The history of women who killed with poison is a long and winding one. Poison was often the method of choice for females because it was less violent and required no physical strength (like, say, a garroting or stabbing). Fortunately for these femme fatales, poison was cheap, easy to get, and administer—especially to unsuspecting victims. While researching the real-life case of the condemned woman at the heart of my historical novel, The Arsenic Eater’s Wife, I read the tales of many such women.
Like the story that unfolds in my book, these cases have elements of greed, betrayal, and revenge. And, in some instances, not a little gender bias when it came to how the law viewed women on trial for fatal poisonings vs the same acts committed by men. Grrrr.
Here is Part 1 of a blog series about some of the most notorious poisonings, all committed by women. The five cases profiled below took place during the first half of the 19th century.
The Yorkshire Witch
Who: Mary Bateman
Poison: Mercury chloride, arsenic
Interesting Fact: After she was executed, portions of Mary’s skin were sold to ward off evil
Mary Bateman was born into poverty. From her earliest years, she made her living as a petty thief, often using her position as a domestic to steal from her employers. It was when she graduated to soothsaying (some accounts say sorcery) that her most serious crimes unfolded. She managed to befriend a couple named William and Rebecca Perigo who had come to her because Rebecca had an ailment that was troubling her (some accounts say she’d come to reverse a curse put on her by a neighbor, others that it was William’s health that brought them to Mary). She convinced the couple she could help them. In short order, the clever con artist managed to swindle the Perigos out of large sums of money. She did this, in part, by telling them an (imaginary) spirit medium that Mary knew (who conveniently lived some distance away) named Mrs. Blythe had great powers that could assist them.
Mary often gave the Perigos ridiculous instructions to carry out to keep the devil from their door, and the naïve couple followed them all, paying high fees for the service. But Mary’s schemes started to unravel when the Perigos’ savings began to dwindle, and William became suspicious. Mary’s way out was to fatally poison them, thus removing herself from any criminal consequences (oh, the irony). Instructing them to bring her half a pound of honey (some sources say pudding), she told them she would mix “such stuff” in it that her fake soothsayer, the powerful Mrs. Blythe, advised.
Rebecca ate all her portion, but William ingested only half. Both became extremely unwell. Mary had added mercury chloride to the honey and when the still-gullible William came to her in distress, she gave him an “antidote” that was laced with arsenic. Both Perigos took the antidote and became even more ill. William gradually recovered, but in May 1807, Rebecca died.
William finally went to the police and Mary was arrested and charged with murder. At trial, she blamed the fictitious Mrs. Blythe but the jury was having none of it. They took only minutes to find her guilty (the trial itself was just 11 hours). In 1809, before a crowd of 5,000, the woman dubbed the Yorkshire Witch swung from the end of a rope. She was 41-years-old. Her skeleton resides in the Thackery Medical Museum in Leeds.
Who: Elizabeth (Eliza/Liza) Fenning
Interesting Fact: Charles Dickens was among those who believed Eliza Fenning was innocent
At the age of 23, Eliza began working as a cook in the household of Orlibar Turner in London. Just a few weeks later, he, his son, and his daughter-in-law would fall ill from yeast dumplings prepared by her. She was soon charged with murder and in 1815, Eliza’s case came before the courts. While the prosecution proved Eliza had access to her employer’s “arsenic drawer,” Eliza claimed she herself ate the dumplings and got sick. Though five character witnesses attested to Eliza’s respectability and good nature, the summing up against her was extremely biased. She was found guilty and was hanged in July that same year.
This was an unusual case for a couple reasons: all victims survived, and forensic evidence of Eliza’s innocence went largely ignored (there was some question as to how the arsenic had been introduced into the dumplings, as the milk and flour Eliza used contained none). Public opinion was that Eliza was innocent. Friends and family made every effort to see the charge dismissed. Even her employer tried to sign a petition to reverse the charge but was told if he did so, the Turners would be investigated for the crime.
The day Eliza was buried, 10,000 sympathetic citizens joined the procession to her final resting place.
Fourteen years later, an article appeared in the Morning Journal in which it was stated that Robert Turner, the son who was poisoned, confessed before his death at the Ipswich Workhouse that he had committed the crime.
The Arsenic Cake Case
Who: Marie Lafarge
Motive: Revenge, freedom
Result: Life in prison
Interesting Fact: After trial, the Marsh test was performed in salons and in plays about the Lafarge case
At the tender age of 23, beautiful, well-educated Frenchwoman Marie Fortunée Cappelle married iron manufacturer Charles Lafarge, who was, by all appearances, wealthy. He came from a pedigreed family and had an estate in the south of France. But soon after they wed, Marie learned the bitter truth: her husband was broke. His home, Le Glandier, was in ruins. It appeared much of his fortune had come from his first wife’s dowry. When he left for business in Paris in early 1840, Marie purchased arsenic to kill rats living in the derelict house. A short while later, she sent her husband a cake by post. Lafarge ate it, became violently ill, and returned home. Marie’s mother-in-law (some accounts say it was a young woman staying in the house named Anna) claimed she saw, in the weeks Marie attended her husband bedside, Marie add powder to Charles’ food. Marie would later claim this was gum arabic (used to treat upset stomach) but her mother-in-law (or Anna) took a glass Charles had drunk from to a chemist who found traces of arsenic in it. But by then it was too late; Charles soon died.
Marie was arrested and charged with murder. While she awaited trial, she began to receive—probably due to her good looks and refined, noble manner—letters from the public (upwards of 6,000!). Though they weren’t all in support of her innocence, many of them were. Even so, the prosecution’s case was compelling, not least because noted chemist Mateo Orfila testified that he found arsenic in Charles’ body. The Lafarge case was one of the first trials in which the Marsh test—a reliable chemical test that indicated the presence of arsenic—was used. Marie was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. When she became ill with tuberculosis in 1852, she was released to live out the rest of her days at a spa in Ussat, France. She died there a short while later, age 36, never confessing to the crime.
The Potton Poisoner
Who: Sarah Dazley
Motive: Revenge, freedom
Interesting Fact: Sarah was the only woman ever hanged at Bedford Jail
At the age of 23, Sarah married William Dazley in Potton, Bedfordshire. Just two years before in 1840, she’d lost her first husband, Simeon Mead and their only child, Jonah (or Jonas in some accounts), aged 7 months. William sickened and died in October 1842. People began to talk, for William was purportedly an abusive drunk and some believed Sarah might have gone as far as to do away with him. Bodies of both her husbands were exhumed; by now, word was that Simeon had also beat her and he, too, might have been a victim. His body had been in the ground too long to be of much use. However, William’s body was found to have arsenic in it.
At trial, it was revealed that while William lay languishing, the local doctor gave William pills that improved his health. After Sarah witnessed this, she began making and administering her own pills. She was seen by Ann Mead, her first husband’s daughter, who’d been living with the Dazleys. When William began to get suspicious about Sarah’s pills, Ann took one to show him they were harmless. She quickly sickened. Once again, the Marsh test was used to detect arsenic in the corpse, and it served to tighten the noose around Sarah’s neck. It took only 30 minutes for the jury to find her guilty. She was hanged in August 1843 before a large crowd.
Trumping the Gallows
Who: Mary Ann Milner
Motive: Spite, greed
Result: Committed suicide before execution
Interesting Fact: When the crowd learned there was to be no public execution, they rioted, feeling cheated out of watching the prisoner hang
This case is a little vague on details and some accounts are contradictory, but what we do know is that Mary Ann Milner poisoned four people: Her father- and mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, Hannah, and her 4-month-old niece, Ellen. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, Mary Ann made cakes (or pancakes) into which she added arsenic. After Hannah and her young daughter Ellen ate them, they sickened and died. In a later confession, Mary Ann wrote she was ill-treated by Hannah which is what precipitated the murders.
Her next victims were her husband’s parents. The reason seems to have been to inherit insurance money on their deaths. For them, Mary Ann prepared sago (similar to tapioca) and after the couple ate it, they got very ill. Mrs. Milner eventually died, but Mary Ann's father-in-law didn’t. Mrs. Milner’s body was exhumed and was found to have arsenic in it. In Lincoln, England, in the summer of 1847, Mary Ann was tried for three separate indictments. Though she pleaded not guilty, the jury took just 20 minutes to deliberate and declare her so.
Mary Ann wrote a confession of her crimes but asked that it be withheld until her death. On the eve of her execution, she hung herself in her cell with her own silk scarf. She was 27 years old. From then on (at least in England), it became customary for all prisoners awaiting the gallows to be watched around the clock until the time of their execution.
While these stories vary, what they have in common is a woman who felt trapped: by poverty, cruelty, betrayal, and—in the case of Eliza Fenning—a court system that failed her. It’s hard to imagine the pressure these women were under; they had almost no rights in the management of their lives. And though murdering their victims wasn't the answer, it was the one solution they saw to improve their lot in life.
Looking from a broader perspective, many of the women who resorted to murder by poison were tangled up in unhappy marriages. In England prior to 1857, obtaining a divorce required a private act of Parliament, but it was costly (up to as much as £700!), well beyond the means of most people. The lower classes had no real solution. This would change with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, but would it have any bearing on poisoning cases?
Stay tuned next month for Part 2 where I’ll reveal more of the tragic stories of lady poisoners, this time from the second half of the 19th century.