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Newspaper portrait of Lizzie Halliday
Eliza Margaret McNally
|Died||June 28, 1918 (aged 58–59)|
|Known for||Serial killer, first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair|
Lizzie Halliday (c. 1859 – June 28, 1918) was an Irish-American serial killer responsible for the deaths of four people in upstate New York during the 1890s. In 1894, she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by the electric chair. However, Halliday's sentence was commuted and she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. She killed a nurse while institutionalized and is speculated to have killed at least two more people, her husbands from previous marriages.
Lizzie Halliday, originally Eliza Margaret McNally, was born around 1859 in County Antrim, Ireland. Her family moved to the US when she was young (given as aged three or eight). In 1879, Lizzie married a Pennsylvania man called either Charles Hopkins or Ketspool Brown. They are said to have had one son who ended up institutionalized. In 1881, after Hopkins' death, she married a pensioner named Artemus Brewer, but he also died less than a year later. Her third husband, Hiram Parkinson, left her within their first year of marriage. Lizzie went on to marry George Smith, a war veteran who had served with Brewer. After a reported failed attempt to kill Smith by putting arsenic in his tea, Lizzie fled to Bellows Falls, Vermont. She married Vermont resident Charles Playstel but she vanished two weeks later.
In the winter of 1888, Lizzie resurfaced in Philadelphia when she turned up at a saloon on 1218 North Front Street that was run by the McQuillans, friends she knew from Ireland. Going by the name "Maggie Hopkins", Lizzie set up a shop, but was later convicted of burning it down for the insurance money. She was sentenced to two years at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary.
In 1889, now going by the name "Lizzie Brown", she became the housekeeper for Paul Halliday, a twice-widowed seventy-year-old farmer living in Burlingham, New York with his sons. Their marriage was marred by what Halliday described as Lizzie's sporadic "spells of insanity". Within two years, the Halliday family's house and barn burned to the ground, and Lizzie was suspected of setting the fires. At some point, Lizzie stole a team of horses and had a neighbor help her drive them to Newburgh, New York, where she sold them. She was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of insanity (accounts vary as to this happening in 1890 or 1893).
In May 1893, the Halliday mill/residence barn burned to the ground, killing Halliday's mentally handicapped son John. Lizzie was again suspected of setting the fire since she was known to have disliked John. She was arrested and sent to an asylum, transferred to another, but then declared cured and released, returning home to Halliday.
Halliday disappeared in August of that year. Lizzie claimed he had gone to a nearby town to do some masonry work. Following the neighbors' suspicions that something was not right about Lizzie's story, a search warrant was obtained and on September 4 the bodies of two women were found buried in hay in a barn. Both had been shot. The women were later identified as Margaret and Sarah McQuillan, New York residents who were part of the family Lizzie had stayed with in Philadelphia. Little could be ascertained from Lizzie as, when questioned, she behaved in an erratic manner, tearing at her clothes and talking incoherently. She was kept in custody and some thought she was merely faking insanity.
A few days after the McQuillans were found, Paul Halliday's mutilated body was discovered under the floorboards of his house. He had also been shot. Lizzie was charged with the murders and held for trial at the Sullivan County jail in Monticello, New York. During her first few months there she refused to eat, attacked the sheriff's wife, set fire to her own bed, tried to hang herself, and cut her own throat with broken glass about which she said: "I thought I would cut myself to see if I would bleed." Her jailers were forced to chain her to the floor during her remaining months there.
While she was in jail Lizzie received national attention with one sensational story after another appearing across the country in tabloid newspapers. The New York World portrayed Lizzie's case as "unprecedented and almost without parallel in the annals of crime". She was also covered by the World's Nellie Bly who eventually managed to get an interview with Lizzie in which she revealed her previous marriages, facts Bly was able to confirm. Another useful source for reporters was Robert Halliday, Paul Halliday's son. The Sullivan County Sheriff started a new round of speculation when he told the press that Lizzie was probably connected to the Jack the Ripper murders, although no connection was ever made.
The revelation that she had been married five times before she wed Paul Halliday, that two of her husbands died less than a year after their weddings and that Lizzie had tried to poison a third led the press to speculate that she was responsible for at least six deaths. "Whether these men died natural deaths or were murdered, is not known", The New York Times noted in June 1894. Lizzie also made a claim (confided to Robert Halliday) that she had killed a husband in Belfast, but had managed to conceal the crime.
On June 21, 1894, Halliday was convicted at the Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court for the murder of Margaret McQuillan and Sarah Jane McQuillan. She became the first woman ever to be sentenced to death by electrocution, via New York State's new electric chair, but governor Roswell P. Flower commuted her sentence to life in a mental institution after a medical commission declared her insane. Halliday was sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where she spent the remainder of her life. In 1906 she killed a nurse, Nellie Wickes, by stabbing her 200 times with a pair of scissors.
- Harold Schechter, Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, Random House Publishing Group – 2012, page 58 (born 1859)
- Conway, John (August 11, 2014). "A Short History Of Serial Killer Lizzie Brown Halliday". newyorkhistoryblog.org.
- Serial Killer Lizzie Halliday, unknownmisandry.blogspot.com (excerpts from several contemporaneous newspapers and publications)
- "A Murderous Maniac – The Many Crimes Charged Against Lizzie Halliday, A mania Like Jack The Ripper" Frederick NewsMaryland, U.S.A. 11 September 1893 (reprinted at findagrave.com)
- Robert Wilhelm. "The Worst Woman on Earth". Murder by Gaslight. Retrieved 2014-12-22.
- James D. Livingston, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York, SUNY Press – 2012, pg 64
- The Library of Congress, Researchers, Topics in Chronicling America – Death by Electric Chair, loc.gov
- George Frederick Shrady, Thomas Lathrop Stedman, W. WoodMedical Record, Volume 46 – 1894 "News of the Week, The Escape from the Electric Chair" July 21, 1894
- Murder By A Maniac – Lizzie Halliday, Ex-Gypsy, Adds a Seventh Victim to Her List – Stabs Nurse With Shears – Horrible Crime of Crazy Woman In Hospital For Insane Criminals at Matteawan, N. Y., The Logansport Pharos (In.), Oct. 17, 1906, p. 7 republished here
- Washington Post, June 30, 1918, page 8
- LIZZIE HALLIDAY DEAD.; Guilty of Five Murders and Described as 'Worst Woman on Earth.' The New York Times, June 29, 1918
- LIZZIE HALLIDAY, MURDERESS, DIES IN ASYLUM, Middletown Times-Press from Middletown, New York, Friday, June 28, 1918