Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Lydia Sherman, serial poisoner

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Arsenic poisoning tests used by George Frederick Barker on the internal organs of family members of Lydia Sherman. National Museum of American History. 

Poisons were easily obtainable in the nineteenth century, sold for use as household cleaners, vermin control, and in agriculture. By the 1820s, Americans feared being secretly poisoned, “and considered the incidence of murder by poison to be quite high.”1 This “poison panic” was fed by prominent, well-publicized trials. The high incidence of poisoning in England, Wales, Scotland, France, and Belgium had declined by 1850. In the US, however, even after the Civil War, poisoning was thought to be America’s “most common form of homicide.”

Lydia Sherman (1824–1878) poisoned eight children (one source claims seven2) and three husbands. She was orphaned as a child and raised by an uncle. At age sixteen, she was working as a tailor and married her first husband in 1841, when she was seventeen. He became a New York City policeman, and eventually was accused of cowardice after an incident causing the murder of a detective. He was reprimanded, disgraced, and fired. He became depressed and could not work. He was a “burden” to his wife. She killed him with arsenic in 1864. Six weeks later, she poisoned three of her own children, and then the other three in 1865. The death certificates of the dead children listed “typhoid fever” as the cause of death.3-5

She married again in 1865, this time to a rich widower. She made certain that in his new will he left everything to her. She poisoned him, again with arsenic, and inherited US$10,000 in cash6 (US$250,000 in today’s money), and US$20,000 worth of real estate7 (US$500,000 in today’s money).

She then married Horatio Sherman in 1870. They moved to Derby, Connecticut. She poisoned his two children and in 1871, she poisoned Sherman, although she called his poisoning “an accident.”8 A local physician, Dr. J.C. Beardsley, became suspicious and had an autopsy done on Sherman, and had the two dead Sherman children exhumed. Professor George Barker (1835–1910), a physician, chemist, and physicist at Yale, found arsenic in the stomach contents of Sherman and his two children. Arsenic was found as well in the newly exhumed second husband, Dennis Hurlburt.9

The trial of Lydia Sherman lasted eight days. A 96-page book containing the trial’s testimony was supposedly written by her. She was, however, characterized as a “very ignorant woman. She can scarcely write at all.”10 She died in prison in 1878.

By definition, serial murderers kill two or more people, and the killings taking place over more than one month’s time. The motives are often anger, thrills, money, or attention-seeking. The legends of vampires and werewolves may have been created to explain what were actually serial murders. Serial murderers may have a history of being abused, bullied, or of psychosis. Their IQ is in the average range, about 95–99. Women serial killers (from 1800–2000) often killed for financial gain. Poison was their method of choice, and arsenic their preferred poison. Men serial killers outnumber women 6:1. The usual serial killer in the US is a white man in his late twenties to early thirties, from a lower-to middle-class background.11

References

  1. Katherine Watson. “Poisoning crimes and forensic toxicology since the eighteenth-century.” Acad Forensic Pathol, 10(1), 2020.
  2. “A remarkable woman.” New York Daily Tribune, June 7, 1877.
  3. “Lydia Sherman: The Derby poisoner.” Connecticut History.org, March 22, 2023. https://connecticuthistory.org/lydia-sherman-the-derby-poisoner/
  4. “The Derby poisoner: Confessions of Mrs. Lydia Sherman, the murderer of three husbands and four children.” New York Times, January 11, 1873.
  5. “Lydia Sherman.” Wikipedia.
  6. Lydia Sherman. The Poison Fiend! Life, Crimes and Conviction of Lydia Sherman. The Modern Borgia. Philadelphia: Barclay and Company, 1878.
  7. “Lydia Sherman, the Derby poisoner, commits the ‘Horror of the Century.’” New England Historical Society, 2023. https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/lydia-sherman-the-derby-poisoner-commits-the-horror-of-the-century/
  8. Connecticut History.org, “Lydia Sherman.”
  9. New York Times, “The Derby poisoner.”
  10. Lydia Sherman, The Poison Fiend!
  11. “Serial killers.” Wikipedia.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024

|

|

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.