A depiction of the Veiled Murderess at her trial, taken from an account of her ‘life and confessions’ – from the Yale Law Library Flickr page

The British press in the 19th and early 20th centuries eagerly detailed accounts of women who killed. Unfortunately for them, there were relatively few British women convicted of more gruesome murders, so they had to look further afield for cases that were sufficiently gory or numerous to attract and entertain their readers. Cases from Rome and Paris were covered in depth, for example, and in 1905, the death of a particularly notorious American murderess was written about.

This was Mrs Henrietta Robinson, who had been convicted back in 1853 of poisoning two people with arsenic. Timothy Lanigan had been a neighbour of hers in Troy, New York. One night, he and his wife had hosted a dinner party at which both Mrs Robinson and a Catherine Lubin had attended. Their one guest had responded to their hospitality by killing both the male host and the other female guest.

Mrs Robinson attracted, and continued to attract, press attention not only because of her beauty and her refusal to behave by contemporary standards for women, but also because she consistently refused to tell anyone who she really was. Even during her trial, she had refused to remove her thick veil, leading to her becoming known as ‘The Veiled Murderess’. She was said to have only agreed to remove the veil once – and then only in a private cell, so that the jury could come and look at her.

Her argument had been, perversely, that she didn’t want any publicity – and that she would prefer death to having her face shown to others, including the press:

‘She was very handsome, but neither persuasion nor coercion could prevail upon her to unveil in open court.’

Even when she had agreed to show her face to the jury, she had first made efforts to thwart them, by  dressing a dummy as her and placing it in a chair. The jury came to see this ‘Veiled Murderess’ but when one of the jury members took offence at ‘her’ silence, he lifted the veil, to be greeted with a chuckle from underneath the cell’s bed. Mrs Robinson had hidden herself there to play a joke on the jury.

Her identity had long been the subject of much speculation, with the American ‘yellow press’ (as the British provincial press sniffily referred to it as) attempting to prove that she was the wife of a member of the British peerage.

The British press, in turn, argued that this ‘suggestion was entirely groundless’. It was one thing to eagerly report on this example of American lawlessness, but quite another to find a link to a member of the British peerage! Mrs Robinson, meanwhile, simply agreed that her name was an assumed one, but steadfastly refused to reveal her real name, even to her defence counsel.

Four decades after her conviction, a woman came forward to claim that Mrs Robinson was really Charlotte Wood, a schoolfriend of hers from New York State, the daughter of a Canadian merchant named William Wood, and one of four sisters, who spoke seven languages fluently.

The rest of the Wood family had a pact to deny that Charlotte was really a murderess, she claimed, but when rumours started swirling, got one of the other sisters to pose as Charlotte to ‘prove’ she couldn’t be a killer and be both in public and in jail at the same time.

The story was let down firstly by the inclusion of the ‘groundless’ story that the Veiled Murderess was married to an English peer – and the second fact that the informant hadn’t seen Charlotte Wood for a substantial amount of time, and had been told her ‘facts’ as a story from another friend. She even admitted that she had no idea how the Woods’ deception could have been achieved.

A view of Sing Sing prison

Although one other rumour was that Mrs Robinson had previously lived in Philadelphia, she had been convicted at Troy, and sent initially to Sing Sing prison – although one paper noted that two years after her conviction, Mrs Robinson had to be sent to the Matteawan lunatic asylum. Her identity continued to be a secret there, and she  also refused to say who the two people she had killed were – their names remained unknown to the authorities.

In prison, she had been allowed certain privileges not open to other convicts, such as being able to eat in private in her cell. It was only in 1873 that this privilege was revoked, on the grounds that it was ‘detrimental to discipline’ – presumably, other prisoners understandably took offence at this lady being treated better than them.

Some 44 years after her conviction, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that she had turned up in Troy in 1852, a ‘woman of wondrous beauty’ with lots of money, but no husband, children or friends. Yet it is clear that what had been ‘established’ was no more than the fact that this ‘strange, beautiful woman’ was something of a hermit, and had no desire for company.

When, a few days before her death in May 1905, it became clear that Mrs Robinson wasn’t going to recover, a curious physician at the asylum tried to find out the truth about this now elderly woman, but she refused to give him any information, ‘saying it should go to the grave with her.’

However, it was clear to the asylum staff that Mrs Robinson had some curious talents, as one obituary of her made clear:

‘In her old age, Mrs Robinson exhibited remarkable ingenuity in making exquisite lace, some good gloves, a pair of shoes, and even a set of false teeth out of buttons, which she wore for a long time.’

The Veiled Murderess died, presumably with her button-teeth in place, at the age of 89, her ability to generate headlines no less than fifty years earlier, when she was convicted of a double murder.

 

Sources: Huddersfield Chronicle, 13 September 1873; Dundee Evening Telegraph, 25 December 1897;  Cambridge Independent Press, 19 May 1905, p.5; The Salisbury Times, 19 May 1905