“Well-behaved women seldom make history” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Black widows, purveyors of poisons, and bloodthirsty female serial killers who served venom on a silver platter play the leading roles in the following stories of misandry and fortune hunting
Poisons have been around since the dawn of time. Locusta, the world’s first documented serial killer and professional poisoner, was hired by Nero to dispose of his political adversaries. During the Renaissance, poisons became an art form, and in 17th century France, The Affair of the Poisons revealed an intricate network of highly placed people who resorted to witchcraft and wholesale poisons in their murderous pursuits. Poison is both the aristocrat and middle-class woman’s weapon of choice, and with good reason: it is tasteless, odorless, and leaves little or no traces. Murders can easily be mistaken for natural causes. A spine-tingling reminder to beware of the unseen.
10. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins – “The Black Widows of Liverpool”
In 1881, Thomas Higgins moved into Catherine and Margaret Flanagan’s house together with his wife and young daughter. Shortly after, Higgins’ wife died. The widower sought comfort in Margaret’s loving arms, whom he soon married. But this did not put an end to his misfortune. After the wedding, his daughter died and it wasn’t long before he joined her, symptoms pointing towards dysentery. But Higgins’ brother smelled a rat and alerted the authorities who exhumed the body and found traces of arsenic poisoning. He wasn’t the sisters’ first victim. The bodies of Catherine’s son, Higgins’ daughter, and a young lodger were exhumed as well, all containing large doses of arsenic. Nicknamed “The Black Widows of Liverpool,” their motif was simple: they killed to collect the insurance money using arsenic they obtained by soaking flypaper. In 1884, Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins were convicted for the death of Margaret’s husband and were executed by hanging.
9. Lydia Sherman – “The Derby Poisoner”
In the mid 1860s, Lydia Sherman found herself in quite a predicament with an unemployed husband and six dependent children. A divorce would have cost money and time. Poison was cheaper and easier to use. So she served her husband a bowl of oatmeal gruel seasoned with arsenic. Then, she gave arsenic-laced chocolate to her six children and collected the insurance money.
It was time for a fresh start, and Lydia found a wealthy farmer considerably older than her. She poisoned his clam chowder a year later. She remarried and she just couldn’t help but poison her third husband too. Between 1864 and 1871, Lydia Sherman sent 10 people to an early grave. Dubbed “The Derby Poisoner,” “America’s Queen Poisoner,” or “Connecticut’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia’,” Lydia Sherman was accused of murder in 1871. She did not see the gallows because women were not sentenced to death at the time. Instead, she received the maximum penalty of life in prison.
8. Marie Besnard – “The Good Lady of Loudun”
Marie’s first husband died of pleurisy in 1927. One year later, she married Leon Besnard, whose parents had just inherited a significant family fortune. Marie invited her parents-in-law to move in with them. Shortly after, Leon’s father died from eating poisoned mushrooms, followed by the mother, who died from pneumonia. The family wealth was left to Leon and his sister. The latter conveniently committed suicide not long after.
Friends and locals began talking about the “Besnard jinx.” But when Leon suddenly died of uremia after starting an affair, his suspicious lover alerted the authorities. Autopsy revealed large doses of arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed, and Marie Besnard was charged with multiple murders. Between 1927 and 1949, she poisoned 11 people, including her parents and two cousins, all to secure her inheritance. Trials lasted 10 years, and “thanks” to a clever lawyer, the French “Queen of Poisoners” was acquitted in 1961.
7. Gesche Gottfried – “The Angel of Bremen”
A blue-eyed attractive blonde, the perfect German doll, Gesche Gottfried is a cold reminder that looks can be deceiving. Suitors flocked at her doorstep, but she chose Mittenberg, a handsome but prodigal man she married in 1815. It was a disaster: Mittenberg was a notorious drunkard. Gesche took a lover, but she soon decided it would be better to get rid of her husband and slipped arsenic into his beer. Believing he died because of alcohol abuse, nobody suspected her.
Now free as a bird, Gesche found herself in a deadlock when her lover refused to marry her, discouraged by her two children. So she poisoned them in their sleep. When her parents opposed the marriage, she poisoned them too. Still refusing to marry her, she poisoned her lover until he finally married her on his deathbed. He passed away a few hours later, leaving all his fortune to Gesche. She was nicknamed “The Angel of Bremen” because of the care with which she nursed her ill family and friends. That was of course before she was caught when one of her friends noticed a strange white powder covering the food she served him.
Between 1813 and 1827, she was found guilty of murdering 15 people, although it was suspected there may have been as many as 30 victims. She did not defend herself during the trial, proudly confessing her murders, declaring they gave her immense satisfaction. Gesche Gottfried was guillotined in 1831.
6. Mary Ann Cotton – Britain’s Mass Murderess
Poor Mary Ann Cotton. Her life seemed an endless string of unfortunate events. Her father died when she was little. During her first marriage, four of her five infant children died from gastric fever. It wasn’t long before her husband joined them, blaming intestinal problems. She remarried, but disaster continued to follow her around. In total, eight of her own children died, three husbands, a lover, her mother, and an unlucky fellow who nosed around her business. Authorities began suspecting something rotten. In 1908, when her farm caught fire, they found a body buried in the foundation. Bodies of her family were exhumed and toxicology exams revealed arsenic. The British serial killer did it for the money. All her 21 victims were part of a plan to collect insurance she would use to buy… a pig farm. Talk about big dreams! She was sent to the gallows in 1873. For some reason, the hangman miscalculated the drop and she was left wobbling for three whole minutes. Britain’s black widow was served a slow and painful death.
5. Vera Renczi – A Modern Mrs. Bluebeard
Born in Bucharest to a family of wealthy aristocrats, Vera Renczi was a woman of rare beauty whose wine cellar concealed a horrifying secret. In the 1920s, her first husband curiously disappeared after Vera gave birth to their son. She claimed he ran away with some woman. She was very convincing. Little did her neighbors know that he was already decomposing in a custom-made coffin in her cellar. Then, she married Joseph Rencz, who was a rather wandering spirit. Sensing this, Vera prepared a cozy coffin and he soon joined his predecessor. Most female poisoners kill for two reasons: to eliminate enemies or to dispose of their husbands to secure their fortune. But Vera Renczi showed signs of pathological distrust in men. She was paranoid. Driven by jealousy, at the slightest hint of infidelity she poisoned her lovers with arsenic. She’d then place them in a coffin in her wine cellar, where they’d stay close to her forever.
An angry wife whose husband went missing reported her to the police. She sent two husbands, 32 lovers, and her own son who accidentally walked in on her to an early grave. The police found 35 coffins occupied by decomposing bodies. Vera was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
4. The Marquise de Brinvilliers
A French noblewoman, Madeleine de Brinvilliers married into a family of wealthy tapestry makers who worked for the king himself. Years after, she fell in love with a cavalry captain. Her husband didn’t really mind, but her father, who opposed the affair, imprisoned him in the Bastille where he became familiar with Italian poisons. In the meantime, Madeleine’s husband was recklessly spending money, so she decided it would be best to poison her father to inherit his fortune. But first, she experimented on poor patients, slipping poison into pastries she sent as charity to a hospital. She was pleased with the results and killed her father in 1666.
When the inheritance was nearly spent, she poisoned two of her brothers in 1670, raising the authorities’ awareness. She fled to England and then Germany, but was captured and confessed in 1675. Between 1664 and 1673, the Marquise de Brinvilliers poisoned 50 patients just for practice. She also attempted to poison her husband. She was tortured, beheaded, and her body was burned at the stake in 1676. Her trial marked the beginning of the infamous Affair of the Poisons that saw a number of French aristocrats being accused of resorting to poison and witchcraft to dispose of their enemies under King Louis XIV.
3. Jane Toppan – “Jolly Jane”
Born Honora Kelley, Jane Toppan was a Boston-born nurse who was arrested in 1901 after an overwhelming number of patients mysteriously died under her care. In 1885, she began experimenting on her patients with morphine and atropine, curious to see the effects on their nervous system. She administered shots and served lethal cocktails, carefully observing them giving their last breath. In 1895, she set off on a killing spree poisoning her landlords. After killing widower Alden Davis and his two daughters, a toxicology exam revealed traces of poison. Other bodies were exhumed, all containing large doses of morphine and atropine.
Nicknamed “The Poisonous Nursemaid,” Jane Toppan provided details for 31 murders, but it is believed she poisoned as many as 70 people. She was sent to trial but was found not guilty and declared insane. Jane was sentenced to life in the Taunton Insane Hospital. As to her motifs, she simply declared she wanted to kill more people than anyone before her. Unlike any other serial killer in history, she did not kill for vengeance, jealousy, or financial gain, but for the satisfaction of holding her victims in her arms while slowly passing away.
2. Julia Fazekas and Susannah Olah – The Angel Makers of Nagyrev
During World War One, Julia Fazekas arrived in the small Hungarian village of Nagyrev to work as a midwife. No one seemed to bother that her husband mysteriously vanished on the way. When their men went to war, the women of Nagyrev finally experienced freedom and got involved with Allied prisoners of war. Fazekas handled the abortions. When the men returned home, Fazekas and her partner in crime, a reputed witch by the name of Susannah Olah, started a profitable business supplying arsenic to women who wished to escape their marriage, as divorce was unacceptable at the time. They obtained the arsenic by boiling and soaking flypaper. Soon, other women joined the group, calling themselves The Angel Makers of Nagyrev. Between 1914 and 1929, they became responsible for the deaths of over 300 people, but were only accused of 100. They finally faced justice when one of the angels poisoned a glass of wine that was detected just in time. Of the 38 women arrested, only 26 were trialed. Julia Fazekas escaped by committing suicide using her own poison. Susannah Olah was sentenced to death.
1. Signora Giulia Tofana – The Murderous Make-Up Artist
In the mid 17th century, women wanted two things: a white glowing complexion and money. That’s where Signora Giulia Tofana entered the scene, a purveyor of cosmetics and… poison. She sold Aqua Tofana, an arsenic-based face paint, advising her female customers to apply it on their face, neck, and cleavage before meeting their husbands. Under no circumstance should they ingest the powder. They soon became rich widows. And it was no coincidence. Tofana changed her name and residence a few times before being caught. She confessed to murdering as many as 600 husbands. She was sent to trial, tortured, and strangled to death in prison. Unfortunately, she did not take the recipe for Aqua Tofana to the grave. The poisonous complexion aide continued to claim its share of victims. At the time of his death, it was widely believed that Mozart was poisoned with Aqua Tofana.