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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: 1833 / 1845
Date of arrest: January 22, 1846
Date of birth: July 1799
Victim profile: Her first husband / Her second husband John Van Valkenburgh
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Fulton, New York, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on January 24, 1846

Elizabeth van Valkenburgh poisoned her first husband by adding arsenic to his rum, because she was "provoked" by his drinking in bars. She then married John Van Valkenburgh, whom she murdered by placing arsenic in his tea, giving as reason that he "misused the children" and "we frequently quarrelled".


Elizabeth van Valkenburgh (July 1799 - January 24, 1846) was an early American murderer who was hanged for poisoning her husband.


Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was born in Bennington, Vermont. Her parents died when she was around 5 years old and was sent to Cambridge, New York to live, but had little education or religious upbringing.

First marriage

She first married at the age of 20, moving with her husband, with whom she had four children, to Pennsylvania. After living there for six years, the family moved near to Johnstown, New York, where she remained for the next 18 years.

In 1833, her first husband died, which she initially stated was due to dyspepsia and exposure. Later, she admitted that she had poisoned him by adding arsenic to his rum, because she was "provoked" by his drinking in bars. In an addendum to her confession to Van Valkenburgh's murder, she noted that her first husband had been able to go to work the following day after being poisoned, although he suffered after effects until he died, and that she did not intend to kill him.

Second marriage and murder

She married John Van Valkenburgh, with whom she had two more children, in 1834. In her confession, she stated that he was an alcoholic, that he "misused the children", and that "we frequently quarrelled" when he was drunk. Her son had offered to buy "a place" for her and the other children in the west, but John Van Valkenburgh opposed this. She stated in her confession that "John was in a frolic for several weeks, during which time he never came home sober, nor provided anything for his family." She managed to purchase arsenic and poison his tea, although he recovered from the first dose of poison. Several weeks later, she mixed another dose in his brandy. So gruesome was his death, however, she said that "if the deed could have been recalled, I would have done it with all my heart."

She ran away, hid in a barn, and broke her leg in a fall from the haymow. She was captured, tried and convicted. She was sentenced to death by hanging. Many people, including ten of the jurors, petitioned Governor Silas Wright for clemency, but having studied the materials related to the crime, and despite being moved by her gender and poverty, could find no new evidence to stop the execution.

She was executed on January 24, 1846. Because of her broken leg and her obesity, Van Valkenburgh was hanged in an unusual way. She was carried to the gallows in her rocking chair and was rocking away when the trap was sprung.


The Sentence

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh:

You have been indicted, tried and convicted for the murder of your late husband, John Van Valkenburgh: have you anything to say to the court why the judgment of death should not be pronounced against you according to law.

The facts disclosed upon you trial establish a case of cruel and aggravated murder. Your husband had been sick during a portion of the last winter, but had so far recovered from his disease as to need no further medical treatment. On the 10th of March last, he was seen by his physician, who pronounced him well. On that day you procured a quantity of arsenic and administered portions of it to him, which caused his death on the 18th of March. Although the testimony in relation to some parts of the case was circumstantial, it was nevertheless of such a character as to lead the minds of the Jury to the undoubting belief of your guilt; and their verdict meets the approval of the Court.

Your trial has been conducted with deliberation, caution and fairness; --you had an intelligent and impartial jury of your own selection. -- The prosecution, though conducted with ability, has been marked with tenderness and candor and you have been defended by ingenious and able counsel. The Court also has given you the benefit of every doubtful question, and yet, under all these circumstances, you have been found guilty.

Before performing the last painful duty which remains to the Court, I Have a few words to address you. You have been guilty of an act which by the laws of our country, and of nearly all nations is punishable with death. The law of nature and the law of God sanction this punishment for such a crime. It is not on the principle of revenge, nor even of expiation that this punishment is inflicted. The life of the murderer is forfeited by the law, in order that murders may not be perpetrated.

Had the death of your husband been occasioned by an adversary in an open struggle, the mind, however it might condemn the act, would find some alleviation, in the provocation, in the motive, or in the equality of the combat. But death by poison clandestinely administered, is, of all others the most revolting. It takes its victim when unprepared for resistance. The enormity of the crime is increased in this case by the relation which you bore to the deceased. He was the husband whom you had promised to love, to cherish, and to obey. He was the father of your children, whom you have thus deprived of their natural protector, by an act, which in its consequences must soon bring them to an untimely orphanage.

If, even in this world, there is a connection between guilt and suffering -- if even in human society we find that the way of the transgressor is hard; what may we not expect in the retributions which await us beyond the grave. We are assured there is a time coming when we must all appear before a judge whose all seeing eye can penetrate the secret recesses of every heart, and whose justice as well as mercy is co-extensive with his works.

Yours is not a case in which the court can advise the exercise of executive clemency. Let me admonish you to prepare for the change that now awaits you. Call to your aid the ministers of our religion. Look back upon your past life and repent. Look to God for forgiveness through the merits of a Saviour.

Now listen to the judgment of the law, which is that you, ELIZABETH VAN VALKENBURGH, be taken from this place to the common jail of this county, and that you be there kept in safe and secure custody until SATURDAY THE TWENTY-FOURTHDAY OF JANUARY NEXT, between the hours of TEN A.M. and FOUR P.M. you be hanged by the neck until you are dead -- and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul.


Confession of Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh

Fulton County Jail, Jan. 22, 1846

In presence of Judge Weston, Sheriff Thompson, J. W. Cady, Esq.,

Rev. James Otterson and Rev. David Eyster.

In the name of Almighty God, whose law I have broken, and in whose presence I must shortly appear, I testify that the facts herein set forth, contain the truth and nothing but the truth.

I was born in Bennington, Vermont, in July 1799; my parents having died when I was about five years of age. I was removed to Cambridge N.Y., my education was very limited. Throughout my life I have never regarded the Sabbath nor religion. I was married in my 20th year, after which I removed to Pennsylvania and remained there six years in the midst of a very rude community, there being no place of worship within 14 miles.

By this marriage I had four children. I then returned to the State of New York, and have lived there for the last 18 years within 5 miles of Johnston. My husband died in Sept. 1833 from dyspepsia and exposure. There is no foundation for the report that I had in any way hastened his death, nor did such a thing ever enter my mind.

I was married to John Van Valkenburgh in March 1834. He was addicted to liquor; misused the children when under its influence, and at such times we frequently quarreled. My two eldest sons had offered to purchase a place for me at the West, and to provide for me and the younger children, two of whom were by the last marriage.

This was so strongly opposed by my husband, that I was tempted to administer arsenic to him, thinking if he were out of the way I could do as I pleased with myself and the children. To this act I was prompted by no living soul.

I consulted with no one on the subject, nor was any individual privy to it. Mr. Robb's house in which I lived in the fall of 1844 was infested with rats, and having left home to visit Mrs. Zeiley, I stopped at Mrs. Mitchell's and had got her boy to procure some arsenic for the purpose of destroying them; some of this I gave them. John had been in a frolic for several weeks, during which time he never came home sober, nor provided any thing for his family. During this frolic he left home and was gone 8 days.

Four days after his return, which was in the early part of January last, I first determined to destroy his life, and mixed the remainder of the arsenic in a cup of tea, which he drank, and which caused him to vomit immediately. He was never well after this, but failed very fast.

Doctor Burdick attended him during this sickness which continued a number of weeks, and when I saw that he was recovering, as he threatened to prevent me from going to the west with my children, I got some more arsenic in the early part of March, through the Mitchell family, one portion which I administered to him in decoction with brandy; that is, I poured boiling water on it in a teacup, and after it had settled, mixed the water without the sediment with brandy. This mode of preparing it was intended to prevent its swimming on the surface and being discovered. I gave this about midnight on Monday, 10th of March, the week previously to his death, which took place on Tuesday 16th.

My terror was so great at the effects produced upon him, --his vomiting producing repeated fits of fainting, --I being entirely alone with him, expecting him every moment to die, and that a discovery of the cause would at once be made, --that if the deed could have been recalled I would have done it with all my heart.

I remained in the house until the succeeding Sabbath night, when being informed by Mr. Osborn that I should be taken up the next morning, I fled to Mrs. Wakefield's near Kingsboro, whither I was pursued the next day and brought back. In the course of the night, I again ran away and concealed myself in Mr. McLaren's barn, where I was found after being severely hurt by a fall from the mow.

The next day after my husband's death, I was committed to prison, where I now remain, having, after a fair and impartial trial, been fully convicted and sentenced to endure the extreme penalty of the law.

And now, in full view of the dread tribunal before which I must shortly appear, I feel satisfied that nothing more than the strict justice has been done by the Judges, counsel and jury, against none of whom do I harbor a hard thought, nor against any of the witnesses on the trial.

To my counsel who have spared neither labor nor expense both before and since my conviction; to my friends who have been indefatigable in endeavoring to alleviate the horrors of my present situation; to the ministers of the Gospel who by their instruction and prayers, have endeavored to prepare me to meet my God; and more especially to the Sheriff and every member of his family, through whose unwearied kindness not a desire has remained ungratified, I return my most sincere thanks; and if I have any enemies I freely forgive them, as I hope through the mercy of God in Christ to be forgiven.

Two prominent causes have led to the awful catastrophe above exhibited: disregard in my part of the authority and laws of God, and drunkenness on the part of my husband, and I would wish to bear my dying testimony to the evils resulting from RUM SELLING AND RUM DRINKING, and a disregard for the institutions of religion.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh


On reflecting during the past night on the confession made by me yesterday, I find some particulars which are untrue, and which I now desire to correct.

With respect to my first husband I should have stated that about a year before his death I mixed arsenic, which I purchased several months previously at Mr. Saddler's in Johnstown, with some rum which he had in a jug, of which he drunk once, and by which he was made very sick and vomited, but it did not prevent his going to work the next day and continuing to work afterwards, until the next June. His feet and the lower part of his legs became numb after drinking this, which continued until his death, and his digestion was also impaired.

I always had a very ungovernable temper, and was so provoked by his going to Mr. Terrill's bar where he had determined to go and I had threatened that if he did go he should never go to another bar, and as he did go nothwithstanding this, I put in the arsenic as I have said.

Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh


M. Weston M. Thompson

J. W. Cady D. Eyster

J. Otterson



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