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Derry Girl Siobhan McSweeney tackles mad, bad Lizzie with podcast on life of infamous Antrim serial killer


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Lizzie Halliday

Lizzie Halliday

Lizzie Halliday

ACTRESS Siobhan McSweeney is used to dealing with naughty Derry Girls but in her latest venture she's taking on the "worst woman in the world" - and she's from Antrim.

Siobhan - formidable Sister Michael in Derry Girls - has teamed up with leading academics for a series of podcasts exploring the lives of criminal and deviant Irish women in the 19th and early 20th Century.

Among their subjects is the infamous Lizzie Halliday, a Co Antrim-born serial killer in upstate New York in the 1890s who became the first woman to be sentenced to die by the electric chair.

Halliday - born Eliza McNally in Co Antrim in 1859 - moved with her family to the US as a small child and is believed to have grown up in Pennsylvania and New York.

The New York Times branded Lizzie "the worst woman in the world" after her 1894 trial - she was convicted of four murders and linked to two other mysterious deaths.

Five or six times married, Lizzie was an arsonist and poisoner whose last victim was an asylum nurse who she reportedly stabbed 200 times with a pair of scissors.

Her victims included a mother and daughter from the McQuillan family who had been the McNally's neighbours in Antrim.

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Lizzie Halliday

Lizzie Halliday

Lizzie Halliday

She is one of the subjects of the five-part Bad Bridget podcasts crafted by Dr Leanne McCormick of Ulster University and Dr Elaine Farrell of Queen's University and voiced by McSweeney, telling the stories of Irish women whose American dream became a nightmare in the years 1838-1918.

They include stories of women who became sex workers and brothel keepers or who fell victim to poverty and drink.

It is the culmination of five years of research on those women sent across the Atlantic, many alone and some as young as 11, to earn money to send to family back home.

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Siobhan McSweeney

Siobhan McSweeney

Siobhan McSweeney

The final episode, yet to be posted, features Halliday, who died inside the Matteawan Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York in 1918 after 24 years inside its walls. She had been sentenced to death.

Her husbands had a habit of disappearing. Aged 19, she married Charles Hopkins who disappeared two years later. She then married the elderly Artemus Brewer, who disappeared one year later.

Husband three Hiram Parkinson was described in the Press as her "next venture" and lasted less than a year, though happily did not disappear entirely. George Smith followed. He left after she tried to poison him, according to reports.

Next up was Charles Playstel and that relationship lasted around two weeks.

Halliday resurfaced in Philadelphia, where she lodged with the deeply unfortunate McQuillan family, neighbours from back home Co Antrim. She burned down a shop for the insurance, was caught and sentenced to two years in prison.

She then married Paul Halliday, an elderly widower who lived with his two sons in Sullivan County, New York. In 1893, their house, barn and mill burned down and one of the sons was killed. This time Lizzie disappeared.

Neighbours found the bodies of Margaret McQuillan and 21-year-old Sarah, both bound and shot. Paul Halliday was also found, shot dead.

Pending trial, Lizzie tried to strangle a sheriff's wife, set herself on fire and attempted to hang herself. She was sentenced to death by electric chair - Old Sparky - but it was commuted and she spent the rest of her life in a mental institution where she attempted escapes and attacked staff many times before stabbing nurse Nellie Wickes to death in 1906.

n The Bad Bridget podcast series is now available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify at www.qub.ac.uk/Research/podcasts/bad-bridget/

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