Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Merry Widow of Windy Nook (NZ272610)

Mary Elizabeth Wilson, a resident of Windy Nook, Gateshead, for more than 40 years, had the dubious distinction of being the last woman to be sentenced to death in County Durham. The infamous serial killer was tried in 1958, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and she died in Holloway prison in 1963.

Born in Hebburn in 1893, Mary will be forever known as the ‘Merry Widow of Windy Nook’. For many, many years prior to her misdemeanours she lived with her first husband, John Knowles, along with her lodger and lover, John Russell, in the quiet Gateshead suburb. When her husband died in 1955, she quickly married Russell; but within a couple of years he, too, was dead from ‘natural causes’.

Within months along came Oliver Leonard, who lasted less than a fortnight before leaving her £50 in his will. Mary then got herself hitched for a fourth time – almost immediately – to Ernest Wilson. She is alleged to have joked at her wedding reception that the left-over sandwiches could be saved for his funeral – and when poor Ernie died soon after, she supposedly suggested to the funeral director that she should be offered a trade discount. In fact, she did not even bother attending the fourth funeral – though she was handily bequeathed £100, a bungalow and an insurance pay-out.

Understandably, rumours then began to spread about Mary’s tendancy to lose husbands – four within three years – and the authorities eventually saw fit to exhume Oliver Leonard and Ernest Wilson in 1958. Traces of phosphorus pointed to the use of rat or beetle poison, and Mary was swiftly accused, tried and convicted of the murder of both men at Leeds in 1958. She was sentenced to hang at Durham, but due to her age (66) this was reduced to a life sentence.

Subsequent exhumations of her first two husbands also resulted in phosphorus being found, but Wilson died before she could be tried again.


  1. she was not born at Hebburn at all,she was born at Catchgate county durham as mary cassidy.please do some research before posting these 'stories';a simple check of the census would show these facts.

    1. Thanks for that, Pip. Yes, you're quite right. Her birthplace certainly seems to have been Catchgate - and the DOB is most probably June 1889. She wandered around a lot in her youth, but her movements were fairly well chronicled by detailed research at http://www.rootschat.com/forum/index.php?topic=396219.45