CRIME HISTORY: Louise Vermilya, The Fin De Siècle Necrophiliac Serial Poisoner

Louise Vermilya, serial poisoner and suspected necrophiliac, was arrested on October 31, 1911. She was accused of poisoning anywhere between seven and ten people, depending on the account.

The story of Louise Vermilya is one of the more unique to cross our paths. Several members of Vermilya’s family, including two husbands and three children, lost their lives as a result of what is believed to be arsenic poisoning between the years 1893 and 1911.

Photo: Public Domain

Photo: Public Domain

During the gathering of information for a grand jury, the Chicago Tribune decribed the case against Vermilya as “purely circumstantial.” The linchpin of the case appeared to be a lie that Vermilya had told the coroner when he visited her home investigating the death of Arthur Bissonette, a local policeman who had died that day.

The coroner told the court that Vermilya had volunteered information about a man named Richard T. Smith who died at her residence that March. Vermilya reportedly told the coroner that Smith had been ill for a couple of days before he died. She added that an inquest had been conducted into Smith’s death.

Alas, after the coroner searched his files, he found no records regarding Smith, so he dug deeper into the city’s files. There, he found nine deaths that he considered suspicious. He was able to connect them all via large quantities of arsenic in their organs. It was believed that Vermilya kept her supply of arsenic in a pepper pot in her own home disguised as white pepper.

Authorities moved in on Vermilya, but she did not survive to stand trial. Within a month of her arrest, Vermilya succumbed to her own white pepper. Arsenic poisoning paralyzed her at first, then killed her outright in December 1911.

On top of the murders, experts believe Vermilya was a necrophiliac — i.e., one absolutely fixated on death and the dead. It’s not known if she derived sexual pleasure from lifeless bodies, but it’s theorized that this mental state drove her to murder time and again. In addition to the poisoning accusations, according to a 1911 Chicago Tribune article, she seemed to have been obsessed with her local undertaker, Mr. Boysen, claiming that she was his fiancée and that they were going to travel to Europe together. He denied these claims, referring to her as a “crazy woman.”

Photo: Public Domain

Photo: Public Domain

Another undertaker spoke out after her arrest, saying that Vermilya used to enjoy coming around to his place of business and assisting him in embalming the corpses. According to Richard Glyn Jones in The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill,

“she knew, before he did, who was dead or dying in the little settlement, and she had a strange way of intruding herself into the confidence of families where a death was expected. She would sit with the dying and watch the ebbing of life with a rapt and unflagging attention. She could watch those scenes which drive the hardest and best beloved from the bedside of the expiring — watch them without any emotion unless it was a secret pleasure.

“After a death, she would appear at the undertaker’s rooms and seem to delight in performing those dread offices which men must harden themselves to endure. She came and took part in the processes of preparing bodies for burial, though she usually received no pay for her work, and though she was sometimes made to feel unwelcome.”

Vermilya denied the charges until the end, protesting to the New York Times that she “simply had been unfortunate in having people dying about her.”

Investigation Discovery’s own Deadly Women series profiled Louise Vermilya in a powerful epsiode.

Read more:
The Chicago Tribune
The Evening Independent
The New York Times
Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection
San Francisco Call
The Unknown History of Misandry blog

The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill

Main photo: Public Domain



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