The country’s first widely known female serial killer, Lyda, wasn’t born in Idaho. Her birthplace—in 1892—was a little town in Missouri. Her family moved to the Twin Falls area when she was a teenager.
Though she came from a poor family, Lyda found a way to make a good living. She worked in insurance.
Lyda collected husbands. She married Robert Dooley in 1912. They lived with Robert’s bachelor brother, Ed, on a farm near Twin Falls. The Dooleys had a daughter, Loraine (some accounts say Laura), in 1914.
In 1915, Lyda collected insurance money after the tragic deaths of her first husband, Robert, their daughter, and Robert’s brother, Ed. The deaths were chalked up to dirty well water, typhoid fever, and ptomaine poisoning, respectively.
Lyda was a looker, by some accounts. Her prison photo may not reflect that, but who looks good in their mugshot? She used her charms to marry another man in 1917, William G. McHaffle. McHaffle had a three-year-old daughter, but not for long. The daughter died shortly after they married. The newlyweds moved to Montana, where, in 1918, Mr. McHaffle, doubly unlucky, died of influenza and diphtheria. Lyda, always practical, collected the insurance money.
Then she got married again. She waited a respectful nearly five months before hitching to Harlan C. Lewis, an automobile salesman from Billings. Lewis lasted four months. He died from complications related to gastroenteritis.
It was just over a year before Lyda found her fourth husband, Edward F. Meyer, a ranch foreman from Twin Falls. Tragedy struck again, this time just a few weeks after the marriage when Meyer died from Typhoid. He did not go easily. A nurse noted how concerned Lyda was about his health and that she always seemed to be giving him sips of water. Alas, the water didn’t save him. The insurance payout this time was $12,000.
The coincidences surrounding this woman so unlucky in love began to raise the suspicions of Twin Falls Chemist Earl Dooley. The Dooley name was not a coincidence. The chemist was a relative of Lyda’s first husband. He pressed for an investigation. Said investigation found evidence of arsenic poisoning in the bodies of Lyda’s hapless husbands and in the cookware she had regularly used. They also found a large supply of flypaper in the basement of a house where she had lived. Flypaper at that time was coated with arsenic.
Meanwhile, Lyda wasn’t sitting still. A few weeks after Meyer’s death, she snagged Paul Southard. The Navy man resisted her insistence on buying life insurance, telling her the Navy would provide for her in the event of his death.
The happy couple was living in Honolulu when police came knocking. Paul Southard insisted that Lyda, his love, was innocent. After all, he’d known her well for several weeks.
When newspapers got wind of the charges against Lyda, they generated headlines about the “temptress,” the “Black Widow,” and the “Lady Bluebeard.” They followed every word in her seven-week trial.
The evidence against Lyda was circumstantial, but there was a ton of it. The jury was reluctant to sentence a pretty 29-year-old woman to death. They convicted her of second-degree murder. She got 10 years.
Ten years in prison kept Lyda off the husband track. Mostly. In 1931 she escaped with a prison trusty, David Minton, who had been released two weeks earlier. Lyda climbed out of her cell courtesy of a handmade rope and a rose trellis.
Authorities found Minton a few months later in Denver. He denied any connection to Lyda, but they soon picked up the trail. She was also in Denver, working as a housekeeper. She already had her clutches on a new man, Harry Whitlock. He was a bit more cautious than Lyda’s previous husbands. Whitlock flatly refused to let her take out a $20,000 insurance policy on him. He wasn’t surprised when the police showed up. Lyda, meanwhile, had skipped town.
Police caught up with Lyda in Kansas 15 months after her escape. She went back to prison in Idaho for another 10 years. Lyda was released in 1941 and pardoned in 1943.
Lyda’s movements after her release are a little sketchy. Eventually, she moved to Provo, Utah, and started a second-hand store. She also started her seventh marriage to a man named Hal Shaw. Shaw’s adult children found out who Lyda was. A divorce soon followed.
Lyda Shaw was the name chiseled onto her headstone in the Twin Falls cemetery. She had the last names of Trueblood, Dooley, McHaffie, Lewis, Meyer, Southard, and Whitlock. She’s most often remembered as Lyda Southard, since that’s the name she was using when she first entered prison. Lyda was sometimes Lydia on official records. Whatever you call her, she earned the title of murderess.