Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

The Innovators

There are three reasons that the years prior to World War II are considered to have been the "best" years for the Black Widow.

  1. Forensic science was a budding field, emphasis on budding. Much of the technology of chasing murderers, though considered gee-whiz at the time, would later prove faulty. The worlds of policing and science were decades from melding.
  2. The medical field had not yet grown as the right-shoulder to law enforcement it would become in later years. While sudden and undiagnosed deaths today prompt blood testing, DNA investigation and autopsies, back then the regime of most doctors was small-town. Bluntly, unless there was a hard line cause to suspect foul play, the deceased were not examined nor was the constabulary alerted.
  3. The attitude prevailed that women don't kill. Well, yes, there were the highborn women of dubious means and custom, the sort that filled the pages of dime novels and badly written gazettes, but in all, no, women were not evil-bent. The pedestal upon which femaledom perched was unshakable and stood firm against any suspicion. If a woman lost her husband overnight, the pedestal withstood and she walked away with, at the very most, an elevated, inquiring eyebrow behind her, watching her leave.

It was the Horatio Alger Age, the Civilized Days, when both America and Europe strove for positive natures and gentle lives. That untoward things occurred in the dark was understood but, overall, often ignored.

Here are five of that era's most notorious Black Widows.

Gilligan's Deadland

Amy and James Archer opened Sister Amy's Nursing Home for the Elderly in 1901 in Newington, Connecticut, and quickly earned a reputation as genteel caretakers of New England's wealthy aged. Although neither Amy's or James' qualifications bespoke a background in medicine, their establishment offered the right therapies and tonics to keep its senior patients happy and comfortable. So successful was the clinic that six years later, its proprietors relocated a few miles outside Newington to Windsor where they opened the more commodious, more up-to-date Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm.

That is when strange things began to happen, albeit slowly and subtly at first. Inside its whitewashed walls, patients died mysteriously without any cause. The attending physician, a personal friend of the Archers named Howard King, wrote each death off as old age. Even when Amy's husband dropped dead, the senile Dr. King innocently ascribed his death as "natural". Amy wept over James' coffin, King comforted the pretty brunette, and then Sister Amy went to the insurance office and filed for the claim issued previously on her husband's life.

Amy didn't remain a widow long. She wed Michael W. Gilligan in 1913, a wealthy widower, who pitched in to help with the business operation and merged his bank account with Amy's. He failed to see anything unusual in the death toll at his wife's rest home — a volume exceeding ten mortalities per annum, all from "old age". He obviously never paused to consider that most of the unfortunates had nothing seriously wrong with them medically or, in some cases, were quite physically agile.

He should have given the matter more thought, for he too eventually contracted a high fever and cramping after one of Amy's standard "nutritional" meals. Dr. King once again came forth to put pen to paper. "Natural," he wrote after Cause of Death on Mr. Gilligan's death certificate.

Although most Black Widows are cautious to a fault, Amy Archer-Gilligan's tactics were anything but obscure. And relatives of dead patients wondered why their parents or grandparents were very able bodied until they happened to sign an agreement allowing Nurse Gilligan to withdraw extravagant sums of money from their account for personal lifetime-care benefits and personal needs. Such happened to Franklin Andrews, after he signed, Maude Lynch after she signed, Alice Gowdy and a sad parade of others after they signed. An estimated forty-plus. Hometown police finally investigated in 1916.

In the storerooms at the Archer clinic, investigators found large inventories of bottled arsenic; Amy explained that it was used to kill rats and other vermin. Neither the police nor investigators were convinced. A body of the last patient to succumb was exhumed and, as suspected, murderous quantities of arsenic were found in her system. More bodies were disinterred and the results matched. Even her last husband, Gilligan, had met equal fate.

After a long and hot trial in Hartford, Connecticut, Amy Archer-Gilligan was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But, erratic behavior behind bars led authorities to believe she was insane after all. She was commuted to a state asylum where she passed away, muttering to herself in her two-by-four cell, in 1928.

The Psychic 

Chicago has always claimed a large Polish population, and in the first quarter of the 20th Century most of them lived in the Near North Side. The people, mostly a God-fearing, law-abiding nationality would like to forget one of their own, however. Her name was Ottilie (Tillie) Gburek.

They called Tillie a psychic, her neighbors did. She had an uncanny talent of foreseeing the future. Better put, she was able to discern — she said it came to her in dreams — almost the exact dates of death for all her five husbands as well as certain neighbors on her block. She was never wrong. Well, only once.

Her bad habits began rather late for the average Black Widow, at age 49, the age when most of them cease their activities. The year was 1919 when she predicted the death of John Mitkiewicz, her husband of twenty-nine years. As she told a friend, she dreamed of finding his corpse on a certain day a few weeks ahead. Sure enough, her spouse fell ill on the named morning and died that night. The acquaintance to whom she had confided her portent was awed, especially to see with what alacrity Tillie flew to the insurance company for the check.

Tillie liked men and she didn't remain in grief long. Before two months were up, she married laborer John Ruskowski. Too sadly, Ruskowski swiftly became the subject of another of Tillie's nighttime reveries. That is what she told neighbors on her block. Those who laughed at the biddy's forewarning alarmed when husband number two did indeed keel over on the figured date.

Frank Kupszcyk came next, shortly thereafter — to the altar for his marriage and back to the altar in his coffin six months later. Like Mitkiewicz and Ruskowski, Kupszcyk had been a man of means; his bride had seen to that. And she had also seen to it that his life insurance policy entitled her to sole beneficiary benefits before she peppered his vegetable soup with arsenic.

Within a year, Tillie had taken the vows again, to Joseph Guszkowski, and then attended his funeral, feigning incredulity at her ill luck and cursing her ominous dreams for all to hear.

Tillie had been verbal about his death, too, in advance. It is believed she even told the victim, Guszkowski, who laughed at her. Now, with her third foretelling proven correct, the seer had gained a local notoriety. "One wonders how Gburek was able to attract...husbands given her chilling reputation," muse Michael D. and C.L. Kelleher in Murder Most Rare.  Those who knew her began to avoid her when they saw her nearing on the sidewalk; they did not want to hear about their own death.

Old World superstition maybe, but they had good cause to recoil. It was common knowledge that she had had a vision of a terrible plague striking a particular family on the block, the offshoot being that within weeks that family's three children died agonizing deaths. (What the rumor didn't relay was that Tillie and that family had had a heated argument days before the prediction.)

The Klimek family grew worried when its son and brother, Anton, decided to chuck practicality and marry Tillie in 1921. "She iz a goot vooman," he shouted back at more logical folks, "and I'm a healsy man zat intents to ztay healsy!" The healthy man and the new Mrs. Klimek co-signed a last will and testament, leaving all their possessions to each other. And the healthy man turned feeble overnight.

When he was near the point of death, his family did what Tillie wasn't doing. They rushed him to a hospital in the nick of time. He lived, but an examination showed that he had ingested poison by the tablespoons. The hospital notified the police department.

Faced with the possibility of having her former husbands' remains unearthed, and thus being charged with three murders, Tillie confessed to poisoning Klimek.

An actress to the last, she stood up in the Cook County Courthouse as if in a trance, chanting that the netherworld defied the mortals to send her to death. She would not be executed for her crimes, she oathed. But, it was the law's turn now to be prophetic. It promised to keep her in prison for the remainder of her life.

The prophecy came true.

Passion and Paranoia 

The most bizarre character in this chapter is Bucharest's Vera Renczi. She differs from most Black Widows because her motive was jealousy, not profit. Her obsession was not her men's money, but their devotion. This Hungarian beauty had many suitors and trusted not one of them. Before she was apprehended, Vera had killed two husbands, a son and an estimated thirty-two lovers.

Born in 1903, she was the product of a fading aristocratic family. Her inability as a young woman to maintain a male/female relationship was blamed on a spoiled-rich-girl attitude; her friends said that the moment she was not the center of her boyfriend's attention, she would flee. The roots of her problem went much deeper, though, and drilled into a firmly-implanted belief that she could not trust men. Her low self-esteem became dangerous, however, as she grew into adulthood. If she suspected her man was eyeing another woman, she no longer merely dropped him — but dropped him dead.

Her first marriage to an older man was a disaster. She pathologically suspected him of cheating. Left at home daily with their one child, a son, she pictured her mate not at work where he was supposed to be, but in the arms of one of his co-workers or with whomever he chanced upon; her suspicions were invalid, impractical and unfounded, but to her, frighteningly real. So that he could no longer look at another woman, she tinctured his wine with arsenic one evening and disposed of his body. No doubt, she conjured up tears to tell family and friends that he had run off.

And she wept in front of them a second time several years later when yet another husband disappeared. She had poisoned him, also, convinced of his disloyalty to her.

The one reasonable choice Madame Renczi made in her life was to never marry again. But, if that decision was erstwhile, it came to no avail as she continued to carry on relationships, one after another, slaying each "wandering" Lothario after a matter of a few weeks or months -- sometimes days. Her men were rich and poor and tall and squat and handsome and homely; they were cheerful and silent and boisterous and shy. Chances are, many of them were truly in love with her, but she saw in them an infidelity nevertheless. The empty affection she observed was, though she didn't realize it, actually a self-mirrored image.

At one point in her wayward career, her son Lorenzo, who had grown into manhood, stumbled upon the truth of Mama's pastime. He tried to blackmail her, but learned the hard way that one doesn't shove a poisoner against the wall. Lorenzo went au revoir.

Because several of Vera's male friends had been married and had to conduct their liaisons with her with some adroitness — a fact which may have added to her skepticism of male consistency — oftentimes the wives became suspicious. It was a scorned wife who brought about the Black Widow's ultimate undoing. The lady had traced her husband to Vera's doorstep one evening and, after he failed to emerge the following sunrise, and after Vera denied having known the man, she called the gendarme.

The police conducted a routine search of the Renczi residence and found more than a missing husband.

In her wine cellar, they came upon a tableaux right out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale: thirty-two male cadavers, each preserved in his own customized coffin. Vera, who was usually a fast talker, couldn't find the words to explain how they happened to be there resting in peace.

She spent the remainder of her natural life in prison, perhaps wondering why she hadn't just buried them. After all, a shovel would have cost her much less.

Bad News in Johannesburg

Known as "Lady Death," Daisy Louisa DeMelker of the British Republic of South Africa made short work of two husbands and, like Vera Renczi before her, a progeny who got in the way. She is also alleged to have committed other murders — those of a fiancée, another child, and seven other assorted acquaintances — that supposedly occurred before her recorded crimes.

Daisy Hancorn-Smith escaped the boredom of early 20th Century Rhodesia (and the discipline of her straight-laced, chin-chin British Army officer father) early in life. In 1907, she became engaged to a man named Fuller in South Africa. But, on the day of their scheduled nuptial, her betrothed expired from fever, Daisy at his bedside. Fuller left his 22-year-old intended a sum of £100 to carry on. She took the consolation prize and traveled to bustling Johannesburg, where she set herself up in an apartment.

In her new town, she met the owner of a lucrative plumbing business, William Cowle. Marrying him in 1909, she entered into a life marked by domestic tragedy. Four of the five children she bore died young, three of natural causes, one under questionable circumstances. Only one son, Cecil, survived. As for the parents, their years together passed without intimate growth. Their suffering only cut a gap between the couple.  After nearly fourteen years of mediocrity, the union ended with the death of Cowle. In January, 1923, he turned suddenly and violently ill. Doctors couldn't save him, simply because they couldn't diagnose his illness. He died screaming in pain. Lost for an answer, one physician termed the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhaging. His widow received a life insurance payoff of £1,700.

Three years later, Daisy remarried, this time to a Robert Sproat. Four months into wedded bliss, on a chilly November evening, Sproat awoke from an after-dinner nap, trembling and sweating. As the evening waned, his symptoms worsened. He spent his last hours enduring gut-wrenching convulsions. Officially, a brain hemorrhage killed him. Heartbroken Daisy's loss was seemingly overcome by the sizeable inheritance she was bequeathed.

In March, 1932, Daisy killed her son. Motives vary, depending upon the version of the story one reads. Some authors blame Daisy's want of Cecil's life insurance policy, but the Sunday Times Online (of South Africa) cites other interesting prospects: "(The son) seems to have been under the impression that he would come into an inheritance at the age of 21. Perhaps he was demanding more than (Daisy) could give him...(But) the most obvious answer is that she simply didn't like him."

Watching Daisy's escapades from the sidelines for many months had been Alfred Sproat, brother of Robert, her second husband. Alfred believed "Bob" was murdered and vowed to keep an eye on his sister-in-law's subsequent activities. In the first months of 1932, two episodes occurred that reinforced his suspicion. One was 19-year-old Cecil's death; the other was Daisy's marriage to a wealthy entrepreneur named Sidney DeMelker.

Alfred felt that DeMelker's life was now in danger, and he communicated his apprehension to the Johannesburg constabulary. Opening immediate investigation, agents learned that Daisy DeMelker had purchased large quantities of strychnine from the druggist shop, Rose Henville. Authorities recovered the bodies of her last two husbands and son Cecil from their graves for autopsy; the bones and several organs in each held traces of a toxin.

Daisy's ensuing trial was a media splash, possessing the kinetic drama and tawdry scenarios that tingled the bored Continental crowd. Mrs. DeMelker, however, did not enjoy it. Especially when the magistrate sentenced her to be hanged in December, 1932.

Had this Black Widow escaped her dues in Johannesburg, representatives from Rhodesia and other separate governments of Africa were standing by to arrest her for suspected poisonings in their domain. Among these was the murder of her fiancée, years earlier.

Fashion-Minded Murderess

Marie Alexandrina had always been a beautiful woman; she never had any trouble attracting the men in her hometown of Liege, Belgium. When 33 years old, she wed Charles Becker, who considered himself fortunate to have won such a lovely woman. And for twenty years she was indeed a faithful wife. But, after twenty years Marie had grown so bored with living with an unromantic laborer that she could scream. At 53 years old, she knew that the world offered much, much more. Her time, she determined, had come. So she laced Becker's tea with arsenic.

In no time flat, she found herself what she thought was romance on two feet and married it in a fling. However, the new husband, Lambert Bayer, proved to be another dud. She poisoned him, too, after a month's span. Wedded bliss now a myth, Marie decided to spend the remainder of her life flinging and sinning and chasing heartthrobs, wherever they could be found.

One problem remained. To move in the glamorous world she yearned, to meet the type of man she yearned, would require that she keep in step with the upper social class of Liege. As a widow of two middle-class bureaucrats, she had not inherited the kind of francs required to finance her dreams. The money she had received provided a practical toehold in a practical world, it even allowed her to open a small dress shop in a fashionable town square, but it fell short of fantasy.

Marie contrived a solution. Through her store, which offered couture and formal women's wear, she had become acquainted with a number of society's grand dames. Immersing herself in their space, she soon developed a friendship with many of them, often being invited to soirees and teas laid out in palatial courtyards. She convinced quite a few of these women of class to set her up as their sole dressmaker. That was step one.

Step two brought in the real money. The method, simple. Once invited over for a private fashion-session, during which tea and pastries would be served, Marie found an opportunity when the other wasn't looking to mix the elder's refreshments with a lethal dose of digitalis. (She carried a small vial of the liquid in her purse wherever she went.) As her host grabbed her banging chest, gasped for air, turned red and died, Marie helped herself to jewelry, cash and anything expensive she could stuff in her pockets.

For more than a year — from March, 1935 to September, 1936 — she killed ten women, among them models of the Liege aristocracy.

Marie had one big fault, that is, another big fault apart from the obvious. She talked incessantly — and talked and talked. One thoughtless evening in late 1936 she admitted the source of her income to a friend she thought could be considered a confrere. Marie erred. The next morning, the gendarmes came knocking at her door. She accused her acquaintance of spreading lies and almost managed to get away with it, until the police searched her rooms and found more bejeweled trinkets and knick-knacks stuffed in drawers and in trunks than were on display at the Louvre.

It was only due to the fact that Belgium rarely executed women that Marie Alexandrina Becker was saved from the gallows. She died serving a life sentence in prison. No jewels, no men, no dreams.
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