Thursday, June 23, 2011

Velma West, the "Modern Murderess" - 1927

FULL TEXT: Perry, O., Dec. 16 – A fluffy blond-headed bride of 21, weighing less than 100 pounds:

Smashed her young husband's skull with a claw hammer and table leg in this little town the other night –

Bound his dead body with cords

Nonchalantly pulled her hat over her sleek bobbed head  

Drove 35 miles to a friend’s home and a bridge party, where she won all the prizes and sang jazz songs –

Slept all night like a child –

Ate a hearty breakfast

Spent a day Christmas shopping,. buying some gifts for the murdered husband in the love nest

And only asked for more cigarets which she calmly puffed when the sheriff came to get her.

~ "The Modern Murderess." ~

And there, in the person of Mrs. Velma Van Woert West, you have a perfect picture of what officials are calling “the modern woman murderess.” The poise and coolness of a modern woman have been much discussed of late. But Velma West, known as "A Night Club Girl in a Curfew Town," is the first woman known to execute a murder with something of the same attitude with which other modern young women handle home and job, or do other feats unknown to the more hysterical women of olden days.

The murder of young “Ed” West, 26, has startled the country.

The murdered man belonged to a nationally known family. His father, T. B. West, is a man whose nurseries are known the country over. West shrubs and trees and seeds grow in yards of “love nests” from Maine to California, “love nests” very much like the trim little bungalow to which Ed West took his bride less than two years ago.

Perry thrilled when it heard that popular Ed West had brought a city girl home for his bride. Perry wanted to meet the bride.

A reception was given by the young bridegroom's parents. All Perry was invited to the big West home. All Perry came. Just what happened is not clear. But the faintly of the murdered man admit that “Ed’s wife” was never “taken up" by Perry.” Velma West was “different.” She smoked cigarets, and plenty of them, in public. Maybe other Perry girls smoked, too, but behind locked doors with only bosom friends or so for beholder.

Velma West was indifferent to all the things that Perry held dear – old families, old books, old music, old friends.

Velma laughed at the old and talked much about the “kicks and thrills” of life.

She was invited out a little at first by “Ed’s friends.” But Velma was bored by the parties. Besides, the invitations seemed to die a natural death.

So the young Wests began finding their good times in Cleveland, about 25 miles away.

~ Couldn't Agree ~

Three or four times a week the shiny green roadster took the road to the big city. The dead man’s relatives say that Ed didn’t always want to go. He worked in his father’s nursery all day long, managing gardeners, transplanting, digging, working with the famous West shrubs. He was tired nights.

Let’s stay home tonight, Velma,” he is quoted as saying. “Let’s just stay here alone and you play and sing while I sit in the big chair with the paper. It’ll be cozy.”

But Velma wouldn't stay. The city was in her blood—part of her. Folks went to bed at 10 o'clock in Perry.

It was a party that made Ed West die. Velma told him they were going to a bridge party at a girl friend’s home on the farthermost part of Cleveland that night. They were driving home from another nearby city when she told him.

“But I'm tired,” West told her “Let’s stay home tonight.”

After supper, Velma began dressing for the party, urging Ed to hurry up.

“But I’m not coming,” he said and she knew that he meant it. They quarreled. Ed got mad. Said things about her friend. “You hardly know her—she’s not your kind—won’t have you running with that crowd—Why won’t you play bridge with some of the nice Perry girls? Might join the Young People's Set.” Etc., etc.

Almost 24 hours later Velma West told the sheriff and county prosecutor what happened. They had not even questioned or accused her. Hardly suspected.

"Why did you leave the back door open when you went away?” was the calm question that brought a complete written confession from the flapper bride.

“All right, I’ll tell you everything.”

She did.

Ed finally struck her as they quarreled, she said. She “saw red.” Went down to the cellar, got a hammer, came back, hit him over the head with the hammer, and when he went down finished the job with a library table leg which was “just lying around” until the table could be repaired.

~ After the Murder ~

She bound him, threw a blanket over him, left the lights burning, went to Cleveland, and was “the life of the party” all right, talked and giggled with her gin friend until late in the night, slept well, ate a good breakfast, then went Christmas shopping with her mother. She bought a nice box of handkerchiefs for Ed and almost bought a scarf she thought he would like.

Officials were waiting for her at her mother’s home and took her to Painesville, the county seat. There she calmly told her story.

A plea of insanity and perhaps self-defense will be her move in court when the first degree murder trial opens in January. Meanwhile, this “modern woman murderess” smokes pack after pack of cigarets in her cell. She has not wept yet. Nor laughed She has only asked for more fags, and sometimes hummed snatches of modern jazz songs.

[Allene Sumner, “A ‘Modern Woman’ Kills – Tears and Remorse? Ohio Hammer Slayer Gaily Goes To Bridge Party Instead – ‘The Night Club Girl’ in a Curfew Town,” syndicated (NEA), The Laredo Daily Times (Tx.), Dec. 16, 1927, p. 8; photo from Ellensburg Record (Wa.), Dec. 29, 1927, p. 3]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 5): Courthouse, Painesville, Ohio, Mar. 6 – Velma West today pleaded guilty to second degree murder.

Exactly three months from the day, Dec. 6, when she killed her husband, T. Edward West, the 21 year old Cleveland girl stood before the court said that one word “guilty.”

 In doing so, she automatically sentenced herself to life in the penitentiary.

Life is what the law provides, but in ten years she will be eligible for pardon.

Velma’s plea concluded many hours of conference between the attorneys, the prosecution and the trial Judge J. D. Barnes.

Judge J. B. Barnes immediately sentenced her to life in the Marysville Ohio state reformatory.

When court opened at 9:30 a. m. Attorney Francis Poulson, chief counsel for the blonde player, stepped forward.

“The defendant Velma West, at this time desiree to enter a plea of guilty,” Poulson said.

Trial Judge J. D. Barnes looked at Seth Paulin, Lake-co prosecutor. Paulin stood up and announced that the state would accept the plea, ending the trial of a day’s duration.

At the court’s request Velma West was brought to the bench, and was asked if she agreed to the plea of guilty.

“Yes sir.”

The voice was almost a whisper. The girl trembled as she spoke.

The crowded courtroom leaned forward to hear her.

Then Judge Barnes asked if she anything to say before sentence was imposed.

Velma gulped three times. Her voice had failed her. Finally she replied. “I have nothing to say.”

The plea and sentence brought to an end one of the most sensational murder cases In the history of Ohio. Edward West, scion of a prominent family of Perry, Ohio, nursery man, was found murdered In the west bungalow Dec. 6. His head had been
battered by a claw-hammer.

The following day Mrs. West was arrested at the home of her mother in East Cleveland and although she presented a perfect alibi, later confessed to Painesville authorities that she had committed the crime.

It was expected the Perry housewife would be taken to Marysville, Ohio, this afternoon to begin serving her sentence.

Judge Barnes then outlined the conferences that have been held between defense and the prosecution since yesterday morning. He said the attorneys had properly conferred with the trial Judge and Judge A. G. Reynolds who handled the case up to the present time.

“Judge Reynolds and myself,” he said, “accept full responsibility for the second-degree murder plea.

“We are convinced the defendant could not have been convicted of first degree murder.”

Then Judge Barnes sentenced Velma West to life in the Marysville reformatory. The Wests’ wedded life was not a happy one. Velma did not fit in with the small life of Perry, where West had built for her a bungalow. 

Her love for her husband, the prosecution had learned, was exceeded by her love for another—a woman.

The state’s lawyers were ready to go before a jury and picture Velma as one afflicted with a sex complex that made her put the love for one of her own sex above that of her husband, homo and happiness.

Attorneys for Velma did not think she would be convicted of more than second degree murder, but they did not want to put her on trial and place on record the story of alleged abnormal love gathered by Sheriff Ed Rasmussen.

That was one reason why a compromise was sought. The proceedings today took just eight minutes.

Again the courtroom was crowded. Still pale and extremely nervous, Velma sat behind the trio of attorneys. B. L. Van Woert, Cleveland salesman and father of the girl, was among the spectators. Her mother was not present. No member of the West family was in the courtroom but T. B. West, father of the slain man and James West, a brother who discovered the body, waited in the prosecutors office.

Velma found it hard to answer the judge. As she faced the court her formerly chalk-white neck showed marks of red. She had great difficulty in finding her voice. She half choked, like a person about to either cry or laugh.

Then the judge asked her if she had anything to say. She struggled for control for a moment and answered:

“I have nothing to say.”

Judge Barnes, without hesitation, pronounced sentence. He said; “This does not come to the court as a new proposition this morning.

This proposition was submitted to me before court opened yesterday morning. Counsel for the prosecution and defense spent the entire day going over the matter. They very properly took the matter up with this court for advice and sanction as to what was proper to do.

Not only with this court but with Judge Reynolds. After giving the fullest consideration to all of the evidence and circumstances of this case, both Judge Reynolds and I came to the full and complete agreement that a verdict of guilty of first degree murder was not Justified by this evidence. But that admittance of a plea of guilty of second degree murder was the proper thing to do.

This would save a great amount of money, the expenditure of a great deal of time and produce the only outcome which could be expected from a full jury trial.

“I don’t think this is the time for talking. Your crime was a horrible and unthinkable thing. This staid community was stirred by It. It was terrible. The mandate of the law must be fulfilled. This is the first time I have ever had to sentence a woman on a like charge.” Velma walked back to her chair.

Her father came and bent low over her. She wept violently. Then as suddenly as they started the tears stopped. She dried her eyes and smiled.

“I am so happy,” she said. She had escaped the threatened story of the woman she is said to have loved more than her husband — Miss Mabel Young, Cleveland. Miss Young had hoped to cure Velma by having her associate with wholesome young women of her own age, she said.

But had the trial gone on, there was a possibility that Miss Young would not testify. She could not be found today. Velma West went back to her cell in Lake-co jail immediately. She expressed a wish to go to Marysville at once.

“I want to get out in the sunshine,” she said.

Her father hastened away to telephone to the mother the news of the sentence.

Sheriff Rasmussen went to work at once preparing the necessary papers for Velma’s commitment to Marysville.

The defense attorneys, however, made a request that the taking of the girl to the reformatory be delayed so that she may wind up some personal affairs.

They asked permission to take her to the bungalow at Perry to reclaim her personal effects. She has not been there since the night she fled to Cleveland after killing her husband. Rasmussen granted the request, and the girl will not be taken to Marysville until tomorrow.

The trial of the young woman, who had rebelled against the small town life of Perry, Ohio, after the active social life of a popular debutante in Cleveland, opened yesterday.

There were numerous conferences.

The state offered to accept a plea of guilty to a homicide charge. The defense offered to have the girl plead guilty to second degree murder.

Then a continuance was taken until today.

Attorneys for the state and the defense had a long conference last night after which it was understood that the girl would plead guilty to second degree murder.

The young woman was happy this morning at the prospects of escaping the tedious trial.

“I am glad the anxiety is over,” she said. “Imprisonment is not pleasant to contemplate, but I am willing to pay the penalty the law exacts. I am glad my friends and relatives will be spared the anguish of a long and bitter trial.”

The decision to end the trial abruptly through the second degree plea, it was understood, was to spare the family of the defendant and her slain husband from an unnecessary ordeal of sensationalism which the state had promised to bring forth.

“Our chief reason for wanting to enter the guilty plea is that it will terminate all court action, chargesand counter charges and all sensational and sordid revelations,”

Poulson said. “If this case had gone to a jury many relatively innocent people might have been involved.”

[Charles E. Ahrens, “Velma West Gets Life For Murder – ‘Guilty’ Is Plea After Conference – State Accepted Plea On Second Degree Charge and Perry, O., Woman Who Killed Husband With Hammer Is Eligible To Pardon in 10 Years,” The Star Journal (Sandusky, Oh.), Mar. 6, 1928, p. 1]



FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): Marysville, Ohio — Officials of Marysville women’s reformatory said today they had established that Velma West, 33, hammer slayer of her husband who escaped with three others, had the assistance of another other prisoner in unlocking her cell early Monday.

Prison officials reported to the state welfare department that Mrs. Lenora Leach, 26, who had been sent to the reformatory for smuggling, hacksaws to her former husband in the Gallipolis jail, had aided the escape of Mrs. West after the frail blonde had written that she wanted “one little adventure in this dull life of mine.”

Mrs. Leach had denied seeing Mrs. West escape even though she slept on a cot in the corridor just outside the latter’s cell. Her story was not believed and she was placed in solitary confinement.

Another prisoner was allowed to talk to Mrs. Leach in her solitary cell, and by listening to their conversation, officials learned that she had unlocked Mrs. West’s cell with a key which the hammer murderess had given her. The cell door could be unlocked only from the outside. Mrs. West, it was established, then unlocked the cell of a t least one other of the three who fled with her.

Ohio authorities ran down numerous tips today in their search for the fugitives.

Two girls who aroused suspicion were seen in Lorain at 3 a. m. A gasoline station attendant at Russell’s Point reported seeing a son of a Marysville prisoner with five women in his automobile, two of whom he thought might have been fugitives.

Mrs. Marguerite Reilley, reformatory superintendent, who had reformed Mrs. West from a troublemaker into a model prisoner in three years and had called her the girl who made good,” said that two other prisoners were under suspicion of aiding the escape.

Mrs. Reilley questioned Rachel Thomas, formerly of Mansfield, who is a good wood-carver and who made two keys from nail files about a year ago, and Lenora Leach, 26, formerly of Gallipolis, who slept in the corridor outside Mrs. West’s cell.

Mrs. Leach denied hearing anything early Monday when Mrs. West escaped.

“We think she is holding something back,” Mrs. Reilley said.

Mrs. Reilley revealed today that a Marysville man who had been a friend of Mary Ellen Richards, one of the fugitives was sought for questioning. The superintendent said the man had been missing for a week and his automobile, had been standing in the street. Miss Richards worked m Marysville before her conviction.

Mrs. Reilley said, however, there was no indication that the man had contacted Miss Richards recently.

All prisoners were ordered today to wear uniforms. Prior to the escape, those considered more trustworthy wore thin print ‘honor” dresses. Mrs. West escaped in an “honor” dress.

“Maybe I have been mistaken,” Mrs. Reilley said. “Maybe this place should be run like any jail after all. It was a real joy to see Velma develop from the kind of a creature she was when I came here three and a half years ago. Her failing me tears down the thing I have tried to build up ever since I have been here.”

She said there was a possibility that a master key which disappeared shortly before she became superintendent was used in the escape.

Mrs. West pleaded guilty to a second degree murder charge after she had beaten her husband, T. Edward West, to death with a hammer and table leg at their home near Painesville on Dec. 7, 1927. She went to a bridge party in Cleveland afterwards and was “the life of the party.”

The letter which Mrs. West wrote to Mrs. Reilley in ink on yellow note paper follows:

“Mrs. Reilley .Dear:—

“I wonder if you can ever forgive me for this — I am doing it for several reasons. Because I must have, one little adventure in this dull life of mine — because I am so tortured with pain in this body of mine that it drives me almost crazy—because I have lost, hope of getting out as I would like to get out—it’s fear of these things that have finally made, me do the thing that I have been fighting against, for years. — You’ve been so wonderful to me, so understanding, so patient. — This thing isn’t easy for me to do because I have a conscience and a tender heart. — I shall probably always despise myself for it. — Do not blame the other girls. — I found out by accident that they were going, and I asked them to take me. They didn’t want to because of my health—but finally decided to, and promised to take care of me, and .not subject me to anything immoral. That may be for them—but never for cue, dear.

“If this should in any way cause you trouble I shall come back Immediately, for I love you, as I love my own mother. I only hope you can understand — oh, please do.

“I would be happy if you would let my mother and dad read this, and try in some way to comfort them. I don’t know how to tell you just how I feel — I’m being torn between two different ways — my desire not to hurt you, and my folks who I love — and my desire to have just one little adventure before I get too old and too dulled by pain ever to enjoy life — to tell you the honest truth I hope someone catches us before we get out.

“This is terrible — to be so utterly silly, but I cannot help it — darling, you have been wonderful to me — and I realize that the others have done as much as they could in here for my health. But I have not been without pam for so long now that I’m at the breaking point — I’ve hid it as much as I could, after I realized that nothing could be done for me.

“Please don’t let them talk too awfully about me after this — I’m not bad — just frightfully unlucky — in life.”

The other fugitives are Virginia Brawdy, 19, Akron; Mary Ellen Richards, 23, Cincinnati, and Florence Sheliner, 23, Gallipolis. Miss Helen Rahmel, night matron in the building from which the four escaped, said she had tested the doors of all cells Sunday night and had found them locked.

Mrs. West might have had a chance for parole had she not escaped, Mrs. Reilley said. In 1934, the parole board continued her case “until expiration of sentence,” which meant life imprisonment. Last October, however, Mrs. Reilley asked the board to reconsider her case and it had been taken under advisement.

[“Learn Aide In Flight of Velma West - Find Other Inmate Helped Blonde Murderess in Unlocking Cell to Flee Marysville.” Syndicated (UP), The Star Journal (Sandusky, Oh.), Jun. 30, 1939, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 5): Columbus, Ohio – Velma West, 53, who has been in the Marysville Reformatory for women since she was 21, was denied freedom Thursday by the, Ohio Pardon and Parole Commission. The board said It would review her case again in 1964.

Mrs. West was convicted of the second-degree murder of her husband, Thomas, 26, of Perry, Lakeco. She beat her husband to death with a claw hammer after the two argued over going to a party

[“Velma West, 53, Is Denied Parole,” syndicated (UPI), Sandusky Register May 29, 1959, p. 3]


FULL TEXT (Article 5 of 5): Marysville, Ohio – Velma West, 52, famed flapper era husband killer, died today at the Marysville Women's Reformatory where she had been since she was 21.

Death was attributed to natural causes. Mrs. West had suffered from a severe heart condition for many years and over the past year was practically a full-time hospital patient.

Mrs. West gained nationwide attention during the roaring 20s when she killed her husband because he objected to her going to a party.

She had been in Marysville since March 7, 1928.
[“Velma West Dead At 52,” syndicated (UPI), Mansfield Daily News (Oh.), Oct. 24, 1959, p. 5]



Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Black Widow Repeat Husband-Killer Executed: Mrs. Van Valkenburgh - 1846

"Van Valkenburgh" is apparently the correct spelling, but the name sometimes appeears as "Valkenbugh."  The execution took place in Fulton, New York.


FULL TEXT: The Fulton Co. Democrat contains an account of the execution of this wretched woman, from which it appears that she acknowledged haying poisoned two husbands. After stating the course pursued by the Governor in this case, the statement thus proceeds: The prisoner had, previous lo the time the Sheriff received the Governor's communication, refused to confess her guilt, and maintained herself with much stoical firmness; but on learning that there was no longer any hope for her, her fortitude began  in some measure to fail, and she began to feel more sensibly her awful situation, On Thursday, the 22d instant, two days previous to her execution she made a full confession of the crime for which she was to die, and acknowledged the justice of the lenience which was shortly to end her existence, in the presence of Judge Watson, J. W. Cady, late Dis. Attorney Sheriff Thompson, Rev. James Otterson, and Rev. David Eyster. In this confession she denied having poisoned her first husband, whom it had been reported she had also murdered. But on Friday morning, the 22d, as her end rapidly approached, she made an additional confession, admitting that she had given her first husband a dose of arsenic, which, although he did not die immediately, was ultimately the cause of his death.

We are informed by those who witnessed the execution, that the scene was awful. Notwithstanding she had expressed to others that she had a hope of forgiveness from her Maker, yet, when brought from her cell, her face showed a most haggard appearance. Despair was depicted upon her countenance! Alter she was brought to the gallows, a prayer was offered up by the Rev. Mr. Hitchcock. She then spoke a few words to those present, and said if there were an drunkards or transgressors present, they must take warning by her fate; and then commenced praying to God to have mercy upon her soul. The drop was then let fall, and as the rope straightened upon her neck and just as she raised from her feet, she gave a shriek and passed from time into eternity. Tints ended the life of a lewd and wretched woman, who had sent two husbands (perhaps unprepared) into another world!

[“Execution or Mrs. Van Valkenbugh.” The Burlington Free Press (Vt.), Feb. 20, 1846, p. 3]


Wikipedia (Article 2 of 2): Elizabeth van Valkenburgh (July 1799 - January 24, 1846) was an early American murderer who was hanged for poisoning her husband. Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was born in Bennington, Vermont. Her parents died when she was around 5 years old and was sent to Cambridge, New York to live, but had little education or religious upbringing.

~ First Marriage

She first married at the age of 20, moving with her husband, with whom she had four children, to Pennsylvania. After living there for six years, the family moved near to Johnstown, New York, where she remained for the next 18 years. In 1833, her first husband died, which she initially stated was due to dyspepsia and exposure. Later, she admitted that she had poisoned him by adding arsenic to his rum, because she was “provoked” by his drinking in bars. In an addendum to her confession to Van Valkenburgh’s murder, she noted that her first husband had been able to go to work the following day after being poisoned, although he suffered after effects until he died, and that she did not intend to kill him.

~ Second Marriage and Murder

She married John Van Valkenburgh, with whom she had two more children, in 1834. In her confession, she stated that he was an alcoholic, that he “misused the children”, and that “we frequently quarrelled” when he was drunk Her son had offered to buy “a place” for her and the other children in the west, but John Van Valkenburgh opposed this.

She stated in her confession that “John was in a frolic for several weeks, during which time he never came home sober, nor provided anything for his family.” She managed to purchase arsenic and poison his tea, although he recovered from the first dose of poison. Several weeks later, she mixed another dose in his brandy. So gruesome was his death, however, she said that “if the deed could have been recalled, I would have done it with all my heart.”

She ran away, hid in a barn, and broke her leg in a fall from the haymow. She was captured, tried and convicted. She was sentenced to death by hanging. Many people, including ten of the jurors, petitioned Governor Silas Wright for clemency, but having studied the materials related to the crime, and despite being moved by her gender and poverty, could find no new evidence to stop the execution. She was executed on January 24, 1846. Because of her broken leg and her obesity, Van Valkenburgh was hanged in an unusual way. She was carried to the gallows in her rocking chair and was rocking away when the trap was sprung.


Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh
Jul. 1799 - Born
1819 - Marries husband #1.
Sep. 1833 - Murders husband #1, poison, Johnstown, NY.
Mar. 1834 - Marries John Van Valkenburgh.
Mar. 16, 1844 - husband #2 dies, poisoned.
Jan. 22, 1846 - signed confession
Jan. 24, 1846 - executed.


Pamphlet: The Confession of Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh Who Was Executed for the Murder of Her Husband John Van Valkenburgh, January 24, 1846. Comprising a History of her Life in which some Awful Disclosures are made together with The Sentence of the Judge and the Letter of the Governor refusing to interfere with the execution of the law. Copyright Secured. Printed and Sold by G. Henry and W. M. Clark, Johnstown Fulton County N.Y.


For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


Elizabeth McCraney, Serial Killer of Nine - 1860

FULL TEXT: Medford, Otsego, N. Y., is horrified by the development of a poisoning case – or rather a series of poisoning cases—of an unusual character. Mrs. Elizabeth P. McCraney, the third wife of Mr. Mc. (who was also her second husband,) is accused of poisoning her husband's daughter, Huklah, a beautiful girl of 17, and now that this murder is out the people believe they shall trace no less than seven mysterious deaths to her agency, including her former husband. – She is about fifty years of age, a woman of unusually brilliant, not to say dashing appearance.

[“A Modern Lucretia Borgia.” The Compiler (Gettysburg, Pa.), Aug. 6, 1860, p. 1]


FULL TEXT: The old settlers of Wisconsin will clearly remember the sensation produced some forty years ago by a mysterious tragedy which took place at Lancaster, in Grant county, when five persons – Thomas P. Burnett, his wife, daughter, and two other residents of that village—met very singular deaths. It was the most singular tragedy ever known in the state because of the deep mystery that surrounded it, and of the death of each of the five persons mentioned.

A few days ago the Galena Gazette published a letter written in 1861, by the Hon. J. Allen Barber, of Lancaster, afterwards a member of congress from this state, in which many interesting facts were given regarding the murder. All of the five persons whose sudden deaths astounded the community died of arsenical poison. A Mrs. Elizabeth P. McCraney, a sister-in-law of Burnett, and an inmate of his house, was suspected of the murder, and was arrested, tried, but not convicted. There did not seem to be any doubt as to her guilt, but there was lacking evidence sufficient to convict her and she was acquitted. At that time the people at Lancaster did not doubt the guilt of Mrs. McCraney; and some twelve years after the murder was committed, Mr. Barber wrote the letter which was published last week for the first time and which contains facts and circumstances which point directly to Mrs. McCraney as the murderer of the Burnett family and other two residents of Lancaster.

Before Mrs. McCraney became a resident of Wisconsin, she lived in New York. Her father came to Wisconsin sometime during the thirties, and was a well known preacher, and followed his calling for more than forty years in this state. After the murder of the Burnett family, it came to light that Mrs. McCraney had poisoned two husbands and two of her little children in Otsego county, New York, where she lived before removing to this state. The normal career of this woman was remarkable. She was a woman who had reasonably good training, but her heart seemed to be set on murder, and in the course fifteen years her victims counted nine.

[“The Lucretia Borgia Of Wisconsin.” The Janesville Daily Gazette (Wi.), Aug. 21, 1889, p. 1]


Suspected victims:

Clark child #1 (of Abram Clark, first, husband, later divorced) Ostego County, New York.
Clark child #2, Ostego County, New York.
Spencer Baker, Husband # 2.
Allen Baker, brother-in-law.
Her sister.
Resident #1 of Lancaster County, Wisconsin.
Resident #2 of Lancaster County, Wisconsin.
Huhlah Ann McCraney, stepdaughter, 17, Oneonta, N. Y., died May 11, 1860.
Thomas P. Burnett, brother-in-law.
Mrs. Burnett (wife of Thomas).
Burnett daughter.

Dec. 10-15, 1860 – Trial #1 for murder of Huldah; not guilty.
Jun. 20-25, 1861 – Trial #2 for murder of Allen Baker; not guilty.


A long 1948 newspaper article summarizing the case:

[Tom Hills, “Ostego’s Murder Stories Tame Today When Compared With Mrs. McCraney’s Record,” The Oneonta Star (N.Y.), Aug. 2, 1948, p. 3]



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


For more cases of this category, see: Female Serial Killers of 19th Century America (as of January 20, 2014, the collection contains 61 cases)


The Punctilious Black Widow Serial Killer: Mrs. Pleasant - 1874

FULL TEXT: A Mrs. Pleasant, of Fort Laramie, has sued a paper for saying that she has murdered three husbands, when the fact is she hasn't murdered but two, the third one getting away with a broken rib.

[Untitled, syndicated, Omaha Daily Bee (Ne.), Jan. 3, 1874, p. 2]

Note: Other sources give the location as “Monticello, Iowa.”



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.



Mrs. Gossau's Novel Husband-Killing Tactic - 1881

FULL TEXT: A FIENDISH WIFE.—St. Gall papers tell a strange story of a married couple, of the name of Gossau, who lately left the canton for New York, viĆ” Havre. During the voyage the wife poisoned her husband, and tried to throw his body overboard. This led to her arrest, and the discovery of the crime. At New York she was handed over to the police, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. She then confessed to having also poisoned her first husband in St. Gall, her second husband being her accomplice.

[“A Fiendish Wife.” Brief: The Week’s News (London, England), Feb. 18, 1881, p. 160]



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


Martha Johnson, Murderess of Two Husbands: Connecticut - 1888


FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 4):: Stafford Springs, Conn.., April 4 – Mrs. George Johnson was arrested here yesterday [Apr. 3, 1888] charged with shooting her husband while he was asleep during the night. It is stated that domestic trouble has existed between the two for some time, owing, it is said, to Johnson paying attention to other women. The couple retired early on the night of the tragedy. About midnight Johnson was awakened by a sudden shock, suffering intense pain. His wife was not beside him, but his cries for assistance brought her from the adjoining room, and also aroused some neighbors who procured medical assistance. The doctors upon examination found that Johnson had been shot, the bullet having entered just below the last rib. They probed for the ball, but were unable to extricate it. Johnson is in a very critical condition, and there is no hope for his recovery.

The authorities were notified, and Deputy Sheriff Fisk, accompanied by an excited crowd of villagers, went to the house, where Mrs. Johnson was arrested. She at first resisted all attempts to search her, but finally a twenty-two calibre revolver was found tied securely to one of her ankles. One chamber was empty. She accounted for the possession of the pistol by saying that she had recently been pursued by an unknown man and that she had obtained it to protect herself. She denied all knowledge of the shooting of her husband. She was taken to jail and arraigned in court to-day.

[“Shot Her Husband,” The Atchison Weekly Champion (Ka.), Apr. 12, 1888, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Hartford. Dec. 11. – One of the most mysterious of the murder trials for which Connecticut has recently become noted opened yesterday afternoon at Tolland, a little country court house town about twenty miles from here.

Mrs. Martha Johnson, a tall, gaunt, haggard woman of 50, is on trial for the murder of her husband, George E. Johnson, in April last at Stafford Springs.

The affair was most peculiar. Johnson retired early, and awoke about 11 o’clock with severe pains in his back. He called his wife, who had not yet retired, and sent for a doctor, who found a bullet wound on the right side of the spine. Johnson did not previously know that he was shot, and had heard no report of a pistol.

His wife was suspected, and when arrested and searched the following day, a revolver with one barrel discharged was found in a flannel bag strapped to her right leg. She claimed to have bought the weapon months before as a protector when out at night. Johnson lingered in great pain until July, when he died, and his wife, who had been at liberty under $1000 bonds, was placed in Tolland jail. Last week she was arraigned and pleaded not guilty, and the trial was postponed until yesterday.

Friends have raised $500 for her defense, the larger part being contributed by Dwight Webster, foreman of the Underwood Belting company at Tolland, who is her son by a previous husband, John Webster.

It is alleged that she was responsible for the death of Webster by slow poisoning, and here are intimations that Johnson was a victim of the same kind of treatment for weeks before she shot him.

The defense will be insanity. She is a woman of strong passions, of a nagging dis position, and made Johnson’s life a burden to him by her furious temper and insane jealousy, although he was a man advanced in years and of good morals and highly respected in the community. She claims to be wholly ignorant of the shooting. But it  is understood that her temperament is such that her counsel will not risk letting her go upon the witness stand in her own defense, which is permitted under the Connecticut criminal law.

Ex-Governor Andrews, now of the superior court bench, is the trial judge.

An average jury was secured, the defense exercising all its rights to prevent men from getting into the box who would not be inclined to give the insanity plea at least a fair consideration. The local feeling is so strong, however, against Mrs. Johnson that counsel for the defense have good reason to fear that they will go into the trial heavily handicapped. When the jury was completed, an adjournment was taken until to-day.

[“Mania Pleaded. - A Connecticut Woman On Trial For Husband-Killing. - The Insanity Plea Made for Mrs. Martha Johnson. –  Accused of Shooting Her Husband – A Former Charge.” United Opinion (Bradford, Vt.), Dec. 5, 1888, p. 1]


EXCERPT (Article 3 of 4) (from very long article): Stafford Springs, Conn., Dec. 9. – The trial of Mrs. George E. Johnson for the killing of her husband is set down for to-morrow and the Judge of the Superior Court says he will not postpone it on any account. It has excited the greatest in Tolland County, which is not accustomed to murders, and this interest is heightened by the promised production of testimony proving that the prisoner was a confirmed user of poison, and that she not only gave her second husband, Johnson, a good many doses of poison, but that she killed her first husband, John Webster, with poison. The defense has promised to make out a case of insanity, and take it all in all the trial promises to be very interesting.

[“Tolland’s Mystery. – What Sort of Woman Is Martha Johnson, of Stafford, Conn.? – She Is Charged With Murder. – Her Two Husbands Died, and It Is Said She Poisoned Both. – The Last Was Shot While Asleep. – Her Trial Will Begin To-Day in Stafford Springs, Tolland County, Conn. – Her Counsel Will Try To Prove Her Insane – Only One Hanging Has Taken Place in the County and That Was Away Back in 1816 – Martha Sees a Gallows in the Stare – She Apparently Has But One Friend in the World, Her Son.” The World (New York, N.Y.), Dec. 10, 1888, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4): Rockville, Conn.. Dec. 24. – Martha Johnson, who was sentenced to State prison for life on Saturday, was taken this after noon from Tolland jail to the State prison by Deputy Sheriff Fisk of Stafford.

[“Taken to the State Prison.” The Boston Daily Globe (Ma.), Dec. 24, 1888, p. 5]



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


Mary McKnight: Michigan Black Widow Serial Killer - 1903

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): Mrs. Mary McKnight, who has been called a modern Borgia because of her confession to the murder of her brother, his wife and baby, and who is suspected of having caused the deaths of eight other persons by the stealthy administration of strychnine during the past fifteen years, has lived in Kalkaska, Mich., all her life, respected and supposedly sane. But for a filing of a mortgage with the figures raised, alleged to have given her by her brother, the crimes might never have been discovered. She first confessed to one murder, then at other times to two others, and it is thought she will tell of the killing of some of the other persons, including two of her former husbands.

[Untitled, The Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette (Io.), Jun. 26, 1903, p. 7]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 3): Kalkaskan, Mich., June 10. – Mrs. Mary McKnight, who is in jail here charged with the murder of her own brother, John Murphy; Gertrude Murphy, his young wife, and their three-months-old babe, has made a confession as follows:

“The baby woke up and cried while its mother was gone, and I mixed up a little strychnine in a glass with some water and save a spoonful to the baby. I didn’t mean to harm the little thing at all. I confessed all to the Lord this afternoon, and I feel that he has forgiven me.

“When Gertrude came home and found the baby dead she got awfully nervous. She came to me and said: ‘Mary, can’t you give me something to quiet me; something that you take yourself?’ I said that I would, and I really didn’t think that it would hurt her if I gave her one of the capsules. She had spasms right after that, and I suppose that It was the strychnine that killed her. I really didn’t mean to hurt her.

“Then John seemed to feel so badly about it, so broken up, that I often thought after Gertie died that it would be better if he were to go, too. John was feeling bad one night a couple of weeks after Gertrude died. He came to me and wanted something to quiet him. I had two or three of the capsules on my dresser, and I told him to go and get one of them.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I thought that it would sooth him, and then I thought that. It would be for the best if he were to go, anyway. He helped himself, I don’t know whether he took one or two. Then he went to bed, and by and by he called me. Mother came, too, and he began to have those same spasms. I suppose that the strychnine was working.”

The whole of the confession was given voluntarily, and Mrs. McKnight signed it after Prosecutor Smith had written it out.

~ Suspected of Killing Eight Others. ~

There have been eighteen deaths among Mrs. McKnight’s immediate associates or in her own family in less than that number of years, and besides the three Whose murder she has acknowledged, there are eight others who died under such peculiar circumstances that she is strongly suspected of having poisoned. them as well. Their names fellow:

James Ambrose, Mrs. McKnight’s first husband, of Alpana, in 1887; Mrs. McKnight, the first wife of James E. McKnight, died in July, 1887, at Alpana; Baby Teeple, Mrs. McKnight’s niece, died two days later, in the same place apparently of convulsions like that of the other victims: Eliza Chalker, Mrs. McKnight’s niece, died in Grayling, Mich., May, 1892; Sarah Murphy, Mrs. McKnight’s sister, died in Grayling, November 1893, Ernest McKnight, Mrs. McKnight’s second husband, at Grayling, November 188?; Mrs. Curried [Curry] died Saginaw in 1893; Dorothy Jensen, in Grayling, Good Friday, 1902; three Ambrose children. Mrs. McKnight’s children by her first husband died shortly after birth; Jane Ambrose, another daughter, at Monroe, Mich.; May Ambrose, another daughter, at Saginaw, Mich.; Mrs. Schaneburger, a relative of marriage at Saginaw in 1896; William Murphy, accidentally shot in November, 1902.

In almost every one of these cases Mrs. McKnight had been nursing the person who died and was such in close contact that it would have been an east matter for her to have administered the poison, if that were really the cause of death. The authorities at Grayling, Alpena and Saginaw are now working on the theory that poison was administered in every case, and here possible the bodies will be exhumed and the usual tests for strychnine applied. Even though a body may have been buried for five or ten years, the teat used to detect strychnine poisoning be available provided the body has not lain in wet or marshy ground.

~ Long Chain of Fatalities. ~

Alpena where Mrs. McKnight went to live with her first husband, James Ambrose, who was in the painting and decorating business with Ernest McKnight. The two families were intimate and occupied the same house. Ambrose was in ill health, and is said to have had consumption which might account for the early death of the first three children.

Jane Ambrose, the eldest child, was seven years of age when she went to visit her grandmother at Monroe. There she was taken ill suddenly and died. The next to die was James Ambrose, Mrs. McKnight’s husband; he was said to have died of consumption, but the symptoms ware such as to puzzle the doctor in attendance. Ambrose seemed to too in great agony and his limbs twitched convulsively.

A fatality seemed to cling to the house, for Mrs. McKnight, the wife of her husband’s partner. was next taken ill, and her sister, Mrs. Gig Teeple, came to nurse her, bringing with nor her husband and her baby, the child being left much in the care of the widow. Mrs. McKnight died, the symptoms being partial paralysis, a spasmodic twitching of the limbs and convulsions. Next night the baby was taken sick and died the following morning, the symptoms being the same as those of the mother.

Mrs. Ambrose and her five-year-old daughter May, then went on a trip to visit some friends at Saginaw, but before reaching there May was taken ill on the train and go was the mother. They were removed to a hospital, where the mother recovered, but the child died. Left alone in the world Mrs. Ambrose returned to her sister, Mrs. Chalker, until her marriage to McKnight should take place, which was some three weeks later. She then went with him to live at Alpena, but latter they returned to Grayling. She went one might in May, 1892, to Mr. Chalker’s for tea and while they were at the table Mrs. Chalker’s daughter, Eliza, was taken suddenly ill with partial paralysis, foaming at the mouth, convulsions and twitching of the limbs and died in about four hours. The doctors attributed it to congestive grip, although they were not satisfied altogether the temperature not being what they expected.

The symptoms were precisely the same as those of Miss Chalker, but the doctors never thought of poison, although they were the same who had attended the previous case. It was only when the woman was arrested a few days ago that their attention was directed to the possibility of poison having been used, and it immediately occurred to them the symptoms were precisely those which strychnine would produce. The girl was dead in four and a half hours, the spasmodic twitchings, being such that they could not keep her in the bath of mustard and water.

The next to die was Ernest McKnight, Mrs. McKnight’s husband. In November, 1898, he went out to his farm, about three miles from Grayling, taking with him a lunch that his wife had made up. He unhitched his horses, but did not unharness them. After working for some hours he sat down arid ate his lunch and immediately afterward he was taken with griping pains. He suffered untold agony and for a day or two his body sometimes bending backward like a bow, his limbs twitching convulsively and his throat partially paralyzed.

~ Probably a Second Dose. ~

On Monday night he had recovered sufficiently to sit up in bed and smoke as he talked with his neighbors about his strange experience and they left shortly before midnight, expecting to see him out the next morning. In the morning he was dead. Still Dr. Leighton did not suspect anything, although the symptoms worried him considerably. It is his opinion now that strychnine was administered and that McKnight had been given a second dose on the Monday night. Three years ago Mrs. McKnight got word that a friend, Mrs. Schnesburger, was ill, being worn out with nursing; she went to Saginaw to help out and nurse the old woman, and the latter died in a few days, Mrs. Curry, Mrs. Schnseburger’s daughter, Mrs. McKnight, went out for a drive together. But two days later she was dead, too.

Mrs. McKnight then returned to Grayling and went to visit Mrs. Jenson. Mrs. Jenson was taken seriously ill and had to go to a hospital, leaving her house in charge of Mrs. McKnight. On Good Friday Dorothy, the little daughter of Mrs. Jenson was playing about the house with other children.

Mrs. McKnight told the woman in the house next door that Dorothy had exhausted herself with the skipping rope and was seriously ill. A doctor was called, but the girl was dead before he arrived, She, too, had the same convulsive twitchings and the same foaming at the mouth.

[“Woman Admits Three Murders, Suspected of 8. – Mrs. Mary McKnight Poisoned Her Brother, His Wife and His Child, and Has Confessed.” The World (New York, N.Y.), Jun. 11, 1903, p. 1]


“Serial killer Mary McKnight, who between 1887 and 1903 murdered between 12 and 18 people with strychnine poisoning, including her whole family, just because she liked to go to funerals. Her crime spree stretched from Alpena to Saginaw.” [Ellen Creager, “’Blood on the Mitten’ recalls Michigan true crime tales,” Detroit Free Press (Mi.), Sep. 17, 2016]


Mary McKnight's Victims: 11; period of 15 years (1887-1902)

John Murphy, brother
Gertrude Murphy, sister-in-law, wife of John
Ernest McKnight, daughter, 3 months.
James Ambrose, husband #?
husband # 1, who died at Alpena in 1887.
Mrs. McKnight, the wife of James E. McKnight, who was a partner of Ambrose.
Baby Toople, Mrs. McKnight's niece.
Eliza Chalker, niece, who died at Grayling in May, 1892.
Sarah Murphy, sister, died at Graying in Feb. 1893.
Mrs. Curry, who died in Saginaw in 1893.
Dorothy Jensen, a child, who died in Grayling

Method: strychnine capsules

Disposition: Found guilty Dec. 11, 1903, sentenced to life


The McKnight case in context:

FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): Detroit, Mich. Dec. 9. – Modern prototypes of Lucretia Borgia are held responsible for eight deaths from poisoning which have occurred in Michigan within the past few days. One woman is charged with the murder of a hired man, while a third has confused to poisoning her husband.

Two other cases of poisoning, in both of which women are implicated, are still under investigation.

The known places are:

Mrs. Mary McKnight of Kalkaska, charged with poisoner her brother, his wife and their child.

Mrs. Caroline Collins of Owosso, charged with poisoning a hired man. [Note: She was suspected of three other murders as well.]

Mrs. Katie Ludwick of Bronson, guilty of murdering her husband, according to her own confession.

Mrs. Emma Stewart of Big Rapids, suspected of being responsible for the death of her husband, who died of strychnine poisoning.

~ Wife Admits Giving Poison. ~

At Coldwater, Mrs. Katie Ludwick, whose husband died three weeks after their marriage in Bronson township, was arrested last night and brought to the county jail this morning, charged with murder. This afternoon, in the presence of the Rev. Father Hewitt and jail officials she acknowledged her guilt.

John Ludwick of Bronson township was married about three weeks ago to Katie Bistry, aged 18. Both are Polish. She had seen him only four times previous to their marriage. Katie seemed reluctant, but her parents urged the marriage. After their marriage Mrs. Ludwick bought arsenic twice at Bronson, stating they were bothered with rats.

Last Thursday, she says, she administered the poison and her husband died. Arrangements had been made for the [missing phrase in original] and the wife attended a wedding while the remains lay neglected in the house.

~ Autopsy Reveals Strychnine. ~

George Stewart, a farmer, living five miles east of Big Rapids, age about 40 was taken suddenly ill and died in convulsions before a doctor could reach him. Arrangements had been made for the funeral, when it was determined to hold an investigation, it having been learned that Stewart’s wife recently purchased some strychnine in the dead man’s stomach. Stewart and his wife had been married sixteen years and had no children.

[“Wives Use Poison – Murder Craze in Michigan For Past Two Weeks. – Eight Deaths are Laid to Women – 18-Year-Old Bride Admits Slaying Her Young Husband.” The Topeka Daily Capital (Ka.), Dec. 10, 1903, p. 1]


SOURCE for portrait of Mary McKnight: The Semi-Weekly Cedar Falls Gazette (Io.), Jun. 22, 1903, p. 7]







For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


Links to more cases: Female Serial Killers Who Like to Murder Women