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Mary Ann Higgins - the last woman to be publicly hanged on Whitley Common, Coventry.





On Tuesday 30th July I had a private viewing of the remains of Mary Ann Higgins.  Mary Ann Higgins was the last woman to be publicly hanged on Whitley Common, Coventry.


The following is taken from The Herbert Art Gallery website - In 1972 this bag was donated to the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. Inside, was a remarkable discovery; the head of Mary Ann Higgins, the last woman to be publically hanged in Coventry. On 9 August 1831, when she was only 19, Mary Ann Higgins was tried for the murder of her uncle, William Higgins.


Also with her on trial was Edward Clarke, a watchmaking apprentice who had been courting Mary Ann. In the weeks before William's death, Clarke spent money freely and boasted that he could get more by going to the old man’s house.


On 22 March 1831, Mary Ann bought arsenic from the chemist, supposedly to kill rats. That same night, William fell ill and died. Surgeons found arsenic in his stomach and also in his pea soup. Mary Ann admitted to the poisoning but told the coroner that Clarke had instigated her to take her uncle’s life, and that Clarke had frequently beaten and ill-used her when he did not have as much money from her as he wanted. At the Warwick assizes in August 1831, the jury convicted Mary Ann and acquitted Edward.


As the judge sentenced Mary Ann to death, her cries moved onlookers to tears. Early on 11th August 1831 Mary Ann was taken to Whitley Common on a cart which contained a coffin and was surrounded by constables. 15,000 people were on Whitley Common to watch Mary Ann’s hanging. After the hanging Mary Ann’s body was taken to the old Bridewell, by St John’s church, for dissection. In 1831 this was the only legal source of bodies surgeons had.


These public dissections were both a source of information to medics and entertainment and a warning to the public. This story gives us more of an insight into life and death in the 1800’s.


When I arrived I was taken to the storage facility below the Herbert and there on a table was a box - as the box was opened the tissue paper surrounding the remains revealed a blackened skull, complete with skin remnants, cartilage, teeth and evidence of medical dissection.  


As you can imagine I had many questions for the Curator surrounding Mary Ann's remains including: 


Q How can you be sure that this is Mary Ann's remains? 

A small percentage of doubt surrounds the fact that this may not be Mary Ann - however, the provenance of the benefactor and where her remains have been kept since means that it is likely that this is Mary Ann - also the report of her dissection matches the history. 


Mary Ann Higgins was used for public dissections and was then kept in police custody for many years.  Mary Ann's remains were then gifted in a will where they were then donated to the museum. 


Q Where has she been since her hanging? 

Mary Ann Higgins was used for public dissections and was then kept in police custody for many years.  Mary Ann's remains were then gifted in a will where they were then donated to the museum. 


Q Do you believe she was naive and coerced into murder?

It is suggested that Mary Ann Higgins was 19 at the time of her death - however, it may be possible that she was younger and although speculation of her being pregnant at the time of her hanging, there is no evidence to support this.  Having had a conversation around this gruesome murder - it is without a doubt that Mary Ann was guilty although she may have been naive enough to follow a plan plotted by Edward Clarke.


Q What happened to Edward Clarke after he was acquitted? 

Edward Clarke is said to have been run out of the City and on to Rugby - where he was also chased out by the locals and his whereabouts after this is unknown.  We are researching Edward Clarke. 


Q Where are the rest of her remains? 

It is unknown what happened to the rest of her remains.  


Q Why has she never been buried? 

The Herbert Art Gallery did indeed put a poll out to the public to see what they should do with Mary Ann Higgins remains.  The poll was inconclusive and for now, she is in storage in a box. 


We are currently looking through the Coventry Herald inquest and trial reports as well as William’s burial record. There’s also a newspaper clipping from 1917 which talks about her head being displayed in Coventry.


David McGrory’s on Coventry murders book indicates that all of her remains went to the School of Art and her head ‘resurfaces’ in 1972, however, he doesn’t cite any sources for the transfer to the School of Art.


A huge amount of time and research goes into my tours - Mary Ann Higgins story is very similar to Mary Ball.


Viewing the remains of this woman, who did indeed murder her uncle out of greed, it was still a sad and emotional process. 


Out of respect I did not take photos of Mary Ann's remains, however, if you were to Google her name - you will be able to see previous images. 


Our City is built on hideous history and my job is to share those tales with you. 

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