In a book called Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims. author Katherine Watson studied 540 cases of murder by poisoning in England from 1750 to 1914 and found that when women killed, they were “far more likely than men to choose poison as their weapon.”
This article examines the history of women poisoning their husbands reaching back to the 1600s as well as 15 specific women who used this method to get rid of a man who was either abusive or inconvenient.
THE LONG, DARK HISTORY OF WOMEN POISONING THEIR SPOUSES
Giulia Tofana might have been the most prolific serial killer in world history. She is thought to be responsible for around 600 deaths by poisoning. During a 50-year stretch in the mid-1600s, the Italian cosmetics manufacturer helped women kill their husbands using a concoction known as “Aqua Tofana,” a deadly liquid containing arsenic, lead, and belladonna. It is said that only four drops of enough to kill someone, and the fact that the odorless and flavorless potion was packaged as makeup made it nearly undetectable.
Her downfall came when a client of Giulia’s who’d put drops of Aqua Tofana in her husband’s soup experienced sudden regret and pleaded with him not to eat it. After he interrogated her, she confessed to the plot. The woman was turned over to papal authorities and fingered Giulia as the mastermind.
Giulia fled to a church for sanctuary, but when rumors spread that she’d poisoned the water supply in Rome, she was arrested and tortured into a confession. She told authorities that she, along with her mother and daughter, had poisoned over 600 men between 1633 and 1651. She was executed in 1659.
Giulia’s only real “competition” in the realm of organized husband-poisoning comes from the women of Hungary, who from the late 1800s until around 1929 racked up numbers similar to hers.
In 1879, eight husbands died within six weeks of one another in Hungary’s Szerdahely’s region. After a police investigation, it was determined that they’d all been poisoned by their wives, some of them acting in tandem. In some cases the motive was life insurance money; in others, it was the desire to escape an unhappy and suffocating marriage.
Three years later, another poisoning syndicate was discovered in the Hungarian village of Melencze. A seventy-year-old woman named Thekla Popov had been running a husband-poisoning business for unhappy women over the course of decades. Thekla and around 100 other women were put on trial for poisoning over 100 men; within the course of a year, over half of the women were found guilty.
Over the 1880s, husband-poisoning rackets were uncovered in Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Romania. In 1992, three elderly women were put on trial for helping to poison at least ten men at the request of the men’s wives.
The most notorious group of husband-poisoners in Hungarian history were known as the “Angel Makers,” a group based in the village of Nagyrév. Operating between 1914 and 1929, they supplied arsenic to women who wished to dispatch of their husbands and are suspected of causing at least three hundred deaths.
15 WOMEN WHO POISONED THEIR SPOUSES
Not all of the following women were successful in killing their husbands, but you can’t blame them for not trying.
1. MARY ANN COTTON
Starting in 1852—a full 36 years before Jack the Ripper rained holy terror on London—Mary Ann Cotton started poisoning people with arsenic in order to collect their belongings and cash out their insurance policies. Her alleged death toll included three husbands, her mom, a boyfriend, up to eight of her own children, and seven stepchildren. She was eventually convicted of one stepson’s murder and was hanged to death. As with Evelyn Dick, her saga helped inspire a children’s rhyme:
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.
2. AMY ARCHER-GILLIGAN
As the proprietress of a Connecticut nursing home, Amy Archer-Gilligan aroused suspicion when literally dozens of her boarders wound up dead shortly after naming her in their wills. Between 1911 and 1916, a staggering 48 of her residents died in this manner—this includes five of her husbands, all of whom were found dead of arsenic poisoning. She’d taken out “sizeable insurance policies” on all five husbands before murdering them. Amy’s story became the inspiration for the play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace.
3. MARY ELIZABETH WILSON
British serial killer Mary Elizabeth Wilson was known as the “Merry Widow of Windy Nook” and saw four husbands die in rapid succession in the mid-1950s. She inherited their money with every funeral she attended. She was sentenced to death in 1958 for murdering two of these husbands with beetle poison in 1956 and 1957. At her fourth wedding reception she reportedly “joked” that her husbands were dropping off so quickly, she would be able to use the fresh sandwiches from the prior husband’s funeral for the next one’s funeral.
4. LYDIA SHERMAN
Also known as “The Derby Poisoner,” Lydia Sherman operated out of New Jersey in the late 1800s, killing three of her husbands and six of her own children via poison. She had killed her third husband by spiking his hot chocolate with rat poison. She died in prison of cancer in May of 1878.
5. NANNIE DOSS
A reader of True Romance, Nannie poisoned four of five husbands because she thought they were cheating on her. If they weren’t, she was certain that they were planning on it. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident also blotted out two of her sisters, two of her kids, her mom, a grandson, and a nephew. Using rat poison and arsenic, she slipped lethal doses into one husband’s whisky and another’s stewed prunes. Nannie received a life sentence in 1964 and died a year later. She got her nickname “The Giggling Grandma” when she laughed while confessing to police.
6. TILLIE KLIMEK
Tillie earned a reputation in Chicago for being a psychic, but her psychic abilities were confined to one extremely limited arena—being able to predict when her husbands would die. After police became suspicious, it was found that she’d killed several husbands by putting rat poison in their food. It is also possible that she killed neighbors and friends by spiking their food as well. She was found guilty of murder in 1936.
7. JACQUELINE PATRICK
On Christmas Day 2013, Ms. Patrick and her daughter conspired to spike her husband’s drink with antifreeze. After drinking it, he fell into a coma. But after an ambulance came to help, she attempted to finish him off in plain sight of ambulance workers, leading to her arrest as well as her daughter’s. She had handed them a fake suicide note that read:
I would like to die with dignaty [sic] with my family by my side.
8. YVONNE GODWIN
This is the rare case where the flaw found that a woman’s attempt to murder her husband was actually justified.
In 2008, Godwin, of Gloucestershire, England, was acquitted of attempted murder after she added rat poison to a chocolate cake she intended for her husband to eat but that he actually didn’t touch. It turns out that she’d suffered years of abuse from him and was recovering from cancer at the time she attempted to murder him. In giving her a suspended sentence for attempting to cause or administer poison with intent to injure, the judge told her:
You are not a criminal in any shape or form…. Had you been charged with trying to kill your husband I would have had to send you to prison. But I am prepared to accept what was going on in the family from letters written by your family. You were recovering from cancer and in an abusive relationship.
9. LANA SUE CLAYTON
Although she has not formally been convicted of murder, Lana Clayton is included on this list because she allegedly confessed to South Carolina police that she murdered her husband by placing eyedrops—which contain the fatal poison tetrahydrozoline—in his drinking water over the course of three days in July of 2018. She originally had told relatives that his death was caused from a fall down the stairs of their mansion, but a suicide attempt by Lana led to an autopsy that found the true culprit.
According to a family friend:
All of us that knew Steve loved Lana. His family. His friends. Everyone is shocked over this horrible death….They didn’t have any inkling at all that she was plotting against him. They looked like a normal couple as far as the family was concerned….We were told he fell down the stairs. We thought that’s how he died.
10. STACEY CASTOR
Stacey Castor of upstate New York intentionally force-fed her husband David a lethal dose of antifreeze via a turkey baster one day in 2005. It was the second husband she’d fatally poisoned with antifreeze, and she buried David in a cemetery plot right next to her first husband. She told the police she thought David had committed suicide. Two years later she contacted her daughter Ashley, suggesting they should drink together to mourn David’s passing. She crushed some pills into her daughter’s drink, whereupon Ashley fell into a coma for 17 hours. Castor then busied herself writing a “murder confession” wherein Ashley confessed to the crime. Police saw through the ruse, though, and Castor was convicted of murdering David and attempting to murder Ashley. David’s son, whom Stacey had cheated out of the will, called her a “monster and a threat to society.” A judge called her “a ceiling in terms of evil.”
11. CHISAKO KAKEHI
From 1994 until 2013, Japanese woman Chisako Kakehi lost seven husbands and collected around $8 million worth of insurance payouts as a result. Her seventh marriage only lasted a month before her unfortunate suitor croaked. Police found traces of cyanide in more than one of her husbands’ corpses as well as in a trash bag at her home. To this day Kakehi insists she’s innocent, claiming instead that she’s been “doomed by fate” to accidentally lose seven husbands in a row.
12. STELLA NICKELL
When her husband Bruce came home from work one day in June 1986 complaining of a headache, thrill-seeking bored housewife Stella Nickell fed him four Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules she’d laced with cyanide. She had taken out a huge insurance policy on Bruce and had even forged his signature on the documents. She allegedly even once told her daughter that they’d have fun spending his insurance money were Bruce to suddenly drop dead. To cover her tracks and make it appear that Bruce was the victim of product tampering à la the Chicago Tylenol murders, she placed bottles of tainted capsules in nearby grocery stores. A local bank manager, Susan Snow, died from ingesting one of the capsules. Detectives traced the capsules back to Stella when it was revealed they also contained traces of an algaecide she used in her fish tank. Stella Nickell was convicted of product tampering and sentenced to 90 years in prison.
13. UNNAMED BRAZILIAN WOMAN
This bizarre 2013 case occurred in the Brazilian city of Sao de Jose Rio Preto. The woman confessed to placing poison in her vagina and encouraging her husband to perform oral sex on her. When he noticed an usual odor wafting from her genitals, he took her to the hospital, where she confessed to hatching the plot in an attempt to kill both of them. She was reportedly distraught that he’d refused to divorce her.
14. UNNAMED GHANIAN WOMAN
As reported on the Nigerian website Pulse in early 2018, this case involves a woman who confessed to relationship counselor David Papa Bondze-Mbir via a letter that she’d murdered her first husband by rubbing poison on her body and planned to do the same to her second husband. She claimed she was furious that he’d cheated on her while she was seven months pregnant. According to the letter:
I mixed a deadly, colorless, tasteless, odorless substance with my lotion, smeared it gently on my breast, rubbed it on my vagina, put some on my lips: I coated every part of my body I knew he enjoyed putting his mouth and tongue on, and watched him swallow every bit of his own saliva, mixed with the substance….
Everybody, including his family, all think he died from an acute liver problem. I am cheating on my current husband because I don’t want to lose another man in a marriage; so I would rather want to cheat on him too, as a form of closure – in order not to lose my mind.
It is not known whether the woman has been reported to authorities.
15. UNNAMED CONGOLESE WOMAN
This murder apparently occurred early in 2019. The woman apparently poisoned her spouse after arguing with him over monetary matters. In a video posted to Instagram, she is shown calmly talking to her husband as blood pours from his mouth and he goes into convulsions from being poisoned. The day after the murder, she reportedly sent the video to his family and told them he’d died of a seizure. She also told them he’d acted like “a bad child.”