In 1854, a woman calling herself Henrietta Robinson stood trial in Troy, New York, for poisoning a neighbor and his sister-in-law. Despite the judge’s admonitions, she sat through the trial with her face covered by a black veil, hiding her appearance from the throngs of spectators who had come to watch. Everything about the defendant was a mystery—her motive for murder, her behavior before and after the crime, and even her true identity. It was well known that “Henrietta Robinson” was an assumed name, but who she really was has never been determined.
Date: May 25, 1853
Location: Troy, New York
Victims: Timothy Lanagan & Catherine Lubee
Cause of Death: Poisoning
Accused: Henrietta Robinson
In the early 1850s, Henrietta Robinson was a well-known figure in Troy, New York. She was, at first glance, a beautiful, refined, young woman of means, but those who had close encounters with her knew Henrietta to be wild and unpredictable with an unfounded fear of persecution. She was quick to take offense, and travelled heavily armed, pulling her revolver at the slightest hint of insult. According to biographer, David Wilson, writing in 1855:
She fancied that a gentleman who resided near her, in addition to his active participation in the general persecution that raged against her, had stopped he navigation of the Hudson River. She was found groping in the dark through the halls of public buildings, inquiring for the police office, and demanding of the authorities, assistance to protect her house, which, all the time, had remained unmolested and undisturbed. She wandered about the city at night, armed with her revolver, and presented it at the breast of one who had the curiosity to observe her movements. She sallied out at a very early hour in the morning clad only in her night garments, and arousing an acquaintance from sleep, requested the loan of a dress, with the singular apology that she had forgotten her outward apparel on leaving home.
Through all of these episodes she kept her background a secret, or rather, told stories so contradicctory that none could be believed. Sometimes her father was a lord who had driven her from his castle, sometimes she attributed her misfortunes to a wicked step-mother, sometimes she was the daughter of a humble Irishman in Vermont. But always, she was the target of a terrible conspiracy, and lived in constant fear of its agents.
|Troy, New York|
Henrietta would send the gardener or the servant girl to Lanagan’s store for provisions. Before long these provisions included beer and sometimes brandy. These orders became so frequent that people in the neighborhood believed she must have been in a constant state of inebriation. Eventually she would come out herself, and join the rowdies drinking at the bar in Lanagan’s store. But the alcohol did not improve her disposition and she would often be provoked by some real or imagined insult, to draw her revolver. More than once, she had to be forcibly ejected from the building.
On the morning of May 25, 1853, Henrietta purchased a quart of beer form Lanagan’s store. Two hours later she went back and was drinking at the bar until she got into a heated argument with one of the patrons and Mrs. Lanagan requested that she leave. At one o’clock she returned again and found Mr. and Mrs. Lanagan having dinner with Catherine Lubee, a sister-in-law of Mr. Lanagan who had been staying with them. They invited Henrietta to join them.
After dinner, Henrietta offered to repay their kindness by treating them to beer on her account. Mrs. Lanagan declined, but Mr. Lanagan and Miss Lubee agreed and he went to get the beer. Henrietta also requested some sugar which, she said, would make the beer taste better. There wasn’t enough beer to fill all the tumblers so Mr. Lanagan went for more. When he returned he found that Henrietta had added the sugar to their glasses. At this point Henrietta decided that she did not want any beer and left the store. Two hours later Timothy Lanagan and Catherine Lubee were seized with a mortal sickness.
They had been poisoned with arsenic. There was little doubt as to who was responsible, Mrs. Lanagan told the police what had happened, a local druggist told them he had recently sold Henrietta arsenic, and arsenic was found in Henrietta’s cottage. When Lanagan and Lubee died, Henrietta Robinson was arrested for their murders.
Through a series of delays and postponements, Henrietta Robinson was not officially indicted until February 1854, nine months after the murder. Her trial did not commence until May. The delays left the people of Troy with the impression that powerful forces were at work behind the scenes to protect her. In July Henrietta tried to commit suicide by drinking vitriol. It was unknown how she obtained the poison, but some speculated that the same mysterious forces would prefer her death in prison to a public hearing.
As the story of Henrietta Robinson spread throughout the United States and Canada, articles appeared in various newspapers claiming to identify her. One said she was actually a Mrs. Campbell, who kept a drinking house in the suburbs of Quebec and had run away with a cab-driver. A Troy paper claimed she was the daughter of a Dr. Robinson of Montreal, who had died nine years before in a lunatic asylum. A newspaper in Albany claimed she was the daughter of an Irish gentleman of rank who had been disinherited for marrying the son of her father’s steward.
The most interesting story of Miss Robinson's history began as a rumor circulating in Troy. Someone who had attended the Troy Female Seminary identified her as a classmate named Emma Wood, daughter of William F. Wood, a prominent citizen of Quebec. When the story was printed by the Troy Times, Mr. Wood sued the paper for libel. The Troy Daily Whig received a card from the Wood family, categorically denying that Henrietta Robinson was their daughter. Though four of Mr. Wood’s five daughters had attended the Troy Female Academy, all had since married and were living in England, Ireland and Scotland.
Trial: May 22, 1854
The case finally came to trial nearly a year after the murder. Henrietta Robinson was well represented by attorneys who used Henrietta’s history of erratic behavior and lack of motive in the double murder to try to prove her innocence by reason of insanity. The prosecution argued that drunkenness is not insanity and not a defense against murder. To someone in Henrietta’s condition being thrown out of the bar was motive enough.
But the defendant herself grabbed all the attention at the trial by appearing every day with her face covered by a black veil. When witnesses were called to identify her, she would reluctantly lift the veil for the witness's eyes only. On the third day of the trial, the judge told Henrietta to remove the veil or face charges of contempt of court. Henrietta responded, through her attorneys, that she would rather submit to whatever punishment required than to remove the veil. The judge relented and Henrietta Robinson wore the veil for the rest of the trial.
In the end the jury agreed that, in spite of her antics, Henrietta Robinson was not insane and was responsible for her actions. They found her guilty of first degree murder. Upon the reading of the verdict Henrietta jumped up and shouted:
“Shame on you judge! Shame on you! There is corruption here! There is corruption in the court!”Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder
Appeals kept the case open for another year, but the defense attorneys' request for a new trial was denied. On June 14, 1855 Henrietta Robinson was brought into court and, at the judge’s request, she raised her veil as the sentence was read. She was sentenced to hang on the third of August.
As the execution date approached, the governor of New York received appeals from citizens throughout the state to spare Henrietta’s life. Whether at their urging, or due to the influence of the unseen forces that seemed to protect Henrietta, the governor agreed to commute her sentence to life in prison. The news did not please Henrietta; she had made peace with God and was fully prepared to die.
Sometime before the sentencing, Henrietta had been recognized again, this time as Charlotte Wood, another of Mr. Wood’s daughters who had attended the Troy Female Seminary. Many accepted this as her true identity, but Miss Robinson never confirmed it.
Henrietta Robinson spent eighteen years in Sing Sing prison then was transferred to the prison in Auburn, New York. In 1890 she was transferred again to the Mateawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane where she spent the last fifteen years of her life. Hospital records indicated she was seventy-eight years old at her last birthday, but she said she was eighty-nine. Though she was urged to reveal her identity on her deathbed, the veiled murderess took the secret to her grave.