TWIN FALLS | Six seemingly unrelated graves lie clustered under a row of evergreens in the Twin Falls Cemetery. But the graves are all connected to one woman.
Lyda Southard, arguably the most infamous woman in Idaho history, is said to have poisoned her daughter, four husbands and a brother-in-law, all by the time she was 27.
Three of her victims lie next to each other in the cemetery, along with her parents and the Twin Falls County deputy who chased her down nearly 100 years ago.
Most Popular Girl in School
The story of the Twin Falls woman's dirty deeds and her eventual capture and conviction captivated the nation. Lyda's story still appalls and fascinates today.
Some said the pretty little thing was the most popular girl in high school.
Alan Jaffe, a magazine writer who profiled Lyda in Argosy magazine, said she had an "indefinable something, a spark giving off a light that draws men, by physiological and chemical attraction."
Men "hung around her like flies about a honey pot," Jaffe wrote in 1957, when there were still people around who had known her as Anna Elizabeth "Lyda" Trueblood.
Jaffe interviewed a neighbor who described the Trueblood family.
"They wasn't so wealthy. Just so-so," said Mrs. Larrabee Hanson. "But they were all church-going people, devout and clean-living. Lyda went to church every Sunday without fail."
Dropping like Flies
In 1912, at the age of 21, Lyda Trueblood became Mrs. Robert C. Dooley.
Her brother-in-law, Ed Dooley, lived with Bob, Lyda and their infant, Loraine, on their farm outside Twin Falls. Ed Dooley died suddenly is 1915, after taking out a life insurance policy payable to Bob and Lyda.
Bob Dooley died several months later, after taking out a life insurance policy payable to Lyda.
Both Dooleys had succumbed to typhoid, Lyda suggested and doctors agreed. Loraine, then two years old, died under suspicious circumstances in the same year.
In 1917, Lyda Trueblood Dooley became Mrs. Billy McHaffie.
Supposedly distraught over the earlier deaths, Lyda convinced McHaffie that they should move away. McHaffie died in 1918 of influenza and diptheria, in Hardin, Mont., after taking out a life insurance policy.
Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie in March 1919 became Mrs. Harlan Lewis. Lewis died in Billings two short months later of gastroenteritis after taking out a life insurance policy. His wife packed her things while Lewis lay writhing in pain.
Lyda immediately left Montana for Twin Falls and checked into the Rogerson Hotel in May 1919, under the name of Lyda McHaffie. She took a job at the Grille Cafe on Main Avenue; business picked up immediately.
Ed Meyer, foreman of I.B. Perrine's Blue Lake Ranch, became a regular customer at the cafe.
"Folks couldn't help noticing that the air sort of shimmered when Lyda's eyes met Ed.'s," Jaffe wrote. "And that the ham he got was thicker, the eggs sunnier than those served other patrons."
Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis became Mrs. Edward Meyer in August 1920.
"She cooked magnificent meals and was a friend to all" on the ranch, Jaffe wrote. After one meal, ranch hand Ben Squires doubled over in pain. So did Lyda, and another. Finally, Meyer was stricken.
Lyda tottered to a telephone and summoned a doctor. Ptomaine poisoning, she said. Probably that new-fangled canned food.
All but Meyer quickly recovered. Meyer, in excruciating pain, was admitted to the hospital. His health improved, but he fell ill again and died after one of Lyda's visits.
A Fast Exit
Folks in town started to talk. How could such a healthy, strong man died so suddenly?
Louise Hoodenpyle told Lyda, her sister, that there was talk of digging up Meyer's body to re-examine it.
"That's a good idea," Lyda said, according to Jaffe's article. "Yes, let them cut him all to pieces, if that's what they want to do."
Her brave words failed to staved off exhumation of Meyer's body. Sheriff E.R. Sherman and County Attorney Frank L. Stephan eventually ordered the exhumation, and Lyda skedaddled.
Sherman assigned Deputy Sheriff Virgil Ormsby to the case. Ormsby, who had known Lyda since she was a child, relentlessly backtracked through Lyda's life, putting the pieces of the puzzle together as he found them. He retraced Lyda's path to Montana, where he discovered Lyda had married Lewis, and that he, too, had died, leaving a $10,000 insurance policy to his wife.
Ormsby revisited the McHaffies' former home in Montana and discovered a large quantity of cut-up fly paper containing arsenic in the basement. Arsenic residue was found in a pot Lyda had used to boil the poison out of the fly paper before tainting her husband's food.
Back in Twin Falls, Sherman arranged to have the bodies of Lyda's victims exhumed. Arsenic was found in all but her daughter's body, and a warrant was issued for Lyda's arrest.
Ormsby followed her trail to Mexico, then to Los Angeles, where Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer had become Mrs. Paul Southard, chief petty officer of the SS Montery, before moving with him to Hawaii, where he was stationed.
A snafu in Southard's life insurance application was probably the only reason he was still alive.
A Stunned Nation
Authorities in Honolulu arrested Lyda and held her until Ormsby arrived. Ormsby escorted Lyda, wearing a lei around her neck, to the gangplank of the SS Matsonia, as she bowed and waved to a gathering crowd. Lyda would soon register at her new home, the Twin Falls County Jail on the fourth floor of the courthouse.
The 1921 murder trial, which ran on the front page of the New York Times, stunned the nation. After a lengthy trial, Lyda was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Meyer. Evidence in the other deaths was circumstantial. When the jury was sent to decide Lyda's fate, a "scattering of spectators cling(ed) to their seats awaiting the verdict," said the Nov. 10, 1921, edition of the Twin Falls Weekly News.
The defendant, known by then as Lady Bluebeard, showed no signs of feeling when the guilty verdict was read, 23 hours later.
Escape and Re-Capture
Lyda was sentenced to 10 years to life in the state penitentiary in Boise. She occupied one of the few cells in the women's quarters of the old pen until her escape a decade later.
Lyda managed to charm prison trustee David Minton, a machinist imprisoned for theft. After his release, Minton purchased a car and on the night of May 4, 1931, waited for Lyda outside the prison.
The two drove to Colorado, where they parted ways. Police caught up to Minton — who eventually disclosed Lyda's location — and returned him to Idaho.
Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer Southard become Mrs. Harry Whitlock in Denver, and continued to allude police until she was captured in July 1932. She was returned to her cell in the old pen and remained there until she was paroled in October 1941.
Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer Southard Whitlock eventually became Mrs. Hal Shaw, her seventh husband, who disappeared several years later.
Lyda died of a heart attack in 1958 in Salt Lake City. She proclaimed her innocence until the day she died. Her hairless body, however, betrayed her. Hair loss is a side effect of prolonged exposure to arsenic.
Lyda Trueblood Dooley McHaffie Lewis Meyer Southard Whitlock Shaw is buried under the name Anna E. Shaw in Sunset Memorial Park in Twin Falls.
Mychel Matthews reports on rural issues and agriculture for the Times-News. The Hidden History feature runs every Thursday in the Times-News and on Magicvalley.com. If you have a question about something that may have historical significance, email Matthews at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”
Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World