The un­likely femme fa­tale who killed two hus­bands

Sunday Sun - - News - IAN ROB­SON ian.rob­son@trin­i­tymir­

Re­porter LOOK­ING more like abit pf a bat­tleaxe than a femme fa­tale - this the Merry Widow of Windy Nook who was ques­tioned 60 yer­ars ago on sus­pi­cion of the mur­der of two of her hus­bands.

Back in Novem­ber 1957 Mary El­iz­a­beth Wil­son, 66, was quizzed by po­lice in the first act of a drama that even­tu­allu saw her sen­tenced to hang­for the dou­ble slay­ing.

The sen­tence was re­duced to life im­pris­on­ment be­cause of her age, but But the case has gone down in North East folk­lore.

The story of Mary Wil­son, who still has fam­ily liv­ing in the re­gion, bears a strong re­sem­blance to an­other hus­band killer, Mary Anne Cot­ton.

Her tale was told in last year’s drama se­ries Dark An­gel.

Both used poi­son to kill their spouses for fi­nan­cial gain.

Mary Wil­son’s name was first brought to pub­lic at­ten­tion on a Sat­ur­day in Novem­ber.

Our sis­ter pa­per the Evening Chron­i­cle re­ported how the bod­ies of two of her four hus­bands were dug up at ceme­ter­ies in Heb­burn and He­worth.

We were banned from the open­ing of in­quests into the deaths of the men but quickly pieced to­gether the story of a un­likely killer.

At first Mary came across as a lit­tle old lady, a “small homely woman”, but be­hind the fa­cade was a hard-hearted killer who was nailed by lo­cal gos­sip.

In the day af­ter the ex­huma­tions she spoke of how peo­ple were go­ing around “tit­tle-tat­tling”.

“I am not wor­ried about what they are say­ing,” she told a Sun­day Sun re­porter at her home in Rec­tory Road, Windy Nook, Gateshead.

“I can go to the blessed sacra­ment - I am a Catholic - to­mor­row. I take no no­tice of the tit­tle-tat­tle. It is all jeal­ousy. I am not wor­ried at all about what is go­ing on.”

But she should have been...peo­ple had no­ticed some of her hus­bands died quickly af­ter the wed­ding and with alarm­ing fre­quency.

They had heard her joke to the un­der­taker about get­ting a dis­count be­cause of the amount of work she was pass­ing his way.

And they had raised eye­brows when she was heard to say the sand­wiches left over from a wed­ding would be use­ful at the fu­neral that would in­evitably fol­low.

We also spoke to the man­ager of the Al­nwick Cas­tle at Jar­row who painted a pic­ture of a her fourth hus­band, Ernest Lawrence Wil­son, as a pop­u­lar man.

Wil­liam Walker said: “Larry was a cheer­ful fel­low. He was not a heavy drinker but he used to come here for a glass of beer and read the news­pa­pers. He never wore socks, not even on his wed­ding day, and nei­ther did he wear a vest and un­der­pants. He was a well-ed­u­cated man and a good mixer.”

As the days went by the bod­ies of Mary’s other two hus­bands were also ex­humed and in 1958, Mary Wil­son was put on trial.

She pleaded not guilty to the mur­ders of hus­bands Oliver Leonard and Larry Wil­son.

The crown’s case was she had mur­dered them with phos­pho­rus found in bee­tle poi­son and dis­guised as love pills.

The bod­ies of all four hus­bands showed signs of the same cause of death but the charges re­lated to just two.

In March 1958, at the end of the trail, Mr Jus­tice Hinch­cliffe had his black cap, tra­di­tion­ally worn at the pass­ing of a death sen­tence, at his side ready to be put on.

Mary stood in the dock, a nurse at one side and a woman prison of­fi­cer at the other, as the fore­man of the jury an­nounced guilty ver­dicts.

The clerk of the court, Hugh Rad­cliffe, said: “You have been con­victed of mur­der. What have you of your­self to say why sen­tence of death should not be passed upon you ac­cord­ing to law?” She did not re­ply. The judge put on his black cap and sen­tenced her to death.

The Sun­day Sun re­porter who had spo­ken to her at the start of the case re­vealed how, just a day af­ter the first ex­huma­tions, a cheer­ful Mary was plan­ning a cel­e­bra­tion when “things get back to nor­mal”.

She in­vited us to that when her name was cleared and she was able to live her life in peace. It never took place.

But Mary’s black legacy lives on...An­dria Raistrick, of Trim­don Col­liery, is her great grand­daugh­ter and has stud­ied the fam­ily story.

Speak­ing to us last year as Dark An­gel was broad­cast she said she was used as a threat to make chil­dren do what they were told.

She said: “I knew about it grow­ing up but it was not some­thing that older mem­bers of the fam­ily talked about. But I do re­mem­ber chil­dren be­ing told to be­have or granny would be set on them.

“My mother hated what hap­pened, we all knew about my great-granny, but she was not happy about it.

“Mary Wil­son looked like a lit­tle cosy old lady but she killed my great-grand­dad and I wanted to find out more about it.”

Mary’s hus­bands were John Knowles, John Rus­sell, Oliver Leonard and Ernest Wil­son.

Her maiden name was Cas­sidy and she orig­i­nally came from Catch­gate, Stan­ley, County Durham.

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