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8 Sensational Female Murderers from History

When someone tells you that female murderers are rare, keep in mind that means “relatively” rare, as in less common than male murderers. It also means that women who are found to be killers can become quite famous for it, as the media sensationalizes their crimes. A hundred years later, these cases may be mostly forgotten, but the stories are still there for those who want to learn about them. Be warned that these tales are disturbing.

1. Marie Manning

Marie de Roux Manning was born in Switzerland in 1821 and immigrated to England as a domestic servant in 1846. She became involved with Patrick O'Connor, a wealthy Irishman, and Frederick Manning, a railroad worker and suspected thief. Both proposed to Marie. She considered which would make a better husband: O’Connor was 50 years old, but also a customs agent with investments. Manning was Marie’s age, and told her he would soon inherit wealth. Marie married Manning, but retained a “friendship” with O’Connor, which was most likely sexual. It wasn’t long before she figured out that Manning’s expected inheritance was fictional. The couple invited O’Connor to dinner on August 8, 1849. O’Connor showed up with a friend, which disappointed the couple and thwarted their plans. Marie invited him back the next evening, but asked O’Connor to come alone, hinting at intimacy. During his visit on the 9th, Marie shot him in the back of the head, which did not kill him, so Frederick finished him off with a crowbar. The couple buried their victim under the kitchen floor tiles, where they had dug a hole ahead of time, and added quicklime to speed decomposition. Over the next two days, Marie cleaned out what valuables, cash, and stock certificates she could find at O’Connor’s home.

But O’Connor had mentioned his plans to friends. After they came to inquire about O'Connor's whereabouts, Marie panicked. She sent Frederick to try to sell their furniture so they could flee. While he was gone, she did just that, leaving her husband behind. She went to Edinburgh, Scotland, while Frederick went to Jersey. The police soon uncovered O’Connor’s remains. Marie was arrested when she tried to sell some of O’Connor’s stock certificates, and Frederick Manning was turned in by an acquaintance. Both blamed the other during the trial, but both were found guilty and sentenced to death.

The scandalous crime (which was termed the “Bermondsey Horror”) drew much interest. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people attended the double hanging on November 13th, 1849. Charles Dickens was there, and wrote about the execution and his disgust at the festive nature of the crowd. Some excerpts:

"I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning" "I believe that the a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution this morning." "When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world."

Dickens’ writing on the matter was in part responsible (along with those of other influential Englishmen) for the abolition of public hangings in England by 1868.

2. Constance Kent

Four-year-old Francis "Saville" Kent went missing from his home in Road, Wiltshire, England, on the night of June 29, 1860. His body was later found in an outhouse, his throat slashed. At first, the child's nursemaid Elizabeth Gough was suspected of the murder, but then his sixteen-year-old half-sister Constance Kent was arrested. She did not go to trial, however, and was released. The family moved away and Constance was sent to school in France.

Five years later, Constance Kent confessed to the murder during confession with a priest. She turned herself in to law enforcement and pled guilty to the murder. Her original death sentence was commuted to life in prison due to her age at the time of the crime. But was she really guilty or covering up for someone? There was speculation that the father, Samuel Kent, had killed the child for some reason to do with his known tendency to adultery. Others looked to Constance’s brother, William Saville-Kent, as the perpetrator, and some thought the two teenagers committed murder together out of jealousy over their stepmother (who was once their governess) and her children. Constance Kent was released from prison after 20 years in 1885, and lived to be 100. The dramatic murder investigation was covered extensively in British newspapers, and the news inspired stories by both Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as other writers. It also provoked Parliament to take up the question of whether priests can refuse to answer questions about sacramental confessions.

3. Belle Gunness

Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth was born in Norway and came to the US in 1881. Later known as Belle Gunness, she married Mads Albert Sorenson in 1884. The couple produced four children, two of whom died in infancy, but were fortunately covered by life insurance. During the marriage, both a home and a business burned down and insurance was paid out. Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally the one day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped.

Belle married Peter Gunness in 1902. He already had two daughters, one an infant who died while under his new wife's care. Gunness himself died in December of 1902 when a heavy machine fell on him. Gunness' death was investigated, but Belle was not charged -possibly because she was pregnant. Soon after, her adopted daughter Jennie Olsen, who was questioned over remarks she had made about Peter Gunness' death, disappeared completely. Gunness began corresponding with men through a lonely hearts club. She invited suitors to visit her and bring money. John Moe, Ole B. Budsburg, and Andrew Helgelien were among the many men who came to visit Gunness and brought money to help the poor widow with her mortgage, and were never seen again. She became suspicious that her hired hand, Ray Lamphere, would rat her out, so Gunness fired him and reported that he threatened her.

In 1908, the Gunness home burned down. Four bodies were found under the piano: three of Gunness' children and the headless body of a woman whose measurements did not match Gunness. However, dentures found in the ashes were hers, and the coroner pronounced Belle Gunness to be dead. As the property was cleared, depressions in the ground raised suspicions. Digging revealed the body of Jennie Olsen. The bodies of six suitors and two children were also found. Many other possible victims were reported to the police by concerned relatives. The hired man Ray Lamphere was convicted of arson and died in prison, but not before he revealed details of his days with Gunness. He had told a minister how Belle would kill her victims with strychnine or a meat cleaver, then dismember their bodies before Lamphere buried them. The fate of Gunness has never been positively determined. She had withdrawn her money from the bank before the fire. The identity of the headless woman has also never been determined.

4. Dagmar Overbye

Dagmar Overbye ran a foundling center in Copenhagen from 1916 to 1920. It was supposedly a place where unmarried mothers could take their infants to be adopted, although they had to pay a fee for the infant to be accepted. The unsavory business of hiding the scandals of others was something few talked about, and Overbye operated under the radar for several years. It is unclear how well records of the babies she took in were kept, if at all. The parents who paid Overbye to take care of matters rarely even spoke of it, much less went back to check on their babies. One woman finally did.

Karoline Aagesen placed her newborn daughter with Overbye in 1920 and immediately regretted her decision. Aagesen went back to retrieve her child the next day, but Overbye told her the baby had already been adopted, by a couple whose address she couldn’t recall. Aagesen went to the police, who investigated Overbye and the “adoption agency” she ran out of her apartment. They found baby clothes and charred bones in the stove. Overbye was arrested and confessed to killing either 16 or 20 babies (reports vary). However, from the evidence found, she was convicted of only nine murders. The babies had been strangled, drowned, or burned, and some bodies were found in her loft and buried underground in addition to the evidence from the stove. More parents came forward after Overbye’s arrest, and estimates of the number of infants she may have killed range from 29 to 180. It is believed that the first child Overbye killed was her own, born a few years before she opened her baby business. She was sentenced to death in 1921, which was commuted to life, and she died in prison in 1929.

5. Jane Toppan

Boston nurse Jane Toppan admitted to first eleven murders, then later to 31. Despite recklessness with drugs, unusually high patient deaths, and charges of theft, she managed to find employment over and over again in Massachusetts between 1885 and 1901. In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family after the death of their elderly mother she had been caring for. Within a short time, the father and two daughters were dead. She also killed her foster sister, before an investigation—which found the victims to be poisoned—led to her arrest. Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Toppan was said to have been proud of the killings.

6. Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton had three husbands and twelve children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England.

The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872 when she predicted the death of her 10-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official who was asked to find the boy employment, even though the child appeared healthy. The official happened to also be the parish coroner. When Charles Edward died suddenly a few days later, Cotton's first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child's doctor, who refused to sign because the coroner had alerted police about the conversation he'd had with Cotton. Besides, the doctor had seen the child only the day before and noticed no illness. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged. Her widely-publicized story was made into a nursery rhyme.

Mary Ann Cotton,
She's dead and she's rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.

7. Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer was a trained nurse from Bristol, England, who turned to “baby farming” for a living after the 1869 death of her husband when she was 32. Like Dagmar Overbye, she “took care” of infants born to unmarried women, with the added service of taking in and hiding the mother in the later stages of pregnancy -for a fee. Baby farms flourished in Victorian times. Some would care for children and get them adopted out, others would neglect babies or dose them with opium to make their care easier, leading to many deaths. Dyer accelerated this process by murdering infants, usually by strangling them with a ribbon around their necks. She operated a baby farm for ten years before a doctor, suspicious of the number of dead babies he certified, contacted police. Dyer was arrested, convicted only of neglect, and sentenced to six months labor. After her sentence was completed, Dyer spent some time in a mental asylum, and eventually went back to baby farming. This time around, she dispensed with obtaining death certificates from doctors and buried the infants herself. Dyer moved from town to town, changing her name when parents or officials became suspicious.

In March of 1896, a bargeman retrieved a package from the Thames containing a tiny female corpse. Police traced the packaging to Dyer under an assumed name. When police raided her home, they found no human remains, but the smell of decomposition was in the air. They did find evidence of her business: baby clothes, telegrams, advertisements, and letters from mothers. Six more infant bodies were found when the river was dredged. Dyer was charged with one murder, that of Doris Marmon, after the baby’s mother, Evelina Marmon, identified the remains. Dyer pled guilty, but offered a defense of insanity. A jury sentenced her to death, and Dyer was hanged on June 10, 1896. Although convicted of only one murder, Amelia Dyer is suspected of up to 400 infant deaths over a period of 27 years.

8. Tillie Klimek

Chicago resident Tillie Klimek was a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs in 1911 with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband of 29 years, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later! Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband John Ruskowski died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. The same thing happened to husband number three, Joe Guszkowski. Husband number four, Frank Kupczyk lasted four years. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek's husbands. Klimek predicted the deaths of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well -and sure enough, the children all died. Husband Kupczyk died in 1920.

The widow was remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number five, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish "Fairy Wife"
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The policemen had been combing the green yards and fields of Ballyvadlea, Ireland, for a week when they finally found Bridget Cleary. The 26-year-old's body had been wedged beneath several inches of clay and a jumble of thorn bushes, but her corpse showed wounds caused by something much worse than branches: Her spine and lower limbs were so badly burned that parts of her skeleton were exposed. She was naked, except for a stocking and one gold earring, and her head was encased in a sack.

The judge would later describe the events leading up to Bridget's death as demonstrating "a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several—a moral darkness, even religious darkness." It was the end of the 19th century, not exactly the Middle Ages, but those involved in the end of Bridget's life had become convinced that she wasn't really herself—and that a supernatural creature had taken her place.

GONE WITH THE FAIRIES

Bridget was the wife of a cooper named Michael Cleary, and the pair were regarded around town as a relatively happy couple. They shared their cottage, in a remote townland near Tipperary, with Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, and had no children. Michael was nine years Bridget's senior and earned a decent salary; she brought in some extra income by working as a seamstress and egg-seller. By all accounts, they were more prosperous than their neighbors, likely thanks to her resourcefulness. As a literate, independent, and fashionably dressed working woman, she was part of an emerging class in a rural society that had long been based in agriculture and the oral tradition.

It was also a society steeped in legends of the supernatural. Fairy belief, in particular, was pervasive in Irish rural societies at the time, and had long coexisted with Christian doctrine. Children grew up hearing legends of the Little People from their earliest days, and learned how to appease them by leaving untasted food on the table, for example, or saying "bless them" whenever the fairies were mentioned. The fairies were blamed for everything that went wrong—lost items, spoiled milk, bad crops. As one County Sligo man interviewed at the start of the 20th century told an anthropologist, "Nothing is more certain than that there are fairies."

Bridget herself was known to be fascinated by the beings, and to take trips to the most fairy-ridden spots around town. She may have visited such a spot on Monday, March 4, 1895, when she went to deliver eggs to her father's cousin, Jack Dunne, near Kylenagranagh Hill. The area was home to a ringfort, an early medieval circular fortified settlement believed, in Irish folklore, to be a "fairy fort," and thus to be avoided at all costs. Yet Bridget often visited the fort, and she likely spent time there that Monday after delivering the eggs.

It was a cold morning, the mountains still covered in the snow that had fallen the previous day, and after the two- or three-mile walk Bridget couldn't seem to warm up once she got back home. She spent the following day in bed, shivering and complaining of "a raging pain in her head."

That Saturday, her father walked four miles in the heavy rain to ask the doctor to call on her. But the doctor wasn't able to visit until the following Wednesday, and by then her husband had also gone to summon him twice. They should have been reassured by the doctor's diagnoses—"nervous excitement and slight bronchitis"—but it wasn't this ailment that worried Michael. He was convinced that the bed-ridden woman in their cottage was "too fine," in his own words, to be his wife, and that she was "two inches taller" than the woman he had known. At some point, Michael had developed the belief that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling as she passed near the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill.

"ARE YOU BRIDGET BOLAND?"

It is likely that this idea was planted in Michael's head by his confidante, Jack Dunne. According to Irish historian Angela Bourke, who has researched the case extensively, the 55-year-old Dunne was a charismatic man rumored to have the power of divination. He was known in the area as a seanchaí, a sort of storyteller well-versed in fairy mythology.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the doctor's visit, a priest visited. He wasn't overly concerned about the illness, but decided to administer the last rites in case it worsened. The ceremony emphasized the fact that Michael could lose his wife, which distressed him even more. He talked to Dunne, who urged him to act immediately, or the "real" Bridget would be lost forever. "It is not your wife is there [sic]," the older man reminded him. "This is the eighth day, and you had a right to have gone to Ganey"—the local "fairy doctor"—"on the fifth day."

The cooper duly visited Ganey following morning. He came back with a mixture of herbs that needed to be boiled in "new milk," the nutrient-rich first milk produced by a cow after calving.

That night, Michael forced the bitter concoction down Bridget’s throat while Dunne and three male cousins pinned her down in bed. Relatives outside the house heard someone—likely Michael—shouting, "Take it, you witch, or I'll kill you!" The men threw urine at her and shook her, yelling, "Away with you; come home Bridget Boland, in the name of God!" Other relatives and neighbors came and went, witnessing her ordeal and hearing her screams, but were too scared to intervene. Michael asked his wife to answer her name three times: "Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" The men then brought her to the fireplace and held her over the grate—ordeals by fire were known to drive out the fairies—while they repeated the questioning.

By midnight Thursday night, the ritual seemed to be completed. Bridget was "wild and deranged," according to her cousin Johanna, but her husband seemed satisfied, and her relatives thought there had been some sort of catharsis. The following morning, at Michael's request, the priest said mass in Bridget's bedroom in order to banish the "evil spirits" that were left in the house.

"IT IS NOT BRIDGET I AM BURNING."

An image of fairies from fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
Fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
British Library, Europeana // Public Domain

On Friday, March 15, for the first time in 11 days, Bridget got out of bed and dressed in her usual, fashionable clothes "to give her courage when she would go among the people," as Johanna later told the magistrates. Several family members had joined them in their cottage for tea later in the day when an argument erupted. Bridget had asked for some milk, which had rekindled Michael’s suspicions; fairies are known in folklore to yearn for fresh milk.

Bridget was probably exhausted, and she didn't want to be questioned any more. "Your mother used to go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them," she told her husband. Michael was furious. He demanded that she eat three pieces of bread and jam—perhaps to reinforce his control over her—asking her to say her name again. She answered twice and ate two of the three pieces, but when she hesitated for a moment with the third, her husband flung her on the ground and threatened her: "If you won't take it, down you will go."

Michael jabbed his knee into her chest, forcing the bread and jam down Bridget's throat. He began tearing off her clothes, leaving only her chemise, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. He struck her head against the floor, then set her chemise alight. Within a few minutes, he had also poured paraffin lamp oil over her, encouraging the flames.

As her body was burning, Michael said in front of shocked relatives: "She's not my wife. She's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." Relatives yelled at Michael to put out the flames, but Bridget "blazed up all in a minute," according to their later testimony. They huddled in fear in a nearby bedroom, the flames soon barricading their way.

Once the flames had died down, Michael wrapped her body in a sheet and shoved it in an old bag. Then he left the house, locking Bridget's relatives inside with the corpse. They waited for about an hour, praying. When Michael returned, he was wielding a knife and threatened to kill Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy if he didn't help him bury Bridget's body. "Come on out here now," he shouted. "I have the hole nearly made." The two men carried the body to a boggy area about a quarter-mile uphill from the cottage, and buried it in a shallow hole. Back in the cottage, Michael made the rest of the family swear they wouldn't tell the authorities.

ON A WHITE HORSE

The following morning, an agitated Michael arrived at Drangan church with Dunne. Dunne wanted Michael to speak to a priest, but when the priest saw him kneeling in front of the altar—weeping, tearing his hair, and asking to go to confession—he thought he wasn't fit to receive the sacrament. He spoke to Dunne instead, who hadn't been at the cottage at the time of Bridget's death, but told the priest that Michael had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial," Dunne added. Bewildered, thinking them both insane, the church minister reported their conversation to a police sergeant.

For the next few days, the police searched for Bridget and questioned her friends and relatives. Even though Michael spoke about emigrating or committing suicide to escape the law, he still hoped his "real wife" would come back: For three consecutive nights starting the day after visiting the priest, he waited at the ringfort on Kylenagranagh Hill, where he believed she would appear, galloping on a white horse. He said he would only have to cut the ropes that bound her to the animal so she would be his forever.

On Wednesday, March 20, the Royal Irish Constables issued arrest warrants for eight people from Bridget's circle, as well as Denis Ganey, the "fairy doctor." Two days later, police found Bridget's body. The prisoners were brought before the magistrates on March 25, ushered in by the angry screams of a crowd who had learned of the case through extensive press coverage. On July 5, 1895, after a two-day trial, Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned, along with Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins, including Patrick Kennedy. The judge ruled out a verdict of murder, explaining they all had acted out of genuine belief.

Michael was released in 1910, after which he boarded ship for Montreal. Dunne served a three-year prison sentence before returning to the area, where he kept working as a laborer. "God knows I would never do it but for Jack Dunne," Michael had reportedly said not long after burning Bridget. "It was he who told me my wife was a fairy."

ILLNESS—OR INFIDELITY?

During her illness, Bridget was visited by her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and told her, "He [Michael]'s making a fairy of me now. He thought to burn me about three months ago." Her words suggest this wasn't the first crisis of its kind.

Although we can only speculate about the couple's disagreements, there were rumors in Ballyvadlea that Bridget had a lover. Contemporary newspapers reported Michael saying his wife "used to be meeting an egg-man on the low road" [sic], but the rumors pointed to young caretaker William Simpson, who had visited the Clearys' cottage with his wife the night before Bridget’s death. In his court testimony, Simpson explained he had arrived as the four men were restraining Bridget, and he had asked them to leave her alone.

Although Michael and the other people involved in the killing were never formally psychiatrically assessed, a 2006 article from the Irish Journal of Medical Science suggested that Michael may have been suffering from a psychotic state known as Capgras syndrome, which involves the belief that a person has been replaced by an impostor. The authors suggest Michael "may have developed a brief psychotic episode" as he struggled to deal with his wife's illness, sleep deprivation, and the recent death of his father—news of which had reached him in the middle of his attempted "cure" on Thursday night. In Capgras syndrome, the socio-cultural context of the sufferer determines the nature of the impostor, which can be another person or even a supernatural being, such as an alien or a fairy changeling.

In her discussion of the supernatural beliefs related to the case, Bourke notes that the message of fairy legends is that "the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society's rules." Bridget Cleary was ambitious, independent, and childless; a modern woman. She didn't conform to the patriarchal norm, which may have made her appear, to some in her life, as closer to the fairy realm than to their own.

Even today in Tipperary, her story hasn't been entirely forgotten. The local children have a nursery rhyme that runs: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?"

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