Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nancy Farrer, Ohio Serial Killer - 1851

This was a very famous case in the 19th century which established a major precedent in the insanity defense. It was the first important case to be tried by the future President of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes.


Facts (from various sources):
Jul. 1832 –  Nancy Farrer was born in Fannington, Lancashire, England.
1842 – Farrer family moved to America.
Jul. 1851 – Farrer goes to live with Green family.
Aug. 6, 1851 – Mrs. Green first poisoned.
Mid-Sep. 1851 – Annie Green dies, child.
Oct. 3, 1851 – Mrs. Green dies.
Nov. 1 (circa) – Mrs. Forest dies.
Nov. 20, 1851 – John Edward Forest (2 years and  8 months old), dies.
Nov. (after 20th) – Elisha Forest, poisoned, recovers.
Nov. (after 20th) – Billy Forest, poisoned, recovers.
Dec. 1, 1851 – James Wesley Forest, dies, child.
Feb. 18, 1852 – murder trial for death of J. W. Forest begins.
Mar. (early days of mo.), 1852 – convicted, sentenced.
Jun. 25,  1852 – Date of planned execution (later resentenced).
Dec. 1853 – Appeal Supreme Court of Ohio. Nancy Farrer v. State of Ohio.

(The spelling “Forest” seems to be correct; some sources use “Forrest.”)


An account of the case dating from 1867:


The dark deeds of this woman are so inexplicable that it is almost impossible to give an intelligible account of her mysterious workings.

Nancy Farrer was a domestic, who had lived in the families of quite a number of our citizens in the eastern part of the city, and from the universally good deportment she exhibited, always became a great favorite. In November, 1851, she was working for a family named Forrest, and on the last day of the month, the family were all taken sick, vomiting and in great bodily pain. Competent physicians were sent for, who after a careful examination, pronounced it a case of poisoning by arsenic, and gave the proper remedies as a means of relief; but the boy James Wesley Forrest, died on the 1st day of December, suffering more than any pen can portray. Of course the great question was, who could be so steeped in sin, as to commit such a deed. No one was suspected, as the family were not aware of having an enemy in the world. But the old adage, “murder will out,” held good in this case, and the whole transaction leaked out as it were by accident, and the unerring finger of fate pointed to the murderer. A lady in whose family Nancy had formerly lived as a domestic, was acquainted with Mrs. Forrest, and was there to visit the sick persons in their distress, when she remember that her family had been similarly attacked, and that she had lost her sweet little daughter Annie; this remark brought on a general discussion, and it was soon discovered that wherever Nancy had worked there had been similar cases. In two places the wives had been the victims, and in every other some of the children.

Of course this raised a general suspicion against her. But the question was what object could the woman have, for such a wholesale slaughter?

The police were sent for with the request that they make a careful investigation of the whole affair, which they did, and the proof against the servant girl soon heaped up mountain high, and she was arrested, and after a preliminary examination before Mayor H. E. Spencer, whose court was then a substitute for the police court, she was remanded to jail to await her trial for murder.

The appearance of the woman excited a general interest, more especially as it was known that her lawyers intended to rest their case mainly on the ground that she was insane. She was a thick-set, stout built woman of Irish origin, but the most remarkable point was the distance between her eyebrows, across the bridge of her nose, it being about four times as great as in any ordinary person. It is true, it gave her a very singular look, and many considered it a positive proof that she was demented. The faculties of our colleges were called in, and they all said that this feature did not necessarily interfere with her reason, that it was a most singular appearance, hut that they would consider her of sound mind.

When the day of trial came the court house was densely packed with both sexes, all anxious to see this monster — the greatest in her line, of modern times. Nancy was brought into court, and appeared as composed, as though she were only pursuing the common avocations of life, being apparently the least interested of any person there. How much of this was put on for the occasion we leave the reader to judge. Several times when witnesses were testifying, she would look up and smile, such a smile that showed she was dead to every instinct of the better kind.

The jury was composed of as good men as our country affords, and they during the trying ordeal of many days duration, never allowed a word of the evidence to escape them. From the very first the interest increased rather than diminished. At last the evidence was finished, and the attorneys, both for the state and the defense, appealed in most eloquent terms to the jury. The judge gave his charge, and the jury retired; after a deliberation of about an hour they returned with a verdict of murder in the first degree.

The writer was present when the verdict was announced, and carefully scrutinized the countenance of the prisoner, and the deep anguish there exhibited, was the clearest proof that she was as sane as the ordinary run of people. She appeared to a certain extent to awaken to the dreadful situation in which she was placed.

In a few days she was brought out to receive her sentence, which was that, "She be taken from here to the county jail, and there confined until the fifth day of June, eighteen hundred and fifty-three, when she be taken from there by the sheriff, to the proper place of execution, and that she be hung by the neck until dead." But in this case, as in many others, the hangman was destined to be cheated out of his own. Long petitions were circulated praying the Governor to commute the sentence to imprisonment for life; her lawyers tried by every hook and crook, known only to that corps, to have the higher courts grant a new trial.

The day was close at hand when the execution was to have taken place, when the Governor sent down his order, changing the sentence to imprisonment for life, and Nancy Farrer was taken to Columbus to remain as long as she lives, and she is now there engaged in serving, and appears to be perfectly satisfied with her situation. The keepers all assert that they have yet to see the first signs of insanity, and that she talks as rationally on any subject, as any other person, and that she is one of the best hands there. It is probable that her designs for perpetrating her wholesale murders, will ever remain locked up in her own bosom, and that she will carry to the grave the secrets of her mysterious doings.

Many theories have been advanced as to the motives which actuated her to slaughter so many persons, from whom she had ever received the kindest treatment The most probable is this — that the human mind may from any untoward circumstance become morbid, and finally result in a state of semi insanity, which ends in a willingness to carry out any hobby which may be paramount The error in the case in question is this: if she was really guilty in her sane mind of the charges preferred against her, she should have been executed. If she was crazy and was not an accountable being, she ought to have been sent to the lunatic asylum, where the kind and skillful treatment she would have received from Dr. Langdon, would have restored her to reason, if any thing would, and he could soon have discovered whether she was sane or insane.

Take it all in all we have never had another case in the records of our criminal history which presented so many unaccountable points — the whole thing from the beginning to the end is an unfathomable mystery.

[De Beck, William L. (“An Old Citizen”), Murder Will Out. The First Step In Crime Leads To The Gallows. The Horrors Of The Queen City. Cincinnati, 1867, Farrer case, pp. 36-39]



EXCERPT: Since the above was written Nancy Farrer has been under the care and daily observation of the writer for eight months. During that time she has been remarkable for cheerfulness, amiability, neatness and industry. She has proved herself cleanly in her person and habits; attentive to all her duties; faithful to every trust reposed in her; respectful to those under whose charge she has been placed; sympathising in her feelings toward her unfortunate associates; obliging and kind, yet firm and resolute to those she has been required to watch over. Blended with these traits in her character, appear to be those of sincerity, candor, frankness and truth. She is grateful for kindness toward her; sensitive, with judgment to control her emotions; affectionate, without that familiarity and obtusiveness that often characterize a weak mind. How, or in what manner, a life in society under other circumstances and other influences would affect these traits in her character, can only be a matter of conjecture. She has evidently desired the respect of those around her and designedly studied to deserve it.

During the eight months she has been under the writer’s observation, the closest scrutiny has been unable to detect the least evidence of mental weakness—of intellectual or moral impairment. So far from being simple or imbecile, she has displayed an intelligence above the mediocrity of uneducated girls. Her mind has certainly been sound during that period; and yet it is difficult to reconcile the poisoning of so many innocent and harmless persons, with her amiable, kind hearted and affectionate disposition, without supposing the presence, at the time, of an irrational motive, or insane impulse. That she now has a full knowledge of the heniousness of murder, and a proper consciousness of the punishment due it both in this life and the next, with the intellectual power of controlling all her actions, the writer cannot entertain a doubt.

[J. J. Quinn, M. D., “Homicidal Insanity.—The Case of Nancy Farrer.” in T. Wood, M. D., ed., Western Lancet: A Monthly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery, Volume 16, No. 11.] Cincinnati, Nov. 1855; pp. 641-669]


Excerpts from a long article written by the Superintendent of the Hamilton County Lunatic Asylum, where Nancy Ferrer was sent after her conviction.

EXCERPT: Nancy was indicted for the murder of James Wesley Forest, the last of the victims, brought to trial before the Court of Common Pleas for Hamilton County, on the 18th February, 1852, where the above facts were given in testimony. The examination and arguments occupied nine days, and the jury having deliberated sixty-three hours, returned a verdict of “guilty.” A motion for a new trial was overruled, and the prisoner sentenced to be executed on the 25th day of June, 1852. The case was taken up on error to the Supreme Court of Ohio, the verdict set aside, and a new trial granted. [p. 323]

Nancy Farrer was born in Fannington, Lancashire, England, in July, 1832. About the 10th year of her age, her father, with another child, a son younger than Nancy, emigrated to America. She and her mother followed two years later. Her mother had been Mormon for six or seven years previous to leaving England. Nancy is said also to have given in her adherence to Mormonism before she left her native land. Her father joined the same faith after his arrival in Cincinnati. The family appears to have subsequently resided in Nauvoo two years, no doubt observing the practices and ceremonies of the religion which they had adopted. [p. 324]

Two or three days after the death of the child, a gentleman remarked to her that she had “very good luck “ in losing people on whom she waited. She said yes, — that she had lost six persons. On enumeration, however, the number proved to be only five — the four referred to above, and the child of another person. To a question as to what had been the matter with Mrs. Forest and her child, she replied that the doctor had stated, but she had forgotten. She added, “In a week or two Jimmy will die.” Being interrogated what was the matter with him, she said she did not know, “only he would not eat.” Jimmy was the child who had wanted the former servant girl to taste the molasses syrup, and with the murder of whom she was subsequently charged. He was at this time in his usual health, running about and playing with other children. During this conversation, there was no excitement or emotion observed in her conduct. Her manner was that of relating an ordinary fact. [p. 319]

[J. J. Quinn, M. D. (Superintendent of the Hamilton County Lunatic Asylum, Cincinnati, Ohio), “Homicidal Insanity. — The- Case Of Nancy Farrer.” April 1856, 315-334]


Her Death:

An inquest of lunacy found Nancy Farrer of unsound mind, and she was sent to an asylum, where she died a few years after.

[William D. Howells, Sketch of the Life and Character of Rutherford B. Hayes, Hurd and Houghton, Boston, 1876, p. 41]



Source of portrait illustration: [J. J. Quinn, M. D., “Homicidal Insanity.—The Case of Nancy Farrer.” in T. Wood, M. D., ed., Western Lancet: A Monthly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery, Volume 16, No. 11.] Cincinnati, Nov. 1855; pp. 641-669; illustration, p. 657]


For more cases of this category, see: Female Serial Killers of 19th Century America (as of April 2, 2014, the collection contains 65 cases)


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