Prim and Proper? Not These Steam Age Murderesses

Today’s article is by author Phoebe Darqueling, and part of the blog tour for Army of Brass. Scroll to the bottom to find more about this awesome collaborative novel!

In the new collaborative Steampunk novel, Army of Brass, we’ve got a couple of female characters who end up going to a pretty dark place. No, I don’t mean the toxic swamp or twisting tunnels in the fantasy world they inhabit. (Though they do spend some time there, too!) I’m talking about the space filled by our demons that can lead people to torture and even murder.


Even though Army of Brass is a fantasy adventure story, the real steam era had plenty of dastardly dames of its own. For this latest stop on the blog tour, I’d like to introduce you to four of the most famous. You can find more info about the tour and Army of Brass (just $.99 now through May 13) at the bottom of the post. But for now, on to the carnage!


1849 – Marie de Roux

Marie was born in Switzerland, but moved to England to find work as a domestic servant in the mid-1840s. She must have been quite the charmer, because two different men proposed to her at the same time. One was a rich man named Patrick O’Connor, but he was older than Marie. The other was Frederick Manning, a man closer in age and with a promise that he would inherit a great deal of money soon. Marie chose Manning, but sources say she continued to have some sort of relationship with O’Connor as well.


Soon after marrying, Marie discovered that Manning’s future inheritance was a lie. This is when they hatched their plot against poor O’Connor. Their first attempt was thwarted when he brought a friend with him to dinner, but the next invitation implied he and Marie would get some “quality time” if he came alone. Patrick O’Connor was never heard from again.


Marie shot him in the back of the head, though this was not actually the fatal blow. Manning used a crowbar to finish the job, before the couple placed the body in a hole they’d already dug under their kitchen floor. They took the next few days to go through O’Connor’s belongings and steal as many stock certificates and other valuables as they could. Unfortunately for the murderous Mannings, O’Connor had friends who were looking for him. When they became worried their crime would be discovered, Marie sent her husband on an errand to prepare for their escape. When he returned home, Marie and the spoils were gone.  


They were both later caught and tried together. The scandal, called the “Bermondsey Horror” by the newspapers, garnered much attention. When the Mannings stepped up to the hangman in 1849, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people showed up for the festivities. This included Charles Dickens who wrote “I believe that the a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution this morning.” By 1868, his full account of the event, as well those by other writers, are credited for playing a role in the abolition of public hangings.

1852 – Mary Ann Robson

Mary’s murder weapon of choice was arsenic. She likely learned all about it when she and her first husband moved to northeastern England in 1852 – a region that was known at the time for arsenic production. It was quite easy to obtain considering it was used around the typical Victorian era household. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are very much like those of typhoid, and doctors had not yet figured out how to tell the difference between the sickness and foul play.


Before she ever married, she became pregnant three times. When the infants died, she collected “relief” money from the men. Though they were out a tidy sum, they should consider themselves to be lucky. Between 1852-1873, Mary had four husbands and eleven children and step children. Only one husband and two children survived the experience. 


In addition to collecting on their life insurance policies each time, the constant name-changing and moving around helped conceal her crimes. In 1873, she was convicted of the murder of her stepson, Edward Cotton, when a parish official asked the police to make inquiries into her cavalier remarks that “he would go like the rest of the Cottons.” Her trial and execution were delayed because she was pregnant at the time, and she gave birth to her last child in jail.


If you want more of the story, you can find the two-part series, Dark Angel.


1860s-70s Amelia Dyer, the “Baby Farmer”

On the surface, Amelia appeared to perform a public service. She opened a “house of confinement” for unwed mothers where they could stay until their delivery. The children were to be fostered by Amelia – for a modest weekly fee, of course. Though infant mortality was high in those days, her charges so rarely survived her tender care that she was convicted of neglect and served a six-month sentence. So she changed her tactic.


She set her sights on adoption. This came with a much larger one-time payment, and after playing the part of the dutiful and loving mother in front of the parents she targeted, she’d kill the babies within hours of the adoption. Her method was to strangle the infants with white tape, then bury them in the yard or throw them into the Thames. When she was finally arrested, the bodies of over 50 victims were found, and she told the cops “you’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks” (The Independent, February 2013).


1880s – 1908 Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth/Belle Gunness

Last, but certainly not least on this tour de torture, is Brynild. This nasty Norwegian married her first husband in 1884. They had four children together, but two of them died. There were also a couple mysterious fires covered by healthy insurance policies. Her husband died soon after, and happened to go on the only day when two of his life insurance policies overlapped. Coincidence?


In 1902, after changing her name to “Belle,” she married her second husband. Not long after, a heavy piece of machinery mysteriously fell and crushed him. His daughter made the mistake of commenting on the nature of the death and disappeared. Belle began corresponding with men and worked the angle of being a poor widow to entice them into her home to bring her cash gifts. At least six of these generous gents never left again. Gunness’ home burned down in 1908, revealing the bodies of the suitors as well as the disappearing daughter. There was also a decapitated woman whose identity was never confirmed. Of Belle herself, only her dentures were found but she was declared dead in the fire all the same.

Final Thoughts

So, the next time someone tries to tell you women are the “weaker” sex, you’ve got some contradictory examples. These women certainly played by their own rules, and some of them even got away with their crimes for decades. In Army of Brass, even though our leading ladies go a little overboard at times, they’re not half as scary as the villainous “Hunter Baron” they are fighting. If you don’t mind things on the dark side, you’ll love our story of intrigue, conspiracy, and giant automatons. Check out the blog tour stops listed below for more information about this amazing collaborative project written by 21 international writers.

Order your ebook copy of Army of Brass for $.99 for a limited time.


We’ve got a giveaway going on for the entire blog tour, so between April 13-May 13, enter to win ebooks from our Army of Brass contributing authors.


You can find more of Phoebe’s articles on her author website, at Steampunk Journal where she is the co-editor and on the blog tour.  


Blog tour stops so far:

4/13 – A Sneak Peek at Chapter 1 by Jason Pere

4/14 – Launch announcement

4/15 – Interview with contributor Jason Pere

4/16 – Memes in the Making

4/17 – Excerpt by Jim O’Loughlin

4/18 – The Pros and Cons of Collaborative Writing

4/19 – Interview with contributor Jean Grabow

4/20 – Collaboration is the Future by Kathrin Hutson

4/21 – Excerpt by Michael Cieslak

4/22 – Excerpt by Dorothy Emry

4/23 – Review by Penny Blake

4/24 – Character interview of Captain Jack Davenport

4/24 – What’s in a Name? Steampunk Before “Steampunk”

4/25 – Steampunk: The First 10 Years

4/25 – Interview with contributor Jeremiah Rickert

4/26 – Steampunk: The Second Decade

4/27 – Steampunk: The Last 10 Years

4/27 – Excerpt by Phoebe Darqueling

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