Calling the end of the 19th century the Gilded Age is in many ways a contradiction. While industry and economy boomed, it was an era of immense social inequality. Corruption was rife in both corporate business and politics. The lower classes were forced to work in unhealthy conditions for minimal wages and live in inadequate housing. It was a combination ripe for disaster and one that created communities which bred some of the most notorious killers of all time.

You may well be familiar with names like Ted Bundy, John Gacy and Bertha Gifford who were all infamous serial killers of the 20th century. The murderers who rubbed the gilt off the Gilded Age with their heinous crimes were just as evil, if not more so, and committed crimes as equally as grisly as their more modern day counterparts.

The Chicago Castle Killer: H.H. Holmes (1861- 1896)

Dr Henry Holmes was not a typical serial killer, but a killer who murdered and robbed graves for financial gain. After qualifying as a doctor and studying dissection in New Hampshire, Holmes settled in Chicago where he purchased a plot of land.There he built the premises that would eventually be known as the Murder Castle. Several people employed by Holmes, or who visited him there, vanished without trace leaving the doctor the beneficiary of their insurance policies.

While the press of the day reported the castle to be a maze of secret corridors, hidden rooms and a furnace for burning bodies, it was never discovered to be true as the premises were destroyed by fire after Holmes’ arrest. Holmes was also a pathological liar and after his arrest claimed to have killed people who were later found to be still alive. He was eventually convicted and hung at the age of thirty-five for the murder of just one person.

The biggest mystery that still surrounds Holmes is whether or not he could have been the notorious British killer known as Jack the Ripper. It’s believed that Holmes visited London during the time when the spate of killings occurred in the London suburb and that his medical training would have allowed him to perform the atrocities on the victims that were the trademarks of the killings. Whether he was Jack the Ripper or not is probably one of those whodunnits of the past that will never be solved.

This is a collage of a man in a suit and hat and the front of a building. The building appears to be from the 19th century. The man in the photo is wearing a suit and hat.
Colorized collage of Holmes Castle in Chicago and Mugshot of Holmes, c. 1895

The Angel of Death: Jane Toppan (1854-1938)

Patients admitted to the Cambridge Hospital and the Massachusetts General Hospital during the Gilded Age could count themselves lucky if they came out alive. To survive, whether their treatment was a success or not, they just needed to be on a ward where Nurse Jane Toppan didn’t work.

Honora Kelly’s angelic, trustworthy appearance belied her evil, psychopathic mind. Abandoned at the age of six by her alcoholic father, Jane spent her early years in an orphanage before becoming an unpaid servant of the Toppan family whose name she would later take as her own. After her indenture as a servant to the Toppans was completed, Jane began her training as a nurse and it was then she was able to begin honing her skills at poisoning people with opiates.

After disposing of numerous members of a family she’d been employed to care for as a private nurse, she was reported to the authorities. During investigations she admitted to killing more than thirty people while continuing to claim she was perfectly sane. The courts decided otherwise and she was convicted of twelve counts of murder, though it should have been many more. She was committed to an asylum for the insane where she remained incarcerated until her death thirty-six years later.

A collage of portraits of Jane Toppan as a psychiatric hospital, she has unruly hair a neutral expression on her face in all four photos.
Colorized photographs of Jane Toppan at the Taunton State Hospital (psychiatric hospital)

The Bitter Pill Murderer: Thomas Neill Cream (1850-1892)

Jane Toppan wasn’t the only medical professional of the Gilded Age who used poison to finish off their victims. Thomas Neill Cream was a Canadian doctor of Scottish descent who targeted prostitutes and pregnant women when they approached him seeking abortions. His preferred poison was strychnine in pill form that he would give them to take before they went to bed and he was no longer in the vicinity.

Cream was something of a nomad. He relocated several times in his life moving from Edinburgh to London in Ontario, Chicago and London in the UK where he became known as the Lambeth Poisoner. Wherever he went he established himself as a physician in the poorer slum areas of the cities and continued to murder women of the night and poorer classes. If it hadn’t been for the dastardly doctor’s greed he may never have been caught.

Cream wasn’t content with just killing the women, he tried to profit from their death by accusing prominent members of society of the murders and then attempting to blackmail them. It was the existence of those blackmail letters that finally brought Cream to justice and he was executed in the UK at the age of forty-two.

The image shows a man wearing a top hat and a black suit. He has a confident expression on his face.
Colorized photograph of Thomas Neill Cream, McCord Museum

The Baby Farmer: Amelia Dyer (1837-1896)

Amelia Dyer was undoubtedly one of the most prolific and villainous murderers of the Gilded Age – if not of all time. Born into rural poverty in a village near Bristol in England, as an adult Dyer turned to baby farming to earn a living. Sadly, the children she adopted for money were rapidly disposed of so she could benefit from the fees paid to her.

After a local doctor alerted authorities to the numerous death certificates he had written for children in Dyer’s care, she was arrested and sentenced to a few months hard labor. Upon her release she continued in her evil ways for more than a decade. 

Dyer was eventually caught and held responsible for her crimes after a body she dumped in the River Thames was discovered by the police. Wrapping around the corpse was found to contain Dyer’s name and address which led police directly to her. That finally brought the thirty year-long killing spree of the evil Ogress of Reading to an end and after a brief court case she was sentenced to death. No-one truly knows the number of children the mentally disturbed Dyer murdered, but it’s estimated to be between two to four hundred.

This is a photo of a woman with a white and purple hat on her head. The woman is wearing a blue dress and has a red, puffy collar on her neck. Her eyes are wide open and she appears to be staring at something in the distance.
Colorized photograph of Amelia Dyer upon admission to the Wells Asylum in 1893

Hell’s Belle Black Widow: Belle Gunness (1859-1908)

Belle Gunness, also known as Hell’s Belle or the Black Widow, was a Norwegian-American farmer who loved male company, but not for too long. After the death of her first husband, she received an insurance payout, left her job in a butcher’s shop and purchased a pig farm in Indiana.

Gunness remarried and had a child by her second husband both of whom died in strange circumstances. Once she was alone again on the farm, Gunness enticed lonely men to her farm by advertising for company in a Chicago newspaper.

The crimes Gunness committed weren’t discovered until after a fire burned the farmhouse to the ground. Inside the house was the headless body of a woman that was, at the time, thought to be Gunness, and the burnt remains of three children. 

After the discovery of the bodies a search was made of the farm. That search uncovered the remains of eleven dismembered bodies thought to have belonged to men who had answered Gunness’ lonely hearts ads. To this day, it’s not known if the Black Widow really did die in the fire or if she made a timely escape.

This is an image of a woman in an old-fashioned dress standing in front of a large wooden table. She is wearing a blue dress with a lace collar.
Colorized photograph of Belle Gunness

The Brooklyn Vampire Who Ate His Victims: Albert Fish (1870-1936)

The Gilded Age bred many atrocious criminals, but none quite as sickening as Albert Fish. If there was any crime against humanity Fish didn’t commit, it was because they caught him before he could do it.

After the death of his father, Fish spent part of his early life in an orphanage where he was brutally abused. At the age of thirty-three Fish was convicted and imprisoned for grand larceny. After his release from prison he began to self harm and even though he was married, he had a string of homosexual relationships throughout which he viciously tortured his lovers.

As his bloodlust increased, Fish became interested in younger children and lured several to isolated locations where he subsequently killed and then partially consumed them. He was finally caught after he was identified by a trolley operator who remembered him boarding his trolley with a crying child. While Fish tried to escape the electric chair by pleading insanity, he was shown no mercy and was executed at the age of sixty-five.

A photograph of an elderly man in a white prison uniform sitting in an electric chair. His eyes are closed. He is being prepared for execution by four prison guards.
Albert Fish on the electric chair, colorized

Murderous Mayhem: Lizzie Halliday (1859-1937)

Lizzie Halliday was a serial bigamist and pyromaniac whose reign of terror in New York took the lives of at least four people. Being diagnosed with serious mental health issues and being admitted to an institution for the insane at an early age didn’t prevent her from killing or attempting to kill as many people as she could.

Halliday’s victims weren’t just the men she married. She also disposed of family members and a child by various gruesome methods including poisoning, shooting them and burning them alive as well as dismembering them and hiding them under the floorboards.

She was finally caught for her despicable crimes when observant neighbors reported the disappearance of her husband of the time. After being found guilty, she was the first female ever to be sentenced to death by electric chair, but the sentence was never carried out. Halliday was incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane, but that didn’t prevent her killing again as she stabbed one of the attendants at the institution to death. Halliday remained in the asylum until she died.

This is an illustration of a woman in handcuffs, she is wearing a long dress. Her hair is long and uncombed.
Newspaper portrait of Lizzie Halliday, colorized

Did they get away with murder in the Gilded Age?

The social inequality of the Gilded Age may have bred some of the most infamous killers of all time, but it was also a society that delivered rightful comeuppance for the heinous crimes those criminals committed. Even in the 19th century, they couldn’t get away with murder.