Lydia Sherman: The Derby Poisoner and Serial Killer

Lydia Sherman was born under the surname Danbury on 24 December 1824 in Burlington, New Jersey. Within a year of her birth her mother died. When her father remarried, Sherman chose to live with her uncle, John Claygay, a New Brunswick, New Jersey farmer, because she did not like her stepmother.

Lydia Sherman.

Lydia Sherman. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the age of sixteen Lydia met her first husband Edward Struck through her association with the Methodist church. He was widowed and when his wife died, he became the sole parent to his children. After Lydia and Struck married they had seven children of their own, four girls and three boys: Martha Ann, George Whitfield, Ann Eliza, Edward, Josephine (who died a year after her birth), Lydia (1846), and William (1863).

Unexpectedly, in 1864 Struck became ill and then suddenly died. The physician who attended him was stumped as to what killed Struck, but those who saw him before his death, suspected poison. Lydia claimed that if poison was the cause it was because he had taken the wrong medication. However, adding to the mystery was that within two years after Struck’s death, their children all suddenly died, although their death certificates often listed “typhoid fever” as the cause.

The widowed Lydia eventually acquired a position at a sewing machine store. A friend then introduced her to Dennis Hurlbut, a well-to-do older man who owned some real estate but lived economically. He was known among the Connecticut locals as “Old Hurlbut.” Though quite a bit older than Lydia, they fell in love and married in 1868.

Shortly after their marriage, Hurlbut updated his will and made Lydia his heir. His health then began to decline until one day the village physician, a Dr. Church, was summoned to his home because he was “suffering acute pains in the head and stomach accompanied by an intense burning, as if [he] had a violent fever.”[1] Seeing the seriousness of the situation Dr. Church requested assistance from several other physicians. However, before the consulting physicians could agree upon Hurlbut’s diagnosis, he died and was buried.

Lydia next met Nelson Horatio Sherman in Derby, Connecticut. He was described as a “skilled mechanic” and faultlessly generous. In addition, he was a widower and had been left with four children (Nelson, Jr., Addie, Nathaniel “Nattie,” and 15-month old Frankie) to support. After a short courtship, the couple married in September 1870. Unfortunately, their wedded bliss did not last long.

Nelson became depressed after his 15-month old Frankie and 14-year-old Addie died a few months apart. That loss was supposedly intensified by the fact that Lydia and Nelson were not “cohabiting” together because they were not getting along. It seems that he was also upset that she had not gotten pregnant by him.

The death of Addie, Lydia Sherman’s stepdaughter. Author’s collection.

To help ease his depression, Nelson began drinking. He and several friends then left Derby for the nearby college town of New Haven in May so that he could drown his sorrows in liquor. In the meantime, Lydia was left alone to care for Nelson’s two other children, 17-year-old Nelson Jr., and 4-year-old Nathaniel “Nattie.” A week after his departure Nelson still had not returned home.

How long he would have stayed in New Haven had not Lydia induced her stepson to go and fetch his father is often wondered. Nonetheless, when he got home, Lydia Sherman was unhappy because her husband was drunk. In fact, he was in such bad shape he could not work for several days. To make matters worse when he did finally go back to work, he refused to return home to eat.

Lydia was upset, but in the meantime, she remained solicitous towards her husband. She continued to send him meals and mix his beverages, which he continued to eat and drink. Around 1 June it was reported that he drank a drink given him by Lydia and within two hours was complaining of a “bad headache.” A raging fever quickly ensued followed by cramps and then he died two days later “suffering dreadful agonies.”

The symptoms that Nelson suffered from were also reportedly like those suffered by his children. This caused the doctor attending to him to wonder what was causing the deaths. He therefore decided to investigate and scheduled a postmortem to be held for Nelson.

“Accordingly, the stomach [of Nelson] was taken out, besides about a third of the liver. These were boxed and sent to … New Haven for analysis. It required three weeks to make the analysis [resulting in a] … startling report … saying the liver had been found perfectly saturated with arsenic and that there was enough in it to kill three men.”[2]

After such a discovery it was only a matter of time before enough evidence could be collected to charge Lydia Sherman with Nelson’s murder. As that was being undertaken detectives were also shadowing Lydia and watching her every move. However, not realizing anything was amiss, she went on with her life as if she had no cares.

Lydia Sherman being followed

Lydia Sherman being followed by detectives. Author’s collection.

In the meantime, Nelson’s friends talked with authorities resulting in the exhumation of his two children while Lydia was being surreptitiously surveilled by detectives. She then left for New Brunswick just as “undeniable evidence” indicated that the children too had been poisoned by arsenic. Detectives were sent to arrest her, but she had left with her sister, a Mrs. Neafie, on a short trip by train to Philadelphia. So, when she returned on the 10:50am train orders were already in place for police to take her into custody her.

“After the arrest Chief Oliver and Detective Mitchell conveyed the woman to the office of District Attorney Herbert, where she was detained until four o’clock, at which time she was taken to New Haven, accompanied by Sheriff Blakeman and Detective Mitchell. The statements of the officers leave no doubt that the woman is guilty of one of the most startling and sensational series of crimes that has ever been committed in this part of the country.”[3]

Lydia Sherman’s arrest was front page news. Headlines described her as the “Wickedest Woman,” “America’s Queen Poisoner,” “The Poison Fiend,” “Woman Monster,” “Modern Borgia,” “cold-blooded murderess” or simply the “Derby Poisoner.” Moreover, the public was fascinated by the trial with the preliminary examination being held before Judge Platt in Birmingham that began on 6 July 1871. Details of the case were provided by the Coschocton Democrat of Ohio:

“She is a woman now in her 45th year; is a woman of very ordinary appearance, but of stoical reserve and wonderful shrewdness. To the interviewers and visitors, she has nothing to say. No unguarded word will ever escape her lips. But the evidence that the graves has offered is too strong against her. Her trial will doubtless be one of the most remarkable ever witnessed in this country. That she will finally be made to give her life in atonement for the many lives she has taken, there can not be much reason to doubt.”[4]  

Much was written about Lydia Sherman being a murderess and the public found her story fascinating. It seemed almost unimaginable to most Victorians that a woman who was supposed to be a maternal caregiver could have murderous urges and commit such horrific crimes. Furthermore, articles about women murdering were of great interest to readers and that was why 19th-century newspapers often provided detailed information explaining how or why women carried out such murderous plots:

“In studying the annals of murders committed by women, there are two singulars to be noticed. The first of these is the fact that when a woman sets out upon a wholesale career of murder, she almost invariably chooses poison for the agency of distribution, and has a preference for arsenic. Men commit murders with the pistol, the knife, or the bludgeon; rarely with poison. Women scarcely ever use either one of these three agencies, except in cases where they are actuated by sudden or ungovernable impulses, and seize the first weapon which comes to hand.”[5]

As the trial played out journalists noted Lydia’s behavior in court. They reported that she appeared “stoic” and “indifferent” despite evidence repeatedly showing her callousness and indicating that she was indeed a murderess. Analysis of her case were also regularly reviewed by newspapers with The Charleston Daily Courier noting:

“[Lydia Sherman] is charged with having killed no less than three husbands, besides eight children of various sorts, some of the latter being her step-children. As she resided in Connecticut ― a State famous for its facilities for divorce ― it is strange she should have preferred to rid herself of her husbands by the brutal and dangerous process or murder, instead of the safe and easy succor of the courts … It is inconceivable that her dislike for her step-children might have instigated her to murder them, but that a mother could bring herself to slaughter her own offspring is hardly credible in a civilized community. There is, too, a want of motive in this relentless series of crimes. The supposition that her motive was a mercenary one may be entertained in the case of the murder of one of her husbands but will not apply to any of the other murders of which she is accused. Crimes so purposeless and so revolting are foreign even to the worst of men. How, then, is it conceivable that they should have been perpetrated by a woman of intelligence and of respectable position in society ― one who had been reputed a faithful wife and a good mother?

And here is the most remarkable circumstance in the whole horrible tale. How was it possible that eleven person belonging to the woman’s household should have successively died with all the symptoms of arsenical poisoning, and yet suspicion not have attached itself to anyone? The victims were in most cases attended by physicians who could hardly have mistaken the real cause of death; for it is seemingly impossible to mistake the action of deadly doses of arsenic for the symptoms of any known disease.”[6]  

Although there might not have been any good explanation as to why physicians failed to realize that Lydia Sherman was busying poisoning her family, the jury hearing her case were convinced of her guilt. They sentenced her to life at Wethersfield prison in Connecticut on 25 April 1872 for murdering Nelson. However, they found her guilty of second degree murder because they were loath to convict a woman of first degree murder despite overwhelming evidence against her and despite no fact or circumstance mitigating her crimes.

After her sentencing “she made a long confession of the terrible crimes which had stained her remarkable career.”[7] In her confession, she admitted to killing her children, her step-children, and her husbands, everyone except Hurlbut, whom she insisted became sick after drinking cider in which he himself had added saleratus.

She also admitted to using a similar method of introducing the arsenic into food or drink consumed by those she murdered. Even with her admissions she attempted to cast herself in a more favorable light. For instance, she maintained that she committed some of the murders for the benefit of the person to spare him or her a precarious future.

After Lydia’s incarceration the next time she was heard of was a couple of years later. It happened after Mary Ann Cotton’s named appeared in headlines. Like Sherman, Cotton was alleged to have murdered many people, including three of her husbands. In fact, the Chicago Tribune saw many similarities between the two women and noted the parallels of their crimes:

“The recent case of Lydia Sherman and her poisonings is fairly matched by the developments made in West Auckland poisoning cases, now on trial in England, in which one Mary [Ann] Cotton stands charged with the murder of her stepson, a healthy child of 7 years … In the progress of the trial, many other murders have been incidentally developed, including husband and children, for, like Lydia Sherman, … Cotton had been many times married, and, as if there were some indefinable, mysterious connection between murder and marriage in the minds of these Borgias, no sooner had she assumed the responsibilities of wedlock than she proceeded to free herself from them by means of poison. Like Lydia Sherman, also, she made no concealment of her crimes, but on the hand, confessed them with perfect freedom, and even gloried in the confession, as if she had performed some praiseworthy deed.”[8]

The next mention of Lydia appeared in 1877. That was because on 27 May of that year she made good her escape from Wethersfield. She slipped unnoticed out of her cell and hopped a train to Springfield, Massachusetts. It seems that her cell door was regularly left unlocked due to her “precarious health.” Lydia claimed her escape was unplanned and the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on the juicy details:

“She had undressed and gone to bed. The thought of escape came to her suddenly, like an inspiration, and she arose and put on her clothing. … Sherman slipped out and secreted herself in a corner cell, which was used for storage, and the door of which stood ajar. The Matron passed along the lower tier of cells, locking them. It was her duty to say good night to the occupants, and hear them respond, but she omitted to do so. In fact, she had grown exceedingly slack in many details. … She then went to the upper tier of cells. … While the Matron was in the upper gallery, one of the prisoners discovered a rat, and the Matron went down … in … the kitchen to get a lamp with which to make a thorough search for the rat. … Sherman says that she followed the Matron … secreted herself in a corner … When the Matron … returned … Sherman went through the kitchen to the main hall and out of the front door which was open. … Sherman walked deliberately down the avenue. She wore a light colored muslin dress and a veil upon her head in lieu of bonnet. She was observed by one of the prison attendants, who thought she was the Warden’s wife … She walked along the track … and got to the depot just as the 1:27 morning train north arrived. She had barely time to get on board. She had with her, she says, about $30. This included a $20 bill which had been sent to the Matron for her by one Miner, of New London, a convict who had been released six weeks before, and to whom Mrs. Sherman had done kindnesses.”[9]

Lydia Sherman

Drawing of Lydia Sherman depicting her as she appeared during her escape. Author’s collection.

Besides the money, Lydia Sherman also took a few personal belongings that the lax matron had allowed her to keep in her cell. Lydia fled first to Worcester and then to Providence, Rhode Island where she checked into the Central Hotel as Mrs. Brown from Philadelphia. She then befriended Mrs. Sears, the hotel’s landlady. Unfortunately, Lydia forgot she had signed in using the alias Brown and mistakenly told Sears that her name was Mrs. Moore. Sears had been reading about the escape of Lydia and therefore became suspicious and contacted police.

They then questioned Lydia and looked through her possessions finding a napkin ring with the name “Lydia.” Their discovery prompted her to object that the napkin ring did not say Sherman before officers even brought up the name of Sherman. Thus, her ruse was discovered, and she was returned to Wethersfield prison.

About a year later, just before Mark Twain visited Zermatt, Switzerland and climbed the Riffleberg Mountain, Lydia Sherman died on 16 May 1878. She had been ill for some time but especially so the last few weeks of her life. It was reported that she suffered from and an “acute” liver disease resulting in her having a yellow appearance and giving her the “color of an Indian.”[10] Of her death several newspapers noted that there was no other person of such “infamy” nor was there anyone with such a “foul” record of crimes. Thus, they concluded her death was a good thing for society.

References:

  • [1] L. Sherman, The Poison Fiend! (Philadelphia: Barclay & Company, 1873), p. 20.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 21.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 22.
  • [4] The Coshocton Democrat, “The Champion Husband Killer,” August 1, 1871, p. 1.
  • [5] Chicago Tribune, “Modern Borgias,” March 28, 1873, p. 4.
  • [6] The Charleston Daily Courier, “The Connecticut Borgia,” July 11, 1871, p. 1.
  • [7] Wayne County Herald, “Lydia Sherman,” June 13, 1878, p. 1.
  • [8] Chicago Tribune, p. 4.
  • [9] The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Lydia Sherman’s Capture,” June 10, 1877, p. 2.
  • [10] Wayne County Herald, p. 1.

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