Read Fatal Online

Authors: Harold Schechter

Fatal (5 page)

BOOK: Fatal
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

That night, Sherman was very sick with severe nausea, racking bowel pains, and diarrhea. The next morning, at her husband’s urging, Lydia sent for Dr. Beardsley, the family physician. Beardsley—who had been called to Sherman’s bedside before when the latter was suffering from a particularly brutal hangover—was puzzled by the symptoms, which bore little resemblance to the patient’s previous alcohol-induced “turns.” He prescribed one-eighth grain of morphine and a “blue pill” consisting mostly of mercury to be taken every two hours. Lydia dutifully administered the medication, helping her husband get it down with a few sips of one of her “soothing drinks.”

Beardsley returned early the next morning to find Sherman in a worse state than before. His breathing was terribly labored, his throat so constricted that he could barely speak. He was afflicted with a savage thirst and a burning pain in the pit of his stomach. He could not keep anything down. Beardsley prescribed brandy and water, then departed on his daily rounds, leaving Sherman in the care of the ever-attentive Lydia.

When the doctor showed up the following morning, it was clear that Sherman would not survive much longer. His pulse was almost imperceptible, his extremities cold, his skin a ghastly gray, particularly under the eyes. Beardsley examined the dying man with a growing sense of alarm. As he would later testify, neither an alcoholic “debauch” nor an “ordinary disease” could account for Sherman’s condition. To the physician’s great dismay, Sherman’s symptoms bore an unmistakable resemblance to “those originating from poisoning
by arsenic”—several cases of which Beardsley had witnessed in his professional career.

As the doctor sat at the failing man’s bedside that Thursday morning, Sherman opened his eyes and—mustering what little strength he had—managed to gasp out a question: Was he dying?

“I fear that you are in your last sickness,” Beardsley said gently.

“I fear so, too,” Sherman said in a barely audible voice.

Beardsley slowly shook his head. “I do not understand this,” he said. “Tell me, have you taken anything other than what I prescribed?”

“Only what my wife has given me,” Sherman answered. They were his last documented words. Emitting an anguished groan, he closed his eyes and subsided onto his sweat-drenched pillow.

He died at approximately eight o’clock the next morning, Friday, May 12, 1871.

As a general rule, serial killers will continue to commit their atrocities until they are forcibly stopped. The reason is simple: killing and torture are their highest forms of pleasure. For nearly a decade, Lydia Sherman had been able to get away with almost a dozen hideous murders—three husbands, eight children—thanks in large part to the blind incompetence of the various physicians who attended her victims without ever suspecting foul play. In Beardsley, however, a doctor had come along who would finally bring the horror to an end.

After sharing his suspicions with a colleague named Kinney, Beardsley secured permission to conduct a postmortem on Sherman. On Saturday, May 20, the two doctors dissected the cadaver, removing the stomach
and liver and shipping the organs to a toxicology professor at Yale for analysis. Three weeks later, they received the results. Sherman’s liver was absolutely saturated with arsenic. There was enough poison in his system to have killed three men.

A warrant was promptly issued for the arrest of Lydia Sherman.

By then, however, she was no longer in Connecticut. Realizing that the law was closing in on her, she had decamped for New Brunswick. Several officers were immediately dispatched to New Jersey to keep her under surveillance. In the meantime, the bodies of Frankie and Ada Sherman were exhumed. So was the corpse of Dennis Hurlburt. All were found to contain significant traces of arsenic. Inquiring at the local pharmacies, police discovered that, in the spring of 1870, Lydia had purchased an ounce of white arsenic from a druggist named Peck, explaining that she needed the poison because her house was “overrun with rats.” They also learned about the bizarre string of tragedies that had befallen Edward Struck and his six children several years earlier when the ill-fated ex-policeman was married to Lydia.

On June 7, 1871, authorities decided that the time had come to put the warrant into action. Lydia, shadowed by a pair of detectives, had gone off to New York City on a shopping expedition. When she returned to New Brunswick that evening, she was greeted at the train station by a detective and a deputy sheriff who took her into custody and transported her back to New Haven, where she was charged with the murder of Horatio Sherman.

Her trial was a sensation, generating headlines in papers from the
New Haven Register
to the
New York
Times
. According to the press, her crimes were unparalleled; the world hadn’t witnessed such horrors since the days of Lucretia Borgia, the infamous Italian noblewoman and reputed serial poisoner whose name was a byword for lethal treachery. When the trial opened in New Haven on April 16, 1872, spectators traveled great distances for a glimpse of this prodigy of evil—“the arch murderess of Connecticut.” What they saw was not the ogre they were expecting but a prim, proper, perfectly ordinary-looking woman in a black alpaca dress, black-and-white shawl, white straw hat, and black kid gloves.

The sight of the forty-eight-year-old Lydia, looking calm, even somewhat cheerful, beneath her thin lace veil, had them shaking their heads in confusion. How could this utterly nondescript woman be guilty of such atrocities? The answer, of course, was simple. As with most serial killers, there was a terrifying disparity in Lydia between her mundane appearance and the monstrous abnormality of her mind. But back then, people were unfamiliar with the grotesque operations of the sociopathic personality. The term “serial killer” wouldn’t even be invented for another hundred years.

The trial lasted eight days. The defense tried to persuade the jury that Horatio Sherman’s death was accidental, possibly caused when he had swallowed tainted water, drawn from a well in which a poisoned rat had drowned. Or perhaps he had taken his own life, driven to suicide by depression over his money problems, marital woes, and the recent deaths of his two children.

The evidence against Lydia, however, was overwhelming. In the end, she was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in the state prison at Wethersfield.

Public fascination with Lydia’s case did not end with her conviction. Quite the contrary. Then as now, people had a powerful appetite for true-crime sensationalism, and instant books like
The Poison Fiend: Life, Crimes, and Conviction of Lydia Sherman (The Modern Lucretia Borgia)
were rushed into print. Lydia’s confession—composed in jail while she awaited sentencing and immediately issued in pamphlet form—also became a popular seller. She even became immortalized in a ballad:

Lydia Sherman is plagued with rats.

Lydia has no faith in cats.

So Lydia buys some arsenic,

And then her husband gets sick;

And then her husband, he does die,

And Lydia’s neighbors wonder why.

Lydia moves, but still has rats;

And still she puts no faith in cats;

So again she buys some arsenic,

This time her children, they get sick,

This time her children, they do die,

And Lydia’s neighbors wonder why.

Lydia lies in Wethersfield jail,

And loudly does she moan and wail.

She blames her fate on a plague of rats;

She blames the laziness of cats.

But her neighbors’ questions she can’t deny—

So Lydia now in prison must lie.

To her contemporaries, the Sherman case was uniquely appalling—“the horror of the century,” as
one newspaper called it. In the hundred-year history of the republic, nothing like the “American Borgia” had ever been seen, and her countrymen felt certain that they would never witness such a monster again.

But they were wrong

2

You may ask yourselves the question, how is it possible for a woman like this to commit such a crime? The answer is, from the depravity that is sometimes found to exist in the human heart—in the heart of a woman as well as in that of a man. As the female sex ordinarily rise above men in morality and kindness and gentleness, so they sometimes sink to lower depths of cruelty and malignity.

—F
ROM THE TRIAL OF
S
ARAH
J
ANE
R
OBINSON

O
NLY THE SENTIMENTAL ATTITUDES OF THE DAY SAVED
Lydia Sherman from the gallows. The idea of hanging any woman, even a certified fiend, was repugnant to Victorian sensibilities. Still, there were many New Englanders who felt strongly that her sentence was a miscarriage of justice. A monster like Lydia, they proclaimed, should not be suffered to live.

They got their wish soon enough. In May 1878—just five years after she was locked away in Wethersfield—Lydia Sherman died after a brief illness. America’s “Queen Poisoner,” as she had come to be known, was gone. But her throne wouldn’t remain empty for long.

•   •   •

According to the cliché, every woman dreams of marrying a prince. For Annie McCormick, a young widow living in South Boston, that wish came true—in a
manner of speaking. After several lonely years, she was rescued from widowhood by a man with the unlikely name of Prince Arthur Freeman. They were wed in 1879.

The life he offered her, however, was anything but regal. An unskilled laborer who spent his days slaving in an iron foundry, Prince Arthur had never earned more than a few dollars per week in his life. To make ends meet, Annie continued to ply her trade as a seamstress. Even with the extra money she brought in, they barely managed to scrape by. Food was scant, their tenement flat dismal and underheated. It is little wonder that in February 1885—just a few weeks after their second child was born—the overworked woman contracted pneumonia.

It was Prince Arthur’s mother, Mrs. Freeman, who took care of the medical bills. In addition to paying the family doctor, Archibald Davidson, she hired an elderly woman named Mrs. Randall to help nurse her bedridden daughter-in-law. After ten days in bed, Annie—to the great relief of her family—began to show definite signs of improvement. By the second week of February, Dr. Davidson confidently predicted that, “with proper nourishment,” the patient would almost certainly make a complete recovery.

And then Annie’s sister showed up.

Her name was Sarah Jane Robinson. Like Annie, she was a skilled seamstress, though she had also done her share of nursing. To be sure, her patients had an unfortunate habit of dying. Just a few years earlier, for example, she had cared for her landlord, Oliver Sleeper, during what turned out to be his final illness. His death had taken his friends by surprise. Until he was stricken with a sudden intestinal ailment, the seventy-year-old
Sleeper had appeared in perfectly sound health. Still, he was an old man. Certainly Mrs. Robinson had given him assiduous attention, remaining at his bedside day and night and making sure that he swallowed every last dose of his medication. For her services, she had charged his estate fifty dollars following the old man’s intensely unpleasant death—a bill that Sleeper’s survivors ultimately settled by remitting Mrs. Robinson’s overdue rent.

A few years later, her own husband, Moses Robinson, died of an illness whose symptoms bore a remarkable similarity to those manifested by old Mr. Sleeper during his final, agonized days—violent nausea and vomiting, bloody diarrhea, burning pains in the stomach. She had also lost three of her eight children to the same devastating disease, including both of her twin sons, who died within a week of one another when they were barely eight months old.

Now, she had come to take care of her sister, Annie.

Taking care of Annie was nothing new for Sarah. She’d been doing it ever since they were children in Ireland. When their parents, a poor farming couple named Tennent, died within a few months of each other in 1853, it was fourteen-year-old Sarah, all by herself, who took her nine-year-old sister across the ocean to America. Later—after Annie’s first husband sliced his hand on a saw blade and succumbed to blood poisoning—it was Sarah who opened her home to the grieving young widow.

To those who knew her, therefore, it came as no surprise that Sarah had hurried to her sister’s sickbed the moment she got word of Annie’s illness. Of course, in a very real sense, no one knew Sarah Jane
Robinson. Even her nearest acquaintances had been deceived by her apparent normality. Several years would pass before she stood revealed to the world as the kind of virulent personality we now describe as a criminal psychopath. Though capable of counterfeiting ordinary human emotions, such beings lack every trace of fellow feeling. Like Sarah Jane Robinson, they may be adept at putting on convincing shows of sympathy and concern. At bottom, however, they care about nothing but their own monstrous needs. And they will happily sacrifice anyone—a husband, a child, or an ailing younger sister—to make sure those needs are gratified.

When Sarah arrived at the Freeman’s tenement, she found a family friend, a woman named Susan Marshall, seated at Annie’s bedside. Annie herself was much improved. Her coloring was better than it had been in many days, and her coughing had let up significantly. Propped up on her pillow, she greeted her sister with a fond smile.

BOOK: Fatal
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder
Winner Takes All by Jenny Santana
Red 1-2-3 by John Katzenbach
Anzac's Dirty Dozen by Craig Stockings
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Dark Lady's Chosen by Gail Z. Martin