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Women Who Kill

In this compelling true crime read, Ann Jones investigates the long and dark history of female killers in America.

women who kill ann jones

"Always their question was the same: What motive could any woman have for killing her husband?"

Women do not murder on the same scale as men. When they do resort to homicide, the victim is often someone she knows: a husband, a lover, a relative, a child. In her bold true crime work, Ann Jones investigates this grim reality in search of deeper truths about how and why women kill. 

Women Who Kill delivers a stunning social history of female killers in America, from rarely-discussed murderers of the Colonial era to the notorious cases of Lydia Sherman, Belle Gunness, Ruth Snyder, and Alice Crimmins. Throughout, Jones goes beyond the lurid headlines to remind us that "the story of women who kill is the story of women." Do patterns of domestic abuse and oppression emerge in the many cases of female killers throughout U.S. history? If so, what does this tell us about the state of women in America?

First published in 1980 and presented here in its 30th anniversary edition, Women Who Kill is a groundbreaking work that belongs in every true crime library. In the excerpt below, Jones introduces us to four different women charged with murder in late nineteenth century America, highlighting the similarities present in each case. 

Read on for an excerpt of Women Who Kill, and then download the book.




Women Who Kill

By Ann Jones

MARY MORIARTY, in 1855, stuck a knife into John Shehan on a Memphis street corner. Mary Harris, abandoned in the Midwest, took a train to Washington in 1865 and shot Adoniram Burroughs in the corridor of the Treasury building. Fanny Hyde, in a Brooklyn factory in 1872, shot her employer George Watson as he was walking downstairs to lunch. And Kate Stoddart carefully laid out Charles Goodrich in the basement of his Brooklyn brownstone in 1873 after she shot him three times in the head. All of these women were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Their stories are almost interchangeable. Like the typical seduced-and-abandoned maiden sketched in the pages of The Advocate, all of these women were young, poor, friendless, and innocent.

Related: 11 Chilling True Crime Books About Female Killers 

Mary Moriarty left her elderly parents and came to the United States sometime around mid-century, along with a million other Irish immigrants. Her ship docked at New Orleans, and a river packet carried her up the Mississippi to Memphis and Mrs. O’Hara’s boardinghouse. Among the boarders chambermaid Moriarty discovered John Shehan, once a childhood playmate in Ireland, now a laborer on the Mississippi levees. He asked her to marry him, but when she found she was expecting a child, he still hadn’t arranged for the ceremony. At Moriarty’s request the Catholic priest spoke to Johnny and elicited a solemn vow to marry her; but the child was born and died, and still Johnny put her off. She lost her job at Mrs. O’Hara’s and sifted down to Mrs. Young’s boardinghouse, then to Colonel Coleman’s, finally to the United States Hotel, where fewer questions were asked. 

Johnny Shehan left town for a few months on a bender and came back broke. He promised marriage again and borrowed $10 from her, supposedly to pay "his board." (Her wages were 33 cents per day for a 12-hour workday.) They made wedding plans, and soon Mary discovered that she was pregnant again. On the evening of September 1, 1855, after dinner had been cleared away at the United States Hotel, Mary walked out with Johnny to discuss their wedding; but he told her that he had no mind to marry her. She tried to persuade him, and he tried to pull her into the bushes. She stabbed him twice in the chest, shouting, "Do you mind that, Johnny?" He turned and ran to his boardinghouse, and there, within 45 minutes, he bled to death. Mary Moriarty was pursued by witnesses; when they caught her, she was still holding the knife.

MARY HARRIS, one of many children in a poor Irish family in Burlington, Iowa, was put out at age nine to live with and work for a woman who owned a fancy goods store. One of the customers, Adoniram Burroughs, who kept a store nearby, began to stop in daily. He enjoyed "fondling" the child. When his own business failed, he took over as bookkeeper in the store where Mary worked. Later he wrote her love letters, reminding her of the "stolen kisses" they had enjoyed in the back room of the store—when he was in his late twenties, and she was about ten. Following Michelet’s advice, "he proposed to mold and fashion her mind by the superior force of his own age, experience, and will, in order that she might at a future period make him a suitable wife." This technique was successful, for she "learned to love" him although at first she hadn’t liked him at all.

When Mary was 13 her father objected to Burroughs’s attentions; Burroughs went to Chicago and for the next four or five years wrote love letters to Mary, until he persuaded her to come to Chicago. She found work and lodging there with two respectable milliners, the Misses Devlin, who understood from Burroughs’s conduct that the couple was engaged. The wedding was set for June 1863, but Burroughs went off to Washington to seek a better job, and the marriage was repeatedly postponed "for lack of means." 

Related: Fatal Charm: 5 Deadly Women 

Then, in September 1863, Mary read in the newspaper that Burroughs had married Miss Amelia Boggs, a well-to-do Chicago woman. For months she tried to sue him for breach of promise, but the lawyers dallied with her, saying they could not find him to serve a writ. (Breach of promise was a tricky claim in any case; in the mouth of an Irish shopgirl, given the prejudices of the day, it was ludicrous.) Twice she went to Washington looking for him herself; on January 30, 1865, she entered the Treasury building, where Burroughs worked as a clerk, waited an hour in the corridor, and when he emerged from his office at the end of the day, she took a Sharpes four-barrel pistol from her pocket and shot him once in the back. She fired again as he ran away down the hall, but that shot passed over his head as he fell, bleeding to death. She lowered her green veil and walked calmly away, but she was arrested by a guard as she left the building.

women who kill
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  • Fanny Hyde (née Windley) and George Watson.

    Photo Credit: Cornell Library Archives

FANNY WINDLEY was born in Nottingham, England. When she was four her mother died; at eight she got a job; at 10 she came to the United States and went to work in a factory; at 15 she took a job in a Manhattan hairnet factory owned by George Watson, a 45-year-old family man with five children. One day, four months later, when the other workers had gone, he locked her in his office and "seduced" her. As long as she worked there, he wouldn’t leave her alone; but when she tried to leave, he threatened to blackball her. He impregnated her and gave her some unidentified medicine to induce abortion. As friends put it, her "flesh fell away"; she lost 30 pounds and her health failed. Then, when she was 18, she met a young man named Hyde. She got Watson to promise with his hand on the Bible that he would leave her alone, and she married Hyde. When Watson came after her again, she told her husband. Watson promised Hyde that he would leave Fanny alone. But he didn’t. So on January 26, 1872, when George Watson left his third-floor office, he found Fanny Hyde waiting on the landing with a gun. She shot him once in the head, killing him instantly, and a few hours later surrendered herself to the police.

Related: Girls Just Wanna Be Bad: 3 Notorious Female Killers 

ELIZABETH KING, the second daughter of Isaac King of Plymouth, Massachusetts, left home early to earn a living by her needle. She worked in Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, learned the bonnet business in Middleboro, New Hampshire, and went to New York when she was in her early twenties. Her family lost track of her; she started going by the name Kate Stoddart (or Stoddard) for reasons she never explained. She went to work making hats, sometimes in factories, sometimes taking the work home to her rooming house. Employers liked her because she was a good worker, though a slow one; they gave her all the most difficult styles at piecework rates. Apparently lonely, she answered a matrimonial ad placed by Charles Goodrich, a 42-year-old former lumber dealer with an interest in some newly built Brooklyn brownstones. She fell in love with Charley, and on May 20, 1872, they were married; she went to live with him in his bare, new Brooklyn house, but they kept the marriage a secret because Charley said it would interfere with some property negotiations he had under way with his brother. 

To the neighbors the ashy blonde woman was a shadowy figure. Some thought she looked ill and frail; and indeed she was—after Charley gave her medicine to induce abortion. Then, one night in February 1873, she returned from working in Manhattan to find herself locked out of the house. A friend of Charley’s, pretending to be a watchman, took her to the unfinished house next door where Charley had dumped her belongings. Their marriage, it seemed, was not binding, for it had been performed by one of Charley’s friends masquerading as a clergyman; and now Charley had decided to marry someone else. She wrote a letter to his father, complaining of his ill treatment of her; the father passed it on to Charley. Still, on the night of March 20, 1873, Lizzie King—or Kate Stoddart, as she would be called in the record books—went back to Charley’s house to persuade him to marry her. He refused. So in the morning, as he was building up the fire in the kitchen, she shot him three times behind the ears. She laid him out in his stocking feet with his head resting comfortably on his shoes, washed the blood from his face, clipped a curl of his dark hair for her locket, and disappeared. The next day, Charley’s brother found the body. Four months later a policewoman found Kate Stoddart crossing on the Brooklyn ferry.

women who kill
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

All four of these women were young; and all of them had worked since childhood for subsistence wages in jobs that carried no possibility of advancement. Beyond that drudgery they had nothing to look forward to but marriage; and they were doubly impelled toward marriage by all that they had been taught about their natural destiny as women. In finding a husband, none of them enjoyed protection or guidance. Mary Moriarty and Kate Stoddart were completely on their own. Mary Harris’s father could not keep her away from Burroughs because he could not provide for her himself; and apparently, by the time he discovered the relationship, Burroughs already had a hold of several years’ standing on Mary. Fanny Hyde’s husband—scarcely more than a boy himself—had no power short of violence to keep Watson away from Fanny, and (like Mary Harris’s father) he could not take her away because he could not support her. Fanny Hyde did try to get her husband and her brother to take action against Watson; only when they failed her, did she shoot him herself.

Related: High School Homicide: The Murder Trial of Pamela Smart 

With the exception of Mary Moriarty, who trusted an old friend, these women turned to men older, better educated, wealthier, and more powerful than themselves—men desirable as husbands, but desiring only to seduce. When they discovered their mistake, all of the women tried to save themselves, or their reputations, by fair means. Moriarty tried to hang on to Shehan by paying his expenses. She called upon the church just as Harris called upon the law and Stoddart upon her "husband’s" father to remind the man of his obligation. Hyde married another. But none of these plans worked, and all of the women grew desperate, either because the men would not marry them, or would not let them go. Each woman gave her seducer one more chance to make amends; and then she killed him. None of them denied the crime; and only Kate Stoddart tried halfheartedly to avoid arrest. All of them said they were sorry. One by one they were brought to trial. Their cases were so similar that their trials echoed the same themes.

At the trial of Mary Moriarty in 1855, her defense attorney, Milton A. Haynes, appealed eloquently to the men of the jury who, as men, must "admire and love what is good and what is beautiful" and "hate and despise what is bad, and wicked." He left no doubt, as he retold Moriarty’s story, that Shehan the vile seducer was bad and wicked, while Moriarty had responded only to that "great law of nature which has declared that woman shall be obedient unto, love and cherish the man." Killing this evil man who betrayed her, then, was no crime; in fact, as Haynes described it, the murder was almost an act of divine retribution […] 

Haynes acknowledged that Tennessee had no statute authorizing the killing of seducers, but he put to the jury a hypothetical case: "If this girl’s father or brother had killed John Shehan for seducing and ruining this girl by a base vow and promise to marry her, are there twelve men to be found in Tennessee who would be base enough as a jury to render a verdict to hang that father or that brother for it?" The jurors set aside the laws "written in books," and by following the laws written "upon the breasts of men" found Mary Moriarty not guilty. Agreeing upon the verdict took them two minutes.

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