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Welcome to criminalize a production of chandeliered audio in partnership with I heart radio. Hello and welcome to Camellia, where this season we're exploring the lives and motivations of some of the most notorious lady poisoners in history. I'm Holly Fry. And I'm Maria Tomoaki. And I'm today's episode.


We're going to look at the life of Lydia Sherman, who in total poisoned probably as many as three of her husbands and more upsettingly, eight children before she was convicted of second degree murder.


So Lidia's span of crimes actually ran from around, was right here in the Civil War. It was between about 1863 to the early 1970s.


She was the first woman in the United States to total up a double digit body count.


That's quite a claim to fame. Yeah. So Lydia was born Lydia Danbury on Christmas Eve in 1824 in Burlington, New Jersey. She was orphaned when her mother died just shy of a year after her birth.


And at that point, she was sent to live with her uncle, who was a farmer named John Claygate.


Why her uncle? Your guess is as good as ours. There is no record of who your father was or why he himself did not care for his infant daughter.


By the age of 16, she left the farm as she went to live with her brother in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and that's where she began working as a seamstress. It was her first job and it was while she was living in New Brunswick that Lydia became heavily involved with the Methodist Church. And it was through the church that she met.


Edwards struck, who was a widowed blacksmith, and he was raising six children alone. Lydia is described as charming descriptions of her year as slim and pretty, with dark hair and blue eyes and porcelain skin smitten by her. It did not take long for Edward, who was 20 years older than her to propose marriage.


And Lydia, who at the time was only 18, accepted. So after they got married, we don't know if they had a long courtship or not. We do know that they got married.


Edward in the he moved to a middle class neighborhood in Harlem on one hundred and twenty Fifth Street in New York City. And they went on to have eight children of their own.


And for those keeping score. Yes. That is in addition to the six children that Edward had from his previous marriage. And that would be a grand total of 14 mouths to feed. This is a lot of kids. Imagine the chaos. I cannot think, gosh, like having kids to school right now is chaotic. Thank you. No way.


But after relocating, Lydia started working as a housekeeper and with so many children at home, Edward decided that he was going to leave work as a blacksmith and get a different job. So he became a New York City police officer.


So about six years into this new line of work, though, Edward was accused of cowardice on the job and it was at the scene of a hotel robbery in Manhattan.


But other accounts report that it might have been a bar fight. Either way, though, regardless of which crime was being committed, he lost his job. And when this happened, he sank into a very deep depression with a husband refusing to leave their home or get out of his bed.


Lydia decided that she needed to take matters into her own hands.


And you know what that means around here means boys.


Yeah. So according to her eventual confession, I know we're jumping ahead, but. Right. We'll loop back around.


Yes. Instead of getting Edward medical care. And we should point out that this is not a time when things like depression were really treated with any any sort of insight. She decided instead to and we quote, put him out of the way as he would never be any good. Yeah.


So she did whatever I say sarcastically a caring wife does. She got herself a bag of arsenic. And if it seems like we talk about arsenic a lot around here, it's because we do for a very long time.


It was really very easy to acquire arsenic. And that's mainly because it was used as a rat poison or like bedbugs or any sort of insect that you had in your house in the 19th century in the United States. Liddiard was able to just get hers at the local drugstore.


So 20 years into what had been a fairly uneventful marriage, she mixed a thimble full of the poisonous powder into her husband's oatmeal. It took several hours of abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions before Edward passed away.


And poor Edward. But she may not have thought things through so completely because now that she had and I'm using air quotes around this solved her husband's depression, albeit not as most wives would.


Lydia realized she had another problem, and that was that she had many children at home who were hungry and Edward had been the family's primary source of income.


Not a lot of consideration of cause and effect here. Probably pretty impetuous.


Yeah. So let's look at the children's situation for a moment.


At this point, their eldest son, John, who was 16, had a job. He had moved out of the house. And in hindsight, that was probably the luckiest thing he did in his life.


I was imagining for a job having his he's divorce. He hates his job. He does this, but he's still alive because he moved out.


Yeah, good on you, John. So they also had a younger daughter named Josephine. And Josephine had passed away years earlier from illness.


So there was one for Lydia, fewer mouths to feed their two year old daughter. She contracted measles. But what's interesting about the measles that she had was that she didn't actually die from the symptoms that you would expect from that viral illness. She died of the same symptoms as Edward.


So Lydia did what she thought was and again, what she thought was the humane and rational thing to do. Are you ready for this?


Because it is it's rough and it's hard to consider someone reaching this decision. Yes, but about six weeks after Edwards poisoning, Lydia poisoned her three youngest children, those who are Martha Amn, age six, Edward Junior, who was four, and William, who was just nine months old, and she did this all on the same day.


So keep in mind here that while this is unfathomable to those of us who are talking about it and listening, Lydia clearly saw things very differently than the rest of us do.


The three youngest, she said in the eventual confession that we've been. Talking about throughout the episode so far were the most burdensome in her opinion, and she said that they were the three who would not be able to contribute anything to the family. Now, you might be wondering how come no one would notice such a thing going on. Someone's husband dying and a few months later, three children in one day. This was a time in history when it wasn't super strange for children to become ill and die or have an accident and meet an unfortunate end.


Childhood mortality rates in the 19th century were quite grim, and no one really raised an eyebrow when all of these kids passed away. I feel like there's also probably a numbers game, right? I don't know, there were a lot of kids over there.


I feel the same way, like, how can you keep track if you're not part of the family who those 14 children are, unless you're close to the family.


Right. But if you just live on the street, you're next door to houses down. I wouldn't know. I'd be like, there's just kids. There's a lot of kids. And but now there weren't a lot of kids. Lydia had three remaining children to care for in her home.


So there was George, who was 14, who unfortunately contracted lead poisoning from his job as a painter, sick in bed, his mother nursed him with tea laced with arsenic.


And then there was Analisa, who was 12, and reportedly they called her kind of a weak and sickly child.


She was never able to work to contribute to the family. And at 12, whether she was a weakened the child or not, I'm not surprised she wasn't contributing to the family. But none of this helped her at all to stay alive in the home.


And then there was their other daughter, also named Lydia, who was 18, and she worked as a retail clerk. But when Lydia, the younger, fell ill with something as innocuous as what is apparently a cold or a flu, her mother also nursed her with T poisoned with arsenic.


So hating to see each child, as she she would say, suffer.


As she confessed, Lydia thought that it was actually best to instead poison them all.


The death certificates, though, of many of these children listed a very not suspicious reason. Typhoid fever is the cause of their death, which would have been common at the time.


Still living in New York City, but now, without the responsibility of caring for a number of children and with no husband, Lydia convinced a sympathetic doctor to hire her as a nurse was a job she had for several years.


We're going to take a quick break for word from our sponsor, but when we come back, we'll be talking about how the now single and childless Lidia's life was going.


Welcome back to criminality. Let's get to talking about how Libya was almost investigated by the district attorney's office, but got really lucky. Now, you'll remember Edward was a widower before he married Vidia and he had several children before meeting her.


And some of Edward's children from his previous marriage were now adults.


They were all alive and well while this was going on.


Lydia's stepson, Cornelius, stepped forward because he thought the number of deaths in such a short span of time was really quite suspicious.


Thank you, Cornelius. Somebody is raising a flag.


Cornelius shared his concern about Lydia with the district attorney. Yet while the D.A. promised an investigation, nothing happened.


So this is the time of civil war in the United States.


And when the war ended in 1865, Lydia was now 41 and she was single and she was childless and she took a job selling sewing machines. And it's this job that she had that she met a man named John Curtis.


And John was especially impressed with Lydia. He found out about her nursing skills. And so he hired her to do that job again in 1867. She would be caring for his elderly mother. Lydia moved from her home in Harlem to his home in Stratford, Connecticut.


Lydia lived in Stratford, which is a really small town that's situated along the Long Island Sound. And for just about eight months, she was there. That's when she met a man named Dennis Hurlbut, who was a rich widower, and she met him at the grocery store. A rich widower, you say?


I know, right? So are Lydia. Of course, as we can see, the pattern here turned on her charm. And soon Dennis hired her as his housekeeper. And we presume she left her job caring for John Curtis's mother. And we also presume that his mother was still alive when she left. But we don't have that information. Shortly thereafter, Dennis proposed marriage.


The pair married in 1868 after Libya made sure that Dennis made her the sole beneficiary in his will.


Dennis, by the way, was 80 years old, a rich widower who's also elderly, famous in and south, which stinks because I bet Dennis loved her just a little more into this marriage.


Lydia noticed one morning that Dennis hands were a little shaky while he was getting ready to go to church.


Now, shaky hands can be a symptom of a lot of different things, everything from hydration and anxiety to an early warning sign of some neurological or degenerative condition like Parkinson's disease. In my case, it's ten cups of coffee.


Like I was about to say. I have shaken hands all the time, but I drink coffee all day. Or maybe I might be a little dehydrated. Like I please don't poison me. I'll drink more water. I'll be all right. I'm not feeling bad. I'm just caffeinated. I'm just buzzing.


But for Lydia, the actual reason, whether it was dehydration or Parkinson's disease, didn't matter at all. She took the whole shaking hands thing as her cue to put Dennis out of his misery. As we've been seeing, those are sort of the words that she likes to use. It took three excruciating, I assume, days for Dennis to die after he ate the arsenic laced clam chowder that Lydia had prepared for him.


And so she inherited twenty thousand dollars worth of real estate and ten thousand dollars in cash. It's always a little rough to convert money across time, but today that's estimated to be worth about one hundred and sixty thousand dollars, give or take, but is definitely more than 10000 dollars.


Yes. So she was now single, childless and sitting pretty with her one hundred and sixty thousand dollars in cash and real estate. But it was only eight weeks later, in 1870, that Lydia met a mechanic. His name was Nelson Horatio Sherman. He went by Horatio. He lived in Derby, Connecticut. And he was really all reports seem to suggest a really well-liked and generous guy.


Her husband's all seem like very nice men. He was also a widower and he had four children of his own at home and he needed a housekeeper. Man, enter Lydia.


Sure, I can do that job. She's like, I've been a housekeeper at least eight times and I can help their children.


So in the pattern that we're seeing hired as a housekeeper, but they ended up getting married just a few weeks after she moved in.


So he had only been a little more than a year and a half before he met Vidia, that Horatio's wife had passed away.


His eldest child was a son named Nelson, and he was 17. His daughter, Addie, or possibly Ayda, was 14. And a second son, Nattie, was four.


There was also a toddler in the home, very young, named Frankie.


Any bets on who the first victim was? Now, I'd love to bet that it was Horatio, but let's talk about her issue for a minute, because he actually was not the first victim. Horatio liked to drink and he really liked to spend Lidia's money. And these are two things that she did not really particularly like very much at all.


And one afternoon, while Horatio had been drinking, he started talking about how he felt terrible. Little Frankie had been recently unwell and he wished there was something that he could do to make things better for his toddler son.


So this to Lydia was like a hint or some kind of strange, poisonous, murderous nudge because she mixed a little arsenic into the baby's bottle that night. And Frankie died very quickly. Just the very next month. Horatio's 14 year old daughter fell ill with the flu. Doctors were called, but there wasn't much anyone could really do for the flu at the time except wait it out.


Unless you were Lydia, then you definitely knew what to do.


We're going to take a quick break and that sober note for a word from one of our sponsors. And when we return, we are going to talk about how Lydia poisoned the rest of the Sherman family.


Welcome back to Criminal, yet this is where it's going to get super interesting because Lydia is about to make her fatal mistake. So Horatio, her husband was naturally heartbroken over the deaths of his children and his drinking began to worsen.


Lydia, not especially happy with his brandy drinking habits or the drinking binge that he had embarked upon following the deaths of his children, decided she would spike his bottle of brandy with arsenic.


So we all know where this is heading.


Clearly, in 1871, the generally very healthy Horatio suddenly became quite ill and the family doctor, Dr. Jake Beardslee, came to treat him. But during the examination became really suspicious of his symptoms.


When Horatio died, Dr. Beardslee asked Lydia if he could order an autopsy.


And truly, amazingly, Lydia said yes to it. We're talk about this some more at the end. So Horatio's organs were sent to Yale for analysis, where Yale Professor George Frederick Barker found out that, yes, large quantities of arsenic were in the remains of the body.


And because of those results, more bodies were exhumed, autopsies were performed. And this happened for Dennis Hurlbut as well as Frankie and Addie Sherman.


And if you can all probably guess, arsenic was indeed found.


So confronted with the evidence of poison, it turned out there was no need to launch into an interrogation because Lydia confessed to murdering every single one of them.


And she was apprehended on June 7th in 1872. So at the time, she was still living in Connecticut. She was in New Brunswick. But authorities moved her to New Haven to await her trial.


And while she waited for her trial to begin, Lydia wrote a book about her alleged crimes.


The title of her best selling confession is As Long As Her Victim List.


It's crazy.


And I'm going to do our best to carry through the exclamation points of this title, which there are more than one, which is the poison fiend.


Life, Crimes and Conviction of Lydia Sherman. The modern Lucretia Borgia recently tried in New Haven, Connecticut, for poisoning three husbands and eight of her children, her life in full, exciting account of her trial, the fearful evidence, the most startling and sensational series of crimes ever committed in this country. Her conviction. It's quite a title. It's the title and then all the chapter headings I know, like she's like her conviction and then appendix. So anyway, that title aside, it was believed at the beginning of her trial that Lydia probably poisoned about a dozen people.


And I included three husbands, Edward Strauch, Dennis Hurlbut and Horatio Sherman.


And it's also believed that she poisoned between five and eight children, six of whom were her biological children, the others being her stepchildren.


It's more likely that it was eight, possibly one or two more. It's really hard to know at the because of these records.


I also have many question marks about her time as a nurse. I do, too.


I'm very meticulous, full time as a nurse. But when she confessed, Lydia calmly explained that she only meant to kill her ratio's children. That's right. You're hearing it correctly. She confessed to poisoning four children, but the killing Horatio himself was just an unfortunate accident.


Her story was that Horatio, who was often drunk, must have mistakenly mixed that arsenic. She kept in their home for controlling the rat population into the brandy that he kept next to his bed.


I always like to mix a little poison in with my. Her story does make any. Lydia's trial began in April 1872 and it only lasted eight days. The tabloids doing what they do best, called it the horror of the century and newspaper headlines named Lydia America's Queen Killer, The Poison Fiend, the modern day Lucrezia Borgia and simply the derby poison or so the derby poison are really stuck as her nickname.


But I actually personally like the poison being just my opinion wasn't there. So when Lydia appeared in court, she looked quite proper and put together. She wore a black dress, a shawl, gloves, the hat with a thin veil. And in the courtroom, despite having confessed to many murders, claimed she was innocent because, again, she thought she was being merciful.


I'm guessing I yes, I believe so. So the jury faced with an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting she, in fact, was not innocent. Remember, there was an exhumation and autopsy performed with toxicology reports. Right.


So they convicted her of second degree murder of her third husband, Horatio Sherman.


And for that second degree murder conviction, she was sentenced to life in prison. There is an interesting anecdote about Lydia's time in prison.


I thought, this is crazy. It's a little bananas. The reports show that about five years into her sentence, she feigned an illness and escaped.


And what's interesting is she didn't escape and let go on the lam and assume a different identity. She actually just went back to being Midia.


She took a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy widower. However, she was taken back to her prison cell about a week after escaping, and he survived that lucky man. Details on how she was identified and brought back and are a little stamp's, but a little bit. But she did go back to her old neighborhood and people will know you. Yeah.


So Lydia spent the rest of her life in prison. She died of cancer at the age of fifty three on May 16th, 1870, eight in the Wethersfield State Prison in Wethersfield, Connecticut.


So one of the things that Holly and I were talking about as we were putting this episode together is how, unlike most of the women we've talked about this season, Lydia is unlike Julia Agrippina, who poisoned for power, or Marie Benard, who poisoned for, frankly, just cold, hard cash. Lydia didn't ever seem to poison for any particular reason at all, except maybe our guest is to solve little problems in life, like sick with a cold out of milk, just small things that would happen in a household.


Normally Lydia's reaction was clearly we should kill the children. And this is, as we all know, not a normal way to deal with such events in your life.


And today, Lydia would have been given a mental health assessment as part of her trial. But in nineteenth century America, diagnosis and care for mental illness was pretty much nonexistent. And we talked about her husband's depression being something that was never addressed. Exactly. There were some asylums that you weren't going to be in them unless you were rich, and many of them were non delightful.


It was not really about treatment. It was about hiding people who were ill.


Exactly. It had nothing to do with your mental illness. And often things that were perceived as mental illness tended to be considered a result of brain damage. Or sometimes for some folks they would. It as demonic, perhaps a possession issue or some other ill spirit involved in creating behavior that was not societal norm in the U.S., some people with mental illness are cared for and kept safe by their families.


Lydia doesn't seem to have family. She was a housekeeper, perpetually married and had more children and killed them.


Yeah, there is obviously a mental break when you're like, oh, the baby is weak. I can fix this.


The baby has colic. Let me poison him. Yeah, it's a strain.


Or Mary's obviously an issue at hand. They're what makes me sad about Lydia's story is that no one really stepped in at any point, but I'm not sure who that would have been.


As we said, like, yeah, neighbors don't always know everybody's business and. Exactly. And and even if you do, you don't step in often. Yeah. So, yeah, this is not a particularly happy or fun one, but it is fascinating in terms of also just how many repetition cycles she managed to go through. It's a good indicator of how little information actually traveled. Unless it was headline news, you could step from life to life and no one would really be any of the wiser.


Very true. Very true. Do you want to do something fun now that we brought the room down? Oh, my gosh. Can we do something that's a little more uplifting?


So let's talk about this. What's your poison this week, Ali? All right, Lidia's poisoning crimes are horrific, but I was particularly struck by and had difficulty getting out of my head the poisoning of the baby bottle. So I came up with a cocktail called Mother's Milk. Now, that is a grim inspiration, but yes, this is delicious.


This is not like a recipe we found on the Internet really special, although it is very similar to a white Russian. OK, but in lieu of coffee liqueur, which you would normally find in a white Russian, I subbed in butterscotch schnapps.


So it's two ounces of vodka, one ounce of butterscotch schnapps and one ounce of heavy cream. And I put that into a shaker and I shook it vigorously. Yes, he did. Then you want to pour it out. You don't want to strain it because you want that little foamy whip, creamy head that you get on the cream, poured it into a scoop that just had a little bit of ice in it, because a coupe is often how you would serve a dessert cocktail or even make sure you did it on ice.


You did it on rocks. I shook it dry. I should do without ice. But then I poured it onto just a little bit of ice pretty late. And then I just tapped a little bit of nutmeg on the top of.


Oh, yeah, that's the best part of like a holiday drink.


You never get that in July, you know, very good autumnal or winter drink. And it is absolutely delicious. And yes, I super enjoyed it, although it did slap me in the face a little harder than I did. Yeah, I think it's the thing for me any time there's like a sugary liqueur in the mix, even though it's lighter in alcohol. There's something about the way my body is uptaking the sugar that it like makes a fast tunnel for the vodka, so just opens the doors.


So it was another one where I was like, just one, please. Just the one. Thank you.


I think that's a great tribute to Frankie and his baby bottle.


Yes. Obviously not good for chilled. No, no, no. Although at that time they probably were rubbing brandy on his teething go.


Right. Anyway, just time and place. Yes. In remembrance. Yes.


All of the lives cut short by Lydia Sherman. We will raise a toast and hope that if there is an afterlife, that they found peace there. So that wraps up today's show. Thank you so much for spending this time with us and learning about Lydia's harrowing story.


We hope that you will stick around and come and visit with us next time when we feature yet another lady poisoning.


Criminality is a production of Shadowland Land Audio in partnership with I Heart Radio for more podcasts from Shadowland and Audio. Please visit the I Heart radio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.