Tales from the Archives: Mary Ball, Murderer?
Merciless Murderer or unfortunate victim? Harriet investigates Coventry's last hanged woman.
Mary Ball is infamous for being the last woman hanged in Coventry but what led her on the 9th August 1849 to be standing before a crowd of thousands waiting to be executed by hanging?
First, the facts
On 28th June 1818 Isaac & Alice Wright baptised their baby girl Mary in the parish of Nuneaton; 20 years later Mary Wright married Thomas Ball in Mancetter.
This was the moment that began the chain of events culminating in murder.
Copy of Marriage record for Mary Wright & Thomas Ball
The Balls’ were married for 11 years and all sources agree that their marriage was tempestuous at best. They were frequently heard rowing and there is at least one confirmed case of Mary being beaten by Thomas. In addition to these volatile tempers, the marriage was marred with the tragedy of losing 5 children successively; only a daughter surviving beyond the cradle. Whether it was these events, or natural inclination, it is implied that Thomas Ball was a serial philanderer. These circumstances notwithstanding, Mary was expected to be a dutiful wife. However, there is some speculation that Mary herself indulged in a dalliance with a neighbour many years her junior, William Bacon. If she did so it could be argued that she was doubly foolish and unlucky, firstly to indulge in a dalliance so close to home, and secondly because young William was related by marriage to her sister-in-law. As such it did not take long for news to reach Mary’s husband.
Viewing this case from a modern perspective, many would question why neither party had divorced yet. There are clearly more than sufficient grounds on either side. However, at this time divorce was not an option, the Divorce Act did not come in until 1857.
Despite these harsh conditions, at this point there does not seem to be serious inclination to murder. In the heat of arguments death threats have been issued but no opportunities taken.
On the 4th May 1849 Mary and a friend went shopping and at a chemist Mary bought a pennyworth of Arsenic to kill bed bugs. Whilst there it is said she had a conversation with the Chemist whereupon she discovered that significantly less than the amount she bought would be enough to poison someone. Evidence of premeditation or pure curiosity?
Two weeks later on the 18th May, Thomas Ball went fishing with a friend. When he came home he complained he did not feel well so Mary suggested he take some salts, which he did. After this his condition rapidly became worse, although he lingered in excruciating pain for 2 days, dying in the early hours of 20th May. Initially no suspicion was aroused in the Doctor who issued a death certificate of natural causes. However, the rumour mill soon began churning out the stories of affairs, rows and death threats. Thus, it was not long before Mary found two policemen on her doorstep. Unfortunately she proceeded to give at least 4 differing accounts of the events which led to her husband’s death. These inconsistencies coupled with the damning testimonies of marital tempestuousness from neighbours ensured her swift incarceration and a post-mortem. The post-mortem revealed significant traces of arsenic in Thomas Ball’s stomach, removing any lingering doubt that he had been poisoned.
(Copy of Burial Record for Thomas Ball)
On the Burial record there seems to be a clerical error because his age is recorded as 28, however, as can be seen on the marriage record he was 20 then and if they had been married for 11 years, he must be at least 31 when he died.
Although the murder and post-mortem happened in quick succession, the trial did not occur until 28th July. The case took a little over 10 hours to be heard but she was convicted within 2 hours of Jury deliberation. Initially the Jury returned a verdict of guilty but with a recommendation for mercy. This means they were recommending imprisonment, not death. The Judge, Justice Coleridge, was not easily swayed and told them to reconsider as he did not see what grounds they had for recommending mercy. The revised verdict was guilty of wilful murder upon which she was sentenced to death by hanging.
Until the appointed time of her hanging Mary was returned to the gaol. On 4th August the Reverend Chapman visited her as he had been wont to do. On this day though he lost his patience with her taciturn demeanour, demanded a candle fetched and held her hand over the flame to give her a taste of what awaited her in Hell if she did not willingly and wholly repent of her grievous sins. This did not have the desired effect as Mary did not confess to him, and he subsequently lost his position at the gaol.
The next day however Mary requested the Governor of the gaol, Mr. Stanley, to visit her and she did make a full confession.
Finally, on the 9th August 1849, Mary Ball was hanged on a scaffold erected in front of the gaol. This would have been around the area of Bayley Lane.
Whilst I have been reading about Mary’s case, it has struck me that it bears some similarities to certain plot points of Agatha Christie’s novel ‘Five Little Pigs’ (first published in the UK in 1949). Within that Caroline Crayle, wife of Amyas Crayle, is accused of his murder. Amyas is known to be a philanderer, they have a tempestuous marriage and she has been overheard to say that she swears she will kill him someday. I shall not reveal the actual killer, but suffice to say, not all is as it appears. Now, whilst I cannot say for certain Christie was influenced by the case of Mary Ball, I certainly love the idea that she might have been.
It is most likely that Mary Ball did murder her husband by poisoning him with arsenic. However, if she was having an affair with William Bacon, or somebody else, could they be the culprit? They would have cause, if they felt strongly enough about her or they could have been coerced by Mary. This could account for inconsistencies in her story as well as her ultimate confession, if she was afraid and trying to protect someone. Although that sounds far-fetched, how many murder mystery plots are there where the culprit is nowhere near the victim at time of death?
Whatever the truth of the matter, looking at her death mask she certainly looks peaceful.
For anyone interested into delving further into the case of Mary Ball, the original execution broadsides are held at Coventry Archives and can be viewed by appointment.