Serial Homicide before ‘Serial Killers’: British Poisoners

By Cassie Watson; posted 16 December 2021.

Despite the now well-established academic interest in homicide, criminal justice historians have paid relatively little attention to a sub-group of murderers with whom the media has long been obsessed: the so-called serial killers. Whilst there remains a debate about how many victims a killer must claim before the ‘serial killer’ label is applied,[1] and a distinction should be made between spree and serial killers,[2] for our purposes it is more important to note that the term is now used mainly to describe male sex killers of the type personified by the infamous Jack the Ripper of 1888.[3] Those who kill successive victims for purely financial reasons tend to inspire less enduring fascination. However, they too are serial murderers and, as such, offer historians valuable insights on the investigative and legal tactics used to identify and convict uniquely dangerous repeat offenders. In Britain, poisoners were among the earliest recorded examples of such criminals.[4]  

Early Modern Serial Poisoners

Scots law declared the buying or giving of poison to be treason, but at the end of the seventeenth century Sir George Mackenzie could find no example of anyone so convicted. He did however note that one John Dick had been sentenced to death in March 1649 “for poysoning his brother and Sister.”[5] In June 1567 John Gordon, 11th Earl of Sutherland, and his third wife were poisoned by his aunt Isobel Sinclair, in a bid to secure the title for her son; a third intended victim survived. Sinclair was condemned but died, probably from poison, on the day she was to have been executed.[6] A collection of celebrated Scottish trials makes no mention of any murder by poison,[7] and so it seems likely that the earliest known cases of serial poisoning occurred in late seventeenth-century England.

The most detailed published accounts from that period concern the series of murders committed by Elizabeth Ridgway (1657-1684), who was executed at Leicester “for poisoning her husband only three weeks after their marriage.”[8] According to one pamphlet, “she first poysoned her own mother, after that, a fellow-servant, then her sweet-heart, and last of all her husband: for all which tragical murders she being brought to justice, was tryed and found guilty at the late Lent-Assizes held for the said county: and for the same was burnt to death, on Monday the 24th of March, 1684.”[9] Her fourth murder caused a “discontent” in the neighbourhood, and when she attempted to poison her two apprentices a magistrate was informed and she was arrested. Enquiries then proved that she had bought arsenic; the husband was exhumed and found (it is not stated how) to be poisoned. Ridgway received daily visits from the Reverend John Newton as she awaited sentence, and at his urging she finally confessed on the day of her execution. As she mentioned only the killings already established, it was suspected that “in her eight years time many others, not taken notice of, died by her Malice.”[10] This pamphlet claimed of her case “The like not known in any age;”[11] but in fact a similar series of crimes had occurred in Lancashire only a decade earlier.

A man named Thomas Lancaster (1646-1672) poisoned ten people between November 1670 and November 1671. His first two murders took place at Threlkeld, Cumberland, where the victims were his step-mother and his aunt. Then he came to Hawkshead, now in Cumbria but then in Lancashire, where he ingratiated himself into the family of local farmer and Quaker John Braithwaite. On 30 January 1671 he married Braithwaite’s eldest daughter Margaret (1647-1671). After Braithwaite unwisely “conveyed all his reall estate to this Lancaster upon his giving security to pay severall sums of money to himselfe, and his other daughters,”[12] Lancaster proceeded to poison the entire family with arsenic, eight people in total. This was only a few years after plague had swept the country and Lancaster tried to avoid suspicion by giving poison “to severall of his neighbours who are and have been sick, that people — as it is presumed — might think the rest dead of a violent fevor.”[13] This strategy did not work: he was tried at the Lancaster Assizes in April 1672, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged outside his own front door at High Wray, Hawkshead, and then gibbetted.  

Hawskhead Church: By J Scott, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Malcolm Gaskill notes that witnesses against Thomas Lancaster provided “striking observations of the effects of arsenic and mercury poisoning,” and that evidence against poisoners generally involved connecting motive, opportunity and the purchase of poison to a suspect.[14] A confession was obviously desirable, but not always necessary, as we have seen. However, cases of serial poisoning on the scale perpetrated by Ridgway and Lancaster were seldom brought to light, and were very uncommon: bearing in mind the dark figure of unknown crime, my previous research revealed no other English (or Welsh) examples prior to the nineteenth century,[15] when the rate of serial poisoning began to increase as part of a general upsurge in poisoning crimes. Some of the more notorious cases, such as those of Mary Ann Cotton, Sarah Chesham and William Palmer, have been examined in detail.[16]

Were There Any Eighteenth-Century Serial Poisoners?

But the question remains: did serial poisoning occur during the eighteenth century? Individuals, such as William Smith in Yorkshire,[17] and Alice Hall in London,[18] were charged with multiple poisonings but, having dosed their victims at the same meal, were not technically serial poisoners. In a slightly different scenario, in 1712 Elizabeth Mason made two attempts on the life of her mistress’s sister, the first effort having succeeded in killing only the mistress.[19] She was a serial poisoner who had hoped to inherit their property and might well have become a serial killer, despite the amount of guilt she seems to have felt.

Two factors make it likely that further cases may be brought to light. Firstly, serial poisoners were generally prosecuted for one murder, either the most recent or the one for which prosecutors felt most confident of a conviction. But depositions and newspaper reports of the pre-trial investigation provide evidence about further crimes a perpetrator was suspected of committing. Secondly, trial reports in recently digitised newspapers may reveal a previously hidden history of suspicious deaths associated with a convicted perpetrator. For example, in 1816 Susannah Holroyd, age 47, was tried for poisoning her husband with arsenic, but it was widely reported that she had also poisoned her son and a lodger’s infant; all three died in the same week. After her conviction the press reported

“a very general belief that, in her occupation of nursing illegitimate children (who are of course frequently neglected by their natural guardians), she had murdered at different times several infants, in the same manner as she had lately done her husband and the two other victims of her unprovoked malice.”[20]

A broadside went further, claiming that “It pleased Providence to cut her short in the midst of her diabolical attempts, for it is a well authenticated fact, that she attempted to poison six women her neighbours, whom she invited to tea, a short time before she was taken up.”[21] This has the ring of hyperbole, if not outright falsehood, and Holroyd denied killing either child, claiming her husband gave some of his poisoned food to their son while the infant had died a natural death.[22] This seems plausible, if impending execution was conducive to veracity; but in the absence of more evidence it is impossible to absolve her of the popular suspicion of serial poisoning.  

Conclusion

Serial killing was and remains an infrequent offence, and poisoning is among the least common methods of murder. This makes serial poisoners all the more remarkable, and worthy of study:[23] the details of their crimes, verified or suspected, raise a number of questions about or illuminate aspects not just of criminality but the society in which they lived and their victims died. So, in answer to my own question — were there any eighteenth-century serial poisoners? — the answer is: probably, but finding them might be a little tricky.


References:

Main Image: Ansilva gives Berinthia poyson. In John Reynolds, The Triumphs of Gods Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinne of Murther, 3rd edn (London: William Lee, 1657), p. 75.

[1] Elizabeth A. Gurian, “Reframing serial murder within empirical research: offending and adjudication patterns of male, female, and partnered serial killers,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 61 (2017): 545.

[2] Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters (New York: Berkley Books, 2004), 222-224.

[3] David Wilson begins his account with Jack the Ripper in A History of British Serial Killing (London: Sphere, 2009).

[4] Another, presumably much larger, group of early modern money-motivated serial killers includes robbers. I discussed the 1735 case of Evan Hugh and Margaret Jones in a previous post.

[5] Sir George Mackenzie, The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal (Edinburgh: Andrew Symson, 1699), 36. It is unclear whether the victims were poisoned at the same time, but a single incident seems most likely.

[6] Sir William Fraser, The Sutherland Book, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: privately printed, 1892), 127-129. This was a single incident in which the accused woman’s son also died.

[7] Hugo Arnot, A Collection and Abridgement of Celebrated Criminal Trials in Scotland, from A.D. 1536, to 1784 (Edinburgh: The Author, 1785).

[8] Bernard Capp, “Serial killers in 17th-century England,” History Today 46, no. 3 (1996): 23. Capp’s account draws upon John Newton, The Penitent Recognition of Joseph’s Brethren: A Sermon Occasion’d by Elizabeth Ridgeway (London: Printed for Richard Chiswel, 1684). An earlier case in Coventry (1619) was probably a single incident; five of the eight victims died.

[9] A True Relation of Four most Barbarous and Cruel Murders Committed in Leicestershire by Elizabeth Ridgway (London: George Croom, 1684), 1.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Burials at St Michael and All Angels in the Parish of Hawkshead; Memoranda to the Burials recorded in the Register for the years 1568–1704, accessed 1 December 2021. Letter from Sir Daniel Fleming to Sir Joseph Williamson, 24 Nov 1671.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 260.

[15] Katherine D. Watson, “Serial homicide and ‘civilization’”, in Assaulting the Past: Violence and Civilization in Historical Context, ed. Katherine D. Watson (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), 293-296.

[16] Key studies include: Ian Burney, Poison, Detection, and the Victorian Imagination (Manchester: MUP, 2006); Victoria M. Nagy, Nineteenth-Century Female Poisoners: Three English Women Who Used Arsenic to Kill (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); David Wilson, Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer (Hook: Waterside Press, 2013). Serial poisoning is discussed in Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims (London: Hambledon and London, 2004), chapter 5.  

[17] Manchester Mercury, 21 August 1753, 4.

[18] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, 16 December 2021), January 1709, trial of Alice Hall (t17090117-19).

[19] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, 16 December 2021), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, June 1712 (OA17120618).

[20] Evening Mail, 18 September 1816, 3.

[21] The trial and execution of Susannah Holroyd, who was executed at Lancaster, on the 16th of September, 1816, for poisoning her husband and several children (York: C. Croshaw, 1816), Bodleian Library, John Johnson Collection, Crime 1 (94).

[22] Hereford Journal, 2 October 1816, 2.

[23] In a sample of 1,026 known cases of homicidal poisoning (dates not specified, but mainly British (25%) and American (39%)), J.H. Trestrail identified 420 cases involving multiple victims and characterised them as ‘serial’ in nature: Criminal Poisoning, 2nd edn (Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2007), 56-59.

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