THE WORST WOMAN ON EARTH
The first American female serial killer Lizzie Halliday
A cross-continental homicidal lunatic with a range of nefarious pseudonyms. Lizzie Halliday was the Catskill Ripper, the New York Ripper and most famously the Worst Woman on Earth [New York Times].
Halliday was born as Lizzie McNally in 1859 Ireland, born just a year before her namesake Lizzie Borden, she would go on to commit far worse crimes than the original Lizzie and garner less fame and attention. This is the story of the Irish American serial killer Lizzie Halliday.
Lizzie terrorized Hudson Valley, New York in the 1890s; just a few years after the gruesome Whitechapel murders started. Lizzie’s reign coinciding with both Jack the Ripper (Lizzie is sometimes listed as a suspect for these crimes) and Lizzie Borden — Halliday would generate less fame than the notorious Lizzie Borden but looking at the crimes, Lizzie was equally (if not more) bloodthirsty than her counterparts.
Lizzie emigrated to the United States in 1864 as a wee nipper. This was just after the devastating Irish Potato Famines and many of the Irish sought for opportunities in the Americas — Lizzie’s family among them. During Lizzie’s pre-notoriety years, she had two husbands simultaneously die within the first couple years of their marriage. Lizzie first married Charles Hopkins and then Artemus Brewer, after Charles dropped dead. Both men left Lizzie a widow but using our 160-year hindsight we can probably hazard a guess that the mysterious and sudden deaths of the first two husbands was likely no coincidence.
By the 1880s wayward Lizzie had been married four times — two of Lizzie’s husbands were dead at this point, one had fled, and the fourth husband survived an arsenic poisoning. Lizzie was not even thirty yet.
There was also a strange case of an arson-related insurance scam which saw Lizzie get two years in prison and committed to an asylum.
1891 — THE FIRE AND THE BARN — Burlingham, New York
Paul Halliday was an ageing Civil War Veteran in his seventies and a widower with five adult sons. When Paul first met Lizzie, Paul was caring for both his farm and a mentally disabled child Frank Halliday (some sources quote the son as John Halliday) and had then sprung his new wife Lizzie from an asylum.
Neighbours picked up on Lizzie’s complete hatred for Paul’s son while Lizzie would go about scheming how to get rid of Frank Halliday.
It wasn’t long into the marriage that the Hallidays’ house caught fire. Although Lizzie managed to escape and call for help, the mentally challenged Frank was inside and burned to death. Neighbours immediately rose suspicions against Lizzie, especially as they alleged to have seen Lizzie outside laughing while the house caught fire. However; despite even Paul knowing that Lizzie was more than likely involved, there just wasn’t enough evidence to bring a charge and the police also soon dropped the case.
Not long after the fire Lizzie fled with a local man and left Paul and his suspicions behind. This debacle resulted in the stealing of two horses and a further committal in an asylum. But despite all of the infidelities and murder of his own son, Paul still somehow found the strength in his heart to take Lizzie back into his arms and appealed to the judge to release Lizzie.
She returned to live on his farm once again….
Paul Halliday disappeared soon after taking Lizzie back…. The neighbours were suspicious of the differing explanations given by Lizzie and the police obtained a search warrant. While searching the property they found the bodies of two women buried in the barn.
These were identified as Margaret and Sarah McQuillan.
The McQuillans were a mother and daughter pair that Lizzie had stayed with frequently in New York. It was while the elder mother Sarah McQuillan was visiting Lizzie that a message was sent out to Margaret that her mother was gravely injured and was asked to come to the farm to take care of her. Lizzie no doubt had caught a couple of flies in her web at that point.
While under arrest for the McQuillan murders; the entire farm was scoured and the tragic end to her fifth marriage was uncovered by way of Paul’s deadly and horrifically mutilated remains. Justice had finally caught up with Lizzie.
Paul had been shot three times and his body was mutilated when police found him. Lizzie was then arrested for three murders (but let’s be honest, the death toll was probably much more than that). It was fortunate for Lizzie that she was arrested when she was, as at the time the local townsfolk were planning a lynching. Sheriff Beecher at the time having to call for order in this small New York farming community.
Lizzie was sentence to the electric chair and confined to Sullivan County Jail.
Lizzie was given a date with Old Faithful, becoming the first female sentenced to die by the electric chair (at the time). At the time of her verdict, Lizzie reportedly lunged for Sheriff Beecher in the middle of the court room and bit down into part of his hand. Rumour has it that the bite would later cause the Sheriff to lose the hand by amputation (Beecher’s hand being yet another victim of Lizzie’s) but these are unconfirmed reports.
In true Lizzie fashion, her time in prison was full of drama. Lizzie refused to eat and had to be force fed through a tube. It was reported in the papers that she tried to strangle Sheriff Beecher’s wife, she set fire to her bedclothes, tried to hang herself with the bottom of her prison dress and slit her throat with a broken window in her cell. Eventually, Lizzie had to be chained to the floor of her cell to stop any further mischief.
Outside of the prison, Lizzie became a celebrity. Front page headlines were dedicated to the sensational story of the serial killer, during a time when the term serial killer hadn’t even been coined.
“From its circumstances, origin, conception and execution; its unique characteristics, the abnormal personalities and peculiar localities it involves, and, above all, in the strangeness and mystery of its great central figure, it is unprecedented and almost without parallel in the annals of crime,” New York World reporter Edwin Atwell wrote of the case.
The sensationalism didn’t end there with many journalists picking up on Lizzie’s time spent in Europe during the 1880's and began to suspect that Lizzie was Jack the Ripper.
“We suspect that this mysterious creature was connected with the horrible Whitechapel murders,” the Daily Times reported, noting that Sheriff Beecher asked the suspect point blank about her involvement. “In addition, the Sheriff said: ‘I said to Mrs. Halliday, Lizzie, you are accused of the Whitechapel murders. Are you guilty?’ ‘Do you think I am an elephant?’ she replied. ‘That was done by a man.’
Originally sentenced to death for the three confirmed murders, Lizzie’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. There was nowhere near enough evidence to tie Lizzie to the Whitechapel killings, but Police at the time strongly believed that only a small percent of Lizzie’s actual victims were discovered and we can deduce the same. Lizzie’s real victim tally will never be known.
Despite confinement Lizzie would somehow manage to murder again and stabbed an attending nurse two hundred times to death. The murder within the asylum caused an uproar, with other nurses in such a state of anxiety after losing one of their own that the head of the asylum feared a mass desertion of staff.
This small-framed woman from County Antrim had managed to have the eastern United States of America in a grip of sensationalism and terror during the late 19th Century and even while confined to a life sentence with the keys thrown away, somehow managed to carrying on killing. She is without a doubt the baddest Irish woman of all time. She died in 1918 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds of Matteawan State Hospital — probably the best place for Lizzie…