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The strange case of Louisa Merrifield: 2
The Merrifields, charged with poisoning Sarah Ricketts, were tried at Manchester Assizes in July 1953. Was the verdict just? And was this a case of a serial killer murdering a serial killer?
Trial of the Merrifields
The summer headlines of 1953 featured two notorious murder trials. On 26 June the serial killer John Christie was sentenced to death for the murders at 10 Rillington Place in London. The other was the trial of Louisa and Alfred Merrifield (see Part 1).
For the latter – Louisa would eventually be dubbed the “Blackpool Poisoner” – the pages of the Manchester Evening News and other regional and national newspapers devoted space to every glance and throw-away remark during the two-week courtroom drama.
It began on Monday 20 July at Manchester Assizes before Mr Justice Glyn-Jones. The Merrifields pleaded not guilty. The prosecution was led by Sir Lionel Heald QC, the Attorney General. The first act of the defence was to object to two women being included as jurors, an objection that was successful.
Dr Burton Yule was one of the first witnesses. Having seen Sarah Ricketts four days before her death, he said he had found the death of the 79-year-old troubling. He had decided not to issue a death certificate, and instead reported the death to the coroner’s office. Dr Albert Wood testified that he had seen Mrs Ricketts the night before her death and found little wrong with her.
Several witnesses told the court of Louisa Merrifield’s certainty that her employer would soon be dead. Veronica King, who lived on Yorkshire Street, said Louisa told her: “I will go and lay the old lady out.” This prompted Mrs King to ask if someone had died, to which Louisa said: “She’s not dead yet, but she soon will be.” This was two days before Sarah Ricketts’ death.
The question of poison was, of course, a crunch issue in the case. Home Office pathologist Dr George Bernard Manning testified that Mrs Ricketts’ liver was discoloured, indicating phosphorous poisoning, he suspected. Her heart had probably “given up” after receiving a fatal dose, or doses, during the night before she died on 14 April. The Attorney General would say that phosphorous and bran, both of which were found in Sarah Ricketts, were ingredients in Rodine rat poison. This would have had a vile taste, but Dr Manning said that Mrs Ricketts’ favourite treat, jam, would have disguised this.
‘She is a vulgar and stupid woman, with a dirty mind’
Defence counsel Jack di Victor Nahum QC tried to undermine Dr Manning’s conclusions by calling Professor J N Webster, director of the Home Office laboratory in Birmingham. Prof Webster testified that Manning was “wholly and utterly wrong”. He argued that the pensioner died of necrosis of the liver, caused by poor diet and alcohol. However, he conceded that the phosphorous in her stomach could only have been taken via her mouth.
From the vantage point of 70 years later, contemporary pathologists would find it difficult to say conclusively what the cause of death was. What is clear is that it had happened quite quickly and Sarah had phosphorus and bran in her body.
Mr Justice Glyn-Jones spent over four hours summing up. The crux of the case was that the prosecution said Sarah Ricketts died from phosphorous poisoning, administered via rat poison. The defence countered that she died from natural causes, though phosphorous was found in her body.
The judge said of Louisa Merrifield, “She is a vulgar and stupid woman, with a dirty mind.” This, however, did not mean she was guilty, he added. Of Alfred, the judge said, “He was at times somewhat foolish.”
The jury had to decide whether the Merrifields, together or separately, gave Sarah poison. Second, they had to decide whether there was an intention to kill her. Finally, was it the poison that killed her? If the jury answered yes to these questions, they must find the Merrifields guilty, or one of them guilty.
Referring to the bran – the ingredient in Rodine rat poison – that was also discovered in Mrs Ricketts’ stomach, the judge dismissed a proposal made by defence counsel Mr Nahum, which may have helped to undermine Louisa’s prospects of acquittal. The judge said, “It is theoretically possible, Mr Nahum suggested, in all apparent seriousness, that someone may have taken rat poison into the house on his boot. If juries are to be deterred from doing their duty because the ingenuity of counsel can propound some hypotheses, however unlikely, by which the evidence of crime can be explained, then few persons charged with crime would ever be convicted.”
The judge advised the jury to rely on their common sense.
I am not guilty, sir
The all-male jury took six hours to reach its verdict. The clerk asked the foreman, “In regard to Louisa Merrifield, do you find her guilty or not guilty of murder?”
“Guilty,” the foreman replied.
However, the jury men could not reach a verdict on Alfred, who was removed from the dock. Louisa was moved to the centre of the dock, and said in a shaky voice, “I am not guilty, sir.”
“You have been convicted on plain evidence of as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of,” the judge said. The sentence was death by hanging.
Justice Glyn-Jones directed that Alfred be re-tried at Manchester Assizes on 6 October 1953. In the event, the Attorney General decided not to go on with a prosecution against him. Alfred was released from Strangeways prison on 6 August.
Louisa appealed on grounds including alleged misdirection of the jury by the judge, but this was rejected. She was destined to meet the hangman on 18 September.
Was Alfred involved in the poisoning of Sarah Ricketts?
How did Alfred escape the same guilty verdict as Louisa? He was described by the defence barrister as a “tragic simpleton”, and his protests that he could not hear what was being said in court probably gave the impression that he was a bumbling old dodderer. The judge called the 71-year-old husband “somewhat foolish”.
So, was the all-male jury taken in by a witless old man act, assessing him less harshly than Louisa?
There were certainly occasions preceding Sarah’s death when he looked anything but clueless. Instead, Alfred several times displayed a keen astuteness when it was in his interest. On the occasion that the solicitor turned up to change Sarah Ricketts’ will in Louisa’s favour, Alfred was quick to have a quiet word and say he was to be included as a beneficiary. Hardly the behaviour of a “tragic simpleton”.
Later, Sarah asked Alfred to call on the solicitor because she wanted to alter her will again, sounding very much as though she was going to cut the Merrifields out of it. Alfred suddenly changed his mind about going into town for her, saying it was too far for him to go at that moment. The next day she was dead.
Although the Manchester shop assistant’s identification of him was disputed in court, it could have been Alfred who bought the rat poison. Mavis Atkinson, the assistant, pointed him out in court, but this was deemed unreliable by the judge as she could have seen his photo in the newspapers.
More damning was the fact that he was a co-beneficiary of the will. He stood to inherit the bungalow and money alongside his wife. Louisa certainly did not take him for a fool, telling the stranger at the bus stop, Elizabeth Barraclough, that Alfred was trying to get Mrs Ricketts to make him sole beneficiary. Whether she really believed that or not, the incident demonstrates that she felt Alfred was sharp enough to do her out of her share, given the chance.
Was Louisa guilty?
Louisa’s constant mouthing off to people about how she was “made” and going to inherit the bungalow before her employer was even dead was always going to make her look suspicious. Alfred was not so loose-tongued and so did not arouse as much suspicion.
However, being a blabbermouth was not conclusive proof of her guilt. A book published three years after the trial, Daughters of Cain, made an interesting argument on this point. It examined the cases of eight women executed during the 20th century. The authors, Renée Huggett and Paul Berry, highlight in the chapter on Louisa that in the immediate aftermath of her execution there were concerns that she had been harshly judged.
In 1955, during a House of Commons debate, the MP for Northampton, RT Paget QC, said there were suspicions that she had been wrongly hanged.
Huggett and Berry suggest that Louisa, of limited education and a hard-scrabble life, may have talked recklessly to big herself up, not realising how suspicious this made her look.
In the book, they write: ‘With her incessant chatter she strove to make herself the centre of attention. She thought everyone was impressed with her claims and assertions and vulgar jokes. She drank whenever the opportunity arose, and mixed truth and half-truths, wishful thinking and lies, to build up an impression or to create a sensation.’
Adding to the suspicions about her, however, was her request to the funeral director to have Sarah Ricketts’ body cremated, along with her repeated warnings to the doctors that the pensioner could die at any moment, and her desperation that they certify Mrs Ricketts as being of sound mind, in case the daughters wanted to contest the will. This is to say nothing of her repeated references to wanting to poison her husband, and her apparent habit of carrying rat poison in her bag.
The judge captured the uncertainty that cases involving poisoning can raise when he told the jury: ‘Murder by poisoning is a secret and treacherous crime, and such a murder is rarely, if ever, committed in the presence of an eye-witness who can give you direct evidence of administration of poison. It follows that murder by poison must be established by circumstantial evidence. You are not to suppose circumstantial evidence is necessarily inferior to direct evidence. Indeed, it may be stronger.’
Was it strong enough here? Despite the disputed evidence over how or from whom Sarah Ricketts received the poison, and doubts expressed by contemporaries such as Huggett and Berry, the balance must be, yes, Louisa Merrifield probably administered poison to protect her inheritance from Sarah.
She had secretly been spending Sarah’s money on herself, she wanted her employer to be swiftly and quietly cremated, the doctors had seen little wrong with Sarah shortly before her death, and her demise came suspiciously close to her threat to disinherit the Merrifields. Cirsumstantially, that’s compelling.
However, did Louisa act entirely on her own without any involvement from Alfred? The defence seems to have strategically got the two potential female jurors excluded to create an entirely male jury in the hope of playing on any prejudice that could be aroused against Louisa, portrayed as a scheming, ‘vulgar’ woman.
One of the last three women executed in Britain
Her sojourn in prison awaiting the hangman must have been terrifying and bleak, no doubt made worse by knowing that Alfred was free and living in the bungalow he had inherited.
Even when he visited her in prison, the old animosity erupted again. The prison governor alerted the Home Office of a shouting match between them on 15 August. In his telegram, the governor, Mr Hair, said, ‘This afternoon whilst Mr Merrifield was visiting his wife there was a scene during which Mrs Merrifield shouted at her husband, “Get out of this bloody prison, I never want to see you again.’” It turned out that the Sunday Dispatch newspaper was putting Alfred up at a nearby hotel. This suggested his visit to Louisa may have been a bid to get a quote or story out of her for the paper, for which Alfred would no doubt have been paid.
He did, however, write to the new Queen, who had been on the throne for three months that September. In his appeal for clemency for Louisa, he tells “Your most gracious majesty” that his youngest son, Leslie, died serving in the RAF in 1941, and that he himself served with the Royal Engineers in the Great War. He omitted to mention his conviction for abusing an eight-year-old girl. Having assured Queen Elizabeth of his innocence in this case, he asked her to spare Louisa’s life.
Louisa’s own plea to the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, for clemency makes for pitiful reading. The misspellings and errors are a reminder that Louisa left school to work in a mill at the age of 13: “I am Not gilty off this woman Death. there was Nothing in my power that would cause mee to do wrong to this old lady… it is my Duty only, I am to believe by the Power off God, to Plead to you for my life and for mercie…”
She and Alfred had not had easy lives, they abused each other, were crude and broke the law when it suited them. But many working-class people scraped and toiled without resorting to murder. Louisa very probably murdered Sarah Ricketts, helped by her husband, or at least with his acquiescence.
As for justice, by today’s standards Louisa Merrifield paid a brutal price for her callous crime. All requests for a reprieve having failed, she was hanged by executioner Albert Pierrepoint at Strangeways on 18 September. This was the third of three controversial executions Pierrepoint conducted that year, following the hanging of teenager Derek Bentley (condemned for a murder committed by his accomplice) and John Christie (Timothy Evans having already been wrongly hanged for murders committed by Christie). Louisa Merrifield was one of the last three women to be executed in Britain.
On the gallows, Louisa apparently refused to remove her glasses. Pierrepoint said the execution went well and Louisa had said goodbye to the death-cell officers.
‘Strange man potters on in murder bungalow’
For Alfred, everything was hunky-dory. Three weeks after his wife was hanged, he was interviewed in the Daily Mirror. The article had the tagline, ‘This strange man potters on in murder bungalow’.
Now residing at 339 Devonshire Road, Alfred was depicted as an ‘unusual character’ who was house-proud of his inheritance. ‘This is a town that gets used to anything,’ the feature read. ‘Freaks are ten-a-penny, and the weird and wonderful happens every day. But even Blackpool cannot get used to the amazing Mr Merrifield.’
It reported that Alfred claimed to have made £900 since he got out of prison (around £27,000 today). The reporter tells how he accompanied the old man to the bank with a cheque for £200 (£6,000), received for agreeing to have his effigy added to a seafront waxworks show. He had been offered a further £125 (£3,700) if he sold some of the murder bungalow’s furniture.
Instead of being disturbed by living in the home where Mrs Ricketts died, Alfred looked after the place with the ‘fussiness of a new bride in her first home. The furniture gleams with polish. The chintzes are clean and crisply ironed.’
The reporter revealed how Alfred dressed in a gay sports coat and new mackintosh, enjoying the women at the bus stop turning to point him out as he passed. At the seafront waxworks he encouraged the reporter to go in and see the effigy of his wife. Inside, Louisa was standing next to Nazi leaders Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.
Sarah Ricketts’ daughters ended up challenging his position as sole inheritor in her will. It appears he had to settle for a one-sixth share in 1956. He ended up in living in a caravan while appearing as an attraction on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, billed as the ‘Murderess’s Husband’, and regaling gawkers with tales of life with his notorious wife. He died on 24 June 1962 at the age of 80.
Two questions tantalise us all these decades later…
First, was Louisa Merrifield a serial killer? She bragged to Gertrude Thomas about killing her second husband, Richard Weston: “My last husband was 80, so it didn’t take much to polish him off.” He had died two months after they wed in 1950, main cause of death being given as “myocardial degeneration”, or degeneration of the heart muscle. But Louisa had claimed to have brought this on by giving him a shock.
Richard Weston’s son, Daniel, a British Railways official, certainly had his suspicions. After his father’s death, Daniel discovered that his father’s bank account had been drained completely of its £1,000 in deposits (equivalent to around £30,000). When Daniel asked Louisa, whom he only met once on the occasion of his father’s funeral, what had happened to Mr Weston’s savings, she replied: “He has been very kind to me.”
There is, of course, no proof that she murdered a previous husband or husbands, or experimented in the use of poisons on other people. That she appeared to sometimes carry Rodine rat poison in her bag, and made loose threats about poisoning Alfred and other people, must again inevitably raise further suspicions about her. However, Richard Weston’s death aroused no medical suspicions, so perhaps here she must get the benefit of the doubt.
The second question is about Sarah Ricketts. Because she was the victim of this murder, naturally no one looked closely at her own marital past. But it is a curious fact that Mrs Ricketts was married twice and both her husbands committed suicide in the bungalow. John Green, aged 70, gassed himself at 339 Devonshire Road on 1 November 1942. Just four years later, her second husband, 77-year-old William Ricketts, also gassed himself at that address on 1 August 1946. Ricketts, a retired farmer, left an estate valued at £4,493 (about £133,000).
Apart from the jaw-dropping coincidence that she had two husbands who committed suicide using exactly the same method in her home, the fact that these deaths were just four years apart seems extraordinary. One husband killed himself in 1942, she remarried in 1944, and then her second, rather well-off husband, committed suicide a couple of years later.
In her statement to police, Louisa said, “Mrs Ricketts told me that she had had two husbands and both gassed themselves in the house. She cried a lot and said it was not her fault.”
Nowhere else in any other statements or police reports does Sarah Ricketts come across as a woman who “cried a lot”.
What comes across clearly was that Sarah Ricketts could be truculent, wilful, manipulative, even selfish. “I have never met anyone who wanted to live more than she did,” said the home help, Lavinia Blezard. The truth is, we just do not know what Mrs Ricketts felt about tragically losing two husbands in quick succession. Perhaps she was emotional when telling Louisa about her husbands, or maybe she was maudlin because she was on a virtually food-free alcohol diet.
It seems apt that a case with more lurid twists than a seafront house of mirrors should end with musings on whether one serial killer may have murdered another. But such speculation is as elusive as sea mist.
The clear facts are that one woman was heartlessly murdered, one executed – and one man with plenty of motive walked free.