Terrifying Stories Of Real-Life Stepmothers

The idea of the wicked stepmother is a popular trope, especially in a certain sort of children's movies. It predates Disney by a lot, though — according to Prospect, wicked stepmothers came to Disney via the original fairy tales, which borrowed heavily from classical mythology.

Evil stepmother tales were pretty dark right out of the gate. Take Aphrodite. She cursed Phaedra to fall madly in love with her own stepson, who (as a follower of Artemis) was the real target of Aphrodite's rage. There's also Medea, a very literal witch who tries to poison her stepson, Theseus.

By the time the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney hopped on board, this was already an old idea, but according to research done by Athabasca University (via The Telegraph), it's not always true: stepmothers, they found, can help solidify a child's world into something loving and stable. More research (via the National Post) found that the stereotype of the evil stepmother can even be potentially damaging to families and women in the stepmother role, but here's the thing: there are plenty of actually evil stepmothers out there, and their stories aren't for the faint of heart. They make Snow White's stepmother look like a perfectly perfect angel from above.

The millionaire, the minister's daughter, and a deadly jealousy

When 47-year-old Ellen Walker married James Etheridge in 1912, he already had eight children from his previous marriage, and a fortune in the bank. But just a year into the marriage, law enforcement was summoned to their Texas farm when the children started to die. According to contemporary news reports (via Unknown Gender History), 2-year-old Beulah and 8-year-old Harrison died in June, and then 5-year-old Oscar and 9-year-old Richard died in October. At the same time, 7-year-old Pearl fell incredibly ill, but recovered.

Ellen Etheridge was arrested the day after the second pair of deaths, and once an investigation turned up a mysterious bag of white powder among her belongings — which was found to be arsenic — and the children's deaths were confirmed as being caused by arsenic poisoning, well, it was about as open-and-shut as a case could be. 

She later (allegedly) confessed to killing the first two children with lye, and confirmed that yes, she poisoned the others with arsenic. The original reason was stated as jealousy: she claimed (via Kathleen Rice Adams) that James Etheridge had only married her to be a live-in babysitter for his children, endlessly doting on them while ignoring her. Later, she told him that she had only put them out of the inevitable misery that their lives would hold, and in spite of her defense that she was "mentally irresponsible," she was found guilty and died in prison.

Charlie Bothuell wasn't missing after all

In 2014, Charles Bothuell IV reported his 12-year-old son, Charlie, missing. That's a horrible thing for a parent to have to go through, but according to USA Today, the story quickly got worse.

Eleven days later, FBI and state police officers found the boy — where he was being held captive in the basement of his own home. The official report says he was "very thin," and that it was "alleged that the parents systematically physically abused the child, forced him to live in the basement, [and] intentionally deprived him of food." Charlie Bothuell later told authorities that it was his stepmother, Monique Dillard-Bothuell, who put him in the basement with strict warnings not to come out — ever. The pair were arrested and charged with torture and second-degree child abuse.

The case has an odd footnote: Michigan Live followed up with the case, and found that Charles Bothuell was given a probationary sentence after entering a plea deal, but the case — and all the records of proceedings — against stepmother Dillard-Bothuell had vanished.

The only woman on Alabama's death row

According to CBS News, Heather Leavell-Keaton's confession to her cellmate, Roseanna Russell, left no question of guilt in the jury's mind. Leavell-Keaton had been arrested for the deaths of her 4-year-old stepdaughter Natalie, and 3-year-old stepson, Chase. According to what she told Russell (a fellow inmate assigned to help Leavell-Keaton, who was functionally blind), she started by giving their dog antifreeze, "to find out how long it would take to kill a living thing." After that, she started giving it to the children. AL later reported that Natalie was discovered first — she had been left in a nearby wooded area in March 2010, while Chase was killed and dumped in another wooded area in June of the same year.

Prosecutors claimed that jealousy was the motive, but according to what Leavell-Keaton told her cellmate, both she and her husband decided "it would be better if they had less responsibilities." That seems to be supported by the fact that when they were on their way to dispose of Chase's body, they stopped to pick up a few video games. 

Leavell-Keaton was found guilty and given the death penalty, but according to the AP, her sentencing was revisited when it was brought to light that she hadn't spoken on her own behalf at the trial. John DeBlase — her husband and the children's father — was also found guilty and was given the death penalty.

"I'm going to die!"

When Michael and Heather Jones went to trial for the death of 7-year-old Adrian Jones, there was something a little unusual in the case: a ton of evidence. Adrian's father and stepmother had documented instances of unthinkable abuse in photographs and with surveillance cameras. In addition to photographic evidence, Heather Jones's social media posts were also entered into evidence. She frequently hinted about wanting to kill him, and often used a stun gun on him.

After years of torture, Adrian died in the autumn of 2015. Several weeks later, The Washington Post reported that his father bought pigs, and used them to dispose of his son's body. Then, there were questions about whether or not his death — and the abuse that led up to it — could have been prevented.

Testimony from those who knew the family made it clear that people had heard — and reported — Adrian screaming, "I'm going to die." There were also a series of records documenting reports made to child welfare agencies and social services, and it was further claimed that the family's constant movement between states allowed them to keep under the radar. And it had been going on for years — Adrian had been removed from his mother's care and placed with his father and stepmother when he was just 2-years-old, and his case file started just three months later.

According to AP, Adrian's father and stepmother were found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison.

When the fourth child disappeared, neighbors finally got concerned

Martha Rendell wasn't technically their stepmother, as she hadn't actually married their father, Thomas Morris. But The Western Australia Police Historical Society says that she was the "common-law wife," and that she murdered three of his kids before neighbors started to get suspicious.

In April 1909, Thomas Morris' son, George, went missing. It wasn't long before he turned up at his mother's home, and he had a heck of a tale to tell detectives. He fled, he said, because his stepmother had already killed his siblings, and was now trying to kill him. Based on his accusations, the bodies of his siblings were exhumed and examined: the deaths were suspicious, but it wasn't until a neighbor testified that she had seen Rendell forcing a swab down one child's throat — and that she'd heard him crying and screaming for help — that they connected Rendell's bulk purchases of a chemical called spirits of salts with the children's deaths. (Spirits of salts, says Topline, is a cleaner typically used for dissolving blockages in drains, descaling toilets, and removing oil.)

Rendell was ultimately found guilty, and was hanged in October of the same year.

The 19th century's most infamous murderess

It's not clear just how many unfortunate family members Mary Ann Cotton killed, but the number varies between at least 15 (via Chronicle Live) and perhaps as many as 21. It wasn't just her stepchildren, either: Cotton's first murders were likely her own children, several of whom died under mysterious circumstances of symptoms called simply "gastric fever." In hindsight, investigators later realized those were the same symptoms as arsenic poisoning.

Cotton's weapon of choice remained arsenic throughout her long career of making a living by taking our insurance policies, then collecting the payouts when people started dying. Among the dead were several of her third husband's children, her fourth husband and a few of his children, and by the time she was caught, she was named as the likely cause of the deaths of eight of her biological children and seven stepchildren.

It was the death of one of those stepchildren — 7-year-old Charles, son of fifth husband James Quick-Manning — that finally caused police to get involved. Cotton first tried to hand the child off to a local grocer who was associated with poor relief and the area workhouse, and after he refused and the child ended up dead, he called authorities. It was confirmed that he had died after being given arsenic, and she was arrested.

After a delayed trial (she gave birth in prison), Cotton was found guilty and executed.

When the system fails

Lauren Wright died in May of 2000. She was just 6-years-old, and according to those who knew her (via The Independent), "She was like a little puppy, affectionate and grateful for any attention." She was called a "delightful, chatty girl," and all those who knew her, loved her — and pitied her. Her parents separated before she was born, and she was taken away from her mother in 1997 — the same year she was placed on a child protection register — before being moved in with her grandmother. With the failure of the family pub the following year, though, she was handed over to her father and future stepmother.

Tracey Wright became well-known for humiliating her new husband in public, but behind closed doors, it was Lauren who was forced to eat bugs, stand over fires, or beaten — once so badly that she suffered massive internal injuries and a collapse of her digestive system. Those who questioned her extensive injuries were told that a wardrobe had fallen over on her. 

She died not long afterwards, and according to The Guardian, her injuries were on the scale of someone who had been in a severe car accident. Wright was convicted on charges of willful neglect and manslaughter, while Lauren's father was convicted of manslaughter. Social services was also blamed: social workers had been notified about the abuse, yet Lauren remained in her stepmother's care.

When love drives you to hire a hitman

The year was 1980, the place was Johnson County, Kansas, and the woman who took out the hit was Sueanne Hobson, a stay-at-home-mom who had been married to Ed Hobson for just around two years. The victim was Sueanne's stepson, Christen. According to The Pitch KC, it very quickly came out at the trial that she viewed 13-year-old Christen as a threat to her marriage. In order to get rid of him, she promised her own 17-year-old son and his friend a new car if they'd take care of the stepchild she viewed as a problem. They did — after forcing him to dig his own grave, they shot him three times.

Sueanne reported him missing, and his remains were found just a month later. In spite of her declarations of innocence, evidence — including testimony from her 15-year-old biological daughter, who said she'd overheard the murder being plotted — said otherwise.

Still, Ed Hobson remained firmly on his wife's side, and when it came time for her parole to be considered, he spoke in favor of it. In 2010, Sueanne Hobson was going before the parole board for the 9th time, and according to CBS News, there were still plenty of people saying she shouldn't be let out. (Her son and his friend had been released on parole years prior.) According to CJ Online, her parole was granted in 2011.

England's first queen was a wicked stepmother

Details are a little sketchy, but that's not entirely surprising — we're talking, after all, about events that happened in the late 10th century. What historians have been able to piece together, Historic UK says, is a tale of a real-life wicked stepmother willing to do anything to put her own son on the English throne.

Things really kicked into high gear in 975, with the death of Edgar the Peaceful. He left behind his queen, Elfthryth, his elder son from a previous marriage, Edward, and Ethelred, his son with Elfthryth. The whole situation started the sort of in-fighting popular with nobility when there's a debate as to just who should be given the throne, and eventually, it was handed to 13-year-old Edward. There's not much that's known about him, and what is known, is highly conflicting. He's alternately described as a bad-tempered little punk, and a well-regarded, hopeful young leader. At any rate, Edward became king — and when he started making sweeping decisions about land rights and just how much authority the church had, that made secular nobles really, really angry. Enter: Elfthryth, the stepmother who had a son who was just waiting to become king.

When Edward was assassinated, it was almost immediately said that it was done with guidance from his stepmother. His stepbrother was put on the throne and would become widely known as Ethelred the Unready, while the dead king was canonized as St. Edward the Martyr.

The case of the Derby Poisoner

The woman who became known as the Derby Poisoner, The Modern-Day Lucretia Borgia, and America's Queen Killer murdered her first husband in 1863, after he lost his job, lapsed into a deep depression, and she decided she'd rather kill him than have to deal with him. A little arsenic fixed that, and then — realizing that she'd killed the family's source of income — she killed a few of her kids, too.

It wasn't long after that, says the New Haven Register, that she moved on to husband number two. She poisoned him, inherited an estate that would be worth about half a million today, and moved on to another widower. This one came with four children, but that wasn't going to stand in the way of the newly-made Lydia Sherman. 

The baby was the first to die, dosed with arsenic added to his bottle. A teenage stepdaughter was next, and then it was time for the husband to go. She was arrested and found guilty after an eight-day trial, and according to the New England Historical Society, she escaped after five years in jail. Just a week later she was recaptured and returned to prison, where she died in 1878.

Twenty-three counts of child abuse

It was 2017 when Austin McIntosh told a jury, "We had both come to the conclusion that this had been enough, and we were going to run away. We just didn't know how to do it."

"This" was, they testified, months of abuse perpetrated by their father and stepmother, Jessica Cox. According to USA Today, the brothers — then 16- and 14-years-old — were subjected to beatings, starvation, imprisonment, and torture so bad that they considered escape dangerous, but staying to be even more dangerous. Austin told a jury that he had been handcuffed to a kitchen cabinet and beaten with a rolling pin when his brother was cuffed alongside him — and finally managed to free them from the cuffs. The boys fled to a school, where they found one of the custodians in the parking lot, waiting for his shift to start. It was the custodian who got them something to eat and called law enforcement, telling police, "They don't want to go home. They want to be somewhere safe. That's why they came here." 

In 2017, KRON reported that Cox had been found guilty of 23 counts of aggravated child abuse, and a single count of reckless endangerment.

Six years of imprisonment and torture

In 2012, the Superior Telegram was reporting on the case of a 15-year-old girl who had been discovered wandering the streets. She was picked up by a concerned citizen, and when she started sharing her story with police, it was beyond anything they could have imagined. Her life was one of what experts called "serial child torture," all done at the behest of her father, Chad Chritton, and her stepmother, Melinda Drabek-Chritton. For the previous six years, she had been locked in the basement of the family home, while her father and stepmother claimed they were "home-schooling" her.

The unnamed girl — who weighed 82 pounds when she was rescued, and was about the size of a 9-year-old — was starved, subjected to beatings, and the victim of other types of abuse, such as being forced to consume her own fluids and waste. She also told investigation of sexual abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her stepmother's 18-year-old son, Joshua Drabek. (The Chicago Tribune later reported that he was convicted of a list of charges that included that sexual assault of child, and sentenced to three years in prison.)

Both parents were also convicted — with help of records of numerous complaints and concerns that had been raised about the girl's welfare — and each were sentenced to five years in prison.