Nellie Pope, the 1895 ‘Lizzie Borden’ of Detroit
“Lizzie Borden took an axe-
And gave her mother forty whacks…”
So goes the old rhyme about the daughter who offed her mom and pop with the family axe…pop got his while lounging on a loveseat, mom was chopped in the bedroom.
Now here comes the tale of Michigan murderess Nellie Pope. She supposedly didn’t kill her husband with an axe in 1895, but it's widely believed she did talk her lover into doing the deed.
According to the book Wicked Women of Detroit, Nellie was a good-sized woman: 6’4” and 250 pounds. Likened to the structure of an Amazonian woman, this is what attracted local barber William Brusseau. The two began a relationship, but the problem was – Nellie was already married to one of Detroit’s prominent doctors, Horace Pope. Whether Nellie actually had true feelings for Brusseau is questionable, as it appears in retrospect that she gave him sex in exchange for certain favors…..including murdering her husband. She fueled the fire by making up stories about how cruel her husband was, but what she really wanted was to collect on his insurance policy.
Dr, Pope had recently upped his life insurance. How convenient.
Since both Nellie and Brusseau had different versions about the murder and who was responsible, the actual act itself was pretty clear.
On February 2, 1895, Dr. Pope was home sitting in a chair when Brusseau came up from behind and swung an axe toward his head. The first swing sliced off the scalp of the doctor’s head; the second was a direct whack into the skull – so deep, that it was difficult to pull the blade out. The body fell to the floor, and the axe was swung a few more times, turning the doctor’s head into “nothing more than a bag of skin containing shattered shards of skull”.
After his arrest, Brusseau claimed he acted in self-defense after being attacked by the doctor. Trouble was, it was proven the doc was attacked with an axe from behind. Admitting his guilt, Brusseau also claimed he was under the hypnotic spell of Nellie - so enraptured, along with being mentally and physically addicted to her sexual favors.
The court decided both Nellie and Brusseau were guilty – he was given 25 years, she was given life at hard labor. Nellie was sent to Jackson State Prison for processing, and that’s where her reputation as a mentally unhinged, troublemaker began.
After being sent to the Detroit House of Corrections, she would occasionally go into hysterics, pretend to be insane, constantly get into fights with other inmates, and pretend to see ghosts. In particular, the ghost of her murdered husband. She wailed to the guards that the ghost of her husband “came every night and stood and looked at her until she nearly died of fright”. But they weren’t buying it.
Twenty years later, on New Year’s Day 1917, Michigan Governor Woodbridge Ferris gave Nellie Pope a parole. But where would she go? What would she do? How would she survive? She ended up living at the Salvation Army for twelve years until she passed away.
Nellie Pope – one of Michigan’s most infamous murderesses – claimed until her dying day she was innocent. She was given a full pardon in 1928 and died in 1929 at the age of 69. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Brusseau had passed away earlier, in 1916.
Nellie Pope, Detroit Axe Murderess