“The Bad Seed” (Post 2/2)

The Bad Seed 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

[28] References:

There was Mrs. Archer-Gilligan, owner of a home for the aged, who took her guests on a lump-sum, life basis and who took the proper precautions to see that she did not go into the red; there was Belle Gunness of Indiana, who, after striking her admirers with a hatchet, was said to have chopped them up into a sort of silage and thriftily fed them to her pigs; there was Miss Bertha Hill, who lived in a village called “Pleasant Valley”; there was Christine [sic] Wilson, the English girl, who used colchicum with such enthusiasm that the doctors of her day thought a new, unknown epidemic had broken out in England; there was Mrs. Hahn, Mrs. Brennan, and Miss Jane Toppan; there was Susi Olah, who, almost unaided, practically wiped out the male population of two Hungarian villages.

There was a series of cases involving the male mass murderers, but she read only one of them: Albert Guay, the Quebec jeweler, blew up a plane and the people on it, to collect the trip insurance he’d placed on the life of his wife (…) Compared with such outstanding artists as Alfred Cline, James P. Watson, or the Incomparable Bessie Denker, he’d been fumbling and foolish indeed.

(p.132 – 133)

All right. Time to do some unpacking.

Amy Archer-Gilligan (1873 – 1962) was a Windsor, Connecticut nursing home proprietor and serial killer. She murdered at least five people by poisoning. One of her victims was her second husband, Michael Gilligan; the others were residents of her nursing home. The case has been cited as an inspiration for the play and film Arsenic and Old Lace. In 1924, Archer-Gilligan was declared temporarily insane and transferred to the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane in Middletown, where she remained until her death in 1962.

Belle Gunness (1859 – declared dead 1908) was a Norwegian-American serial killer. Standing six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, she was a physically strong woman. She killed most of her suitors and boyfriends, and her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. She may also have killed both of her husbands and all of their children. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance, cash and other valuables, and eliminating witnesses. Reports estimate that she killed between 25 and 40 people.

In 1908, her house burned down and a headless female body was found in the home (along with Gunness’ children). Most do not believe the body was Gunness’ and that she faked her own death to escape and pin blame on another.

This case is clearly some of March’s inspiration for Bessie Denker (see also note [30]).

I found limited information about Bertha Hill on rootsweb.ancestry.com:

ROME, Ga., April 1 (1946). (AP) – Mrs. Bertha Gossett Hill, 28-year-old widow, was indicted for murder here today after two toxicologists testified they had found poison… (The Augusta Chronicle, April 2, 1946, page 1)

Bertha Hardin [Hill] was apparently a psychopath. She killed her father, her mother, and husband Leroy Hill, in that order in 1945 and 1946 by arsenic poisoning.

She was only jailed until 1959 and may have lived as long as 2006. I can’t find anything connecting her to a town called “Pleasant Valley”, but there’s not much information out there about her at all.

The next killer’s name is Catherine Wilson, not Christine:

Catherine Wilson (1822 – 1862) was a British serial killer who was hanged for one murder, but was generally thought at the time to have committed six others. She worked as a nurse and poisoned her victims after encouraging them to leave her money in their wills. She is thought to have used colchicum to poison a number of victims in the 19th century. She was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London.

Colchicum is a genus of perennial flowering plants. The plant contains the alkaloid colchine which is used pharmaceutically to treat gout and Familial Mediterranean fever. Its leaves, corm and seeds are poisonous.

Anna Marie Hahn (1906 – 1938) was a German-born American serial killer. Hahn allegedly began poisoning and robbing elderly men and women in Cincinnati’s German community to support her gambling habit. She was sentenced to death in 1937 and electrocuted in 1938.

I found information about Inez Brennan on The Malefactor’s Register:

Inez was known to have participated in the deaths [of] just two men, although her chief accomplice, her son Robert, claimed at least one other murder at his mother’s insistence. (…) Murdered in New Hampshire by the Brennan clan, [Hugo] Schulz’s body was brought back to Delaware in a 55-gallon drum, where it was buried in the farm pig pen. (…) In September 1949 (…) the court sentenced [Inez and Robert] to life terms.

Jane Toppan (1857 – 1938) was an American serial killer. She confessed to 33 murders in 1901. She was a trained nurse who administered fatal doses of medications to patients because she derived sexual satisfaction from watching them die. After being found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1902, she was committed to the Taunton Insane Hospital for life.

The Angel Makers of Nagyrev were a group of women living in the village of Nagyrev, Hungary who between 1914 and 1929 poisoned to death an estimated 300 people (some put the number around 40 – 50). They were supplied arsenic and encouraged to use it for the purpose by a midwife or “wise woman” named Susanna Fazekas (also known as Susi Olah). Fazekas secretly persuaded women who wanted to leave their marriages to poison their husbands (and later, their parents, unwanted children, etc.). She was the closest thing to a doctor the village had and her cousin was the clerk who filed all the death certificates, allowing the murders to go undetected. There are three conflicting reports on how the murders were finally uncovered. Thirty-four women and one man were indicted. Twenty-six of the Angel Makers were tried, among them Susi Olah. Eight were sentenced to death but only two executed (I don’t know if Olah was one of the executed).

Albert Guay (1917 – 1951) was a Canadian mass murderer, who killed 23 people aboard Canadian Pacific Air Lines Flight 108 in 1949. Guay planted a bomb in his wife’s suitcase, the intended victim, to bypass a divorce, obtain life insurance, and elope with his mistress. Guay, along with two accomplices, were convicted and sentenced to death, and he was executed in 1951.

According to murderpedia.org:

A prolific American “Bluebeard,” [Alfred] Cline (1888 – 1948) was linked with at least nine homicides between 1930 and his arrest in 1945. Eight of his wives were dispatched after willing their earthly possessions to Cline; his single male victim was an evangelist.

Also from murderpedia.org:

A classic American “bluebeard,” [James] Watson (birth name Charles Gillam; 1870 – 1939) led a life of subterfuge and mystery (…) By all accounts James Watson was a marrying machine, although the number of his brides – and victims – still remains uncertain. Carl Sifakis, in The Encyclopedia of American Crime, credits Watson with 40-odd marriages and “at least 25” murders, but Watson’s own confession was somewhat more modest, listing 19 wives and seven murder victims.

Bessie Denker is March’s fictional addition to this long list of killers.


No matter what the little girl was now, or became in the future, [Christine] was going to protect her. That much was certain. It was her duty to protect her child. What kind of monster would she be if she betrayed and destroyed her own child?


[30] References:

If I were commanded to pick my favorite murderess from the army of her talented sisters, it would not be the bleached Eva Coo (…); it would not be that simpering chocolate drinker, Miss Madeleine Smith (…). It wouldn’t be our equally loved Lizzie Borden (…); It wouldn’t be the handsome Lyda Southard (…); it wouldn’t be saintly Anna Hahn (…)

My choice for first place would be the unrivaled Bessie Denker.


According to murderpedia.org:

Eva Coo (1889 – 1935) was an American murderer, who was executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in 1935.

Madeleine Smith (1835 – 1928) was a 19th-century Glasgow socialite who was the accused in a sensational murder trial in Scotland in 1857. She was suspected of poisoning her lover after he wouldn’t return letters to her at the end of their relationship.

Lyda Southard (1892 – 1958) is considered one of America’s first female serial killers, preceded by Jane Toppan (see note [28]). It was suspected that she had killed her four husbands, a brother-in-law, and her daughter by poisoning to attain life insurance money.

And we already looked Anna Hahn up (note [28]).

March’s reveal that Bessie Denker is Christine’s birth mother (and Rhoda’s grandmother) is the weakest plot-point in The Bad Seed. We don’t need a “reason” for Rhoda’s insanity; it would have been more frightening if there was no reason at all.

Maybe March felt like he needed something to keep the audience on Christine’s side. Without this “proof” that Rhoda was destined to be a lifelong killer, Christine’s actions at the end would have been that much more horrific and indefensible.


Good people are rarely suspicious. They cannot imagine others doing the things they themselves are incapable of doing; usually they accept the undramatic situation as the correct one, and let matters rest there. Then, too, the normal are inclined to visualize the multiple killer as one who’s monstrous in appearance as he is in mind, which is about as far from the truth as one could well get.


[32] Reference:

“We’re going to turn on the radio while we dine, and have music from the Arbor Room.”


I don’t know what the Arbor Room was. A radio show? A performance location? I can’t find information online.

[33] The second title drop of the book (see Post 1, note [11]). It’s again from Christine’s point of view but takes on a different meaning:

How can I blame Rhoda for the things she’s done? I carried the bad seed that made her what she is.



When she woke, it was morning. It was raining, with a wind that threw the rain over the tops of the trees and through the patterns of their tossing branches. The trees in the park looked drenched and desolate as they bent before the wind, shivered, and righted themselves once more. The gutters were overflowing, and water ran down to the courtyard with a quarrelsome sound so close to speech that you felt, if you listened more attentively, you could surely know its meaning.


[35] Reference:

There were pergolas smothered in jasmine and coral vine.



A pergola is a garden feature forming a shaded walkway, passageway, or sitting area of vertical posts or pillars that usually support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice, often upon which wooden vines are trained. The origin of the word is the Late Latin pergola, referring to a projecting eave.


She was better known for the evil she’d created than the most compassionate people of her day were known for the good deeds they’d done.


[37] March combines several real events for Bessie Denker’s history:

Apparently, [Bessie] had first stunned old Ada with the blunt side of her hatchet, and then with a cleaver she’d severed the old woman’s head (…) She’d dressed the old woman in her clothes, even putting her wedding ring on Ada’s finger (…) She’d paused long enough to set fire to the place. She’d hoped, although the hope proved to be a forlorn one, that the authorities would mistake the body of the old woman for her own.


See Belle Gunness in note [28].


They caught up with her the next morning as she sat in the waiting-room of the Union Station in Kansas City. The circular parcel was resting in her lap, and when the police cut the string and opened it, Miss Gustafson’s head rolled off the seat and halfway across the tiles of the waiting-room floor.



Winnie Ruth Judd (1905 – 1998) was a Pheonix, Arizona medical secretary accused of murdering her friends Agnes Anne LeRoi and Hedvig Samuelson in October 1931. The murders were discovered when Judd transported the victims’ bodies, one of which had been dismembered, from Phoenix to Los Angeles by train in trunks and other luggage, causing the press to name the case the “Trunk Murders.”

Upon her arrival to Lost Angeles, the trunks came under suspicion because of the foul odor detected by station personnel as well as fluids escaping from the trunks. Judd’s brother picked her up from the train station and she left the trunks behind. A baggage agent alerted the police to the trunks later that day.


Her mother’s death in the chair had been a sensation that had been featured everywhere. There was a photograph of her mother at the moment of her death. A reporter had smuggled in a camera, concealed somehow behind a button, and at the instant the current hit Bessie Denker and hurled her against the straps, the picture was snapped.

(p.195 – 196)


Ruth Snyder (1895 – 1928) was an American murderer. Her execution in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison for the murder of her husband, Albert, was recorded in a well-known photograph. The photograph was taken with a miniature plate camera custom-strapped to the ankle of Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer.

[38] Typo? (same line accidentally printed twice?)

She paused again, feeling as though she addressed a stranger, as though she’d ineptly trespassed on the privacy of others, as though her presence in the park were a thing of others, as though her presence in the park were a thing to be explained and condoned.


[39] Reference:

“You may fool some with that mealy mouth, but you look like ‘Ned in the Primer’ to me.”


According to A Way with Words:

To be like Ned in the primer, meaning “troublesome” or “rambunctious,” refers to an old series of children’s books – also known as primers – about Ned and Nancy, a mischievous boy and a straitlaced girl.

[40] Reference:

That night Mrs. Penmark made a holograph will.



A holographic will is a will and testament that has been entirely handwritten and signed by the testator.


She kissed the child once on her brow. She unlocked the drawer of her desk for a final time. She stood with the pistol in her hand, inspecting it idly, as though she did not understand its purpose. And then, standing before the mirror in her bedroom, she raised the pistol and put a bullet through her brain.


The Bad Seed stands with the best horror fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Recommended for fans of Ira Levin, Shirley Jackson, early Bradbury; anyone who likes a dark story told with strong literary ability.

The listing of the in-stock paperback edition on Amazon is buried (the script for the play comes up first), so here’s the link for anyone interested in purchasing a new or Kindle copy.

This Friday, William Wharton’s story of World War II, A Midnight Clear.




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