Lydia Sherman had an unfortunate addiction to murder. She went on a decades-long killing spree in New York and Connecticut, poisoning at least eight children and three of her husbands.
Her sensational trial in 1872 resulted in newspaper headlines that called her “America’s Queen Killer,” “The Poison Fiend,” “The Modern-Day Lucretia Borgia” or simply, “The Derby Poisoner.”
While awaiting trial, she wrote a best-selling confession, called, Lydia Sherman exploited her fame by penning a confessional, which rose to the best seller list. She titled the book, 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.
The childhood of Lydia Sherman offers few clues to her emergence as a serial killer. She was born Lydia Danbury on Christmas Eve, 1824, in Burlington, N.J. A year after her birth, her mother died, and she went to live on her uncle’s farm until she turned 16. Then she went to live with her brother in New Brunswick.
She was slim and pretty, with blue eyes, dark hair and porcelain skin. She also had a strong attachment to the Methodist church. At 18, she attended a Methodist dinner and met Edward Struck, a widowed blacksmith with six children. Shortly afterward, he proposed marriage. She said ‘yes.’
They set up housekeeping in New York City and had eight children of their own. With such a large family to support, Edward Struck decided he needed more income. So he got a job as a New York City police officer. But a few years into the job, witnesses charged him with cowardice during a hotel robbery in Manhattan. Edward Struck lost his job.
How It Started
One day she went to the drugstore to buy arsenic, easy to obtain as a rat-killing poison in the 19th century. She stirred a thimbleful into Edward’s oatmeal – though a few grains will kill a man – and after several agonizing hours he died. First his throat burned, then he suffered excruciating abdominal pains and diarrhea, then convulsions and finally death.
Months earlier, their two-year-old daughter Lydia contracted measles but died of similar symptoms. Her mother never admitted to killing her, though she confessed to killing eight other children. .
As the Civil War raged, Lydia created carnage in her own household. Without any means of support and young children to feed, Lydia decided her youngest three — Martha Ann, 6; Edward, Jr., 4 and William, 9 months old — “could do nothing for me or for themselves.” She decided to put them out of the way the same way she had disposed of their father. Less than six weeks after killing Edward Struck, Lydia poisoned her three children.
Three of her older children stayed alive, at least for a while, by finding work to support the family. But then George, 14, contracted lead poisoning from his job as a painter. He took to his bed, a fatal mistake. His mother gave him arsenic in his tea.
Lydia’s 12-year-old daughter Ann Eliza was the next to go, as she didn’t have a job and had always been sickly. John, 16, had moved out of the house, which probably saved his life. Eighteen-year-old Lydia, the last child living at home, had a job as a retail clerk. But then she fell ill and had to stay in bed. Soon, her mother got rid of her the same way she got rid of the others.
Then she got a job as a nurse.
Move to Connecticut
By the end of the Civil War, Lydia’s stepson Cornelius Struck grew suspicious about Lydia and shared his concern with the district attorney. The DA promised an investigation, but nothing happened.
When the Civil War ended, Lydia got a job selling sewing machines in New York City. She met John Curtiss, a customer impressed with the 41-year-old’s nursing experience. In 1867, he hired her to take care of his elderly mother in Stratford, Conn.
After eight months with the old lady, she encountered a rich widower named Dennis Hurlburt in the local grocery store. She still had her looks and enough charm to convince Hurlburt he needed her as his housekeeper. She accepted the job, and soon he asked her to marry him.
On Nov. 22, 1868, Lydia married Dennis Hurlburt and made sure he wrote her into his will. Fourteen months into the marriage, she noticed his hands shaking while he shaved for church. He said he felt dizzy, and couldn’t shake it off.
She decided he suffered from some malady, so she put him out of his suffering with a large dose of arsenic in his clam chowder. Three excruciating days later, Hurlburt died, leaving Lydia $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash.
Eight weeks later, she met a Derby, Conn., factory mechanic named Horatio Sherman, a recent widower with four children. They married within a few months later, and she moved to Derby.
Lydia Sherman Unmasked
Horatio Sherman, unaware of his wife’s murderous proclivities, drank heavily and spent her money freely. One day, while drunk, he ranted that he wished his sickly infant son Frankie would die to end his suffering.
Lydia Sherman took the hint, and mixed a little arsenic into the baby’s milk. He died quickly. The next month, her 14-year-old stepdaughter Ada came down with the flu. Doctors couldn’t help her but Lydia Sherman knew how to take care of her.
The death of his beloved daughter caused Horatio Sherman to go on a bender. Lydia decided to make her husband sick of liquor, so she spiked a bottle of brandy with arsenic. When he took to his bed, she left the brandy by his bedside.
When Dr. J.C. Beardsley came to treat Horatio, he grew suspicious of his strange symptoms. Horatio, inevitably, died, and the doctor asked Lydia Sherman if he could order a post mortem. She agreed.
Beardsley sent Horatio Sherman’s organs to Yale for analysis. Sure enough, Yale professor George Frederick Barker found large quantities of arsenic in Horatio Sherman’s body.
Autopsies performed on Dennis Hurlburt and Frankie and Ada Sherman found more arsenic.
Arrest and Trial
Lydia Sherman had moved to New Brunswick to live with her family, but on June 7, 1872, police arrested her for murder. They took her to New Haven to await trial.
Her trial began on April 16, 1872 and lasted eight days. Lydia Sherman appeared prim and proper in court, wearing a black alpaca dress, a shawl, gloves, a straw hat with a thin veil. She steadfastly claimed her innocence. But the jury, faced with overwhelming evidence, convicted her of the second-degree murder of Horatio Sherman.
Tabloids called it the Horror of the Century.
Five years into her prison sentence, she pretended to have a serious illness and escaped. She got a job as a housekeeper to a rich widower in Providence. He survived his employee, probably because authorities tracked her down after a week and sent her back to prison in Wethersfield, Conn..
Lydia Sherman died on May 16, 1878, from cancer. No one gave her any arsenic to put her out of her misery.
With thanks to Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Connecticut History by Ray Bendici. This story was updated in 2020.