Lady killers: what 5 murder cases can reveal about the lives of women in the 19th and 20th centuries
From a violent brawl in a tavern over unpaid drinks to a stalker's poisoning spree, here are five historical murders perpetrated by women that feature in the new BBC series, Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley. But as the series consultant Rosalind Crone reveals, there was often a lot more to these cases than initially met the eye
Mary McKinnon: the knife-wielding tavern owner
Edinburgh in the 1820s was a city of contrasts. The New Town was the playground of the affluent, lined with beautiful houses and grand assembly and concert rooms, where the wealthy could indulge in intellectual pastimes. The Old Town, however, was crowded and filthy, packed with dingy inns and taverns. As well as selling pints of ale, many also offered sexual services to their customers. The city’s sex industry had been expanding since around 1760, and by the turn of the 19th century, South Bridge had become notorious for street walkers and brothels, and attracted residents from across the city in search of pleasure.
On 8 February 1823, William Howat, a writer’s clerk, dined and drank through the afternoon with a group of friends at his lodgings in Broughton Street, on the edge of New Town. At 9 o’clock the men decided to head down to South Bridge to continue their fun. They ended up at Mary McKinnon’s tavern. Mary, the licensee, was out visiting a friend. But her employees and lodgers, Elizabeth MacDonald, Mary Curly and Elizabeth Grey, took the men into a private room, served them drinks and joined them.
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Soon, things turned nasty. The men claimed that they had drunk their whiskey, paid for it and prepared to leave, but the women had blocked their way, insisting they buy more. There was a scuffle, and some of the women hit them. According to the women, however, it was the men who had turned violent. They allegedly refused to pay for their drinks, smashed furniture, punched Grey and struck MacDonald with a candlestick. Frightened, Curly ran to fetch McKinnon, who hurried back with several of her neighbours and joined the affray.
Howat was stabbed in the ruckus and later succumbed to his wounds, claiming on his hospital deathbed that McKinnon was his assailant. However, when questioned by the authorities, McKinnon insisted that she “did not have a knife in my hand between leaving the grocer’s shop and being apprehended”.
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Despite this, McKinnon was convicted of murder – a verdict no doubt encouraged by the judge at her trial, who instructed the jury to place more weight on the evidence of the men, and to disregard the testimony of the women who – as likely sex workers – were of “vitiated character”. She was hanged on 16 April 1823. Her case highlights the increasingly moral lens through which sex work was viewed in 19th-century Britain, which put women at risk and devalued their lives.
Margaret Garner: a desperate enslaved mother driven to murder
In the 1850s, the US was a divided country. Despite the growing strength of the abolitionist movement, slavery persisted in 15 southern states. In 1850, a second Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the power of slaveholders to drag back enslaved people who had fled to one of the free states. Yet despite the dangers, the prospect of freedom still tempted some to attempt an escape.
Among those were the Garner family, who tried to flee in early 1856. They lived in Boone County, Kentucky, by the Ohio river – the dividing line between the free and slave states. Margaret Garner, 22, and her four children were enslaved by Archibald K Gaines, of Richwood. Margaret’s husband, Robert, and his parents were enslaved by a neighbouring man, James Marshall. Life was unimaginably cruel and hard for Margaret and her family.
Knowing capture was inevitable, Margaret cut the throat of her young daughter Mary, declaring: 'Before my children shall be taken back to Kentucky, I will kill every one of them'
Her marriage to Robert was not legally recognised by the state. Because they were enslaved by different men, they were unable to live together, and could see each other only when their enslavers permitted it. Their children automatically became the property of Margaret’s enslaver, and could be sold at any time. Margaret had been forced to raise them as a single parent, balancing motherhood with the demands of the Gaines family, who insisted on virtually round-the-clock service.
On 27 January 1856, the Garner family made their bid for freedom. In the dead of night, when temperatures had dropped below –20°C, Robert and his parents left the Marshall farm, collected Margaret and the children and travelled 16 miles to the banks of the Ohio river. Avoiding the police watchmen, they crept across the frozen water, carrying the children in their arms. In the early hours of the morning the Garner family arrived at a relative’s house in Cincinnati, where they waited for assistance from members of the Underground Railroad.
But their plan soon unravelled. Within hours, the house was surrounded by marshals, armed with a warrant to force them to return to their slaveholders. Knowing capture was inevitable, Margaret cut the throat of her young daughter Mary, declaring: “Before my children shall be taken back to Kentucky, I will kill every one of them.”
Margaret was apprehended before she could follow through with her threat. The Garners were taken to gaol, where Margaret explained her actions to the clergymen who visited her: “I knew it was better for them to go home to God than back to slavery.” Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act, Margaret did not face trial for the murder of her child but was instead returned with the rest of her family to the custody of the slaveholders, and a life of misery.
Elizabeth Taylor: the illegal abortionist
On 22 July 1886, a “ladies nurse” named Elizabeth Taylor urgently summoned a local doctor to her home in Melbourne, Australia. After swinging open the door, she confided: “I’m in trouble.” Three days earlier, Elizabeth had performed an abortion on a 21-year-old unmarried actress named Julia Warburton. Such an operation was illegal in Australia at the time, and punishable by long-term imprisonment.
Despite this, many desperate women in Julia’s situation still turned to “practical mid-wives” like Elizabeth. Early pregnancy could be terminated by taking drugs, often called “Female Pills”’. And if the pills failed to work, surgical abortion performed by a medical professional or a knowledgeable woman in the community was available for a fee.
Yet while such services were widespread, and even discreetly advertised in reputable newspapers, they were not always safe. On 19 July, Julia visited Elizabeth to undergo the illegal operation. Three days later, she was dead. Elizabeth called a doctor, one known to perform abortions himself, whom she thought would be sympathetic. But although she tried to convince him to issue a death certificate stating that Julia had died from enlargement of the liver, the doctor refused, and Elizabeth was arrested for murder.
This wasn’t the first time that Elizabeth had been in trouble with the law. Between 1882 and 1885, she had been accused of causing the deaths of three other women who had undergone illegal surgical abortions. On each occasion, a lack of witnesses and evidence meant that Elizabeth had walked free. This time, Elizabeth hired expensive lawyers who argued that Julia had already ended the pregnancy by taking pills, and that Elizabeth, as a midwife, was merely trying to save her life by removing what the body had failed to expel naturally, such as the placenta.
Elizabeth was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. On her release, Elizabeth restarted her business, and further encounters with the authorities soon followed. She died, while serving her final sentence of imprisonment for manslaughter, in 1909.
Abortion in the 19th century often conjures up images of dirty backstreet procedures by unskilled women keen on making a quick buck. Elizabeth Taylor, however, was both skilled and connected to medical professionals. Although implicated in the deaths of at least eight women, it is likely that she performed successful procedures on many, perhaps hundreds, of others. “Although I have a bad name,” Elizabeth once said, “I am not nearly as bad as people [make] out.”
Edith Thompson: an unfaithful wife embroiled in a murder plot
England in the early 1920s felt ripe with possibilities for young women. Job opportunities abounded, thanks to the expansion of education and the after-effects of the First World War. Dress hems were shorter, hair cuts were sleeker, cinemas and dancing clubs proliferated – yet equality remained a distant prospect. For most women, marriage was still the destination, where many were required to give up their careers. A married woman still needed her husband’s permission to open a bank account in her own name. Social purity campaigns warned against sex outside marriage.
In 1922, following a sensational murder, the “New Woman” – embodied by Edith Thompson – was put on trial. Born in 1893, Edith had made the best of her opportunities. After leaving school she had secured a clerical job at a wholesale milliners in the City of London. She was quickly promoted, taught herself French, and was sent on business trips to Paris. Then, in 1916, she married her long-term boyfriend, Percy – probably because she felt she had to rather than because she wanted to.
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In 1920, the couple managed to buy a house in Ilford – at that time a suburban paradise for the middle classes. Still, the marriage was lacking; they had so little in common. “I told him that I did not love him, but that I would do my share to make him happy and contented,” Edith wrote in a letter. “It was an easy way out of a lot of things to promise that.”
By 1921, Edith was involved in a passionate affair with Freddy Bywaters, a shipping steward eight years her junior. When Freddy was at sea, the lovers continued their relationship through letters in which they wrote about their shared love of literature and theatre. They wanted to make a life together. There was just one obstacle: Percy. “We had talked about making my husband ill,” Edith later admitted, “and I was to give him something so that if he had another heart attack he would not be able to resist it.”
On 3 October 1922, as Edith and Percy walked home from Ilford train station after a night at the theatre, Freddy leapt out from behind some bushes and stabbed Percy to death. Days later, Freddy was charged with murder. So, too, was Edith, after dozens of letters from her addressed to Freddy were found in his possession. The prosecution claimed that these missives contained incitements to kill Percy. Freddy and Edith were both convicted of murder – Edith, it is now recognised, on the flimsiest evidence – and were both hanged on 9 January 1923.
Christiana Edmunds: the stalker who resorted to poison
We often think of stalking as a uniquely contemporary phenomenon, and a crime perpetrated almost entirely by men. But the case of Christiana Edmunds provides a rare and instructive example of a 19th-century female stalker. In 1867, Christiana and her mother, Ann Edmunds, moved to a fashionable address in the centre of Brighton. They were keen for a fresh start: their previous life had been marred by the mental illness and death of both Christiana’s father and brother, as well as the pressures of their declining wealth.
The three other remaining siblings, including Christiana’s two sisters, had all married and moved away to start families of their own. Whether by choice or not, Christiana remained unmarried and had assumed the role of companion to her widowed mother. Things started to look up, however, when Christiana met Dr Charles Beard. As her doctor and close neighbour, Charles was kind and attentive. Christiana fell in love. She began to write letters to Charles, and made frequent house calls.
Christiana embarked upon a poisoning spree. Between March and August 1871, she contaminated batches of chocolate creams from Maynard’s shop with strychnine
There was just one problem: Charles was already married, to Emily Beard, and the couple had five young children. One evening in September 1870, while Charles was away, Christiana unexpectedly called on Emily with some chocolate creams from John Maynard’s confectionery shop. Anxious that Emily should try one, Christiana popped a chocolate into her mouth, before making an excuse and leaving. As the chocolate tasted strange, Emily spat it out, but she spent the rest of the night feeling ill.
When Charles returned, he was convinced that Christiana had tried to poison his wife and ended their friendship. Determined to prove him wrong by framing the confectioner, Christiana embarked upon a poisoning spree. Between March and August 1871, Christiana contaminated batches of chocolate creams from Maynard’s shop with strychnine – a poisonous alkaloid commonly used in pesticides, odourless but bitter-tasting – which were then randomly distributed around Brighton.
Many adults and children fell ill. On 12 June, Sidney Barker, a four-year-old boy on holiday in Brighton with his family, died. To deflect suspicion, or perhaps in search of attention, Christiana, posing as another victim, gave evidence at Sidney’s inquest. In the days after, she wrote to Charles: “My dear boy, do esteem me now. I am sure you must. What trial it was to go through, that inquest!”
Charles did not renew their friendship. Christiana’s poisoning scheme was eventually discovered, and on 16 January 1872 she was convicted of the murder of Sidney Barker. A post-trial diagnosis of insanity saved her from the gallows, and she spent the rest of her life at Broadmoor Criminal Asylum.
Find out more
You can listen to all episodes of Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley on BBC Sounds now
Rosalind Crone is professor of history at The Open University, and author of Violent Victorians (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Illiterate Inmates (Oxford University Press, 2022)
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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