The photograph above depicts the notorious Storyville redlight district on New Orleans’ Basin Street. Except for the saloon in the foreground, the rest of the buildings are brothels. It was along this row that Mary Jane Jackson plied her trade…and practiced serial murder.
A New Orleans prostitute with a violent temper, Jackson was a relative anomaly among female serial killers. Described as a “husky,” universally feared woman, she physically overpowered her adult-male victims. Nicknamed Bricktop because of her flaming-red hair, between 1856 and 1861 Jackson beat to death one man and stabbed to death three others because they called her names, objected to her foul language, or argued with her. Sentenced to ten years in prison for the 1861 stabbing death of a jailer-cum-live-in-lover who attempted to thrash her, 25-year-old Jackson disappeared nine months later when the newly appointed Union Army governor of New Orleans issued blanket pardons and emptied the prisons.
A member of the notorious Bloody Benders of Labette County, Kansas, beautiful 22-year-old Kate Bender claimed to be a psychic. In 1872 and 1873, she enthralled male guests over dinner at the family’s inn while men posing as her father and brother sneaked up behind the victims and bashed in their skulls with a sledgehammer or slit their throats. Among the four Bender family members, only Kate and her mother were related, though Kate may have been married to the man posing as her brother. When a traveling doctor disappeared after visiting the Benders’ waystation in 1872, his brother began an investigation that turned up eleven bodies buried on the property.
The Benders, whose motive was robbery, disappeared without a trace. A persistent rumor claims vigilantes dispensed final justice somewhere on the Kansas prairie.
The last major Old West set-to in Texas took place in Fort Bend County, near Houston. The liberal-Republican Woodpeckers, mostly former slaves, swept the county election in 1884. The conservative-Democrat Jaybirds, primarily white former Confederates, opposed such unconscionable behavior for racist reasons. After Woodpeckers swept every office again in the 1888 election, retaliatory violence on both sides resulted in the deaths of several people.
During the Battle of Richmond—a twenty-minute gunfight inside the county courthouse in August 1889—four men, including the sheriff, were killed. The Jaybirds won the fracas, and with the assistance of Governor Sul Ross’s declaration of martial law, seized control of county government. Jaybirds forcibly ousted every elected Woodpecker and proceeded to disenfranchise black voters until 1953, when the Supreme Court put a stop to the whites-only voting shenanigans.
Intermittent Jaybird-Woodpecker violence continued until 1890, when a white Woodpecker tax assessor, accused of murdering a white Jaybird leader who was his political opponent, was gunned down in Galveston before he could be tried for the alleged crime.
(Image: Fort Bend County courthouse where the gun battle took place)
The only time in history Texas Rangers surrendered happened in the tiny town of San Elizario, near El Paso.
An increasingly volatile disagreement over rights to mine salt in the Guadalupe Mountains began in the 1860s and finally boiled over in September 1877. A former district attorney, who tried to lay claim to the salt flats, rather flagrantly murdered his political rival, who had insisted the flats were public property and the valuable salt could be mined by anyone. The dead man’s supporters, primarily Tejano salt miners, revolted.
A group of twenty hastily recruited Ranger stand-ins rushed to the rescue, only to barricade themselves inside the Catholic church in a last-ditch effort to keep the instigator alive long enough stand trial. Five days later they admitted defeat and surrendered to the mob, who killed the accused murderer, chopped up his body, and threw the pieces down a well. Then the rioters disarmed the Ranger puppies and kicked them out of town.
In 1856, at the tender age of 24, Henry Plummer became the marshal of Nevada City, Calif. Within three years, he was serving 10 years in San Quentin for murdering the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.
Released after six months, he joined a gang of stagecoach robbers before forming his own gang and terrorizing gold-mining camps across California and Montana.
After losing a sheriff election in 1863 and running off the winner, Plummer pinned on the badge. Thereafter, under the guise of cracking down on crime, Plummer and his gang of toughs, known as the Innocents, hanged witnesses to a skyrocketing number of crimes: murders, robberies, assaults, and sundry other illegal goings-on.
On January 10, 1864, having had enough law enforcement for a while, fifty to seventy-five vigilantes rounded up Plummer and his two deputies and hanged them in the basement of a Bannack, Montana, store.
Also called the Mason County War, this Reconstruction Era Hill Country dustup over dead and disappearing cattle pitted Union-supporting German immigrants against born-and-bred, former-Confederate Texans. A lynch mob of forty Germans lit the match when they dragged five Texans accused of cattle rustling from jail and executed three of them before the county sheriff, elected by the Germans, reluctantly put a stop to the proceedings. In a sterling display of what can happen when a Texas Ranger goes bad, a vigilante gang led by a former Ranger embarked upon a series of retaliatory attacks against the German community. At least a dozen men died before still-commissioned Rangers restored order. Johnny Ringo spent two years in jail for his role on the side of the Texans, only to end up on the wrong end of Wyatt Earp’s good nature five years later in Tombstone, Arizona.
Also called the Shelby County War, the first major battle to pit Texan against Texan erupted in in the eastern part of the newly minted republic. The whole thing started with a land dispute between a rancher and the local sheriff. The sheriff called for help from the leader of a lynch-happy anti-rustling vigilante bunch known as the Regulators, and the rancher soon thereafter shook hands with Saint Peter. The Moderators, a group of anti-vigilante vigilantes who called the Regulators terrorists, jumped into the fray, and before anyone knew what was up, a judge, a sheriff, and a senator died and homes burned in four counties. After a gun battle during which 225 Moderators attacked 62 Regulators near Shelbyville, Sam Houston himself rode in with the militia and suggested both groups shake hands and go on about their business before he lost his temper.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Bertha Gifford was known as an angel of mercy in Catawissa, Missouri. Not until 1928 did authorities discover the nurse’s deadly ruse: The twenty to twenty-five sick friends and family members she took into her home and cared for between 1909 and 1928 all died of arsenic poisoning. Gifford was declared insane and committed to the Missouri State Hospital, where she died in 1951.
(Image: Bertha Gifford and one of her young patients.)
The volatile wife of a wealthy physician, Delphine LaLaurie tortured and killed slaves who displeased her. An 1834 fire at her New Orleans mansion revealed her depravity when a dozen maimed and starving men and women, along with a number of eviscerated corpses, were discovered in cages or chained to the walls in the attic. One woman had been skinned alive; another woman’s lips were sewn shut, and a man’s sexual organs had been removed.
LaLaurie fled to avoid prosecution and reportedly died in Paris in December 1842. Years later, during renovations to the estate, contractors discovered even more slaves had been buried alive in the yard.
The first doctor in the U.S. to earn a medical degree as a “fasting specialist,” Linda Burfield Hazzard was so committed to proving her theories about weight loss and health that she starved at least 15 patients to death. In 1912, she was convicted of manslaughter in the case of an Olalla, Washington, patient whose will she forged in order to steal the victim’s possessions. Hazzard served four years of a two- to twenty-year prison sentence before being paroled in late 1915. She died of self-starvation in 1938.