There may be no more despicable person in Sullivan County’s history than Lizzie Brown Halliday. She was known to have murdered at least five persons, and was suspected of killing many more. When she died in 1918, the New York Times described her as “the worst woman on earth.”
And much of the country believed, at least for a short time, that she was the notorious murderer known as Jack the Ripper, responsible for the grisly Whitechapel murders in London.
She was born Eliza Margaret McNally in County Antrim, Ireland in 1864, and came to this country with her parents three years later. She married Charles Hopkins, also known as “Ketspool” Brown, in 1879, and gave birth to a son. Hopkins died two years later, and shortly thereafter, she married Artemus Brewer, described by the New York Times as “a veteran and a pensioner.” He died after less than a year of marriage.
“Whether these men died natural deaths or were murdered, is not known,” the Times noted in a June 19, 1894 article written as her murder trial got underway in Sullivan County Oyer and Terminer Court.
“Her next venture was Hiram Parkinson, who deserted her within a year. She then married, Parkinson being still alive, George Smith, a veteran and a comrade of her second husband, Brewer. In a few months she tried to kill Smith by giving him a cup of poisoned tea. Failing in her design, she fled to Bellows Falls, VT, taking with her every portable article in the house.”
While in Vermont, Lizzie married Charles Playstel, and lived with him for about two weeks, before disappearing. She afterward turned up in Philadelphia and arranged to stay with the McQuillan family, who had been the McNallys’ neighbors in Ireland. She opened a small shop there, and shortly thereafter burned it for the insurance money. Arrested for that crime, she served two years in prison.
At some point after her release from the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, she turned up in Newburgh in Orange County, where she met Paul Halliday, a widower living in Burlingham (Sullivan County) with his sons. She went to work for him as a housekeeper, and he eventually married her – though neighbors later said the marriage was just his way of avoiding having to pay her.
“Their married life does not seem to have been pleasant,” the Times reported in what must rank as one of the greatest journalistic understatements of all time. “She soon eloped with a neighbor, stealing a team of horses in order to accelerate their flight. In Newburgh, her companion deserted her, and she was arrested. Her counsel entered a plea of insanity, and she was sent to an asylum.”
Lizzie convinced her husband to gain her release from the asylum, and she returned the favor by burning down his house, a barn and a nearby mill, killing one of his sons in the process. Then Paul Halliday disappeared. Lizzie told the neighbors that he was traveling, but suspicious, they searched the property. They did not find Halliday, but they did turn up two bodies under a haystack in a barn. The deceased turned out to be Margaret and Sarah McQuillan, the wife and daughter of the man who had provided Lizzie a home in Philadelphia. They had both been shot.
Around the middle of September, just a few days after arresting Lizzie for the murders of the McQullians, authorities discovered the body of Paul Halliday under the floor boards of his house. Lizzie was charged with that crime, as well and confined to Sullivan County Jail to await trial. Her time there was not uneventful.
“For a long time after her arrival, she refused to eat, and it became necessary for the jail physician to force liquid food through her nostrils,” the Times reported. “In November, she tried to strangle the Sheriff’s wife. A few days later, she set fire to her bedclothes. In December she tried to hang herself with the binding torn from the bottom of her dress. On December 15, she came near ending her life by gashing her throat and arms in a terrible manner with glass broken from her cell window. For the last three months it has been necessary to keep her chained to the floor.”
During her time in the county jail, Lizzie became a national celebrity of sorts. The New York City newspapers, ever on the lookout for a sensational story, soon discovered the Halliday saga, and gave it front page coverage. Papers from around the country soon followed suit.
“From its circumstances, origin, conception and execution; its unique characteristics, the abnormal personalities and peculiar localities it involves, and, above all, in the strangeness and mystery of its great central figure, it is unprecedented and almost without parallel in the annals of crime,” New York World reporter Edwin Atwell wrote of the case.
The World’s coverage didn’t stop there. Enterprising columnist Nellie Bly also capitalized on the sensational aspects of Lizzie’s life, and made two trips to Monticello to interview her.
While she was being held in Monticello, Lizzie was linked to the London murders by Sullivan County Sheriff Harrison Beecher, who issued a statement to the press indicating that “recent investigations show that Mrs. Halliday is in all probability connected with the famous Whitechapel murders.”
The New York Herald reported on Beecher’s assertion in a dispatch that was picked up by newspapers from Frederick, Maryland to Marion, Ohio. The Middletown Daily Times reported the story on December 4, 1893.
“We suspect that this mysterious creature was connected with the horrible Whitechapel murders,” the Daily Times reported, noting that Sheriff Beecher asked the suspect point blank about her involvement. “In addition, the Sheriff said: ‘I said to Mrs. Halliday, Lizzie, you are accused of the Whitechapel murders. Are you guilty?’ ‘Do you think I am an elephant?’ she replied. ‘That was done by a man.’
No evidence was ever found to implicate Lizzie Halliday in the Jack the Ripper murders, but authorities had little doubt that they had discovered only a small percentage of her victims.
Convicted in Sullivan County Oyer and Terminal Court of the Sarah McQuillan murder, Lizzie Halliday was sentenced to be executed, only to have that sentence commuted. She spent the rest of her life in the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where she was constantly a source of trouble, attempting to escape a number of times, and assaulting several attendants, including nurse Nellie Wickes, who was stabbed more than 200 times in 1906 after she told Lizzie of her plans to leave the hospital for other employment. Miss Wickes died from her wounds.
Lizzie Halliday died at Matteawan on June 18, 1918.
Photo: Convicted murderer Lizzie Halliday as a young woman.