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The Bermondsey Horror

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A love triangle in Victorian England leads to a murder, followed by executions witnessed by Charles Dickens.

Maria Manning was said to be quite the beauty. Perhaps, the only known image of her doesn't do her justice.

Maria Manning was said to be quite the beauty. Perhaps, the only known image of her doesn't do her justice.

The Lady's Maid

Marie (later Maria) de Roux was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1821 and nothing is known about until she pops up in England as a 20-something in domestic service. (The absence of Marie's history did not deter Robert Huish. The English author of many quasi-history books simply invented a background for her.)

She became lady's maid to Lady Blantyre, daughter of the Duchess of Sutherland. This was an elevated position in the world of domestic service well above the lowly scullery maid whose duties included emptying and cleaning chamber pots.

As a lady's maid in a wealthy household, Marie's world was one of opulence and elegance, albeit reflected from her employer. According to capitalpunishmentuk.org Maria “dreaded the idea of poverty, a very real state for many at this time in history and resolved that she would never live like that.”

During her employment with Lady Blantyre, Maria travelled to France with her mistress. On the English Channel crossing, Maria met an Irishman named Patrick O'Connor. There was a bit of a spark between the two and an intermittent affair began and lasted for half a dozen years.

Stafford House, now known as Lancaster House, where Maria was employed.

Stafford House, now known as Lancaster House, where Maria was employed.

The Love Triangle Forms

Patrick O'Connor was 50 years old; old enough to be Maria's father. He was a man of charm and means, much of it come by through shady dealings. As a customs officer he was in a position to exact a little extra, over and above his salary, from travellers and to operate a smuggling scheme. He used his earnings to fund a money-lending business.

At about the same time, Maria met Frederick Manning, who worked as a guard on the Great Western Railway. But, Fred also seems to have had a dodgy character; he was fired from his railway job because he was suspected of being involved in some robberies.

Both men became suitors for Maria's hand in marriage (some accounts say it was only Manning). O'Connor was already well off while Manning boasted he was soon to inherit a substantial sum of money.

Maria chose Manning, a man her own age, and their wedding took place in 1847. O'Connor then wrote to Maria declaring his undying love, thereby elbowing his way into the marriage.

Apparently, Fred Manning had a wandering eye as well as other body parts and Maria was inclined to go and stay with O'Connor from time to time. The couple tried and failed in the public house trade and settled into a house, 3 Miniver Place, Bermondsey, where they took in lodgers and Maria did some dressmaking.

Dinner for Three

It seems to have dawned on Maria that Fred Manning's legacy was never going to arrive, but Patrick O'Connor's wealth might be within reach. The only obstacle to getting her hands on the Irishman's money was his continued existence. To someone without scruples or conscience this did not appear to be an insurmountable problem.

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She invited O'Connor for dinner on August 10, 1849, along with hints of some intimacy for dessert. But, O'Connor never got to enjoy the meal as Maria shot him in the head with a pistol that was too weak to be lethal, so Fred finished the job with a crowbar. They then shoved the body into a pre-dug hole under flagstones in the kitchen along with a liberal sprinkling of quicklime.

The next day, Maria turned up at O'Connor's lodgings and removed everything of value, including share certificates. But, when a couple of O'Connor's friends came calling looking for their pal, the Mannings got spooked and fled the city.

Police were informed that O'Connor was missing and it took them no time to connect him to Fred and Maria. A search at 3 Miniver Place revealed the decomposing O'Connor under the kitchen floor.

The couple was not very skilled at hiding and were soon arrested and jailed in London to await their court date.

Guilt and Punishment

The trial of the Mannings took place in October 1849. The evidence was overwhelming and it took the jury just 45 minutes to return guilty verdicts on both. The automatic sentence was death by hanging at which Maria howled at the jury “You have treated me like a wild beast of the forest.” She continued raving at Chief Justice Cresswell as she was taken away to away her execution.

But, Maria did not intend to suffer the indignity of being executed in public. Three female warders slept in the condemned cell to prevent a suicide attempt. Even so, she tried to strangle herself and puncture her windpipe with her extra-long fingernails. It took all three warders to stop her, although it is not possible for a person to strangle themselves; when they pass out from oxygen starvation they release their grip on the throat.

The executions of Fred and Maria were set for November 13, 1849. The gallows were put up on the flat roof of the Horsemonger Lane Gaol and a massive crowd of between 30,000 and 50,000 gathered below.

Inside, the couple received the Sacraments in the prison chapel, had their arms bound, and then began to slow procession to the place of execution, the prison bell tolling all the while. They climbed the steps to the roof and arrived on the platform shortly after 9 a.m.

The Times reported that “In an instant Calcraft (the executioner) withdrew the bolt, the drop fell, and the sentence of the law was fulfilled. Frederick died almost without a struggle while Maria writhed for some seconds. Their bodies were left to hang for the customary hour before they were taken down and in the evening buried in the precincts of gaol.”

Author Charles Dickens was among the audience. He wrote “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators.”

Maria Manning's execution remembered in a ballad.

Maria Manning's execution remembered in a ballad.

Bonus Factoids

  • Charles Dickens was one of several prominent people who campaigned for an end to public executions. The last one was held in Britain in 1868 and the last executions in the country were held in 1964.
  • Dickens later gave Maria Manning a role in his novel Bleak House as Lady Dedlock's maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. She hates her employer and believes herself to be above the lowly role she occupies. At the end of the book, Mademoiselle Hortense commits a murder.
  • The hanging of the Mannings was the first execution of a husband and wife to take place in Britain since 1700.
  • Maria Manning wore a black satin dress to her execution. It's said this caused the material to go out of fashion for three decades.

Sources

  • Amazing Stories of Female Executions.” Geoffrey Abbott, Summerdale, 2006.
  • “Maria and Frederick Manning.” capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.
  • “1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian Scene.” executedtoday.com, November 13, 2008.
  • “Frederick George Manning.” Juan Ignacio Blanco, murderpedia.org, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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