“Girl Poisoner Moron,” or Why Was Everyone So Bad at Murder?


Arts & Culture

Women from Essipoff’s list: Mary Baker Eddy, Florence Elizabeth Maybrick, and Ma Barker.


In 1938, Marie Armstrong Essipoff, a journalist, editor, and memoirist, was helping Theodore Dreiser research murders committed by women. She had been collecting newspaper clippings on “misspent lives,” and she sent a letter to Dreiser highlighting a few she pulled from her files in a “hasty survey” she’d done that morning after being woken at the “crack of dawn,” meaning ten thirty A.M. “Skeletons, gobs of flesh, knives, etc. etc. furnished on request,” she added.

Essipoff concluded the letter by inviting Dreiser out to Great Neck, New York, where she lived with her husband, Dmitry—“who is, after ten years, still the most delightful man I know.” Six years earlier, Essipoff had published a memoir about her ten-year marriage to the writer Ben Hecht, brilliantly titled My First Husband, by His First Wife. Their union involved many literary parties, some shocking theater productions, and an experiment in nonmonogamy. (Essipoff granted Hecht two nights a week with his mistress, who didn’t “believe in marriage” yet soon became his second wife.) After their divorce, Essipoff became the first editor of the Chicagoan, a short-lived literary magazine modeled on The New Yorker, before moving to New York.

Essipoff told Dreiser she was planning “off and on” to write these cases “into mysteries myself someday,” though she noted that this did not preclude his using them. If the fifteen murderesses Essipoff listed are any indication, average people used to be pretty bad at premeditated murder: overly reliant on poison and sloppy about hiding their tracks. And Essipoff delighted in their macabre ineptitude.

Dreiser spent his final years writing on philosophical and political matters and never did anything with these cases. Neither did Essipoff. But when I was looking through Dreiser’s own clippings at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center, on a long-shot guess that he might have read about a particular murder for An American Tragedy, I came across her letter, which I have reproduced below. In a few places, I expanded on her notes with my own brief research into these crimes. (Her words are in italic, with a few spellings corrected, and mine are in roman. The repeated “3” of this list is as per her original numbering.)

1. Charlotte Matthiesen case. Obvious but appealing.

2. Mrs. Paddleford—quite a dame in her own persistant way. Worth skimming through. And coupled with it because the “continued over” demands, is:

3. Cora Hebner. In spite of the ordinariness and sordidness of this case I have a weakness for Cora. She is so entirely and with absolutely no bluff, mistress of the situation.

In the spring of 1938, a skeleton was discovered in the storm cellar of a farm outside Pocahontas, Arkansas. Cora Hebner, age fifty, had moved away a week before. The neighbors, who had noticed buzzards milling about the cellar hatch, urged the new tenants to investigate. Their dig revealed bones, including a skull with gold-crowned teeth, assumed to be those of Will Hebner, an invalid who had disappeared a year before, on a trip to Africa, his wife had told neighbors. Cora was found in Miami, living with another man, and was brought back to Pocahontas for questioning. Deputy Sheriff Virgil Pace found her “ever jaunty, willing, and superior.”

Police discovered that Cora had placed an ad in Cupid’s International Messenger a month after Will disappeared.

“P-3645, State of Arkansas—Age 48, height 5’4″, weight 140, ‘Golden Rule’ religion, blue eyes, nice gray hair, widow by death, American, high school education; own two good farms and nice cottage in the city; shall not answer any post cards; no encumbrances good-natured, loving, loyal, honest; wish to correspond with a good honest man seeking congenial companionship.”

It was through one of these matchmaking journals that Cora, who’d been married at least six times already, had first found Will. Together the husband-and-wife team ran a mail-order marriage racket. They’d pick out mates from the journals, snare them with false descriptions and pictures, leave the farm to get married, contrive financial swindles, and then return to each other. Cora had reportedly left her sixth husband after only ten days, departing with $150, a harness, and a shotgun. Will had married, fleeced, and deserted eighteen women—and probably dozens of others he had not told Cora about, she admitted to police. He “got married whenever the idea struck him,” she said, and claimed that he was, even now, living with another woman.

Police didn’t investigate Cora’s claim, and they soon had reason to close the case. Days before the trial, Cora was found dead in her cell, slumped before an open Bible with a note declaring that Will had smuggled in the strychnine with which she killed herself. “I’ll rob you of any further fun,” she told her public. “Adios.”

3. Elizabeth Wagner case—I labeled it “Girl Poisoner moron” in haste and a bad temper. There is to me a quiescent appeal in this case. I’d like to take Elizabeth apart more thoroughly and see the wheels go round.

In 1938, after two of her brothers, twenty-one-year-old Henry and fourteen-year-old Charles, had died from poison, twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Wagner of Astoria, Queens, was captured in a photo by ACME Newspaper consoling her widowed mother. But after an all-night interrogation, Elizabeth confessed to police that she had given her brothers small doses of arsenic, in milk and orange juice, on four occasions. She had killed Henry because he marred her appearance by knocking out her two front teeth. (“She had never had any boy friends,” one newspaper reported, “and every time she looked in the mirror she thought of Henry and that blow.”) She “didn’t know why” she killed Charles. Neighbors described Elizabeth, who worked in a factory, as being forced to drudge at home, chopping wood in the backyard while her brothers “idled” and “taunted her.” She later repudiated her confession, and she was ultimately committed to a mental hospital.

4. Maybrick case. A classic and one that has been oddly neglected. I remember her in Highland Park—walking alone and very upright—and how I was awed and thrilled.

Florence Elizabeth Maybrick, who was, in her own description, descended for generations on both sides from “good American stock” and “too delicate for college life,” had, at age eighteen, married James Mayrbrick, an Englishman twenty-three years her senior. They settled near Liverpool and had a boy and a girl. James, a hypochondriac, took arsenic and other poisons (in his time, arsenic was taken not, as in classical antiquity, to develop immunity against deliberate poisoning, but for its supposed tonic and aphrodisiac qualities). He also had several mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. Florence had lovers, too. The Maybricks came close to divorce but had, in Florence’s account, reconciled “for the children’s sake.”

In 1889, James became ill after taking a double dose of strychnine, and while he was recovering, Florence was caught by the nanny sending a compromising letter to one of her lovers. She was placed under house arrest by James’s brother, and soon she was suspected of tampering with a bottle of Valentine’s Meat Juice (a tonic made from beef juice), which was found to contain arsenic. When James died, his brothers ordered an autopsy, which revealed trace amounts of arsenic. Florence later asked, in Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1905), why his brothers did not “tell the police what all his intimate friends knew, that he was an arsenic eater?” Whether the arsenic caused his death, and whether he took it himself or was poisoned by his wife with his chosen poison, remains unclear.

Florence was convicted of murder and given a death sentence, which, after a public outcry, was commuted to life imprisonment. She was released after fourteen years and moved back to the U.S.

In 1911, her son, whom she hadn’t seen since before she went to prison, died when he drank a glass of water that turned out to contain cyanide.

5. Female Fagin—alias Ma Barker. Here’s a lady and a half for you! What a woman!

6. The Wise Poisonings. The character of the lady who did the dirty work has always appealed to me. Something in her that “pings.”

7. To Live Her Own Life. Good female monster type.

8. Hahn Poisoning case. Some data. Maybe Mrs. Hahn had the right idea after all.

9. Mail robber. This is the case I tried to tell you about that made me giggle. If we could find a strong woman motive in it—or switch it coldbloodedly and deliberately to a woman instead of a man, I think we’d have something. And if anybody calls us liars we call them liars right back boo!

Just a question: Is she calling Dreiser “boo”?

10. The Devious Lady. She knew what she wanted.

11. Midsummer Night’s Murder Dream. Well, me now, I go strong for this physic stuff. I know this case of old. It’s well authenticated.

12. Mary Baker case. A classic. Maybe the secret could be dug out of the gal’s character?

13. Lillian Marshall Knox. This story to me is a real knockout. It’s got everything.

In 1908, Hiram Knox Sr., who’d made a fortune cutting down trees in Wisconsin and moved to East Texas to do the same, hired Lillian Marshall as a live-in nurse for himself and his wife. Within a few years, Lillian, who had grown up poor in Texarkana, married the couple’s son, Hiram Jr., a widower twenty-eight years her senior.

Lillian had a “business acumen which was entirely lacking in her husband,” one newspaper reported, and “slowly, inexorably, gathered the reins and directed the vast Knox enterprises.” During World War I, Woodrow Wilson applauded Lillian’s contributions to the war effort, and her charitable acts in East Texas earned her the name Lady Bountiful. She threw elaborate parties attended by adoring artists and politicians. Her husband, who preferred fishing and hunting to entertaining, disapproved of her excesses.

In 1922, Hiram Jr. was found “sprawled across the bed, a bullet in his head and a 45-caliber pistol in his hand.” A letter (typewritten, signed) blamed his financial troubles. The sheriff suspected murder—the bullet had entered the back of his head, and the wound did not show the powder burns a shot fired at close range would have made—and arrested Lillian. Authorities heard stories of frequent quarrels between the Knoxes, and the rumor that Lillian had bought a black mourning dress two days before her husband’s death. Even so, a grand jury refused to indict Lady Bountiful.

Hiram had made poor financial decisions, and the business never recovered. In 1937, Lillian was questioned, along with her grown children, about the bludgeoning of a Dallas oil millionaire’s widow. In 1940, she was picked up for shoplifting in Los Angeles. The police recognized her as a woman wanted by federal authorities for check forgery, and she was sent to prison in West Virginia. In the 1950s, she moved to Chicago, where she became a caretaker of wealthy women and was charged with, though ultimately acquitted of, stealing fifty-three thousand dollars in bonds from one of her clients. She died a pauper.

14. Etta Riel. Another mystery that might be solved by some decent analysis. Or maybe not.

Essipoff would go on to write popular books about home economy, including, in 1951, five years before her death, Making the Most of Your Food Freezer. In My First Husband, in a chapter titled “The Mental Processes of a Husband Who Is Also a Genius,” Essipoff recalls confronting her husband about his mistress, to which he replied, “You’ve been very lucky that I’ve taken out most of my sensuality in imaginative writing.” The next day, he proposed the twice-a-week arrangement and, when his wife agreed to it, he called her a “fine, brave girl,” a “good girl.” She then “began to prepare for death” and finally opted for divorce. Her second husband, a Russian aviator who flew in World World I and for the Whites in the Russian Civil War, “had never heard of” Hecht, “his writing or his deeds.” Essipoff spent much of her life in a secondary position: wife to a famous writer, editor of a magazine that never quite formed its own identity, and informal assistant to another famous writer. But as the breezy, bitey wit in her writing shows, though she may have been secondary, she was never second-rate.


Anne Diebel taught for eight years at Columbia. She now works as a private investigator.