Tag Archives: Bryn Mawr College

FSK Fridays: Hannah Hanson Kinney

This is the first iteration of my new weekly series, Female Serial Killers Fridays! I’m doing this for a few reasons: because I want a regular posting schedule, because targeted research excites me, and because I believe not covering the stories of female serial killers is detrimental to society. If we don’t attempt to fully realize human nature (and woman-nature), especially the monstrous bits, we won’t ever be able to understand ourselves.

I’m starting with Hannah Hanson Kinney, because she found her victims while living in Boston (where I live now!), and because in my initial research, she popped up in a Bryn Mawr College study on women, sin, crime and guilt. (That’s where I got my Bachelors degree!) Also, Ms. Kinney does not currently have a Wikipedia page, so I will attempt to find enough sources to create one for her.


This is not a photo of Hannah, but instead of a nameless Boston woman from the time Hannah was her age (mid-1800s). There are no available photos of Hannah herself.

Hannah Hanson Kinney was born Hannah Hanson in Lisbon, Maine around 1805. In 1842, Kinney’s first husband, Ward Witham, published a book entitled “The Life of Ms. Kinney for Twenty Years.” Kinney met Witham when she was seventeen years old, and they were married in 1822. Witham mentions what he calls his wife’s “first misconduct” during the first few months of their marriage, when she was accused of stealing “some articles,” which Witham calls “trifling indeed”. On the accusations his ex-wife faced, having poisoned the two men she married after Witham, he says only “that Ms. Kinney was guilty of administering poison to Mr. Freeman or to Mr. Kinney, the public have as good opportunity of judging as myself.” He confirms that Kinney was tried “for her life” and ultimately acquitted of both charges.

So what exactly did Hannah do?

In 1835, Hannah married her cousin, Reverend Enoch W. Freeman, and a year after they were married (to the day!), Freeman died suddenly. The same year, Freeman’s father, and Hannah’s father in law, died suddenly. Following this, Hannah moved back to Boston and married George Kinney. George Kinney died in 1840, reportedly dying “in agony” after drinking a cup of herbal tea. Arsenic was found in his stomach contents during an autopsy.

When Hannah was tried for the murder of George T. Kinney in 1840, her defense attorney argued a complete lack of motive. (Her trial’s entire record is available here.) As we know from The Washington Post’s study on female serial killers, women generally tend to kill for financial gain or social status. George Kinney had lost control of his hosiery business years before his death, and in Hannah Hanson Kinney’s murder trial, it was mentioned on record that Hannah Kinney had been supporting her husband and their three children financially since G. Kinney’s business had fallen apart. The courts ultimately sided with the two possible narratives offered by Hannah’s defense attorney: that George had poisoned himself, humiliated by his failure as a businessman, or that he had been given the arsenic by a misguided doctor.


Boston in 1880

Hilariously, a servant in the Kinney household found a piece of paper in the kitchen with the word “poison” written on it in Hannah’s handwriting, as if she had simply written “kill George” on a to-do list and left it lying on a counter. Another funny detail: several times during the trial, different attorneys brought up the possibility that the “dirty water” in Boston had actually killed George.

Hannah’s defense attorney said in his closing statement, “if that woman is a murderer, she is a moral monster such as the world never saw!” Whether or not Hannah was a human monster was never fully determined, but public opinion following her trial reached a consensus that she had killed three men, two of them being her husbands, and that she had simply gotten away with it because she was a woman, and therefore less believable as ruthless or coldblooded.

Hannah’s published memoirs are available here, through Bryn Mawr College’s archives. The book’s preface reads, “it would seem that my nature requires rest, tranquility of mind, the comforts of a fireside in a beloved sister’s family (for indeed I have no home of my own).”