Thursday, 10 October 2013

Maria Manning - The Murderous Woman in Black

At her murder trial, she scandalised and titillated newspaper readers the length and breadth of the country. 

She was born Maria La Roux in Switzerland in 1821, emigrated to Britain and became lady's maid to Lady Blantyre, wealthy daughter of the Duchess of Sutherland. Maria had a dread of poverty and developed a love of fine clothes - especially silk - as well as a desire to better herself by whatever means necessary.

In 1846, she accompanied her mistress to Boulogne and met a 50 year old Irishman, Patrick O'Connor who worked in the customs house. But Patrick was not merely a clerk. He had money of his own and Maria, on discovering this, developed an instant attraction for him. This was complicated by her existing relationship with the man she would ultimately marry - Frederick George Manning, who worked as a guard on the railway. It seems the two men vied with each other as to who could provide the most comfortable lifestyle for the woman they loved. In the end, Frederick proved the more persuasive (and apparently better off, with a promised sizeable inheritance to come). They were married in May 1847 and lived in a well appointed house in Miniver Place, Bermondsey, London.

It wasn't long before Maria realised Frederick had not been entirely honest with her about his anticipated fortune and she began to have an affair with O'Connor. This time though, she had murder in mind. She didn't want the man - she wanted his money and was prepared to trade sexual favours in order to get it. Or even worse.

On 9th August 1849, she invited O'Connor to dinner - it would be an intimate affair for just the two of them. Or so it seemed, but Frederick wasn't far away. It was to be a dinner Patrick would never eat as, while he washed his hands at the sink prior to sitting at the table, Maria shot him in the back of the head with a pistol. She wasn't a great shot and the bullet didn't kill him, so Frederick dasged in and battered the man to death with a crow bar. The couple had already prepared a grave under the flagstones in the kitchen and they now tossed their victim's lifeless body into the pit, covered it with quicklime to speed up decomposition and replaced the flagstones.

Next day, Maria managed to inveigle her way into O'Connor's lodging house and took everything of any value she could find. She even had the audacity to return there the next day, just to check she hadn't missed anything!

Then two of O'Connor's work colleagues turned up. They had missed their friend at work and remembered he had told them he was eating at Miniver Place on the evening of the last day they had seen him. Their visit scared the Mannings so much, they packed up all their valuables, sold their furniture and left, by ship, to Jersey. 

But their odd behaviour at the time of their visit raised O'Connor's friends' suspicion and they reported their concerns to the police, who searched the house. They found damp cement in the kitchen, in between the flagstones, and, shortly afterwards, discovered the battered, bloody body of Patrick O'Connor.

The Mannings were apprehended and remanded to Housemonger Lane Gaol, in London, where they immediately started to blame each other. Eventually Frederick Manning admitted that, after Maria had shot Patrick, he had finished him off because he hated the man. 

Central Criminal Court (The Old Bailey)
On 25th October, their trial began at the Old Bailey and was widely reported. It rapidly caught the public's imagination - not least because female murderers were rare, scandalous sexual misconduct was involved and also because of Maria herself. All the ingredients for a tabloid beanfeast were there. She was a woman, she was a foreigner, and on both days of the trial, she appeared in the dock, dressed from head to toe in stylish black silk. She showed great composure, until the Judge pronounced the verdict. Guilty. Maria screamed insults at the jury, saying, "You have treated me like a wild beast of the forest." The Judge passed sentence of death on both her and Frederick. 

In the van back to prison, Maria asked the guards how they had liked her performance in court.

For her execution, Maria once again wore the now infamous black silk dress, accompanied this time by a black lace veil and a matching silk handkerchief, which she requested be bound over her eyes. A huge crowd of between 30-50,000 spectators - including some very fashionably dressed ladies - had gathered to watch the public hangings. They were quite outraged by her stylish choice of dress and her black lace fripperies. Maria had given the newspapers another sell out edition. 

Execution of the Mannings as depicted by Punch
Charles Dickens, who attended the proceedings, reported himself to be disgusted at the crowd's behaviour. "I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning...When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world." Dickens was an outspoken campaigner to abolish public hangings and they eventually were - in 1868.

It has been suggested that the two reconciled on the gallows and shared a brief kiss before the 'drop', but this may have just been a romantic whim on someone's part. Certainly, all eyes were riveted. Some even peered through opera glasses to gain a better view. One person was heard to say (of Maria), "Thank God she wasn't an Englishwoman."The Swiss Ambassador's view is not recorded. 
The 'short drop' they were subjected to wasn't kind. If they were lucky, the fall would have rendered them unconscious. If not, they would endure the agony of asphyxiation. Either way, death would have taken, on average, 5-15 minutes to occur.

Maria Manning found her way into Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, where she would be later joined by such murdering luminaries as Dr William Palmer and Dr Crippen. Tussauds sent an artist to court to ensure they created the best possible likeness. Her waxwork was said to wear the same black silk dress Maria wore to her trial and hanging. 

Hers was one of the trials of the 19th century and she died unrepentant. As for the hapless Frederick, who is to say he wouldn't have led a perfectly normal life, fathered children and died at a ripe old age - if only he hadn't fallen in love with the murderous woman in black.


  1. Oh YES! The wonderfully murderous Milady Manning. Fabulous post Antonia, on very interesting lady.

  2. Another stunningly fabulous post, Antonia. Seriously good reading. Thanks.