Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lulu Johnson Accused of Murdering 6 Husbands - 1899

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): Lucretia Borgia! Mrs. Lulu Johnson is just now being tried in the Oklahoma territory, America, for systematically poisoning her husbands. Of these she had six, and all are suspected of having met their end by means of arsenic, administered by their wife. Mrs. Johnson was born in Illinois, and as a girl was remarkable for net strength of will. At sixteen she eloped with a farmer named Kent, and at seventeen, being free again, married a railway fettler named Green. Three years later, the fettler not having iron enough in his constitution to stand poison, went out suddenly, and his blushing widow espoused a soldier named Homsher, who managed to survive the shock for just twelve years. Then came Mr. Frank Smith, who saw and conquered, but was eventually himself vanquished and sent to interview his predecessors in the churchyard. Mrs. Johnson’s sixth husband was Mr. Ketchum, a wealthy man in one of the capitals, and he lasted just long enough to settle up things and leave her a fortune. Then, tiring of matrimony, the lady became a kind of free lance, eventually going off with a strolling player in his gilded caravan. This last was her one fatal step, as the player, having a wife living, the latter turned up at one of the performances and openly accused Mrs. Johnson of having murdered her former husbands, partly out of deliberate sin and sometimes for gain. The accusation being made in public, someone got the authorities to exhume a few of the deceased husbands, and to have their remains examined. As arsenic was found in every one of them Mrs. Johnson was arrested, and is now being tried for murder.

[“She Poisoned Six Husbands.” Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW, Australia), May 30, 1899, p. 4]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 3): Enid., O. T., March 23. – The jury tonight brought In a sealed verdict, which is believed to be for acquittal. In the case of the Territory of Oklahoma against Mrs. Lulu Johnson, charged with poisoning her alleged husband, William N. Shirley, in December, 1894, taken on a change of venue to Enid and which has been In progress before Judge John L. McAtee here during the past week. The territory was represented by Samuel Ridings, county attorney, and Judge Mackey of Pond Creek, and the defense by O. G. Eckstein of Wichita and W. H. C. Taylor of Pond Creek.

Mrs. Johnson having been acquitted the murder of her last husband, J. W. Johnson, alleged to be her eighth husband, the present charge of murdering her alleged seventh husband has given the case a wide reputation, and is the leading murder case in the annals of Oklahoma Territory, to date.

The prosecution were well prepared, having as an expert chemist Professor Bartow of the University of Kansas, who is regarded as one of the most eminent chemists west of the Missouri river, and who has testified as such in the leading poisoning cases in the west.

The questions involved in the case were of a very scientific nature, treating of different poisons and their effects upon the human system. The prosecution claiming that the deceased died of arsenic administered by the defendant, the body having been exhumed four years after death, opened up a wide field of scientific investigation; the defense claiming that the deceased was a morphine fiend, and that death may have resulted from other causes than arsenic, though two and a half grains was found in his body. The cross examination of the experts covered a wide range, and was enough to mystify a professional man, let alone a jury.

The prosecution proved that the deceased and the defendant lived together as husband and wife, and that they had frequently quarreled and that she had often threatened to take his life and had sent away for poison. Other than this the testimony was purely circumstantial.

The defense claimed by numerous witnesses that deceased was addicted to the morphine habit, and that he was in a dying condition from the result of the same and would have died whether arsenic was administered to him or not.

A better prepared case was never tried in the territory, and Judge McAtee, who presided, sustained this well earned reputation in his rulings when the difficult problems presented.

The case went to the jury yesterday. The summing up by the attorneys on both sides showed great research and study, the speeches of the attorneys for the defense causing many a tear to flow in the densely packed court room, and closing with a peroration describing the pathetic death-bed scene and the gray-haired defendant smoothing the pillow of the dying man.

[“In the Case of Mrs. Lulu Johnson, Tried at Enid - For Husband-Poisoning - It Is Believed That She Has Been Acquitted.” The Wichita Daily Eagle (Ka.), Mar. 26, 1899, p. 2]


FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): Mrs. Lulu Johnson is being tried in the United States district court of Enid, O. T., for the murder of her sixth husband, I. R. Johnson, and is accused of poisoning many of his predecessors.the case in progress is one of the most sensational and important poisoning cases ever tried in the United States, and the history of the accused woman is so strange and weird that it will forever remain illustrative of one of Lombroso’s leading criminal types.

No one casually looking at Mrs. Lulu Johnson as she sat in the court room being tried for her life, would have noticed anything remarkable in her appearance. She is well preserved for a woman of 63, not too small, nor too thin and pale, dressed in deep black, with very conspicuous widow’s weeds. A second and closer examination, however, would fix the attention, and even a stranger would look, and look again, and the face he gazed upon would return and live like a haunting shadow of some dark memory.

A deadly pallor overspreads the woman’s features. The high cheek bones, the prominent, elongated and sharpened nose; the very firm but somewhat retreating chin; the small, half closed light gray eyes, set far apart, with the lids drawn straight across them; the forehead seeming to fall back from the eyebrows in a rapid retreat until stopped by the iron gray hair, which has pushed its way down over the forehead as if trying to conceal some of the disagreeable secrets of time, all blend into a remarkable picture and form an easily read title page to a life filled with strange and seeming unreal events which, in the light of her arrest and of recent disclosures, charge the mind with suspicions of the most grewsome character.

Lulu Murphy was born in southern Illinois, and as a girl developed a remarkable character, leading by her strength of will, in all focal events and entirely disregarding the conventionalities. A sixteen she eloped with a young farmer named William Kent, from whom she separated in a few months.

Her parents, proud and respectable people, smarting under the disgrace of this escapade, removed to Ogden, Utah, hoping thus to be forgotten, and that Lulu, who seemed deeply repentant, would become a good and virtuous woman. In less than a year, however, at the age of 17, she married Flavius Green, a railroad man. She lived with him three years, and two children were born. Green died very suddenly and, it is said, suspiciously, in 1854.

Less than three months afterward she met and married Leonard Davis Homsher, supposed to have been a private in the Tenth cavalry, United States regular army. After the rapid experiences through which she had passed she seemed to have settled down at this period, and apparently enjoyed military life. She lived with Homsher fifteen years, following the movements of the regiment, during which time nine children were born, in addition to the two by her former husband.

Homsher died in 1869, and she went to Colorado Springs, living an adventurous life in that then wild and lawless country.

While Mrs. Homsher was sitting in her cabin one evening early in 1870, a man giving the name of Frank Smith came to the door and asked for work, saying he was hungry. She told him she had no work, but asked him in to supper. While eating he suggested that she seemed to be alone and in need of a protector, and offered to marry her. Such a courtship was apparently agreeable to the untamed nature of the woman, for they were married that very night, and lived together four years, after which he disappeared, leaving a little girl 2 years old as a remembrance.

After this she drifted to St. Joseph, Mo., then to Atchison, Kan., where she married Elisha Ketchum, reported to be very wealthy, and became mistress of the Ketchum home. Ketchum died of measles soon after, and suspicions were aroused that all was not right, as no doctor had been called in and no one but his wife had waited upon him, but no investigation was made.

In less than a year from this occurence this much married woman is found again changing her name, this time leaping the chasm of matrimony with D. M. Wrightman. Mr. and Mrs. Wrightman lived in different cities along the banks of the Big Muddy for six years, when Wrightman secured a divorce, and, it is said, married a widow at Potten, Kan., where he now lives.

Perhaps feeling that after the exciting changes and experiences of her remarkable career a rural life had its charms, she purchased a little farm near Barnes, Kan., and stocked it with poultry, pigs and cows, and hired a man whom the neighbors recommended as an expert at such things. But the quiet monotony of “jest doin’ nothin’ but raisin’ things” soon palled upon her more aspiring appetite, and, selling the farm, she returned to Atchison and became landlady of the St. James hotel.

Her she met a strolling peddler named George Shirley, who was apparently very congenial, for, abandoning the hotel business, she started on a tour of Kansas with this man, passing for his sister. At this time it was presumed Mrs. Wrightman had made up her mind that such little preliminaries as the marriage ceremony were mere trifles entirely unnecessary to that true happiness which she sought and was sighing for. Then, too, Mr. Shirley had a wife back in Indiana, who, although very poor and a wee bit of a thing, might have become a mighty barrier to domestic felicity in case she had called to her aid the law.

Be this as it may, Mrs. Wrightman climbed into the Sirley huckster wagon one morning and went to Topeka. Here they seem to have formed a kind of perpetual brither and sister copartnership, as it is recorded that she had Shirley’s life insured for a large amount.

But little Mrs. Shirley, from far off Indiana, had heard through friends of the conduct of Shirley, and she suddenly appeared upon the scene, Shirley and Mrs. Wrightman fled ignominiously, leaving the worse than widow alone in the city  to find her was back to a forsaken and loveless home.

Continuing with Shirley the wandering life which seemed to suit them so well, the two finally made the run for claims at the opening of the Cherokee strip. As the result of that run the lady became the owner of two splendid farms near Renfrew, in Grant county, and the remains of George Shirley lie buried in a little cemetary in Southern Kansas.

After Shirley’s death Mrs. Lulu located in Renfew and became housekeeper for a doctor who was running a hotel in that thriving little city. Here it is supposed she first met Johnson on one of his periodical trips to Sumner county, where he formerly resided. It is difficult by any method of reasoning to account for the attraction for the attraction which drew two such people together.

No apparent similarity of taste or congeniality of disposition, no compatability of age, could have had the suggestion of an influence in the mating of this ill-mated pair. Yet there must have been potent influences at work, for it is said, and was shown at the trial, that after no more than two meetings this wonderful woman of 64 called this comparatively young and lusty widower of 40 to her side by a telegram and he married her.

Mrs. Johnson was tried last December for the murder of her sixth husband, I. R. Johnson, but after a stubborn contest was acquitted, as the evidence did not seem sufficient for conviction. She was, however, held for the murder of her fifth husband, Shirley, the prosecution claiming that they are in possession of the most positive evidence that she deliberately poisoned Shirley for the purpose of appropriating his property, among other things asserting that her own granddaughter, Mrs. Swaggart of Bluff township, this county, will testify that Mrs. Johnson bought arsenic and showed it to her, stating that she was going to get rid of Shirley, and that after he died Mrs. Johnson admitted that she had given him arsenic and outlined her method in the most cruel and heartless manner.

Mrs. Johnson was arrested on May 30, 1898, at the instigation of  the neighbors, who became suspicious that Johnson’s sudden death was the result of foul play.

Johnson was a strong, robust man, and on the day before his death he took an active part in the wolf hunt that had been organized in his township. The evening of his death several neighbors had seen him working about the place. Naturally, therefore, the news of his sudden death spread like a priarie fire.

Excitement ran high, and on investigation was demanded. An inquest was held by a coroner’s jury, without any result. This did not satisfy public sentiment, which had been worked up to a fever heat. Rumors of the most horrible and revolting nature were started. Citizens visited the county attorney and demanded a more thorough examination.

Yielding to popular clamor, the authorities ordered the body to be exhumed, and the vital organs were sent to Lawrence for analysis. This analysis disclosed the startling fact that Johnson had been poisoned, as arsenic in considerable quantity was found in the heart, liver, kidneys and brain.

The arrest of Mrs. Johnson at once followed, and at the preliminary examination she was held without bail to await the action of the grand jury. Investigation once started, it was easy to find circumstantial evidence that tended to fasten the guilt upon Mrs. Johnson. Among other things, it was learned that at the opening of the Cherokee strip she and George Shirley took adjoining claims in the north part of the county and lived together in one house, built partly on each claim, giving out to the world that they were brothers and sister. Shortly afterward Shirley died suddenly and Mrs. Johnson proved up on his claim as his sister and heir.

After her arrest for the murder of Johnson Shirley’s body was taken up and the organs were sent to Lawrence where an analysis disclosed the fact that he also had died from arsenical poisoning. The evidence for the prosecution has been given by Professor Bartow, Ph. D., of the Kansas State university, who made exhaustive chemical tests of the remains of both Shirley and Johnson.

But the counsel for defence have been able to collect very important evidence tending to rebut in a great measure the expert testimony for the prosecution. The most important result was the complete overthrow of the old methods of chemical analysis used in the processes of medical jurisprudence. The defence spared no pains and expense to pass in review the entire subject of poisoning, and was in this manner assisted by the Lewis academy, in Wichita. This institution placed its well equipped laboratory at the disposal of the leading counsel.

The trial now in progress, no matter how it ends, will be of inestimable value to the science of criminologist. – New York Herald.

[“Is She An Oklahoma Lucretia Borgia?”- Just Acquitted of Murder of Sixth Husband – Mrs. Johnson on Trial for Poisoning Her Fifth.” (reprinted from: New York Herald) Denver Sunday Post (Co.), Apr. 9, 1899, p. 17]



Ca. 1835 – Born Lulu Murphy – southern Illinois
1854 – Flavius Green dies suddenly, suspiciously.
1854/55 – army cavalry; marries Homscher; 9 children born.
1869 – Homscher dies.
1870 – Frank Smith arrives to cabin in Colorado Springs; marry.
1874 – Smith disappears.
Ca. 1875 – marries Ketchum; dies of “measles,” suspiciously.
Ca. 1875 – marries Wrightman; divorce later.
Dec. 1894 – husband, William N. Shirley, dies.
May 30, 1898 – arrested.
Dec. 1898 – Lulu, aged 63, tried for the murder of husband Johnson;
Dec. 1898 – arrested for murder of Shirley. Jailed at Pond Creek, O. T.
Dec. 24, 1898 – acquitted.
Apr. 1899 – trial for murder of Shirley.


#1 – William Kent – farmer; Lulu, at age 16, married; separated after few months.
#2 – Flavius Green – railroad man; Lulu, aged 17, married; railway fettler; died 3 years after married; 2 children.
#3 – Leonard David Homsher – dies 1869; nine children.
#4 – Frank Smith – 1 child.
#5 – Elisha Ketchum – husband; Atchison, Ks.
#6 – D. M. Wrightman – divorced after 6 years.
#7 – William N. Shirley – not married, common-law husband?; she claimed he was her half-brother; strolling peddler; (“George Shirley”); Atchison, Ks.
#8 – J. W. Johnson – 6th husband, died.



More: Champion Black Widow Serial Killers


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


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