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Authors: Harold Schechter

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BOOK: Fatal
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As she repeatedly stressed, Lydia’s three youngest children had been a considerable burden to her—a constant drain on her resources. Now that they were permanently “out of the way,” her situation was much improved, particularly since her fourteen-year-old son, George Whitfield, had gotten a job as a painter’s assistant and was bringing in a steady $2.50 a week. As long as George was contributing to the household, his existence was secure. Unfortunately for him, he soon developed a condition known as “painter’s colic” and was forced to quit work. His mother gave him some time to recuperate, but when a full week passed and he showed no signs of improvement, she “got discouraged”—a frame of mind that always boded very ill for her loved ones.

“I thought he would become a burden upon me,” Lydia would later explain, “so I mixed up some arsenic in his tea. I think he died the next morning.”

By this time, Lydia had become well acquainted with a neighborhood physician named L. Rosenstein, who had been called in to treat several of her dying children. For unexplained reasons—perhaps because of the exceptional care she had lavished on the little ones, never leaving their bedsides until they had suffered their last, agonized convulsions and subsided into death—Rosenstein was sufficiently impressed with Lydia to offer her a job. And so, in the fall of 1864, Lydia Struck—whose experience in the health
care field consisted entirely of having induced mortal sickness in a half-dozen members of her immediate family—became a full-time nurse.

In light of what her contemporaries would later describe as her “mania for life-taking,” it is entirely possible that an indeterminate number of the patients who died in Dr. Rosenstein’s care during this period were hastened to the grave by the ministrations of his kindly new nurse, Mrs. Struck. This part of Lydia’s career, however, remains shrouded in obscurity, since she said almost nothing about her professional life in her published confession.

Four of Lydia’s children now lay alongside their father in the sod of Trinity graveyard. Two still remained aboveground: her eighteen-year-old daughter, also named Lydia, and little Ann Eliza, aged twelve, described by her mother as “the happiest child I ever saw.”

The younger Lydia—by all accounts a lovely girl, who was being assiduously courted by a suitor named John Smith—clerked at a dry-goods store in Harlem. She was often forced to miss work, however. The winter was unusually harsh, and little Ann Eliza was frequently sick with fever and chills. With their mother assisting Dr. Rosenstein all day, it fell to the eighteen-year-old girl to stay home and take care of her ailing sister. This happened so often that, as the winter wore on, the younger Lydia had to give up her clerking job entirely, and bring in whatever pittance she could by sewing bonnet frames at home.

Once again, Lydia Struck, as she reports in her confession, grew “downhearted and much discouraged.” Her little daughter’s fragile health was having a serious effect on the family income. As far as she could
see, there was only one solution to the dilemma: “I thought if I got rid of her that Lydia and myself could make a living.”

The bottle of arsenic she had bought in Harlem the previous spring was still more than half full. On March 2, 1864, Lydia returned to the same drugstore and purchased one of the countless patent medicines that promised to cure everything from catarrh to cancer. Back home, she mixed a few grains of the arsenic into the medicine and fed it to her daughter. When the little girl was seized with a violent bout of vomiting, Lydia gave her a second dose of the poisoned nostrum. And then some more.

It took twelve-year-old Ann Eliza four days to die. Dr. Rosenstein, who attended the agonized child, diagnosed the cause as “typhoid fever.”

For the next six or seven weeks, the two Lydias, mother and daughter, lived together in a small apartment on upper Broadway. In early May, after paying an overnight visit to her stepsister in lower Manhattan, young Lydia returned home with a fever and took to her bed. Her mother—according to her confession—immediately repaired to the local druggist and bought “some medicine to give her.” Somehow, the medication only made her daughter sicker, and Lydia “had to sit up with her all night.”

The following morning, she sent for Dr. Rosenstein, who—as he had in the case of little Ann Eliza—diagnosed the illness as “typhoid fever.” By the afternoon, young Lydia was in a state of such acute distress that she felt the need for spiritual succor and asked to see the pastor of her church, the Reverend Mr. Payson.

Nothing, however—not the ministrations of Dr. Rosenstein, not the prayers of Reverend Payson, and
certainly not the bitter-tasting powders her mother kept feeding her—could save the young woman. She suffered her final throes on the morning of May 19, 1866, and was buried later that same day in Trinity graveyard, beside the bodies of her father and five siblings.

In her confession, Lydia Struck—who freely admitted to all the other murders—insisted that her oldest daughter and namesake died of natural causes. And perhaps she did. Even at the time, however, there were those who suspected otherwise. One of these was the Reverend Mr. Payson. As the long-time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, he had been called to many deathbeds, including those of several suicides—poor, despairing souls who had turned to arsenic for deliverance. The ghastly last moments of eighteen-year-old Lydia bore a disconcerting resemblance to the convulsive death agonies of those unfortunates.

Payson’s darkest suspicions were strengthened several weeks later when he received an unexpected visit from Cornelius Struck, Lydia’s adult stepson. As it happened, Cornelius had long harbored his own doubts about his stepmother. Now—after conferring with Payson and hearing the pastor’s appalling account of the torments young Lydia had suffered in extremis—Cornelius decided to take action. Shortly afterward, he paid a visit to District Attorney Garvin and urged him to exhume all seven corpses in the Struck family plot. Though reluctant to take such a drastic step, Garvin promised to launch an investigation. For the first time, Lydia Struck had fallen under the notice of the law.

By then, however, she was no longer living in New
York City. Indeed, by then, she was no longer Lydia Struck.

In her own grotesque way, the forty-two-year-old ex-wife-and-mother was authentically American: a true believer in the possibility of endless self-renewal, of leaving the past behind and reinventing her life. In the months following her oldest daughter’s death, she was seized with an unaccustomed sense of well-being. For the first time in years (as she declared in her confession) she “felt good. . . . I had nothing to fret or trouble me.” Now that her husband and six children had been turned into carrion, she felt wonderfully unburdened.

For a while, she worked as a general helper and clerk at Cochran’s, a sewing machine store on Canal Street. One of her customers, a gentleman named James Curtiss, was much taken with Lydia, who—like other celebrated sociopaths (Ted Bundy, for example)—possessed an ingratiating charm that completely masked her monstrous degeneracy. When the store went out of business, Curtiss offered Lydia a job as a companion nurse to his mother, an elderly invalid living in Stratford, Connecticut. The salary was eight dollars per month, in addition to room and board. Lydia leaped at the offer. After all, she had no other prospects. And with her family in the ground, there was nothing to keep her shackled to the city.

Lydia’s stint as Mrs. Curtiss’s live-in companion did not last very long. Within weeks of arriving in Stratford, she heard about an old man named Dennis Hurlburt, a local farmer of considerable means and a reputation as a notorious miser. “Old Hurlburt,” as he was known around town, had recently lost his wife of many years and was looking to hire a dependable
housekeeper. Before long, Lydia had not only secured the position but somehow managed to win the old skinflint’s heart as well.

“I was there only a few days,” she reports in her confession, “when he wanted me to marry him.” Lydia acted suitably coy until Hurlburt promised “that if I would marry him, all that he was worth should be mine.” The wedding took place the following day at the home of the Reverend Mr. Morton.

Shortly afterward, Lydia saw to it that Old Hurlburt made good on his promise and signed a new will, leaving his entire estate to her.

For slightly over a year, the old man and his new bride enjoyed a seemingly idyllic existence. Neighbors saw her greet him at the door with a kiss whenever he returned home from an errand. She did all the housekeeping and mending, cooked his meals, even shaved him. Hurlburt’s palsied hands trembled too badly for him to handle a razor, so Lydia performed the operation herself, carefully scraping the bristles from her husband’s wattled chin three times a week.

Indeed, it was while being shaved one Sunday morning before leaving for church that the old man first began to die.

Lydia had just lathered up his face and put the razor to his jaw, when—as she would later write—“he was taken with dizziness.” He decided that he needed fresh air, and went outside to feed his horse. He returned about ten minutes later, seemingly recovered, but when she began to shave him again, he was hit with another dizzy spell. They decided to skip church. It was clear that the old man was having what his wife called a “sick turn.” And indeed, as the day progressed, he “continued quite feeble.”

The next afternoon, hearing that Hurlburt was ill, a neighbor brought over a bucket of freshly dug clams. Lydia proceeded to fix her husband a nice pot of chowder, spiced with a special ingredient. With her coaxing, he managed to consume a full bowl of it for supper, washing it down with a glass of hard cider, which had also been doctored with the special powder Lydia kept secreted in her bureau.

That night, Hurlburt was dreadfully sick with nausea and vomiting, racking bowel pains, bloody diarrhea, a violent headache, high fever, and a torturous thirst. There was a powerful burning in the pit of his stomach and a ghastly lividity to his skin. In the morning—though his throat was so swollen he could barely speak—he managed to plead for a dose of his favorite patent medicine, Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters.

The old man was not alone in swearing by Hostetter’s. Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, Americans consumed so much of the stuff that the quack who concocted it died a multimillionaire. And indeed—though its medicinal value was nil—people
did
tend to feel more chipper after taking a few slugs of Hostetter’s, mainly because its alcoholic content was approximately ninety proof.

Before giving her husband a drink of his beloved bitters, Lydia rendered it even more potent by stirring in a small measure of her secret white powder.

The tainted nostrum merely redoubled the old man’s torments. On Tuesday, he begged his wife to send for a doctor. When a physician named Shelton finally arrived, it was clear at a glance that Old Hurlburt was beyond help. Lydia stayed by her husband’s bedside, stroking his sweat-drenched brow until he was “taken with a sinking turn,” as she put it. He died
the way her other victims had, after undergoing several days of uttermost agony. Though Shelton couldn’t say exactly what had killed the old man, he attributed the death to “cholera morbus.”

The forty-six-year-old widow came into a considerable inheritance by 1868 standards—$20,000 in real estate and another $10,000 in cash. For the first time in her life, she was free of financial cares. If her motives had been entirely mercenary, she could have tossed away her arsenic and never killed again. But—though Lydia was happy to profit from her crimes—money was not, in the end, what drove her. Like others of her breed, she was a confirmed predator, addicted to cruelty and death. Making other people die—and deriving sadistic delight from their torments—was a pleasure she couldn’t easily do without.

Within months of Hurlburt’s death, Lydia found herself being wooed by one Horatio N. Sherman, a hard-living factory mechanic with a boisterous personality and a fondness for the bottle. Sherman’s first wife had died the previous year, leaving him with four children and a live-in mother-in-law who—in the time-honored way of such relationships—was driving him crazy. He urgently needed a new wife to care for his household. Though something of a ne’er-do-well, Sherman was a popular local character renowned for his exuberant charm. Not only did Lydia accept his proposal, she agreed to bail him out of his debts to the tune of $300. They were married on September 2, 1870 at the home of Sherman’s sister in Bridgeport.

The woman who had been born Lydia Danbury, then became Lydia Struck upon her first marriage and Lydia Hurlburt upon her second, now took the name
by which she would achieve everlasting infamy in the annals of American crime: Lydia Sherman.

In mid-November 1870—just two months after the wedding—Lydia put some arsenic in the milk of Sherman’s youngest child, a four-month-old baby named Frankie. The infant, sickly from birth, required just a single dose of the poison. After a savage bout of stomach pains and vomiting, he died that same night.

The following month, fourteen-year-old Ada—an exceptionally pretty, sweet-tempered girl, much beloved in the village—was stricken with nausea while helping to put up the Christmas decorations at church. Back home, Lydia fixed her some poisoned tea and watched to make sure that her stepdaughter drank it all down. Later that day, after Ada grew worse, Lydia made her swallow a second cup. Unlike her congenitally frail infant brother, Ada was a strong girl. She did not die until New Year’s Eve, after several days of harrowing illness.

The sudden death of his two children—and particularly of his cherished daughter, Ada—devastated Sherman. Always a heavy drinker, he began to hit the bottle harder than ever, going on benders that sometimes lasted for days. At the tail end of April, he and several cronies took off for New Haven. A week later, he still hadn’t returned home. His seventeen-year-old son, Nelson, decided to go look for his wayward father.

Lydia—whose relationship to Sherman had deteriorated so drastically that they were no longer sharing the same bed—agreed to pay her stepson’s way. Nelson found his father in a “den of low people” and fetched him home. Unsurprisingly, Sherman wasn’t feeling very well. He took to bed for several days before
returning to work on Monday, May 8. When he came home from the factory that evening, Lydia was waiting with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

BOOK: Fatal
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