Martha Needle

Martha Needle

Richmond, Australia


Born: 1864Died: 22 October 1894

Active Years: Feb 1885 to May 1894

Method of Human Disposal: Poisoning

Consequence: Hanging


  • Mabel Needle (daughter)
  • Henry Needle (husband)
  • Elsie Needle (daughter)
  • May Needle (daughter)
  • Louis Juncken (fiance’s brother)



  • Herman Juncken (fiance’s other brother)


Martha Needle wanted nothing more than to be happy. You know, the kind of happiness that comes with a marriage and children. She had known that happiness when she had been married to her husband Henry Needle. Unfortunately it was not to be. Martha found herself burying not only her husband after he succumbed to a short illness, but also her three small children who became ill and died in quick succession.

Mabel became sick first. The poor little thing, she was only three years old and no match for the stomach spasms, fever and vomiting that beset her. Martha tried her best to comfort the child, but it was no use. With every meal she fed her oldest child, Mabel just got worse and worse. Finally, the little girl expired. Henry tried to console his wife, but he also wasn’t feeling the best, and soon followed his daughter.

Martha hoped that the illness would spare her other two daughters, but within 3 years of Henry’s death younger siblings Elsie and May were also taken. It was such a sad time. Thank goodness for insurance, or she just wouldn’t have pulled through.

In reality though, insurance payouts can only stretch so far. So it was that in 1892 she found herself living in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, taking in boarders to help pay her way. One of these boarders caught Martha’s eye. His name was Otto Juncken, a carpenter whose brother Louis was using the front room of her lodging home for his business. He seemed to reciprocate her feelings, and it wasn’t long before Martha was on the way to re-establishing the happiness she once knew. She was overjoyed when Otto proposed, and began planning the wedding.

Not everyone was pleased with the match though. Louis Juncken felt that Martha was not a suitable match for his brother. He thought she had too much of a temper. He advised Otto against marrying Martha, and began making arrangements for other family members to travel to Melbourne from South Australia to prevent the marriage from going ahead.

This was the kind of reaction to an upcoming marriage that was apt to make a girl feel unwelcome. After all the sadness she had felt recently, it looked as though she was now going to have to fight for her happiness.

She needn’t have worried. As providence would have it, there was a bout of Typhoid going round, and Louis was unlucky enough to catch a dose. Martha was sad, of course. He future husband had lost his brother, and this was not the time for merriment. All the same, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief as his coffin was transported back to South Australia. Her main adversary was gone and she could foresee nothing to prevent her marriage to Otto.

Except for Otto’s other brother Herman. Herman made it his duty to attend to Louis’s affairs, and after Louis’s funeral invited himself to stay with Martha and Otto while the formalities were taken care of.

After her dealings with Louis, Martha was worried about Herman. What if he tried to contest her marriage like Louis had? Martha hoped and prayed that everything would turn out ok. For good measure, she tried to ensure that Herman was comfortable while he stayed with them. She even found out what his favourite meals were.

It was after one of those meals that Herman complained of feeling unwell. He was sick during the night, but the next morning he had recovered sufficiently to join them at breakfast. However, when the illness returned mid-morning it was decided a doctor should be called. You just never knew when the dreaded Typhoid would return.

Dr Boyd was sceptical. He felt that Herman’s symptoms were indicative of something a bit more insidious than mere Typhoid. Having nothing more than gut instinct, he prescribed medicine for the symptoms and implored the patient to contact him if the illness returned.

Which it did two days later. On his return, the good doctor gathered samples that proved his instincts were correct. Arsenic. He high-tailed it to police who said, “Let’s set a trap!”

Herman was persuaded (against his better judgement at that point, I’m sure) to ask Martha to cook for him again. As she gave him a steaming mug of tea, the authorities burst through the door and grabbed the cup. Martha tried to upend the liquid, but to no avail. The drink was later found to have about 10 grains of arsenic in it. A search of the house disclosed a number of arsenic based poisons which would have ensured Martha’s ‘happiness’ for many years to come.

Martha was arrested for attempted murder. This was later upgraded to the wilful murder of Louis Juncken after the bodies of her husband, children and Louis were exhumed. These were also found to contain arsenic, at which point the laws of coincidence were thrown out altogether.  Incidentally, when the results of the investigation were presented to Martha prior to her trial and sentencing, she appeared less than surprised by the findings, saying, “They found arsenic, did they?” She was thoughtful for a moment, then added, “A few more of my friends have died lately and I can give you their names. Would you like their names and information about their burial? It would be useful if you want to dig them up.”

One would imagine that she gave the learned officers a wink when she said that. 

After a three day trial the following October, the judge found her guilty and sentenced her to hang.


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