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The Black Widows of Liverpool

Angela Brabin uncovers the gruesome tale of serial murder committed by a group of women in the poorest districts of 19th-century Liverpool.

Margaret Higgins, aged 41, and her sister Catherine Flanagan (55) were both hanged at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool on March 3rd, 1884, executed for the murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret’s husband. The trial the previous month had been a sensation, the intense local media coverage prompting large crowds to swell the public galleries in the courtroom. Higgins and Flanagan became the archetypes of the Victorian murderess, callously conducting the heinous crimes in the privacy of their homes: so much so that their wax effigies were placed in the Chamber of Horrors of Madame Tussaud’s, where they remained for almost a century. But there was more to the crime than the wickedness of two cruel women.

Thomas Higgins died on October 2nd, 1883, poisoned by arsenic obtained from flypapers. The crime was clearly premeditated: his life expectancy had decreased in direct proportion to the amount by which his life insurance had increased. By the time he died, his life was insured by five different societies for a theoretical total of £108.4s.0d – a considerable sum in a working-class community where labourers would take home only fifteen or sixteen shillings a week.

Most of the people involved as witnesses and suspects lived in a small area in north Liverpool roughly bounded by Great Homer St to the east, Vauxhall Road to the west, Boundary Road to the north and Burlington Street to the south. There was much movement of families within this small area. Lodgers moved between the families whose lives were central to this story. There was a high percentage of Irish households; most of the men worked as labourers, many in the docks, and those women who worked outside the home were domestic servants. It would have been termed lower working class, struggling rather than destitute.

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