By Steven Branting
Those who plot the destruction of others often
fall themselves. ~ Phaedrus
Above, the Idaho State Insane Asylum, circa 1894. Photo courtesy of Idaho State Hospital South.
The October 6, 1883 edition of the Aspen, Colorado Times carried a public letter to its readers on page four, simply entitled “A CARD.” Maggie Hardy was angry and vented her frustration with her neighbors, who were, according to Maggie, spreading “scandalous falsehoods” about her by “malicious gossip.” With this shot across the bow, we meet a woman whom the Idaho Daily Statesman would label as “perhaps no more blacker-hearted [sic] person in the United States” and “one of the most notorious female criminals in the history of the country.” Her story would indeed have a scandalous and tragic Northwest connection, testing the very fabric of Idaho jurisprudence in 1895.
Born Margaret E. Simpson, Maggie portrayed herself as the orphaned waif, an “Olivia Twist” who had struggled to stay alive:
My parents died when I was a small girl. And I was blind until after I had smallpox. I was brought up by strangers and got many a crack over the head by strangers and had a pretty hard time in my youth, but always tried to do the best I knew how.
She did know how. By the end of the Civil War, she was working the streets in St. Louis, where she was described as having “developed into a notorious procuress [brothel owner] and thief.”
Around 1870, she emigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, where she prided herself as a good customer of the First National Bank. She told people that on October 22, 1873, she married Harvey Hardy, a miner at the scandalous Little Cottonwood Canyon silver claims that had bilked millions of dollars from naive British investors. In 1876, Harvey and Maggie lit off for the Black Hills of South Dakota in an attempt to hit pay dirt with another Homestake mine discovery. Harvey’s hopes did not pan out, but money still flowed into Maggie’s bank account. She related how she “put up some houses and rented them,” retiring to her ranch in April 1877. Aspen tongues claimed they were “fast houses,” contemporary slang for brothels.
By November 1879, the couple had made their way to Leadville, Colorado. Although Maggie would profess that Harvey “treats me so well,” the legal notices portrayed a troubled relationship. She filed for divorce “on the grounds of extreme cruelty.” Whatever their differences, Maggie withdrew her suit, and the couple settled in nearby Aspen in March 1881. On July 16, she began advertising “first-class dress-making” from her business at 400 Hyman Avenue.
A measure of her worth appeared in February 1883, when a local newspaper reported that Colorado painter Carrie Whitcomb Watson had completed “a fine oil portrait… pronounced to be a work of art by connoisseurs, showing all the details of a fine head and bust.” The only physical description of Maggie dates from October 1895, when she was listed as five foot six, 275 pounds. The portrait has long since disappeared, and no other image of her survives.
The legal columns of the Aspen Times reported seven property transfers, either to her or from her from February 1884 to April 1885. Coincidentally, Aspen had reached a crisis point with the proliferation of brothels in the community and began to craft an ordinance to create a zone in which the houses could continue to function. Maggie’s tailoring business stood within the zone, which went into effect in February 1885. She sold her Hyman Avenue property and purchased a home, purportedly converting the building into a convalescent and indigent care center and gaining the seemingly innocent sobriquet of “Mother Hardy.”
Nonetheless, a resident would recall that “her thieving propensities were given full sway in Aspen, where she kept a boarding house. Her victims cannot be estimated.” William Balderston, editor of the Aspen Times, remembered her as an “old hag.” They would cross paths again.
A harbinger of an evil to come occurred on Wednesday, June 9, 1886. Maggie was arrested for “despoiling little Katie Selix of her head of golden hair.” Katie was the daughter of a popular Aspen tailor. Maggie blamed the seven-year-old girl for cutting off her own hair, but the “bright and intelligent” child stood her ground. Maggie paid a $10 ($265 today) fine and said she would file an appeal, which never happened.
In the late 1880s, Maggie was looking for less troublesome pastures. Based on the dates of several property and trustee sales, we can safely assume that the couple had moved from Aspen by early 1890. They resurfaced in Baker City, Oregon. On July 8, Harvey Hardy and Maggie E. Simpson were married by the local Methodist minister E. G. Fowler. Her claims of an 1873 marriage and the 1879 threat of divorce were all theater. By 1892, Maggie had again amassed properties.
Years of morphine addiction finally exacted their price in 1893, and she was sent to the Keeley Institute in Forest Grove, Oregon. The facility injected patients with a secret formula that included a so-called “bichloride of gold” and supposedly cured nearly any form of addiction. The therapy seemed to succeed with Maggie, and she was discharged late year. The couple moved to Pendleton. Within weeks, however, “the old desire came on.” She attempted suicide and was committed to the state insane asylum in Salem, the very facility familiar in popular culture as the location for the 1975 motion picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
After her release, she and Harvey moved to Moscow, Idaho, where residents soon began describing her as “an old, scarred faced, beady-eyed woman.” She was arraigned and fined for several minor offenses. Neighbors portrayed her as “a woman not only of vile character, but possessed of an utterly uncontrollable temper.”
In the late summer of 1894, Maggie and Harvey transplanted themselves yet again, this time to Lewiston, where they took up residence with Anna Woods, a “colored” [sic] prostitute. The living conditions compromised Harvey’s fidelity, and Maggie soon learned that their new friendship had benefits. She confronted him, later remarking that he deserted her before she could get a good shot at him. When dealing with Maggie, it was best to keep your head down and hope her emotions cooled.
Her imagination turned to a revenge “most foul.” Anna had a two-year-old daughter, Henrietta Myers, who was a mulatto child “but was nearly white.” Maggie talked Harvey into a reconciliation. Her plan would require his “good reputation.” She told Anna that they wanted to adopt Henrietta. Anna would not consent, but Maggie’s mind was fixed.
On December 12, the Hardys presented a petition to Probate Judge George Erb, who declared Anna to be a woman “of questionable reputation and with no means to support, maintain and care for said child.” Having run out of options, Anna affixed her mark, a simple cross, to the court document granting custody to Maggie and her wayward husband. Maggie scribbled her signature to Judge Erb’s decree, misspelling her own name.
In a single day, the die was cast for Henrietta Myers.
Maggie left Lewiston with Henrietta in tow, returning to Moscow, where she found a little shack near the city cemetery on old Troy Road (now Idaho State Highway 8). His part in Maggie’s plan fulfilled, Harvey resumed his relationship with Anna as her “male companion.”
It was the calm before a “mere anarchy loosed upon the world.” Maggie had finally become a mother but not for long. “Hell,” as Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, “is truth seen too late.”
In the days after her return, Moscow residents reported hearing some disturbing talk. Observers noted that Henrietta was treated badly and “was greatly afraid of the woman.” Maggie told them that she was going to poison Henrietta, kill the child’s mother, Harvey and then herself. Neighbors protested and attempted to reason with her, but Maggie responded that she “had murder in her heart and must do it.” No one intervened, and on Sunday, February 10, 1895, she carried out the first phase in her plan.
Maggie’s version of the events blamed Henrietta. She told investigators that she had prepared a dose of morphine for herself and was about to commit suicide when her attention was attracted by something happening outside her home. She put the morphine and a glass of carbolic acid on a low shelf and left for about forty-five minutes. By her account, Henrietta took the morphine and tipped over the glass of acid. Maggie said that she found the child writhing on the floor in unspeakable agony. The evidence at the scene created immediate doubts in the minds of the responding members of the Latah County Sheriff’s Office.
Within days, they established that Maggie had adopted the child to punish Henrietta’s mother and, failing to get rid of the girl, had administered a fatal dose of morphine. With Henrietta in a stupor. Maggie poured carbolic acid down her throat. When investigators could find no acid on the girl’s hands, they knew that Maggie had smeared it on the child, burning her face and neck, eating away one eye. Henrietta could not speak for herself, and the county had buried her in the nearby cemetery without an autopsy. It was at best a circumstantial case.
The coroner’s inquest produced immediate charges against Maggie, and she was promptly jailed, with staff finding supplies of morphine on her person. Awaiting trial, she became “suddenly stark crazy.” The sheriff’s office viewed her outbursts with considerable skepticism. Some people claimed at the time of her arrest that she was of unsound mind. Given her recent past, observers were convinced that an insanity plea would be part of her defense, but they would be wrong.
A charge of first-degree murder was leveled, but Maggie was a woman. In Idaho, first-degree murder carried a death sentence by hanging. No one was about to hang a woman. For that matter, there were no women in the state penitentiary. The prosecutor did not want to give Maggie the chance to “plead her sex.” Murder in the second degree was Hobson’s choice. Her Oregon committals were never presented in her defense.
On the afternoon of March 5, Judge William Piper impaneled a jury. The prosecution spent that day and the next presenting the state’s case, resting on Wednesday afternoon. Her defense team of Charles Orland and George Goode, both Moscow attorneys, attacked the charge of poisoning, as no postmortem or chemical examination had been performed. They tried to convince the jury that Henrietta’s death had resulted from her overturning the glass of carbolic acid on herself and not because of morphine. They rested their case on Thursday afternoon, and the jury retired to deliberate at 5:00 p.m. People noted that Maggie’s sudden attacks of insanity disappeared as rapidly as they came. That would change the next day.
The jury met all during the night and returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree the next morning. On hearing the verdict, Maggie went into a rage, swearing at the court, jury and her own attorneys “in unmeasured terms.” Bailiffs forcibly removed her from the courtroom, and sentencing was scheduled for Tuesday, March 19.
Judge Piper confided that the bill of indictment had tied his hands and sentenced her to life in prison, the severest penalty he could administer. The audience, which had come to the courthouse to see how she would react, was disappointed when Maggie calmly received her sentence. Jury members would afterward confide that a conviction would have been possible for first-degree murder.
Her eastern Oregon friends learned of the verdict in the April 5 issue of the Athena Press, which confirmed Maggie’s incarceration in “the hospital for the insane in Salem.”
Maggie was a mercurial prisoner, promising obedience and then flying off into violent fits of rage and screaming. She howled like a wolf for days and repeatedly attempted suicide, on one occasion by eating glass. Within weeks of her arrival, officials began referring to her as “Mad Margaret.” She had been driving even the other inmates to distraction. Again, officials failed to vet her medical records.
In May, the prison staff finally decided to give Maggie a dose of the “bug house,” a small wooden building in one corner of the prison enclosure. She was not alone; an unruly prisoner had drawn the same punishment. He was no match for Maggie. According to William Balderston, now the editor of the Idaho Daily Statesman, she had “changed the bill.”
She gathered up her bed clothes and set them on fire, how we do not know. The convict in the next cell soon heard the fire crackling and felt the heat. He called out for help, but no one came. As the flames intensified, he yelled out again “as though a thousand devils were toasting him on their fork,” all the while pounding of the walls of his cell. Relief arrived, and none too soon. He “had all but yielded up the ghost.”
Maggie’s cell had the feel of a furnace. Guards found her crouching in one corner, “peering through the flame and smoke, a fiendish grin on her face.” The time had come to call in medical assistance.
On June 20, Dr. John Givens, the superintendent of the state insane asylum in Blackfoot, arrived to examine her. Prison officials briefed him, asserting that her insanity was feigned. Dr. Givens was joined at the penitentiary by two local physicians. The threesome was introduced to Maggie under assumed names. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that “she proceeded to go through a performance for their benefit, but they were unanimous in pronouncing her ‘entirely’ sane.”
Armed with this professional opinion, prison warden John Campbell said that he would break her of her madness and “will conquer her if that is within the power of human ingenuity.” The staff reacted with harsher treatment, fashioning a small, windowless cell in which she was kept in isolation. The method did not work. Campbell finally gave up, saying she was “hopeless.”
By October, even Givens was convinced, and Campbell announced that Maggie would be moved to the Idaho insane asylum in Blackfoot. She had lasted seven months at the state penitentiary, one woman amid more than one hundred male criminals, isolated and abused. Given her propensity for violence, the utmost precautions were taken on the railroad trip east to a vastly different standard of confinement, a method of quality care for the disturbed that Dr. Givens would pioneer.
One might think that Maggie’s story would have lost its steam at that point, but subsequent events would prove people wrong. In April 1896, newspapers began reporting that petitions were being circulated in Moscow asking Governor William McConnell to pardon her. Moscow? This was the same town whose residents had formed the grand jury and the trial jury, both of which were convinced of her guilt. The residents of Moscow had their reasons.
In January of that year, the board of directors at the asylum issued a report stating that “the examining physicians and probate judges have carelessly permitted persons to be sent to the asylum who were not insane.” No pardon came. In November 1895, the Idaho Supreme Court had denied her attorneys’ appeal to overturn the verdict. There was no error in the jurisprudence. A dangerous woman would not be freed.
As the staff at Blackfoot prepared their enumeration sheets for the 1900 federal census, patient information cards were updated. On June 21, a clerk penned: “Very obese. Strength only fair. Delusions of grandeur and persecution. Abnormally irritable.” And then, the word “Dead” appears without comment or context.
When Idaho opened a mental hospital in Orofino in 1905, Dr. Givens was the obvious choice to build the new facility and put it on a proper footing. He selected a group of patients “whose insanity was of the mild type” and headed north by wagon. Hardy was not among them nor does the 1910 asylum census include her.
Maggie Hardy’s name appeared on several occasions in eastern Oregon newspapers concerning her treatments in mental facilities and her murder of Henrietta. In 1900, the Blackfoot asylum listed her as Margaret, born in 1842. The 1900 census for Grant County, Oregon, listed Maggie as a widow born in January 1850, which corroborates the 1885 Aspen census, where she gave her birth year as 1850. “Mad Margaret” Hardy had been released from the Idaho State Insane Asylum without any record or public notification, but her ultimate plan remained unfulfilled.
The February 27, 1906 issue of the Eastern Oregonian (Pendleton) reported that the incinerated remains of Maggie Hardy were recovered in the smoldering rubble from a fire of unknown origin that totally destroyed a home where she was the housekeeper and alone at the time. Whether immolated by her own design or in a morphine daze unable to respond to a wayward spark, Maggie’s frenzied psyche was finally quiet.
Since 2000, many of this country’s leading history, geography and preservation organizations — including the American Association for State and Local History, The History Channel and the Society for American Archaeology — have honored Branting for the depth, scope and variety of his research and field work. In 2009, he was nominated by the Western Historical Association for the William Gilbert Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the teaching of history through the publication of journal articles. The Idaho State Historical Society conferred upon him the 2011 Esto Perpetua Award, its highest honor, citing his leadership in “some of the most significant preservation and interpretation projects undertaken in Idaho,” whose governor awarded him that year’s Outstanding Cultural Tourism Award for showcasing Idaho’s heritage. In 2013, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Branting its coveted Historic Preservation Medal, the first and only one to date given to an Idaho scholar. In 2015, Lewis-Clark State College selected him for the Shinn Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016 awarded him the President’s Medallion for “outstanding leadership and enduring service” to the community and the institution.