Born Mary Eleanor Wheeler
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: October 24, 1890
Date of arrest:
3 days after
Date of birth: 1866
Her lover's wife,
Phoebe Hogg, 32, and her 18-month-old baby
Method of murder:
Stabbing with knife - Suffocation
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Executed by hanging on December 23, 1890
Pearcey, Mary Eleanor
Mary Pearcey was born in 1866 and was living in
Kentish Town, North London by the time she was 24 with her lover
Charles Creighton. Life still was not right and Mary wanted more. She
became involved with a furniture remover called Frank Hogg. Frank felt
he was doing well in life as far as his work went. His job gave him
the opportunity to have his own printed business cards, and both Frank
and Mary saw this as some sort of status symbol. Unfortunately for
Mary, Frank was already married to Phoebe whom he had married because
she had become pregnant. It was not a happy marriage but it had been
the decent thing to do.
On 24 October 1890 a policeman found the corpse of
a woman in Crossfield Road, Hampstead. The head had been almost
severed. Nearby was a bloodstained pram. Clara Hogg, Frank's sister,
had been summoned to the mortuary to identify the body and she asked
Mary to accompany her. At the mortuary Mary drew attention to herself
by her hysterical behaviour when she viewed the body.
On the next day the body of an 18-month-old baby
was discovered on waste ground near Finchley Road, a mile away from
Crossfield Road. This time suffocation had been the cause of death. It
was identified as being Phoebe Hannalope, the Hogg's daughter.
Frank and Mary had not been as discreet as they
should have been and as soon as the police found out about the affair
they were suspicious. They searched Mary's house and in the kitchen
found obvious signs of violence with broken furniture and glass. The
room was covered with bloodstains. While the police officers searched
the house Mary, seemingly unconcerned, sat and played the piano and
sang loudly. Officers discovered an axe, two bloody knives and
bloodstained clothing, as well as a number of love letters between the
Mary hoped to explain away the blood by saying that
she had been killing mice but obviously this was not believed. The
police questioned the neighbours who recalled seeing Mary wheeling a
pram away from the house on the evening of the 24 and had heard
screams coming from the house.
Once the case was pieced together it became
apparent that the child had been placed in the pram, with only minor
injuries. They had then placed her mother's body on top. It was the
weight of her mother's corpse that had suffocated the baby.
At her trial at the Old Bailey in December 1890,
Mary's defence was one of insanity, but it failed and she was
sentenced to death. She was hanged on 23 December 1980 at Newgate
Prison by James Berry a little over 10 years after her own father
Thomas Wheeler had been hanged for murder.
Mary Pearcey (1866 – 23 December 1890) was
an English woman who was convicted of murdering her lover's wife, Mrs.
Phoebe Hogg, and child, Phoebe, on 24 October 1890 and executed for
the crime on 23 December of the same year. The crime is sometimes
mentioned in connection with Jack the Ripper, and Pearcey has been
posited as a Ripper candidate.
Mary Pearcey was born Mary Eleanor Wheeler
It has been erroneously stated that her father was
a Thomas Wheeler who was convicted of and hanged for the murder of
Edward Anstee. However, author Sarah Beth Hopton was unable to find
any evidence of connection between the two people, and also found a
retraction of the newspaper article in which the misinformation was
Mary Wheeler took the name "Pearcey" from John
Charles Pearcey, a carpenter with whom she had lived. He left her
because of her infidelity. She later took up residence with a
furniture remover, Frank Hogg, who had at least one other lover,
Phoebe Styles. Styles became pregnant, and Hogg married her at
Pearcey's urging. They lived in Kentish Town in London. Styles gave
birth to a daughter also named Phoebe Hogg.
Murder of Phoebe Hogg
On 24 October 1890 Mrs. Hogg, with her baby, called
on Pearcey at her invitation. The neighbours heard screaming and
sounds of violence about 4:00 that afternoon. That evening a woman's
corpse was found on a heap of rubbish in Hampstead. Her skull had been
crushed, and her head was nearly severed from her body. A black
perambulator was found about a mile away, its cushions soaked with
blood. An eighteen-month-old child was found dead in Finchley,
apparently smothered. The deceased were identified as Phoebe Hogg and
her child. Mary Pearcey had been seen pushing baby Phoebe's
perambulator around the streets of north London after dark.
The police searched her house, and found blood
spatters on walls, ceiling, a skirt, an apron, and other articles,
blood stains on a poker and a carving knife. When questioned by the
Police she said that she 'had a problem with mice and was trying to
kill them'. Sir Melville Macnaghten wrote that Ms. Pearcey would later
respond by chanting, "Killing mice, killing mice, killing mice!".
Mary Pearcey was charged with murder. She
maintained her innocence throughout the trial, but was convicted, and
was hanged on 23 December 1890.
Pearcey's murder case generated extraordinary press
attention at the time. Madame Tussauds wax museum of London made a wax
figure of Pearcey for their Chamber of Horrors exhibit, and also
purchased the pram used in the murder and the contents of Pearcey's
kitchen. When the Tussaud exhibit of these items opened, it attracted
a crowd of 30,000 people. The noose used to hang Pearcey is on display
at the Black Museum of Scotland Yard.
Jill the Ripper
Mary Pearcey, like many other famous Victorian-era
murderers, has been suggested as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper
slayings. She was apparently the only female suspect mentioned at the
time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, speculated
at the time that the Ripper might have been female, as a woman could
have pretended to be a midwife and be seen in public in bloody
clothing without arousing suspicion or notice.
This theory was then expanded upon in 1939 by
William Stewart in his book Jack the Ripper: A New Theory,
which specifically named Pearcey in connection with the crimes. All
evidence given is circumstantial, and there is no physical evidence or
eyewitness reports linking Pearcey to the Ripper crimes.
F. Tennyson Jesse, the British criminal historian,
explained the theory in her study of Pearcey's case: "It was no wonder
that, simultaneously with the discovery of the crime, legends should
have sprung up around her figure. The rumour even arose that the
notorious Jack the Ripper had been at work in the locality, and though
this was quickly disproved, yet the violence and horror associated
with the crime was such as to make it understandable how the rumour
arose in the first place. Even in the earliest paragraphs which
announced the discovery of the crime, several false statements were
In May 2006, DNA testing of saliva on stamps
affixed to letters allegedly sent by Jack the Ripper to London
newspapers, and thought by some modern writers to be genuine, appeared
to come from a woman. This led to extensive discussion of Pearcey and
her crime in the global press.
Mary Eleanor Wheeler (Pearcey)
The Wheeler family is almost certainly unique in
having the father and daughter both hanged, a little over 10 years
apart, for two completely separate murders. Mary's father Thomas
Wheeler, was executed by William Marwood at St. Albans prison in
Hertfordshire on the 29th November 1880 for the murder of a local
farmer, one Edward Anstee. In the condemned cell Thomas had written a
letter to the farmer's widow apologising for what he had done and
asking her forgiveness and prayers that his sins should not be visited
on his wife or then fourteen year old daughter. Sadly this was not to
Mary Eleanor Wheeler was born in 1866 and little is
known of her childhood or what effect her father's execution had on
her when she fourteen. At the time of her arrest she was 24 and was
described as being five feet six inches tall with "lovely russet hair
and fine blue eyes" She was of normal build and had nice shapely
hands. Her face was not overly pretty but she seemed to have no
difficulty in attracting men.
In her late teens she had a relationship with a
carpenter named John Charles Pearcey and although they never married,
Mary took his name and continued to use it after they split up,
probably to avoid the stigma attaching to her father's name. She
associated with better off men and had never worked or ever needed to
- one of her several admirers, Charles Creighton, had rented rooms for
her at 2 Priory Street, Kentish Town in North London around 1888. Mary
was known to suffer from depression and had only her aged mother and
an older sister as relatives. She also drank quite heavily.
In addition to Mr. Creighton who visited her once a
week, she also fell for Mr. Frank Samuel Hogg who was a furniture
remover and who impressed Mary by having printed business cards. Mary
used to put a light in her window to let Frank know that she was free
and he had a key to the house. There was however one serious snag to
Mary's happiness, Frank was married and had a daughter, both his wife
and the little girl being called Phoebe.
Phoebe Hogg was 32 at the time of her death and had
been quite ill in the February of 1890. She had married Frank Hogg in
November 1888 when she was 3 months pregnant by him and had given
birth to their daughter, Phoebe, in the summer of 1889. Frank's affair
with Mary had been going on both before and during their marriage.
On the morning of 24th October 1890 Mary it is
alleged asked a young lad to run an errand for her. She gave Willie
Holmes a penny for delivering a note to Phoebe Hogg inviting her to
tea that afternoon. Around 4.00 p.m. Charlotte Priddington, Mary's
neighbour, heard the sound of breaking glass coming from Mary's house
and called over the fence to check that she was okay but received no
At 7.00 p.m. a woman's body was discovered lying on
a pavement in Crossfield Road by a man returning from work and he
promptly reported it to a policeman. The woman's head was wrapped in a
cardigan which he removed to yield the blood stained face of Phoebe
Hogg with a huge gash in her throat.
The body was removed and taken first to Hampstead
Police Station and then to the morgue. It was found that the deceased
had a fractured skull and that the throat had been cut so violently as
to nearly sever the head. There were also bruises on the head and
arms, consistent with her having tried to defend herself. Examination
of the place where the body was found indicated that the murder had
taken place elsewhere.
At this time the police did not have an identity
for the corpse. Later that evening a constable on the beat discovered
a heavily blood stained pram in Hamilton Terrace, about a mile from
where the woman's body was found.
The following morning the body of a small child was
discovered. She was found to have died from suffocation and was
otherwise unmarked except for a few scratches. It was possible that
little Phoebe had either been suffocated during or after the murder of
her mother or alternatively been placed in the pram alive with her
mother's body on top of her and that it was the weight of her mother's
body that suffocated her.
Frank Hogg and his sister Clara reported Phoebe
missing after reading about the discovery of the woman's body in the
Saturday evening paper. Frank sent Clara round to Mary's to ask if she
had seen Phoebe which Mary denied, but agreed to accompany Clara to
the morgue to see if was indeed Phoebe's body. Mary's behaviour there
was very strange. Having consented to go with Clara she did her best
to try and prevent Clara identifying the body and became almost
hysterical when the full extent of Phoebe's injuries became apparent.
The police asked Mary and Clara to view the pram
which Clara identified as belonging to Phoebe. A neighbour of Mary's
stated that she had seen Mary pushing the pram with a large object in
it on the evening of the murder. Frank Hogg was informed of the
positive identification of his wife and as a possible suspect himself,
was searched by the police. He confessed to having the affair with
Mary when the key to her house was found.
The police decided to interview Mary next as they
were already suspicious of her behaviour in the mortuary and so went
round to Priory Street and carried out a thorough search of her home.
They found substantial blood stains and spatters in
the kitchen together with a blood stained carving knife and fire
poker. There were also clear signs of a struggle - with two broken
windows in the kitchen. A rug showing blood stains smelt strongly of
paraffin where an attempt had been made to clean it. Mary's behaviour
became more bizarre during the police search. She sat at her piano
singing and whistling loudly and attempted to explain away the blood
stains by saying that she had been "killing mice, killing mice", a
hardly credible excuse.
Detective Inspector Banister decided to arrest Mary
at this point and charge her with the murders of both mother and
child. When Mary was searched blood stains were found on her clothes,
scratches on her hands and two wedding rings on her fingers, one of
which was later identified as Phoebe Hogg's. Mary was kept in custody
and appeared before Marylebone police court, who after hearing the
evidence committed her for trial.
While in the police court awaiting the committal
hearing she told Sarah Sawhill, the woman looking after her, that Mrs.
Hogg had indeed come to tea that afternoon and that as they were
having tea Mrs. Hogg had made a remark that offended Mary and that an
argument developed. Mary realised that she was incriminating herself
and declined to say anymore.
Mary was tried at the Central Criminal Court of the
Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Denman who had 11 years earlier tried
Kate Webster, her three day trial opening on December 1st 1890. The
prosecution was led by Mr. Forrest Fulton assisted by Mr. C.F. Gill
and her defence by Mr. Arthur Hutton. Mary entered a formal plea of
not guilty and then the prosecution began to outline its case against
They read out various letters that Mary had written
to Frank Hogg, which they said showed the depth of her passion for
him, prior to his marriage to Phoebe, which was forced upon him by
Phoebe's pregnancy. Mary had told Frank that even if he had to marry
Phoebe she did not want him to leave her and that she would treat
Phoebe as a friend (which for a time at least, it appears she did).
The suggested motive for the murder was jealousy of Phoebe, now that
Mary had to share Frank with her.
Evidence was also given regarding the place of the
crime and the nature and method of infliction of Phoebe's injuries.
John Pearcey identified the cardigan found round Phoebe's head as one
he had given to Mary and evidence was given of the blinds being drawn
in Mary's house on the afternoon of the murder. Arthur Hutton
questioned the circumstantial evidence against her and also whether a
woman of her size and build would be capable of inflicting such
dreadful injuries on the deceased. Mary gave no evidence at the trial
and remained impassive throughout.
She was found guilty after just 52 minutes on the
lunchtime of the third day. In accordance with normal practice Mary
was asked "if she had anything to say why the Court should not give
her judgement of death in accordance with the law" to which she
replied "I say I am innocent of this charge". Mr. Justice Denman then
donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang.
There was no appeal in those days - it was to be
1907 before the Court of Criminal Appeal was set up. However her
solicitor made considerable effort to save her alleging that she was
not in control of herself at the time of the killing and that this was
due to epileptic fits that she had suffered since birth. The Home
Office were not swayed by this argument and after due consideration
her case papers were marked with the fatal words "the law must take
At Mary's request, Frank Hogg was given permission
to visit her on the Monday afternoon in Newgate but did not show up
which greatly upset Mary who wept inconsolably on her bed when she
realised he was not going to come. Other than that she remained very
composed through her last day and night.
On her final evening Mary was visited by Mr. Freke
Palmer, her solicitor, whom she asked to deal with certain bequests
and also to place a personal advert for her in the Madrid newspapers
which was to read "MECP Last wish of MEW. Have not betrayed. MEW.
(Mary Eleanor Wheeler) Mary refused to elaborate on the meaning of
this message and also refused point blank to confess to Mr. Palmer,
despite persistent questioning, with the promise that he would put any
relevant facts before the Home Secretary in a last ditch attempt to
get a reprieve.
Mary was to be hanged by James Berry two days
before Christmas 1890 (three clear Sundays after sentence) at London's
Newgate prison. On arrival back at Newgate from the Old Bailey she
would have been made to take a bath and been given prison uniform - a
plain grey shift dress, before being taken to the condemned cell where
she was guarded round the clock by three warderesses.
The Sheriff of London, Sir
James Whitehead, had decided to exclude newspaper reporters from her
hanging - presumably out of deference to her sex and age. The
execution took place on Tuesday 23rd December and Berry arrived at the
prison on the Saturday. Mary noticed him looking at her through the
judas (peep) hole in her cell door and remarked to the women guarding
her "Oh, was that the executioner.? He's in good time isn't he? Is it
usual for him to arrive on the Saturday for the Monday? (Home Office
regulations required the hangman to be at the prison by 4.00 p.m. on
the afternoon prior to the hanging.)
Her guards reported that on
the night before her execution "her fortitude was remarkable". Berry
entered the condemned cell a few moments before 8.00 a.m. and said
"Good morning, madam" to Mary and shook hands with her. He then went
on "If you're ready madam I will get these straps round you" to which
Mary replied that she was quite ready. So Berry placed the leather
body belt around her waist and secured her wrists to it in front of
The Sheriff asked if she had
any final statement. Berry reported that she told the assembled party
"My sentence is a just one but a good deal of the evidence against me
is false." (see later) Two of the warderesses guarding her now took up
position one on each side of her - Mary told them she didn’t need
assistance and would be able to walk by herself but this of course had
to be ignored as it was a Home Office requirement that she be
escorted. One of the women said she would accompany Mary who said "Oh
well, if you don’t mind going with me I am pleased" and then kissed
all three women before the procession started out from the cell along
the corridor and across the yard to the execution shed.
The gallows at
Newgate was a large structure, constructed in 1881 and capable of
taking up to four prisoners side by side although on this occasion
only a single noose dangled from the 6 links of iron chain attached to
the metal bracket in the centre of the beam. Mary weighed 9 stone and
Berry set a drop of 9 feet for her. Once on the drop she was supported
by two male warders while her legs were pinioned and the white cotton
hood put over her head. The brass eyelet of the noose was correctly
positioned under the angle of her left jaw and the rope drawn tight.
Berry checked that the scaffold was clear and
quickly pulled the lever. The "ponderous" trap doors crashed down and
Mary disappeared from view leaving just the taught rope in sight. She
died without a struggle - her neck broken instantly by the length of
the drop and the position of the brass eyelet.
Outside the prison in the bitterly cold December
morning some 300 people, including many women, had gathered to witness
the sounds of St. Sepulchre's Church bell tolling and the black flag
flying above the prison to denote that the execution had been carried
out. Mary apparently evoked little public sympathy, perhaps due to
murdering the child and there was a cheer from the crowd as the flag
Her body was left dangling on the rope for the
customary hour in the brick lined pit beneath the trap and then
removed and buried later in the day in an unmarked grave within
Newgate. Madame Tussaud's made a wax model of her for the Chamber of
Horrors, as was normal in celebrated cases and bought the pram from
Frank Hogg together with some of the other effects.
Mad or bad?
There was reliable evidence that Mary had been an
epileptic since childhood and her solicitor Mr. Freke Palmer unearthed
a considerable volume of evidence on her epilepsy and two suicide
attempts, which he suggested, indicated that Mary was less than sane.
It should be noted however, that epilepsy is not, nowadays, considered
a form of mental illness. To have epilepsy is to have recurrent
seizures. A seizure is a temporary state of abnormal electrical
activity within the brain. The word "temporary" is important and these
occasional seizures do not in themselves amount to mental illness.
Epileptic automatism has been successfully used as a defence in murder
trials because it proves that the person could not have formed the
intent to kill while they were having the seizure.
However in Mary's case, none of this added up to a
legal defence of insanity, which was governed by the McNaughten Rule.
This had arisen from the case of Daniel McNaughten who in 1843 tried
to kill the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, against whom he had an
imaginary grudge, but instead shot his secretary, Mr. Drummond. The
court found him not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity, because
at the time it occurred he either did not know what he was doing or if
he did he did not know that it was wrong.
In McNaughten's case it was found that he didn’t
know what he was doing at the time of the shooting. The McNaughten
Rule was interpreted very strictly in Mary's days (it was to be
widened later) and there was little scope for this defence to succeed.
Mr. Palmer publicly expressed his disappointment with the Home
Secretary, saying that it seemed that the whole world was against her.
There is a distinct element of truth in this - probably caused as much
as anything by the murder of the baby and by her promiscuous behaviour
as it would have been seen through Victorian eyes.
If Mary wasn’t insane (at least according to the
legal definition in force at the time) was she suffering from a
personality disorder? It is impossible to estimate the effect upon a
fourteen year old girl of having her father arrested, convicted and
hanged for murder, but one certainly feels that these events would
have had a profound effect on her. As stated earlier she had twice
tried to commit suicide in the ten years between her father's death
and her own.
Like many murderers Mary was a first time offender
- there is no evidence of previous convictions or of violence. Was
there, though, some hereditary predilection to violence? Evidence of
pre-meditation was put forward at her trial and yet there is very
little evidence that Mary tried to cover her tracks or to clean up the
house afterwards which one might have expected her to have done. Was
she in an epileptic state at the time of the crime or perhaps she had
been drinking prior to it to give her courage for the grim task ahead?
One of her neighbours said in evidence that she appeared "boozed" when
she saw her after the murder and this symptom is also found in people
recovering from an epileptic fit and can be seen in the eyes.
Some interesting questions remain
Mary was described by James Berry as the calmest
person present at her execution. Was she like so many other murderers
resigned to her fate and keen to rid herself of the burden of guilt
and of the secrets she carried? She did not seem to be seeking a
reprieve or welcoming of Palmer's efforts on her behalf.
Berry states in his memoirs that Mary confessed the
justice of her sentence just before he led her to the gallows, but one
wonders whether this is what he would have liked her to have said
rather than what she actually said. Did she perhaps say "My sentence
is an unjust one and much of the evidence against me false"? She had
refused absolutely to confess to her mother or her solicitor prior to
the execution, both of whom questioned her closely. She was aware of
her imminent death, as she told her mother, but would not budge on her
story of knowing nothing at all about the killing. Mr. Freke Palmer
pressed Mary repeatedly on whether she had any recollection at all of
the events but Mary declined to admit any and brought the meeting to a
very definite close, having asked him again to place the advert for
her in the Spanish papers. It may be that she had come to believe that
she must have killed Phoebe and the baby as everyone said she had done
so and therefore accepted responsibility for the crime without
actually being able to remember it.
I believe that she did actually kill Phoebe and the
baby, the evidence against her being the killer is very strong, but
feel that it was more likely to be because of an argument and fight
that developed between the two women, rather than it being a
premeditated crime. She may well be found to have "diminished
responsibility" nowadays although, of course, the concept wasn’t
It is however quite possible that she was either
still in denial of the crimes, which had, after all, only taken place
two months earlier, or genuinely could not remember anything, if, as
Mr. Palmer suggests that she was in an epileptic state at the time. It
is not unusual for people to block out the memories of particularly
horrible events from their minds and the murder of Phoebe Hogg was
certainly an horrific one. Mary's behaviour in the mortuary is odd to
say the least - while one can accept that the sight of Phoebe's corpse
would be upsetting for anyone, at that stage only Mary and Clara knew
who it was on the slab. Her behaviour when the police were searching
her house is even more bizarre. Is this strange behaviour evidence of
Mary being in denial or revolted by what she had done?
The defence questioned whether a woman of Mary's
size and build would have the physical strength to inflict the
appalling injuries on Phoebe Hogg and it does seem a fair question,
although there is no evidence that anyone else was involved. Phoebe
was said to be 5' 6" tall and seemed to have put up quite a fight as
witnessed by the broken windows etc in the house when the police
examined it later.
Evidence of premeditation was given to the court -
the written invite to Mrs. Hogg to come to tea and the alleged puling
down of the blinds to provide privacy during the attack. But what was
it that made Mary lash out with such violence against Phoebe Hogg on
that particular occasion? Did they quarrel over Frank or was it
something one of them said that started an argument as suggested by
Mary in the conversation with Sarah Sawhill. Was it, as the
prosecution alleged, a premeditated plan hatched by Mary out of
jealousy to eliminate her rival. She had, from the age of 14, been
acutely aware of the punishment for murder but made virtually no
effort to destroy the evidence of the crime nor take a lot of trouble
in the disposal of the bodies which seems strange if she had planned
the murder and had hoped to escape the consequences. Sadly we will
never know the answers to these questions.
PEARCEY, Mary Eleanor
Mary Eleanor was
another woman who pushed a small cart, a pram in this case, into which
she had crammed her victims, one being that of a woman, the other of
the woman’s baby, in an attempt to dispose of them. The dead woman’s
body, covered in
blood, the head almost
severed, was discovered on a building site in a street in Hampstead,
London, by a policeman. A search for clues was immediately instituted
but it was not until the following day that, some distance away, a
small child’s corpse was found together with a heavily bloodstained
Descriptions of the
victim’s clothing were circulated, a young woman by the name of Clara
Hogg coming forward to claim that they resembled those sometimes worn
by her aunt, Mrs Phoebe Hogg. When asked to come and identify the body
she persuaded a friend of her aunt’s, 24-year-old Mrs Mary Pearcey, to
accompany her. The friend was very reluctant to do so; so reluctant
that, on seeing the corpse, she exclaimed that it was
not that of Phoebe.
However, Clara, on seeing the face of the dead woman, confirmed that
the body was indeed that of her aunt.
The police visited the
murdered woman’s house and interviewed her husband Frank, who told
them that his wife had taken Jeffrey, their 18-month-old son, out in
the pram for a walk. As Frank did not appear to be as upset over his
wife’s gruesome death as would have been expected, they searched the
premises for any clues and discovered a key which they ascertained to
be the door key to Mary Pearcey’s house nearby.
Following this up, the
police then visited Mrs Pearcey herself, to be greeted by a ghastly
sight, for the kitchen resembled a slaughter-house, the walls and
floor splashed with blood, furniture overturned and shards of crockery
scattered around the room. When asked to account for the scene of
devastation Mary blandly replied that she had been chasing mice,
accompanying her words by playing on the piano! The weapons used, a
bloodstained chopper and a poker, were found among the debris, hairs
on the latter matching those found on the cushions in the pram.
The truth then emerged
that although Mary entertained other gentlemen of the neighbourhood,
and Phoebe’s husband had the reputation of being a womaniser,
nevertheless she and Frank had been having a long-term intense and
clandestine love affair.
The relationship was
known to and accepted by Phoebe, and the two women remained firm
friends, at least until Mary invited her friend to visit her in
October 1890. Accordingly, Phoebe washed and dressed the baby and
wheeled it in the pram to
Mary’s house. What
happened there between the two was never discovered. Mary could have
been suddenly overwhelmed with uncontrollable jealousy; Phoebe may
have finally resented some possessive comment inadvertently made by
The attack, seemingly
one-sided, was brutal and savage, Mary wielding the chopper and poker,
then cutting her victim’s throat, almost severing her head. After
ascertaining that Phoebe was dead, Mary then put the body on top of
the baby in the pram, its mother’s weight eventually suffocating it.
Draping a raincoat over the bodies, she pushed the pram out of the
house, passing neighbours as she did so, even speaking to some of them
as she headed through the streets, first to deposit Phoebe’s body
where it was eventually found, then continuing to the wasteland, where
she abandoned the baby and the pram.
Arrested and charged,
there was no mercy shown towards her, any vestiges of compassion
vanishing when it was learned that, when taken into custody, she wore
two wedding rings on her finger – but only the impression of one
remained on the finger of the murdered Phoebe. In court she pleaded
not guilty on the grounds of circumstantial evidence, the defence also
claiming insanity, but the jury did not hesitate and nor did the
judge. Finding her guilty, he sentenced her to death.
Mary showed no
reaction on being taken away, her icy composure only finally breaking
down when, from the condemned cell, she wrote to her lover asking him
to come and visit her; her letters were returned unanswered. However,
she soon resumed her self-assured attitude, outwardly at least;
needing to assess her weight in order to decide on the length of
‘drop’ to give her, hangman James Berry walked past the cell and
quickly glanced in, whereupon she said casually, ‘Oh, was that the
executioner? He’s in good time, isn’t he – is it usual for him to
arrive on the Saturday for the Monday?’ And when Berry came to collect
his prisoner on that day, 23 December 1890, she shook hands with him.
He then asked whether she had any last statement to make, to which she
cryptically replied, ‘The sentence was just, but some of the evidence
was false.’ Requiring to prepare her for execution, Berry then said
politely, ‘If you are ready, madam, I will get these straps round
you.’ Without any hesitation she said, ‘I am quite ready, Mr Berry.’
When the female warders moved to walk each side of her in the macabre
procession, she remarked, ‘I need no one to assist me; I can walk by
myself and there is no need for you to come.’ One of the officers said
that they didn’t mind in the least accompanying
her, to which she
answered, ‘Oh well, if you don’t mind coming, I shall be glad to have
you.’ On arriving at the scaffold she kissed the women goodbye, surely
a highly emotional moment for the officers.
On the trapdoors,
supported by two male warders standing on the planks that bridged the
gap, and holding the ropes suspended from the overhead beam with their
free hands, she maintained her almost uncanny air of complete
composure as Berry hooded and noosed her. The end came rapidly as he
operated the drop, the rope straightening taut and spinning slightly
as she dropped into the pit.
One mystery still
remains unsolved. On her instructions Mary’s solicitor caused a
message to be published in a Spanish newspaper, reading: ‘M.E.C.P.
Last wish of M.E.W. Have not betrayed.’ The latter three initials were
those of her real name, Mary Eleanor Wheeler, Pearcey being the
surname of a man, John Charles Pearcey, with whom she had lived for
But who was M.E.C.P?
Why Spain? Who was it she had not betrayed? And of doing what?
Did she in fact commit
the murder? There were no reported signs of any injuries she might,
indeed should have sustained during the violent struggle in the
kitchen, so was M.E.C.P. one of her men friends who was so enamoured
with her that at her request he killed her rival for Frank’s
affections and then fled to Spain? And knowing that, in his absence,
she could neither prove his existence, nor have him extradited from
abroad, was that why she affected insanity by playing the piano and
claiming that she had been killing mice, in the last final hope of a
We will never know.
The saying that
‘Mother knows best’ was never more true than in the case of the woman
who said to her son, who was shortly to be executed, ‘Well, be a good
boy; the angman will claim your clothes, so don’t wear your best ones,
but let me have them. I had better have your red waistcoat
Amazing True Stories
of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott