Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

Crocodile Tears

A long convoy of automobiles sits idle along the winding driveway beside the plot of graves in a shaded cemetery. From the hearse, in front of the convoy, six dark-suited pallbearers lift a platinum coffin and, somberly, carry it to a gurney waiting beside a newly dug place of interment. Mourners, leaving the confines of their cars, whose windows have been tagged with a purple sticker identifying them as a funeral procession, follow behind. The minister motions family, friends and neighbors to circle the grave, then leads them in a simple rendition of "Rock of Ages". The voices stilled, he whispers a few prayers, decreeing the body of the loved one to the earth and his soul to God. While he prays, he lays a comforting hand on the shoulder of the new widow who weeps into a handkerchief beside him. Family members cup her elbows to keep her from fainting. She looks so frail; the widow does; so forlorn, so much in anguish.

And while she moans, groans, and wets her hankie with thespian tears, she is wondering just how quickly she hopes it is quickly Friendly Insurance Company will deliver the check for dear old hubby.

She is a Black Widow, named after the venomous multi-legged crawling thing that comes out of nowhere, bites fast and hard, without deliberation, and kills. The above scenario, though presented tongue-in-cheek, is not, however, atypical. Stereotypical perhaps, but it is true. The scene the grieving widow cum charlatan has replayed itself over and over again in real life. Movies starring lovelies Theresa Russell, Jane Seymour or Elizabeth Montgomery murdering unsuspecting beaus do not do the Black Widow justice. Hollywood tends to downplay the Black Widow guile by having us believe that successions of men are drawn to them because of their physical beauty, but that is simply untrue. In reality, the most prosperous Black Widows had neither the statuesque lure of a Seymour, the innocent cuteness of Russell, nor the pouting charm of a Montgomery. Most Black Widows were real Plain Janes.

But their unattractiveness applauds their cunning. A Black Widow is able, with the right words, with the right smile and with a deep feminine charm that far surpasses outer beauty, to envelope a man in her arms and, in turn, to ingratiate herself into his total trust and, notwithstanding, his bank account. Every penny of it.

Historically, Black Widows meet their husbands through lonely-hearts ads, at widows-and- widowers clubs, or through mutual acquaintances who fail to spot something wrong with their friend. It is not rare that, as one husband dies, the Black Widow will relocate to an entirely new area of the country where she will change her name, her personality and create a totally fabricated background, playing each personae to the hilt.

Some Black Widows had children from their earliest marriages. We mentioned a few of these killer mothers in the previous chapter. Now, children are perceptive, even to the point of sensing horrible things within their own parentage; yet most of the young victims seemed to have been oblivious to the murderous intent of their mothers.

The Black Widows fašade holds up well in a society that has always placed so much stock in the virtue of the faithful wife and doting Mom. Say the Kellehers in Murder Most Rare, "Because she will deliberately target those who have come to trust her, the crimes of this type of serial murderer violate our basic assumptions about love, loyalty, guardianship and friendship."

The majority of Black Widows begin killing in their mid-thirties, although some have begun much earlier. Based on cases of record, the average number of victims has been six to thirteen in the United States and ten to fifteen in other countries. Murders occur within an average span of eleven years in the States and sixteen elsewhere. Motive is profit, and only on rare occasions does rage enter into the crime. There have also been a few cases where the Black Widow has been suspected of murdering someone who she fears has learned the truth about her. Otherwise, every murder is a well-planned, methodical masterpiece.

Following are a dozen profiles of Black Widows whom scholars like the Kellehers, Hickey and others uphold as the most wicked, colorful, and dangerous of the lot. They cover a virtual history of the Black Widow in modern times.

The profiles begin with Britain's Mary Ann Cotton ("Lady Rotten") and Belle Gunness ("America's first female serial killer") whose crimes shocked the brittle Victorians who vouched for sweet femininity. From that pair, we move on through the 20th Century where, despite scientific innovations and a keener awareness by law enforcers, Black Widows continue to ply their greedy, homicidal trade.

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