A Dance With Dead: The Life and Execution of Elizabeth Berry

In the summer of 1885, a small slender woman with a pale childish face visited Liverpool. She was 29-year-old Elizabeth Berry of Oldham, and she had come to the city to visit a relative on Duke Street.

After the visit, Elizabeth journeyed on the ferry to see a cousin over at New Brighton, and ended up staying at the seaside resort for three days.

On the last day, Elizabeth entered the tent of an expensive and controversial fortune-teller named Madame Rosamund, who claimed to be of Romany descent. Rosamund broke the golden rule of fortune-telling: never reveal the details of a forthcoming death to a client.

‘You have had many deaths in your life – Elizabeth,’ said Rosamund in a strange-sounding low voice. She was looking into the dark glassy orb of a purple-tinted crystal ball.

‘Yes, I have,’ Elizabeth replied, then queried: ‘How do you know my name?’

‘Your husband gone, your son gone,’ Madame Rosamund whispered.

A shiver went down Elizabeth’s spine. What the fortune-teller said was true. Four years ago, Elizabeth’s invalid husband, Thomas had died suddenly, and just over a year later, their son had also passed away. At the time of his death he had been sleeping in a damp bed in Blackpool. Elizabeth received seventy pounds from an insurance policy when her husband died, and five pounds for the death of her son.

‘Oh, the shadow is reaching out now for your daughter.’ Rosamund’s large dark eyes widened and stared deeply into the nucleus of the crystal sphere.

Elizabeth felt faint at the shocking news, but there was another terrible revelation to come.

Rosamund continued to reel off the future of Elizabeth Berry: ‘You will dance with a tall dark stranger, and he will drop you and take your life. His eyes are brown, they twinkle like the stars, and he will captivate you, but he will surely kill you. His eyes will be full of tears when he sees what he has done. You will then go to the terrible place of darkness and gnashing of teeth.’

Elizabeth stood up, and backed away from the sinister fortune teller.

Madame Rosamund covered the crystal ball with a dark green velvet cloth and gently shook her head, ‘I only read the future, warts and all.’

Elizabeth was invited to a dance ball in Oldham by her butcher, a 35-year-old man named Tom Whittaker. Elizabeth kindly declined, wondering if Whittaker was the tall dark man with the twinkling brown eyes who would kill her. He was tall and dark-eyed, and Elizabeth had often watched the way the young butcher would hack the blood-drained carcasses of meat with his cleaver. She shuddered at the recollection.

A month after that, old Mr Hargreaves, the clerk of the local post office, invited Elizabeth to a soiree at the local church hall. Mr Hargreaves was bald and blue-eyed, so there was no way he could be the brown-eyed reaper foretold by the fortune-teller.

So, the little widow, Elizabeth Berry, walked hand in hand with a man old enough to be her father into a church hall one hot July night in 1885. At one point in the evening, Mr Hargreaves sat down to rest his weary legs, leaving Elizabeth on the periphery of the dance floor.

Her black curly hair was tied up with a silk crimson bow, and her ivory white dress was adorned with pearls and pink roses. Her face was childish, and being powdered, she didn’t look a day over sixteen.

A tall man with hair as black and curly as Elizabeth’s approached her. He invited her to dance, and she shook her head and looked down, nervously. Death had arrived.

‘Oh come now, don’t be such a wallflower,’ the man said in a deep American voice.

He grabbed her hand and Elizabeth felt faint. She almost fell towards him. Her heart was palpitating. She was a helpless doll in his muscular arms, and he waltzed with her across the floor. Everything was swirling. The chandelier swum by overhead, and the other couples spun past like mad dervishes.

The American’s cologne was masculine and as overpowering as him. It stifled her, yet Elizabeth Berry had never felt more alive in all of her twenty-nine years. When the musicians stopped playing and the waltz ended, Elizabeth and the American were out of breath, and both were obviously filled with lust for one another. Mr Hargreaves quickly grabbed at Elizabeth, and the American, a Texan whose name was Brett, said, ‘Sir, your daughter is truly the finest English Rose I have set eyes upon since coming to this country.’

Hargreaves was furious, and told Brett he was not Elizabeth’s father, but a good friend. Two other men who had been eyeing Elizabeth Berry a lecherous desire, and they confronted the American and accused him of insulting a senior citizen of Oldham. A serious fight ensued, and Hargreaves and another man bundled Elizabeth Berry out of the church hall and took her home.

Hargreaves subsequently made a pass at Elizabeth, and she laughingly told him that she was not interested in him in a physical way, merely as a friend. When Hargreaves heard the bare truth he surprised her by bursting into tears then sucking his thumb!

That night, Elizabeth lied awake in her bed, thinking constantly of Brett’s wide shoulders, his black hair, and those dark penetrating brown eyes. She convinced herself that Madame Rosamund had lied to her.

The summer mellowed as the weeks passed, and in the late August of 1885, a young local policeman named Bob Oakley invited Elizabeth to a dance ball in Manchester. The dance ball was organised by Manchester Police, and most of the people attending the occasion were policemen. Young Oakley never danced once with Elizabeth Berry, as he didn’t get a chance.

The hot-blooded males crowded about her and queued up to take her in their arms across the dance floor. Of all the men who waylaid her that evening, only one caught the eye and heart of Elizabeth, and his name was James. He was tall, with hair as black as coal, and eyes of smouldering lignite brown.

They flashed with emotion as James took her around the dance floor. Elizabeth sat at a table with James and found him to be the most perfect, courteous gallant and handsome man she had ever seen. She told him about her bereavements, and how she hoped to rebuild her life and become a nurse at the Oldham Workhouse, but when Elizabeth tried to discover if James was a policeman, he steered the conversation away in another direction.

All Elizabeth could ascertain from the conversation so far was that James was a bachelor. Whatever his occupation was, he was obviously a kind and caring man. Then came a most curious coincidence. James learned that Elizabeth’s surname was the same as his – Berry. If they married, James thought, Elizabeth would still retain her surname.

Elizabeth hinted that they should keep in touch, but James Berry sighed and told her that his work would be taking him to another town, far away, in the morning. After that, he was needed in another part of the country, and such was the itinerant nature of his job, that he was rarely in one place for more than a day.

That night, James took Elizabeth onto a balcony as every other couple savoured the last waltz. James and Elizabeth clung to each other and kissed passionately in the light of the full moon. James said he knew in his soul that he would meet Elizabeth again one day, and when that day came, he would give up his work and marry her. They both cried on the balcony beneath the moon and stars. Within half an hour, James was travelling west, and Elizabeth was travelling west to Oldham.

Elizabeth Berry worked for a while as a nurse at the Oldham Workhouse, but believed she deserved a better station in life. Her annual salary was just twenty-five pounds, and that was not nearly enough to pay for good clothes and a decent lifestyle. Elizabeth had a strange dual personality, and she would be kind to the patients at the workhouse one day, and cruel to them on the next day.

There were also strange rumours circulating about the daughter Elizabeth Berry hardly mentioned. This was 11-year-old Edith Annie Berry, who was in the care of an aunt. In January 1887, Elizabeth invited the child back into her life, but unfortunately, the girl fell gravely ill within days of the reunion.

The neighbours of Elizabeth Berry said that the widow was cursed, but others thought Edith Annie’s illness was rather sinister. After all, Edith’s mother had recently taken out an insurance policy on her daughter, and stood to receive ten pounds’ compensation if the girl should die. This was true, and Elizabeth Berry had also taken out a second policy that would pay one hundred pounds to either Edith or her mother, depending on who lived the longest.

Edith Annie died in agony five in the morning on the day after she had fallen ill. Given that Elizabeth Berry had now lost her husband, son and daughter to a mysterious illness, and had received insurance payouts as a result, foul play was suspected. A Dr Patterson and several doctors performed the post-mortem on Edith Annie – and discovered a powerful poison – possibly sulphuric acid – in her stomach and in samples of her vomit.

Several people who had known Elizabeth came forward and expressed their belief that she had even murdered her own mother with poison. Elizabeth’s mother was exhumed – and poison was indeed found in her stomach. Other former friends stated that Elizabeth not only smoked opium, but was an immoral flirt who read sensational lurid novels.

Elizabeth Berry said that if she had poisoned her mother, husband, and children, she had been insane at the time. She was tried and found guilty of the death of her mother. A second case – that she had murdered Edith Annie – was not brought. The date set for her execution was Monday, 14 March, 1887, and the place was Kirkdale Prison.

That day soon arrived, and hundreds of Liverpudlians who had read about the dreadful poisonings braved the snow and icy winds as they gathered at the prison walls. The hangman visited Elizabeth in her cell. It was James Berry, the man she had danced with two years before. When they saw one another, they stood motionless in shock. The prison warders glanced back and forth between Elizabeth and James, until one of them said, ‘Have you two met before?’

James Berry nodded, and asked if he could spend a few private moments with the condemned woman in her cell. The senior warder said, ‘Of course, knock when you want us to collect her.’
The hangman and the murderess embraced in the cold dark cell, and both faintly sobbed. Madame Rosamund’s prophecy had come to pass.

In her tent she had said: ‘You will dance with a tall dark stranger, and he will drop you and take your life. His eyes are brown, they twinkle like the stars, and he will captivate you, but he will surely kill you. His eyes will be full of tears when he sees what he has done.’

James assured Elizabeth that her death would be quick and painless. He would make sure of that in the positioning of the knot around her delicate neck.

Outside in the prison yard, warders were sprinkling sand over the snowy path to the gallows, so Elizabeth would not fall. Meanwhile, in the cell, the hangman was saying: ‘I never forgot you in those two years Elizabeth. No woman has eyes as beautiful as yours. No woman on this earth has touched my heart the way you did that moonlit summer night.’

The hands of the prison clock turned, and soon the warders grew impatient. They knocked on the cell door and asked James Berry if he was ready. In a choked voice, he replied that he was. The chaplain accompanied Elizabeth and the warders, and the executioner to the gallows. James Berry went up first and readied himself. He glanced down and saw that Elizabeth had fainted.

Two warders carried her up to the scaffold, and she was placed over the trapdoor – or the drop, as it is known. As James Berry pinioned her feet together and adjusted the straps, Elizabeth regained consciousness, and gasped in horror as the noose was adjusted around her neck.

‘May the Lord have mercy upon me,’ she whispered. ‘Lord receive my spirit.’

Elizabeth Berry with her hair clipped short, just before her execution, and James Berry, the man who hanged her
Elizabeth Berry with her hair clipped short, just before her execution, and James Berry, the man who hanged her

The white hood was gently placed over her head, and she kissed the hangman’s hand as he pulled the cloth over her soft face. The chaplain prayed in a low muttering voice, and James Berry closed his eyes as he threw the lever which drew the bolt. In an instant, the trapdoor opened and Elizabeth Berry plunged into eternity.

James Berry would later voluntarily retire from his work and condemn capital punishment as obscene. People often asked him why he had attacked his own profession, and Berry would never explain, but I’ll bet Elizabeth was the sole reason.

Author: Tom Slemen, who is a Liverpool writer, known foremostly as the author of the best-selling Haunted Liverpool series of books which document paranormal incidents and unsolved or unusual crimes. Check his Books on Amazon here.

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Tom Slemen

Tom Slemen is a Liverpool writer, known foremostly as the author of the best-selling Haunted Liverpool series of books which document paranormal incidents and unsolved or unusual crimes. Check his Books on Amazon here.

One comment

  1. Hi I have read the book on Elizabeth Berry and on a couple of web-sites, but, I cannot find where this woman was buried after execution. I thought that she would have been buried in the Rice Lane City Farm but again I cannot find anything on this. Can you help find the location of where she is a rest please ?? Thanking you. Kay.

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