The unlikely femme fatale who killed two husbands
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.