Women who conspired to kill their husbands


In ancient Greek legend, Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Clytemnestra's first husband was Tantalus, son of the king of Mycenae. Agamemnon murdered Clytemnestra's husband Tantalus and their son, and then married Clytemnestra, succeeding as the king of Mycenae. Aphrodite had cursed Clytemnestra and her sisters due to their father overlooking an important sacrifice, causing her to decide that they would each commit adultery.

During the Trojan War, Clytemnestra had an affair with Aegisthus, and gave birth to a daughter. Agamemnon returned home with a concubine named Cassandra, shortly before Aegisthus and Clytemnestra murdered them both. After the murders, Aegisthus replaced Agamemnon as king and ruled for seven years with Clytemnestra as his queen.


Image caption: The Murder of Agamemnon.

Valeria Messalina

The third wife of Roman Emperor Claudius, Messalina was a powerful woman, with a reputation for being cold-blooded, predatory and sexually insatiable who conspired to murder her husband.

Said to be highly promiscuous, Messalina had multiple extra-marital affairs and when her husband finally found out, she had already married her latest lover Senator Gaius Silius. The cuckolded Emperor Claudius ordered her death, offering his wife the choice of suicide. Messalina, too afraid to stab herself, was instead killed by the arresting officer. 

Rochegrosse Georges Antoine the death of Messalina 1916Image caption: Valeria Messalina by Georges Rochegrosse, 1916.

Alice Arden

Sharon Small as Alice ArdenBorn in 1516 Alice Arden was a well-born woman who plotted the murder of her husband, Thomas Arden of Faversham, a gentleman. Alice had been embroiled in a long-term extra-marital affair with Richard Mosby. Alice carried on her affair in plain view, encouraging Mosby to visit the Arden household. The cuckolded Arden wanted to remain attached to Alice's noble family and was therefore forced to turn a blind eye.

Having attempted and failed to poison her husband by serving him poisoned porridge, Alice enlisted the help of her lover and her husband's arch enemy, John Green, who recruited two nefarious men as accomplices.

The conspirators made several failed attempts on Arden's life, including an attempt to ambush him on his journey from Faversham to London. After a farcical series of failed murder attempts, one of the accomplices – Black Will – hid in a cupboard in the Arden household, while Arden and Mosby played a game. After receiving a signal from Mosby, Black Will emerged from the cupboard armed with a napkin and strangled Arden. Mosby also struck Arden's head with a tailor's pressing iron, and slit Arden's throat. Alice Arden stabbed her husband's body seven or eight times to ensure that he was dead.

Alice Arden was found guilty of petty treason and burnt at the stake in Canterbury. Her male accomplices were found guilty of murder and executed by hanging.

Image caption: Sharon Small as Alice Arden. Photo by Manuel Harlan, © RSC.

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann CottonBorn in 1832, Mary Ann Cotton is said to be Britain's first serial killer who killed around 21 people in the North East of England, two decades before Jack the Ripper wrought terror on the streets of Whitechapel, London.

Choosing arsenic poisoning as her modus operandi, Mary Ann killed eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, her lover and a friend.

A regional assistant coroner became suspicious when Mary Ann complained to him about her last remaining stepson, stating 'I won't be troubled long. He'll go like all the rest of the Cottons,' just five days before his death. The local newspapers caught on and exposed her story, discovering her wake of countless victims strewn across the North East of England. She was tried, found guilty and, on 24 March 1873, she was hanged.

Image caption: Mary Ann Cotton.

Belle Gunness

Born in 1859, Belle was a Norwegian-American serial killer who killed her boyfriends, both her husbands and all of her children. In 1881, Belle immigrated to the United States Belle Gunnessand later married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago. Reports suggest the couple had four children, two of whom died in infancy of acute colitis, the symptoms of which are identical to many forms of poisoning. Belle collected life insurance for both children's deaths, and history later repeated itself when she poisoned her husband and again applied for his life insurance. 

In 1902, Belle married Peter Gunness, a widower with an infant daughter. One week after the wedding, Peter's daughter died suddenly while alone with Belle, and in December of that year, Peter had a 'tragic accident' which caused his death.

In 1908, Belle's charred headless remains were discovered after her accomplice burnt her house to the ground. It is estimated that she killed between 25 and 40 people over the course of her life.

Image caption: Belle Gunness in 1904.

Ottilie 'Tillie' Klimek

Born in 1876, Tillie Klimek was a Polish American serial killer Ottilie Tillie Klimekliving in Cook County, Illinois who accurately predicted the dates of the deaths of three of her husbands. Reports claims that she would cheerfully tell her husbands and neighbours that they were going to die.

Poison was her weapon of choice, and she was eventually convicted for the murder of her third husband, Frank Kupczyk. After he fell ill, she began telling neighbours that he 'would not live long' and frequently told Frank 'you'll be dying soon.' She even knitted herself a mourning hat as she kept vigil over his deathbed, and asked for her landlady's permission to store a bargain coffin she'd got on sale in the basement.  

She was sentenced to life in prison, the harshest sentence ever given to a woman in Cook County. She died in prison in 1936.    

Image caption: Ottilie 'Tillie' Klimek.

Arden of Faversham

by anonymous

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
30 April - 2 October 2014

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