couple months later, another lodger, 16 year old Margaret Jennings was dead. This is when suspicions grew in the Liverpool neighborhood.
What finally did the sisters in was their murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret’s husband. Higgins died after two days of sudden illness, though the sisters and the doctors blamed his drinking, and attributed his death to dysentery. Thomas’ brother Patrick was devastated and shocked to hear of his brother’s death. When he heard of the numerous deaths in the house, he took it upon himself to investigate. He asked the coroner’s office to do a full autopsy. He then contacted the police. The police confronted the sisters at a pub in Liverpool, at which point Catherine sprinted out the door still in her funeral attire. Margaret was arrested for the murder of her husband. The examination of Thomas Higgins found traces of arsenic everywhere. This prompted an examination of the other lodgers that met their untimely fate with the sisters. All three had traces of arsenic in their bodies. A woman who recognized Catherine while she was staying at the woman’s house as a lodger turned her in. On October 16, 1883, the sisters were charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins and sentenced to death. On March 3, 1884, the sisters were hanged together. They are known as the Black Widows of Liverpool.
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