Dec 22, 2014
The CT Files: Lydia Sherman—The Derby Poisoner
With the seemingly endless abundance of true crime shows on TV, it seems remarkable that one of the most sensational and unusual murderers in Connecticut history has been essentially forgotten, but so seems to be the 1860-’70s story of Lydia Sherman—also popularly known as “America’s Queen Killer,” “The Poison Fiend,” “The Modern-Day Lucretia Borgia” or simply, “The Derby Poisoner.”
And yes, to have gained such a reputation, Lydia’s killing spree was both truly astonishing and gut-wrenchingly horrible. Okay, she murdered a husband (or three, as it turns out), which although terrible, paled to the unimaginable cruelty of also poisoning eight children—including six (!) of her own.
Of course, like many monsters, her benign countenance belied the evil within. A slim woman with chestnut hair, blue eyes and alabaster skin, she relied on her good looks and charms to cover her heinous acts. Her beauty was what attracted her first husband, Edward Struck, a widower with six children who was nearly 20 years her senior. He was so smitten with the 18-year-old Lydia Danbury that he proposed matrimony very shortly after meeting her in 1842. She accepted.
Edward and Lydia Struck set up house on 125th Street in New York City and had eight children together. All seemed well until 1863, when Edward lost his job as a police officer and fell into a prolonged depression. According to her published confession, Lydia Sherman: Confession of the Arch Murderess of Connecticut (a lurid best seller), rather than have him committed to an asylum, she decided to “put him out of the way, as he would never be any good” again—not the solution most loving spouses would choose. She mixed a “thimbleful” of arsenic into his oatmeal gruel and after several hours of vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and convulsions, Edward passed away.
Lydia soon realized that although she had “solved” one problem, she had created another in that she had murdered the primary source of income for her and her six remaining children (her eldest son John had moved out and young daughter Josephine had died years earlier of a mysterious illness—her first victim?). Rationalizing like only the sickest mind could, Lydia decided that the youngest three kids “could do nothing” for her or themselves, and thus would be better “out of the way.” Less than six weeks after Edward’s death, she poisoned all three and watched them die in a single day, which while horrible, didn’t arouse much suspicion because it was an era of high child mortality rates when a single sickness could easily wipe out a family.
With fewer “burdens,” Lydia’s life “improved.” A sympathetic doctor provided the “grieving” widow with a job as a nurse, which was well-timed as over the next few months the three children remaining with her would contract various ailments. Lydia’s treatment? Hating to see each “suffer,” she poisoned them all.
The undiscovered murderer of seven (at least), Lydia now moved around a bit before taking a nursing job in Stratford in 1867. She soon met Dennis Hurlburt, a recently widowed and wealthy gentleman known as “Old” Hurlburt. However, he wasn’t Dead Hurlburt (not yet, anyway) and was soon able to “convince” the still-attractive and younger Lydia to be his bride—once he promised her “all that he was worth.”
Again, life was uneventful until Lydia noticed that Old Hurlburt seemed to hurting from various aged-related maladies. Not one to stand suffering, Lydia ended his pain—officially making him Dead Hurlburt—and inherited his $30,000 estate (equal to $500,000 today).
Flush with cash and single again, it took Lydia only eight weeks to connect with Horatio Sherman, another recent widower looking for someone to take care of his four children. A few months later they married and she moved into his Derby home.
Horatio was a heavy drinker and in an alcohol-fueled rant, said that he almost wished his sickly infant son would “die” rather than continue to be miserable. He didn’t have to tell Lydia twice—she mixed a little arsenic into the baby’s milk and the “suffering” was over in a day. A few months later, she similiarly dispatched her teenaged stepdaughter, who’d had the simple misfortune of catching the flu on Lydia’s watch.
Distraught by the sudden deaths of his two beloved children, Horatio went on a weeklong drinking binge. Upset by her husband’s alcoholism (and his willingness to spend Old Hurlburt’s fortune), it was only a matter of time before Lydia decided to “make him sick of liquor” by spiking his brandy with arsenic. Horatio was dead in a few days.
This time, however, a local physician took notice of Horatio’s abrupt death and ordered an autopsy. When poison was discovered, the bodies of the Sherman children and Old Hurlburt were all exhumed. Confronted with the evidence, Lydia confessed to murdering all of them. She was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1877, Lydia briefly escaped jail and had set up with a wealthy widower—fourth time’s a charm?—before being apprehended.
The notorious Derby Poisoner was stricken with cancer in 1878, and unlike her vicitms, was forced to “suffer through” to her demise.
The CT Files: Lydia Sherman—The Derby Poisoner