The cruel poisoners

One of the most infamous cases involving the use of phosphorus based rat poison involved Louisa Merrifield. She was the care worker from hell, who ingratiated her way into the affections of an elderly 79 year old cantankerous spinster named Sarah Ricketts and through greed poisoned her to obtain her house. She had managed to change the will of the old woman from Blackpool in her favour just two weeks after moving into the property with her husband Alfred.

Alfred was in fact her third husband and there has to be suspicion that Merrifield had already bumped off the other two elderly husbands whose deaths could not be proved for their money.

A previously convicted fraudster, Merrifield boasted of her good fortune at coming into money and told two people that she had already received a windfall from an old woman who had died- this before her plan had been even commenced. Her husbands name also appeared on the will, and this led to him also being accused of murder.

Merrifield first attempted to get a doctor to affirm that Mrs Ricketts was of sound mind when signing her changed will, which did not work and then began a process of trying to convince others that her employer was seriously ill. One wonders today if she had what is known as having “Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy”, but this psycho babble undermines the intent on which people like Merrifield had.

The dose of phosphorus was delivered in the form of Rodine rat poison , disguised in rum. Alfred had bought a tin from Manchester before Mrs Ricketts death. This was another black mark against him as a potential co-murderer.

The presence of rum disguised the taste of phosphorus. Had she already used the method on her two dead husbands to perfect the technique? Unfortunately for Merrifield her knowledge of phosphorus poisoning was not that good however as she made the mistake of administering more than one cocktail of the substance. In between doses she called a doctor in an attempt to try to prove that the old woman was becoming deathly ill, but as phosphorus poisoning initially gives the impression that someone is recovering, she administered another dose which would be her undoing. For this reason, traces of the second dose would be found.

The doctor refused to sign Mrs Ricketts death certificate, and soon a trail leading to the Merrifield’s and their motive led to their arrests and trial.

The 1953 trial was most interesting in its examination of forensic evidence , particularly in “proving” that phosphorus had caused the death of Mrs Ricketts. We have of course had the same nonsense originally from Rhodia in attempting to “prove” that deaths of wild birds were being caused by the same chemical, and where “small amounts” that could not be found in larger amounts due to the nature of the evanescence of the element , would not be enough to cause death.

An original cutting of the case is shown below, and it is quite amazing that the prosecution witness Dr George Manning took it upon himself to concoct a potion of rum and rat poison and actually put it in his mouth without swallowing it.

Unfortunately no phosphorus traces were found on a spoon found in Merrifield’s bag, and the defence witness, Professor J.M Webster whom amongst other titles was Professor of Forensic medicine and toxicology at the University of Birmingham- (Albright and Wilson “friends”), attempted the ludicrous claim that she had died of natural causes and liver necrosis. It would be interesting to know what method was used in determining the amount “found” in Mrs Ricketts’s system, which of course would not be the amount she actually swallowed.

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In an eleven day trial at Manchester Assizes, Louisa Merrifield was found guilty of murder yet her husband was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Bizarrely he was even allowed to inherit half a share of Mrs Rickett’s bungalow from the murder.

An appeal was rejected, and on 18th September 1953, Louisa Merrifield was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint at Strangeways prison.

“You have been convicted on plain evidence of as wicked and cruel a murder as I have ever heard tell of” Mr Justice Glyn -Jones told Merrifield as he had sent her down.

It is with some irony that just ten years later, new legislation would be passed using this exact same word “cruel” to describe the effect of white phosphorus on animals.

Merrifield was of course a very foolish woman, yet with expertise in analytical chemistry, it would be quite possible to poison someone with such a chemical even today, whereby those carrying out such a post mortem would probably have no experience of ever coming across a person whom had ingested white phosphorus without their knowledge.

Perhaps it should not just have been Louisa Merrifield on the scaffold that day but the directors of Albright and Wilson, whose company had manufactured this “cruel poison” which killed Mrs Ricketts. Their poisoning of wildfowl would take  many more years to deduce, with their cocktail containing “toothpaste” instead of rum to disguise the taste.





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