DESCRIPTION: "Lydia Sherman is plagued with rats, Lydia has no faith in cats, So Lydia buys some arsenic, And then her husband he gets sick, And then her husband, he does die...." Her children follow, and eventually Lydia ends up in prison.
EARLIEST DATE: 1958 (Burt)
KEYWORDS: homicide poison humorous children mother father husband wife
May 1864 - Death of Edward Struck, first husband of Lydia Sherman (she eventually had three)
August 1864 - Deaths of George and Ann Eliza, Lydia's children
May 16, 1878 - Lydia Sherman dies in prison in Wethersfield, Connecticut
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Burt, p. 5, "Lydia Sherman" (1 text)
NOTES: I would love to see a contemporary newspaper account of this trial.
Burt doesn't claim this as a traditional song; it was in a notebook of her mother's, probably from a contemporary publication.
It should perhaps be noted that fatal overdoses of arsenic are not always the result of deliberate poisoning. Emsley-Blocks:, pp. 40-46, notes various common uses of arsenic, including pigments and even a commercial remedy, "Dr. Fowler's Solution."
Crosland, p. 58, repots, "A Byzantine Greek called Nicolaus Myrepsus compiled a compentium of remedies in which he drew on Arabic sources, although his knowledge of Arabic was poor. He made the mistake of including arsenic as a remedy in certain cases." And, once it entered the literature, it stayed there.
According to Henderson, p. 284, "[arsenic] was a commonly administered medicine in the nineteenth century in the form of arsenious acid, which was prescribed for a great variety of diseases, such as headaches, ulcers, gout, chorea, syphilis, even cancer. Used in a popular patent medicine called "Fowler's Solution," it was a well-known remedy for fever and various skin diseases. It would have been a standard part of any sizeable medical kit."
Emsley-Blocks, p. 105, describes Fowler's Solution as being an arsenic compound in lavender water (the latter included to prevent accidental ingestion) and that Fowler had the idea for using an arsenic compound based on another medicine called "Thomas Wilson's Tasteless Ague and Fever Drops."
MacInnis, p. 99, reports that Fowler's Solution contained 1% potassium arsenite (K3AsO4), and that it was used to deal with fevers as a substitute for quinine, which was difficult to consume because it is so bitter. MacInnis, p. 100, says that women drank it for their complexions -- while also rubbing it into their hair to kill pests. (You'd think that would be a hint.) Timbrell, p. 224, reports that it gave the skin a "milk rose" hue.
Ironically, Fowler's Solution continued to be sold and used after it was established that it was poisonous; there were instances where the Solution was suspected of being used in murder cases (Blum, pp. 85, 95-97).
Also, it is possible to build up arsenic tolerance (Timbrell, p. 225; Emsley-Elements, pp. 102-103, notes that Styrian mountaineers regularly consumed arsenic to deal with altitude conditions), so if Lydia were tolerant (as she might have been, had she been using arsenic-based cosmetics), she might have accidentally poisoned her family while surviving herself.
As another defense, arsenic trioxide (the most common form of arsenic poison) is only mildly water-soluble, according to Emsley-Elements, p. 140, with the solubility increasing as the temperature increases. If the compound is mixed with cold water, the amount that dissolves will generally be too small to be fatal, but more will go into solution as the water warms. In the unlikely event that someone mixed arsenic trioxide with a cold pitcher of water, the first person to drink from it might survive while those who drank from it later would be killed. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.7
- Blum: Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Penguin, 2010
- Crosland: M. P. Crosland, Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry, 1962, 1978 (I use the 2004 Dover reprint)
- Emsley-Blocks: John Emsley, Nature's Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Corrected edition, Oxford, 2003
- Emsley-Elements: John Emsley, The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, Oxford Univeristy Press, 2005
- Henderson: Bruce Henderson, Fatal North, New American Library, 2001
- MacInnis: Peter MacInnis, Poisons (originally published as The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories), 2004 (I use the 2005 Arcade paperback)
- Timbrell: John Timbrell, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as Friends and Foes, Oxford, 2005
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.