Two domestic servants who smothered an elderly woman to death with a pillow were reprieved from the death penalty with just a few days to spare.
On the night of 8th October 1902 Eliza Hamilton was working as a charwoman at the Oriel Road home of 71 year old spinster Elizabeth Marsden, sleeping over as part of her duties. In the early hours of the morning though she ran to her father's home in Clifford Street saying that two women had broken in and smothered Elizabeth with some pillows.
A woman named Miss Kershaw, who lodged with the Hamiltons and also worked for Elizabeth, sent for the police. Officers attended the old lady's's home and found that she was dead and had three pillows and a bonnet box over her face. Hamilton was then questioned further and the 19 year old was arrested herself for being in possession of some of Elizabeth's clothing.
Hamilton then confessed to having involvement in the killing and was charged with wilful murder. There were concerns about her mental health though as her mother was in an asylum and Hamilton herself was acting eccentrically. She was advised by lawyers though to make no formal plea in court until the inquest had took place and others found. When the inquest was opened and adjourned Hamilton repeated the story about two unknown females having been in the house and that she had first found them in the kitchen.
A month later two the two other females were finally apprehended in Beaufort Street in Toxteth after they had tried to pawn a watch belonging to Elizabeth. They were Eva Eastwood and Ethel Rawlinson, aged 17 and 20 respectively and who had both worked for Elizabeth and were originally from Workington. At the resumed inquest evidence was heard that they had told friends about planning to rob or poison Elizabeth, while Hamilton was said to have confessed to killing her after being rebuked. The coroner's jury found all three guilty of wilful murder and they were committed for trial at the next assizes.
The trial, which lasted two days, began on Friday 12th December but Hamilton was immediately discharged from the dock having agreed to turn King's evidence. She told how she had heard groans from Eliza's room and when she went in there both women were sat on the bed. They gave her a florin and parcel and all three left together. Two local women said how Rawlinson had bragged that a women had a wardrobe full of gold and should be robbed, while medical evidence confirmed death was caused by slow suffocation.
On the second day it was shown that property belonging to Elizabeth was found in the women's possession. Both tried to say that Hamilton was involved, which went against what they had told the police on arrest. When Justice Jelf heard that Hamilton was kept up all night at Bootle police station he was very critical, describing it as a cruel system and that the sooner it ended the better.
One of the crucial pieces of evidence was the apparent confessions on arrest, with Inspector Dixon telling the court that Rawlinson had said to him 'The old bitch starved me when I was with her, I said I would do it and I have done it.' The defence counsel submitted that a manslaughter verdict was more appropriate but the judge indicated this was a case of murder or nothing. The jury took half an hour to find both women guilty with a strong recommendation for mercy on account of their gender, young age and previous good character.
Prior to passing the death sentence the judge said that the verdict could not be in the slightest doubt and was 'just and right.' After hearing her fate, Rawlinson shrieked and fell backwards, having to be helped back up by a wardress. She was then carried to the cells crying 'Oh mother mother' as the tears streamed down her face. Eastwood retained more self control, sobbing into her handkerchief but giving a look of defiance as she turned to be led from the dock. Many in the public gallery were moved to tears by the scene.
Whilst awaiting her fate in the condemned cell Eastwood's mother, who was assumed to be dead, came to visit her. She blamed herself for her daughter's predicament, saying it was her alcoholism that led to her children being taken away from her. Then on Christmas Eve, just a week before the execution date, communication was received from the Home Secretary that a reprieve had been granted and both women had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.