Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

The Trailblazers

Following are the histories of two Black Widows whose crimes motivated others of their cloth to come. Mary Ann Cotton bore the face of a Mother Hubbard, but the malevolence of the Boogieman. Belle Gunness, who earned the dubious honor of "America's first female serial killer," was a dowdy, putty-faced creature with many secrets buried on her farm.

Bold Mrs. Cotton(mouth)

Bell Gunness with her 3 children

Mary Ann Cotton may have been one of the first in a class of killers to be named after a poisonous spider, but those who were alive when her crimes were found out compared her, metaphorically, to the snake whose name fit her mean-spirit: Cottonmouth.

She was born in 1822 near the rustic mining town of Rainton, England, to a young and religious Methodist couple, Michael and Margaret Robson. Not long after her father moved his family to a more respectable surrounding in Murton, he was killed in an accident at the mine. But, for the diligence of Mrs. Robson, she and her eight-year -old daughter avoided the County Poor House. The child, Mary Ann, never forgot the lean, hungry days and swore that she would never die hungry. She didnt.

She became a bride for the first time in 1844 when she married 26-year-old railway timekeeper William Mowbray and moved with him to Cornwall. Over the next seven years, the couple had five children, but all died in infancy. Medical diagnosis for each death was "gastric fever." After these great disappointments, Mowbray contracted the same symptoms and followed his children to heaven in January of 1865. His death followed his enrollment in a life insurance policy for £35, the money of which went to his widow upon his passing.

After his death, Mary Ann sought employment. She obtained a job as a ward attendant comparable to today's "nurse's aide" at the Sunderland Infirmary at Seaham. As she moved from chamber to chamber, she was given access to the hospital's storerooms where arsenic and other poisonous substances were kept. No one noticed that bottles of these liquids would occasionally disappear.

She married again, this time to a patient she met at the infirmary. Young George Ward was extremely happy with his wife, but not long after their marriage he began encountering chronic dizziness, stomach pains and numbness. Thinking these symptoms were reactions to the medicine he had been given by the doctors during his stay at Sunderland, he never complained. He died fifteen months after his wedding day.

Mary Ann wasn't idle long. Another insurance policy affording her enough money to get by in the interim, she quickly sought and wed widower John Robinson in a beautiful ceremony at Bishopwearmouth Church. Robinson, a well-off sea merchant, gleefully allowed her into his spacious home as a new mother to his five children. Within a year, three of these youngsters died. Diagnosis: gastric fever. As Robinson brooded, wondering what type of affliction had come into his home, he woke up one morning to find his wife gone and with her several chests of valuables and account books. Feeling abandoned in his hour of need, it would be only later that he would realize just how fortunate he and his surviving children had been.

From Bishopwearmouth, she returned to Murton to tend to her mother who was incapacitated with age. With her, she brought some medicines that she promised would spruce up the elder's ailing frame. It is believed that one of those "medicines" was a bottle of arsenic. Nevertheless, the old lady passed away not long after her daughter's arrival. Again, another victim of "gastric fever".

Footloose and free, Mary Ann ventured to Newcastle in 1870, where she heard that her friend, Margaret Cotton, had a wealthy brother named Frederick who had just become a widower. Frederick Cotton was taken with the perky little "Widow" Robinson she told him her last husband had died and sought her company. He got it, and Mary Ann conceived out of wedlock. To save face, the couple married and set up a tidy home.

At first there was no reason for neighbors to believe there was anything untoward happening in the Cotton household. But strange, tragic occurrences, inexplicable things, began happening in their town. Within months, all of the farmers' pigs within the vicinity of the Cottons fell ill and perished, poisoned by an unknown source. In the midst of the animal plague, another one was cutting down some of the local humans. Margaret Cotton died. Then Frederick. Then his 10-year-old son Frederick, Jr. So did a boarder in the Cotton household. So did tiny Robert, to whom Mary Ann had given birth less than a year earlier. And finally Charles, the youngest Cotton son.

"A number of factors helped (Mary Ann Cotton) escape detection for a long time," writes Angus Hall in the anthological Crimes of Horror. "(These were) the state of medical knowledge, the ease with which arsenic could be bought, the trust she created by once having been a nurse, the fact that she always called in a doctor to care for her victims (and) the regularity with which she moved homes."

But now, neighbors were talking, loudly. Suspicions were high, and when the boy Charles died, a local doctor who heard the rumors ordered an autopsy. He knew that certain poisons could create symptoms not unlike the gastric fever that had decimated the Cotton family. Enough arsenic was found in the boy's system to kill five people. Mary Ann was arrested and, since the police had her in custody, they ordered that all of the deceased members of the Cotton family be disinterred. Investigating medical professor Dr. Thomas Scattergood, a leading forensic scholar at the time from Leeds University, announced that the Cotton household had succumbed to the same ingested poison.

Quickly tried, Mary Ann Cotton, who the press had dubbed "Lady Rotten," was abruptly found guilty and hanged at Durham County Gaol on March 24, 1873. The Cotton home, which still stands unchanged today in Newcastle, is said to be haunted by her ghost.

Bodies in the Hog Yard

What Mrs. Cotton proved in England that one could get away with murder for many, many years Belle Gunness likewise proved in America. Belle even took the lesson a step further by escaping criminal justice, disappearing into oblivion but not anonymity. She even left behind probably an innocent man to take the rap for her.

When her farmhouse burned on a pre-dawn April morning in 1908, leaving in its rubble the bodies of Belle and the Gunness family, the townsfolk of LaPorte, Indiana, thought, "Poor Belle!" But, within weeks, the sentiment had changed as it became evident that "poor Belle" was the country's most prolific murderess. As volunteers began clearing away the debris, they were uncovering body after body, all poisoned, and mutilated, under the soil in her hog pen.

When Belle Poulsdatter migrated from her native Norway to America in 1883, she first lived with her sister Anna and her husband in Chicago. There, she met and married department store guard Mads Sorenson, serving as a faithful wife without inciting any recorded chicanery in her daily life. Unable to conceive, she and Mads adopted three children Jennie, Myrtle and Lucy from other Nordic immigrants who could not afford them. Family life was happily domestic until 1900 when Mads died of an undetermined cause. His wife's grief faded after she received an $8,000 life insurance payoff.

Packing up her household goods and children, Belle left Chicago for the quiet pastoral village of LaPorte, located just over the Indiana border. Mostly Nordic in population, the community turned out with housewarming gifts for the newcomers when Belle and her brood moved into an abandoned farmhouse just outside of town.


Physically, the Widow Sorenson was a woman of wide girth, weighing nearly 300 pounds, with the face of a weathered Viking. But, she could turn on a sexual charm that magnetized men. She oozed a Diamond Lil come-hitherness that was, in a word, risqué for the times. Some females of the local church congregation even remarked aside that they thought her Sunday bodice was a bit low-cut.

She wasn't in LaPorte long before a good fellow named Peter Gunness appeared on her farm. By occupation, he was her handyman, but by observation a lot more. Suddenly the widow had a beau; suddenly she was married. A widower, Gunness brought a small fortune to his newfound family. Belle's money woes were over.

However, it wasn't long after the town came to the wedding that it then attended Gunness' funeral. His death had been unexpected, it had been tragic. A large iron meat grinder had tumbled off a high shelf in the kitchen to crack his skull wide open.

An ensuing inquest left the county coroner skeptical, but there was no evidence to support foul play beyond his own suspicions. At the hearing, one member of the board recalled Belle "moaning with her fingers before her eyes (but) peeking alertly between them to check the effect she was making." Death was ruled accidental and Belle retrieved Gunness' insurance money.

Over the next four years, Belle had laborers come and go. They would show up at the beginning of harvest, and then disappear sometimes before the crop was picked. Some of them became her suitors, as Old Man Gunness had been. With these masculine types she would parade through town, showing off the new plumed hats they bought her or flaunting the new surrey they just purchased. Just as the town got to know their names, though, every one of them faded into the ether. Wringing her hands, she would tell neighbors how they just "upped and were gone" one day. Poor Belle, they thought, poor Belle.

The widow advertised for farmhands in a Midwest newspaper called The Scandinavian, which was targeted at the Norwegian immigrant. Billing herself a widow in need of muscle, she chose those interested parties who seemed to have more than just  muscle. It was their bankroll that mattered. With these callers she eventually sought the prospects of a longer-term relationship. Mostly widowers, they visited her, fell in love with her home-cooked meals (and the sexual innuendoes she undoubtedly exhibited), and stayed. For a while, anyway; at least before they vanished.

Fate eventually caught up with Belle Gunness. Or...Belle Gunness may have manipulated her own fate. What really happened is argued even today.

On the brisk morning of April 28, 1908, the Gunness farmhouse caught fire and burned to a cinder. In the cellar, below where the conflagration had caused the upper stories to collapse, salvagers found the identified remains of Belle's children. Near their bodies was the corpse of an older woman, headless. Immediate supposition was that Belle and her kin were murdered by someone who then set her home ablaze.

A farmhand named Ray Lamphere, suspected of being Belle's latest lover, was arrested for homicide. But, as the townsfolk began picking through the surrounding property, they came upon one cadaver after another, most buried in the hog pen beside the foundation. The farm proved to be a graveyard for all of Belle's fleeting suitors and then some. When tested, many of the bodies indicated signs of arsenic poisoning. Others had had their skulls cracked by blunt instruments.

Among the interred was Belle's oldest daughter whom everyone in town had been told had gone off to college.

Poor Belle was not what the citizens of LaPorte had thought.

But in the end, the question remained: Was that Belle's body in the ruins or was it someone placed there by the Black Widow to stage her own death? The court chose a simple answer and convicted Lamphere for murder. Although Belle was undoubtedly a killer herself, the official verdict read that her lover and possible accomplice did in his employer, whether in jealousy or revenge.

The townsfolk of LaPorte, however, chided the ruling. They believed, as they still believe today, that Belle Gunness merrily skipped off, perhaps to kill again.

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