Victorian Death, Mourning, & Haunted Occult Cultural History

Hell, Hath No Fury: 15 Insatiably Murderous Victorian Women

We humans have an odd fascination with death and murder in our literature, and later in our newspapers tracing back to the Antebellum and Victorian ages. Sensational coverage of news and crimes, the birth of the gothic horror novel, coupled with the high mortality rates of the 1800s, led to a morbid fascination that in some minds turned to murder. We’ve all heard of famous male serial killers, such as Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, but few think women capable of mass murder. History is full of women leaving scores of victims in their wake; mythology is full of women killing for pleasure, profit, or passion. Murderous slaveholders, cold-hearted black widows, and nurses turned Angels of Death took just as many victims, if not more in some cases, than some of our more prolific male serial killers of the time. There is quite a list of evil ladies murdering their way through history, but here are 15 of some of the more vicious females to grace the Victorian era and your nightmares.

Belle Gunness

a picture of Belle Gunness with Her Children

“Hell’s Belle” Gunness was a Norwegian immigrant who left a trail of bloody bodies in her wake. Belle is suspected in the deaths of at least 40 people in America. Considered a Black Widow, Belle killed her own children, including her husbands and boyfriends. After placing life insurance on her children, they mysteriously died, as did her husbands. She was linked to numerous arsons and insurance-related schemes throughout Midwestern America after she immigrated in her early 20s. All of Belle’s husbands would die from mysterious illnesses, and ironically, one would die on the very day he had two separate life insurance policies overlap. After placing personals as a widow in the local newspaper, suitors began to call on Belle. Soon after courting Hell’s Belle they too went missing, along with the gifts and money they had brought with them to prove their suit. Belle knew time was getting short, she played her lover and partner in crime perfectly, and left him holding the bag. She poisoned her remaining children, set her farmhouse on fire, drained her by now considerable $250,000 bank account, a sum worth $6.7 million today, and she disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. When the Sheriff finally caught up with her, there were well over of 40 bodies found on Belle’s property, including her children and her lover.

Jane Toppan

a picture of Serial killer Jane Toppan (1854-1938)

“Jolly” Jane Toppan, born Honora Kelley in 1857 in Boston, was an orphan and later indentured servant. After serving in her house for over twenty years she racked up quite the deviant reputation for being a heavy drinker, brash, and an unattractive gossip who delighted in turning others against one another in medical school. Jolly Jane developed an odd fascination with autopsies and the dead, which was in stark contrast was Jane’s reputation as a highly skilled and compassionate nurse. Jane cold bloodedly killed her foster-sister, suitors, patients, people who angered her, and the ones who had things she wanted. Jane said she wanted to kill more people than anyone in history and that she started her murderous career after being dumped by a potential suitor. At the time of her arrest in 1901, at the age of 44, Jane is known to be responsible for the deaths of 31 people, some entire families, including the one she served for twenty years. She confessed to those 31 murders but said that the number was closer to 100. According to the New England Historical Society, she was rumored to have threatened other patients saying to a nurse that she should, “Get some morphine, dearie, and we’ll go out in the ward. You and I will have much fun seeing them die.”

Ella Holdridge

a drawing of Ella Holdridge (

Ella Holdridge was another murderous female who would start her reign of terror early in life, at the tender age of 14. She was rumored to have developed a taste for deaths and funerals; she became fascinated with corpses, especially when she felt “they looked nice dead.” She developed a morbid interest in coffins and all manner of death. After a spate of deaths and funerals in her little hometown outside of Buffalo in 1892, Ella grew bored after the funerals stopped. She decided she would take it upon herself to help create some work for the undertaker and create some funerals. According to the article in Buffalo newspapers, Ella poisoned one girl who she said, “made the prettiest corpse ever.” She attempted to poison three other children but was finally caught, but Ella never served a day for her crimes.

Mary Ann Cotton

a photo of Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton was born in England on Halloween in 1832 and at the time of her death was suspected of at least 15 murders, but accounts range to between 21 and 30 victims. Mary killed her husbands, her children, and all her boyfriends by using a deadly poison. She watched them all die of severe painful illnesses only to bury them later, earning herself the nickname of a Black Widow. Not only was she particularly brutal in the killings of her own 12 children, but she is also said to have put insurance on her husbands and children and collected a considerable amount of money at their deaths. Mary was arrested for the murder of her stepson whom she tried to collect insurance upon. At the time of her arrest a policeman said that Mary had “lost” in total three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother, and eleven children, all of whom had died of the very same type of stomach fevers. Mary Ann Cotton went to the gallows proclaiming her innocence, and in 1873 was hanged for her numerous crimes.

Maria Catherina Swanenburg

a photo of Maria Swanenburg (1839–1915), PetroTimes. 23 October 2014. (in Vietnamese)

Maria Catherina Swanenburg is a Dutch murderous born in 1839; she was called Goede Mie which translates to Good Mee, ironically because she was a beloved caregiver of the sick, and of little children. It is known that she poisoned at least 107 people and that 27 of those people died, including her family members and husbands. Like so many other Black Widows of her day, her weapon of choice was poison and her motive, insurance money or through the money she was to inherit through the estates of her husbands and family. They say her first cold-blooded killing was her very own mother who died due to ingesting poison that caused a lingering and painful illness. After attempting to murder an entire family, she was finally arrested and tried and sent to prison for the murders of three of her many victims.

Louise Vermilya

a photo of Louise Vermilya

Louise Vermilya is another particularly nasty Black Widow who had a fondness for arsenic, funerals, and dead bodies. Beginning in 1893 up until 1913 Louise’s arsenic would claim the lives of husbands, relatives, and children. As heinous and brutal as the crimes were though, it was the Necrophilism diagnosis from the doctor’s that may have been what saved her life, due to mental instability she went free and all charges were remarkably dropped. The woman who viciously took the lives of children and husbands in such brutal a manner would live out the rest of her days as quietly possible in the wake of the sensational scandal that destroyed her reputation. As with so many of the ladies on our list, Louise made quite a knot off her murder spree. Lydia gained at least $15,000 in insurance money, a considerable sum to gain while getting away with murder.

Lydia Sherman

1872 booking photo of serial killer Lydia Sherman

Lydia Sherman is another woman who managed to hide her murderous ways for decades and decades. Lydia poisoned to death at least eight children and three husbands in New York and Connecticut, only to be caught and stand trial in 1872. According to the New England Historical Society, the headlines in papers called her “America’s Queen Killer,” “The Poison Fiend,” “The Modern-Day Lucretia Borgia,” or simply, “The Derby Poisoner.” Lydia continued to profit from murder while languishing in prison, she wrote a New York Times Bestseller sensationally called, The Poison Fiend!: Life, Crimes, and Conviction of Lydia Sherman, (the Modern Lucretia Borgia,) Recently Tried in New Haven, Conn., 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 and Confession. For Lydia, crime most certainly paid!

Laura D. Fair

Laura D. Fair was called the Woman in Black after she murdered her lover in a sensational fashion. Alexander P. Crittenden, a prominent California legislator, carried on an affair with his mistress, Laura Fair, for years, until she snuck up behind him and shot him in cold blooded murder. Mrs. Fair had married and widowed several times prior to meeting and falling in love with the slick politician. After years of a tumultuous affair, and even suggestions that she move into his home with his wife and children to continue the affair, Laura wanted more. Their time started ending in loud arguments over divorce and threats of violence. After shooting at him in a stairwell and threats of suicide had not worked, she boarded the El Capitan, the San Francisco Bay Ferry in November of 1870 with thoughts of murder. Donned head to toe in black lace, her face hidden by a veil, she ended her lover’s life in front of his wife and children before being taken into custody on board the ferry.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden

a photo of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden needs very little introduction. A list of Murderous Victorian women is not complete without the inclusion of Lizzie Borden, accused of killing her father and stepmother with an ax. The horrific murder became international news, spawning a popular rhyme. It was a sweltering day in August of 1892 that was the Borden’s last, both Lizzie’s stepmother and father had their heads crushed. Lizzie was arrested days after she was found burning a dress, she said had paint on it. That house and family were not unused to murder. Years prior, in the same home, a mother killed all her children in the home. In a sensational trial that fascinated the world, Lizzie was finally acquitted and attempted to live a peaceful life. On an interesting side note, some are suggesting this might have been the work of a serial killer just starting on the eastern seaboard who was also bashing people’s brains in with an ax. The crime fits his MO, as well as all the victims lived close to railroad tracks, just as the Borden’s home. Did Lizzie do it?

Minnie Wallace Walkup

a photo of Minnie Wallace Walkup

Minnie Wallace-Walkup, called the New Orleans Vamp, met a successful businessman, James Reeves Walkup, who fell madly in love with her. Reeves, 48, had a long history of very lurid affairs, mistresses, and a history of frequenting brothels, but Minnie enchanted him to marry once more. He would be the first in a string of wealthy, and much older men, that would court Minnie, and within a month of marriage they were dead. Now, what is intriguing about Minnie, she got off like so many other ladies of this list, but she had a line of powerful men coming to her defense any time one the murders went to court. The trail of men coming to aid Miss Minnie through the years earned her the nickname, the New Orleans Vamp. That’s right, Minnie escaped her fate many times over and died a wealthy woman at the age of 88. For some of these ladies, murder truly paid.

Martha “Patty” Cannon

a woodcut image entitled "Kidnapping a free black to be sold into slavery," Library of Congress

Martha “Patty” Cannon, aka Lucretia Patricia Hanly aka Patty Cannon led a horrific life of torture as a slaver, but for Patty, it was about pleasure and money. She is known as one of the most sadistic slavers in the South. She and her gang kidnapped slaves off their plantations, and free black Americans off the streets, only to sell them all into slavery once again. Patty had a wicked mean streak in her, and she loved to torture people, and children, as the book cover above displays. When they exhumed her property, they found several more bodies. She was quoted as saying, “It did her heart such good to see him [her partner] whip them boys.” The trials for the slaves who made it back to freedom saw Patty in more trouble than anything she had done. When more mutilated bodies were found on her property she was arrested and finally sent to jail for the rest of her life. She died in her cell an old woman, her mysterious cause of death is unknown, was it suicide or natural causes for Patty? The world never knew.

Henrietta Robinson

a drawing of Henrietta Robinson

Henrietta Robinson, the Veiled Murderess, was a mystery to all at her trial and still is today. Throughout the entire trial, she remained with her face covered by a black veil. The woman’s true identity and reasons for murder are still largely unknown. She made up wild stories about her upbringing. She had plenty of money, but no one knew how. She was erratic, her behavior chaotic, she was paranoid, and armed! She was known to pull her weapons anytime she felt persecuted or maligned. She was said to have done odd things and had strange behavior, yet she was living in a large city alone, a woman, and affecting a life of means. After being invited to drink with a group in the bar, she very oddly said she made her own beer they should try, but it needed sugar she said. After passing out the beers laced with her sugar, she then declared she did not wish to drink that evening and dismissed herself from the bar. Shortly after, two of the three people who invited Henrietta to join them were dead, having drank the deadly beer. She gave no reasons as to why she killed them, but after a sensational trial she was sentenced to hang for her crimes. Henrietta was later recipient of an equally mysterious sentence commuting, powerful men were lobbying for her right and left, and she did not hang. She did take her identity to the grave many years later when she died in prison.

Sarah Jane Robinson

a drawing of Sarah Jane Robinson

Sarah Jane Robinson, the Massachusetts Borgia, is noted for numerous deaths around her, presumably eight. She often took out life insurance on her husband and family members only to have them die a short time later. Her drug of choice? Arsenic of course! The cruel woman would care for other’s who do not survive their illnesses. In the case of one victim, $3000 in cash disappeared from his room upon his death. The Order of the Pilgrims Father Insurance Company got suspicious and called the chief of police. He in turn arrested Sarah Robinson, but not until after the death of many of her children, her husband, and other relatives. After a hung jury they were finally able to convict the woman. She was sentenced to hang, but would have that sentence commuted for life in solitary confinement. She died at the age of 67 in prison, having received her justice.

Nancy E. Clem

a portrait of Nancy Clem from 1869

Nancy E. Clem, the Notorious Mrs. Clem, was said to have been the ring leader in what is now called a Ponzi scheme, and she was good at it too. She had an excellent reputation, as was that of her business partner, but they were unconventional and highly illegal. It has been suggested that though the victims were the face of the company, and the ones lending money on the streets, they were actually in business with Mrs. Clem as well. As these schemes often do, the world they created of fraud and theft was falling apart. Mrs. Clem was trying desperately to stay above the situation when her business partner, Jacob, and his wife, left town with thousands of dollars. They were found, shot to death in an apparent murder-suicide that was quickly declared murder. The cold-blooded Mrs. Clem killed her partners who tried to skip town with their money. William Henry Harrison, who later became the president of the United States, tried the case of Mrs. Clem. After four long trials all ending in a hung jury, and a fifth set to begin, Mrs. Clem went free and was never tried for murder again, but not for lack of murders, or lack of attempts to try her in court! A few years of quiet go by, until a Mrs. Dr. Patterson is arrested for the murder of a man in her care. After a great deal of digging into the woman’s past it turned out to be the notorious Mrs. Nancy Clem! This time, Nancy Clem fled the county and was never seen again, once more she got away with murder.

Amelia Dyer

a photograph of Amela Dyer upon entry to Wells Asylum in 1893

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener aka Amelia Dryer is one of history’s most prolific serial killers, accused of killing over 400 infants and children in her care in the late 1800s. In the Victorian period it was increasingly difficult for women without husbands to provide for their children, often these children were put up for adoption in the hopes the heart-breaking decision would see the children in better homes. Sadly, many baby farmers pocketed the money and neglected the children. Amelia wasn’t content with simple neglect, it wasn’t fast enough, and after a stint in prison for neglect of said victims, she decided to poison them and dumping their infant bodies in the Thames. This was far more lucrative and much quicker. Her daughter, Mary Ann, said that her mother, Amelia, often heard voices, and threatened her and her siblings as children. She went onto say that her mother had attempted to murder her as well. Amelia was finally hanged for the murder of over 400 children. However, Amelia passed along her murderous insanity to her daughter, Mary Ann, long before being jailed for her crimes. Mary Ann, her daughter, later served time for abuse and abandonment of children. She is suspected in the deaths of two infants despite her mother, Amelia, confessing to the crime. Many feel Amelia was covering up her daughter’s crime while passing along the family “business” of baby farming.

In today’s world it is certainly a matter of debate whether these women really got what they deserved. Certainly, many lived out long lives with no penalty for their crimes. The Victorian era was naïve to the idea that women were capable of committing cold blooded murder, nor did they feel they were intelligent enough to profit from or get away with the deed. Think twice ladies before you try to profit from murder! Today’s law enforcement is far less naïve.