Coventry’s police museum is home to the death mask of a woman called Mary Ball who was hanged in Coventry in 1849.
Death masks were a permanent way of recording the features of corpses, for identification, before the use of photography.
Mary Ball was convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with arsenic. However, it looks like the victim was far from innocent himself, as it is thought that he was a drunken womaniser who regularly beat his wife. One witness at the trial stated he was jealous of her and beat her.
Mary and Thomas had been married for 12 years and she had borne six children, although five of them had died.
Mary was initially found guilty of the wilful murder of her husband after one witnesses stated she told them she had poisoned him with the arsenic. Other witnesses said she told them she had purchased the arsenic to poison bugs and her husband must have taken it by mistake. The jury initially returned a verdict of guilty and asked that mercy be shown. The Judge asked on what grounds and the foreman stated some of the members of the jury were not satisfied with some of the evidence. The Judge promptly sent them back to re-examine the evidence and when they returned with a verdict of guilty he donned the black cap and sentenced her to death.
The gallows were set up in Cuckoo Lane, in the city centre for Mary Ball’s hanging and 20,000 people crowded around to watch.
She was the last person publicly hung in Coventry. It was said that Coventry had seldom seen more people present than were there to watch the execution.
She was said to have been very anxious in the days leading up to her fate - asking God to have mercy on her soul and worrying about the fate of her only surviving child.
In an interesting twist to the tale - the Gaol Chaplain - Rev Richard Chapman - was removed from post a couple of months later, following allegations he burned Mary Ball's hand with a candle upon visiting her at the Gaol. It was reported that he held her hand over a candle (one witness stated for two minutes - whilst the prisoner struggled to take her hand back). He admitted that he did indeed hold her hand over a candle - and did so not to be cruel, but to give her an understanding of what the torments of hell might be like.