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Manning, Maria (c. 1821–1849)

Manning, Maria (c. 1821–1849)

English murderer who was the inspiration for a character in Charles Dickens' Bleak House . Name variations: Marie Manning; Maria de Roux; Marie deRoux; Maria Manning DeRoux. Born Maria de Roux in 1821 (some sources cite 1825), in Lausanne, Switzerland; died by hanging on November 13, 1849, in London, England; married Frederick George Manning, in 1847.

Maria Manning, a murderer whose much-publicized crime, conviction, and public execution enthralled Victorian England, was born Maria de Roux in Switzerland in 1821, of Swiss and French parentage. A domestic servant who had immigrated to England, she obtained a plum post as the personal maid to Lady Blantyre , who was a close friend of Queen Victoria . Disliking or tiring of that line of work, however, and with few other options in that day and age, she appears to have decided to marry.

Maria was being courted by an Irish customhouse officer, Patrick O'Connor, whom she believed to be financially successful and a good prospect for a husband (unaware that he had bribed his way into the lucrative job), when she met a railway guard, Frederick George Manning. He, too, pursued her hand in marriage. Having to choose between the two suitors, she decided against O'Connor because of his penchant for alcohol; Frederick Manning's claim that he would inherit a large sum of money when his mother died may have also played a part in her decision. The Mannings were married in Piccadilly in 1847. As a wedding present Frederick gave Maria his newly written will, in which he bequeathed to her all of his property, including the future inheritance. They became tavern-keepers at the White Hart Inn in Taunton, but were forced to sell the business when Frederick mismanaged the finances. At this point, Maria apparently renewed contact with O'Connor, looking to escape from her decidedly unprosperous union—especially after learning that her mother-in-law was non-existent, and that there was no inheritance. She would later say that O'Connor urged her to take up lodgings at Minever Place in London with the promise that he would become a boarder to help defray the costs. He did not, and the Mannings took a medical student named Massey as a boarder. O'Connor was a frequent visitor, however, and it has been widely presumed that he and Maria Manning were conducting an affair. This was apparently unsuspected by her husband, who had also begun to exhibit a fondness for alcohol.

Maria had learned that O'Connor held valuable stock in foreign railroads. The medical student later said that at about this time Fred Manning began to ask him questions about chloroform and laudanum, both toxic substances. One day, the Mannings asked Massey to move out of the Minever Place quarters, saying that Maria's mother was arriving for a visit and they needed the room. Massey later told Scotland Yard detectives that a crowbar was being delivered to the house as he was leaving; he also remembered the delivery of a large quantity of lime (a drying agent, which therefore can be used to hasten the decomposition of dead matter) a few days before. That night, Mr. and Mrs. Manning sent a note to O'Connor inviting him to dinner. No doubt to their chagrin, he brought a friend along. They invited him again the following night, August 9, 1849, and specifically requested that he come alone. Friends passed him walking on London Bridge on his way there. Neighbors on Minever Place also saw him that night, smoking a cigar and chatting with Maria Manning outside her kitchen door.

Maria allegedly took O'Connor to a lower kitchen to show him a basin where he might wash his hands before dinner, and fired a gun at his head. Going back upstairs, she announced the deed to her husband, and crowed that she would never be caught. He disagreed. Frederick Manning went into the lower kitchen and found O'Connor still alive, so he bludgeoned him with a chisel. The Mannings buried the dead man in the lower kitchen with a covering of lime, although not before Maria Manning removed O'Connor's keys from his body. They then dined on the goose dinner she had prepared. The next day Maria was admitted into O'Connor's rooms by his landlady, and with the assistance of his keys stole from a trunk two gold watches, two gold chains, currency, and stock certificates worth several thousand pounds. Dismayed that she had not uncovered more assets, she returned the following day and was again admitted by the landlady, but found nothing more of value. Maria next persuaded her husband to pretend to be O'Connor in order to sell the stocks. As O'Connor, he nervously sold less than £200 worth, and told her he would not do so again.

On August 12, some friends of the missing O'Connor came to Minever Place inquiring about him. Maria informed them that he had dined with them on the 8th of August, with a friend, and she had not seen him since. They told her that he had been seen crossing London Bridge the following night, and had mentioned that he was on his way to her house. She pleaded ignorance and feigned concern for his whereabouts, but panicked when, after they left, Frederick Manning voiced his suspicion that the "friends" were actually Scotland Yard detectives. Manning sent her husband out of the house on a spurious excuse, gathered up what she had stolen, and fled. When Frederick Manning returned to find her gone, he too fled. Not long after their departure, a servant at O'Connor's rooming house identified Maria as the woman who had entered the premises twice after his disappearance, and the Minever Place home was searched. Detectives found the body under the kitchen-floor stones.

With the intention of fleeing to America, Maria went first to Scotland and was easily apprehended not long after she tried to sell O'Connor's stocks at an Edinburgh broker's office. Shortly thereafter, Frederick Manning was taken into custody on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. The London newspapers of 1849 seized upon the sensational nature of the case, and Maria was made into a salacious, French-accented femme fatale. Both of the accused claimed the other was the guilty party. After a two-day trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury found wife and husband guilty, and they were sentenced to death by hanging. Manning clamorously protested the verdict, shouting at the judge, and later wrote numerous letters pleading for help, including to her former employer and to Queen Victoria. The queen actually did take the time to review the transcripts of the trial, only the second (and last) time in her long reign that she would do so; satisfied that the verdict was correct, she did not interfere. One correspondence Maria did not maintain was with her husband, who wrote to her often. She sent his letters back unopened, save for once, at the eleventh hour, when she wrote begging him to "confess" and prove her innocence.

The joint hanging of Maria and Frederick Manning was set for November 13. Prime viewing spots of the scheduled execution, to be held on the roof of London's Horsemonger Lane Gaol, were sold for good sums. Spectators began gathering at the spot days beforehand. The crowd was estimated to have been one of the largest—between 30,000 and 50,000—ever assembled for a public hanging in England. Hundreds were hospitalized after being trampled in the throng, and one woman died. In a letter to the London Times, novelist Charles Dickens described the crowd as consisting of "thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind," but other newspapers gleefully noted that no small number of the aristocratic, wealthy, or just plain respectable had watched from higher vantage points, with opera glasses. Dickens himself, against his better judgment, watched the executions from a nearby roof (which had been rented for the occasion). For her execution, Maria Manning wore a black dress made of satin, the most fashionable fabric of the time; sales of satin dropped sharply afterward because of the publicized association with the event. Watched by the enormous crowd, Maria and Frederick Manning together ascended the gallows set up on the roof of the jail and were hanged.

Three years later, newspaper serialization of Dickens' novel Bleak House began. One character was a French maid named Hortense, whose demeanor and actions instantly recalled Maria Manning to most readers. Yet Dickens, like other prominent writers and reformers of the day, had been regretful of his participation as a spectator in the hanging, and a movement to ban public executions gained strength. Executions were brought indoors, excluding the public, in 1868. By 1869, effigies of Maria Manning and her husband occupied a prominent spot in the popular Chamber of Horrors in Madame Marie Tussaud 's wax museum.

sources:

Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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