Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nancy Hufford: Suspected, but Acquitted, Maryland Black Widow Serial Killer - 1852

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 2): Nancy Hufford, who was recently acquitted of the charge of poisoning a Mrs. [Rebecca] Eagle, at Cumberland, is now suspected of poisoning her three husbands [John Yeast, John Layman, Philip Hufford], each of whom died very suddenly. The body of her last husband, who died three years ago, in Somerset County, has been disinterred, and found to contain poison.

[“Arrest of a Poisoner.” The New York Times (N.Y.), Mar. 26, 1852, page number unknown]


EXCERPT (Article 2 of 2): The next case of the kind was that of the noted Nancy Hufford, of what is now Garrett county. She was indicted at the October term of the Circuit Court for Allegany Co., 1851, for the murder of Mrs. Samuel Engle by administering poison to her at the birth of her first child, which caused her death in about a week after the birth of the child. Mrs. Hufford being the nurse of Mrs. Engle in her sickness in which there was nothing unusual in the beginning, but suddenly she became alarmingly ill and died. Suspicions at once arose in and out of the Engle mansion that there had been foul play. The physician, Dr. J. H. Patterson was of that belief, and before the burial of the victim, he made a post mortem examination of her but could not make any discovery of the poison believed to have been administered to her.

She was buried in due time, but the belief and excitement spread over the whole neighborhood which led to the disinterment of the woman and a second post mortem examination was made by Drs. Patterson, Hermann and J. H. Bruce, who had just commenced the practice. The stomach was taken from the deceased and intrusted to Dr. Termann to be sent to Prof. Aikin, of Baltimore, for examination. The suspect, Nancy Hufford, was promptly arrested and committed to the Allegany county jail in September, ‘57.” [note: should read 1851]. Her trial was had about the first of the following November before Judge Wiesel. James M. Schley state’s attorney, and the great Frank Thomas were prosecutors. She was ably defended by T. I. McKaig and George A. Pearre. The jury were as follows: Domnick Mattingly, Sol Vroman, Wm. Anderson, Aza Beall of Thomas, Adam Gower, Amon Wilson, John Long, Alpheus W. Beall, Jacob W. Rawlings, Thos. D. Dawson, George P. Mong and Joseph Hughes.

All these jurors have been dead many years. John Long was the only home juror. The were 38 [note: it looks like 38 but hard to make out] witnesses in this notorious case, for and against; nine living according to best knowledge and information. Five doctors, J. H. Patterson, H. Hermann, J. J. Bruce, S. P. Smith, T. A. Healy, all deceased for many years. Dr. Bruce, the youngest of five, left us in 1884, a great loss. But there remains one who will remembers [sic] this tragedy and even witnessed some of it.

The evidence on the part of the State was circumstantial. The main fact was that the accused had purchased about the time a lot of arsenic from a store in Grantsville with the remark she wanted to make salve for her sore leg, but there was no sore leg. There was no further tracing of the poison up to the time of this trial. Prof. Aiken testified that he found no arsenic in the stomach he examined. The woman was acquitted on the evidence adduced. But after the trial was over and Nancy Hufford a free woman, the remainder of the deadly poison was found in a corner of a bureau drawer in the house of Mr. Engle. Who can say the verdict would have been the same if the remaining poison had been produced at the trial? She was acquitted according to the rules of law; but there was hardly one in the whole neighborhood believed her to be innocent. Her history was an unsavory one in a general way. She was married 4 or 5 times, certainly the former number.

Her first husband was John Yeast, a strong, healthy man, died unexpectedly if not mysteriously in 1834. Some slight suspicions then of an unnatural death. In a short time she was again married; this time to John Layman, a very respectable man and a prominent one, died in 1845, a natural death from cancer. Her next marriage was with Philip Hufford, of Somerset Co., Pa. In a few years she was again a widow - this husband died suddenly, it was said, after eating pumpkin pie. Suspicions arose but no investigations or legal proceedings. She at once returned to her old neighborhood and was soon on the hunt of another husband. She had a choice but failed to get the one she wanted. This was only a short time before her trial. She persevered and in the course of a few years she found another husband in the person of Holmes Wiley, a well known citizen of Garrett county, but she did not live to see his death. They both died natural deaths many years ago.

There was this strange thing about this noted woman. She always wanted a man or husband, yet she never bore a child in her long checkered life. She is remembered by only a few and cared for by none, it may be said. Dr. Patterson, mentioned, was a prominent physician of the old county twice elected to our Legislature. He took the sad death of his patient Mrs. Engle, very sorrowfully. He died three months later. Will state the writer saw the first post mortem examination at the request of Dr. Patterson. It was not a desirable spectacle. Two cases in our court in the same year involving wife murder. – J.B. November 4, 1907.

[“A Weird Story About A Woman - Tried for Poisoning Lady With Whom She Lived,” Cumberland Evening Time (Md.), Nov. 4 1907 page number unknown; online source; this source contains some typos and spells the name as “Hufferd,” which has been changed here, along with some spelling typos]


A very long 1851 newspaper article on the trial for the poisoning of Mrs. Rebecca Engle can be found online at

[“Trial Of Nancy Hufford For The Murder Of Mrs. Rebecca Engle,” The Cumberland Alleganian (Md.), Nov. 10, 1851]


Suspected victims:

Mrs. Rebecca Engle
John Yeast, husband #1
John Layman, husband #2, died 1845
Philip Hufford, husband #3, died 1849



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)


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