In honor of the approaching fall season and, with it, Halloween, we take you back to one of our creepiest decades: the 1890s. You read such creepy new works as Dracula, The War of the Worlds, Heart of Darkness, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. You lived through the Gilded Age of creepy wealth and creepier corruption. And you were terrorized by sensational, horrifyingly creepy crimes: Lizzie Borden took her axe in 1892 and Jack the Ripper continued to haunt London over a string of murders begun in the late 1880s. But nothing — and no one — was creepier than Sullivan County’s own serial killer, Lizzie Brown Halliday.
In fact, while Borden was acquitted and Jack never identified, Halliday was known to have killed five people, convicted of one murder, and believed to have offed many others. She was sentenced to die in the electric chair. That sentence was commuted, and she spent the last 24 years of her life in the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Dutchess County, where she killed her last victim, a prison nurse.She was front-page news all over the world, and, for a time, was suspected of being the actual Jack the Ripper. Yet her story was almost forgotten. “I don’t think anyone was aware of the case until I wrote about it,” says John Conway, Sullivan County historian and history professor at SUNY Sullivan, who published articles about her in 2007. “It is a fascinating story, and the most fascinating thing is that there was such a broad geographic area and so many potential victims, no one is really quite sure how many people she killed.”
So dim the lights, light some candles, play some creepy music, and read about Lizzie Halliday, who The New York Times dubbed “the worst woman on earth.”
Eliza Margaret McNally was born in Ireland in 1864, and immigrated to the United States in 1867. She was a criminal prodigy— “Apparently, her murderous tendencies started fairly early,” Conway says — and you may need a scorecard to track her heinous exploits. Her first husband, Charles Hopkins, also known as “Ketspool” Brown, died two years after their marriage, in 1879. She then married Artemus Brewer, who died less than a year later. The Times, reporting on her trial in 1894, begged the question: “Whether these men died natural deaths or were murdered is not known.”
Her next “venture,” as the Times put it, was Hiram Parkinson. He fled within a year, so she promptly married another man, George Smith, who was a friend of Artemus Brewer. “In a few months, she tried to kill Smith by giving him a cup of poisoned tea. Failing in her design, she fled to Bellows Falls, Vermont, taking with her every portable article in the house,” the Times wrote.
In Vermont, she married Charles Playstel (that’s three living husbands, if you’re keeping score at home) but disappeared after about two weeks. She reappeared in Philadelphia, where she took lodging with the McQuillan family, who lived near the McNally family back in Ireland. There, she opened a shop, only to burn it down to collect the insurance money. That resulted in her first stint in prison; she served two years in Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary for the crime.
Her crime spree continued after her release, in Newburgh, where she met an aging Civil War veteran and widower with two sons from Sullivan County named Paul Halliday. She married him, too. “Their married life does not seem to have been pleasant,” the Times reported — “in what must rank as one of the greatest journalistic understatements of all time,” Conway pointed out in his writings — because she stole a team of horses to elope with a neighbor (who then left her). She was arrested, pled insanity, and entered an asylum.
In 1893, Paul Halliday sprung her from the asylum. That August, she burned his house, barn, and a mill. One of Hallidays’ sons died in the fires, and Paul was nowhere to be found. The neighbors did not believe her story that he was traveling, so they poked around. They found two dead bodies under a haystack. Margaret and Sarah McQuillan, the wife and daughter of the man with whom she had lived in Philadelphia, had both been bound and shot. Lizzie Halliday was arrested, and a few days later, her husband’s body was found hidden under the floor of his house. He, too, had been tied up and shot.
While in Sullivan County Jail awaiting her trial, she refused to eat, tried to strangle a sheriff’s wife, set her bedclothes on fire, tried to hang herself, and cut her throat and arms with broken glass. “For the last three months, it has been necessary to keep her chained to the floor,” the Times wrote.
Halliday was on the front pages of many New York City newspapers, and the story was picked up around the country. Conway uncovered this, in the New York World: “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.”
But was she Jack the Ripper? Sullivan County Sheriff Harrison Beecher, in what Conway believes was a reach for publicity, told the press that, “recent investigations show that Mrs. Halliday is in all probability connected with the famous Whitechapel murders.” He had no evidence to support his claim, and, when asked directly if she had been that killer, Halliday reportedly replied, “Do you think I am an elephant? That was done by a man.”
At her trial, in Sullivan County Oyer and Terminal Court on June 17, 1894, Halliday was convicted of the murder of Sarah McQuillan and sentenced to death. When that sentence was commuted after she was judged insane, she lived out the rest of her life in the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Hardly a model prisoner, she tried to escape several times and attacked many prison workers — most viciously, nurse Nellie Wickes, whom she stabbed with scissors more than 200 times and who became Halliday’s final victim, in 1906. Halliday herself died, in Matteawan, on June 18, 1918.
Some at the time believed that she was not really insane, only acting so. Conway doesn’t buy that. “There were attempts to diagnose her condition and somehow tie that to her motivation, but I don’t know how successful they were,” he says. “She seemed just flat-out crazy.” Her connection to the Whitechapel murders has similarly been dismissed. In the end, why she committed her grisly crimes remains a mystery. “What stands out to me,” Conway says, “is that, for all we do know, there are so many unanswered questions that could help explain her actions.”
We’ll just have to be content with knowing that Sullivan County was once home to the worst woman on earth. Happy early Halloween.