150 years ago this month Mary Ball was hanged outside Coventry County Court. She was the last person to be hanged in the city.
The story is a sad one. Mary was very poor and in an unhappy and violent marriage. Five of her six children had died. One day after her husband came home from fishing he ate bread and a bowl of thin stew known as gruel. Not long after eating it he felt ill with stomach pains. The doctor arrived and said that it was inflammation of the bowels. The next day the doctor came again to find him dead and issued a death certificate stating his death was from natural causes.
But gossip and suspicion led the authorities to interrogate Mary and she change her statement a few times, each one more damming. She said she had bought a pennyworth of Arsenic to kill bed bugs (a normal thing to do then). Could the poison have been mixed up with some salt that ended up in the meal by accident or had she had enough of her husband’s violence?
An autopsy was performed by Dr. Prouse and Mr George Shaw, Professor of Chemistry at Queen’s College, Birmingham. This found between two and three grains of arsenic in Thomas’ stomach and thus on the 22nd of May Mary was charged with his murder. Mary was tried at the Coventry Summer Assizes held in the County Hall before Mr. Justice Coleridge on the 28th of July 1849, the case taking just over ten hours to hear. The jury convicted her after two hours of deliberation, adding a recommendation of mercy. When Mr. Justice Coleridge asked them why, they could offer no reason and then returned a verdict of guilty to wilful murder. At that time having a violent husband was no defence!
She was then sentenced to death and returned to prison to await execution. In the condemned cell Mary was visited by the prison chaplain, the Rev. Chapman, but he became frustrated by Mary’s refusal to confess to the murder and on the 4th of August held her bare arm over a lighted candle, causing burns and blistering. News of this disgraceful behaviour reached the governor of the Coventry prison and Rev. Chapman was dismissed from the prison service. The following day Mary reportedly made a confession.
Asked what made her do it, Mary could only say: “My husband was in the habit of going with other women, and used me so ill – no one knows what I have suffered.”
Mary’s execution was thus set for Thursday, the 9th of August and she was duly returned to Coventry. She was led the New Drop gallows set up in front of County Hall in Cuckoo Lane just before 10 am. A crowd estimated at between 15 and 20,000 people had come from miles around to watch. She was hanged by William Calcraft, assisted by James Japhcote and appeared to die easily.
Mary was buried within the prison grounds. This would be the last execution at Coventry and there is a plaque on the wall of County Hall commemorating it.
As was not uncommon at that time a death mask of Mary’s face was made and this is still on display at the West Midlands Police Museum in Coventry (see photo above). Our Chairman, Paul Maddocks, has added eyes and skin colour and put it on a photo of a woman dressed in the style of that time in order to give an impression of what Mary would have looked like (see photo below).
The Society is concerned about the state of maintenance of the old County Court building (now the Slug and Lettuce). The building is looking a bit sad with a broken rain down pipe that has been like this for many months and the building is getting damp. We have reported our concerns to the owner and the City Council.