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A.K.A.: "Black Widows of Liverpool"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 1 +
Date of murder: October 2, 1883
Date of arrest: October 16, 1883
Date of birth: 1829
Victim profile: Thomas Higgins, 45 (her brother-in-law)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Liverpool, Merseyside, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Kirkdale Prison on March 3, 1884

Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins

Looking for an easy way to make money, Catherine Flannagan, 55, and her sister Margaret Higgins, 41, decided midway through their lives to go for the big insurance payout. One of the victims upon whom the sinister sisters alighted was Margaret’s husband Thomas, 36.

Throughout 1883 they laced his food with arsenic until, in September, he died. But the police got suspicious and started investigating. They discovered there had been another mysterious death in the household, that of an 18-year-old lodger, Mary Jennings. Her body was exhumed and it too contained arsenic.

The sisters were also suspected of poisoning Mrs. Higgins’s 10-year-old stepdaughter Mary and one of Mrs. Flannagan’s sons, John, 22. Each time there was a death they collected on the insurance money.

After a three-day trial in February 1884, they were both convicted of murder and hanged on Monday, March 3rd that year at Liverpool’s Kirkdale Prison. Police inquiries that continued after the double execution suggested that the sisters might have poisoned several other family members, friends and lodgers, for the small insurance payouts.


Catherine Flannagan (1829 – 3 March 1884) and Margaret Higgins (1843 – 3 March 1884) were Irish sisters who were convicted of poisoning and murdering one person in Liverpool and suspected of more deaths.

The women collected a burial society payout, a type of life insurance, on each death, and it was eventually found that they had been committing murders using arsenic for the purpose of profiting off of the insurance money. Though Catherine Flannagan evaded police for a time, both sisters were eventually caught and convicted of one of the murders; they were both hanged on the same day at Kirkdale Prison. Modern investigation of the crime has raised the possibility that Flannagan and Higgins were known or believed by investigators to be only part of a larger conspiracy of murder-for-profit—a network of "black widows"—but no convictions were ever obtained for any of the alleged conspiracy members other than the two sisters.


In the early 1880s, unmarried sisters Catherine and Margaret Flannagan ran a rooming house at 5 Skirving Street, Liverpool. The household in the final months of 1880 consisted of the two sisters, Catherine's son John, and two lodger families - hod carrier Thomas Higgins and his daughter Mary, and Patrick Jennings and his daughter Margaret. John Flannagan, 22 and previously healthy, died suddenly in December 1880. His death did not raise any particular comment; Catherine collected £71 (worth roughly £5242 in 2012 pounds) from the burial society with which he had been registered and he was interred shortly thereafter.

By 1882, a romance had sprung up between Margaret and lodger Thomas Higgins. The pair married in October of that year. Thomas's daughter Mary, 8, died within months of the wedding after a short illness. Once again, the burial society payout was collected upon death, this time by Margaret Higgins.

In January 1883, Margaret Jennings, 19, died. Her burial payout was collected by Catherine.

In the face of neighborhood gossip about the death rate in the home, Catherine, Margaret, and Thomas moved their household to 105 Latimer Street and then again to 27 Ascot street. In September of 1883, Thomas Higgins, then 45, became yet another member of the household to fall mysteriously ill. His stomach pains were severe enough that Doctor Whitford was called; the doctor attributed Higgins's illness to dysentery related to drinking cheap whiskey and prescribed opium and castor oil. Higgins died after two days of illness. Days later, the same doctor was contacted and asked to provide a death certificate. He did so, attributing the death to dysentery.


Though Thomas Higgins's death by apparent dysentery raised no questions for the attending doctor, Higgins's brother Patrick was surprised to hear that his brother, who had been strong and in good general health, could have succumbed so easily to illness. When he also discovered that his brother has been insured with five different burial societies, which left his widow with a profit of around £100, he pursued the matter with the authorities. A postmortem examination was ordered on Higgins's body. To the surprise of mourners, the coroner arrived at the home to perform the examination during the wake being held there for Higgins. Catherine Flannagan, upon hearing that a full autopsy was to be performed, fled the home.

When a full autopsy of Higgins's body was carried out, evidence of arsenic poisoning was found: Higgins's organs showed traces of arsenic, in quantities indicating the poisoning had taken place over several days. Evidence from the home, including "a bottle containing a mystery white substance and a market pocket worn by [Margaret]" was examined by poison expert Dr Campbell Brown, who verified the presence of arsenic - dust in Margaret's pocket, and an arsenic solution (containing unusual adulterants) in the bottle.

Margaret Higgins was arrested immediately; Catherine, after moving from one boarding house to another to avoid police for nearly a week, was taken into custody in Wavertree. On October 16, 1883, the sisters were formally charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

Orders for the bodies of the previously-deceased members of the household to be exhumed were issued when it became clear that arsenic was the mechanism of Thomas Higgins's death. The bodies of John Flannagan, Mary Higgins, and Margaret Jennings all showed evidence of minimal deterioration - a quality associated with arsenic poisoning - and traces of arsenic were found in the remains of all three.

Investigators initially assumed that the arsenic used to poison the victims had come from rat poison, but when common adulterants used in rat poison failed to show up in autopsies, they were forced to come up with a new theory. It was unlikely that the illiterate sisters would have been able to acquire arsenic through the usual method of visiting a chemist, a route more open to doctors than spinsters. Eventually it was discovered that common flypaper at the time contained arsenic, and that by soaking the flypaper in water, a solution substantially identical - including the same adulterants - to that found in a bottle at the Higgins residence could be obtained.


At the time of her arrest, Catherine claimed to her solicitor that the murders the sisters committed were not isolated, and provided a list of six or seven other deaths that she claimed to be murders related to burial society fraud, as well as a list of five other women who had either perpetrated those murders or provided insurance to those who did.

Alleged conspiracy

Catherine Flannagan's list of alleged conspirators to the arsenic deaths contained three poisoners other than herself, one accomplice, and three agents of the insuring groups who had provided payouts upon the deaths. Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley, and Margaret Higgins were named as the poisoners; Margaret Potter, a Mrs Fallon, and a Bridget Stanton were the insurers; and Catherine Ryan was alleged to have obtained the arsenic needed by one of the poisoners. According to Flannagan, Margaret Evans had been the instigator of the crime ring, beginning with the murder of a mentally-handicapped teenager in which Ryan obtained the poison and Evans administered it. Though Evans did not personally receive an insurance payout from this death, there were implications that she had dealings with the boy's father and may have profited from those. The women Flannagan alleged to have been involved in the conspiracy all appear often in accounts of suspicious deaths in this period; Mrs Stanton, for example, was linked to the insurance policies of three of the deaths, and groups of two or more of the involved women were seen visiting those who died shortly before their deaths. In one case, when an insurance company supervisor requested to meet Thomas Higgins in the course of issuing the insurance on him, he was greeted at the Higgins home by a woman who was neither Flannagan nor Higgins, who presented to him a "Thomas" who he later realized, upon seeing the deceased Thomas Higgins, was not Thomas Higgins at all.

Flannagan's testimony was sometimes contradictory to both herself and to what seemed to be obvious facts of the conspiracy, however; in one case, despite Mrs Stanton's close links to the insurance payouts of murder victims and Flannagan's identification of her as part of the conspiracy, Flannagan "exonerated" Stanton after police arrested the woman. Ultimately it was decided by the Prosecuting Solicitor for Liverpool that while the additional deaths were, indeed, likely to be murder, it would be difficult to prove that anyone other than Higgins or Flannagan had committed them, especially considering that the primary evidence against the other women was being provided by Flannagan, who had every reason to attempt to minimise her own responsibility in such crimes. As a result, only Flannagan and Higgins were tried for the crime of murdering Thomas Higgins, despite continuing suspicion by all investigating parties that there had been more deaths than just the four household ones, and more murderers than just the two sisters.


At the trial in 1884, prosecutors implicated the sisters in the three other deaths in their household, as well as that of Thomas Higgins, with which they were officially charged. Catherine Flannagan's offer to provide evidence against other conspirators for the prosecution in exchange for leniency was refused.

The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on 3 March 1884 at Kirkdale Prison, with the sisters attended to by a Roman Catholic priest. The deaths were witnessed by a reported one thousand people.

In media

Contemporary accounts of the Flannagan sisters referred to them as "disciple[s] of Lucrezia Borgia" or as "the Borgias of the Slums", in reference to their use of poison and the tales of how Borgia had been known to do the same. Modern accounts of the Flannagan sisters, such as those by Angela Brabin and the television series Deadly Women, have focused more on the cooperative aspect of the crimes rather than the poison aspect, and tend to refer to them as "black widows" or "The Black Widows of Liverpool", particularly in reference to the allegation that the Flannagan sisters were part of a larger murder ring. Wax effigies of Flannagan and Higgins were placed in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors after their executions.


Murderous Widows

By Peter Dellius, August 2012

So infamous were the crimes of Catherine Flannagan and her sister Margaret Higgins that they have echoed down the years and have been much debated in the spoken and written word. They have been referred to as the Borgia Sisters of the slums and more frequently as the Black Widows.

The slum districts of Liverpool in the 1880’s were in the main places where the poor of the town existed rather than lived. The housing was mostly horrible Court dwellings where whole families lived in one room, one toilet to serve the whole street and the only water came from a solitary fountain (Ornamental Standpipe)

Skirving Street stood and indeed still stands on the east side of Scotland Road, and runs between that road and Great Homer Street, however, the slums are long gone but not the memories of the deeds perpetrated there. There was nothing grand about these crimes, they were Horrific, Despicable and carried out ruthlessly through pure greed.

The two main characters in this sordid tale were sisters, Catherine and Margaret Thompson, both were Irish by birth. Catherine was born c1829 and Margaret c1843; both must have suffered terribly in their early days due to the potato famine and along with thousands of others found themselves in Liverpool, like many other emigrants they remained here.

The year 1880 found the sisters living at 5 Skirving Street, Catherine was landlady of the premises and Margaret was a charlady (cleaner) both women were widows, drunkards and of dubious character. (Both Women were illiterate)Also resident in the house were John Flannagan, 22 years, Catherine’s son, Thomas Higgins, a hod carrier, his daughter Mary aged 8, Patrick Jennings, a dock labourer and his 16 year old daughter Margaret lodged at the house.

Towards Christmas 1880 John Flannagan died, his death was not a surprise to anyone as his Mother had been telling people for a while that he was unwell. His Mother then claimed approximately £70 in insurance money from a number of societies, this sum would now equate to about £5,000.

In October 1882, Margaret Thompson married Thomas Higgins. A month later Margaret’s little stepdaughter, Mary Higgins was dead and her loving stepmother lost no time in claiming the £22.00 Insurance monies.

In January 1883 16 year old Margaret Jennings died and Catherine Flannagan who had her insured made haste to collect the money owed. Mr. Jennings now fades from the story and it is not known what became of him.

What is left of this household now move to 105 Latimer Street and shortly after move again to 27 Ascot Street, where in September 1883 Thomas Higgins aged 45, becomes unwell with severe stomach pains. The Doctor ascribes his illness to dysentery from drinking cheap whiskey. Thomas died two days after becoming unwell and the Doctor signed a death certificate to effect that death was due to dysentery. The grieving widow was now better off to the tune of £100 (now near £6,000) which came from 4 or 5 different societies.

What the Sisters did not know was that Thomas had confided in his brother that an insurance agent had turned up with a Doctor in order to examine him, Thomas being drunk, had given them short shrift. In a final piece of greed Catherine Flannagan had tried to insure Thomas in the sum of £50.00 and in consequence the Insurance Company had arranged the Doctors visit which is normal with such an amount.

The Brother, Patrick Higgins, seems to have been a tenacious fellow and made the rounds of the local insurance Companies, finding that Thomas’s life had been insured with several of them. He visited the Doctor who had certified death and informed him of his suspicion and together they approached the authorities.

On the day that Thomas Higgins was to be buried, a coroners officer and two Doctors entered 27 Ascot Street and found several females around the coffin indulging in a party, there did not seem to be much grief in that room, Catherine Flannagan gave a cry of alarm and made off via the back of the house and was not traced for several days. The coroner’s officer gave notice to Margaret Higgins that the funeral was not to go ahead and that there was going to be a post-mortem.

The post-mortem proved that Thomas Higgins had died from arsenic poisoning and Mrs. Higgins was arrested, a few days later Catherine Flannagan was taken into custody and both were charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

The police then began to gather evidence, arsenic was found in the house and clothing of Margaret Higgins. The bodies of John Flannagan, Margaret Jennings and Mary Higgins were exhumed and fatal doses of arsenic had been found in each body.

The sisters remained charged solely with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

The sisters had obtained the poison by the simple method of soaking arsenic impregnated fly papers in water and using that water to adulterate the food/drink of the victims. This method was later used by another famous Murderess, Elizabeth Maybrick, a woman of a totally different social standing to the Murderous sisters.

The trial opened at St George’s Hall on the 14th February, 1884 it lasted three days and the jury, after forty minutes deliberation, found against the sisters. On the 3rd March 1884 the sisters were hanged in the execution shed at Kirkdale Gaol.

Catherine Flannagan did her best to blame her sister and offered to turn Queens’s evidence for the crown, the offer was declined. Catherine later claimed the murders were not the only ones committed and provided a list of six or seven other victims, who, she claimed had been murdered for the insurance money. She informed the authorities of two other poisoner’s other than herself and her sister, three agents of the insuring burial fund Societies and one accomplice.

All the named women appear in and around several suspicious deaths, in addition those at Skirving Street and Ascot Street and were involved in the insurance payouts and on one occasion a man and woman purporting to be Thomas and Margaret Higgins had met with an insurance agent at 27 Ascot Street and arranged cover, the agent after viewing the body of Thomas Higgins stated that it was not the body of the man he had signed up.

It was decided by the Police and the Solicitor for the City of Liverpool, that while all the deaths were probably murder a prosecution would be unlikely to succeed as the only evidence was being provided by Flannagan, whose offer to give evidence against the other woman in exchange for leniency was refused. The alleged conspirators, Margaret Evans, Bridget Begley, (Poisoners) Margaret Potter, Bridget Stanton and a Mrs. Fallon (agents for Burial society) and Catherine Ryan (Accomplice) were never proceeded against.


Black widows Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan

By Ben Rossington -

January 7, 2010

SISTERS Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flannagan knew all about the value of life insurance – and the deadly power of arsenic. In December 1880 the pair, originally from Ireland and known to friends as Catty and Maggie, lived in a house in Skirving Street, close to Scotland Road.

With them were John Flannagan – Catty’s son – lodger Thomas Higgins who would later marry Maggie, Mary Higgins – Thomas’ eight-year-old daughter, another lodger Patrick Jennings and his 16-year-old daughter, Margaret.

Over the next three years only Patrick Jennings would escape with his life.

The wily sisters hit on a get-rich-quick scheme through the growing popularity in burial clubs.

In those days the poor were very poor. And the divide between the very poor and the very rich was stark.

But no matter how poor you were, through a burial club, you could guarantee that when you went to your maker you did so in style.

The sisters embarked on their murderous path when they realised a hefty insurance policy spread over several clubs, coupled with a cheap funeral, meant a sizeable lump sum left over.

The only thing they had to do was wait for those with such policies to die.

But the sisters didn’t want to wait.

They soon formulated a plot and used Catty’s own son John as a guinea pig.

That December the previously healthy 22-year-old died. His mother collected an insurance payout of £71 and John was buried with minimum fuss or effort.

The following year Maggie married Thomas Higgins. Within a year of the happy union little Mary took ill and passed away.

With what seemed to neighbours like indecent haste her stepmother withdrew the burial club payout and consoled herself at the nearest tavern.

Two months later, in January 1883, Margaret Jennings was dead. Scarcely cold in her coffin Catty put in the cash claim and the money came rolling in.

The tragedy that seemed to haunt the tiny back-to-back house set the district talking. The mortality rate was high but three deaths in one home? It was time to move on.

What remained of the household moved out and settled in Latimer Street before moving again the same year to a cellar in Ascot Street.

As the money began to dry up Thomas Higgins took ill.

With five policies in his name his devoted wife nursed him for two days before he passed away. A local doctor certified death by dysentery following his drinking bad whiskey.

But this time the ghoulish pair had over-stepped the line.

Thomas’s brother Patrick heard of the numerous policies and after a bit of amateur detective work began to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

First he spoke to the doctor and then to the police. The result was dramatic.

With the hearse standing outside Ascot Street and the wake in full flow in the parlour the coroner’s officer forced an entry, surprising the drinking brood of women inside.

The officer ordered a full post-mortem to be carried out at which point Catty, realising her number was up, bolted through the back door dressed in her shabby black gown.

Traces of poison were found in Thomas’s body. In Ascot Street a bottle containing a mystery white substance and a market pocket worn by Maggie was examined.

Traces of arsenic were found everywhere.

The sisters had developed and perfected, from victim to victim, an almost perfect method of murder – distilling the poison by dissolving flypaper in water.

They used this method nine years before the infamous “Flypaper Poisoner”, Florence Maybrick, was convicted in Liverpool of the murder of her cotton trader husband, James Maybrick using the same technique.

With her sister now arrested, Catherine Flannagan was a hunted woman.

She moved from one Liverpool lodging house to another and was finally arrested after a woman who gave her a meal grew suspicious and alerted police.

On October 16, 1883, Catty and Maggie were charged with the murder of Thomas Higgins.

After that the horrifying chapter of murder and money finally came to light. The bodies of the other three victims were exhumed and examined. All had been poisoned.

At the trial the prosecution painted Catty as the brains behind the scheme. Even then she tried to save her own skin offering to turn Queen’s Evidence in an attempt to foist the blame onto her younger sister.

Unsurprisingly her offer was rejected.

The sisters were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Flannagan, 55, heard the sentence and was unmoved. Higgins, 41, collapsed.

In a snowstorm on March 3, 1884, assisted up a flight of 22 stone steps to the scaffold at Kirkdale Jail, and mouthing prayers uttered by the prison chaplain, the notorious sisters were duly hanged by executioner Bartholomew Binns and his assistant.

Together they had planned their dreadful crimes and together they faced the consequences.


Serial killer sisters murdered relatives

BBC News

September 19, 2002

An amateur historian is claiming to have unearthed evidence of a group of Victorian women who killed people for their life insurance money.

Two sisters - Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flanagan - were convicted in 1884 of killing Margaret's husband, Thomas.

But retired criminal lawyer Angela Brabinan, who comes from Cheshire, believes the pair and their friends were responsible for killing up to 17 people.

The victims were poisoned with arsenic before life insurance policies, which were often taken out without their knowledge, were cashed in.

Ms Brabin makes her claims in an article in History Today.

She said the women saw the murders as a way out of poverty.

Flanagan, 55, and Higgins, 41, and their friends lived in the deprived Skirving Street area of Liverpool.

Life insurance was seen as a way to avoid the disgrace of a pauper's funeral.

But their scam was discovered after Thomas Higgins' brother became suspicious and alerted the authorities.

Five insurance policies had been taken out on Thomas Higgins' life making Margaret Higgins a wealthy widow.

The pair were arrested, tried and hanged at the city's Kirkdale Gaol.

But it believed at the time that they had murdered at least three others.

After Thomas Higgins' death, the bodies of Catherine's son John, an 18-year-old lodger called Margaret Jennings and Thomas' 10-year-old daughter Mary were all exhumed.

All three were found to have died from the same cause - arsenic poisoning - and each also had insurance policies taken out on their lives.

Ms Brabin said: "Their method was very simple - they used arsenic which they obtained by soaking fly papers in water.

"Then they would administer the solution to their victims over a period of six, seven or eight days until they died."

But she said evidence found in documents from the time strongly suggested that others were involved.

After her arrest, Catherine Flanagan made specific allegations naming six more victims and their killers.

Police documents reveal these women were investigated but insufficient evidence was found to charge them.

In a letter dated February, 1884, prosecuting solicitor for Liverpool, William Marks, told the Director of Public Prosecutions that the six victims were probably poisoned but it would be difficult to prove anyone other than Higgins and Flanagan responsible.

Ms Brabin added: "It was quite clear that there were three or four other women actively involved in the poisoning of various people.

"Also, another four women were aware of what was going on and were simply involved in the insurance angle."

The case provoked an outcry at the time and prompted the Home Secretary to review the law which allowed people's lives to be insured without their knowledge.


Catherine Flannagan


Margaret Higgins



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