FEMALE POISONERS. An Arsenical Solution of Fly Papers.— Unexampled Cruelty.
Few murders more terrible or ferocious can well be imagined than the crime— or rather long series of crimes— for which two women, Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins, were the other afternoon most justly sentenced to death at Liverpool Assizes. I wrote you something about Mrs Flannagan's, case last November, but at at that time, she was only suspected of being a disciple of Lucrezia Borgia ; in fact, as may be guessed from the following resume of the affair) it has taken many months, much detective skill, and a prolonged trial to bring guilt home to her and her accomplice. The murders committed by these two inhuman wretches will take rank with the most atrocious which our criminal annals can produce, a specially vile feature about them being that greed of money was the incentive to crime. In September of last year Thomas Higgins, a labouring man, residing with his wife and daughter in Latimer-street, Liverpool, fell ill. Dr. Whitford, a medical officer of the city, was called in, and to him Higgins acknowledged that he had been drinking a good deal of late. Ho was suffering from various symptoms, which led the medical man to suppose that it was a case of alcoholic poisoning, and he appears to have so treated it. At all events, in a short time he again saw the patient, who was no better, but appeared to be suffering from dysentery, and a few days later — a week or so after he was first called in— he was told that Higgins was dead, and was asked to give a certificate of death. Dr. Whitford apparently felt no hesitation in certifying that the deceased man had died from dysentery. He had been waited ujxm during his illne&8 by his wife, and by his sister-in-law, Mrs Flannagan ; and the doctor saw no reason to suppose that there had been any foul play in the business, Fortunately, however, for the ends of justice, the deceased's brother was not so easily satisfied. He knew that Thomas was a man in good health and strength, and he could not understand how he so soon gave way to what did not appear to be a very dangerous malady. Moreover, he probably already had his suspicions aroused from other deaths which had previously taken place among the prisoner's relatives. He therefore repaired to the coroner, and obtained an order for a postmortem examination ; but when Dr. VVhitford and another doctor, who performed the operation, arrived at the cellar where the Higgins family lived, they found that the funeral was just about to take place. Portions of the interior of the body were then at once subjected to examination, and subsequently analysed ; and it is a remark able fact that Mrs Flannagan, when ske heard of what had occurred, absconded, and was only discovered and arrested many days afterwards. It appeared from the evidence of Dr. Campbell Brown, a specialist in poisons, who was called as a witness on Friday, that he had examined the contents of the bottles sent to him, and had found a quantity of arsenic in the various organs of the deceased man. The taking of the arsenic must, he testified, have extended over several days ; and there was a sufficient quantity found altogether to enable him to say arsenical poisoning was the cause of death. A previous examination and analysis had taken place, in which the presence of arsenic in the remains was placed beyond doubt. As soon as this was known, orders were obtained for the exhumation of the bodies of other persons whom Flannagan and Higgins were suspected of having done to death by poison. These were Margaret Jennings, a girl of nineteen, who with her father had lodged in Flannagan's house, and been waited on by the two women in her last illness ; a child, the step-daughter of the prisoner Higgins, called Mary Higgins, in whose death the stepmother alone was charged with having a hand ; and John Flannagan, brother of the other prisoner, who died after a week's illness, being also attended by the two women, apparently jwithout the assistance of any doctor whatever. Each one of these bodies was dug up— John Flannagan had been dead for three years— and their remains subjected to examination and analysis. As a result, it is now certain that these two wretched women have been engaged in secretly destroying their nearest relatives, without hesitation and without remorse, for a series of years past. Indeed, there are suspicions of other murders committed by the same hands. Dr. Campbell Brown swore that the bodies of all these three individuals were found, when exhumed, in such a perfect state of preservation as in itself gave strong corroboration to the idea that they were the victims of arsenical poisoning i while the remains of each one of them disclosed the presence of a large amount of the deadly drug, quite sufficient to cause death. The pocket of the prisoner Higgins's dresg was out out, and in the fluff at the bottom was disqovered a large mixture of arsenic dust, which is supposed to have got spilt from some bottle or paper. Further in a bottle in the cellar of the house where Thomas Higgins died was found a small quantity of a mixture containing, according to Dr. Brown's evidence, "a neutral solution of arsenic, some colouring matter, mineral particles, and vegetable fibre." Now, as a consequence of this evidence, two questions arise — where had the prisoners got the arsenic, and what motive had they for destroying these four lives ? The first question seems to have rather baffled the prosecution until lately. It was imagined
that rat poison had been used ; but there was no indication in the remains that such was the oase, as indigo or soot— usually mingled with this poison— would in that event have been found by the analysts. Arsenic in a pure form would probably not have been sold to women like Flannagan and HigginSi neither of whom, it seems, knew how to write, or if it had, the evidence of a chemist's assistant would have been forthcoming by this time, as in Lamson's case. Where, then, had the poison been obtained ? At length the idea seems to have struck somebody that there is arsenic in fly-papers ; and Dr. Campbell Brown gave the result of some experiments which he had made with an " Infallible Fly Paper," of Liverpool manufacture. In each specimen he found that there was almost a grain of arsenic, and on comparing a solution formed by soaking this paper with the contents of the bottle found in the cellar, he obtained a fluid almost exactly idontical. It is, therefore, tolerably certain that Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins took this cunning means of obtaining the arsenic solution with which to undermine the lives of their unhappy victims. Of the awful and cold-blooded cruelty practised by these fiends in human shape it is needless to say anything. The evidence of a neighbour who saw Thomas Higgins just before his death was to the effect that he was moaning and crying out for water, and that the prisoner Flannagan was offering him some liquid out of a spoon. He tasted it, and turned his head away in dis gust, and on his again crying for water the neighbour gave him some, upon which he "thanked God," and turning over on his face, was dead almost in an instant. He was a strong healthy man of forty-five, with no organic disease to account for his foarfully sudden end. Previous to the death of Thomas Higgins, his life had been insured by the prisoners in as many as five different societies. Altogether a sum of ninety-two pounds ought to have fallen to the deceased's representatives upon his death, and a certain amount of this was actually obtained. Here we have the motivo for all the murders, revealed in the most startling simplicity. The prisonors worked upon a settled plan, and made a complete business of poisoning. They were enormously helped in their system of speculating in human lives by the fact that some insurance companies were willing to insure Thomas Higgins's life without his knowledge, and to receive the weekly premiums from his wife and sister-in-law. Upon this point the evidence is so instructive that it ought to be quoted in full. Mr Finnigan, agent for the Prudential Insurance Company in Liverpool, was called to explain the circumstances under which he insured the life of the deceased man some time in February, 18S3. He said, "I filled up the name of Thomas Higgins in the proposal produced. I saw Thomas Higgins, but did not speak to him, because Mrs Flannagan told me he was rather odd. She told me not to speak to him." The Judge then inquired, " Why did you purposely refrain from speaking to the man?" To which the witness frankly replied, " Because I thought he might have objected to the insurance." This drew from his lordship the exclamation, "I thought so." In spite of only having seen the assured at a distance of fourteen yards, the agent stated to his directors that he was of opinion Thomas Hipgins was in good health. Asked if he was aware that he was committing forgery in signing Thomas Higgins's name in the proposal, the agent said he thought it was ' ' all right. " Another agent, for a different society, actually allowed the little daughter of Mrs Flannagan to sign the deceased man's name ; while yet a third official of an insurance company stated that he had asked to see Thomas Higgins before insuring his life, and that Mrs Flannagan had pointed out to him a wrong^ man. It is not surprising that under these circumstances Mr Justice Butt remarked that he had never heard of such a atate of things in his life ; and the evidence in this terrible murder trial obviously calls for some amendment in the law relating to the ways of insurance companies.