25 Notorious Poisoner. Over the past few centuries, arsenic poisoning has been a particularly popular way to kill someone. It’s odorless, tasteless, and builds up in the human body. A large dose will kill someone in hours, while a steady, small dose will cause someone to become ill and appear to die from natural causes.
The poison used to be extremely difficult to detect after death, until James Marsh developed a reliable test in 1832. Even after that, only the victims of suspicious deaths were tested—so many arsenic killers tallied up multiple victims before being caught.
The Romans were known to be a deadly lot, and Locusta was a woman who sped many Roman officials on to an early grave. She was so famous that emperors asked her aid in killing her enemies. She was rumored to have killed the Emperor Claudius with a plate of mushrooms. When she was convicted of poisoning a nobleman, the emperor Nero stepped in and gave her an enormous home to live in. He even sent students to learn her skills. Ironically, she was eventually condemned to death by drinking poison when her crimes became known.
2. Signora Giulia Toffana
Giulia Tofana was a poison-maker in 17th-century Italy. Some sources attribute the invention of the mysterious poison called Aqua Tofana to her, but there are earlier mentions of the “inheritance potion.” (Others attribute the development of Aqua Tofana to Teofania di Adamo, who was executed in 1633 and might have been Giulia Tofana’s mother.) At any rate, both women made and sold the concoction, which included a base of arsenic with some other ingredients, most likely lead and belladonna. Just a few drops could kill a person. At the time, many women had so little status and power that their only means of breaking away from a bad marriage was death, and there was no shortage of women who wanted to keep that option in a small bottle on their dressing tables. As many as 600 people may have died as a result of Tofana’s business over an 18-year period. Eventually, one of her customers was caught, which led to an investigation. Tofana was executed for her activities, along with her daughter and several other accomplices, in 1659.
3. Amy Archer-Gilligan
Amy Archer-Gilligan ran a nursing home in Connecticut from 1907 to 1917. When her first husband and business partner James Archer died in 1910, Archer-Gilligan was the beneficiary of a substantial recently-purchased life insurance policy. She married Michael Gilligan in 1913. Three months later, he was dead. Meanwhile, too many people were dying in the nursing home, particularly those who had recently paid for their care with a lump sum. A complaint from a relative led to a newspaper and police investigation, which led to exhumations. Her second husband and several patients tested positive for arsenic. Archer-Gilligan was tried on only one count of murder and found guilty in 1917. She was sentenced to death, but a new trial was granted to determine whether Archer-Gilligan was insane. That trial led to a life sentence, but she was later sent to a mental institution where she lived until her death in 1962. Archer-Gilligan’s number of victims could be anywhere between five and 48. Her story is thought to have inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
4. Bertha Gifford
Bertha Gifford was born in the 1870s in the town of Morse Mill, Missouri. She married a man named Graham, but when she took up with Gene Gifford, her husband died of a mysterious ailment. She and Gifford married and moved to Catawissa, Missouri, where Bertha became known as a Good Samaritan. She often took care of sick people in her community, going to their homes and cooking for them. She built a reputation as an excellent cook, and she also made home remedies. Quite a few children died under her care, but children, especially sick children, often died from one disease or another in those days. Older people died, too. But in 1917, two healthy, middle-aged men died. Sherman Pounds died at the Gifford’s home, and later hired hand Jim Ogle died after a dispute over pay with the Giffords. Pounds’ three-year-old granddaughter also died while staying with Bertha Gifford in 1922, and seven-year-old Irene Stuhlfelder died under Gifford’s care in 1923. In 1925, Ethel Schamel, two of her sons, and another relative all died within a few months, again under Gifford’s care. Farm hand Ed Brinley died in 1927. Finally, growing rumors of Gifford’s involvement in all those deaths brought an investigation. The bodies of Ed Brinley and the Schamel brothers were exhumed and found to contain large amounts of arsenic. It came out that Bertha Gifford had purchased a lot of arsenic over the years to poison barn rats. She went to trial for two murders in 1928, and was found criminally insane. She was committed to a state mental hospital, where she died in 1951.
5. Mary Ann Geering
Mary Ann Geering was born in 1800 and lived in Guestling, East Sussex, UK, in 1846 when her husband Richard Geering inherited £20. That was a lot of money back then, but not enough to induce murder plans in most people. Two years later, Richard died after a painful illness of five days. His death was attributed to heart disease. Four months passed, and Geering’s 21-year-old son George died. A few weeks later in 1849, 26-year-old son James also died from a painful illness of just a few days. A third son, 18-year-old Benjamin, fell ill shortly afterward on Easter Sunday. This time, doctors removed the patient from the home, and Benjamin recovered. His doctors raised an alarm, and Mary Ann Geering’s husband and two dead sons were exhumed. The bodies were full of arsenic. Geering was arrested and her three younger children were taken to a poorhouse. She confessed during her trial, and was hanged in 1849.
6. Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton had three husbands and at least 10 children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England. The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872, when she predicted the death of her apparently healthy young stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official. When Charles Edward Cotton died suddenly a few days later, Cotton’s first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child’s doctor, who refused to sign until a formal inquest was held. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged.
7. Adelaide Bartlett
Some poisoners just get away with murder, and as far as history is concerned, that is just what Adelaide Bartlett did. Her husband died, and when he was autopsied, it was discovered that he had a large amount of liquid chloroform in his stomach, far more than what it would take to kill him. However, there was no trace of the toxic chemical in his mouth or throat. He could not have drank the substance, because it has a foul taste and would have immediately resulted in vomiting. Because the court could not determine a way for the poison to have gotten into Bartlett’s husband, she was allowed to go free.
8. Dr. Pritchard
Not all poisoners are women. During the latter part of the 19th century, a Dr. Pritchard became the last man to be publicly executed in Scotland. He wanted to marry his pregnant serving girl, and his wife stood in the way. He began to poison her with antimony, but unwilling to stop there, he also poisoned his daughter and his step-mother.
9. Marie Besnard
Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud was called the “Queen of Poisoners” in France, although she was never convicted. Her first husband, a cousin, died of tuberculosis in 1927. Besnard married Léon Besnard the next year. The couple moved in with Léon’s parents, who both died separately within months. Léon’s sister, who shared in the inheritance, died soon after. Marie Besnard’s father also died during the period. Two boarders (a married couple) also died and left the Besnards their estate. Several other relatives who died named the Besnards as their heirs, including Marie’s mother. Both Besnards, by now very wealthy, took lovers into their home. Léon became suspicious that his wife was trying to kill him, and said so to his paramour. He died in 1947. Marie Besnard, who inherited all the accumulated wealth, was finally a suspect. Léon’s body tested positive for arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed, tested for arsenic poisoning, and Besnard was finally charged with 13 counts of murder. Her first trial in 1952 included eleven murders, but ended in a mistrial. The second trial in 1954 also was declared a mistrial. Besnard was acquitted during her third trial in 1961, and died in 1980.
10. Tilie Klimek
Chicago resident Tillie Klimek had a reputation as a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later. Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband, John Ruskowski, died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. Husband number three, Frank Kupczyk, lasted only a few years before he died. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek’s husbands. Klimek predicted the death of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well—and sure enough, the children all died. The widow remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number four, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.
11. Marie Blandy
Mary Blandy was a female poisoner of the 18th century. She was hanged for the crime of parricide in 1752. Mary Blandy was born in 1720 at Henley-On-Thames in Oxfordshire. Her father Francis Blandy offered a dowry of £10,000 for anyone who would marry Mary. (A huge fortune in those days). However in reality he did not have so much money. Until Captain William Cranstoun came on the scene. Cranstoun was the son of a Scottish noble. However there was a complication. He was already married. When he found out Francis Blandy told Cranstoun to leave and told Mary to forget him.
However Mary Blandy and Cranstoun wrote to each other. Cranstoun persuaded Mary to give her father powder, which he said would make her father more friendly towards him. In fact the powder was arsenic. Mary put it in her father’s tea and soup and he fell ill. Francis Blandy duly died on 14 August 1751. Mary then tried to burn some powder in the fire. However a servant managed to retrieve it. Mary Blandy was arrested but Cranstoun fled to France. Mary went on trial on 3 March 1752. A Dr Anthony Addington convinced the jury that the powder rescued from the fire was indeed arsenic. As a result Mary Blandy was found guilty of murder. She was hanged on 6 April 1752.
12. William Palmer
William Palmer was a notorious poisoner of the mid 19th century. Palmer was born on 6 August 1824 in Rugeley in Staffordshire, England. William was apprenticed to a pharmacist but he was sacked when he was 17 for stealing money. He then trained to be a doctor. In 1846 Palmer began practicing in Rugeley but he was an inveterate gambler.
In October 1847 William Palmer married Anne Thornton. They had 5 children but 4 of them died in infancy, possibly poisoned by Palmer. Then in May 1850 Palmer murdered a man named Leonard Bladen to who he owed money. By 1854 Palmer was in debt and he insured his wife for a large sum of money. Mrs Palmer died in September 1854. Her death was ascribed to cholera though in reality William poisoned her. William Palmer then took out a life insurance policy on his brother Walter. Predictably Walter Palmer died soon afterwards in August 1855.
Palmer next murdered a man named John Parsons Cook. The evidence was circumstantial. Nevertheless Palmer was found guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death. William Palmer was hanged in public outside Stafford prison on 14 June 1856.
13. Catherine Wilson
Catherine Wilson was a female poisoner. She was also the last woman to be hanged in public in London. Her poison of choice was colchicum, a kind of crocus. In small doses it was used as a medicine but in large doses it could kill. Wilson was born in 1822. She became a housekeeper to a man named Captain Peter Mawr. However Captain Mawr made the mistake of telling Wilson he had left something in his will for her. Captain Mawr suffered from gout and he took colchicum to treat it. Unfortunately he died from an overdose in 1854. At first it was believed it was accidental.
The jury found her not guilty but as she left the courtroom Wilson was arrested again, this time for the murder of Marie Soames. This time she was found guilty. Catherine Wilson was hanged on 20 October 1862.
14. Thomas Neill Cream
Another famous poisoner was Thomas Neill Cream. His poison of choice was strychnine. Cream was born in Scotland in 1850 but his family moved to Canada when he was 4 years old. Cream studied medicine at Montreal and he left in 1876. In 1880 Cream moved to Chicago and he began an affair with a married woman named Julia Stott. Cream gave her husband, Daniel Stott medicine laced with strychnine. He duly died in June 1881. At first his death was ascribed to natural causes. Cream might have got away with murder but foolishly he wrote to the coroner saying he suspected murder. Cream told the coroner the pharmacist was responsible for the death. The body was exhumed and found to contain strychnine. Cream was tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. However he was released after only 10 years in prison on 31 July 1891.
In October 1891 Cream moved to London and he began killing again. The police were suspicious and put Cream under surveillance. Cream was arrested on 13 July 1892. His trial began on 17 October 1892. Thomas Neill Cream was found guilty of murder on 21 October 1892. Cream was hanged on 15 November 1892.
15. George Chapman
George Chapman was born in Poland on 14 December 1865 (his real name was Severin Klosowski). Chapman had some training as a surgeon in his native Poland. However he moved to Britain about 1888 and he worked as a barber. George Chapman married twice, the first time in Poland, the second time, bigamously, in Britain. However his second ‘wife’ left him in 1892. In 1893 George Chapman met a woman named Annie Chapman and he took her name.
Chapman was charged with three murders and went to trial. Nor surprisingly the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. George Chapman was hanged on 7 April 1903.
16. Herman Billick
A series of arsenic poisonings took place in Chicago, USA in the early 20th century. A man named Herman Billick claimed to be a fortune teller. He also sold love potions. Billick had an affair with a woman named Rosa Vzral and her husband Martin Vzral died in March 1905 leaving his wife a substantial amount of money. Her daughter Mary died in July 1905. Her mother obtained a large amount of insurance money after her death. In December 1905 another daughter, Tilly Vzral died. Again her mother gained her insurance money. They were followed by Rose Vzral in August 1906 and Ella Vzral in November 1906. Both had been insured. Not surprisingly the authorities became suspicious and in December 1906 Herman Billick was arrested. A warrant was also issued for Rosa Vzral but she killed herself with arsenic before she could be arrested. The victims were exhumed and their bodies were found to contain arsenic. However Herman Billick was found guilty of murder in July 1907 and he was sentenced to death. But the death sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. Billick was released in 1917.
17. Frederick Seddon
Frederick Seddon was a poisoned murdered his lodger, Eliza Barrow for her money. Frederick Seddon was born in 1870. As an adult Seddon worked as an insurance agent. He was married to a woman named Margaret and they had 5 children. In 1910 the couple moved into a large house in London. Frederick Seddon decided to rent the top floor of his house as a flat. So in July 1910 a 47 year old spinster named Eliza Barrow moved in. Eliza was quite a wealthy woman and she sought financial advice from Frederick Seddon. He persuaded her to transfer her property to him and in return he would give her a fixed sum for the rest of her life. It was perfectly free but if Eliza Barrow died Seddon would be freed from making any payments to her – an obvious motive for murder.
Finally on 4 December 1911 Frederick Seddon was arrested for murder. His wife Margaret Seddon was arrested on 15 December 1911.
Frederick and Margaret Seddon went on trial at the Old Bailey in London in March 1912. Frederick Seddon was found guilty and he was sentenced to death on 15 March 1912. Margaret Seddon was acquitted. Frederick Seddon was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on 18 April 1912.
18. Dr. Crippen
Hawley Harvey Crippen is infamous because he was the first murderer to be caught by radio. Dr Crippen was born in Michigan, USA in 1862. He married twice. His first wife died in 1890 but in 1892 he married a woman who called herself Cora Turner. Dr and Mrs Crippen moved to England in 1900 and in September 1905 they moved to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Holloway, London, England. Mrs Crippen worked as a music hall entertainer using the name Belle Elmore. However the marriage was not happy. Cora had affairs while Dr Crippen started an affair with a typist named Ethel le Neve.
There was also the fact that Dr Crippen had purchased a large amount of hyoscine shortly before Cora disappeared and the poison was found in the torso.
Not surprisingly the jury did not believe Dr Crippen’s tale that he did not know anything about the torso buried in his cellar and they took only 27 minutes to find him guilty. Dr Crippen was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on 23 November 1910. However Ethel le Neve was found not guilty. Le Neve married in 1915 and she died in 1967 aged 84. Meanwhile 39 Hilldrop Crescent was destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War.
19. Charlotte Bryant
Charlotte Bryant murdered her husband with poison. Frederick Bryant was a corporal in the military police shortly after the First World War. He was stationed in Northern Ireland and he had the misfortune to meet Charlotte McHugh. They married in March 1921. Charlotte was only 19 while Fred Bryant was 25.
In May 1935 Fred Bryant became ill. The doctor diagnosed gastroenteritis but this time Fred recovered. He fell ill again in August 1935 and he recovered. Then fell ill again in December 1935. He was taken to hospital but he died on 22 December 1935. This time the doctor was suspicious and refused to sign a death certificate. He also told the police about his suspicions and began investigating. A large amount of arsenic was found in the body of poor Fred Bryant. Eventually on 10 February 1936 Charlotte was arrested for the murder of her husband Fred. She went on trial at Dorchester on 27 May 1936. On 30 May 1936 Charlotte Bryant was found guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. Bryant was hanged in Exeter prison on 15 July 1936.
20. Marie Becker
Marie Alexandrine Becker was a Belgian poisoner. She was born in 1877. She married a man named Charles Becker in 1906. In 1932 Marie Becker met a man named Lambert Bayer and she began an affair with him. Marie Becker then decided to poison her husband. She killed him with digitalis. Becker used his life insurance money to open a dress shop. However she grew bored with Bayer and decided to kill him with the same poison. Bayer died in November 1934.
Becker also poisoned several elderly customers. However when a friend complained about her husband and said she wished he would die. Becker told her friend that if she really meant that she could supply a powder that would leave no trace. Fortunately in October 1936 the friend contacted the police. They arrested Becker and they found a bottle of digitalis in her purse. The bodies of her victims were exhumed and found to contain the same drug. Marie Becker was convicted of murder but since there was no death sentence in Belgium at that time she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Marie Becker died in jail during the Second World War.
21. Dr. Petiot
Dr Marcel Petiot was an infamous murderer in Paris, France during the Second World War. He killed people by injecting them with cyanide. Marcel Petiot was born in Auxerre, France on 17 January 1897. Dr Petiot told his victims to come to his house after dark and to bring their belongings with them. He persuaded the victims they would have to be vaccinated against a disease, which he claimed was common in the South American country they were headed to. Instead he injected them with cyanide.
He was finally arrested on 2 November 1944. Petiot was charged with 27 murders and his trial began on 18 March 1946. Not surprisingly the jury did not believe his story and Dr Petiot was found guilty of 26 murders on 5 April 1946. Marcel Petiot was guillotined on 25 May 1946.
22. Caroline Grills
Caroline Grills was an Australian murderer. She poisoned people using a poison called thallium, which was often used in rat poison. Grills was born Caroline Mickelson in Balmain, Sydney about 1888. (Her exact date of birth is not known). On 22 April 1908 she married a man named Richard William Grills. He was a labourer. The couple had 6 children, 5 boys and girl. By the 1940s Caroline Grills was a short, dumpy old woman. In 1947 she began killing people.
On 15 October 1953 Caroline Grills was convicted of attempted murder. It took the jury only 12 minutes to find her guilty. Grill was sentenced to death. However the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Caroline Grills or ‘Aunt Thally’ as she was called in prison died on 6 October 1960.
23. Louisa Merrifield
Louisa Merrifield murdered her elderly employer in Blackpool, England. In March 1953 a 79 year old woman named Sarah Ricketts hired Merrifield as a housekeeper. After a few weeks the old lady left Merrifield her bungalow in her will. Afterwards Merrifield told a friend about her good fortune. She also blithely mentioned that the old lady would soon be dead. Merrifield also purchased phosphorous based rat poison and, as predicted the unfortunate old woman duly died on 14 April 1953. The police discovered the cause of death was ingesting phosphorous and they quickly arrested Merrifield. Not surprisingly Merrifield was found guilty of murder on 20 July 1953. She was hanged in Manchester on 18 September 1953.
24. Mary Elizabeth Wilson
Mary Elizabeth Wilson was another phosphorous poisoner. She is believed to have murdered 4 men. In 1914 Mary Ann married a man named John Knowles. He died in 1955. Mary Ann had a lover named John Russell and he died shortly after her first husband. Both men left their worldly goods to Wilson. Then in 1956 she married a man named Olvier Leonard. But Leonard soon died and Wilson inherited his money. Lastly she married a man named Ernest Wilson who also soon died leaving her money. But people grew suspicious partly because of her callous reactions to the deaths. The bodies of the last 2 husbands were exhumed and they were found to contain phosphorous. In March 1958 Mary Elizabeth Wilson was found guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. However the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She died in prison in 1962.
25. Velma Barfield
Velma Barfield was a poisoner. She was also the first woman to be executed by lethal injection. Barfield was born Velma Margi Bullard on 29 October 1932 in South Carolina. In 1949 she married a man named Thomas Burke. However he died in 1969 in a suspicious house fire. Velma then married a man named Jennings Barfield. However he died within a year. Meanwhile Barfield had become addicted to prescription drugs and she stole money to buy them. She murdered people to prevent them finding out. In 1974 Velma Barfield’ poisoned her mother. Since then he murdered 5 people.
Velma Barfield was convicted of his murder, although she also confessed to 3 others. Velma Barfield was executed by lethal injection on 2 November 1984. She was 52.