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Mary Ball, Murderer?

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CovArchives
Coventry
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1 of 7  Fri 9th Aug 2019 11:23am  
Member: Joined Jan 2018  Total posts:24

Merciless Murderer or unfortunate victim? Mary Ball is infamous for being the last woman hanged in Coventry but what led her on 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 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 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 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. Final Thoughts. 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 here at Coventry Archives and can be viewed by appointment.
Victoria Northridge

Mary Ball, Murderer?
Not Local
Bedworth
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2 of 7  Fri 9th Aug 2019 3:32pm  
Member: Joined Feb 2014  Total posts:244

Mary Ball's death mask is housed in the Coventry Police Museum at Little Park Street Police Station along with many other artifacts that reflect the policing of this city. The Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands, David Jamieson, intends to move the contents of the museum to the West Midlands Police Museum at Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham. Coventry's past and present police officers would like to see the museum relocated to a site within Coventry. The current museum at Little Park Street Police Station will be open to the public for the two Heritage Weekends on 14/15 and 21/22 September 2019.
Mary Ball, Murderer?
Helen F
Warrington
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3 of 7  Fri 9th Aug 2019 3:39pm  
Member: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:1482

Sad but interesting, thanks. Thumbs up Slightly off topic but a caution for those doing family history - An author was recently embarrassed live on Radio 3 while promoting her new book. Apparently she misunderstood a term called 'death recorded', which seems simple - death - but was in fact the exact opposite. The term was first recorded in 1823 to indicate that while the crime should have carried the sentence of death, for one reason or another the punishment was deemed too harsh (eg due to the youth of the criminal). Clearly Mary teetered on the edge of getting this type of decision - "the Jury returned a verdict of guilty but with a recommendation for mercy" but the judge disagreed. The other mistake Naomi Wolf made was that sentences given weren't always the one carried out. From the link below "In the case of the death penalty, there was a long term decline in the proportion and number of convicts who were actually executed. The proportion of Old Bailey capital convicts executed fell from 43.5% in the 1780s to 10.4% between 1810 and 1837, by which point reforms to the penal code had led to a sharp reduction in capital offences: after 1837, the only offences punishable by death were murder, infanticide, wounding, rape, treason, robbery, burglary, arson, and sodomy. In practice, however, the only Old Bailey convicts actually executed after 1837 were murderers (and even 40% of these were pardoned)." Obviously Mary wasn't one of them. Mistakes made by US author
Mary Ball, Murderer?
Rob Orland
Historic Coventry
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4 of 7  Fri 9th Aug 2019 4:40pm  
Webmaster: Joined Jan 2010  Total posts:1444

That's a really fascinating and educational post Victoria, thank you so much. Now then, those of a nervous disposition might want to look away now.... The original mask, taken in 2006.
Mary Ball, Murderer?
Kaga simpson
Peacehaven, East Sussex
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5 of 7  Sat 10th Aug 2019 8:29am  
Member: Joined Sep 2014  Total posts:2960

She used arsenic because she did not know about cocaine. It’s only half a story, so I would not make any judgement. How can you? Printed in 21st century jargon, and 21st century thoughts, it's almost certain she would not be able to read or write, there is nothing about her living conditions (money), her state of health, nothing about how she lost five children - how can you get your mind round that (all five kids), poison sold over the counter, corrupt officials, corrupt living. If your kid was starving and you stole a cupful of milk, you were sent to Oz, your family to the workhouse - can you understand the logic in that? I find it very hard to read of those times and think was this Britain.
Mary Ball, Murderer?
Kaga simpson
Peacehaven, East Sussex
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6 of 7  Sun 11th Aug 2019 11:04am  
Member: Joined Sep 2014  Total posts:2960

Discipline was most lax, and it was said that cases coming before the magistrates were often arranged beforehand. A leading constable, if squared, would meet the alderman who would sit at the Magistrates Court held in the Mayors Parlour. “Good Morning, Mr Alderman. I have a favour to ask; there is so and so coming up this morning; will you oblige me by letting him (her) 'off'?” and the alderman would answer “I will see to it, George”. Half a gallon of ale or in proportion to the seriousness of the case, and a gallon tin measure was kept for the purpose to be filled at the Anchor or the Spread Eagle Inn.
Mary Ball, Murderer?
pixrobin
Canley
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7 of 7  Sun 11th Aug 2019 8:28pm  
Member: Joined Mar 2014  Total posts:1101

Power and corruption go hand in hand, Kaga
Mary Ball, Murderer?

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