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The strange case of Louisa Merrifield: 1
Was Louisa Merrifield wrongly hanged in 1953 for poisoning her employer? And if she was guilty, why did her husband escape the noose when he profited equally from the crime?
‘Resp. woman or couple share furn. house rent-free for service to lady. 339 Devonshire Rd, Blackpool.’
That was the classified ad in the West Lancashire Evening Gazette on 10 March 1953.
The lady was Sarah Ann Ricketts, 79 years old and housebound. She lived in a two-bedroomed bungalow but was unable to venture beyond the garden gate.
Two days later, the successful “respectable” couple, Louisa and Alfred Merrifield, moved in with Sarah and became her housekeepers and carers.
Louisa and Alfred had been an itinerant couple, moving frequently from rented room to boarding house, sometimes without actually paying the rent. The opportunity to live rent-free as domestics was clearly an attractive one for the Merrifields.
It may seem disconcerting that a vulnerable widow like Sarah Ricketts would welcome two strangers to move in and assist her after just one interview. The Blackpool Corporation, the local authority, did provide home helps for people with Sarah’s needs. Mrs Ricketts had had one for a couple years – Lavinia Blezard, who stopped assisting Sarah just the month before the Merrifields moved in.
Lavinia had done Mrs Ricketts’ cooking, cleaning, mending, washing and ironing, as well drawing her pension at the post office. The description of the old lady Lavinia gave to police later may be a clue to her reason for quitting as Sarah’s helper: “She [Sarah] was cute, wayward, wilful and very selfish.”
The death of Sarah Ricketts
Louisa was aged 46 and had married Alfred two and a half years previously. One woman who met her said she was five feet tall, “well built, tight-lipped”. At the age of 71, husband Alfred was 25 years older than his wife.
Louisa was born in Wigan on 3 December 1906. She had an elementary education and left school when she was just 13. She then worked in a cotton mill for six years. Domestic service followed that. She married her first husband, Joseph Ellison, in 1931 and had nine children, only four of whom survived into the 1950s. Ellison died in 1949. The next year, Louisa wed her second husband, Richard Weston. They made a surprising couple as she was aged 43 while Weston was 80 years old. However, the union was ill-starred, and after just eight weeks Louisa’s second husband also died – the cause of death being a heart attack. By summer, she had married septuagenarian Alfred Merrifield at Wigan register office.
Louisa’s rather odd pattern of marriages would raise questions in the minds of detectives as events unfolded in the coming weeks.
Alfred had been born in Callington, Cornwall, on 24 August 1882. As was common for working-class children then, he too left school early, at the age of 12. Apprenticed in an engineering firm, he married Alice Whittle in 1902 and fathered 10 children. In the First World War he served with the 200th Field Company, Royal Engineers, in France and Belgium. After demobilisation he had various spells of employment – labourer, foreman, moulder – and unemployment. His wife died in Manchester in 1948.
By the time he and Louisa arrived on Sarah Ricketts’ doorstep, they were making do on his weekly pension of £2.14.0d (two pounds, fourteen shillings) and a further £2 he received from the National Assistance Board. Louisa had taken a variety of jobs, often in some domestic or housekeeping role. As a result of their precarious income, they were always on the lookout for cheap places to live.
Both had criminal records, about which they no doubt kept quiet during their job interview with Sarah Ricketts. In the previous three years, Louisa had had around 20 jobs, suggesting she was not the most dependable or honest person to have working in your home. In 1946 she had been found guilty of ration-book fraud. She was sentenced to 84 days’ imprisonment having refused to pay the £10 fine. Three of her children were later taken into care when she was deemed to have failed to provide them with a good standard of education.
In 1949, Alfred was charged with indecently assaulting an eight-year-old girl. He was fined £25 (about £712 today).
Alfred would tell police he and Louisa moved from Wigan to Blackpool in April 1951, when Louisa got work as a cook with the Blackpool Tower Company. Wigan is 30 miles from Blackpool, which, being a huge seaside resort, with its Golden Mile beachfront, theatres, bed and breakfasts, and hotels, no doubt offered more job opportunities than Louisa’s home town.
If the couple ever enjoyed a honeymoon period, it had probably been brief. The landlady of one of their boarding houses, Margaret Gardner, said: “The Merrifields quarrelled frequently in my house, calling each other names and swearing at each other. He used to hit her with a stick after she struck him. During one of these quarrels I was present in the dining room of my house. Apparently, Mrs Merrifield had taken Mr Merrifield’s pension book and got his money stopped. Amongst the things I heard Mr Merrifield say to her was that she was trying to do him in.”
What kind of impression would Sarah Ricketts have made on this volatile, rather shifty couple? They surely were quick to see there was possibLy more on offer at 339 Devonshire Road than free accommodation. To Louisa and Alfred, Sarah Ricketts was well-off and secure.
She owned and lived in a lovely bungalow, worth up to £4,000 (around £118,000 today), in a nice part of Blackpool. She also had money. Sarah had been married twice. Her second husband, William John Ricketts, a retired farmer, had died in 1946 and left her rental income from a house he owned and interest from investments. His estate was valued at £4,493 (around £130,000 today). To Louisa, Sarah Ricketts – like many of her previous employers – had a lifestyle the housekeeper could only long for. Louisa had been married three times, probably seeking security before love, and here she was, still tramping between threadbare lodgings and miserable jobs, leaving the latter because of her unreliability, laziness or suspected thieving. She would later tell police she and Alfred had moved addresses in Blackpool around 20 times.
They were no doubt on their best behaviour when they arrived at Devonshire Road. Curmudgeonly she might be, but by this time Sarah was at the stage where she was in serious need of care. She had had a fall a several months before. The coal man, milkman and grocer making deliveries would let themselves into her home because Sarah found it difficult to answer the door.
Louisa found the old lady was in a poor state and persuaded her to go to bed. There was little food in the house, though there were bottles of Guinness and spirits, which Mrs Ricketts said she took for her asthma. Louisa put this right by buying food and giving Sarah proper meals, “fish and chicken and a good pudding every day”, as Louisa said. The old woman’s health improved.
She appreciated Louisa’s efforts. According to Alfred, she told Louisa, “If you do justice to me and look after me, I will see that you have got a home for life.” Again according to Alfred, Sarah told Louisa to send for her solicitor.
On 24 March, 12 days after their arrival, Louisa visited solicitor William Darbyshire. She informed him that on behalf of Mrs Ricketts he was to draw up a new will for the old woman. Louisa Merrifield was to be sole executrix and beneficiary.
In turn, Darbyshire arrived at the bungalow on 31 March. At some point, Alfred buttonholed the solicitor and told him that he was to be included in the will as joint beneficiary with his wife. It would appear that husband and wife were jockeying independently of each other to get into that will. Darbyshire questioned Sarah Ricketts having asked the Merrifields to leave them alone. When asked why she wanted to alter her will, Sarah said her two daughters – Loveday Whittaker and Ethel Harrison – had not been good to her, and that the Merrifields wanted to look after her. She therefore wanted to leave everything to them, and confirmed that Alfred should be included as beneficiary. Darbyshire witnessed her signing the new will.
Two weeks later, Sarah Ricketts was dead.
Rat poison and a death foretold
What happened in those intervening two weeks would be closely examined at the trial later that year.
Having initially replenished Sarah with some proper food, Louisa and her employer soon had a falling out. Mrs Ricketts had given Louisa control of her budget so that she could do the shopping and order food. One provision the bungalow was not short of was alcohol, with deliveries of rum and Guinness arriving regularly. But then, three weeks after the Merrifields moved in, Mrs Ricketts attempted to order two bottles of rum and a bottle of brandy, along with butter and sugar, only to be told by Louisa that there was not enough money for these items. Mrs Ricketts’ hit back by saying that she could afford them before Louisa and her husband moved in. The outcome was that Mrs Ricketts resumed control of the housekeeping budget, and booze again became a major part of the weekly shopping.
Other incidents suggest that Sarah Ricketts may have started to suspect that money was going missing. When the booze delivery man called on 13 April, she looked in her bag and found she was cashless. Alfred was there and said he would go to the bank for her to get the balance of her account. The delivery man, Jerzy Forjan, would later tell police that Mrs Ricketts replied, “When you go to the bank, call my solicitor to the house, because I want to change my will.” Alfred then abruptly changed his mind and said he could not go to the bank that day. Sarah then said to the delivery man, “He’s all right, it’s her [Louisa] I don’t like. I am going to turn them out because she called me a bloody fool.”
All this happened on the day before Sarah died. It was clear that she wanted to alter her will. Alfred appeared to refuse, or put off, summoning the solicitor when she asked him to. Did Mrs Rickett’s intention to perhaps cut them out of the will prompt the Merrifields – either together or singly – to kill her?
Then there was Louisa’s unusual actions in repeatedly summoning doctors to examine her employer. On 9 April, four days before the delivery man’s visit, Mrs Ricketts had looked unwell and Louisa asked who her doctor was. Despite Sarah’s opposition, Louisa called in Dr Burton Yule.
Dr Yule had had dealings with Sarah before and did not want to do so again. Louisa insisted that he would be paid if he visited. He ended up agreeing to visit the next day, 10 April. Sarah was not pleased when he arrived. Louisa insisted that Sarah needed to be examined but the patient flatly refused. So, Dr Yule simply asked how Sarah was feeling, and whether she had made her will. She said, “I am looking after them that look after me.” He did not examine her, but apparently said, “You are quite compos mentis and know what you are doing.”
It becomes clear that Louisa’s real purpose in calling in Dr Yule was to get him to issue a certificate stating that the old woman was, as he had said, in full possession of her mental faculties and fit to sign her will. Dr Yule found this request for a certificate to be unnecessary because the will had already been settled. When Louisa visited his surgery three days later, in order to pay the medical bill of 10 shillings and sixpence, Dr Yule refused to issue any certificate of mental well-being and said he did not involvement in any will.
Louisa had wanted the doctor’s written confirmation that Sarah was of sound mind because she did not the will contested by her daughters or anyone else in the event of her death. However, instead of getting this medical confirmation, what she got instead was Dr Yule witnessing that Sarah had been in good health when he saw her four days before her death. Indeed, he would tell police that the old lady had walked him to the garden gate, where she had told him that she did not trust the Merrifields, that they owed her money, and that she planned to change her will again.
A second doctor saw Sarah the day before her death and he would concur with Dr Yule’s assessment that the pensioner was not seriously ill. True, she had complained of stomach pains – she had consumed a one-pound jar of Hartley’s blackcurrant jam mixed with various spirits, her favourite treat – and Louisa this time called in Dr Albert Wood. Dr Wood saw Sarah that evening. He said she looked better than when he had last seen her three years before. He diagnosed mild bronchitis, gave her a sedative, and prescribed a bottle of medicine for the next day. Despite the doctor saying Sarah had nothing to worry about, Louisa said she was worried the old woman might die in the night. Again, despite a doctor concluding Sarah had nothing to worry about, Louisa was raising the possibility of her imminent death.
Before Dr Wood departed, the Merrifields were asked to leave the room. Once they had, Sarah told him that the couple were trying to get rid of her and she was worried. He tried to reassure her and left. Louisa would later tell police that during the night she found Sarah sitting on the toilet rubbing her tummy. She said, according to Louisa, “You don’t know how ill I am.”
On the Tuesday, Louisa went to Dr Wood’s surgery and asked for someone to attend to Mrs Ricketts. A Dr Ernest Page came, found the pensioner unable to speak, and told Louisa he could not take her as his patient and she should refer the case back to Dr Yule. Louisa called three times at Dr Yule’s surgery, but he was out. When he finally arrived at Devonshire Road at around 1.50 pm, he found Sarah Ricketts was dead.
Dr Yule was suspicious. Instead of issuing a death certificate, he phoned the police and spoke to Detective Sergeant Norman Steadman. The doctor suggested the sergeant also speak to Dr Wood. With both doctors concurring that Sarah appeared in no immediate danger when they saw her, along with Louisa’s fussing about the will and the old woman’s comments to Dr Wood about fearing the Merrifields were trying to get rid of her, the police had grounds to investigate further.
DS Steadman, accompanied by a detective constable, went to 339 Devonshire Road and questioned the Merrifields. When asked if Mrs Ricketts had taken anything and what she had eaten, Louisa replied, “I think she had a stroke. She had eaten nothing all day, and nothing to drink except a few spots of rum and brandy.”
Steadman detected no signs of injury or violence on Sarah. Her body was taken to Talbot Road Mortuary.
Superintendent Colin MacDougall went to the bungalow on 17 April, three days after Sarah’s death. “We have strong reason to believe that Mrs Ricketts died as a result of something she had to eat or drink,” he told Louisa.
“That’s funny,” she replied, “there has been nothing in this house since I’ve been here that would hurt her.”
“As you know,” MacDougall said, “we have searched the house and taken possession of certain articles but have not found any substance or container which would appear to account for her death.”
Louisa became quite dramatic: “If my Maker sends for me now, my conscience is clear. There has never been anything in the house to hurt her.”
Alfred’s reaction was the same: “That can’t be, she’s had nothing to hurt her.”
Louisa then told Supt MacDougall she had thrown out the jam jars containing Mrs Ricketts’ favourite treat. Police suspected that whatever killed Mrs Ricketts was in the jam she ate so prodigiously.
Unbeknown to the Merrifields, the evidence was growing that Sarah Ricketts’ death had not been natural. At the post-mortem conducted by Dr George Bernard Manning, he found that “the liver was extremely pale and showed toxic changes”. The North-Western Forensic Science Laboratory conducted tests and issued its report on 28 April, after which Dr Manning said he thought Mrs Ricketts had died from phosphorus poisoning. The stomach contents had also revealed evidence of bran, a compound found in Rodine rat poison.
Meanwhile, Louisa portrayed herself as committed to looking after her employer. She suggested Sarah could not leave her wealth to her daughters because Mrs Ricketts had said one of them was a thief who had stolen a fur from her, while the other, Ethel, was “one of the biggest prostitutes in Blackpool”. Police would conclude that both women were “thoroughly respectable”.
Louisa was an almost incontinent liar, apparently not always even realising the harm he remarks might cause her. That and other acts by her certainly made her look suspicious to the police.
They learned that just two days after the death, Louisa had gone to the funeral director on Church Street, George Johnson. She told him that Mrs Ricketts had not wanted her daughters to know of the funeral arrangements and that she should be cremated. Johnson replied that only the next of kin could make such arrangements and sent her away. Louisa’s haste in wanting the body cremated – just as any poisoner trying to destroy evidence would do – and kept secret from the family was clearly questionable. If she really was trying to cover her tracks, the effort was wasted anyway – police had already tested the body for toxins.
The two doctors, Yule and Wood, the grocery delivery man and the van driver who brought the alcohol delivery all told police said that Sarah had seemed fine shortly before her death. A neighbour confirmed she was up and about because he saw her in the garden on the afternoon before she died. If Sarah Ricketts was poisoned, it would appear a fatal dose was administered on the night of Monday 13 April, after all these witnesses saw her.
Detectives noticed other suspicious behaviour by Louisa – she could not help bragging about her impending inheritance, often talking as though she already owned the bungalow even before Sarah had died.
Among those to whom she boasted was an acquaintance, Jessie Brewer. “We’re all right. We’re landed now. We went to live with an old girl and she died and left us a bungalow worth £4,000.” That this conversation occurred on Saturday 11 April – three days before Mrs Ricketts died. This, taken in conjunction with Louisa’s other comments – that Mrs Ricketts had been “dying since we got here”, “what if she dies in the night”, “she might have stroke at any moment” – suggest the housekeeper was certain her employer was on her last legs, or was at least attempting to prime everyone to expect her death.
The day before the death, Louisa even told a stranger at the bus stop, Elizabeth Barraclough, that when she returned from a trip to Wigan she found her husband, Alfred, in bed with the old lady they were caring for. Louisa said they were “messing about”. “I’ll poison the old bugger and him as well,” Louisa had reportedly told Mrs Barraclough.
“See, missus, she carries rat poison in her bag”
There was a daunting amount of circumstantial evidence building against the Merrifields now, particularly Louisa. Apart from the delivery man and one visitor – an acquaintance, Arthur Mather – they were the old woman’s sole companions during the four weeks of their employment. No witness who knew Sarah said they thought she was suicidal.
Finally, the biggest doubt raised against the Merrifields, of course, was the apparent presence of rat poison in her body, when none could be found in the bungalow or garden and Sarah Ricketts was not able to get to the shops. The clear possibility was that she had been deliberately fed the poison, probably disguised in her favourite jam, and the jam pots and poison had then been disposed of.
Further damning facts about Louisa were uncovered. Detectives learned that she had bragged to Gertrude Thomas, a cook at their previous lodgings on Lytham Road, that she had “done in” two husbands already. “My last husband was 80, so it didn’t take much to polish him off,” was how Gertrude Thomas recalled their conversation. “He fell through the bed and had a heart attack.” The implication was that Louisa had fixed the bed so her second husband, Richard Weston, would fall.
Gertrude also recalled the Merrifields shouting at each other on the stairs at Lytham Road, with Alfred saying to Gertrude, “See, missus, she carries rat poison in her bag.” On an earlier occasion he had told Gertrude, “She’s tried to do me in like she’s done the others in, but she has found her mistake.” That his wife was trying to poison him was a claim he made to several people. Other witnesses said they heard Louisa threatening to poison him.
A visitor to Lytham Road, Alfred Dale, said when Louisa was getting cigarettes out of her bag, he had seen in it a red box he recognised as Rodine rat poison. He remembered it because at the time he thought it odd that she would be carrying poison around.
Police put a huge effort into proving when and where Louisa or the couple together had bought the rat poison. They made inquiries at chemists’ throughout Lancashire and held an identity parade at police HQ in Blackpool, but Louisa was not picked out.
What they were able to prove was that she had been using Mrs Ricketts’ money to buy clothes for herself. She had used two of her employer’s credit vouchers amounting to £40 (about £1,100 today) at various shops around Blackpool.
Despite Louisa not being selected during the identification parade, police decided they had enough evidence of the couple’s guilt. On the afternoon of 30 April, a Detective Inspector Dunn cautioned the Merrifields in the presence of their solicitor and said, “I am going to arrest you for the wilful murder of Sarah Ann Ricketts.”
“I am not guilty,” Louisa said.
PART 2 NEXT WEEK
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