Examining the crimes of a serial poisoner

SA History Festival reveals how a 19th century serial killer almost got away with murder.

At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as The Black Widow after secretly poisoning her husband and children – and Flinders academic Dr Samantha Battams has revived her sensational story in a new book.

Dr Battams, who works at Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity and also writes historical non-fiction stories, has issued the true crime book The Secret Art of Poisoning about Martha Needle, a serial murderer from the 1890s who was born in SA but committed her crimes in Victoria and was one of only five women hung in the Old Melbourne Gaol.

This self-published title, which has already reached the top 50 for its categories on Amazon kindle, will be officially launched during South Australia’s History Festival, from 2-3pm on Sunday April 28, at Carclew, 11 Jeffcott St, North Adelaide.

Dr Battams says The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers, one by one – but one survived, and authorities learned he had been fed meals laced with arsenic by Martha Needle.

Reported as far afield as The New York Times, Martha’s story was front page news in Australia, yet very few now remember her name.

Stranger still, a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children.

Dr Battams’ story explores these crimes and the social and historical context surrounding them. The book is available in paperback or ebook, through Amazon Australia, Kobo and StreetLib.

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