Family Violence & Homicide

The Serial Widow: When Does A Tragic Accident Become A Murder?

The case of author Helen Bailey, murdered by her partner of four years in an attempt to get hold of her million pound fortune, highlights men who have a tragic past of partner death.  Ian Stewart was a widow like Helen Bailey giving them tragedy and loss in common when they met in Hertfordshire, England.  Now however, after his conviction for her murder in February this year, the death of his first wife has come under suspicion as to whether that was indeed a tragic accident as previously thought or the product of a sinister murder.

Ian Stewart would not be the first man to murder multiple partners under the guise of accidents in order to benefit from life insurance and saving accounts. For Helen Bailey her vulnerable position of still mourning the loss of her husband of 15 years along with her wealth has prompted speculation that she was targeted by a predatory Ian Stewart who exploited her vulnerability with a mind for murder all along.

“Whilst we will never know whether you may have had some additional motive for killing the woman who loved you and wanted to be your wife, I am in no doubt this is a clear case of a murder done in the expectation of gain with aggravating features which make it difficult to imagine a more heinous crime.” – Judge to Ian Stewart at sentencing

Historically the ‘black widow’ has traditionally been a label applied to women who murder their husbands for their life insurance pay-outs, most often through a method of poisoning.  History is full of black widows from the infamous Mary Ann Cotton in Victorian England who is thought to have murdered three husbands and up to thirteen of her own children for their life insurance, to the more recent Judy Buenoano and Blanche Taylor Moore, both of whom killed their husbands and partners most likely for money and secured themselves a place on death row as a result.
Part of life unfortunately is the loss of loved ones through illness, accident or foul play but when one individual experiences more loss than others, always their beloved partner and under slightly strange circumstances, suspicions are raised.

Officially termed ‘uxoricide’, the murder of one’s wife or romantic partner is a horribly common crime seen all over the world.  In 1991 Gregory Green from Michigan stabbed his pregnant wife to death before calling the emergency services and confessing to her murder.  He was convicted and served 16 years in prison for the crime being released on parole in 2008.  What makes his story even more shocking is that on 22 September 2016, Gregory Green made an eerily similar phone call to the police only this time he confessed to the murder of not only his new wife, but also their four children.

Related: FBI’s Robert Ressler: The Psychological Profiling of Serial Killers

Green had tied his wife up and slashed her face with a knife before killing her two eldest children in front of her with the sole purpose of making her watch before he fired further shots into her, intending to end her life. No doubt at the point he called 911 to report is actions, he thought he had. Gregory Green is a man who served his time for murder only to be released to remarry and commit the same offence again but with many more victims. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 47 to 102 years in prison in 2017 with the judge telling him “Your actions are inconceivable”.

According to research looking at cases of uxoricide and familicide, men who murder their partners and families have a different psychological profile than those who murder strangers. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, 153 murderers were interviewed for over 1’500 hours to try and uncover common psychological traits that may mean such behaviour could be predicted in the future within domestic violence situations.  The murderers involved in the study were both men and women charged or convicted of first-degree murder across Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Indiana.

“These murders are in the heat of passion and generally involve drugs or alcohol and often are driven by jealousy or revenge following a separation or a split.” says the lead of the study, Dr Robert Hanlon, Director of the forensic psychology research lab at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

He found that those who carried out spontaneous attacks on their partners or families tended to have a higher rate of mental illness with psychotic disorder being more severe and fewer previous convictions that those who carried out other types of murder.

What is less common are the cases where multiple wives disappear or suddenly die in a mysterious accident and most often it is not until a second death occurs that police begin digging a bit deeper into the circumstances of their predecessor’s untimely death. Not all cases of men who murder their wives are the result of a spontaneous and unplanned act of violence and for those who murder multiple partners, their killing is often carefully planned in an attempt to create the ‘perfect crime’ , especially when they have already got away with it once before.

Related: Addicted To Murder? Addictive Thinking and Crime

‘X’ Marks The Spot

Harold Henthorn was widowed in 1995 when his wife Lynn Henthorn was killed changing their car tyre after a breakdown while out on a drive with her husband in Colorado.  Lynn was pinned and crushed under the weight of the car  when the car jack failed in what was ruled a tragic accident. Harold Henthorn collected $600,000 in life insurance after her death.  17 years later, Henthorn’s second wife Toni Henthorn died when she ‘fell’ to her death on a hike with her husband in the Rocky Mountain National Park on 29 September 2012. Authorities found the death suspicious and once under investigation the secrets of Harold Henthorn began to be uncovered.

Henthorn had made numerous trips to the National Park on the run up to when Toni Henthorn died and had a map in his possession with an ‘X’ marked at the exact spot where she fell.  With the multi-million pound life insurance policies he had taken out on his wife going straight to him in the event of her death, police were highly suspicious.

Two years after she died, Harold Henthorn was charged with her murder and when brought to trial prosecutors openly accused him of not only murdering Toni Henthorn, but also his first wife Lynn Henthron, claiming he had staged the accident which took her life in 1995. Only on trial for the murder of his second wife, Harold Henthorn was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He maintains his innocence in both deaths and inquiries are ongoing into his involvement in the death of his first wife.

Killing Out Of ‘Love’

When a man murders his partner they have a habit of claiming they killed them out of love when in reality they most likely killed them after their partner had ended the relationship, indicated they were going to or they are simply looking for a cash pay-out.  As stated by Dr Aaron Ben-Zeev, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa who is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts in the study of emotions, wife murder is “…an abusive type of the problematic fusion model of love.”

In his research into love and murder, Dr Ben-Zeev highlights the two common assumptions for wife murder.  Firstly, that the murder is the final result of domestic violence that has been ongoing in the relationship and secondly, that the murder comes from a possessiveness from the male partner with sexual jealousy and anger being the driving emotions. He feels that the murder of one’s partner is much more complex and is the result of combination of emotions and factors where the male perceiving the woman to be part of his own identity and the males’ traditional values of the masculine role of power and control also come into play.

Certainly in the case of Helen Bailey, murdering her out of love is a weak and unbelievable excuse for a calculated killing and the ongoing deceit of her family and the police, yet this was what Ian Stewart told juror’s during his murder trial. “I never stopped loving her”, he said.

Ian Stewart drugged Helen Bailey before suffocating her and hiding her body in a cesspit underneath the garage of her £1.5m house where he also lived. He then reported her missing and invented a story of kidnapping to distract her family and police and turn their attention away from him.  Now with the truth of his callous and calculated behaviour known, it remains to be seen whether Ian Stewart will be found to be another serial widow who kills his partners one after another for selfish personal and financial gain.


  1. Ben-Zeev, A. (2014) Why Do (Some) Men Murder The Wives They Love? In The Name of Love, Psychology Today,
  2. Hanlon, R.E., Brook, M., Demery, J.A., and Cunningham, M.D. (2015) Domestic Homicide: Neuropsychological Profiles of Murderers Who Kill Family Members and Intimate Partners, Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol 61, Issue 51, ppS163-S170

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2017, Apr 17) The Serial Widow: When Does A Tragic Accident Become A Murder?. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from


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