I first entered Strangeways Jail in January 1975 when I was accepted by the Home Office as a trainee Prison Officer. During my first few days there I was shown around the old prison which was officially opened on the 25th June 1868. The name derives from the area upon which the jail was constructed, this being formally Strangeways parks and gardens. It was, until the abolition of capital punishment, used as a place of execution and one hundred convicted inmates were hanged there. The execution unit was still standing in 1975, at the end of ‘B’ wing and the condemned cell is located on ‘B1 Landing’ At the time appointed for the prisoner to be hung by the neck until dead, the hangman would attend with his assistant. The prisoner’s hands were then securely fastened behind his back and he was led from that very cell to the gallows situated just a few yards away through a doorway at the end of B1 Landing. There the hangman, with gloved hands, placed a black cloth hood over the doomed man’s head, quickly followed by the noose and he was hanged until dead. Death came to all the hangman’s victims instantly.
Using the terrible tricks of his trade he knew how to snap the necks of those sentenced to die. As the rope gripped their throat there was no long lingering choke, just a spine breaking wrench as the hangman’s knot twisted their necks violently to the left. It was a matter of pride to the Strangeways’ hangman that his customers never complained. I clearly recall standing outside the door and feeling a distinct sense of unease. There was then and likely still is today a cold atmosphere around that spot and many say that it is haunted.
There is, according to accounts by long serving staff, a ghost associated with the condemned cell and the execution chamber. Staff on night duty have reported seeing a mysterious man in a dark suit carrying a small briefcase. He is always seen walking along ‘B’ wing from just outside the condemned cell towards the central control area. When they try to follow this dark suited man he vanishes just before the old iron staircase leading up to the main office. Some say that this is the ghost of the former hangman John Ellis who officiated at the hanging of many unfortunates during the 1920s and committed suicide in 1932.
The most probable explanation for this recurring vision of the past is atmospheric reproduction of an incident long past as though the walls themselves had recorded the incident and replay this whenever the conditions are right. This may be air temperature and humidity combining to trigger the repeating vision. So the ghost is not a ghost at all just a form of natural video recording that creates the image seen by staff. However, not all the ghosts of Strangeways are atmospheric recordings, there is one that actually interacts with staff and inmates. I have personally encountered this very unsettling entity.
There was, in the 1950s, at Strangeways a women’s prison located within the twelve foot high boundary walls but in a separate series of wings. When I was serving as a Hospital Officer there in 1981 ‘I’ Wing was a clinic and small unit for the treatment of young male offenders. The landing known as ‘I 2’ was used to hold inmates receiving clinical intervention, sometimes with psychotropic drugs. In the 1950s it was used to hold female prisoners awaiting execution and one such former occupant was the infamous Blackpool Poison killer Mrs. Merrifiled. Her spirit is still there and I, like many others, have seen it walking along ‘I 2’ landing then vanishing into what was long ago the condemned cell.
46 year old Louisa May Merrifield had been convicted of poisoning Mrs. Sarah Ricketts. Sarah Ricketts was a 79 year old, bedridden widow who lived in Blackpool. She had hired Louisa and her husband Alfred to look after her in March 1953 and soon made a new will leaving her bungalow to Louisa. Mrs. Ricketts had some rather strange dietary habits. Apparently, she was very fond of very sweet jams which she ate directly from the jar by the spoonful, washed down with rum or a bottle of stout. Louisa, having got the will made in her favour, capitalised on these peculiar habits by adding Rodine, a phosphorus based rat poison, to the jam. Mrs. Ricketts’ death was considered suspicious and so a post-mortem was carried out which quickly revealed the presence of the poison. A local chemists had recorded the sale of the Rodine to Louisa, but the police could not find the poison container which she had purchased, but felt that they had enough circumstantial evidence to charge both her and Alfred. She had talked openly of inheriting the bungalow and this also threw suspicion on her. The pair came to trial at Manchester Assizes on the 20th of July 1953. Alfred was acquitted, there being no real evidence that he was part of the plot, but Louisa was found guilty. She was duly hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the morning of Friday, the 18th of September 1953.
The spirit I saw on ‘I 2’ landing at Strangeways Jail was short and wearing dark clothing it appeared semi-materialised, that is I did not mistake this for an incarnate human being, I immediately knew that this was a ghost. The vision lasted no more than five seconds or so as the very dark and shadowy image, perhaps no more than five foot in height, drifted past me creating a noticeable drop in temperature. Then the shape moved slowly to the closed door of a cell on ‘I 2’ landing and disappeared. When I opened the cell door to see how the young inmate within was he appeared even more disturbed than he had been when I had last attended to administer his medication. I will not forget his words to me ‘who’s that woman Boss?’ he said ‘she just walked in before you pointed at me and vanished’. When I later mentioned this to my more senior colleagues they laughed and one said ‘that’s old Mrs. Merrifield, she’s been haunting this place since they hanged her years ago’.
The sightings of Mrs Merrifield’s ghost seemed to increase around the early 1980s with a number of inmates of ‘I Wing’ telling me and other staff that they had seen a short woman dressed all in black walking about the landing. Some said they had asked her what she was doing in their cell and all said she had then disappeared. There may have been an explanation for this as at the time the works department of the prison were building some new office accommodation at the rear of what had been the old female cell blocks. During the digging of the foundations they had reported finding the remains of previously executed inmates who had been buried within the walls of Strangeways Jail in unconsecrated ground. Perhaps one of the bodies was that of the long dead hangman’s victim Mrs. Merrifield.
Reconstruction of a Hanging Within HM Prisons.