They looked like a nice happy family with their neat little home in Bolton. The truth was somewhat different.
The husband was Henry Eccles, a widower, who had married Mrs. Betty Haslam, 38, a widow, in January 1841. He worked in a Manchester factory and came home only at weekends. They had four surviving children between them, William, 15, Richard, 13, 10-year-old Alice and nine-year-old Mary. The two boys also did factory work, and although the hours were long, plenty of money was coming in.
Early in September 1842, Alice died suddenly. A couple of weeks later William came home for lunch and immediately after the meal he was violently sick. He died the next day.
The neighbours were concerned. Why dont you get the doctor to do a post-mortem? they asked Betty Eccles. After all, two children dead in such a short time could possibly mean a connection.
No one knew better than Betty Eccles that there was a connection. Finally it was left to Williams employers to call the police, who discovered that the bodies of William and Alice were riddled with arsenic, and that Betty Eccles had bought the chemical the previous month.
Further enquiries led to the discovery that she had had two other girls and another boy by her first marriage, all of whom died in childhood, and whose bodies were now duly exhumed. Arsenic was found to be present in Nancy, who died when she was six, but too little remained of the body of Hannah for reliable analysis. It was also difficult to tell accurately the cause of death of the baby boy, William Heywood.
Betty Eccles was brought to trial at Liverpool Assizes in April 1843. Her stepdaughter, Mary, testified that on the Sunday night following the death of Alice she suggested to her brother Richard and Mrs. Eccles that they visit Alices grave. At this Betty became quite angry. No, she said emphatically. I have trouble enough on my mind. We shall have another death in our house before long.
This suggestion that she was already planning Williams death brought Mrs. Eccles to her feet. You wilful liar! she shouted at Mary across the court.
Despite her spirited denials she was convicted and hanged outside Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, on Saturday, MAY 6th, 1843, leaving behind many unanswered questions. One was the motive. Betty had heard from the factory where William worked that if her stepsons died she would get 50 shillings for each of them from the factorys burial fund. It was not long after that that she poisoned William. But in doing so, of course, she forfeited his three shillings a week wages.
Another question was, just how many victims were there? At the time of her arrest she claimed to have had 10 children. If this were true then the judges suggestion that there were five victims could have been an under-estimate. The police believed that she was also responsible for other relatives deaths the total running into double figures.