When one considers the bizarre outcome, this case is one of the most remarkable cases of a probable female serial killer.
FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 4): Jessie Higbee, a neatly dressed and prepossessing young country woman, was placed in jail last evening. Against her name on the slate was written the common-place charge of lunacy, but behind that is the accusation of a crime so horrible as to he almost incredible.
The unnatural mother is accused of poisoning four of her children was arsenic. One at a tune they died from the same fearful drug, but not until the last little life had been taken was suspicion aroused.
She next made a futile attempt on her own life with the same poison. Since then she has attempted to kill her husband. She is undoubtedly a mad woman, however, and this fact is the only thing that relieves the horror of her awful deeds.
Until the past three months there were no signs of mental failing on the part of the mother, and until an examination of the bodies, which took place here yesterday, she was thought to be perfectly sane, her strange actions in the past having been attributed to grief over the first child’s death.
The unfortunate woman is a native of this city, hut since her marriage had been living on a plantation in Meade county. Her husband is well known and is one of the most prominent farmers in that section. No definite cause has been assigned for the strange and unnatural crimes. Until the death of the first child she was remarkable for her devotion and care of her little ones.
The first murder was committed on the evening of October 14, and the others followed at intervals of two weeks. During the illness of each child the mother showed a stolid indifference which her friends and physician construed as grief. Each murder was carefully planned and summarily executed. Though every child was attacked with the same symptoms and died with the same cramps which accompany arsenic poisoning, the suspicion of no one was aroused until after the death of the fourth child, when the mother attempted her own life.
The woman is twenty-three years of age, and was the mother of five children, the oldest of which was eight years of age. It was only for the sake of the fifth child, and in order to save its life from the inhuman mother, that the husband told his suspicions and suggested a post mortem examination of the children. It was then for the first time learned that they were the victims of their mother’s work, and that while pretending to nurse them delicacies before sending them to bed, she was in reality arranging for their death.
On the night of October 14, Mr. Higbee was awakened by the shrieks of the youngest child, not quite a year old. A physician was procured, and every effort made to relieve its suffering. The attempt was useless, however, and after thirty hours’ illness the first victim died. Its death was attributed by the physician who saw it when dying, to cerebral trouble. On October 2, another child, two years old, died after thirty hours’ illness. In this case, as in the former, the symptoms were confined to the nervous system, without much nausea and with no intestinal irritation.
The cause of this death was pronounced as cerebro-spinal meningitis.
On November 13 the third child died. This victim was two years older than the second, and was arrested in very much the same way. Owing to the extreme thirst, the vomiting and purging which attended this death, the physicians were thrown off their guard, and it was also attributed to cerebro-spinal meningitis.
During the illness, sufferings and deaths of each of these victims, Mrs. Higbee moved about the sick rooms, fulfilling the physicians’ instructions and administering the medicines at the right time without showing any signs of grief, or betraying herself as the author of their deaths. Her manner more than anything else threw the husband and physicians off their guard, and quieted any suspicion which may have been aroused.
After the death of the third child her actions were strange, but this was attributed to her suppressed grief. She seldom spoke, and moved about the house with a rat-like stillness.
On December 8, the day before the oldest child and the last victim was taken ill, Mrs. Higbee expressed herself as very anxious about the child’s health, and asked her husband if he thought the patient looked well. He replied that he thought she was looking unusually well, and prayed she would not suffer the fate of the other children. At this the mother replied that no one could tell when they were going to die, and that she had a presentiment that they all would be dead inside of two weeks. The next morning before Hallie, the oldest child, started to school, Mrs. Higbee told her not to bother about her lunch for school, as she would arrange it herself. While the rest of the family were out of the room she buttered several biscuits, and when the child came in, had them wrapped up in a napkin. The mother kissed the child good-bye, and told her to come home a soon as school was over. During the morning, while the child was absent Mrs. Higbee called her husband, and again began asking about the absent child’s health. He attempted to reassure her, but she was not to be comforted, and several times was heard to say to him that she was certain the child would die as the others had.
The first intimation which Mr. Higbee had that his wife was murdering his children was the fact that is was scarcely an hour after she had ceased talking about the child at school when the little one returned, suffering from cramps, as the other victims had been attacked. In two hours she relapsed into unconsciousness, and remained so until death. The husband then told his fears to the attending physician, and requested him to make a post-mortem examination. This, however, was so bitterly opposed by the mother that the matter was dropped. She became indignant when she learned what was intended, and threatened to kill any one who would attempt it.
“I will be dead very soon myself,” she said to her husband, “and they cut me up if they choose, but no one shall cut my children.”
Her grief was, apparently, so real that husband’s suspicions were, for a time, allayed.
Two days after Mrs. Higbee was found in a spasmodic condition and suffering from pains similar to those which her children had had. Dr. Pusey, who was present at the time, diagnosed her case and discovered that she was suffering from the same poisonous effects which the children had done. He then felt assured that after attempting the life of her husband and killing four of her children, she was making an effort to take her own life.
Mr. Higbee, after a time remembered that three months previous he had bought a box of “rough on rats,” but had not seen it since he had brought it home. He remembered having asked his wife if she had seen it, and she said that she had taken it from the dining-room, where he had left it, and put it in his tool chest, it could not be found there, and the point was not pressed.
Dr. Pusey, of this city, who was well acquainted with the family was called for consultation. Mrs. Higbee and the remaining child were sent with Mrs. Higbee’s mother to this city, where they have been since. Dr. Pusey, Dr. Greenby, of West Point, Dr. J. C. Lewis, of Tiptop, and several other physicians then made a post mortem examination of the two last children who had died. Their stomachs were found to be congested, but presented no points of ulceration. The unusual engagement of the brain and the spinal chord would have left the physicians in doubt but for the analysis which was completed in this city yesterday by Prof. James Lewis Howe. This analysis showed that a very large quantity of arsenic was in the tissues, and in every part of the body which was analyzed.
When the husband was informed that his suspicions were corroboration his grief was pitiable. He then told that he and his wife had not live happily together for the past six months, and feared that her death was the outcome of her unhappiness. Dr. Pusey, who is regarded as an expert on the subject of insanity, had a careful review of the case and examined the condition of the mother. He pronounced it an unmistakable case of puerperal insanity, brought out by too rigid child breeding and continuous nursing. Her mental condition was aggravated by loneliness and remorse. From the first she showed an insane jealousy of her husband and upbraided him for faithlessness. Nothing he could say had the slightest effect upon her, and she stood firm in the belief that he wished to get a divorce.
Mr. Higbee left last evening for his home in Meade county in order not to be present at his wife’s arrest, which was decided upon as soon as it was conclusively proven that she was the cause of her children’s death.
When taken into custody, Mrs Higbee showed the same indifference which had characterized her actions from first to last. She walked into her cell composed, and quiet. When asked the names of her three youngest children, she said she has forgotten them and preferred not to speak of them.
The only remaining child is a girl six years of age, with light hair and blue eyes. She cried bitterly and clung to her mother when the latter was placed in the patrol wagon and driven to jail. Dr. Pusey says that in all his experience he had never come across a case so paradoxical and baffling. There is no doubt about her being insane, but if would be a difficult thing for any one who is not a specialist to imagine her so. I have never seen a similar case, or a more horrible or pathetic one.”
[“Poisoned. - Horrible and Almost Incredible Story of Insanity and Death. - Four Children of Mrs. Jesse Higbee Killed By Their Insane Mother - Destroying Her Little Ones She Attempts to Kill Herself and Husband. - The Crime Committed With Such Cunning At to Baffle Unsuspecting Physicians. - The Murderess In Jail.” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky.), Dec. 19, 1890, p. 7]
FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Louisville. Jan. 1. – The inquest in the case of the death of the four children of Jesse Higbee, at Muldraugh, near this city was concluded Tuesday [Dec. 30, 1890]. The verdict is that the mother, Mrs. Julia Higbee, poisoned the children and is insane. Alfred Higbee, a relative, testified that he believed the mother poisoned the children; he did not believe her insane, and he thought she intended to kill the rest of the family.
[“An Insane Murderess.” The Evening Bulletin (Maysville, Ky.), Jan. 1, 1891, p. 4]
FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Higbee did not go to Meade county after Mrs. Higbee’s dismissal in the Circuit Court last Monday, but they say they will make their home in Louisville. They are living with Mr. Higbee’s mother, at Seventh and Oak streets, and Mr. Higbee will go into some kind of business here. He still maintains his wife's innocence of the charges against her, and declares that she is any thing but an insane woman.
[“The Higbees Still Here.” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky.), Jan. 7, 1891, p. 6]
FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4): Mrs. Higbee, the Meade county woman who poisoned her five children, has been declared insane and taken to the anchorage asylum.
[Untitled, Semi-Weekly Interior Journal (Stanford, Ky.), Jan. 27, 1891, p. 2]
[Source of portrait used in article header: “Of Minds Diseased,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Ut.), Feb. 10, 1891, p. 7]
Dec. 7?, 1890 – Mr. Higbee notifies attending doctor of his suspicions
Dec. 18, 1890 – Julia Higbee arrested; charged with “lunacy.”
Dec. 28, 1891 – inquest at Muldraugh reported as “continuing”
Dec. 30, 1890 – inquest at Muldraugh in the case of the death of the four children concludes Dec. 30. The verdict is that the mother, Mrs. Julia Higbee, poisoned the children and is insane.
Feb. 16, 1891 – Meade Circuit Court hearing.
Jan. 5 – hearing in Louisville before Judge Jackson.
Jan. 6 – Judge Jackson orders Mrs. Higbee’s release; rejects lunacy charge; judge notes need to face possible charged in Meade county
Jan. 22, 1891 – Meade county jury concludes with a verdict of “insanity.”
Jan. 27, 1891 – Mrs. Higbee sent to Anchorage Asylum. (reported on Jan. 27)
Feb. 16, 1891 – Meade County grand jury hearing.
[Note: Louisville is in Jefferson county; the Higbee plantation was in Meade county.]
Oct. 14 – Jessie Higbee, son, 1-year-old.
Oct. 2 – Maud Higbee, daughter, 2-years-old.
Nov. 13 – Eillie Higbee, daughter, 4-years-old.
Dec. 7 – Hallie Higbee, daughter.
For more cases of this category, see: Female Serial Killers of 19th Century America (as of January 20, 2014, the collection contains 61 cases)***