On September 18, 1953, Louisa Merrifield — aka the “Blackpool Poisoner” — was hanged at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of her employer.
Her motive, according to investigators, was simple: She wanted her elderly victim’s bungalow, which was worth 3,000 GBP — approximately $119,000 in today’s money.Louisa had a complicated past and a long criminal history: By her mid-40s, she had been married three times and already served a prison sentence for fraud.
Her second husband was 78 when they wed, and he died only ten weeks later. She married her third husband Alfred Merrifield in February 1953. She was 46; he was 71. By this time, Louisa had lost custody of her four children, due to alcoholism and neglect.
The newlyweds soon accepted a position as resident housekeeper and companion to Sarah Ann Ricketts, an elderly woman who owned a bungalow at 339 Devonshire Road in Blackpool. Ricketts was a widow and — though she stood only four feet eight inches tall — reportedly had a feisty temper. Soon the woman began complaining that she did not get enough to eat, and that the couple spent her money on rum.
On April 9, 1953, Louisa asked a doctor to certify that Ricketts was fit and sane enough to make a new will. Shortly after the doctor confirmed Ricketts’ health, Louisa laced her employer’s favorite treat with rat poison. The vehicle for the poison was easy for her, as friends said that Ricketts always had a sweet tooth, and was fond of eating jam straight out of the jar with a spoon.
Ricketts died on April 14, and her post-mortem revealed that she had died from phosphorous poisoning in Rodine, a rat poison. Police immediately suspected the couple, in part due to the fact that Louisa had not called for a doctor for her employer until the day after the death.
Investigators searched the bungalow and its garden, but found no poison. But after checking local pharmacies, they discovered that Louisa had recently purchased some and had signed the poison register. While the police where searching the garden, Louisa bizarrely hired the Salvation Army to play the Christian hymn “Abide with me” outside the bungalow. She also entertained journalists with tea and cake.
A few days later, a friend of Louisa’s reported a suspicious conversation that she had had with her to the police. She claimed that Louisa told her that her employer planned to leave her her bungalow. She also mentioned that she couldn’t stay late, because she had to lay out the body of an elderly woman. When the friend inquired who had died, Louisa said that Ricketts was “not dead yet, but she soon will be.” Several other acquaintances reported having similar chats with Louisa, and investigators began to close in on the couple.
Both Louisa and Alfred were arrested and charged with murder. At the trial in July 1953, the prosecutors claimed that the Merrifields had murdered Ricketts with rat poison and that they would benefit financially from her death.
During her trial, the judge said of the crime, “Yours was as wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.” Louisa Merrifield was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging — but the jury failed to reach a verdict on Alfred Merrifield, who was memorably described in court as a “tragic simpleton.”
On September 18, 1953, Louisa Ann Merrifield was hanged by famous executioner Albert Pierrepoint. She was the third-last woman hanged in Britain, and the last woman to be executed at Strangeways Prison. It’s said that Louisa’s spirit haunts her former prison cell.
Alfred was released and inherited a half-share in his late employer’s bungalow. He died, aged 80, in 1962.
Main photo: Image of 339 Devonshire Road, Blackpool taken in July 2016 [Google Maps]