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ETHEL MAJOR – STRYCHNINE IN THE CORNED BEEF

Posted on: December 11, 2017

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Ethel Major is not exactly a household name in the annals of True Crime.  She rarely crops up in anthologies of Female Murderers, and in a recent Who’s Who Of British Crime In The 20th Century she doesn’t merit a mention at all.  She doesn’t even get a page in Wikipedia, not that I’ve found anyway.  I first read about her in an old issue of Murder Casebook many years ago, and came across her again recently when reading an out-of-print book from 1960 called Daughters Of Cain by Rene Huggett and Paul Berry, which covered all the women who had been hanged in Britain since Edith Thompson in 1923.

Daughters Of Cain (which I can recommend if you can get hold of a copy) was written in the final years of the Death Penalty in Britain, and the authors take a sympathetic view of the cases they cover.   With some cases this is easier to understand than others, but Ethel Major is not an immediately sympathetic case.   Whereas Edith Thompson and Ruth Ellis, for instance, generate sympathy because theirs were crimes of passion.  Both were very attractive women who were felt to be more sinned against than sinning.  Even Ruth, who undoubtedly killed her victim, David Blakely, gunning him down in the street, is thought to have been wronged by the justice system, and her fate at the hangman’s noose helped usher in the end of the Death Penalty in Britain.  Albert Pierrepoint, her executioner, seemed to think the public were dazzled by her platinum blonde Monroe-esque looks, but there was a growing kickback against capital punishment.

Pierrepoint might have been correct in the sense that attractive women do seem to generate more sympathy than anyone else (although you can also legitimately argue that Ruth’s immaculate blonde appearance in the witness box helped convict her).   For all the sympathy that glamorous ones like Edith and Ruth get, no one gives a thought to Charlotte Bryant, an illiterate, dowdy working-class housewife, who was hanged for giving her husband arsenic in 1936.  And yet there is a question-mark over whether Charlotte was actually guilty of the crime.  She comes across as a somewhat pathetic creature.  In her final weeks in the Condemned Cell she taught herself to read and write, so that she could write a message to the King, pleading for her life.   Needless to say it didn’t work.  At the time the King, Edward VIII, was probably too busy on a yacht in the Med with Wallis Simpson, to worry about someone awaiting the hangman’s noose.

Likewise with Margaret Allen, who was hanged in 1949 for the completely unprovoked attack on an elderly lady in her neighbourhood.   Margaret was transgender.  She was masculine in appearance, preferred to wear men’s clothes, and liked to be called Bill.  To this day it is not known why she suddenly carried out the attack, or why she made so little effort to cover her traces.  Nowadays Margaret/Bill might get more sympathy, and in fact the author Moll Cutpurse has written a short book about her.   But in 1949 it is doubtful she garnered much support, and a petition got up to save her generated less than 200 signatures.   It’s all a far cry from the massive outpourings of demonstrations and petitions generated by the Thompson and Ellis cases.

Ethel Major was also someone not likely to attract sympathy.  She was a cantankerous little woman, plain, wearing wire-rimmed round spectacles.   With her berets and woolly hats, and her patterned overall, she looks every bit the 1930s working-class housewife.   There is nothing in Ethel’s background to suggest a murderer in the making.  Unlike Ruth Ellis, who had had a troubled childhood at the mercy of a father who very likely sexually abused her, Ethel, born in 1891, enjoyed a stable upbringing in rural Lincolnshire.  She was the daughter of a gamekeeper, and although she trained as a dressmaker, her main occupation, like it was for so many girls of her generation,  was Helping Mother At Home.

And then in 1914, scandal hit.  Ethel found herself pregnant.  For the rest of her life she steadfastly refused to divulge the identity of the baby’s father, and it was a secret she took with her to the grave.   This would have potentially been a huge scandal at that time, but Ethel’s parents decided to adopt the baby as their own, and as such Ethel’s daughter, Auriol, was passed off as her little sister.  This was far from unusual for that time.   During the closing months of World War One Ethel met Arthur Major, who had been sent home wounded from the Front.   The couple married in the Summer of 1918, and went on to have a son, Lawrence.

The marriage was not a happy one though.  Ethel became a bitter, bad-tempered woman.  Things came to a head a few years later when Arthur heard that gossip was circulating about Ethel’s younger sister, Auriol, and her true parentage.  Arthur confronted his wife about it, and Ethel admitted the rumours were true.  From then on the marriage became a truly miserable state of affairs.   It was rumoured that Arthur took to drink, and began to have affairs.   He had fits of temper, and he never lost an opportunity to criticise Ethel, or to remind her of her past.

Ethel would refuse to spend the night under the same roof with Arthur, and would instead take Lawrence to sleep at her father’s house.  On one occasion Ethel found love letters in her husband’s coat pocket, which she said had been written by a neighbour, Rose Kettleborough.  There is some doubt about this, and rumours are that Ethel wrote the letters herself.  In revenge Arthur took out an ad in a local newspaper, saying he refused to be held responsible for any debts his wife ran up.  In turn Ethel contacted the firm where Arthur worked as a truck driver, and told them he was usually too drunk to be driving.  When a marriage goes spectacularly wrong, everybody in the nearby vicinity gets caught up in its poisonous web.

On 23 May 1934 Arthur came home from work feeling ill.  By the time the doctor arrived, Arthur was sweating, having fits, and unable to speak.   The doctor concluded that Arthur was suffering from epilepsy.  He must have been somewhat surprised then, when the next day Ethel calmly turned up at his office and said that Arthur had died.   Without any more ado Ethel began briskly organising his funeral, which she wanted to take place as soon as possible.

Ethel might well have got away with it, if an anonymous person, simply signing themselves Fairplay hadn’t sent a letter to the police, which accused Ethel of poisoning Arthur’s food.  On one occasion Arthur had to chuck away his sandwiches at lunchtime, saying “I’m damned sure that woman is trying to poison me”.   On another occasion he had given his food to a neighbour’s dog, which had promptly died.

When questioned by the police, Ethel said she had flatly refused to have anything to do with Arthur’s corned beef, saying “it is a waste of money to buy such rubbish”.  Ethel then made a textbook error.  She told the police “I did not know my husband died from strychnine poisoning”.  No one had told Ethel about the strychnine in the corned beef.  It was a fact known to very few people at that time.  Ethel had made a fatal wrong move.  No evidence of poison was found in the Majors’ home, but, acting on a hunch, CI Young went to Ethel’s father’s house.  Being a gamekeeper he had kept strychnine in a locked box, for killing vermin.  The original key to the box had gone missing several years before.  It was subsequently found in Ethel’s house.

It didn’t help matters either that Ethel wasn’t exactly the grieving widow.  She referred to Arthur as “a detestable man”, and said she was glad he was gone.  She also said she didn’t mind the prospect of a few years in prison.  After her hellish marriage, it would have probably seemed like a holiday.

Ethel was tried at Lincoln Assizes in November 1934.  Whilst waiting for the jury to return their verdict, she seemed to age 10 years.  She was found guilty, but the jury put in a strong recommendation for mercy.  On hearing the verdict Ethel collapsed, sobbing, in a state of shock, and had to be supported by two wardresses.  The Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, ignored the jury’s recommendation for mercy.  He also ignored the feelings of many working-class women in the area at the time, who didn’t relish the prospect of a fellow wife and mother being marched to the gallows.

Ethel Major was hanged at Hull Prison, a few days before Christmas, on 19 December 1934.  Like her predecessor, Edith Thompson, she spent the last 48 hours of her life in a state of total emotional collapse, and had to be half-carried to the scaffold.   In Daughters Of Cain the authors argue that if Ethel had suddenly snapped one day and simply attacked Arthur with a poker, or pushed him into a river, she may well have got away with it.  But poisoning him suggests a degree of cold-blooded premeditation.  The poisoner rarely generates sympathy.  It is not a crime of passion, or a sudden moment of uncontrollable rage, like shooting someone, or coshing them.  There is something curiously cold-blooded about the poisoner.  They don’t have to get into close physical contact with their victim.  The deadly deed can all be done clinically removed, at a distance, both physically and emotionally.

At the risk of sounding flippant though, it can also be seen as the housewife’s weapon of choice.  She has numerous opportunities to put strychnine in her old man’s corned beef.   No wonder Hercule Poirot, when asked in one story why he never married, replied that he had seen too many cases where wives murdered their husbands!

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