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Mary Elizabeth WILSON






A.K.A.: "The Merry Widow of Windy Nook"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: "Black widow" poisoner of husbands for profit
Number of victims: 2 - 4
Date of murders: 1955 - 1957
Date of arrest: December 1957
Date of birth: 1893
Victims profile: John Knowles (her first husband) / John Russell (her lover) / Oliver J. Leonard, 75 (her second husband) / Ernest Wilson, 76 (her third husband)
Method of murder: Poisoning (phosphorus)
Location: Windy Nook, Tyne and Wear, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to death in March 29, 1958. Commuted to life imprisonment on June 1, 1958. Died in Holloway Prison on December 5, 1962

Mary Elizabeth Wilson (c. 1893 - 1963), also known as the Merry widow of Windy Nook, was a murderer and the last woman to be sentenced to death in Durham, in 1958. However the sentence was not carried out, as it was commuted to a prison sentence.

Wilson was born at Hebburn, South Tyneside, and married her first husband John Knowles in around 1912. They settled at a house in Windy Nook, Gateshead. Her lover John Russell eventually moved in with them. In 1955, Knowles died. She waited five months before marrying Russell. Her second husband died in 1956 (or early in 1957). The attending physician declared that both men had died of natural causes. Wilson inherited their money, £42.

In June 1957, Wilson married her third husband, Oliver Leonard, a retired estate agent. He died only 12 days into their marriage, leaving her £50. She soon married a fourth husband, Ernest Wilson. His estate included up to £100, a bungalow and a life insurance. He died within the year. This time, she did not even bother to attend the funeral.

By this time Wilson had become a main figure of local gossip, concerning both the frequency at which her spouses died and her rather cheerful attitude towards the pattern; she had joked at her latest wedding reception that left-over sandwiches would be fresh enough to use in the next funeral. She had also asked for a trade discount from the local undertaker, for providing him with plenty of business. These instances of morbid humor brought her to the attention of the police.

An exhumation of the bodies of her last two husbands revealed high levels of phosphorus. Her defense claimed the substance was contained in their medication. Wilson was convicted of murdering two of her four husbands with beetle poison in 1956 and 1957. The remains of her earlier two husbands were exhumed at a later date and pointed to the same cause of death. There was no reason, however, to have a second trial.

While Wilson was sentenced to death, her advanced age allowed her to get a reprieve. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died while incarcerated at Holloway.


Mary Elizabeth Wilson had been married to John knowles for 43 years when she poisoned him with phosphorous. 

Mary worked in service for the Knowles family, striking up a friendship and eventually a relationship with the laborer son. They married, but the greedy Mary soon had a lover, John Russell a man that lodged with the family at Windy Nook.  In 1957 both her husband and lover suddenly died, both from "Natural causes"? Both left their worldly fortunes to Mary, the handsome sum of £42.

By June 1957 Mary, now 64, had married wealthy retired estate agent, Oliver Leonard. Within 12 days of the registry office marriage in Jarrow, Leonard was taken ill. Wilson called in a neighbour, who verified that he was indeed not well. By the morning he was dead. An examination by a local doctor confirmed that 75 year old Oliver Leonard had died from heart failure. Mrs. Leaonard inherited the princely sum of £50!

Very soon after, Mary moved into the run down council bungalow belonging to Ernest Wilson. She had learned that Wilson not only had £100 in the Co-Op but also had a fully paid up life insurance.  Almost straight away Wilson was taken ill, and died of what the doctor called "Cardiac Muscular Failure".

Mary's fate was always inevitable. At the reception after her marriage to Wilson, she had joked "better keep some cakes, we can use them at the funeral". She also joked with the undertaker at the funeral, asking for a trade discount due to the fact that she had sent so much business his way.

The police became suspicious of Mary, victims Leonard and Wilson were both exhumed, the pathologist confirming that both had died from phosphorous poisoning.

At the trial Mary did not give evidence, but instead the defence used the fact the there was little know about phosphorous poisoning. It was suggested that the two men had been taking sexual stimulation pills, which were known to contain phosphorous. The jury did not believe this, Mary was found guilty of the two murders and sentenced to death. Due to her advancing years she was given clemency, and sent to Holoway Women's prison. She served four and a half years before dying at the age of seventy.

Not surprisingly, when the bodies of George Russell and John Knowles were exhumed, they to were found to contain high level of phosphorus.


Mary Elizabeth Wilson

The telephone call to the doctor on the morning of 12th November 1957 informed him that 75-year-old retired engineer Ernest Wilson was very ill. The call was made by his wife of two weeks, 66-year-old Mary Wilson. Mary was not quite right. Her husband was past illness, he had been dead for several hours. Mr Wilson had been receiving treatment for many years for heart problems and the doctor duly diagnosed the cause of death as heart failure.

Ernest was Mary's third husband. She had first married, in 1912, chimney sweep John Knowles and they had lived in Hebburn-on-Tyne. He had died in August 1955. In September of the following year she wed retired estate agent Oliver Leonard. He had also died just two weeks into their life together. After this she married Ernest Wilson and moved into his council bungalow in Windy Nook, Felling-on-Tyne, County Durham.

On the evening that her third husband died Mary went around to the house of Mrs Grace Liddell, a friend who lived in Hebburn-on-Tyne, and asked her if she could spend the night with her. Mary told Mrs Liddell that her husband was "badly" and that the doctor had attended him. The next morning Mrs Liddell accompanied Mary back to Windy Nook. When they arrived Mary gave Mrs Liddell the key and told her to go in first. She did so and was stunned to be greeted by the sight of Ernest laid out on a table in the front room. Later that day Mary went to the hotel where she and Ernest had held their wedding reception and told the manager that Ernest was ill in hospital. Such eccentric behaviour was bound to arouse suspicion eventually and word got to the local police that things were not quite what they seemed. The bodies of Oliver and Ernest were exhumed and both were found to contain phosphorus. Mary was arrested and charged with both murders.

Mary Wilson appeared before Leeds Assizes in March 1958. After a six-day trial the jury took ninety minutes to find her guilty of both charges and she was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Mary Wilson died in Holloway Prison on 5th December 1962. It was thought that she was probably also responsible for the deaths of John Knowles and of John Russell, her long-term lover and lodger in her house in Hebburn, after phosphorus was also found in their remains.


Mary Elizabeth Wilson Murdered 3 Husbands & a Male Lodger, England – 1958

British Widow May Stand Trial In Four Deaths

Associated Press

December 17, 1957

Jarrow on Tyne, England – Police asked today for more time to prepare for a hearing to determine if Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Wilson should stand trial on a charge of murdering her third husband.

The mild-mannered 66-year-old widow was ordered held for a further hearing next Monday.

Mrs. Wilson, of nearby Windy Willow Nook, is accused of killing Ernest George Lawrence Wilson, 76, a retired engineer, last month.

She was arrested after police exhumed the bodies of four men who died in her home within 26 months. The woman had been married to three of them in succession: the fourth was a lodger.

A formal plea has not been entered and police have not yet made public details in the case.

Mrs. Wilson, a stout little woman, has told newsmen she gave the four men “nothing but kindness.”


Trapped by Her Tongue – Sense of Humor Leads to Death Cell

By Alvin Steinkopf - AP

Spokane Daily Chronicle

Apr. 3, 1958

Leeds, England, Apr. 3. – A 66-year-old widow probably wishes she had not joked about the deaths of her three husbands.

The condemned woman is stout Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Wilson, known as the merry widow of Windy Nook, who was convicted of poisoning two of her mates. Windy Nook is the community near here where she used to live and where four male inmates of her house died in just over two years.

He Lasted 41 Years

The woman’s first husband lived with her 41 years before he expired in August, 1955. but the other two survived the ceremony only two weeks. The fourth man was a lodger who came between husbands No. 1 and No. 2.

One of her gruesome jests which led ultimately to police inquiries was voiced at a reception following her marriage last October to 76-year-old Ernest Wilson. A friend asked what she was going to do with a large number of cakes and sandwiches left over.

“Keep them for the funeral,” she replied.

Wilson laughed with the rest – and lived just 15 days more.

Joke Recalled

Then it was recalled the widow of Windy Nook made another of her jokes at the registrar’s office, where she had been married and had then returned to record her husbands’ deaths.

“There should be a discount for me,” she quipped.

A gossip flew in earnest, police finally took note. The bodies of Wilson and her second husband – Oliver Leonard, who died in 1956 at the age of 76 – were exhumed. Police pathologists found traces of phosphorous in both.

A jury last week found the widow of Windy Nook guilty.

Then Mrs. Wilson became the subject of a twist in Britain’s new and somewhat complicated homicide law. Killing by poisoning is not a capital murder for which the death penalty is imposed any more.

Law Outlined

But the death penalty can be imposed, no matter what the manner of killing, if the accused person is convicted of another murder done on another occasion. And Mrs. Wilson was found guilty of two murders. In the first case of its kind since the new homicide law went into effect a year ago, she was sentenced to death. Her attorneys have served notice of an appeal.

The prosecution made little headway trying to establish a profit motive. Leonard and Wilson left 200 pounds ($560), which the defense dismissed as “paltry benefits.”

“Men like me, and I like men,” the widow of Windy Nook explained in the course of her trial.


British Widow Escapes Gallows


May 31, 1958

London – The "Merry Widow of Windy Nook" escaped the gallows today. Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Wilson, sentenced to death for the murder of two of her three husbands by cockroach poison, was granted a reprieve by the Home Secretary.

The first woman to be sentenced to hang under Britain's new Homicide Act, Mrs. Wilson had already had one appeal turned down by the court of criminal appeal.

The reprieve meant that Mrs. Wilson would serve a life sentence, it was understood.


The murderess died aged 70 in Holloway Prison in London.


Mary Elizabeth Wilson


MO: "Black widow" poisoner of husbands/lovers for profit.

DISPOSITION: Condemned, 1958 (commuted on appeal); died in prison, 1961.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans




Mary Elizabeth Wilson



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