Society, Long Reads
The Luck of Lydia Sherman:
How Gender in the 19th Century Impacted
Felony Prosecution and Criminal Justice
Thomas Bertron | February 2021
Lydia Sherman in 1872
“In cases… when a woman coolly and deliberately makes a life-long business of murder, she invariably selectes poion [sic]… Lucrezia Borgia… was the poisoner of all her political enemies with whom she came into contact… The German poisoner, Anna Maria Zwanziyer, was one of the most audacious of poisoners, and literally planted arsenic in every direction.”48
She met her first husband, Edward Struck, when she was seventeen. They had seven children. Edward was a police officer, but one day acted unprofessionally and went off duty without leave. Due to this, he was dishonorably discharged from the police force, which sent him into a downward spiral. He became very depressed, physically feeble, and was eventually unable to work. From Lydia’s point of view, he became a nuisance and a burden. A male friend suggested Lydia put Edward out of his misery, via poison. His reason was that he did not believe Edward would get better. Lydia murdered Edward and four of their children. No suspicion was ever aroused, as child mortality was common, and it was common for the wife, and mother, to take care of those who were sick in her household.
After the deaths of her first family, Sherman started working as nurse, which was how she met her second husband, Dennis Hurlburt, 74 years of age. Within a year of marriage, he was dead. Even though the death was unexpected, no suspicion was aroused. As she had done before, she again hired herself out as a nurse. Through her work, she met widower Horatio Sherman. On September 15, 1870, they married, and she became the stepmother to his four children.
Tragedy struck the Sherman clan soon after. On November 16, the youngest of the children, an infant, died. On December 31, another child, daughter Ada, also died. Then on May 9, 1871, Horatio passed away. Until the death of her third husband, no suspicion had fallen on Lydia. But upon his death, she was suspected of causing not just his death, but also the two stepchildren and her second husband. All four bodies were exhumed, and each contained arsenic. Their causes of death were found to have been caused by poisoning.
On June 30, 1871, she was arrested by Connecticut police, and in July she was examined by a Connecticut court.1 Even though she was suspected of causing the deaths of her last two husbands and the stepchildren, she was only tried for the death of Horatio. In April of 1872, she was found guilty of murder in the second degree, charged with the killing of Horatio Sherman, and was sentenced to spend the rest of her natural life in a penitentiary.2 In January of 1873, she made her confession, saying she had poisoned not just the four people she was suspected of, but also her first family.3 In 1877, four years into her sentence, she convinced her warden that she was deathly ill. Due to her gender, she was not guarded as heavily, and so was able to make her escape from prison.4 She was captured swiftly, however, and died in 1878.5
Ideas about women in nineteenth-century America help explain why she was able to get away with murder for so long. Women as a whole were held to a very strict standard and were seen as being morally “superior” to men, specifically endowed with an unquantifiable “piety” or “devoutness.” These stereotypes assisted Lydia in evading suspicion, and it is important to understand how, once she attracted suspicion, why she was eventually able to evade the death penalty. If she had been convicted of murder in the first degree, then she would have been hanged. This, as will be seen in this paper, was a sentence that a man would have received if put in the same situation as Sherman. Even as a convicted murderer, the “purity” of her gender was at stake. The jurors, as will be seen, could not bring themselves to condemn her to such a fate.
In the late nineteenth century, women were expected to abide by strict gender norms. In Barbara Welter’s classic article, she examines the antebellum view of what was considered a “True Woman.” Characteristics of these True Women included piety, purity, and domesticity.6 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explores women’s spheres of influence, which were centered around the home and church.7 Deborah Judd and Kathleen Sitzman provided details on the history of American nursing, and show that nurses were expected to exhibit typical feminine traits.8 Women who acted differently than the norm were treated like black sheep.
Women who committed murder were portrayed as “unwomanly” in the media.9 Still, as Elizabeth Rapaport argues, women were less likely to be convicted and sentenced to death than men.10 Wendy Gamber shows how the criminal justice system worked to mold women into traditional gender norms.11 Scholarship on women who kill is also revealing. Women who are serial killers are more likely to murder people they have a relationship with, including dependents.12 Peter Vronsky’s book on serial killers shows that female killers are less likely to leave evidence of their killings.13 This paper will argue that strict gender norms and stereotypical views of women helped Lydia Sherman evade the death penalty. Scholars have not examined sufficiently how specific gender norms were helpful in keeping women off death row.
In nineteenth-century America, the notion that a woman, especially one of high status, would commit murder, or multiple murders, was something that was difficult to fathom. The Chicago Tribune asked its readers: “Think of a woman living in a respectable house in the midst of a large village, mingling with society, and always passing for a lady of unusual intelligence, being suddenly suspected of a long series of horrible secret crimes, and one will not wonder at seeing the whole county in which she lived thunderstruck and horrified.”14 The term “thunderstruck” emphasized that it was not normal for women to be suspected or even connected to such crimes. Other newspapers connected her killings to the nation’s rising crime rate: “The extent of crime in the United States at the present date, is fearful to contemplate… The press of the country, especially the journals of our large towns and cities, daily teem with the most horrible details of crime.”15 True Women embodied purity. Until her trial, Lydia had been thought of as a True Woman. The New York Herald reported: “Latterly, the public has been shocked by the perpetration or strong suspicion of the most heinous crimes. They have been so horrible and repugnant to human nature and the civilization of the age that the people and judges and juries can hardly believe them possible. Strange to say, too, most of these horrible crimes of late have been charged to women, and, in some cases, to women of respectable character and conduct otherwise.”16 It was unthinkable for women to commit such horrendous deeds. To hear that Lydia, among other women, were committing murders struck people as completely unexpected and shocking. Women were believed to represent everything that was morally good in the world. Yet, some committed actions that ruined this point of view.
Lydia’s privileged background gained attention in reports detailing her crimes. A North Carolina paper noted: “In a graver and decidedly a tragic sense we find [women] latterly entering into competition with man. We allude to the… tidal wave of murder that has but lately swept across our continent, and has left at this very moment three prominent women, with blood up to their hands…we allude, of course, to…Mrs. Lydia Sherman, the Birmingham Borgia.”17 People of high stature in society, especially women, were supposed to be morally “upright.” The New York Herald called attention to Sherman’s social class, mentioning, “The house in which the alleged murders were committed is a neat and substantial double wooden structure, two stories and a half high, on Elizabeth Street, near the public park and in an aristocratic neighborhood.”18 The home was considered one of the most sacred areas in society. To think that murders could have been committed, by a woman of high standing, in an area where the most affluent citizens lived was unbearable to consider. It left some concerned about the supposed sanctity of the home, with the Herald commenting:
The ideals of Christianity, of love and peace and kindness, were believed to be best exemplified by women, especially women of means. Sherman’s actions cast doubt on women’s moral standing, and even on “our boasted civilization” at large.
Newspapers engaged in behavior and advocacy that strove to protect Sherman’s image, despite her murder charges. When Sherman spoke of a man first suggesting she used poison, some used this as an opportunity to put forth a proper defense on her behalf. The New York Herald outlined why and how Sherman came to use poison:
By showing that she acquired poison on suggestion, rather than her own initiative, Sherman was made to look more human and more in line with the domestic, limited vision of women that predominated during that time. A Vermont publication claimed that “One day a male friend of hers suggested to her that she should get rid of the man by poison.”21 The idea to murder apparently did not stem from her own agency. The man who did was the supposedly the “real” culprit: “Though over 50 years of age, Mrs. Sherman did not go into the wholesale arsenic business until about thirteen years ago, when the New York police officer, with whom she was criminally intimate, suggested it as a convenient way to get rid of her first husband, Mr. Struck.”22 In May 1878, even after five years of being imprisoned, some still felt it pertinent to mention that her crime was initially suggested by a man.
The clothing people wore represented the social class of which they were a part. SO the clothing Sherman wore at her trial represented her social status. One paper noted that she was “DRESSED IN A NEAT BLACK ALPACA DRESS, trimmed with silk velvet, a mixed black and white woollen [sic] shawl, white straw hat, trimmed with black velvet and brown plume, from which dropped over her face a thin lace veil… and upon her hands were black kid gloves.”23 Sherman’s clothing choice displayed her elegance and socioeconomic status. Her clothing helped bolster the notion that she was innocent; it was difficult for the jury to find that a woman dressed in an aristocratic garb at trial could have caused the deaths of almost ten people in the recent past. Even in prison, she wore clothing that aided her escape. The Bradford Opinion told its readers: “Mrs. Sherman… wore a light colored muslin dress and a veil upon her head in lieu of a bonnet. She was observed by one of the prison attendants, who thought she was the warden’s wife going to meet her children.”24 Her escape from prison was successful due to her clothing choice. Even though she was imprisoned, she was able to wear and acquire clothing that portrayed her as well-to-do.
Social Roles and Excuses
Sherman’s role as a nurse was also important in the media’s portrayal of her innocence. One socialized role of women in the nineteenth century was nursing and caring for sick family members. Many newspapers, like the Nashville Union and American noted that she “tended all in their sicknesses.”25 the Wyandot County Republican observed: “She then went out to work as a nurse.”26 The New York Herald detailed that “She was a nurse for the sick, and how high her crimes in their cold-calculation may have mounted up in this profession, it would be impossible to say.”27 A woman was expected to take care of those who were sick or dying in their homes. Nobody would have been suspicious that each of her victims got worse under her care, as mortality rates soared due to limited hygienic knowledge.
The idea that Sherman was responsible for the murder of various family members was, clearly enough, not a widely accepted idea. Early in the case brought against her, published articles condemning her were a minority, while many more worked to prove her innocence. One aspect they pointed to was her religiosity. The New York Herald announced that Sherman was “a regular communicant in the First Presbyterian Church of Manhattanville.”28 Another paper claimed she was a Methodist.29 When Sherman eventually confessed, she spoke of her faith: “I feel that I know God has forgiven me, and that after I am done here I shall have a home there with Him… Years ago I was a professor of religion, and always thought I had religion, but I now know that I never was a Christian… I know I was not, or I would not have done as I did.”30 Her calls for forgiveness gave newspapers like The Evening Star a chance to show that hers was a soul still redeemable. Even though she had admitted she had fallen by the wayside in terms of following Christ’s message, it helped to show that she still had a strong faith and a motivation to follow biblical teachings.
Motherly tendencies were additionally attributed to Lydia, as part of the broader attempts to emphasize her supposed innocence. Reporters raised the question of how she could possibly have killed those she had worked so hard to nurture. On November 14, 1871, The New York Herald revealed she had sat for an interview. The interviewer expressed doubt as to her being guilty of murder, reporting,
The reporter had tracked down people who could speak to Sherman’s history, and they spoke highly of her. She had not yet given her confession, and so, to the 19th-century society which surrounded her, she was innocent. During the trial in April of 1872, The New York Herald reported what a witness, Lewis Hubbard, said: “He testified that Mrs. Sherman had the sole care of her husband, but their relations seemed to be the same as of any man and wife.”32 By referring to Lydia’s marital relations as normal, the defense helped craft a narrative of a woman who was innocent of anything that could be seen as “sinful,” or anything remotely suggesting deviance from the ingrained social norms of the day. She was a woman who had given birth to multiple children and who had seemed to conform to societal expectations, yet she was accused of a series of unnatural crimes, with the Herald exclaiming, “Mrs. Sherman is suspected of having committed A SERIES OF MURDERS, and… causing the death of innocent little ones, whose prattling tongues she had so often listened to, and for whose welfare she had shown a mother’s solicitude.”33 Here, The New York Herald insinuated that it should be difficult to find Sherman guilty when so much of her behavior as a mother and wife fell within the lines of societal norms.
Some newspapers even attempted to make excuses for her crimes. One alleged cause was mental illness, for “The only question was as to the motive that could lead a sane person to such a step.”34 The Red Cloud Chief wrote about multiple criminals from the nineteenth century, exploring what kind of mental disease they might have had. Of Sherman they remarked:
The Red Cloud Chief spoke of Sherman as if she were a mental patient, blaming the “taint… within her brain,” rather than her agency as an individual. Her crimes were thus attributed to mental illness, as only mental illness could be conceived of as inducing a “True Woman” to commit such heinous crimes.
Sherman was able to use her gender to garner sympathy while being held in prison. Upon her confession and claim of conversion, people of religion began ministering to her. One paper noted: “She seems to be a most singular compound of devil and divinity, for she has got a string of very pious people deeply in sympathy with her just now in her devotional exercises.”36 Her confession and pledge to turn over a new leaf motivated these pious individuals to help a woman in need. The Virginia Free Press added: “For several days she has been visited by several persons for the purpose of giving her religious advice and consolation, and she spent Thursday afternoon in conversation with three persons upon religious subjects.”37
Due to her gender, it was imperative for these people to save Sherman from eternal punishment. The Chicago Daily Tribune reflected this: “She was a poor woman, subject to many discouragements in life. When a husband… got sick, she would always get discouraged, and dose him with arsenic as a sure means of ready relief.”38 Instead of focusing on the issue of murdering people with poison, the Daily Tribune chose to emphasize the potential mental state of Sherman, her “discouragement.” According to the Daily Tribune, perhaps Sherman did commit murder, but she was not always in the right state of mind and thus could not be held totally accountable for her crimes. After her confession, The Camden Journal wrote in response to reports Sherman was embracing religion in jail; “The woman now professes to have become penitent and to enjoy the pleasures of a religious life. If any person needed repentence [sic], it would certainly be Mrs. Sherman.”39 Unlike some people who clung to this information as proof that Sherman was still a person worthy of being cleansed, The Camden Journal chose the opposite approach. She may have confessed to her crimes and stated she wished to embrace the message of Christ in a more intimate way, but she still was a serial killer.
Children learn from their parents to become able and responsible members of society. In the nineteenth century, the parent who filled that role was the mother. Unfortunately, Sherman’s mother died when she was an infant. This fact was emphasized as a way to show that she, too, was a victim. The New York Herald reported; “SHE WAS BORN IN TRENTON, N.J., in 1824. A year later the mother of the prisoner died, and she was adopted by her grandmother.”40 Her grandmother, another woman, would have helped to educate her on how to be an able member of society. Unfortunately, however helpful her grandmother was, she could not have replaced the mother. Other newspapers reported that she was brought up by her uncle. A Memphis paper quoted her as saying: “I was born near the town of Burlington, New Jersey… When I was about nine months old my mother died, and I was taken to live with my uncle, Mr. John Claygay."41 the Wyandot County Republican concurred: “Mrs. Sherman was born at Burlington, N.J., forty-eight years ago. Losing her mother before she was a year old, she was brought up by a married uncle named John Claygay, in whose family… she was kindly treated.”42 Whoever actually raised her, it was not her biological parents. Some newspapers tried to paint her as a victim in this manner as well.
Gender and Archetype
When Sherman was sent to prison, the narrative about her largely changed. Forced into accepting the reality that Sherman was indeed a serial killer, many publications instead portrayed her as less than human, perhaps to preserve the feminine stereotype of “chastity” or “purity.” One newspaper admitted: “We have used the word woman in her regard; but it would degrade the name of the vilest beast or reptile, whose noiseomeness has made it an enemy to be killed at sight, to by comparing her to it.”43 She was portrayed as vile, only calling her a woman because it was unbecoming for even the most despised animals to be compared to her. Her deviance was especially apparent as a mother. Her son “George… aged fourteen, was engaged in painting for a man. In August, that same year, he was taken sick with painter’s colic, and under a doctor’s care grew no better. Discouraged… the unnatural mother administered arsenic to him, in his tea, and he died.”44 The image of a mother brought up images of a woman who cared, loved and protected her children. For a woman to betray that natural trust between her and her children showed Sherman to be despicable. The Chicago Tribune highlighted her disturbing affect: “Having confessed… she is now reconciled to mankind, at peace with the world, generally good-natured and comfortable.”45 The image of a murder brought thoughts of anger, fear, and rage. It was thus an impossibility for Sherman, by engaging the public with a positive, tranquil attitude, to have acted any way but unnaturally.
Sherman’s crimes puzzled people and brought up questions of how she got away with murder. Some concluded that her looks helped to disarm suspicion and gain the trust of her victims. She was portrayed as “A Dark eyed, dashing widow of the period- Mrs. Lydia Sherman- relic of four defunct husbands, and the bewitching Lydia is standing trial, she being accused of administering arsenic to all four of them!”46 By using the adjectives like “dashing” and “bewitching,” the editor insinuated she successfully wooed and seduced each of her husbands. Another method of analysis used was to group all women murderers together, as The Chicago Daily Tribune did: “In studying the annals of murders committed by women, there are… features to be noticed. The first…is the fact that when a woman sets out upon a wholesale career of murder, she almost invariable chooses poison for the agency of destruction, and has a preference for arsenic.”47 The number of women who were convicted murderers was a small group, and it was easy to note how they committed murder: the Ashtabula Daily Telegraph remarked,
It is notable that three women from different time periods were used as examples to back up the claim that women mostly used poison to kill their victims. It further proved that women who killed were a small group. Lydia also had a nickname that was coined to commemorate previous murderers. “She is a modern Borgia, having poisoned ten persons,”49 one newspaper proclaimed. The nickname connected her to Lucretia, which created a fearful and lasting image of Sherman, associating her with an evil feminine archetype to assuage fears of female “disobedience” opposed to social norms.
The case of Lydia Sherman drew in large crowds. The New York Herald observed: “The trial of a human being at any time for murder is well calculated to excite the mind of the community where the accused is known; but when the person charged with so grave a crime is a female much more interest is taken in all the details.”50 It was very uncommon for a woman to be convicted of murder, which surely drew these spectators to the courthouse. The number of Sherman’s victims was also a factor: “A few weeks ago it was Mrs. Lydia Sherman of Birmingham, Conn., who was under examination for the poisoning of her husband. The case was especially exciting from the fact that the suspicion was fastened upon her for the murder of eleven persons, three husbands and eight children.”51 The case went against the accepted norm of how women were expected to act. Even the thought of hearing her sentence tempted people’s curiosity: “Rumors that THE HEARTLESS MURDERESS was to be sentenced had the effect of drawing a large number of spectators to the courtroom.”52 To see a woman who had broken the norms inspired by society fascinated people.
Sherman was never suspected of a crime until her third husband died, and her gender could very well have been the cause of such a postponement of conviction. Many newspapers, when covering Sherman, noted other rare cases of women killers. The Herald reminded readers of: “a woman, Emily E. Lloyd…arrested for poisoning her own children… her husband, and an aunt. Mrs. Lloyd was deemed a very respectable woman, was a strict member of the Episcopal church, was long a resident of Lewisburg and known well to everyone in the community. One after another of this family was taken sick and died… All were buried, seemingly, without suspicion being expressed, such was the respectable character of the woman, till the last child died.”53 Mrs. Lloyd represented every ideal of the nineteenth-century True Woman. She was a faithful Christian and a woman of esteemed character in her community. No one suspected her of killing her family. Sherman did the same. As reported by The New York Herald: “She was a Methodist, a church member, a good woman, whom doctors and good people delighted to send to tend the sick as a nurse.”54 To the outside world, she was a saintly figure who aspired in every way to be a person of genuine kindness, until her true nature was revealed.
The nineteenth century was a time when religion played more of a role in society than it does in contemporary times. Comparisons to religious ideals were commonly used to portray Sherman as different from the common woman; “Lydia Sherman of Derby, Conn., convicted of the murder of her husband last April, has made a confession of her life of sin to her lawyer.”55 Sin, in the context of Christianity, is the act of doing something against the will of God. The murder of her family was a keen example of going against what Christianity said people should do. Some newspapers portrayed Lydia in even harsher religious imagery, The New York Herald wrote:
To many who were devoted Christians, Sherman had acted in a way that earned her a place in the world of demons. In their view, she had taken the trust of her family and used it to fulfill her most sadistic desires.
Women as killers were such a small minority that their crimes were remembered long after they had been committed. Women who murdered after Sherman were compared to her to show the enormity of the action. A Charleston paper, in 1873, reported on Mary Cotton’s case: “The achievements of Mrs. Lydia Sherman…as a practical toxicologist, have been fairly excelled by Mrs. Mary Ann Cotton…Mrs. Sherman, in the proudest moment of her professional enthusiasm, only claims to have poisoned six…while Mrs. Cotton’s…was nine.”57 The Baltimore County Union used similar rhetoric about another case: “Upon investigation evidence was produced, if correct, proving the woman Earhardt to be as great a monster as Lydia Sherman, Jane Ann Cotton or Mrs. Grinder.”58 Due to so few women being convicted of murder, the same names were brought up when a woman killer came to light. On August 12, 1880, nine years after Lydia was first accused of murder, she was compared to another female murderer by the Nebraska Advertiser: “little knows what [Kate Bender] said today is sufficient to place her name alongside the noted Lydia Sherman of Connecticut.”59 Nine years had passed since Lydia’s crimes had been reported, seven years had passed since she was convicted, and she was still being used as the bar that newspapers used to express their hope that women would not reach.
Sherman’s position as a woman who had murdered was unique in society. This was not missed by newspapers, like The New York Herald, who made sure to emphasize this when reporting on Sherman and her crimes: “This woman’s record is the most horrible that has ever seen the light.”60 Using terms like “the most horrible” represented the horror the public felt at reading that a woman had caused these deaths. Even her uniqueness among female criminals was emphasized: “Perhaps there is no instance on record of a woman who had committed as many murders as she has.”61 The Camden Journal limited its comparison to solely female killers. Yet, even among that small group she was termed unique. On the same day, the Wyandot County Republican stated: “The confession of Mrs. Lydia Sherman, ‘The Connecticut poisoner,’ is one of the most horrible chapters of crime ever recorded.”62 When Lydia escaped prison in 1877, the phrasing that put Sherman into a unique place as a killer was again used to represent how dangerous the situation was. As one paper observed: “Mrs. Sherman was confined, and, as the outside door was open for some repairs, this most notable prisoner of the State made her escape.”63 She was considered notable because she was a woman who had committed multiple murders, and the paper used this type of language to emphasize to people that she was dangerous.
Sherman’s gender played a key role in her trial and sentencing. Her jury was made up of all males. This proved to be of her benefit. The New York Herald claimed: “THE JURORS are nearly all gentlemen of middle age, apparently intelligent farmers and mechanics.”64 For a woman, whose only evidence against her was circumstantial, having an all-male jury was almost like a godsend. This was proved so in the verdict given for Sherman. This jury sent her to the penitentiary for life, but not the gallows. The Chicago Tribune was disgusted: “The verdict of the jury in the case of Mrs. Lydia Sherman, accused of having poisoned her husband, is another evidence of the weakness of juries in cases where women are defendants… The case was ably managed, and it was a clear case of deliberate, malicious murder, or entire innocence… Had this woman received the ‘equal rights’ of men in such cases, she would have been found guilty of murder.”65 The Tribune helped to emphasize the point that Lydia was saved from death due to her gender. If she had been a man, she would surely have been sentenced to death. Yet the idea of sending a woman, even a convicted murderer, to be hanged was too much for the jurors to contemplate.
The jury was saved from sending Sherman to death by the wording of the law. On May 9, 1872, the Herald and Tribune reported; “[Judge Park] read the statute, which requires two witnesses, or what is equivalent, to convict of murder in the first degree, and showed that they could find THE PRISONER GUILTY OF MURDER in the second degree.”66 Sherman’s case rested on evidence that was circumstantial, so there were no witnesses to her murders. The Public Ledger wrote in a similar vein: “A Connecticut statute, which permits a verdict of murder in the second degree when the evidence is purely circumstantial and not equal in the minds of the jurymen to the testimony of two direct witnesses, offered the jury a way to escape from hanging a woman.”67 The jurors were able to make a choice between condemning her to death or life imprisonment, and chose the later option. It was the option that offered the least amount of moral and societal guilt for them.
Most coverage took the approach that the jurors took pity on her, not wanting to be responsible for sending a woman to death via the gallows. The New York Herald’s coverage was typical:
The New York Herald did not think gender should have played a role in the decision between first- and second-degree murder. The publication thought it necessary for Sherman to endure the common punishment for a crime so atrocious as hers. This line of thinking was also present with the Judge who condemned Sherman to her fate. One paper claimed that “Judge L. F. S. Foster… sentenced her to prison for life, expressing his regret that the verdict had not been one of murder in the first degree.”69 The jurors confessed that Sherman’s gender played a significant role in the verdict. The Sun disclosed: “One of the jurors said that had it been a man on trial the verdict would have been in the first degree.”70 The jurors and commenting publications maintained a traditional view of women as in need of more lenient punishments than those imposed upon male criminals.
The leniency that the jury displayed towards Sherman allowed her to have ample time to confess to her crimes. She had argued repeatedly during the trial that she was innocent of all accusations against her, but in January of 1873 she changed course. On January 6, 1873, the Alexandria Gazette confirmed Sherman’s confession: “Mrs. Lydia Sherman, who was convicted of the murder of her husband, by poison, in New Haven, last spring, has made a confession of her guilt. She says that she poisoned Sherman and his two children, as well as her first husband, Struck, several years ago.”71 Her confession did not influence her sentence, because it came long after her trial. The New York Herald nonetheless chided her jurors: “We venture to say that when these jurymen read in the Herald of today the litany of horrors that Lydia Sherman coolly confesses to they will shudder to their fingertips that the iron of the Hebraic law was not in their souls when they agreed upon a verdict.”72 The “iron of the Hebraic law” was referencing the concept of Hammurabian rule of “eye for an eye.” Due to their disgust at the idea of sentencing a woman to death, the jury had condemned her to imprisonment for the rest of her natural life. Lydia used their sentimentality for her own gain: “After her sentence for killing her husband she confessed to having poisoned three husbands and four children.”73 Due to already being condemned to imprisonment, Sherman could then confess to her crimes with the knowledge that she would not suffer any other criminal sentences.
Sherman, already unique in terms of being one of a few convicted women murderers, became unique again when imprisoned. One paper commented that “Mrs. Lydia Sherman, the Birmingham Borgia, is the sole occupant of the female wards in the Connecticut State prison at Wethersfield.”74 The criminal justice system so rarely sent a woman to jail that she was alone for almost half a year, when newspapers confirmed that “There are only two women in the Connecticut State Prison, Lydia Sherman and a colored woman.”75 People of color had only been freed from enslavement for less than ten years, and many whites still did not see them as equals. The woman of color was not even named. For a white woman, who had been of good social standing and character, to be in prison with a woman of color showed to many that she was not “pure.”
Before the woman of color joined Lydia in prison, Lydia was allowed special privileges, as disclosed by The Clarksville Weekly Chronicle; “Lydia Sherman is the only female now quartered in the Connecticut State prison, so she can wear her hair as best suits her convenience.”76 Lydia was a convicted murderer, yet was still given a choice of clothing. She was a child-killer, yet was allowed to do things her way, perhaps in large part because she was the only female occupant of the prison. Under the same circumstances, it would have been a near impossibility for a man to be treated in this manner. This news was so profound that it was emphasized in other articles as well, including one written by The Weekly Clarion.77
In 1877, Sherman spread the story that she was sick. The Staunton Spectator reported: “Claiming to be an invalid, she was granted certain privileges by the matron, which she has abused by escaping.”78 The privileges mentioned included leaving the door of her cell unlocked so she could call for help if feeling particularly unwell. A Vermont paper warned the public: “Mrs. Lydia Sherman, the Connecticut poisoner, is at large. For some time she feigned illness, and having disarmed suspicion… she escaped easily.”79 She had the administration in the palm of her hand, and no one was even aware. The New York Herald emphasized her wiliness: “Mrs Sherman…was in the prison for life; and she exhibited there a profound cunning. Her first resource was to assume the character of a confirmed invalid, and this part she has played with astonishing skill…It is now discovered that she had secreted in her cell yellow crayons, with which she stained her countenance. In some ways she contrived to have frequent fainting fits, when she appeared as if about to die.”80 She was someone who had convinced many that she was not the cause of her family’s deaths. Another paper confirmed that “[Lydia Sherman] is a strange character, full of deceit and cunning under the cover of a smooth tongue, and might deceive the very elect by her plausibility and simulated good nature.”81 Her escape showed that the criminal justice system was not designed to hold women in jail; the first sign of illness in a female prisoner prompted many to let their guards down. It represented on a larger scale that women in the nineteenth century were viewed as incapable of being felons.
Lydia, while feigning illness in 1877, ended up becoming sick and dying in 1878. Newspapers like the Ottumwa Weekly Courier portrayed her as being subhuman and her death a blessing: “Death has recently removed from earth one of the most monstrous criminals that the United States has ever produced…the story of her crimes…need only to be recalled to send a thrill of wonder and horror through every innocent soul.”82 By writing of the “wonder and horror” of her crimes, the paper admitted that people, even those of good social standing, were fascinated by stories of murder. Other newspapers wrote of her death in less inflammatory tones, like the San Marcos Free Press: “Mrs. Lydia Sherman, known as the ‘Connecticut Borgia,’ who confessed to the killing of nine persons by poison- two husbands and seven children- died in the State Penitentiary at Hartford on the 16th.”83 Even though the reporting held less incendiary comments, the use of her nickname showed that people still associated here with fearful, archetypical tones. “Connecticut Borgia” brought up images of the original Lucrezia Borgia, who poisoned many.
In every phase of her murders, trial, sentencing, and imprisonment, Lydia Sherman benefited from society’s view that women were more moral than men. When she was first accused of her crimes, many newspapers tried to shield her from blame, so that here feminine, societally imposed “purity” could be maintained. Sherman, to the outside world during that time, was a model of how women should act: she nursed the sick in her family, she treated her children and husband with respect, and she was a devout Christian. However, when it became clear that she was guilty of her husband’s death, many newspapers attempted to frame the story in another light to maintain the societally conceived notion of female purity. She was thus demeaned as subhuman, a monster, who used the persona society bequeathed to her to murder with impunity. Despite this, other newspapers still tried to portray her as redeemable, utilizing allusions to religion and a stringent promotion of the feminine ideal.
Her gender, more than social status, helped her to evade suspicion for as long as it did. Most newspapers dwelled on her gender when framing their reports on the case. Her conviction, and eventual sentence to jail had less to do with being a member of the middle class then it had to do with being a woman. Members of Sherman’s jury were appalled at the notion of sentencing her to death. Sherman was able to take advantage of this disgust by claiming innocence. Then, when she was found guilty of second- rather than first-degree murder, she was allowed to go to jail and make her confession there. While the jury did dispense justice, the route they took to gave Sherman time to confess her crimes, without further criminal action being taken against her. In jail, she was given such extraordinary privileges, again because she was a woman, that she was able to escape.
From Lydia Sherman’s story, it is clear that many nineteenth-century Americans could not quite handle the idea that a woman could be a cold-blooded killer. Ranging from the justifications the media made for her behavior to her more-lenient sentencing, the case of Lydia Sherman remains an interesting situation in which antiquated gender inequalities indeed operated to favor women, at least within the criminal justice system. In an intriguing play between societal norms, jury psychology, religion, and the media, such a system created, shaped, and bolstered the Luck of Lydia Sherman.
“Women who were exemplary members of Christian communities, and whose lives seemed to be above the reproach of crime, have been placed before the bar of justice under strong suspicion of murdering their nearest relatives, dearest friends, and even their own offspring…Lydia Sherman, at New Haven, for the murder of her husband by poison, last May. Here, too, suspicion of other murders by poison at the hand of this woman are rife…Whether…this woman be proved guilty or not, this catalogue of supposed crimes is startling and awakens serious thoughts as to the tendency of our boasted civilization.”19
“I must say, Madame, that after listening to all the testimony given by the people at Birmingham I have grave reasons to think that on the present charge, bad as it appears now, you can scarcely be convicted. The facts show that you were a devoted wife to Sherman and an affectionate wife to his children, and that there was no motive for you to make away with them”.31
“The one figure that Milton, in his broad imagination, built into a master devil is too massive and almost too kindly for the comparison. The picture of which he gave of Sin at the gate of Hell as being ‘woman to the waist and fair, but ended foul in many a snaky fold,’ with all her foul progeny barking around her loins, is scarcely enough to picture the intolerable wickedness that went to make that murderess.”56
“In July last, after a patient trial and overwhelming evidence, a woman on trial at New Haven, Conn., for poisoning her husband was found guilty of murder in the second degree. It may be futile now to ask, when the evidence was so clear, when the man’s blood was, as it were, red upon the woman’s hands, how a jury could be found to bate her doom one jot. It was, perhaps, a mistaken spirit of feeble humanity which led them to do it.”68
ydia Sherman was born in 1824 in New Jersey.
“One night [Mr. Struck] was acting very badly and I called in the Police Sergeant Mc--- to have him quiet him. Sergeant Mc--- lived in the lower part of the house with us… He advised me to put him out of the way, as he would never be of any good to me or to himself again… He told me to get a certain quantity of arsenic… how much to give him, and where to get it.”20
“To chat with Mrs. Sherman was to be impressed with her quick intellect, her considerable knowledge… unless by some mischance the conversation turned upon murder, and especially infanticide. Then the woman revealed the taint that was within her brain. But instead of caring for her, those who were near her looked upon it as a mere vagary, until after four children had died and two husbands… Then it was known that her taint was not a mere vagary, that she was a poisoner of her entire family”.35