Walton Prison’s First Execution: Elizabeth Berry, Serial Poisoner?

Thirty-two years after being built, Walton Prison in Liverpool witnessed its first execution. On 14 March 1887, Elizabeth Berry suffered the ignominy of being the first prisoner and one of only two women to be executed there. The execution chamber was hastily built. It appears that a reprieve for the prisoner was expected and when this was not granted, the Coach House, an outbuilding where prison vehicles were stored, was converted to exact justice on those sentenced to death.

Work started on 6 March, with twelve prisoners digging a pit, ten feet deep, ten feet wide and twelve feet long. A team of bricklayers and plasterers were then employed to construct the walls of the execution chamber, as essentially it was still just a wooden shed. The newly constructed gallows were situated over a trap-door covered pit, on level ground, negating the need for the condemned prisoner to climb the scaffold steps, they would stand over the trap-door and wait for it to open.

Elizabeth Berry, aged 31, was convicted of the murder of her eleven-year-old daughter Edith Alice Berry. Elizabeth was a nurse at Oldham Workhouse Infirmary, her husband had died five years earlier and her son barely a year after his father. Edith then went to live with her paternal aunt, Anne Sanderson, in Lancashire. Elizabeth paid her sister-in-law eight shillings a week for Edith’s care and paid an extra penny a week for life insurance covering Edith.

Elizabeth Berry

On 27 December 1886, Elizabeth visited her daughter and sister-in-law and stayed until 30 December. She then returned to Oldham with Edith and Edith’s friend, Beatrice Hall. Both girls played happily in the workhouse grounds.

On 1 January 1887, Edith was violently sick. Her mother was later seen proffering a glass filled with milky white fluid. The workhouse’s doctor, Dr Paterson, prescribed Edith iron and quinine and remained in attendance, checking her periodically. After taking the dispensary keys from Elizabeth to prepare a mixture of bicarbonate for Edith, he noted that the dispensary’s bottle of creosote was empty. He asked Elizabeth to obtain another bottle.

Initially improving, on the second day Edith again worsened, presenting with small blisters around her mouth. Dr Paterson consulted a second doctor and both came to the conclusion that Edith had drunk a corrosive poison. On 3 January Anne Sanderson received a telegram asking her to attend Edith’s bedside as she was dying. It was hard for her to understand the drastic change in the girl from a few days before. Edith, by now vomiting hourly, continued to fail and at 5 a.m. on 4 January died.

Dr Paterson suspected her mother had administered two large doses of creosote and refused to sign the death certificate. He questioned Elizabeth, querying if she had insured her daughter, something which Elizabeth denied. Evidence of poisoning was discovered during Edith’s post mortem and Elizabeth Berry was arrested and charged with her daughter’s murder. It was then discovered that Elizabeth had insured her daughter’s life for £10 and had another insurance policy for one hundred pounds rejected by the insurance company.

During a four day trial in February 1887, evidence was heard from Dr Paterson and other medical experts who testified that Edith died after consumption of a corrosive poison and that Elizabeth had denied insuring her daughter’s life, when she clearly had an active policy in place. The jury took only ten minutes to reach their guilty verdict.

The trial, as reported in The Globe and Traveller on 25 February 1887, led the Judge, Mr Justice Hawkins, at Liverpool Assizes, to announce that the murder was ‘cold-blooded, merciless and cruel’, as he sentenced Elizabeth Berry to death. This publication though, accused Liverpool, the place of the trial and not the murder, of having ‘long been afflicted with an exceedingly evil reputation in respect of crimes of this kind’. It was only four years previously that Catherine Flannagan and Margaret Higgins were executed after being convicted of murder for burial payouts (a form of insurance), having been charged with one murder in the city, but suspected of several more. Indeed, the newspaper took a supercilious tone, commenting that there had been some ‘check of late to the only too prevalent’ instances of ‘the lowest class putting away with their children for the sake of insurance money’.

The Derbyshire Times reported on Saturday 19 March that ‘strenuous efforts had been made for a reprieve’ and the Home Secretary had been twice interviewed in this regard, but he could not ‘see his way to interfere with the course of the law’. It further revealed that Elizabeth Berry protested her innocence to the last, nevertheless, the governor of Walton Prison contended that she made a tacit admission of her guilt when she wrote to the Home Secretary and stated that if she did poison Edith she must have been insane at the time.

After the trial, as reported in the newspapers, Elizabeth Berry’s defence barrister submitted an appeal to the Home Secretary that was declined. This was in part due to the horrific death Edith suffered and that questions were now being asked about other deaths in Elizabeth’s family. The body of Elizabeth’s mother was exhumed after it became known that she was living with her mother at the time of her death. A post mortem demonstrated the presence of a noxious substance in her body. A Coroner’s jury thus returned a verdict of murder against Elizabeth Berry. A new trial was thought not to be in the public interest considering Elizabeth had already been condemned to death. Elizabeth was then also suspected of poisoning her husband and son, although no further exhumations and inquests were held.

The execution was remarkable and not just because it was the first for Walton Prison or that the prisoner was a woman. The prisoner not only shared the same surname as the executioner but had met him a few years earlier at a police ball in Manchester, had danced with him and shared part of the journey home. The executioner, James Berry, was made aware of this strange coincidence the night before the execution, as Elizabeth had told prison staff that they were old friends. The executioner confirmed the veracity of Elizabeth’s tale. At 7.45 a.m. 14 March 1887 Elizabeth left the condemned prisoner’s cell and made her way to the gallows. She was buried inside the prison walls.


Suggested Reading: The Register of Death: A History of Executions at Walton Prison, Liverpool – John Smith


13 thoughts on “Walton Prison’s First Execution: Elizabeth Berry, Serial Poisoner?

  1. Wonderfully (and concisely) written. As I read it I imagined it as one of those historical tv shows. The topic is interesting… suspenseful.. and told in a way as if it were a story. Hoping to read some more of your posts! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on HistorianRuby: An Historian's Miscellany and commented:

    I’ve long had a fascination with historic crime – and particularly the motivations of female offenders. I studied criminal poisonings academically, focussing on crimes tried at the Old Bailey in London. This article focusses on a nineteenth century female offender that was outside of the scope of my initial research but is a fascinating story nonetheless.


  3. A riveting read. She must have wanted more for herself than just being a nurse. Maybe she was hoping to find a cure for something and then become a doctor?


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