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About The Book

In an era that produced some of the most vicious female sociopaths in American history, Jane Toppan would become the most notorious of them all.
In 1891, Jane Toppan, a proper New England matron, embarked on a profession as a private-duty nurse. Selfless and good-natured, she beguiled Boston's most prominent families. They had no idea what they were welcoming into their homes....
No one knew of Jane's past: of her mother's tragic death, of her brutal upbringing in an adoptive home, of her father's insanity, or of her own suicide attempts. No one could have guessed that during her tenure at a Massachusetts hospital the amiable "Jolly Jane" was morbidly obsessed with autopsies, or that she conducted her own after-hours experiments on patients, deriving sexual satisfaction in their slow, agonizing deaths from poison. Self-schooled in the art of murder, Jane Toppan was just beginning her career -- and she would indulge in her true calling victim by victim to become the most prolific domestic fiend of the nineteenth century.


Chapter One

Then my little daughter Ann Eliza took the chills and fever, and was continually sick. This made me downhearted and discouraged again. I had some arsenic in the house which I purchased in Harlem, and I put it in the medicine I bought for her to cure the chills. I gave it to her twice, then she was taken sick as the others were, and died about noon four days afterward. She was the happiest child I ever saw.


Exactly what transpired on that long-ago day when Edward Struck lost his job in disgrace will never be fully known. Certain facts, however, are beyond dispute.

It happened on a late fall afternoon in 1863, when a knife-wielding drunkard -- described in existing accounts as "deranged" -- attacked the bartender at Stratton's Hotel on Bloomingdale Road and 125th Street in Manhattan. Shouts of "Murder!" and frantic cries for help erupted from the barroom. Struck, a member of the Metropolitan Police force working in Manhattanville, appeared a few minutes later. By the time he showed up, however, the assailant was already dead -- shot down by a detective who, by happenstance, had been riding past the hotel when he'd heard the commotion.

That much is certain. The great, unresolved question is: Why didn't Officer Struck get there sooner?

Several hotel employees testified that Struck had, in fact, been right outside the hotel when the fracas broke out, but refused to intervene. The enraged drunk, he believed, was brandishing a pistol, while Struck -- like all New York City policemen at the time -- was armed with nothing but a billy club. Turning on his heels, he had dashed off in the opposite direction -- ostensibly to get help.

When Struck's superiors at the Manhattanville station learned of these accusations of cowardice, they took immediate action. Without so much as a hearing, Officer Struck was summarily discharged from the force.

Struck's account of these events was considerably different. According to the story he told his wife, Lydia, he was blocks away from the hotel, walking his beat, when he heard that someone had just gone berserk in the Stratton barroom. He'd immediately hopped on a streetcar and hurried to the scene, only to find that the disturbance was already over.

He had been dismissed, he insisted, not because he was a coward but, on the contrary, because he was a man of principle. The Manhattanville precinct was rife with corruption, and Struck -- so he claimed -- was simply too honest for his own good. He knew things that made his superiors extremely nervous. His supposedly craven conduct in the Stratton barroom affair had been nothing more than a convenient pretext for getting rid of him.

Lydia chose to believe her husband's version. She was, after all, an utterly devoted wife and mother. At least, that was how she thought of herself. This wildly deluded self-image, in fact, was a mark of her utter derangement. For Lydia Struck belonged to that terrifying species of sociopaths who commit the most hideous atrocities imaginable, while telling themselves that they are only acting for the good of their victims.

Whatever the truth behind Struck's dismissal, it was a devastating blow to the man. He had worked hard all his adult life to earn an honest wage, sustained in his struggles by his deep religious faith. Both he and his wife were devout Christians. They had first gotten to know each other, in fact, while attending the same Methodist church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, twenty years earlier.

Struck was nearly forty at the time, a widower with six young children. Lydia, a tailoress by trade, was only seventeen: a fetching young woman with rich chestnut hair, large blue eyes, and a milky complexion. Despite the disparity in their ages, she readily accepted when Struck proposed marriage to her not long after they met. The ceremony took place at the home of her brother, Ellsworth. Within a year of the nuptials, Lydia had given birth to a healthy girl. Six more babies followed in rapid succession.

With a wife and thirteen children to support -- seven by Lydia, six from his earlier marriage -- Struck, a carriage blacksmith, toiled away at his trade, first in Yorkville, then on Elizabeth Street in lower Manhattan, just north of the infamous Five Points slum district. Eventually, he moved his family uptown, where they rented the first floor of a small house on 125th Street. It was then that a golden opportunity presented itself.

After years of political wrangling, the city of New York was in the process of reorganizing its police force. In January 1857, Struck applied for and obtained an appointment to the newly created Metroplitan Police. For six years, he patrolled the streets of the Manhattanville ward, proud to wear the uniform: blue frock coat, dark vest, blue pantaloons, star-shaped copper badge. He was, he believed, a credit to the force.

Then came the Stratton barroom fiasco, and Struck found himself not only unemployed but branded a coward.

By this time, there had been a significant reduction in the size of the Struck household. All six of Edward's children by his first marriage had grown up and left home. And little Josephine -- the daughter Lydia had given birth to less than two years before -- had died after a painful bout of intestinal illness. In light of later events, it is reasonable to speculate that the little girl did not perish of natural causes. The doctor who attended her, however, had no cause to suspect foul play and attributed her death to "inflammation of the bowels."

Even with seven fewer mouths to feed, the Strucks still had six sons and daughters to care for. With the whole family crowded into a few dreary rooms and not a penny coming in to feed them, Edward plunged into a state of extreme despondency that had all the earmarks of what we now call clinical depression. He wouldn't look for work or see his old friends. After a while, he wouldn't leave the house at all. He was ashamed to show himself in public, convinced that he was an object of universal contempt. His behavior grew increasingly erratic. He would lie awake at night, certain that he was about to be arrested. On one occasion, he took a pistol from a bureau drawer, stuck it in his mouth, and threatened to blow his head off. Eventually, he stopped getting out of bed.

Lydia suffered terribly to see her husband sink into such a hopeless condition. With every passing day, he was becoming an increasingly onerous burden. "He caused me at this time a great deal of trouble" was the way Lydia later put it. She sought advice from Captain Hart, her husband's immediate superior at the Manhattanville station. Hart -- a decent fellow who had tried in vain to get Struck reinstated -- shook his head at Lydia's shocking account of her husband's behavior. The man was clearly out of his mind. As far as Hart could see, there was only one thing to be done. Her husband must be "put out of the way," Hart gently told her -- advice that was seconded by several other people she consulted.

Exactly what was intended by this suggestion is somewhat unclear, though Hart apparently meant that Struck should be committed to an insane asylum before he did harm to himself or his loved ones. Lydia, however, chose to place a different construction on the words.

Scraping together ten cents from her meager household funds, she repaired to a drugstore in Harlem and purchased an ounce of powdered arsenic.

The druggist who dispensed the poison would not have raised an eyebrow at Lydia's request. Arsenic was a popular over-the-counter item at the time, sold in various forms and used -- bizarrely enough -- as both a pesticide and a beauty product. A homeowner whose premises were infested with rodents might deal with the problem by sprinkling his floorboards with an arsenic compound called "Rough on Rats." At the same time, his adolescent daughter might hope to improve her complexion by dosing herself with "Bellavita Arsenic Beauty Tablets" -- absolutely guaranteed (according to the newspaper ads) to eliminate "Pimples, Blotches, Freckles, Sunburn, Discolorations, Eczema, Blackheads, Roughness, Redness, and to Restore the Bloom of Youth to Faded Faces!"

That American women would eagerly ingest rat poison for its supposedly cosmetic properties seems flatly incredible to us -- equivalent to treating a bad case of acne by swallowing a few shots of Raid. But it was typical of those wildly unregulated, pre-FDA days, when the marketplace was flooded with medicinal cure-alls concocted of everything from cocaine and chloroform to morphine and mercury.

And so the druggist would have sold Lydia all the poison she wanted, no questions asked. Lydia requested an ounce, but she probably came away with even more, since arsenic was so cheap that most druggists rarely measured it out with any precision, scooping a mound of it onto a paper, then either transferring it into a bottle or wrapping it up into a neat little package.

Two to four grains of white arsenic -- a fraction of a teaspoonful -- is enough to kill an adult human being. For ten pennies, Lydia Struck -- one of the most remorseless sociopaths ever produced in this country -- purchased enough of the poison to murder every member of her household several times over.

By this time, the fifty-nine-year-old Struck had ceased performing the most basic functions. He no longer seemed capable of washing, dressing, or feeding himself. Back at home, Lydia fixed her husband a nice bowl of oatmeal gruel, then -- using one of her sewing thimbles as a measure -- sprinkled in a small but deadly portion of the powdered arsenic and stirred it into the porridge. Seated at his bedside, she helped him drink the noxious mixture down. As the afternoon wore on, she fed him several additional servings. There is no evidence to suggest that, as she killed her husband of eighteen years, Lydia experienced anything other than a sense of the fullest satisfaction. It was, she felt, the merciful thing to do. After all -- as she later put it -- it was clear that he "would never be any good to me or to himself again."

There is a quaint, Arsenic and Old Lace quality that we tend to associate with the crimes committed by female poisoners, as though disposing of a few people by feeding them arsenic-laced oatmeal or hot chocolate were a rather genteel form of murder. The truth is that, compared to the agonies suffered by the average poisoning victim, the deaths meted out by male serial killers like Jack the Ripper, "Son of Sam," or the Boston Strangler -- the sudden executions by knife blade, bullet, or garrote -- seem positively humane.

In most cases of arsenic ingestion, the commencement of symptoms occurs within the hour. The first sign is an acrid sensation in the throat. Nausea sets in, growing more unbearable by the moment. Then the vomiting begins. It continues long after the stomach is empty, until the victim is heaving up a foul whitish fluid streaked with blood. The mouth is parched, the tongue thickly coated, the throat constricted. The victim is seized with a terrible thirst. Anything he drinks, however -- even a few sips of ice water -- only makes the vomiting worse.

Uncontrollable diarrhea -- often bloody, and invariably accompanied by racking abdominal pain -- follows the vomiting. Some victims experience a violent burning from mouth to anus. Urine is scanty and red in color. As the hours pass, the victim's face -- deathly pale to begin with -- takes on a bluish tint. The eyes grow hollow. The skin is slick with perspiration that gives off an unusually thick, fetid odor. The victim's breathing becomes harsh and irregular, his extremities cold, his heartbeat feeble. There may be convulsions of the limbs and excruciating cramps in the muscles of the legs. Depending on the amount of poison consumed, this torment may last anywhere from five or six hours to several days.

In Struck's case, it lasted until early the next morning. Lydia sat up with him throughout the night, while her husband underwent his harrowing disintegration before her vaguely curious eyes.

His death, when it finally came at around eight o'clock on the morning of May 24, 1864 was -- just as Lydia had intended -- a mercy.

The attending physician, Dr. N. Hustead, decided that Edward Struck had perished of natural causes. On the official certificate, he filled in the cause of death as "consumption."

Lydia Struck was now a forty-two-year-old widow with no means of support and six children to care for. She would not, however, remain in those circumstances for very long. Within a few years of Struck's death, she would no longer be a widow.

Or a mother.

In our own time, the case of Susan Smith -- "The Modern Medea," as the media dubbed her -- transfixed our country with horror. In October 1994, the twenty-three-year-old mother drove her Mazda Protegé to the shore of John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, and sent the car rolling down a boat ramp with her two little boys, ages one and three, strapped into the backseat. Smith watched for more than five minutes as the car bobbed on the surface, then slowly filled with water, then sank with her babies inside. So unthinkable was the crime that -- in the perversely paradoxical way of such atrocities -- it became a national obsession, impossible to stop thinking about. How could a mother do such a thing -- set the deaths of her own babies in motion, then stand idly by while their helpless lives were extinguished before her eyes?

One hundred and thirty years before Susan Smith committed the filicide that made her (in the judgment of the tabloids) "America's Most Hated Woman," Lydia Struck perpetrated a similar horror. She did not, however, murder her own two children.

She murdered all six.

By the end of June, just a month after disposing of her husband, Lydia was feeling "much discouraged and downhearted" by the difficulty of supporting the children on her own. The three youngest -- six-year-old Martha Ann, four-year-old Edward Jr., and baby William, aged nine months and fifteen days -- were a particular burden, since they "could [do] nothing for me or for themselves." Of course, she did not want to act rashly. She therefore "thought the matter over for several days" before coming to the inevitable conclusion "that it would be better for them if they were out of the way."

In the first week of July, she poisoned all three of them with arsenic. Their deaths are described in the confession that Lydia ultimately supplied to the authorities. It is a remarkable document, offering hair-raising insight into the workings of a profoundly diseased mind. In it, Lydia reveals herself to be a quintessential psychopath, an utterly self-gratifying monster who contemplates and carries out the most unimaginable horrors without displaying the slightest trace of normal human emotion.

Martha Ann was the first to go. "She was taken with vomiting soon after I gave her the arsenic," Lydia writes, "and was afflicted in that way until she died. The doctors said nothing to indicate that they knew what was the matter."

Edward went later that same day. "He was sick to the stomach, and vomited frequently," Lydia reports in her chillingly off-handed tone.

In the evening, Edward died. He was a beautiful boy, and did not complain during his illness. He was very patient. The afternoon before he died, my stepdaughter, Gertrude Thompson, came in to see my children, and spoke to him and said,

"Eddy, are you sick?"

He said, "Yes,"

Then she said, "You will get better," and he said, "No, I shall never get well."

The doctors had no suspicions in this case either, and I did not hear of any one having any.

Shortly after Edward emitted his last, tormented breath, baby William also expired in great agony. In the official records of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, their deaths were attributed to "remittant fever" and "bronchitis," respectively.

From our present vantage point, it seems inconceivable that three healthy young children could suffer horrible deaths within a twenty-four-hour span without arousing medical suspicion. But in the Civil War era -- when applying a bunch of live leeches to a patient's body was still a common practice -- medicine had not yet emerged from the dark ages. Diseases now easily treatable could decimate entire families (particularly poor ones) in frighteningly short order. In the meantime, family doctors could do little more than dispense learned, if largely useless, advice, along with drugs that, at best, would not make the patient sicker.

As she repeatedly stressed, Lydia's three youngest children had been a considerable burden to her -- a constant drain on her resources. Now that they were permanently "out of the way," her situation was much improved, particularly since her fourteen-year-old son, George Whitfield, had gotten a job as a painter's assistant and was bringing in a steady $2.50 a week. As long as George was contributing to the household, his existence was secure. Unfortunately for him, he soon developed a condition known as "painter's colic" and was forced to quit work. His mother gave him some time to recuperate, but when a full week passed and he showed no signs of improvement, she "got discouraged" -- a frame of mind that always boded very ill for her loved ones.

"I thought he would become a burden upon me," Lydia would later explain, "so I mixed up some arsenic in his tea. I think he died the next morning."

By this time, Lydia had become well acquainted with a neighborhood physician named L. Rosenstein, who had been called in to treat several of her dying children. For unexplained reasons -- perhaps because of the exceptional care she had lavished on the little ones, never leaving their bedsides until they had suffered their last, agonized convulsions and subsided into death -- Rosenstein was sufficiently impressed with Lydia to offer her a job. And so, in the fall of 1864, Lydia Struck -- whose experience in the health care field consisted entirely of having induced mortal sickness in a half-dozen members of her immediate family -- became a full-time nurse.

In light of what her contemporaries would later describe as her "mania for life-taking," it is entirely possible that an indeterminate number of the patients who died in Dr. Rosenstein's care during this period were hastened to the grave by the ministrations of his kindly new nurse, Mrs. Struck. This part of Lydia's career, however, remains shrouded in obscurity, since she said almost nothing about her professional life in her published confession.

Four of Lydia's children now lay alongside their father in the sod of Trinity graveyard. Two still remained aboveground: her eighteen-year-old daughter, also named Lydia, and little Ann Eliza, aged twelve, described by her mother as "the happiest child I ever saw."

The younger Lydia -- by all accounts a lovely girl, who was being assiduously courted by a suitor named John Smith -- clerked at a dry-goods store in Harlem. She was often forced to miss work, however. The winter was unusually harsh, and little Ann Eliza was frequently sick with fever and chills. With their mother assisting Dr. Rosenstein all day, it fell to the eighteen-year-old girl to stay home and take care of her ailing sister. This happened so often that, as the winter wore on, the younger Lydia had to give up her clerking job entirely, and bring in whatever pittance she could by sewing bonnet frames at home.

Once again, Lydia Struck, as she reports in her confession, grew "downhearted and much discouraged." Her little daughter's fragile health was having a serious effect on the family income. As far as she could see, there was only one solution to the dilemma: "I thought if I got rid of her that Lydia and myself could make a living."

The bottle of arsenic she had bought in Harlem the previous spring was still more than half full. On March 2, 1864, Lydia returned to the same drugstore and purchased one of the countless patent medicines that promised to cure everything from catarrh to cancer. Back home, she mixed a few grains of the arsenic into the medicine and fed it to her daughter. When the little girl was seized with a violent bout of vomiting, Lydia gave her a second dose of the poisoned nostrum. And then some more.

It took twelve-year-old Ann Eliza four days to die. Dr. Rosenstein, who attended the agonized child, diagnosed the cause as "typhoid fever."

For the next six or seven weeks, the two Lydias, mother and daughter, lived together in a small apartment on upper Broadway. In early May, after paying an overnight visit to her stepsister in lower Manhattan, young Lydia returned home with a fever and took to her bed. Her mother -- according to her confession -- immediately repaired to the local druggist and bought "some medicine to give her." Somehow, the medication only made her daughter sicker, and Lydia "had to sit up with her all night."

The following morning, she sent for Dr. Rosenstein, who -- as he had in the case of little Ann Eliza -- diagnosed the illness as "typhoid fever." By the afternoon, young Lydia was in a state of such acute distress that she felt the need for spiritual succor and asked to see the pastor of her church, the Reverend Mr. Payson.

Nothing, however -- not the ministrations of Dr. Rosenstein, not the prayers of Reverend Payson, and certainly not the bitter-tasting powders her mother kept feeding her -- could save the young woman. She suffered her final throes on the morning of May 19, 1866, and was buried later that same day in Trinity graveyard, beside the bodies of her father and five siblings.

In her confession, Lydia Struck -- who freely admitted to all the other murders -- insisted that her oldest daughter and namesake died of natural causes. And perhaps she did. Even at the time, however, there were those who suspected otherwise. One of these was the Reverend Mr. Payson. As the long-time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, he had been called to many deathbeds, including those of several suicides -- poor, despairing souls who had turned to arsenic for deliverance. The ghastly last moments of eighteen-year-old Lydia bore a disconcerting resemblance to the convulsive death agonies of those unfortunates.

Payson's darkest suspicions were strengthened several weeks later when he received an unexpected visit from Cornelius Struck, Lydia's adult stepson. As it happened, Cornelius had long harbored his own doubts about his stepmother. Now -- after conferring with Payson and hearing the pastor's appalling account of the torments young Lydia had suffered in extremis -- Cornelius decided to take action. Shortly afterward, he paid a visit to District Attorney Garvin and urged him to exhume all seven corpses in the Struck family plot. Though reluctant to take such a drastic step, Garvin promised to launch an investigation. For the first time, Lydia Struck had fallen under the notice of the law.

By then, however, she was no longer living in New York City. Indeed, by then, she was no longer Lydia Struck.

In her own grotesque way, the forty-two-year-old ex-wife-and-mother was authentically American: a true believer in the possibility of endless self-renewal, of leaving the past behind and reinventing her life. In the months following her oldest daughter's death, she was seized with an unaccustomed sense of well-being. For the first time in years (as she declared in her confession) she "felt good....Ihad nothing to fret or trouble me." Now that her husband and six children had been turned into carrion, she felt wonderfully unburdened.

For a while, she worked as a general helper and clerk at Cochran's, a sewing machine store on Canal Street. One of her customers, a gentleman named James Curtiss, was much taken with Lydia, who -- like other celebrated sociopaths (Ted Bundy, for example) -- possessed an ingratiating charm that completely masked her monstrous degeneracy. When the store went out of business, Curtiss offered Lydia a job as a companion nurse to his mother, an elderly invalid living in Stratford, Connecticut. The salary was eight dollars per month, in addition to room and board. Lydia leaped at the offer. After all, she had no other prospects. And with her family in the ground, there was nothing to keep her shackled to the city.

Lydia's stint as Mrs. Curtiss's live-in companion did not last very long. Within weeks of arriving in Stratford, she heard about an old man named Dennis Hurlburt, a local farmer of considerable means and a reputation as a notorious miser. "Old Hurlburt," as he was known around town, had recently lost his wife of many years and was looking to hire a dependable housekeeper. Before long, Lydia had not only secured the position but somehow managed to win the old skinflint's heart as well.

"I was there only a few days," she reports in her confession, "when he wanted me to marry him." Lydia acted suitably coy until Hurlburt promised "that if I would marry him, all that he was worth should be mine." The wedding took place the following day at the home of the Reverend Mr. Morton.

Shortly afterward, Lydia saw to it that Old Hurlburt made good on his promise and signed a new will, leaving his entire estate to her.

For slightly over a year, the old man and his new bride enjoyed a seemingly idyllic existence. Neighbors saw her greet him at the door with a kiss whenever he returned home from an errand. She did all the housekeeping and mending, cooked his meals, even shaved him. Hurlburt's palsied hands trembled too badly for him to handle a razor, so Lydia performed the operation herself, carefully scraping the bristles from her husband's wattled chin three times a week.

Indeed, it was while being shaved one Sunday morning before leaving for church that the old man first began to die.

Lydia had just lathered up his face and put the razor to his jaw, when -- as she would later write -- "he was taken with dizziness." He decided that he needed fresh air, and went outside to feed his horse. He returned about ten minutes later, seemingly recovered, but when she began to shave him again, he was hit with another dizzy spell. They decided to skip church. It was clear that the old man was having what his wife called a "sick turn." And indeed, as the day progressed, he "continued quite feeble."

The next afternoon, hearing that Hurlburt was ill, a neighbor brought over a bucket of freshly dug clams. Lydia proceeded to fix her husband a nice pot of chowder, spiced with a special ingredient. With her coaxing, he managed to consume a full bowl of it for supper, washing it down with a glass of hard cider, which had also been doctored with the special powder Lydia kept secreted in her bureau.

That night, Hurlburt was dreadfully sick with nausea and vomiting, racking bowel pains, bloody diarrhea, a violent headache, high fever, and a torturous thirst. There was a powerful burning in the pit of his stomach and a ghastly lividity to his skin. In the morning -- though his throat was so swollen he could barely speak -- he managed to plead for a dose of his favorite patent medicine, Hostetter's Stomach Bitters.

The old man was not alone in swearing by Hostetter's. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Americans consumed so much of the stuff that the quack who concocted it died a multimillionaire. And indeed -- though its medicinal value was nil -- people did tend to feel more chipper after taking a few slugs of Hostetter's, mainly because its alcoholic content was approximately ninety proof.

Before giving her husband a drink of his beloved bitters, Lydia rendered it even more potent by stirring in a small measure of her secret white powder.

The tainted nostrum merely redoubled the old man's torments. On Tuesday, he begged his wife to send for a doctor. When a physician named Shelton finally arrived, it was clear at a glance that Old Hurlburt was beyond help. Lydia stayed by her husband's bedside, stroking his sweat-drenched brow until he was "taken with a sinking turn," as she put it. He died the way her other victims had, after undergoing

several days of uttermost agony. Though Shelton couldn't say exactly what had killed the old man, he attributed the death to "cholera morbus."

The forty-six-year-old widow came into a considerable inheritance by 1868 standards -- $20,000 in real estate and another $10,000 in cash. For the first time in her life, she was free of financial cares. If her motives had been entirely mercenary, she could have tossed away her arsenic and never killed again. But -- though Lydia was happy to profit from her crimes -- money was not, in the end, what drove her. Like others of her breed, she was a confirmed predator, addicted to cruelty and death. Making other people die -- and deriving sadistic delight from their torments -- was a pleasure she couldn't easily do without.

Within months of Hurlburt's death, Lydia found herself being wooed by one Horatio N. Sherman, a hard-living factory mechanic with a boisterous personality and a fondness for the bottle. Sherman's first wife had died the previous year, leaving him with four children and a live-in mother-in-law who -- in the time-honored way of such relationships -- was driving him crazy. He urgently needed a new wife to care for his household. Though something of a ne'er-do-well, Sherman was a popular local character renowned for his exuberant charm. Not only did Lydia accept his proposal, she agreed to bail him out of his debts to the tune of $300. They were married on September 2, 1870 at the home of Sherman's sister in Bridgeport.

The woman who had been born Lydia Danbury, then became Lydia Struck upon her first marriage and Lydia Hurlburt upon her second, now took the name by which she would achieve everlasting infamy in the annals of American crime: Lydia Sherman.

In mid-November 1870 -- just two months after the wedding -- Lydia put some arsenic in the milk of Sherman's youngest child, a four-month-old baby named Frankie. The infant, sickly from birth, required just a single dose of the poison. After a savage bout of stomach pains and vomiting, he died that same night.

The following month, fourteen-year-old Ada -- an exceptionally pretty, sweet-tempered girl, much beloved in the village -- was stricken with nausea while helping to put up the Christmas decorations at church. Back home, Lydia fixed her some poisoned tea and watched to make sure that her stepdaughter drank it all down. Later that day, after Ada grew worse, Lydia made her swallow a second cup. Unlike her congenitally frail infant brother, Ada was a strong girl. She did not die until New Year's Eve, after several days of harrowing illness.

The sudden death of his two children -- and particularly of his cherished daughter, Ada -- devastated Sherman. Always a heavy drinker, he began to hit the bottle harder than ever, going on benders that sometimes lasted for days. At the tail end of April, he and several cronies took off for New Haven. A week later, he still hadn't returned home. His seventeen-year-old son, Nelson, decided to go look for his wayward father.

Lydia -- whose relationship to Sherman had deteriorated so drastically that they were no longer sharing the same bed -- agreed to pay her stepson's way. Nelson found his father in a "den of low people" and fetched him home. Unsurprisingly, Sherman wasn't feeling very well. He took to bed for several days before returning to work on Monday, May 8. When he came home from the factory that evening, Lydia was waiting with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

That night, Sherman was very sick with severe nausea, racking bowel pains, and diarrhea. The next morning, at her husband's urging, Lydia sent for Dr. Beardsley, the family physician. Beardsley -- who had been called to Sherman's bedside before when the latter was suffering from a particularly brutal hangover -- was puzzled by the symptoms, which bore little resemblance to the patient's previous alcohol-induced "turns." He prescribed one-eighth grain of morphine and a "blue pill" consisting mostly of mercury to be taken every two hours. Lydia dutifully administered the medication, helping her husband get it down with a few sips of one of her "soothing drinks."

Beardsley returned early the next morning to find Sherman in a worse state than before. His breathing was terribly labored, his throat so constricted that he could barely speak. He was afflicted with a savage thirst and a burning pain in the pit of his stomach. He could not keep anything down. Beardsley prescribed brandy and water, then departed on his daily rounds, leaving Sherman in the care of the ever-attentive Lydia.

When the doctor showed up the following morning, it was clear that Sherman would not survive much longer. His pulse was almost imperceptible, his extremities cold, his skin a ghastly gray, particularly under the eyes. Beardsley examined the dying man with a growing sense of alarm. As he would later testify, neither an alcoholic "debauch" nor an "ordinary disease" could account for Sherman's condition. To the physician's great dismay, Sherman's symptoms bore an unmistakable resemblance to "those originating from poisoning by arsenic" -- several cases of which Beardsley had witnessed in his professional career.

As the doctor sat at the failing man's bedside that Thursday morning, Sherman opened his eyes and -- mustering what little strength he had -- managed to gasp out a question: Was he dying?

"I fear that you are in your last sickness," Beardsley said gently.

"I fear so, too," Sherman said in a barely audible voice.

Beardsley slowly shook his head. "I do not understand this," he said. "Tell me, have you taken anything other than what I prescribed?"

"Only what my wife has given me," Sherman answered. They were his last documented words. Emitting an anguished groan, he closed his eyes and subsided onto his sweat-drenched pillow.

He died at approximately eight o'clock the next morning, Friday, May 12, 1871.

As a general rule, serial killers will continue to commit their atrocities until they are forcibly stopped. The reason is simple: killing and torture are their highest forms of pleasure. For nearly a decade, Lydia Sherman had been able to get away with almost a dozen hideous murders -- three husbands, eight children -- thanks in large part to the blind incompetence of the various physicians who attended her victims without ever suspecting foul play. In Beardsley, however, a doctor had come along who would finally bring the horror to an end.

After sharing his suspicions with a colleague named Kinney, Beardsley secured permission to conduct a postmortem on Sherman. On Saturday, May 20, the two doctors dissected the cadaver, removing the stomach and liver and shipping the organs to a toxicology professor at Yale for analysis. Three weeks later, they received the results. Sherman's liver was absolutely saturated with arsenic. There was enough poison in his system to have killed three men.

A warrant was promptly issued for the arrest of Lydia Sherman.

By then, however, she was no longer in Connecticut. Realizing that the law was closing in on her, she had decamped for New Brunswick. Several officers were immediately dispatched to New Jersey to keep her under surveillance. In the meantime, the bodies of Frankie and Ada Sherman were exhumed. So was the corpse of Dennis Hurlburt. All were found to contain significant traces of arsenic. Inquiring at the local pharmacies, police discovered that, in the spring of 1870, Lydia had purchased an ounce of white arsenic from a druggist named Peck, explaining that she needed the poison because her house was "overrun with rats." They also learned about the bizarre string of tragedies that had befallen Edward Struck and his six children several years earlier when the ill-fated ex-policeman was married to Lydia.

On June 7, 1871, authorities decided that the time had come to put the warrant into action. Lydia, shadowed by a pair of detectives, had gone off to New York City on a shopping expedition. When she returned to New Brunswick that evening, she was greeted at the train station by a detective and a deputy sheriff who took her into custody and transported her back to New Haven, where she was charged with the murder of Horatio Sherman.

Her trial was a sensation, generating headlines in papers from the New Haven Register to the New York Times. According to the press, her crimes were unparalleled; the world hadn't witnessed such horrors since the days of Lucretia Borgia, the infamous Italian noblewoman and reputed serial poisoner whose name was a byword for lethal treachery. When the trial opened in New Haven on April 16, 1872, spectators traveled great distances for a glimpse of this prodigy of evil -- "the arch murderess of Connecticut." What they saw was not the ogre they were expecting but a prim, proper, perfectly ordinary-looking woman in a black alpaca dress, black-and-white shawl, white straw hat, and black kid gloves.

The sight of the forty-eight-year-old Lydia, looking calm, even somewhat cheerful, beneath her thin lace veil, had them shaking their heads in confusion. How could this utterly nondescript woman be guilty of such atrocities? The answer, of course, was simple. As with most serial killers, there was a terrifying disparity in Lydia between her mundane appearance and the monstrous abnormality of her mind. But back then, people were unfamiliar with the grotesque operations of the sociopathic personality. The term "serial killer" wouldn't even be invented for another hundred years.

The trial lasted eight days. The defense tried to persuade the jury that Horatio Sherman's death was accidental, possibly caused when he had swallowed tainted water, drawn from a well in which a poisoned rat had drowned. Or perhaps he had taken his own life, driven to suicide by depression over his money problems, marital woes, and the recent deaths of his two children.

The evidence against Lydia, however, was overwhelming. In the end, she was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in the state prison at Wethersfield.

Public fascination with Lydia's case did not end with her conviction. Quite the contrary. Then as now, people had a powerful appetite for true-crime sensationalism, and instant books like The Poison Fiend: Life, Crimes, and Conviction of Lydia Sherman (The Modern Lucretia Borgia) were rushed into print. Lydia's confession -- composed in jail while she awaited sentencing and immediately issued in pamphlet form -- also became a popular seller. She even became immortalized in a ballad:

Lydia Sherman is plagued with rats.

Lydia has no faith in cats.

So Lydia buys some arsenic,

And then her husband gets sick;

And then her husband, he does die,

And Lydia's neighbors wonder why.

Lydia moves, but still has rats;

And still she puts no faith in cats;

So again she buys some arsenic,

This time her children, they get sick,

This time her children, they do die,

And Lydia's neighbors wonder why.

Lydia lies in Wethersfield jail,

And loudly does she moan and wail.

She blames her fate on a plague of rats;

She blames the laziness of cats.

But her neighbors' questions she can't deny --

So Lydia now in prison must lie.

To her contemporaries, the Sherman case was uniquely appalling -- "the horror of the century," as one newspaper called it. In the hundred-year history of the republic, nothing like the "American Borgia" had ever been seen, and her countrymen felt certain that they would never witness such a monster again.

But they were wrong

Copyright © 2003 by Harold Schechter

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture. Renowned for his true-crime writing, he is the author of the nonfiction books Fatal, Fiend, Bestial, Deviant, Deranged, Depraved, and, with David Everitt, The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. He is also the author of Nevermore and The Hum Bug, the acclaimed historical novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe. He lives in New York State.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Books (November 13, 2012)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476729121

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