Born to free parents living on a plantation near Waterford, Loudoun County, Virginia in 1811, Louis Lane lived throughout western (now West) Virginia and Western Pennsylvania during his adulthood. Working as a cook, waiter, and wool worker, he existed beneath the law – living too marginally to be known by authorities and moving too frequently to be known by his neighbors.
In 1868, he was living in a basement apartment in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, often referred to then as Little Hayti. When his wife, Henrietta (Butler), was found dead in their 211 Wylie Ave. (later renumbered to 1411) apartment on May 9, the morning after her violent illness had alerted neighbors, Lane was arrested.
Taken in for questioning, he was seen throwing a small object into a fire. A vial, determined to be arsenic, was retrieved. Examination of his wife found she had been poisoned with arsenic-laced whiskey.
Newspaper reports at the time of his arrest provided widely divergent accounts of his past. The Pittsburgh Commercial of May 11, 1868, reported Lane had four previous wives and had served time in prison for poisoning one of them. The Pittsburgh Gazette of May 11 made the same report, but by May 18 was reporting five previous marriages and five previous suspicious deaths. The Pittsburgh Daily Post’s May 11 edition reported five previous wives, “two or three” of whom his neighbors said died suspiciously. The Ashland, Ohio, States and Union of May 13 reported two previous wives had been murdered. The Nashville Union and American of May 14 reported three previous wives had been murdered.
Lane’s first trial was held in June 1868. His jury deliberated fifteen minutes before finding him guilty of first-degree murder on June 18. After his motion for a new trial was rejected, he was sentenced to death on September 12, 1868.
He appealed, arguing that the jury instructions misstated the law in a manner that denied the jury the opportunity to fix the degree of murder.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed (Lane v. Commonwealth, 59 Pa. 371, 1868), and reversed his conviction. Lane was retried, convicted of first-degree murder on January 9, 1869, and sentenced to death on February 9, 1869. His death warrant was issued by Governor Geary on March 26, 1869.
That he was able to frustrate the law to the extent that he did, despite his own pecuniary circumstances and the evidence and animus against him is consistent with newspaper accounts that he was well-represented (Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, January 14, 1869 and March 30, 1869).
Described as a “queer, strange little man” by the newspaper reporters with whom he met, Lane is reported to have made a single request for his execution, that “when I go out to that yard to be hung I don’t want to see the face of a colored person there.” Other reports describe additional expressions of anti-black sentiment.
Louis Lane was executed on April 29, 1869. He is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Beyond the possibility of racial animus, no motive for Lane’s actions was ever established. Efforts by medical authorities to secure Lane’s body for postmortem examination were unsuccessful.
As Lane awaited execution, the case of the reclusive poisoner grew into a story of a scheming serial murderer and elevated him into a national sensation. Through interviews with Lane, tales of a shocking series of similar incidents unfolded: five previous marriages in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia and four previous suspicious deaths, and a prison sentence for attempted murder of his fifth wife in Washington County.
The story that Louis Lane told (parts that I have confirmed or added are indicated as such or included in parentheses) was of marrying his first wife and cousin, Rachel, in 1837, the same year Henrietta Butler was born in Pittsburgh. They had a son, William Thomas (and, it seems, a daughter, Sarah). In 1846, Lane left home for Wellsburg, (West) Virginia, where he worked as a deckhand on the Ohio River, and then Washington County, Pennsylvania.
Sometime around 1848 or 1849, he sent for Rachel. She died soon after rejoining him in Wellsburg, though Lane stated that Rachel is his one wife he did not poison.
Lane then moved to Wheeling, married a woman he had known previously named McKee, and moved back to Washington County. Their daughter, Margaret Ann, was born there before McKee died mysteriously in 1851 (more likely in 1848 or 1849), arousing short-lived suspicions.
This timeline does not match the 1850 Census, which shows Lane living in Washington County with his third wife, 26-year old Ellen (Bozier/Bosier/Boser), 11-year old Sarah, and 3-year old Margaret.**
Around this time, Lane moved to Pittsburgh for the first time, where he worked as a waiter at the Perry Hotel. Soon after Ellen died in Pittsburgh in 1854, apparently without suspicion or investigation, Louis married his fourth wife, named Lucas, and moved with her from Pittsburgh back to Washington County. There he worked as a waiter at the Mansion House. Lucas also died suddenly, in 1857. This death provoked suspicion among his neighbors, some of whom reported seeing stab wounds on Lucas after her death, though there is no evidence of a subsequent investigation.
Still living in Washington County, Lane married his fifth wife, Emma Lewis. On November 30, 1859, Lewis became aware that Lane was trying to poison her. As she was lying in bed recovering from that attempt, Lane set their home ablaze, though Lewis was able to escape by jumping out the window. Finally caught, Lane attempted suicide. Emma was able to testify against Lane, leading to his conviction and a six-year prison sentence.
Soon after being released from Western Penitentiary in 1866, Lane married and murdered Henrietta Butler.*
Race and gender had apparently converged to limit the law’s attention to Lane’s shocking crimes. Now that a serial murderer had been revealed, however, media and public attention were riveted (note the full page coverage in the Pittsburgh Gazette above). Dubbed the “Black Bluebeard,” after the serial wife murderer of French folktales, Lane’s execution generated enormous attention.
* Many of the details of this account were reported by the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial on April 30, 1869, based on interviews with Lane. This serves as the fullest account of this remarkable case, though its veracity must be questioned and is difficult to substantiate. As the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted, the events of the Lewis case are “the only authentic account we have of any [other] crime having been committed by Lane (April 30, 1869).”
My efforts to track Lane’s movements, marriages, and murders using court, marriage, and newspaper records have produced some confirming information and additional information about names and dates, though nothing confirming any of the other alleged murders. Likely indicative of the social marginality that made his serial murders possible, however, Lane leaves only faint fingerprints in the records I have examined until his final murder.
** In 1860, Margaret Lane was living with the Loyd family in Washington County, as was Amelia Boser, Ellen’s mother.