A new podcast is investigating a series of grisly murder cases in Victorian Britain and America as it aims to explore the crimes from a ‘contemporary, feminist perspective’.
Historian Lucy Worsley, 48, recalls the stories of a woman who was paid to care for babies but instead strangled ‘400’ to death during a 30-year spree and a serial killer who poisoned 11 out of 13 of her children and three of her four husbands for their insurance policies.
The BBC radio series, Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley, also includes a look at Scottish socialite, Madeleine Smith, whose family was caught in a scandal after she was accused of poisoning her older French lover.
Elsewhere, American Lizzie Borden became notorious after being tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother – and her innocence is questioned even today, with some suggesting she was after her wealthy father’s inheritance.
While some of the cases discussed by the all-female panel of experts have no mitigating circumstances, they examine how some of the women may have acted out of fear or because they were victims of abuse.
Here, FEMAIL examines the stories of the Victorian women included in the podcast and the disturbing murder cases they were involved in…
AMELIA ELIZABETH DYER: THE NURSE WHO STRANGLED 400 BABIES
VICTIM COUNT: Thought to be 400
While largely forgotten today, Amelia Dyer (pictured) has been considered one of the worst serial killers in history and is believed to have murdered more than 400 infants, according to some historians
While largely forgotten today, Amelia Dyer has been considered one of the worst serial killers in history and is believed to have murdered more than 400 infants, according to some historians.
In Victorian-era England, the practice of baby farming – in which unwed women could pay people to take custody of their unwanted infant – became widespread.
For three decades, Dyer worked as a baby farmer and adopted hundreds of infants from unwed women across Bristol and Reading.
She began to conduct her grisly trade in Bristol in the late 1860s, opening a house of confinement in the suburb of Totterdown where she took in unmarried pregnant women who had nowhere else to go.
She would accept a lump sum in exchange for her childcare services – but instead of caring for the babies, Dyer would murder the infant.
Initially, she would let the baby die through neglect and starvation. But at some point in her criminal career, she decided to forgo the expense and inconvenience of letting the infants die through malnutrition.
Instead, soon after being given the unwanted baby, Dyer would strangle them to death.
In 1879, Dyer was caught after a doctor was suspicious about the number of child deaths he had been called to certify in her care.
However she was only sentenced to six months of hard labour for neglect – and, when she was released, she resumed her baby farming career.
She stopped involving doctors to issue death certificates and began disposing of the bodies herself.
However Dyer’s downfall came in 1896 when the bagged body of an infant was discovered in Thames at Reading.
An address on the parcel paper led the police to her rented terraced house. Inside her house of horrors they were met with the stench of rotting flesh emanating from the kitchen pantry and from a trunk under her bed.
They discovered baby clothes, vaccination papers as well as letters and receipts for her newspaper advertisements offering adoption services.
A search of the River Thames was hastily ordered. After 50 bodies had been discovered she admitted to police: ‘You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks.’
She was arrested on 4 April 1896 and tried for the murder of infant Doris Marmon. The jury took only four and a half minutes to find her guilty and Dyer was hanged on June 10, 1896, in London, aged 58.
At the time of her death, a handful of murders were attributed to her, but there is little doubt she was responsible for hundreds of similar deaths.
Following Dyer’s horrific crimes, which sent a shock wave through 19th century Britain, UK adoption laws were made stricter, giving local authorities the power to police baby farms in the hope of stamping out abuse.
MARY ANN COTTON: THE WOMAN WHO BECAME BRITAIN’S FIRST CONVICTED SERIAL KILLER
DEATH COUNT: 21
Mary Ann Cotton (pictured) shocked Victorian society when she became Britain’s first convicted serial killer after murdering 21 people with her arsenic-filled teapot from 1852 to 1873
Mary Ann Cotton shocked Victorian society when she became Britain’s first convicted serial killer after murdering 21 people with her arsenic-filled teapot from 1852 to 1873.
The lives Cotton claimed included 11 of her 13 children, three of her four husbands, her mother, a lover and a friend.
Described as ‘strikingly beautiful’ at the time, she murdered her victims with arsenic poisoning apparently to collect their insurance policies.
Arsenic poisoning caused gastric pain and a rapid decline of health – which was similar to many other common medical conditions in the 1800s and therefore undetectable.
Sunderland-born Cotton is believed to have started killing after marrying her first husband William when she was 20 years old.
While living in Plymouth, she and William had five children – four of whom died of ‘gastric fever’. The couple then moved back to the North East where they had, and lost, three more children.
In 1865 William, like his children, died of an intestinal disorder, leaving his widow with an insurance pay-out.
Little over a year later, her second husband George Ward died again from intestinal problems with Cotton collecting a hefty sum of insurance.
Cotton married her third husband, James, in 1866 and the deaths continued with Cotton’s mother, a daughter, and two of James’s own offspring passing away.
Estranged from third husband James, she then bigamously married husband number four, Frederick.
The deaths again continued – Frederick, their child, Frederick’s sister, and Frederick’s own child Charles Edward Cotton and Cotton’s lover Joseph all passed away with stomach problems.
It was the death of little Charles which led to Cotton’s undoing. His body was exhumed and traces of arsenic were found.
Cotton’s trial at Durham Crown Court lasted three days, and she was found guilty of Charles’s murder and responsible for the deaths by poisoning of 11 of her children, three husbands, one lover, and her mother.
She was hanged at Durham County Gaol on March 24, 1873.
MADELEINE SMITH: THE SCOTTISH SOCIALITE WHO IS SAID TO HAVE LACED HER SECRET LOVE’S COCOA WITH ARSENIC
DEATH COUNT: 1
Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith (pictured) went on trial for murder following the death of her secret lover, middle-aged clerk Pierre Emile L’Angelier, after he drank cocoa laced with arsenic
Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith went on trial for murder following the death of her secret lover, middle-aged clerk Pierre Emile L’Angelier, after he drank cocoa laced with arsenic.
The case, which scandalised Victorian society, resulted in Scotland’s first ever not proven verdict and Madeleine fled to America, where she married three times before her death aged 92.
Her family left their home in Scotland following the scandal surrounding Madeleine, who was described by a contemporary as ‘strikingly attractive, stylish, and confident with dark hair and the most entrancing eyes’.
The socialite began her affair with Pierre in 1855 when they were introduced by a neighbour – but the difference in their social status meant Madeline became engaged to another man.
Pierre is though to have threatened to expose their romantic letters unless she married him instead.
In a meeting between the couple in 1857, Madeleine is alleged to have put arsenic in her former beau’s cocoa.
Pierre died shortly afterwards and a post-mortem revealed the presence of arsenic, resulting in Madeleine’s arrest and trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.
The prosecution case rested on Madeleine’s motive but her defence team insisted she had not seen Pierre for three weeks before his death.
Reluctant to send a woman to the gallows without more evidence, the jury returned a not proven verdict, meaning Madeleine was acquitted but left under a shadow of doubt for the rest of her life.
Following the trial, the young socialite reportedly disguised herself and caught the night train to London before fleeing to America, where she died in 1938.
Madeleine’s story has captured the imagination of many historians, playwrights, film makers and the general public since it was reported in 1857.
Having been the subject of many re-interpretations and productions (including a musical), the story of Madeleine and her love affair have persisted until this day. But why is this the case?
Her trial led to the revelation of lascivious letters that were shocking because of her gender and class, but also because of the explicit statement of her enjoyment in sexual activity.
In the context of her time, this was a shocking revelation as, although it was not unexpected that women would enjoy sex, it was understood that this would and could only happen within the marital bed.
While the tantalising story of a doomed romance ending in a possible murder still has an attractive hook for a story today, it is likely the ‘whodunnit’ element of Madeleine’s case which continues to capture the imagination.
LIZZIE BORDEN: DAUGHTER ACCUSED OF AXING HER FATHER AND STEP-MOTHER TO DEATH
VICTIM COUNT: 2
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby Borden were found murdered inside their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, which they shared with adult daughters Lizzie (pictured) and Emma
Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered with a hatchet on the morning of August 4, 1892. Their deaths remain a mystery to this day
The handle-less hatchet believed to be the murder weapon is shown on display at the Fall River Historical Society
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby Borden were found murdered inside their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, which they shared with adult daughters Lizzie and Emma.
Lizzie Borden was suspected of killing her father Andrew and her stepmother with an axe after the two wealthy victims were found hacked to death.
She was sensationally tried and found not guilty of her parents’ violent murders but, more than a century on from the grisly crimes, she continues to be the prime and only suspect in the slayings.
Andrew’s body was found on the living room couch – where he had been sleeping – by Borden . His face almost split in two from the violent axe attack. Abby, who both Lizzie and Emma disliked, was found upstairs in a pool of blood.
THE LIZZIE BORDEN RHYME
The murder and trial inspired the schoolyard rhyme: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks.
The murders and trial surrounding Borden made her a cult figure and inspired the schoolyard rhyme: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks.
‘And when she saw what she had done. She gave her father forty-one.’
In reality, Mr Borden suffered 11 ‘whacks’ and his wife suffered 18 or 19. It is believed the song was created by a newspaper vendor, and children would sing it while skipping rope.
The Borden sisters, whose mother died when they were younger, called Abby ‘Mrs. Borden’ and were fearful that she and her family wanted to get their hands on Andrew’s money.
With both Andrew and Abby out the picture, Lizzie and Emma inherited their father’s fortune.
Lizzie, then 32 and a quiet Sunday school teacher, allegedly discovered her father’s body that morning and called for the housekeeper Bridget.
As neighbours comforted Lizzie, the maid found her stepmother’s body in an upstairs guest bedroom. Both victims had died after being struck on the head with a hatchet.
Investigators determined that Abby was killed first. Police officers called to the scene suspected Lizzie immediately but did not arrest her until a week later.
The net closed in on Lizzie when she was found to have burned a dress similar to the one she wore on the day of the murders in the week after her parents’ killings.
She claimed the dress had been covered in paint but prosecutors said she was burning the blood-stained dress to cover-up the murders. Prosecutors also said she had bought a small axe the day before.
Lizzie had also attempted to buy cyanide the day before the murders and the family had mysteriously come down with food poisonings.
She was also the first person on the scene of the murders and the only person, other than the housekeeper, in the home at the time. Emma was out of town when the murders took place.
Before his death, Mr Borden had upset his two daughters by dividing property among other relatives. He had also upset Lizzie for chopping off the heads of pigeons she fed and watered.
Lizzie was arrested and put on trial for double murder.
The widely publicized trial began in New Bedford in June 1893 and gained national attention because during that time it was very uncommon for women to be accused of murder.
Lizzie was acquitted on June 20 after the jury deliberated for just 90 minutes.
They were thought to have been swayed by the fact she was an active member of the local church while the police had refused to carry out fingerprint testing on the murder weapon found in the basement saying the technique was unreliable.
No one else was ever suspected or taken into custody and the case went cold.
Lizzie and her sister, Emma, inherited most of their frugal father’s wealth which would have been around $10million today.
They lived the high life in Fall River, buying another property now known as Maplecroft in 1894, where they lived together for many years and even hosted celebrities thanks to their newfound fame.
However, despite her acquittal, the community continued to suspect Lizzie of the grisly murders and she was accused of shoplifting four years later. Her innocence is questioned even today.
Her sister Emma moved out of the home in 1905 after the two once-close sisters fell out for unknown reasons and never spoke again.
Lizzie died from pneumonia in 1927 and was buried in the family plot next to her parents.
FLORENCE BRAVO: WIFE SUSPECTED OF POISONING SECOND HUSBAND BECAUSE SHE FEARED BECOMING PREGNANT AGAIN AFRER TWO MISCARRIAGES
1845 – 1878
VICTIM COUNT: 1
Florence Bravo (pictured) was linked to the unsolved murder of her second husband barrister Charles Bravo in 1876
Florence Bravo was linked to the unsolved murder of her second husband barrister Charles Bravo in 1876.
His murderer has never been caught and in Victorian England it sparked outrage as the public questioned who the killer was.
Florence, who resented Bravo’s brutal sexual advances, was a suspect, as well as their housekeeper, who was about to be fired, and Florence’s ex-lover, the physician James Gully, according to the BBC.
Charles was murdered at his home The Priory in Balham, Surrey, when the poison potassium antimony was put in his beside glass of water.
He didn’t name anyone who might want to kill him on his deathbed, so police reportedly took this to mean he had committed suicide.
The coroner’s inquest later heard that Florence was ill after suffering two miscarriages and was scared a third pregnancy would result in her death.
Author and historian James Ruddick told the BBC how antimony was used by women in the Victorian era to control their husband’s alcohol addiction because it would make them sick in small doses.
Florence had previously been married to an alcoholic, ‘so she had plenty of experience with the poison,’ suggested the historian.
Mr Ruddick added: ‘I think on the night of the murder, Bravo wanted sex but Florence was scared that a third pregnancy might kill her.
‘In Victorian times women had no right to deny their husband sex and in these circumstances she resorted to poison.
‘But she couldn’t have done it alone. Mrs Cox (the maid) must have got rid of the glass and then misled the police. It’s a tragic story which highlights how poor a woman’s standing was back then.’