Old Newspaper Collections Project
By Clayton, Deb, & Holice
The Murdress, Mrs. Nelson Sherman
Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for being such a trooper and typing a ton of old news articles! Without her this project wouldn't be here!
Detroit Daily Press, 1872
THE MODERN BORGIA
The Murderer of Three Husbands and Eight Children--History of the Accused--A Night Scene in a Country Graveyard--Chemistry as a Detective.
Correspondence of the New York World.
Derby, Conn. July 2, 1871.
The dark, smooth waters of the old Naugatuck course along here at the bottom of what looks like a deep ravine. The river banks are high and precipitate, and overstudded with a thick growth of wood. At the summit of the west bank, where lies the chief part of the old village of Derby, there is a broad, dusty street, with white cottages on either side; the church bells are ringing mournfully, and scores of children are on their way to Sunday-school. There is one house, perhaps a little larger than the rest, at which all the children stop for a moment and take peep through the white pickets. In the front room a young girl is playing a sacred tune on a cottage organ, and the alleged murderess, Mrs. Nelson H. Sherman, is caged in the room directly back. Two officers of the law sit in the same room, and night or day, never let the woman out of their sight. If even half that is charged against this woman be true, she is undoubtedly the greatest criminal this country has ever produced, and her career has been that of a real demon on earth. Her victims are thus summed as eleven in number: Three who were husbands and fathers, one a refined and educated young lady, and seven boys and girls, six of them being her own offspring, and all less than 10 years of age.
A FEARFUL REVELATION.
I will now proceed to relate he story of this woman's life, after having collected all the facts, partly from her own lips, and partly from those whose official oaths have made it their duty to examine the woman's career. Mrs. Nelson H. Sherman, nee Lydia Danbury, was born at Burlington, N. J. When she was less than a year old her mother died, and her father became a butcher at Trenton. She lived under the parental roof until her father remarried, when, not liking her step mother, she went to live with her aunt at New Brunswick. Here she remained until 17 years old, when she became acquainted with Edward Struck, a police officer of New York city, to whom she was married. Struck had been married before, and had two children who were now placed under guardians. The newly-married couple lived together about seven years, during which time six children were born. And now begins the awful events which throw such an air of mystery around the woman who is confined in this house accused of eleven murders. First, her husband was taken sick, and suddenly died. It appears that a physician attended who said he didn't know what the man died of. The symptoms, as described by those who saw him, were those of a person who had taken poison. Mrs. Sherman said the cause of his death was his getting up in the absence of the doctor and taking the wrong medicine. Subsequent to the death of her husband, her children, six in number, all died inside of about two years, and no one seemed to know what ailed them, except this--they all died suddenly.
THE FATE OF OLD MR. HURLBURT.
Mrs. Sherman--or Mrs. Struck, as she was than named--spent two years after the death of her first husband as a seamstress and nurse. She next for employment in a sewing machine store in Canal Street, where she made the acquaintance of a Mr. Curtis, who afterward engaged her to live with his mother, at Stratford, about nine miles from this place. It was while living there that she became acquainted with her second husband, a man named Hurlburt, who lived at Huntington, and who was thought to be quite well off. At his death he left considerable real estate, beside $10,000 in cash. This man had lived quietly and economically as a farmer and fisherman, and was well known all round by the name of "Old Hurlburt." Mrs. Sherman professed a great fondness for her husband, and it was not long before he had made a will bequeathing all his property to her in the event of his death. They lived on, apparently happily, the neighbors noticing that every time he returned from his business she met him at the door and kissed him. Time passed on, and one day Dr. Church, the village physician, was summoned to attend Mr. Hurlburt. On arriving at the house he found him suffering acute pains in the head and stomach, accompanied by an intense burning, as if the patient had a violent fever. Dr. Church, become alarmed at the critical condition of his patient, sent for consulting physicians. "Old Hurlburt" died before the doctors had agreed upon a diagnosis, and was buried out of sight. Both doctors, on retiring home after the death of Hurlburt, fell to cogitating. Finally they met in the street, and Dr. Pinney said to Dr. Church:
"Church, what do you suppose was the matter with Old Hurlburt?"
"I really can't say," replied the other, "but I have been studying up and I find that his symptoms were exactly those of arsenical poisoning."
This seemed to coincide with the opinion of the other doctor, who said he was sorry there had not been a legal investigation. The pith of this private conversation leaked out, and quite a sensation followed; still no legal steps were taken.
A MECHANIC MARRIED THE WIDOW.
Nelson H. Sherman was a skilled mechanic and a man much loved for his genial spirits. Indeed, his greatest fault was too much generosity. So expert was he among machinery that the owners of the tack manufactory at Derby found it almost impossible to run their complicated machinery whenever he was absent for a day or two, and they therefore paid him the very highest wages for remaining with them. So popular was he with his townsmen that they had several times elected him to office, but he each time resigned, as his business was more lucrative. A little more than a year and a half ago his wife died, leaving him with four children, the eldest, a son named Nelson, aged 17; a daughter, Addie, aged 14; another boy, "Nattie," aged 4 years, and an infant 5 months old. The widow of Mr. Hurlburt was still living in the same place. "Old Hurlburt's" place, near the river, had always been quite an attraction for visitors, as he used to take paints to show them how he fished for shad, etc. The same visitors continued to frequent the place after Hurlburt's death, and one day Sherman accompanied a party of friends to the place. He there first met Mr. Hurlburt's widow--his future wife. They were married in September, 1870, and went to Massachusetts on a wedding tour. Returning, they settled in the house where the wife is now a prisoner. From that stage on to the present time the facts relating to the career of this mysterious woman are clearer and more terrible in proportion. The next person to become "suddenly ill" was Mr. Sherman's infant son by his former wife, which died in a few days. The next victim, either to the devilish designs of the prisoner or the strangest series of fatalities on record, was the much-loved daughter of Mr. Sherman. This young lady was in the very bloom of health, always vivacious and remarkably intelligent. She was the idol of her father and the favorite of many friends. In the middle of last winter she also was taken "suddenly ill." Her father, as soon as he found that her symptoms were dangerous; became greatly alarmed and summoned the advice of a number of physicians. The symptoms in all these cases appeared to be the same--that of acute pains in the head and stomach, with intense fever. The doctors found it impossible to help the girl, and in a few days she was lying in the grave beside her infant sister.
THE MECHANIC BECOMES DISSIPATED.
Sherman, whether on account of his troubles or not, had begun to dissipate, and together with his own, spent most of his wife's money.
On the 11th of May, six weeks ago, Sherman started off with a number of friends for New Haven, telling his wife he would be back that night. It appears that the party all got to drinking in New Haven, Sherman among the rest, and did not return for about a week. When they proposed to go back Sherman objected to going at all, and so the rest of the party went by the cars, leaving Sherman with the team in the city. Young Nelson, after waiting a day or two longer, said he was going to find his father. Mrs. Sherman gave him $2.50, and he went in search. Sherman was found in a den with low people. Sherman was in a very bad way, and unable to go to work for several days. Finally, when he did go to the factory, he appeared very low-spirited, and would not go home to his meals. Mrs. Sherman here appeared to have considerable regard for him, for each day she sent his meals to him, the best she could get.
THE DEADLY SANGAREES.
About the 1st of June Sherman, after drinking his usual evening beverage mixed by his wife, went down town. In two hours after he came back, sat down on a chair, and said he had a bad headache. The headache was followed by a raging fever and fearful cramps in the stomach. Drs. Pinney and Beardsley both attended him, but he died after two days, suffering dreadful agonies. The doctors held another consultation after his death, and as the symptoms of the sick man had been precisely those of his two daughters, they decided to hold a post mortem examination. Accordingly the stomach was taken out, beside about a third part of the liver. These were boxed up and sent to Prof. Barker, of New Haven, for analysis. It required nearly three weeks to make the analysis, and it is only a few days since that the startling report of the proof was sent in, saying the liver had been found perfectly saturated with arsenic, and that there was enough in it to kill three men. A warrant was at once sued out for Mrs. Sherman's arrest, and put in the hands of Deputy Sheriff Henry A. Blakeman for execution at the proper time. Since the suspicion had grown so strong, young Nelson, his brother Natty and their grandmother had all left the house, through fear that they might become the next victims if they stayed. Mrs. Sherman was not arrested immediately, but she was closely watched by the sheriff and the men employed by him. Although the report of the chemist had been kept as secret as possible, its import had become known, and was discussed on the public street. In two or three days Mrs. Sherman, not knowing that she was watched, quietly removed to New Brunswick, N. J. The Chief of Police at that place was directed to keep watch of her movements, and he employed a lady to assist him.
THE GRAVE GIVES UP ITS SECRETS.
The most thrilling chapter in the history of all these terribly interesting proceedings is that which now follows. As soon as Mrs. Sherman had left the village of Derby the authorities resolved to continue the unraveling of the mysteries by exhuming the bodies of Mr. Hurlburt, the daughter Addie, and the infant. Under cover of a dark night, June 10th--for they acted with the greatest caution--a party of three men, on a grave-digger, carrying a spade and pick, another a surgeon, with a set of knives and instruments, and the other the sheriff, carrying a dark lantern, stole forth and entered the Birmingham Cemetery. They groped about over the graves until they came upon two rather fresh mounds, on a very small one, these were the tombs of Addie and her little sister. The grave-digger for once was deeply affected as well as the others present, for they had once seen happy smiles on the faces which they now uncovering to find ghastly and cold as the earth that surrounded them. The two coffins were at length brought to the surface, the covers were removed, and the concentrated rays of the dark lantern were turned upon the inhabitants. The surgeon, who had brought all the necessary implements, had soon completed his awfully solemn task, and portions of the bodies of Addie and the infant were placed in boxes, which were tightly sealed. The coffins having been lowered again, and the earth filled in, the party proceeded noiselessly into another cemetery, the one at Huntington, where was buried "poor old Hurlburt." While performing a similar operation there a startling incident occurred. They had just raised the black, earthy coffin to the surface, when some laboring men driving past saw the bright round light of the dark lantern, and distinguished the outlines of the men's forms. They stopped, and after a breathless silence, one of them shouted in hollow tones, "For God's sake, what devilish work is going on there?" Nothing but profound silence followed--the three grave-openers shutting off the light of the lantern and standing motionless. The outsiders left their seats in the wagon and crossed over about half way to where the three were, and again shouted in the same hollow voice, "Who's there?" and again, "What's the matter there?" Still receiving no answer, they retreated almost like shadows, and soon drove away rapidly, not to return again.
ARREST OF THE ACCUSED.
The stomach taken from the three bodies were immediately sent to Prof. Barker, of New Haven, for analysis. The chemist, having had the bodies under his inspection for 12 or 14 days, came to Derby on Wednesday last with the report that he had discovered arsenic in each of the three bodies. By this time Mrs. Sherman had left New Brunswick on a visit with her sister in Philadelphia, intending to return soon. A detective was watching her every movement, and reporting to New Brunswick, thence to this place. Sheriff Blakeman immediately telegraphed to Philadelphia and New Brunswick, telling the police to arrest Mrs. Sherman at once. The sheriff himself went to New Brunswick, learning that Mrs. Sherman was then on a train coming through from Philadelphia, proceeded on as far as Trenton, where he waited for her. The train was so long and so crowded that the sheriff did not see Mrs. Sherman until she got off at New Brunswick. She was then arrested, and in a short time was on her way back to Derby. She accepted the situation with perfect nonchalance, while her sister was quite frustrated. The prisoner asserted that she had at no time anticipated her arrest, and made no effort to allude the officers, not knowing they were watching her. Mrs. Sherman was brought through by way of Bridgeport on Friday night, and lodged in her own house with officers to watch her. The prisoner was taken before Justice Platt, of this township, yesterday, when a day was fixed upon for her examination.
INTERVIEWING THE PRISONER.
I drove over from New Haven to-day--there being no trains running--for the purpose of looking upon the face of this most extraordinary prisoner, and of talking with her, providing she had anything she wished to say to a stranger and a representative of the press. Mrs. Sherman was in her own sitting room, where she had sat with her husband and his children many a day and evening. The family occupied one side of the house owned by Mr. Hubbard, and of which I have previously written. At the side door, leading through a little hallway into the room where she was imprisoned, I met a police officer, who readily admitted me. The room as small, but had an air of cosyness, the furniture being simple and comfortable, and the carpet clean and neat. A little lock ticked sharply on the mantel, and on it right and left were some simple mantel ornaments. The largest picture in the room as a portrait of young Nelson Sherman. There was also a picture of Addie, taken when quite small. A large looking-glass, with a few more pictures, French fancy pieces, and a very well executed water scene, sketched by Nelson, completed the ornaments. Mrs. Sherman was seated on one side of a large sofa, with a pillow for a rest when she wished to recline. I found the prisoner a tall woman about 40 years old, rather slim, with a sallow complexion, and sharp firm features. She was dressed in a light-colored cheap calico dress, and a thin negligee shawl was worn around her shoulders. She sat with a pin in her hand, with which she kept picking at her finger nails, or else at her clothing, probably more from the force of habit of sewing than from any want of self-possession. Her manner was quite cool and collected. When she spoke she talked off hand and free. I should say she was a woman of little intellect, but a great deal of firmness and not a little cunning. She has dark eyes, quite large, and think black hair, which was done up plain. The only way she had of betraying her feelings was an occasional spasmodic lifting of the chin, and a simultaneous twitching of the lips, the way some women have for silent self-assertion. In the absence of the prisoner's counsel I refrained from asking he woman any questions which might tend to commit her. She said she felt quite contended where she was, as it would be useless to be otherwise.
Copyright Clayton Betzing, 2001
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