JUSTICE STORY: Merry widow used illnesses as cover for string of poisoned husbands
Eventually, the real cause of the mysterious deaths came to light ...
By the time she was 27, Lyda Trueblood had buried a baby daughter, four husbands, and a brother-in-law.
She blamed it all on germs — typhoid, ptomaine poisoning, and influenza.
Eventually, the real cause of the mysterious deaths came to light — arsenic. Lyda had poisoned the men.
The law caught up with the merry widow in Hawaii on May 12, 1921. She was Lyda Southard now, the bride of navy chief petty officer Paul Southard.
Their wedding took place four months after her fourth husband, Edward Meyer, took his last breath in a Pocatello, Idaho, hospital in September 1920. Southard was unaware of this.
“GIRL ‘BLUEBEARD’ IS NABBED IN HONOLULU,” screamed the front page of the San Bernadino, Calif., Daily Sun on Friday, May 13.
Southard might have become her next victim, had it not been for Meyer’s friends and family. They didn’t believe that Meyer, a big, strapping ranch foreman, had succumbed to typhoid, as was noted on the death certificate.
When Meyer fell ill just a month after the honeymoon, the men who worked for him were certain his pretty new wife had slipped something into his food.
Soon, everyone in town was gossiping.
Virgil Ormsby, a Twin Falls, Idaho, deputy sheriff, was assigned to investigate. He probed Lyda’s background and learned she had been married three times before. All the grooms died under mysterious circumstances.
Lyda met her first husband, Robert Dooley, when she was a petite, blue-eyed farmer’s daughter from Missouri. Lyda’s father, William Trueblood, moved the family to Twin Falls in 1907, when she was 15. Love-struck Dooley followed along, bringing his brother Ed with him.
Lyda and Robert married in 1912 and had a daughter, Lorraine, a couple of years later.
Then tragedy struck. In 1915, Ed suddenly became sick and died. Ptomaine poisoning, doctors said. Soon after, Bob also fell ill and died, a typhoid victim. Both had recently taken out insurance policies, leaving Lyda with about $4,000 (about $53,000 today) and a baby.
The baby was soon gone, too, another typhoid victim. The grieving mother said that Lorraine had a habit of drinking from a contaminated well and must have caught the bug there.
Ormsby learned that her next doomed spouse was William McHaffie, a waiter she met in Twin Falls in 1917. The newlyweds moved to Montana, where McHaffie took out a $5,000 insurance policy, naming his bride as beneficiary.
He was dead by October 1918, a victim of influenza and diphtheria, the doctor said. It was the height of the influenza pandemic. There was no reason to doubt that McHaffie was a victim of the deadly bug.
Lyda tried to collect on his insurance, but McHaffie had failed to keep up the premiums. She got nothing.
Harlan Lewis, the next victim, was an auto salesman from Billings, Mont. They married in June 1919. He was dead by July, from gastroenteritis. She was $5,000 wealthier, thanks to his insurance policy.
A year later, she snared Meyer. After his death, she tried to collect on his $10,000 life insurance policy. The company denied her request, and she disappeared.
In Montana, Ormsby visited the house where the McHaffies had lived. The new owners showed him an odd souvenir Lyda had left behind. It was a barrel containing a foot-high bundle of flypaper.
In those days, flypaper contained arsenic, which could be extracted by soaking it in water. Flypaper had been used in the past in some high-profile murders.
He spoke to a shopkeeper who recalled that Lyda had purchased an unusually large amount of flypaper before her husband died. Newspapers gave her a new nickname — Flypaper Lyda.
No one considered arsenic poisoning at the time of death, so the bodies had to be exhumed. Meyer’s corpse contained enough arsenic, scientists said, to kill five men. The bodies of the other men had lethal doses, but none was found in the baby.
Lyda had vanished by the time the investigation revealed the poisonings. Ormsby tracked her down in Honolulu.
“I am innocent of any wrongdoing, but I do believe I may be a typhoid carrier,” she told detectives.
She was tried only for Meyer’s killing. After a six-week trial, Lyda was found guilty of second-degree murder and got 10 years to life. Southard divorced her a few years later.
That might have been the end of her story, but it wasn’t.
On May 4, 1931, Lyda sawed through the bars of her cell and climbed over the prison wall. She was aided by a guard who, like a lot of other men, was smitten by the woman known as Idaho’s Lucrezia Borgia.
Waiting for her in a getaway roadster was David Minton, an ex-con who had fallen in love with her when they were both behind bars.
Lyda was free for 15 months. During that time, she got a job as a housekeeper in Topeka, Kans., for widower Harry Whitlock. He became husband number six. When she was captured, the shocked groom admitted to reporters that she had suggested he take out an insurance policy.
In 1941, she was pardoned and set free, over objections from a former governor that she was still a danger and would “just find another man.” It seemed unlikely, with her youth and beauty gone, but she somehow managed to snare one, Hal Shaw.
Lyda was alone when she died in 1958 of a heart attack, no husband by her side. Newspapers simply said that Shaw “disappeared” several years after the wedding.