When writing characters for our plays, often times we take inspiration from many of the most notorious murders in New York. We not only draw inspiration from their crimes, but we also try to incorporate their personality for our characters in our New York immersive productions. We usually find cases which were shocking and unprecedented for their time. One particularly interesting criminal is Lizzie Halliday, who holds the distinction of New York’s first known female serial killer.
Lizzie Halliday was eight years old when she came to America from Ireland. She married a man in Pennsylvania who she had a son with, but was institutionalized. After her first husband’s death she remarried Artemus Brewer, who died less than a year into their marriage. Her third marriage to Hiram Parkinson ended in divorce in also less than a year.
At this point no one can deny Lizzie had an unfortunate first few years in America, but those who encountered her wrath were much less lucky. Halliday eventually married George Smith, a veteran who served with her second husband. After attempting to murder Smith by poisoning his tea, she fled to Bellows Falls, Vermont where she married Charles Playstel. However, Halliday disappeared two weeks after their wedding.
Beginning of her Crime Spree
Before she was known for her role in a series of unprecedented murders New York had never seen, Halliday began a new life in Philadelphia under the name Maggie Hopkins. In 1888 she began working at a saloon owned by the McQuillans, a family she knew from Ireland. She was arrested for burning down the saloon for the insurance money. She spent the next two years in Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary.
By 1889 she was going by Lizzie Brown. She worked as a housekeeper for Paul Halliday, a farmer in Burlingham, New York who she eventually married. Paul had two sons from his previous marriage who Lizzie had a strained relationship with. Lizzie Halliday was known for behaving violently and erratically, but her husband often found excuses for her behavior.
In 1893 the Hallidays’ house burned down, killing Paul’s disabled son, John. Lizzie Halliday was suspected of burning the house down because of her history of arson and her alleged disdain for her stepson. After an attempted escape she was apprehended and sent to an insane asylum. However, after doctors claimed she was “cured” she was sent home and returned to her husband.
Mrs. Halliday disappeared that August, claiming to move to a nearby town to do masonry work. After suspicions from her neighbors a search warrant was obtained for her residence. On September 4th, the bodies of Margaret and Sarah McQuillan, members of the family she stayed with in Philadelphia, were found in their barn. They were both shot. When she was apprehended, she would not cooperate, as she behaved erratically. However, many suspect she was faking insanity. A few days after the bodies of the McQuillans were found, the mutilated body of her husband, Paul, was found under the floorboard of her home. He was also shot. After being charged with triple homicide, the deaths of her previous husbands also came into question. It was later revealed that Halliday told her stepson, Robert, she also killed her husband in Ireland. Within a few months of her confinement she refused to eat, attacked the sheriff’s wife, set her bed on fire, tried to hang herself, and cut her own throat with broken glass.
Trial and Conviction
In 1894 she was convicted of the murders and was the first woman in US history to be sentenced to death by electrocution. However, her sentence was commuted by Governor Roswell P. Flower per reason of insanity. She spent the rest of her life at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where she murdered a nurse, Nellie Wickes, by stabbing her with a pair of scissors 200 times.
Press coverage at the time as unrelenting. Her case garnered national interest, appearing in publications all over the country. Edwin Atwell of New York World said this case was “unprecedented and almost without parallel in the annals of crime”. The Sullivan County sheriff set of another media firestorm when he told the press Halliday likely had a connection to London’s most infamous murder mystery, the case of Jack the Ripper. However, these claims were unsubstantiated.
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