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Thursday, 19 September, 2002, 20:45 GMT 21:45 UK
Serial killer sisters murdered relatives
Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins
The two sisters are believed to have been part of a syndicate
An amateur historian is claiming to have unearthed evidence of a group of Victorian women who killed people for their life insurance money.

Two sisters - Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flanagan - were convicted in 1884 of killing Margaret's husband, Thomas.

But retired criminal lawyer Angela Brabinan, who comes from Cheshire, believes the pair and their friends were responsible for killing up to 17 people.

The victims were poisoned with arsenic before life insurance policies, which were often taken out without their knowledge, were cashed in.

Skirving Street in 19th century Liverpool
Ms Braban said the women wanted to escape poverty

Ms Brabin makes her claims in an article in History Today.

She said the women saw the murders as a way out of poverty.

Flanagan, 55, and Higgins, 41, and their friends lived in the deprived Skirving Street area of Liverpool.

Life insurance was seen as a way to avoid the disgrace of a pauper's funeral.

But their scam was discovered after Thomas Higgins' brother became suspicious and alerted the authorities.

Five insurance policies had been taken out on Thomas Higgins' life making Margaret Higgins a wealthy widow.

The pair were arrested, tried and hanged at the city's Kirkdale Gaol.

But it believed at the time that they had murdered at least three others.


It was quite clear that there were three or four other women actively involved in the poisoning of various people

Angela Brabin, amateur historian

After Thomas Higgins' death, the bodies of Catherine's son John, an 18-year-old lodger called Margaret Jennings and Thomas' 10-year-old daughter Mary were all exhumed.

All three were found to have died from the same cause - arsenic poisoning - and each also had insurance policies taken out on their lives.

Ms Brabin said: "Their method was very simple - they used arsenic which they obtained by soaking fly papers in water.

"Then they would administer the solution to their victims over a period of six, seven or eight days until they died."

But she said evidence found in documents from the time strongly suggested that others were involved.

After her arrest, Catherine Flanagan made specific allegations naming six more victims and their killers.

Thomas Higgins' life Insurance certificate
Five insurance policies had been taken out on Thomas Higgins

Police documents reveal these women were investigated but insufficient evidence was found to charge them.

In a letter dated February, 1884, prosecuting solicitor for Liverpool, William Marks, told the Director of Public Prosecutions that the six victims were probably poisoned but it would be difficult to prove anyone other than Higgins and Flanagan responsible.

Ms Brabin added: "It was quite clear that there were three or four other women actively involved in the poisoning of various people.

"Also, another four women were aware of what was going on and were simply involved in the insurance angle."

The case provoked an outcry at the time and prompted the Home Secretary to review the law which allowed people's lives to be insured without their knowledge.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Lindsey Prosser
"Described as callous killers, in 1884 sisters Margaret Higgins and Catherine Flanagan were found guilty of one murder"

Click here to go to Liverpool
See also:

03 Apr 01 | Entertainment
21 Jan 01 | UK
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