Authors: Harold Schechter
When Struck’s superiors at the Manhattanville station learned of these accusations of cowardice, they took immediate action. Without so much as a hearing, Officer Struck was summarily discharged from the force.
Struck’s account of these events was considerably different. According to the story he told his wife, Lydia, he was blocks away from the hotel, walking his beat, when he heard that someone had just gone berserk in the Stratton barroom. He’d immediately hopped on a streetcar and hurried to the scene, only to find that the disturbance was already over.
He had been dismissed, he insisted, not because he was a coward but, on the contrary, because he was a man of principle. The Manhattanville precinct was rife with corruption, and Struck—so he claimed—was simply too honest for his own good. He knew things that made his superiors extremely nervous. His supposedly craven conduct in the Stratton barroom affair had been nothing more than a convenient pretext for getting rid of him.
Lydia chose to believe her husband’s version. She was, after all, an utterly devoted wife and mother. At least, that was how she thought of herself. This wildly deluded self-image, in fact, was a mark of her utter derangement. For Lydia Struck belonged to that terrifying
species of sociopaths who commit the most hideous atrocities imaginable, while telling themselves that they are only acting for the good of their victims.
Whatever the truth behind Struck’s dismissal, it was a devastating blow to the man. He had worked hard all his adult life to earn an honest wage, sustained in his struggles by his deep religious faith. Both he and his wife were devout Christians. They had first gotten to know each other, in fact, while attending the same Methodist church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, twenty years earlier.
Struck was nearly forty at the time, a widower with six young children. Lydia, a tailoress by trade, was only seventeen: a fetching young woman with rich chestnut hair, large blue eyes, and a milky complexion. Despite the disparity in their ages, she readily accepted when Struck proposed marriage to her not long after they met. The ceremony took place at the home of her brother, Ellsworth. Within a year of the nuptials, Lydia had given birth to a healthy girl. Six more babies followed in rapid succession.
With a wife and thirteen children to support—seven by Lydia, six from his earlier marriage—Struck, a carriage blacksmith, toiled away at his trade, first in Yorkville, then on Elizabeth Street in lower Manhattan, just north of the infamous Five Points slum district. Eventually, he moved his family uptown, where they rented the first floor of a small house on 125th Street. It was then that a golden opportunity presented itself.
After years of political wrangling, the city of New York was in the process of reorganizing its police force. In January 1857, Struck applied for and obtained an appointment to the newly created Metroplitan Police.
For six years, he patrolled the streets of the Manhattanville ward, proud to wear the uniform: blue frock coat, dark vest, blue pantaloons, star-shaped copper badge. He was, he believed, a credit to the force.
Then came the Stratton barroom fiasco, and Struck found himself not only unemployed but branded a coward.
By this time, there had been a significant reduction in the size of the Struck household. All six of Edward’s children by his first marriage had grown up and left home. And little Josephine—the daughter Lydia had given birth to less than two years before—had died after a painful bout of intestinal illness. In light of later events, it is reasonable to speculate that the little girl did not perish of natural causes. The doctor who attended her, however, had no cause to suspect foul play and attributed her death to “inflammation of the bowels.”
Even with seven fewer mouths to feed, the Strucks still had six sons and daughters to care for. With the whole family crowded into a few dreary rooms and not a penny coming in to feed them, Edward plunged into a state of extreme despondency that had all the earmarks of what we now call clinical depression. He wouldn’t look for work or see his old friends. After a while, he wouldn’t leave the house at all. He was ashamed to show himself in public, convinced that he was an object of universal contempt. His behavior grew increasingly erratic. He would lie awake at night, certain that he was about to be arrested. On one occasion, he took a pistol from a bureau drawer, stuck it in his mouth, and threatened to blow his head off. Eventually, he stopped getting out of bed.
Lydia suffered terribly to see her husband sink into
such a hopeless condition. With every passing day, he was becoming an increasingly onerous burden. “He caused me at this time a great deal of trouble” was the way Lydia later put it. She sought advice from Captain Hart, her husband’s immediate superior at the Manhattanville station. Hart—a decent fellow who had tried in vain to get Struck reinstated—shook his head at Lydia’s shocking account of her husband’s behavior. The man was clearly out of his mind. As far as Hart could see, there was only one thing to be done. Her husband must be “put out of the way,” Hart gently told her—advice that was seconded by several other people she consulted.
Exactly what was intended by this suggestion is somewhat unclear, though Hart apparently meant that Struck should be committed to an insane asylum before he did harm to himself or his loved ones. Lydia, however, chose to place a different construction on the words.
Scraping together ten cents from her meager household funds, she repaired to a drugstore in Harlem and purchased an ounce of powdered arsenic.
The druggist who dispensed the poison would not have raised an eyebrow at Lydia’s request. Arsenic was a popular over-the-counter item at the time, sold in various forms and used—bizarrely enough—as both a pesticide and a beauty product. A homeowner whose premises were infested with rodents might deal with the problem by sprinkling his floorboards with an arsenic compound called “Rough on Rats.” At the same time, his adolescent daughter might hope to improve her complexion by dosing herself with “Bellavita Arsenic Beauty Tablets”—absolutely guaranteed (according to the newspaper ads) to eliminate “Pimples,
Blotches, Freckles, Sunburn, Discolorations, Eczema, Blackheads, Roughness, Redness, and to Restore the Bloom of Youth to Faded Faces!”
That American women would eagerly ingest rat poison for its supposedly cosmetic properties seems flatly incredible to us—equivalent to treating a bad case of acne by swallowing a few shots of Raid. But it was typical of those wildly unregulated, pre-FDA days, when the marketplace was flooded with medicinal cure-alls concocted of everything from cocaine and chloroform to morphine and mercury.
And so the druggist would have sold Lydia all the poison she wanted, no questions asked. Lydia requested an ounce, but she probably came away with even more, since arsenic was so cheap that most druggists rarely measured it out with any precision, scooping a mound of it onto a paper, then either transferring it into a bottle or wrapping it up into a neat little package.
Two to four grains of white arsenic—a fraction of a teaspoonful—is enough to kill an adult human being. For ten pennies, Lydia Struck—one of the most remorseless sociopaths ever produced in this country—purchased enough of the poison to murder every member of her household several times over.
By this time, the fifty-nine-year-old Struck had ceased performing the most basic functions. He no longer seemed capable of washing, dressing, or feeding himself. Back at home, Lydia fixed her husband a nice bowl of oatmeal gruel, then—using one of her sewing thimbles as a measure—sprinkled in a small but deadly portion of the powdered arsenic and stirred it into the porridge. Seated at his bedside, she helped him drink the noxious mixture down. As the
afternoon wore on, she fed him several additional servings. There is no evidence to suggest that, as she killed her husband of eighteen years, Lydia experienced anything other than a sense of the fullest satisfaction. It was, she felt, the merciful thing to do. After all—as she later put it—it was clear that he “would never be any good to me or to himself again.”
There is a quaint,
Arsenic and Old Lace
quality that we tend to associate with the crimes committed by female poisoners, as though disposing of a few people by feeding them arsenic-laced oatmeal or hot chocolate were a rather genteel form of murder. The truth is that, compared to the agonies suffered by the average poisoning victim, the deaths meted out by male serial killers like Jack the Ripper, “Son of Sam,” or the Boston Strangler—the sudden executions by knife blade, bullet, or garrote—seem positively humane.
In most cases of arsenic ingestion, the commencement of symptoms occurs within the hour. The first sign is an acrid sensation in the throat. Nausea sets in, growing more unbearable by the moment. Then the vomiting begins. It continues long after the stomach is empty, until the victim is heaving up a foul whitish fluid streaked with blood. The mouth is parched, the tongue thickly coated, the throat constricted. The victim is seized with a terrible thirst. Anything he drinks, however—even a few sips of ice water—only makes the vomiting worse.
Uncontrollable diarrhea—often bloody, and invariably accompanied by racking abdominal pain—follows the vomiting. Some victims experience a violent burning from mouth to anus. Urine is scanty and red in color. As the hours pass, the victim’s face—deathly pale to begin with—takes on a bluish tint. The eyes
grow hollow. The skin is slick with perspiration that gives off an unusually thick, fetid odor. The victim’s breathing becomes harsh and irregular, his extremities cold, his heartbeat feeble. There may be convulsions of the limbs and excruciating cramps in the muscles of the legs. Depending on the amount of poison consumed, this torment may last anywhere from five or six hours to several days.
In Struck’s case, it lasted until early the next morning. Lydia sat up with him throughout the night, while her husband underwent his harrowing disintegration before her vaguely curious eyes.
His death, when it finally came at around eight o’clock on the morning of May 24, 1864 was—just as Lydia had intended—a mercy.
The attending physician, Dr. N. Hustead, decided that Edward Struck had perished of natural causes. On the official certificate, he filled in the cause of death as “consumption.”
Lydia Struck was now a forty-two-year-old widow with no means of support and six children to care for. She would not, however, remain in those circumstances for very long. Within a few years of Struck’s death, she would no longer be a widow.
Or a mother.
In our own time, the case of Susan Smith—“The Modern Medea,” as the media dubbed her—trans-fixed our country with horror. In October 1994, the twenty-three-year-old mother drove her Mazda Protegé to the shore of John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, and sent the car rolling down a boat ramp with her two little boys, ages one and three, strapped into the backseat. Smith watched for more than five minutes as the car bobbed on the surface,
then slowly filled with water, then sank with her babies inside. So unthinkable was the crime that—in the perversely paradoxical way of such atrocities—it became a national obsession, impossible to stop thinking about. How could a mother do such a thing—set the deaths of her own babies in motion, then stand idly by while their helpless lives were extinguished before her eyes?
One hundred and thirty years before Susan Smith committed the filicide that made her (in the judgment of the tabloids) “America’s Most Hated Woman,” Lydia Struck perpetrated a similar horror. She did not, however, murder her own two children.
She murdered all six.
By the end of June, just a month after disposing of her husband, Lydia was feeling “much discouraged and downhearted” by the difficulty of supporting the children on her own. The three youngest—six-year-old Martha Ann, four-year-old Edward Jr., and baby William, aged nine months and fifteen days—were a particular burden, since they “could [do] nothing for me or for themselves.” Of course, she did not want to act rashly. She therefore “thought the matter over for several days” before coming to the inevitable conclusion “that it would be better for them if they were out of the way.”
In the first week of July, she poisoned all three of them with arsenic. Their deaths are described in the confession that Lydia ultimately supplied to the authorities. It is a remarkable document, offering hair-raising insight into the workings of a profoundly diseased mind. In it, Lydia reveals herself to be a quintessential psychopath, an utterly self-gratifying monster who contemplates and carries out the most
unimaginable horrors without displaying the slightest trace of normal human emotion.
Martha Ann was the first to go. “She was taken with vomiting soon after I gave her the arsenic,” Lydia writes, “and was afflicted in that way until she died. The doctors said nothing to indicate that they knew what was the matter.”
Edward went later that same day. “He was sick to the stomach, and vomited frequently,” Lydia reports in her chillingly off-handed tone.
In the evening, Edward died. He was a beautiful boy, and did not complain during his illness. He was very patient. The afternoon before he died, my stepdaughter, Gertrude Thompson, came in to see my children, and spoke to him and said,
“Eddy, are you sick?”
He said, “Yes,”
Then she said, “You will get better,” and he said, “No, I shall never get well.”
The doctors had no suspicions in this case either, and I did not hear of any one having any.
Shortly after Edward emitted his last, tormented breath, baby William also expired in great agony. In the official records of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, their deaths were attributed to “remittant fever” and “bronchitis,” respectively.
From our present vantage point, it seems inconceivable that three healthy young children could suffer horrible deaths within a twenty-four-hour span without arousing medical suspicion. But in the Civil War era—when applying a bunch of live leeches to a patient’s body was still a common practice—medicine
had not yet emerged from the dark ages. Diseases now easily treatable could decimate entire families (particularly poor ones) in frighteningly short order. In the meantime, family doctors could do little more than dispense learned, if largely useless, advice, along with drugs that, at best, would not make the patient sicker.