FAMOUS ARSENIC MURDERS
By Tim Lambert
Arsenic was often used to poison people. There were many famous arsenic murders in history. Here are some of them.
Mary Blandy murdered her father with arsenic. She was born in 1720 at Henley-On-Thames in Oxfordshire. Her father Francis Blandy offered a dowry of £10,000 for anyone who would marry Mary. (A huge fortune in those days). However in reality he did not have so much money. Not surprisingly such a large dowry attracted many suitors. Francis Blandy vetted them and rejected them one by one until Captain William Cranstoun came on the scene. Cranstoun was the son of a Scottish noble. Francis Blandy was keen to marry his daughter to a man from such a background. So Cranstoun moved into the Blandy home. However there was a complication. He was already married. When he found out Francis Blandy told Cranstoun to leave and told Mary to forget him.
However Mary Blandy and Cranstoun wrote to each other. Cranstoun persuaded Mary to give her father powder, which he said would make her father more friendly towards him. In fact the powder was arsenic. Mary put it in her father's tea and soup and he fell ill. Francis Blandy duly died on 14 August 1751. Mary then tried to burn some powder in the fire. However a servant managed to retrieve it. Mary Blandy was arrested but Cranstoun fled to France. Mary went on trial on 3 March 1752. A Dr Anthony Addington convinced the jury that the powder rescued from the fire was indeed arsenic. As a result Mary Blandy was found guilty of murder. She was hanged on 6 April 1752.
Arsenic in the 19th Century
Gesche Gottfried was born in 1785. She poisoned at least fifteen people with arsenic in Germany between 1813 and 1827, including both her parents, her brother, two husbands and her three children. Gottfried was beheaded in Bremen on 21 April 1831.
Mary Ann Geering
Mary Ann was born in 1800. In 1818 she married a man named Richard Geering and in 1848 they were living in Guestling in East Sussex. First Mary Ann poisoned her husband. He fell ill and on 13 September 1848 he died of arsenic poisoning. He was 56. However at first his death was ascribed to natural causes. Mary Ann then poisoned her own son, 21 year old George. He died on 27 December 1848. She then poisoned another son, 26 year old James. He died on 6 March 1849.
Mary Ann then attempted to kill her 18 year old son Benjamin, again with arsenic. Fortunately this time his mother was prevented from 'caring' for him. When Benjamin recovered it became obvious that his mother had poisoned him. The authorities then exhumed the bodies of her husband and two deceased sons and found they contained arsenic. Mary Ann was then charged with murder and attempted murder. Not surprisingly the jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to death. Afterwards she confessed to her crimes. Mary Ann Geering was hanged in front of a crowd of thousands in Lewes, Sussex on 21 August 1849.
Helene Jegado was born in France in 1803 and she became a servant. It is not known how many people she killed. It is believed she started killing people with arsenic in 1833. She was finally arrested in July 1851.
At her trial in December 1851 Jegado was only charged with 3 murders. Jegado claimed she did not know anything about arsenic. The jury did not believe her and she was convicted and sentenced to death. Helene Jegado was guillotined on 26 February 1852.
Madeleine Smith (?)
Madeleine Hamilton Smith was born in Glasgow on 29 March 1835. She was the daughter of a well-to-do architect named James Smith. In 1855 Madeleine Smith met a man named Pierre Emile L'Angelier in Glasgow. L'Angelier was born in Jersey. He moved to Glasgow when he was 18 and he worked as a clerk. He began a relationship with Madeleine but their different social positions made things difficult. Nevertheless they met in secret for two years and they exchanged love letters. However Madeleine then became engaged to another man (from her own class) and she asked L'Angelier to return the love letters she had sent him. However he refused and threatened to show the letters to her father.
In February 1857 Madeleine obtained arsenic from a chemists shop and L'Angelier fell ill. He died on 23 March 1857. Afterwards love letters from Madeleine were found in his home and she was arrested on 31 March. Madeleine was tried for murder but on 9 July 1857 the jury returned a verdict of not proven, which meant the prosecution had not proved its case but she was not necessarily innocent.
After her release Madeleine Smith moved to London where she married a man named George Wardle. However they separated in 1889. Madeleine moved to the USA where she married a man named Lena Sheehy. Madeleine Smith died on 12 April 1928. She was 93.
Priscilla Biggadike and her husband Richard lived with their 3 children in a tiny two room cottage in the village of Stickney in Lincolnshire, England. They also shared their home with 2 lodgers. All of them shared the same bedroom. Richard Biggadike worked as a well sinker and he got up early in the morning to go to work. He began to suspect that one of the lodgers was joining his wife in her bed afterwards. That led to arguments. Then on 30 September 1868 Richard Biggadike came home from work and Priscilla gave him a cake. Afterwards Richard fell ill. A doctor was called but Richard died the next morning.
However a doctor was suspicious of the sudden death and an autopsy found traces of arsenic. Priscilla Biggadike was arrested on 3 October 1868. She claimed her husband had written a suicide note (in fact he could not read and write). When she was asked to produce the note Priscilla claimed she had burned it. She later said she saw one of the lodgers, Thomas Proctor putting a white powder in her husband's tea cup. He then added milk and she poured in tea. She also said she saw Proctor put some white powder into a bottle of medicine but she gave the medicine to her husband anyway.
Priscilla and Proctor were both arrested but at the trial the judge instructed the jury to dismiss the case against Proctor because of lack of evidence. But Priscilla was found guilty and she was sentenced to death. Priscilla Biggadike was hanged in Lincoln Castle on 28 December 1868.
Priscilla Biggadike has the distinction of being the first woman in Britain to be hanged in private. Previously men and women were hanged in public. Its said that on his deathbed in 1884 Proctor confessed that he did give arsenic to Richard Biggadike. Yet Priscilla saw him and she did nothing to stop him or warn her husband.
Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton was born in Sunderland in North East England in 1832. Her father was a coal miner but he died in an accident when Mary Ann was 8 years old. However her mother remarried. When she was 16 Mary Ann moved out of the house to work as a nursemaid. In 1852 aged 20 she married a man named William Mowbray, aged 26. The couple lived in Plymouth, Devon. They had four children there but all of them died in infancy. Their deaths were, at first believed to be due to natural causes. That might seem surprising today but infant mortality was very high in the mid 19th century and it was by no means unusual to lose several children. The couple moved back to the Northeast where 3 more children died. They were followed by William Mowbray. Mary Ann Cotton collected money from his life insurance policy.
Mary Ann worked as a nurse and in 1865 she married a former patient named George Ward. Predictably he died in 1866. Her third husband was James Robinson. They married in 1867. They had a daughter who died and a son who survived. Fortunately Robinson became suspicious when Mary Ann kept insisting he take out life insurance. He threw her out of the house.
Mary Ann married a man named Frederick Cotton in 1870. The unfortunate man died in December. His three sons then died. However shortly before the last boy, Charles Cotton died a Marry Ann asked an official named Thomas Riley if he could be sent to the workhouse to get rid of him. Mary Ann claimed the boy was a weakling but Riley thought he was perfectly healthy. When he heard of the boy's death Riley went to the police and they began to investigate. The body of Charles Cotton was found to contain arsenic.
Mary Ann Cotton was arrested for murder on 18 July 1872. She was pregnant and the law waited till she gave birth to a child in January 1873. She went on trial on 5 March 1873. Not surprisingly she was found guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was hanged in Durham County Jail on 24 March 1873.
Lydia Sherman poisoned a number of her relatives with arsenic. She was born Lydia Banbury in New Jersey in 1824. When she was 17 she married a policeman named Edward Struck. The couple had 6 children. Lydia insured her husband and poisoned him. She then murdered her 6 children. In 1868 she married a farmer named Dennis Hurlbrut. The marriage did not last long as Lydia poisoned him. Then in 1871 she married a widower named Horatio Sherman. Lydia murdered his two children then murdered Horatio. However a doctor was suspicious and arsenic was found in his body. The bodies of the Sherman children and Dennis Hurlbrut were exhumed and also found to contain arsenic. Lydia Sherman was found guilty of second degree murder and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. She died in prison in 1878.
Maria Swanenburg was a Dutch poisoner. She was born in the Netherlands in 1839. It is not known exactly how many people she murdered but its believed to be at least 27 between 1880 and 1883 including her own father and mother. She poisoned many more people with arsenic but they survived albeit sometimes with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. Swanenburg helpfully 'looked after' children and sick people in Leiden where she lived. She gained the nickname Goede Mie (good me) for her thoughtfulness. The motive for the murders was greed. Swanenburg obtained money from life insurance policies of inheritances. However in 1883 she was caught trying to poison a family called Groothuizen. Maria Swanenburg was arrested on 15 December 1883 and on 25 April 1885 she was found guilty of three murders and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. She died in prison in 1915. Meanwhile the investigation into her crimes looked at 90 suspicious deaths and it lasted 18 years.
Arsenic in the 20th Century
Amy Archer-Gilligan was born in Connecticut in 1868. She married James Archer in 1897. From 1907 to 1917 she ran a nursing home. However James Archer died in 1910 shortly after his wife insured him. Then, in 1913 Amy married Michael Gilligan. However he died in February 1914. Meanwhile some people who moved into the nursing home paid for their keep with a single lump sum. They often died shortly afterwards. Inevitably relatives became suspicious and eventually the police began to investigate. The bodies of Michael Gilligan and some of the former residents of the nursing home were exhumed and were found to contain arsenic. Nevertheless Amy was only convicted of one murder. At first she was sentenced to death but she appealed and was granted a second trial. This time she was found guilty of second degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Amy Archer-Gilligan died in April 1962.
Frederick Seddon poisoned his lodger, Eliza Barrow for her money. Frederick Seddon was born in 1872. As an adult Seddon worked as an insurance agent. He was married to a woman named Margaret and they had 5 children. In 1909 the couple moved into a large house in London. Frederick Seddon decided to rent the top floor of his house as a flat. So in July 1910 a 47 year old spinster named Eliza Barrow moved in. Eliza was quite a wealthy woman and she sought financial advice from Frederick Seddon. He persuaded her to transfer her property to him and in return he would give her a fixed sum for the rest of her life. It was perfectly free but if Eliza Barrow died Seddon would be freed from making any payments to her - an obvious motive for murder.
And so in September 1911 Eliza Barrow fell ill. Finally on 14 September 1911 she died. She was 49. The doctor signed a death certificate giving the cause of death as epidemic diarrhea. Frederick Seddon then hastily arranged a cheap funeral. However relatives of Eliza Barrow grew suspicious and finally they went to the police. On 15 November 1911 the body of Eliza Barrow was exhumed and it was found to contain a large amount of arsenic. Finally on 4 December 1911 Frederick Seddon was arrested for murder. His wife Margaret Seddon was arrested on 15 December 1911.
Frederick and Margaret Seddon went on trial at the Old Bailey in London in March 1912. Frederick Seddon was found guilty and he was sentenced to death on 15 March 1912. Margaret Seddon was acquitted. Frederick Seddon was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on 18 April 1912.
Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Herbert Rowse Armstrong was a British solicitor. He practiced in Hay-on-Wye. Armstrong married Katherine in 1907. However she fell ill and died on 22 February 1921. At first her death was thought to be natural.
But on 26 October 1921 Armstrong invited another solicitor called Oswald Martin to tea. Afterwards Martin fell very ill. He suffered from vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains. However his father in law was a chemist. He remembered Armstrong had bought arsenic from his shop. Davies told his suspicions to a Dr Hincks who was treating Martin. Dr Hincks sent samples of Martin's urine for testing. Arsenic was found in it.
Herbert Rowse Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin. The police now suspected that Armstrong had killed his wife Katharine and so her body was exhumed. The pathologist found arsenic in her body and Armstrong was charged with her murder.
Armstrong went on trial on 3 April 1922. The pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that Katharine Armstrong had been given large doses of arsenic in the last week of her life culminating in a large dose 24 hours before her death. Not surprisingly Herbert Rowse Armstrong was found guilty. He was hanged on 31 May 1922.
The Croydon Poisonings
In 1928-29 three people were poisoned with arsenic in the south London suburb of Croydon. On the evening of 26 April 1928 after a meal 59 year old Edmund Duff fell ill and he died the next day 27 April. His death was attributed to natural causes.
Then on 14 February 1929 Edmund Duff's sister-in-law Valerie Sidney fell ill. She died on 16 February 1929. The last victim was Violet Sidney, Valerie's mother. She fell ill and died on 5 March 1929.
Violet Sidney was buried but soon people became suspicious and her body and that of her daughter Valerie were exhumed on 22 March 1929. Both contained arsenic. The body of Edmund Duff was later exhumed and was also found to contain arsenic. The police investigated but nobody was ever charged.
Frederick Bryant was a corporal in the military police shortly after the First World War. He was stationed in Northern Ireland and he had the misfortune to meet Charlotte McHugh. They married in March 1921. Charlotte was only 19 while Fred Bryant was 25.
The 1920s was a decade of high unemployment in Britain but Fred Bryant managed to find work as a farm laborer in Somerset. The couple lived at Over Compton near Yeovil. Eventually Charlotte had five children. However she often had affairs. Yet Fred Bryant tolerated his wife's infidelity. In December 1933 a man named Leonard Parsons became a lodger in their cottage. In 1934 the threesome moved to the village of Coombe. However in May 1935 Fred Bryant became ill. The doctor diagnosed gastroenteritis but this time Fred recovered. He fell ill again in August 1935. Once again Fred was lucky and he recovered.
Fred Bryant fell ill again in December 1935. He was taken to hospital but he died on 22 December 1935. This time the doctor was suspicious and he refused to sign a death certificate. He also told the police about his suspicions. They began investigating. A large amount of arsenic was found in the body of poor Fred Bryant. The police searched his home and they found a can in the garden. It once held week killer. Eventually on 10 February 1936 Charlotte was arrested for the murder of her husband Fred. She went on trial at Dorchester on 27 May 1936. On 30 May 1936 Charlotte Bryant was found guilty and she was sentenced to death. Bryant was hanged in Exeter prison on 15 July 1936.
Anna Marie Hahn
Anna Marie Hahn was born in Germany in 1906 but she later emigrated to the USA. Hahn began working as a 'nurse' to elderly men. The first was Ernest Koch, who died on 6 May 1932. He left Hahn a house in his will. Albert Parker was the next to die. He was followed by Jacob Wagner in June 1937. George Obendoerfer died in August 1937. This time an autopsy discovered arsenic in his body. Anna Marie Hahn was convicted of murder and she was sentenced to death. Hahn was executed in the electric chair in Ohio State Penitentiary on 7 December 1938.
Nannie Doss used arsenic to murder her husbands. She was born Nancy Hazle in Alabama in 1905. In 1921 she married a man named Charles Braggs. The couple had 4 daughters but two of them died in 1927. Suspecting Nannie was responsible for the deaths Charles Braggs fled, taking one of the surviving daughters with him. The couple divorced in 1929. Shortly afterwards Nannie Doss married a man named Robert Harrelson. The unfortunate man survived for 16 years before he was poisoned in 1945.
In 1947 Nannie Doss married a man named Arlie Lanning. He survived for 5 years before she murdered him in 1952. Doss then married a man named Richard Morton. He died just 4 months after the wedding. In the summer of 1954 she married a man named Samuel Doss. He died in October 1954. However this time the doctor ordered an autopsy which found arsenic in his body. Nannie Doss was arrested on 26 November 1954. Eventually Doss confessed to murder and on 18 May 1955 she was sentenced to life imprisonment. She died of leukemia in prison in 1965.
Marcus Marymont poisoned his wife with arsenic. In 1958 Marymont was a sergeant in the American Air Force at a base in Norfolk, England. In 1958 his wife Mary Helen fell ill. She died in hospital on 9 June. A doctor suspected poisoning and an autopsy revealed her body contained arsenic. Marcus Marymont was tried by a US Court Martial and convicted of murder. He was sent to Fort Leavenworth Prison, Kansas to serve his sentence.
Velma Barfield was an arsenic poisoner. She is infamous not only for her crimes but because she was the first woman to be executed by lethal injections. Barfield was born in South Carolina on 23 October 1932. In she married a man named Thomas Burke in 1949. She had a son in 1951 and a daughter in 1953. But in the 1960s Velma became addicted to prescription drugs.
Then in 1969 her house burned down while she and the children were out. However her husband was inside and died of smoke inhalation. In 1970 Velma married a man named Jennings Barfield but he died less than a year later. Velma's mother, Lillian died in 1974. In 1976 Barfield got a job caring for an elderly couple, Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. Montgomery died in January and he was followed by Dollie in March. Barfield then cared for another elderly couple, John Henry and Record Lee. John Henry died in June 1977. Velma moved in with her boyfriend Stuart Taylor but he died in February 1978.
Barfield's sister called the police and told them that Velma was responsible for the death of Stuart Taylor and others. Barfield confessed to murdering her mother, Lillian, Montgomery and Dollie Edwards and John Henry Lee. However she was only convicted of the murder of Stuart Taylor. Velma Barfield was executed by lethal injection on 2 November 1984.
Judy Buenoano was a callous poisoner. She was born Judias Welty on 4 April 1943. Buenoano had a son outside marriage in 1961. Then on 21 January 1962 she married James Goodyear. Judy murdered the unfortunate man and he died on 5 September 1971. In 1972 Buenoano moved in with a man named Bobby Joe Morris. He fell ill and died in 1978. Judy then changed her name to Buenoano, Spanish for Goodyear.
The next victim was her own son Michael. He fell ill in 1979 and was forced to wear heavy metal leg braces. On 13 May 1980 Judy took Michael canoeing. Unfortunately the canoe overturned. Michael was unable to swim and he drowned. Next Buenoano met a man named John Gentry. She attempted to murder him on 25 May 1983. This time she changed her murder weapon from poison to a bomb. When John Gentry started his car a bomb exploded. Fortunately he survived. The police found that Judy had persuaded him to take 'vitamin pills' which made him feel ill. The police recovered some pills and found they were arsenic. The bodies of James Goodyear, Bobby Joe Morris and Michael were exhumed and all were found to contain arsenic.
Judy Buenoano was tried separately for each murder. In 1984 she was found guilty of the murder of her son Michael and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1985 she was found guilty of the murder of Her first husband, James Goodyear. This time she was sentenced to death. (The authorities did not proceed with the charge of murder of Bobby Joe Morris as she was already under sentence of death). Buenoano spent the next 13 years on death row. Finally Buenoano was executed in the electric chair in Florida State Prison on 30 March 1998.
Arsenic poisoning also took place by accident. In the 19th century it was common to adulterate foodstuffs by adding cheap substances. Calcium sulphate was added to peppermints. In 1858 a sweet maker in Bradford sent somebody to obtain some from a druggist. However by mistake the druggists assistant picked up some arsenic thinking it was calcium sulphate. The arsenic was added to the sweets. As a result 200 people became seriously ill and 20 died.
In 1943 in St Andrews, Scotland as many as 115 people became ill and two of them died as a result of eating sausages contaminated with arsenic. The mystery of who contaminated them was never solved.
The Cleveland Torso Murders
The Hammersmith Nude Murders
The Acid Bath Murders
The New Orleans Axeman
Gordon Cummins, The Blackout Ripper