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An Unexpected Surprise

In 1972 this bag was donated to the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. Inside, was a remarkable discovery; the head of Mary Ann Higgins, the last woman to be publically hanged in Coventry.

On 9 August 1831, when she was only 19, Mary Ann Higgins was tried for the murder of her uncle, William Higgins. Also with her on trial was Edward Clarke, a watchmaking apprentice who had been courting Mary Ann.

In the weeks before William's death, Clarke spent money freely and boasted that he could get more by going to the old man’s house.

On 22 March 1831 Mary Ann bought arsenic from the chemist, supposedly to kill rats. That same night, William fell ill and died. Surgeons found arsenic in his stomach and also in his pea soup. Mary Ann admitted to the poisoning but told the coroner that Clarke had instigated her to take her uncle’s life, and that Clarke had frequently beaten and ill-used her when he did not have as much money from her as he wanted.

At the Warwick assizes in August 1831, the jury convicted Mary Ann and acquitted Edward. As the judge sentenced Mary Ann to death, her cries moved onlookers to tears. Early on 11th August 1831 Mary Ann was taken to Whitley Common on a cart which contained a coffin and was surrounded by constables. 15,000 people were on Whitley Common to watch Mary Ann’s hanging. After the hanging Mary Ann’s body was taken to the old Bridewell, by St John’s church, for dissection. In 1831 this was the only legal source of bodies surgeons had. These public dissections were both a source of information to medics and entertainment and a warning to the public.

This story gives us more of an insight into life and death in the 1800’s.