The mark of a murderer

Swiss maid Maria Manning was convicted for the killing of a former lover. But might she have been the victim of gender stereotyping?

It was a stain between two flagstones that gave the game away. On 17 August 1849, two policemen were conducting a search for a missing customs officer named Patrick O’Connor. For days they had been collecting information about O’Connor’s last known movements, and this had led them to a house in Bermondsey, London.


At first the officers found nothing. In fact, they were about to leave the house when Constable Barnes noticed the damp mark. The stain suggested that the flagstones in the kitchen had recently been re-laid, and so the policemen started digging. When they got 18 inches down, Barnes “discovered the loins of a man... it was lying on the belly, and the legs were brought back and tied up round the haunches with a strong cord... it was quite naked.”

Nowhere to be seen

Dental records confirmed the body was Patrick O’Connor. On 9 August, O’Connor had been invited to dine with the occupants of 3 Miniver Place: Frederick Manning and his Swiss wife, Maria. O’Connor had met Maria when she was a lady’s maid for the Duchess of Sutherland’s daughter. They began a relationship but, when he was slow to propose, Maria married Frederick, a guard on the Western Railway. Tough times had brought Maria and Frederick to London, and Maria had rekindled her affair with the well-off O’Connor. But on 17 August, Maria and Frederick Manning were nowhere to be seen.

The police launched a massive manhunt. Maria was captured in Edinburgh trying to sell railway shares belonging to O’Connor. Frederick, who had made it to Jersey, was recognised by an old acquaintance. Both were brought back to London to stand trial.

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When the police got 18 inches down, they found “the loins of a man... it was lying on the belly... and it was quite naked

They appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey on 25 and 26 October 1849, each intent on blaming the other. Maria’s barrister claimed that Frederick killed O’Connor in a jealous rage. Speaking for Frederick, Sergeant Wilkins deployed prominent gender stereotypes. He argued that, while history showed that women could display higher levels of virtue than men, “once she gives way to vice she sinks far lower than our sex. My hypothesis is that the female prisoner... premeditated, planned and concocted the murder; and that she made her husband her dupe... for that purpose.”
The jury condemned them both. Maria raged against the verdict. “I am a foreigner, and I have been denied justice... I have not been treated like a Christian, but like a wild beast of the forest.” But to no avail. She and her husband were hanged, side-by-side, on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13 Novem- ber 1849 before a crowd of perhaps 50,000 spectators, among them Charles Dickens.

A terrible secret

Fear of the stigma of an illegitimate child led Jane Boyd to commit a horrific crime

Historians have suggested that infanticide might have been a weekly event in mid-19th-century Ireland. In many of these cases, it was a means of dealing with illegitimacy at a time when fatherless babies were stigmatised and brought great financial hardship to mothers.

And so, on 26 October 1861, when Ann Boyd – an unmarried teenager from Ballykeel who had recently returned home from a spell as a domestic servant – went into labour, her mother, Jane, panicked.

After my sister screamed, I heard the sound of a child... It did not cry very long. It gave three cries

Living in a small cottage in a tightly knit community, it was difficult to hide what was happening. Ann’s brother James, who had just come home for his dinner, noticed the commotion. “I sat in the kitchen and heard my sister screaming,” he later testified. “Then, after my sister screamed, I heard the sound of a child... It did not cry very long. It gave three cries.”

Around one o’clock, neighbours James and Mary Hill saw Jane digging a hole. “It’s a strange time to be digging in a garden,” Mary remarked to Jane. Other neighbours and extended family who called on the Boyds that afternoon noticed that Ann was very ill and told Jane to call a doctor.

Dr Dunlop, the parish medical officer, came the next day. After examining Ann, and finding that she had recently given birth, he sent for Constable Waters of the Holywood Barracks. Confronted by the two men, Jane, who had insisted that her daughter had suffered a miscarriage, cracked. “There was a child,” she con- fessed, “and it was buried in the garden. The child was dead, born dead.”

Maximum penalty

At the foot of an elm tree, Waters and Dunlop recovered the body of a baby girl, in a shallow grave hidden underneath some large cabbages.

Following an inquest, Jane was charged with murder and was sent, with Ann, to Downpatrick Gaol to await trial. At the 11th hour, a deal was struck. Jane and Ann pleaded guilty to concealment of birth and the prosecution dropped the charge of murder. Ann was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The judge was entirely convinced that Jane had killed the baby, and so gave her the maximum penalty: two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Missionary violence

Marie Christensen’s brutal treatment of a child of Aboriginal descent exposed the iniquities of Australia’s policies towards Indigenous people

In 1896, a girl called Cassey was sent to the reformatory school at Myora Mission in Moreton Bay, Queensland. Cassey – who was described as being about five years old and “half caste” – was a weak child, suffering ill health as well as, in the words of the mission superintendent, being “dull and not in as good spirits as the others”.

She was far from the only child to make such a journey. In late 19th-century Australia, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were forced to live on reserves and missions, where they were segregated from white settler communities. Policies of assimilation enabled the author- ities to remove children of Aboriginal descent from their parents and send them to reformatory schools where they were trained to enter white society as domestic servants and farm labourers. All this was done under the guise of ‘protection’. But for Cassey, protection was in short supply.

On 14 September, the mission matron, Marie Christensen, took Cassey to the tidal springs at the bottom of the hill to bathe. When the child refused, Christensen forced her into the water. Budlo Lefu, a First Nations woman who lived on the mission, watched the matron “ducking the child up and down in the sea”. When the matron dragged the child back up the hill, beating her with a stick and kicking her, Budlo “came to stop her and she told me I had nothing to do with it [so] I went away”. Christensen hurried Cassey into the dormitory where she continued the beating. Five days later, Cassey died.

Recording Indigenous voices

The refusal of the attending doctor to issue a medical certificate triggered an inquest – at that time a rare event on the death of an Indigenous person. In another unusual twist, the local justice of the peace, William North, collected testimony from Indigenous women who lived on the mission, committing their voices to the historical record.

Christensen was charged with manslaugh- ter. In return for a guilty plea, the prosecution spoke on her behalf, claiming she was “of imperfect brain development”. She received a suspended sentence, and the Myora Mission (indeed, the whole system) escaped serious scrutiny. The reformatory school was quickly shut down, and Cassey’s peers were moved on. The Myora Mission continued until 1942.

Killing in the name of love

Alice Mitchell’s vicious attack on a childhood sweetheart challenged contemporary attitudes towards female same-sex relationships

In the eyes of most residents of 19th- century Tennessee, female same-sex love was abnormal. Though some young, unmarried women had close, even openly affectionate friendships with female peers, hardly anyone thought for a second that there would be any kind of sexual element to these relationships. Such assumptions were dramatically challenged in early 1892 by two teenage girls: Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward.

Alice and Freda had become close friends after meeting at Higbee School for Young Ladies in Memphis. In 1891, when Freda moved to the town of Golddust on the Mississippi river to live with her older sister and widowed father, Alice and Freda were able to sustain their relationship through visits and letters. When they stayed together, they shared a bed, as expected. When apart, the girls declared their love for each other in writing. Alice even bought Freda an engagement ring and proposed marriage, declaring that she would live as a man, ‘Alvin J Ward’, to make their union possible.

Jealous rage

Freda, however, was keeping her options open. In Golddust, she began to entertain male suitors, in particular a man called Ashley Roselle. Alice was enraged. “I love you Fred, and would kill Ashley before I would see him take you from me,” she warned in one letter.

In August 1891, the girls devised a plan to elope, but it was discovered by Freda’s sister, who became determined to end the relationship.

Freda returned Alice’s engagement ring. Alice, however, could not accept that the relationship was over. When, in January 1892, Freda visited Memphis to stay with a friend, Alice tried writing to her once more. But her letters were returned unopened and, when they met in the street, Freda refused to acknowledge her. To explain her actions, Freda wrote Alice one final letter: “I love you now and always will but I have been forbidden to speak to you and I have to obey.”

Just days later, Alice stabbed Freda to death as she tried to board the steamer back to Golddust. In her confession, Alice explained that she “resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me”.

A verdict of insanity ensured that Alice avoided the gallows, and society could continue to define female same-sex relationships as an aberration.

Victims of the “black cloud”

In 1841, Mary Ann Brough secured the illustrious position of wet nurse to the Prince of Wales. But a marital dispute sent her life spiralling out of control

In 1834, George Brough, a groundsman at Claremont House, a royal residence in Esher, married one of the domestic serv- ants, Mary Ann. In 1841, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, Mary Ann secured the illustrious position of wet nurse to the queen’s first son, Bertie (later Edward VII). Victoria herself remembered Mary Ann from visits to Claremont. Just months later, though, Mary Ann was dismissed, allegedly for drunkenness.

At home in Esher, she went on to have yet more children – 10 in total, though only seven survived infancy. There were difficul- ties in her marriage with George, too. By the early 1850s, George had become a house servant at Claremont, often staying on site. His wife began an affair.

A psychiatrist noted that mothers could experience bouts of insanity when under significant stress

Suspecting as much, in the summer of 1854 George hired a private detective, who reported that Mary Ann had spent time with a man from Esher in a “questionable house” in London. Angry and upset, on 6 June George left the family home. The next day, when he returned to collect his nightcap, he declared: “I intend to see a solicitor to start legal proceedings and to get full custody of the children.”

In mid-19th century England, a mother found guilty of wrongdoing – such as adultery – could lose all contact with her children. Mary Ann now faced the real prospect of being separated from them.

Two days later, on the evening of 9 June, Mary Ann slit the throats of the six children who lived with her, aged between 21 months and 12 years, before attempting to kill herself. She made a full confession to the police, claiming that a “black cloud” had come over her. But to the woman who was nursing her, she said: “He left me with no money and was going to take the children away from me. I was not going to allow him to do so.”

Pain and bleeding

At Mary Ann’s trial on 9 August, the jury accepted her plea of insanity. Neighbours and her doctor testified that she was a loving mother who had suffered ill health – pain
in the head, bleeding from her nose and a suspected stroke – following the birth of her youngest child. The eminent psychiatrist Forbes B Winslow recognised her account of ‘”the black cloud”, explaining that mothers could experience bouts of temporary insanity when under significant stress.

Insanity also provided contemporaries with a way to explain the unexplainable: a mother who killed her six children. Mary Ann was sent to Bethlem Asylum, where she died on 18 March 1861 from paralysis and apoplexy.

Plotting to kill the president

Mary Surratt’s warning that “something is going to happen” to Abraham Lincoln helped secure her an unwanted place in history

When we think of the murder of Abraham Lincoln, we tend to remember his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who fired the deadly shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC on 14 April 1865. Booth was himself later shot dead by troops at a barn in northern Virginia – yet he wasn’t the only conspira- tor to die in the fallout to the murder. Four people were hanged for their role in the assassination of America’s 16th president – and one of them was a woman.

Mary Surratt was a devout Catholic convert, an enslaver and a supporter of the Confederacy who, following the death of her alcoholic husband in 1862, was thrust into the world of business. She managed the family farm and tavern in Maryland until, in the autumn of 1864, she moved to Washington with two of her children, and set up a boarding house there.

Mary’s new address soon became a hive of activity. Confederate agents were frequent lodgers and visitors, among them Booth. Mary’s son, John Surratt Jr, was a close friend of Booth, whose charisma won over both Mary and her daughter, Ann.

In March 1865, on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration as president for a second term, Mary made a fateful comment that one of her boarders remem- bered: “Something is going to happen to Old Abe, which will prevent him from taking his seat.” Mary, it seems, not only knew of the plans to assassinate Lincoln but likely aided and abetted the conspirators by hiding and passing on firearms.

Assisting an assassin

Following the assassination, while Booth was still on the run, Mary was arrested along with seven male suspects. Mary was charged with the murder of Abraham Lincoln, attempting to kill the vice president and secretary of state, and assisting Booth in the assassination and his subsequent escape.

Following a trial by a military tribunal, Mary and the seven male conspirators were found guilty. Four of the men received prison sentences but, controversially, Mary was condemned “to be hanged by the neck until she be dead”. Despite desperate pleas for clemency, the sentence was carried out on 7 July 1865. Mary was the first woman to be executed by the US federal government. Her story is a reminder that women’s political engagement could take many forms – even at a time when women were officially excluded from the political sphere. Yet Mary Surratt’s involvement in Lincoln’s assassina- tion did untold damage to the campaign for other women – particularly black Americans – to win political rights of their own.

Rosalind Crone is professor of history at the Open University, and author of Violent Victorians (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Illiterate Inmates (Oxford University Press, 2022)


The new series of Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley, for which Rosalind Crone is the historical consultant, begins on 10 January. You can listen to previous episodes via BBC Sounds