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Infamous sisters killed for money; THEY became so infamous they had wax effigies in the Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors for almost a century. The Black Widows of Liverpool were experts in murder, as CRIME REPORTER BEN ROSSINGTON repor ts.


SISTERS Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan knew all about the value of life insurance - and the deadly power of arsenic. In December 1880 the pair, originally from Ireland and known to friends as Catty and Maggie, lived in a house in Skirving Street, close to Scotland Road.

With them were John Flannagan - Catty's son - lodger Thomas Higgins who would later marry Maggie, Mary Higgins - Thomas' eight-year-old daughter, another lodger Patrick Jennings and his 16-year-old daughter, Margaret.

Over the next three years only Patrick Jennings would escape with his life.

The wily sisters hit on a get-rich-quick scheme through the growing popularity in burial clubs.

In those days the poor were very poor. And the divide between the very poor and the very rich was stark.

But no matter how poor you were, through a burial club, you could guarantee that when you went to your maker you did so in style.

The sisters embarked on their murderous path when they realised a hefty insurance policy spread over several clubs, coupled with a cheap funeral, meant a sizeable lump sum left over.

The only thing they had to do was wait for those with such policies to die.

But the sisters didn't want to wait. They soon formulated a plot and used Catty's own son John as a guinea pig.

That December the previously healthy 22-year-old died. His mother collected an insurance payout of pounds 71 and John was buried with minimum fuss or effort.

The following year Maggie married Thomas Higgins. Within a year of the happy union little Mary took ill and passed away.

With what seemed to neighbours like indecent haste her stepmother withdrew the burial club payout and consoled herself at the nearest tavern.

Two months later, in January 1883, Margaret Jennings was dead. Scarcely cold in her coffin Catty put in the cash claim and the money came rolling in.

The tragedy that seemed to haunt the tiny back-to-back house set the district talking. The mortality rate was high but three deaths in one home? It was time to move on.

What remained of the household moved out and settled in Latimer Street before moving again the same year to a cellar in Ascot Street.

As the money began to dry up Thomas Higgins took ill.

With five policies in his name his devoted wife nursed him for two days before he passed away. A local doctor certified death by dysentery following his drinking bad whiskey.

But this time the ghoulish pair had over-stepped the line.

Thomas's brother Patrick heard of the numerous policies and after a bit of amateur detective work began to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

First he spoke to the doctor and then to the police. The result was dramatic.

With the hearse standing outside Ascot Street and the wake in full flow in the parlour the coroner's officer forced an entry, surprising the drinking brood of women inside.

The officer ordered a full post-mortem to be carried out at which point Catty, realising her number was up, bolted through the back door dressed in her shabby black gown.

Traces of poison were found in Thomas's body. In Ascot Street a bottle containing a mystery white substance and a market pocket worn by Maggie was examined.

Traces of arsenic were found everywhere. The sisters had developed and perfected, from victim to victim, an almost perfect method of murder - distilling the poison by dissolving flypaper in water.

They used this method nine years before the infamous "Flypaper Poisoner", Florence Maybrick, was convicted in Liverpool of the murder of her cotton trader husband, James Maybrick using the same technique.

With her sister now arrested, Catherine Flannagan was a hunted woman.

She moved from one Liverpool lodging house to another and was finally arrested after a woman who gave her a meal grew suspicious and alerted police.

On October 16, 1883, Catty and Maggie were charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

After that the horrifying chapter of murder and money finally came to light. The bodies of the other three victims were exhumed and examined. All had been poisoned.

At the trial the prosecution painted Catty as the brains behind the scheme. Even then she tried to save her own skin offering to turn Queen's Evidence in an attempt to foist the blame onto her younger sister.

Unsurprisingly her offer was rejected.

The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Flannagan, 55, heard the sentence and was unmoved. Higgins, 41, collapsed.

In a snowstorm on March 3, 1884, assisted up a flight of 22 stone steps to the scaffold at Kirkdale Jail, and mouthing prayers uttered by the prison chaplain, the notorious sisters were duly hanged by executioner Bartholomew Binns and his assistant.

Together they had planned their dreadful crimes and together they faced the consequences.

LANDLADY'S SHOCKING DISCOVERY LED POLICE TO 19TH CENTURY BABY KILLER SOME bodies are dumped and some lie bloodied where they were killed.

But probably only one Liverpool victim - a baby - was carried around, stuffed inside a tin can, for a year by his killer.

In the mid-19th century Sophia Todd was born the daughter of a Scottish civil engineer.

She was sent away to school in Brussels and returned fluent in six languages.

She was married early in her 20s and moved to Merseyside with her husband.

But sadly when he died Sophia fell on hard times.

Todd was said to have struggled along for years, scraping together every penny she could get, before she turned to murder.

It was still decades before the first legal abortion and there was an open market for unwanted babies. Couples who couldn''t afford, or simply didn''t want a child would pay others to take them off their hands.

And so in July 1875 Sophia Todd put an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury posing as a married couple desperate for a baby of their own.

Soon she was contacted by a man willing to give away a baby boy, less than a month old, and Todd was paid pounds 10 to take him.

But that night, as mother and new child sat alone for the first time, Todd snapped.

She sliced the baby''s throat and stuffed the remains into a tin can. But she didn''t toss the can into the river, try to bury it in the ground or even conceal it in the house. Instead Todd carried the tin around for the next year taking it from lodging to lodging.

It was only when she was out one day that her landlady decided to investigate the horrid smell coming from the can.

Reeling in shock the landlady called the police who soon put Todd behind bars.

At her trial Todd tried to claim the baby had died suddenly. But the medical evidence proved otherwise.

She was found guilty and sentenced to death.

But before she could be hanged the punishment was commuted to life imprisonment on the basis that the evidence was not conclusive enough to prove she had acted in cold blood.


INFAMOUS: The tale of the murderous sisters horrified and fascinated the nation MURDERER: Margaret Higgins, aged 41 KILLER: Catherine Flannagan, aged 55
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 7, 2010
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