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Ethel Lillie MAJOR





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Poisoner
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: May 24, 1934
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: 1892
Victim profile: Arthur Major, 44 (her husband)
Method of murder: Poisoning (strychnine)
Location: Kirkby-on-Bain, Lincolnshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Hull Prison on December 19, 1934

Ethel Lillie Major was executed by hanging at Hull Prison on December 19, 1934 for the murder of her husband Arthur Major. She poisoned him with strychnine in May 1934. She was the first woman to be Hung at Hull Prison.


Ethel Lillie Major

If it had not been for an anonymous letter writer, Ethel would probably have got away with it. Ethel Lillie Brown, born in 1891, was the only daughter of a Lincolnshire gamekeeper and was brought up in a good home with her three brothers on the estate of Sir Henry Hawley. When she left school she worked as a dressmaker but, in 1914, became pregnant. To avoid the stigma her parents brought up the child, Auriel, as Ethel's sister.

In 1918 she met Arthur Major, who had returned a hero from the Great War, but with serious wounds. The couple married on 1st June 1918 and the next year their son, Lawrence, was born and, in 1929, the family moved to Kirkby-on-Bain.

By 1934, Ethel had become a cantankerous, bad tempered woman who was disliked throughout the neighbourhood. Early in the year Arthur started to hear some of the rumours that had long been circulating about his wife's younger 'sister'. When he confronted her about it she admitted the rumours were true but refused to name the father. After this Ethel would only spend the evening hours with her husband, travelling with her son to her father's house to spend the night there.

Ethel accused her husband of having an affair with a neighbour, Rose Kettleborough, and produced letters to her husband that she said the woman had written. Every indication was, however, that Ethel had written them herself. Arthur retaliated by declaring in the Horncastle News that he would not be held responsible for any debts incurred by his wife.

One day in the spring of 1934, Arthur sat down on the edge of the gravel pit, where he worked, to eat his lunch. Another worker sat next to him. Arthur spat out the first mouthful of his sandwich and commented "I'm damned sure that woman is trying to poison me." He threw the sandwich away and birds flew down to peck at it. They promptly fell dead.

On 23rd May, Arthur came home from work feeling unwell. He retired to bed and a doctor was called. When he arrived, Dr Smith found Arthur sweating, convulsive and unable to talk. Ethel told the doctor that she had given her husband some corned beef and that he had been liable to fits for a couple of years. The doctor concluded that Arthur was suffering from a mild form of epilepsy and prescribed a sedative. The next day Ethel went to the doctor and told him that her spouse had died. Ethel started making plans for the funeral.

Next day police received a note that said "Sir, Have you ever heard of a wife poisoning her husband? Look further into the death (by heart failure) of Mr Major of Kirkby-on-Bain. Why did he complain of his food tasting nasty and throw it to a neighbour's dog, which has since died? Ask the undertaker if he looked natural after death. Why did he stiffen so quickly? Why was he so jerky when dying? I myself have heard her threaten to poison him years ago. In the name of the law, I beg you to analyse the contents of his stomach." It was signed "Fairplay." The police quickly obtained a coroner's order postponing the funeral. The dog and parts of Arthur's body were sent to Dr Roche Lynch of St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. The Home Office pathologist determined that both Arthur and the dog had died from strychnine poisoning.

When she was interviewed by Chief Inspector Hugh Young, Ethel went to great pains to point out that she suspected that the corned beef had caused food poisoning and that she had nothing to do with preparing her husband's food. She insisted that she would have nothing to do with corned beef, "I hate corned beef and I think it is a waste of money to buy such rubbish."

When Ethel was interviewed again she got too clever and gave herself away. She told CI Young "I did not know my husband died from strychnine poisoning." The officer replied "I never mentioned strychnine, how did you know that?" "Oh, I'm sorry." she replied, "I must have made a mistake." She had indeed. The house was searched but nothing untoward was found. Backing a hunch, Young contacted her father, Mr Brown. He admitted that he kept strychnine that he used to kill vermin. It was kept in a locked box to which he had the only key. Then he remembered that there had been another key, but that had been lost some ten years previously. The Major house was searched again. An old key was found that fitted none of the locks in the house. It was taken back to the Brown home where it was found to fit the locked poisons box.

Her trial was at Lincoln Assizes in November 1934 and Ethel was defended by Norman Birkett. Birkett had never lost a murder case in his long and distinguished career. Even he could find no effective defence for the woman and she was found guilty, though the jury added a recommendation to mercy. This was ignored and she was sentenced to death. No reprieve was forthcoming and Ethel Major was hanged at Hull Gaol on December 19th 1934 by Thomas Pierrepoint.


Hell hath no fury like a woman's corned beef

May 9, 2011

FOR Ethel Major the short distance down a prison corridor was the longest walk she ever made.

It was Wednesday, December 19, 1934. Ethel, barely conscious, was half dragged and half carried before the noose was placed around her neck by executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

She died at precisely 9am, the first woman to be hanged at Hull Prison and the first to face the ultimate penalty since 1926.

But to the very end Ethel Major denied killing, at her Lincolnshire home, the husband she hated.

They were not the happiest of couples.

At 44 years old, lorry driver Arthur Major was an unpleasant man and a heavy drinker who, it was said, was also a womaniser and a brute who assaulted his wife.

For Ethel Major, things had taken a definite turn for the worse since her darkest secret came to light, for when they married she had not told him she was the mother of the girl he believed to be her sister.

It was in 1929 after the couple and their own son, Lawrence, moved from Ethel’s mother’s home to Kirkby-on-Bain that, through local gossip, Arthur heard the truth, turning him against his wife of ten years.

Life then descended into daily misery for Ethel who found it preferable to walk a mile or so to sleep at the home of her father Tom, a gamekeeper, and often in a garden shed to staying with her husband.

And then came the revelation that Arthur was being unfaithful.

Gossip fuelled the stories, Ethel herself was said to have discovered love letters from their next-door neighbour. And, she would claim, an anonymous letter would tell her he was having an affair with “a bit of stuff” in the village.

It was more than Ethel, who was by now 45-years-old, could take. She hated the man she had married and took matters into her own hands. Her actions would lead her to the gallows.

She complained to the police he was drunk in charge of his lorry, and then endeavoured to dispossess him of the house and become the tenant.

But on May 22, 1934, things took a different and much more drastic turn. That day Arthur Major fell violently ill, taking to his bed with frequent spasmodic contractions of the leg and thigh muscles. He was in great pain and unable to speak more than a word or two. Ethel blamed it on corned beef he had been eating.

But two days later things had changed for the better. By then Arthur was so improved he could have got up.

This, though, was not to last. The following day Ethel Major went to their doctor and said her husband was dead, a death certificate saying that the cause of death was epilepsy. Later that day Ethel saw the Rector, Canon Blakeston, to arrange the funeral service.

But fate intervened after a mysterious letter to the coroner claimed that a neighbour’s dog had died after eating something put out by Mrs Major.

The funeral was delayed, and a post mortem examination carried out on Arthur, whose body was found to contain a more than lethal amount of strychnine.

And then came the vital piece of evidence which would help seal Ethel’s fate.

During a police interview she told Detective Inspector Young: “I didn’t know my husband died of strychnine poisoning …” But the police had never mentioned the fact. And when the missing key to a box in which a bottle of the poison was kept by her father turned up in Ethel’s handbag the proof was sufficient for her to face a charge of murder.

Her reply – “I am not guilty, sir.”

But in a statement her true feelings for her husband were revealed. She said she could not bear to sleep in the same room as him because of the smell. “I could not stand it. From the smell of him he had a disease.”

And she went on: “He was a detestable man and I feel very much better in health that he has gone …”

Ethel Major faced a jury at Lincoln Assizes on October 29, her case attracting so much interest that villagers from Kirkby-on-Bain hired their own coach to take them there.

The jury took less than an hour to reach its verdict, reported by the Grimsby Telegraph:

“Sunlight was streaming through the high windows of the court when they returned. They filed in slowly with grave faces … men and women in the public gallery awaited the verdict but there was a long interval before this became known.

“When at last Mrs Major was brought up from the cells she had to be half carried into the dock with a wardress on each side of her. One glance at the jury seemed to convince her that her fate was sealed.

“When she looked at the solemn faces, her face puckered and then she broke into compulsive sobs.

“She seemed to have aged ten years during the hour of waiting for the verdict.”

On hearing it she collapsed and had to be virtually carried from the court.

But the jury did have compassion and recommended mercy, a plea which found no favour with Sir John Gilmour, the then Home Secretary.

And in Hull the Lord Major, Ald Stark, sent to Buckingham Palace a telegram asking the King and Queen to intervene, telling them that the execution was causing great distress in Hull, particularly among women who did not wish to see a woman and mother walk to the gallows.

It was, however, all in vain and Ethel Major paid the ultimate price in “a humane and expeditious manner".


Poisoner Goes To The Gallows

Arthur and Ethel Major were happily married. He was a lorry-driver, she was the daughter of a Lincolnshire gamekeeper, and they had a son, Lawrence. But Ethel also had a guilty secret.

She managed to keep this from her husband until 10 years after their marriage, when they left her parents’ home in 1929 and moved the short distance to Kirkby-on-Bain, Lincolnshire. It was then that gossips told Arthur Major that his wife’s young “sister” was in fact her illegitimate daughter. She was 24 when she gave birth to the baby, which her parents had brought up as her sister to avoid a scandal.

Arthur felt cheated, and when Ethel refused to name the child’s father he became violent, began drinking heavily and their marriage became nothing but quarrels.

Five years later, however, it was Ethel’s turn to feel outraged. She was now 45, and she discovered that her husband was receiving love letters from a woman who she suspected was their next-door neighbour.

In her fury, Ethel launched a campaign of revenge. She told all and sundry of her husband’s infidelity, tried to have him evicted from their council house, and attempted to have him sacked from his job, telling the police that he was always drunk when driving.

Arthur Major responded by announcing that he would no longer be responsible for his wife’s debts. And when she confronted him with the love letters and asked what he was going to do about it he replied: “Nothing. You’d better do something about it yourself.”

On May 22nd, 1934, he took to his bed in severe pain, Ethel blaming some corned beef he had eaten. His doctor treated him for what appeared to be epileptic fits, and when Major died in agony two days later the physician signed a death certificate attributing his demise to status epilepticus.

Ethel wanted her husband to be buried as soon as possible, and arranged the funeral accordingly. Meanwhile the local coroner received an anonymous letter claiming that a neighbour’s dog had died after eating scraps put out by Mrs. Major. The dog’s body was exhumed, was found to contain strychnine, and Arthur Major’s funeral was postponed pending a post-mortem examination. This found that he too had been killed by strychnine, and the police learned that Ethel had a key to a box in which her gamekeeper father kept a small amount of the poison.

She was arrested and charged with her husband’s murder, and at her trial at Lincolnshire Assizes in November 1934 the prosecution described her troubled marriage.

The jury heard that on discovering her husband’s affair with another woman Ethel had told her doctor, “Now you understand why I have been ill. A man like that is not fit to live. I will do him in!”

The doctor had not taken her seriously.

The court also heard that when Ethel was questioned by the police, she said, “I have never had any strychnine poison.”

“I have never mentioned strychnine,” the detective interviewing her told her. “How did you know your husband died from strychnine poisoning?”

“Oh, I am sorry,” Ethel replied. “I must have made a mistake.”

Her defence counsel established that her solicitor had told her that strychnine poisoning was suspected, but it was Ethel Major’s “mistake” that registered with the jury. This and other circumstantial evidence convinced them of her guilt, and she was hanged at Hull Prison on DECEMBER 19th, 1934.


Ethel Lillie Major


Ethel Lillie Major


The victim

Arthur Major, 44.



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