Happy Halloween! Today is my favorite day of the year and I'm just thrilled I get to celebrate with y'all by sharing a story that has two of my favorite elements: history & horror. Today's tale is about Idaho's first known serial killer, who also happens to be one of the first female serial killers in America. It was written by Julie Sarasqueta. You can also listen to this story on our podcast. Enjoy!
If you opened a newspaper in the United States in 1921, you’d see thousands of column inches splattered with bloody tales of lurid and brazen murders. Police were still trying to determine who set off an explosive on Wall Street that killed 30 people and injured 200 the year before. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the immigrant Italian anarchists accused of murdering two people during a bank robbery, kept readers gripped. The popular early film star Fatty Arbuckle endured the opening arguments during his trial for the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe.
And in Idaho, a petite woman named Lyda Southard was making national headlines as a jury tried to answer the question: Could this pleasant, friendly woman be a murderer?
On paper, Idaho’s first known serial killer was unremarkable. She was pretty but not beautiful, although a paper later reported she possessed “guileless blue eyes and the cooing voice of a dove.” She did not come from money or power. Lyda Trueblood was the second of 11 children from a Missouri family that moved to Twin Falls in Southern Idaho, and she appeared to be on a path similar to thousands of other women her age throughout the country.
She weathered heart-wrenching events like other women of the time. Lyda married her first husband, Robert Dooley, another native Missourian, in Twin Falls in 1912. The newlyweds moved to a ranch in the Twin Falls area that same year and were joined by Edward, Robert’s brother.
In 1913, Lyda and Robert had a baby girl they named Lorraine. But by 1915, tragedy seemed to haunt Lyda: Lorraine drank contaminated well water and died. Robert passed away from ptomaine poisoning (a type of acute food poisoning) that August. In October, Edward died of typhoid fever.
It was a terrible string of bad luck for a young woman in her 20s, but armed with the insurance money she collected from Robert’s death — as well as the additional insurance money from Robert’s policy that had gone to Edward, and then on to Lyda after Ed’s demise — she began again.
Moving on never seemed to be a problem for Lyda. Despite her seemingly normal (if painful) life, she was different. She exerted a mesmerizing force over the people around her, attracting men, friends, support, and even feral animals to herself. She married again less than two years after losing her first family.
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Arsenic is one of Earth’s naturally occurring elements (number 33 on the periodic table) and — despite understanding its toxicity thousands of years ago — it is so useful that humans have been unable to resist it. Egyptians added it to their embalming fluid during the mummification process. Hippocrates, the legendary ancient Greek doctor, used it to treat ulcers. In the 19th century, arsenic was added to sugary candies and cosmetic face powders or mixed into paint and wallpaper to create a luridly vivid green. It emerged as an effective treatment for syphilis in the early 1900s.
It is also, arguably, the most legendary and successful poison ever employed by humans. The Roman emperor Nero is thought to have killed his 13-year-old stepbrother with it. Centuries later, the Italian aristocrat and ruthless social climber Lucrezia Borgia supposedly had a hinged ring stuffed with la cantarella, a poison that most likely contained arsenic, and dispensed it into the food and drink of her rivals. Napoleon Bonaparte’s hair contained high levels of the chemical, leading some to believe that he was offed while in exile on the island of St. Helena. Arsenic was added to bombs during World War I, and there are still fields in Europe that will forever be wastelands because of their heavy use.
Those are some of the famous cases. But there are hundreds, and probably thousands, more examples that slipped by unnoticed before the first chemical test for arsenic was developed in 1836. Arsenic is tasteless and odorless, and until the early 20th century, it was available in the most common and mundane household products.
Lyda’s bad luck continued despite her new marriage to William McHaffie, father to a three-year-old daughter who passed away unexpectedly soon after he married Lyda. The couple set out for a fresh start in Montana, but William died of influenza and diphtheria during the peak of the 1918 global flu pandemic.
That was in October. In March, she wed again, this time to a car salesman named Harlen Lewis. He survived just a few months before succumbing to gastroenteritis. The next year, Lyda found another husband back home in Idaho when she married ranch foreman Edward Meyer in Pocatello. Despite her diligent nursing, he also died of typhoid.
Anyone paying attention might have noticed that the time span between marriage and the death of Lyda’s husbands was shortening.
Arsenic poisoning is a long game. Once you’ve sourced the poison, it’s a simple matter of extracting the compound and putting it to use. If you’re a woman in the early 20th century, you’ve probably selected arsenic because it’s convenient. In fact, it’s a perfectly ordinary product to buy in the normal running of your household. You are responsible for the cooking and cleaning and shopping, after all.
How easy would it be to boil a strip of arsenic-laced flypaper until the chemical leaches into the water? How easy would it be to scrape out the tasteless, odorless, toxic powder left behind at the bottom of the pot? How easy would it be to serve that poisonous concoction to a man who depends on you for his meals, who devours your famously delicious cooking every time you place it in front of him?
The hard part is waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Arsenic is not a fast-acting poison, and the symptoms of acute intoxication are similar to thousands of other common ailments: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Arsenic requires patience and diligence, and a willingness to stick with the long game for weeks to get to the final outcome. As a murderer, you’ll enjoy the benefits of a relatively gore-free death that takes place in plain sight. You’ll just need the stomach and will to watch the suffering.
Earl Dooley, cousin to Lyda’s first husband and brother-in-law, was a chemist in Twin Falls, and Lyda’s stories of woe did not sit right with him. Now, Lyda was back in Idaho with yet another recently deceased man’s name added to her own, and Earl Dooley decided to raise the alarm.
Earl Dooley suspected poison. Twin Falls Deputy Sheriff Virgil Ormsby, who knew Lyda (and her history) from her days in Twin Falls, began investigating. Lyda’s previous husbands and her daughter were exhumed and tested. The Idaho State Life Insurance Company of Boise revealed that Lyda was the beneficiary of her husbands’ insurance policies and had collected about $10,000 — roughly $170,000 today — although she did not collect on every policy.
Lyda’s cookware tested positive for arsenic. So did the bodies she had left behind (some reports state the bodies were in exceptional condition; the Egyptians were right about its powers of preservation). Law enforcement issued a warrant for Lyda’s arrest.
But Lyda had already hit the road — this time, to Honolulu, where her new husband, Paul Southard, was stationed. As a Navy man, Paul had refused Lyda’s requests to take out a life insurance policy, rightly pointing out that government benefits would be directed to her if he ever died. In May 1921, she was taken into custody in Honolulu against Paul’s vocal protestations, and preparations for one of the most sensational trials in Idaho history began.
Lyda was nicknamed “Lady Bluebeard” in the press, a nod to the French folk tale about a murderous husband who keeps the bodies of his murdered wives in his home. Coverage of Lyda’s trial, much like Lori Vallow Daybell’s trial 100 years later, fascinated the nation. For weeks, a parade of 150 witnesses made the case for and against Lyda as she stood trial for the murder of Edward Meyer.
Her furloughed husband stood steadfastly by her. (“Don’t you think I have a dear husband, to stick by me like this?” she said.) Lyda’s parents supported her, as well, as Lyda made the case that she carried typhoid and accidentally passed it onto her husbands and child. This was countered by the news that a shopkeeper in Montana recalled selling Lyda a huge quantity of arsenic-laced flypaper.
After 23 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and Lyda entered the Idaho State Penitentiary. But Lyda’s charm and patience were no match for the walls of the Old Pen.
While inside the Old Pen, Lyda was a model inmate, a dear friend to her fellow prisoners, and a caretaker of animals on the prison’s grounds. She was also incredibly persuasive (as further evidence of her charms, her husband Paul Southard didn’t divorce her until 1928, years after the trial). She charmed a prison guard into bringing her bedsheets and, unbelievably, a saw. She persuaded recently released inmate David Minton to wait for her outside while she used the saw and bedsheets to escape her cell on May 4, 1931.
David was hoping for a love match with Lyda, but Lyda was never much for lovers — she was the marrying type. Lyda dumped David and found her next husband, a wealthy man named Harry Whitlock, in Denver.
Was Lyda motivated solely by insurance money, or did she actually take pleasure in each murder? The FBI was still a young agency at the time, and decades away from creating their famous serial killer profiling protocol, but if it had been around then Lyda would probably have been classified as an “organized” serial killer. Like Ted Bundy, one of the most famous organized-type serial killers in modern history, she was a productive member of society who had charisma and charm and a way with the opposite sex. She was methodical and patient, for the most part, in her crimes.
And, like Bundy, she was also capable of forming strong bonds with other people, like her new husband Harry Whitlock’s 9-year-old son, Benny. In Denver, Lyda seemed to have a relatively stable life: she was provided for by a wealthy man, she went to church regularly, she had a new stepson who adored her. By all accounts, the feeling for her stepson was mutual, even if she had recently asked his father to take out a life insurance policy.
Maybe that care explains what she did next. With a nationwide search for her whereabouts underway (her wanted poster mentions her “very shifty look”), and her partner-in-crime Minton fast on her trail, Lyda went to Kansas to visit her sick mother. She wrote to her husband, Harry, using her real name. This might have been Lyda’s way of giving back — she knew the letter would lead to her capture, and hoped Harry and Benny could keep the $50 reward for information leading to her arrest. She was apprehended in Topeka soon thereafter, and annulment papers followed accordingly.
Lyda’s presence had been sorely missed at the Old Pen. “Our place seems like a tomb with Stevie gone,” her fellow inmates in the women’s section reportedly complained after her escape, using Lyda’s prison nickname.
When Lyda returned, she resumed her role as a model inmate. A Time magazine reporter covered her release in 1941; Gov. Clark vetoed it, but was outvoted by his two fellow parole board members. “Paroled for a six-month probationary period to her sister, Mrs. John Quigley, of Nyssa, Ore., Lyda had no immediate plans,” according to the Time article. “Declaring that Lyda ‘embroiders divinely,’ Mrs. Quigley suggested that she might set her sister up in a fancywork shop. Mrs. Quigley did not suggest a restaurant.”
Lyda couldn’t stay unmarried for long, though. After her full pardon in 1943, Lyda married Hal Shaw in Utah. Hal would be Lyda’s final husband, and quite possibly her final murder: His family did not love the idea of Hal being married to a former convict, even a paroled and pardoned one, and pressured him to divorce her. He disappeared before that could happen.
Alone again and in her 50s, Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer Southard Whitlock Shaw went back to Twin Falls. While carrying her groceries one day in 1958, she suffered a heart attack and died. Idaho’s most famous murderer, its first known serial killer, and one of the most murderous women in United States history, is buried in a nondescript grave with a simple headstone at Sunset Memorial Park in Twin Falls.
Thanks for reading!
With love from Boise,
PS Happy Halloween from me & my red balloon