Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

The Most Aggressive New Breed

As the Rockwellian pace of gentler things passed, the hunger of the Black Widow increased. Nave husbands and innocent children continued to serve as their sacrificial lambs.

In a world more attuned to violence World War II had been the awakening factor tranquility was tested. The Forties and Fifties brought odd revelations, and the Sixties clinched the fact that there was more inside humanity than meets the eye. New terms such as sociopath emerged in the English language to put an even darker side on the id and the ego than Herr Freud had already placed there. Psychopaths extended beyond the image of greasecake weirdoes in a Boris Karloff movie and stepped off the set onto the streets of the world.

As the decades wore on, the serial killer became much too commonplace. Stories about wives who killed their husbands, and mothers who snuffed out their babies no longer made universal headlines. Charles Manson's butcher job on Sharon Tate scared the pants off everyone, but since then Manson has been rivaled. And, frighteningly, much of the kind of stuff he's done becomes today not much more than an uncomfortable after-effect.

Notwithstanding, the after-taste of a murder committed by a woman does continue to haunt the "normal" brain that is geared to repel such a conception. Eric Hickey might argue that, "Female killers...do not instill the fear that male killers do," but male murderers do not sicken the positive good in humankind as when we hear that an upscale and angel-faced young lady shot her three children at point-blank range because they got in the way of her love life.

In Deadlier Than the Male, author Terry Manners presents recent statistics on latter 20th-Century female serial killers. Thirty-two percent are homemakers; 18 percent are nurses; 97 percent are Caucasian. Average age is thirty-three. Their major motive continues to be as it was when Mary Ann Cotton first decided to add arsenic to her first husband's favorite dish: Profit.

There seems to be one terrifying difference call it a trend in the latest series of Black Widow murders. Judging by the cases of the following five who's-who of later-20th Century Black Widowdom, she has grown colder and more vicious, if such a thing is possible. If these cases are to be considered a fair representation of this era's Black Widow (and, according to all the scholars, they are), then her target has varied to include more children and other relatives, even bystanders who have accidentally stepped into their path.

The prospect is alarming, yes, and illustrates that the Black Widow is alive and well and more active than ever as we enter a new millennium.

Grandma Venom

Nannie Doss (AP)

Nannie Doss loved her husbands to death and her children, her grandchildren, her sisters and her mother. And don't ever let it be said that Nannie didn't let their kindness go unnoticed, for every one of them gave her the (monetary) inspiration to go on, despite the odds. She murdered from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s.

Nannie, born Nancy Hazel a few years into the 20th Century, flew from an overpowering rural Alabaman father into the arms of a rural Alabaman husband in 1920. After bearing four children for Charley Briggs, she realized her marriage was going nowhere; she was a cook and a housekeeper and hadn't found any romance, the type she saw in the moving pictures at the local theatre. She wanted out.

Experimenting with arsenic-laden rat poison, she first rid herself of two of her runny-nosed toddlers. Arsenic worked well and, as she had heard, it proved undetectable. The doctor wrote off their deaths as stomach ailments. Perhaps Charley may have noticed something sinister in their deaths, and in his wife's recent scowls, for he flew the coop, probably saving his own hide in doing so. He let Nannie have the money collected from the kids' life insurance policies and didn't look back.

Nannie still hoped to find romance. Maybe, she thought, Frank Harrelson would bring it into her life. But, after she married him he proved to be less romantic than Charley. Frank Harrelson died as her two youngsters had previously died, of stomach ailments. His death occurred immediately after he devoured a plateful of Nannie's marvelous stewed prunes.

Husbands number three and four, Arlie Lanning and Richard Morton, came and went the same way. They had not been the knights she pined for and, to compensate for the time she lost with them, she was sure to take their homes and belongings and life insurance payouts when they kicked. Because Lanning had lived in North Carolina and Morton in Kansas, when they passed away quite expeditiously no one, especially the family doctor, was any wiser to her plots of elimination. By marrying men in various states, she was able to avoid detection this way for many decades.

Not that Nannie ever forgot her family ties back in Alabama. On occasional trips, she would be sure to visit the old folks at home. She was there when her daughter needed a babysitter for her son. Nannie's grandson happened to meet with a fatal accident while in her care and Nannie felt terrible (but was back in high spirits to collect the insurance refund from a policy she had taken out on the boy). And she was there when her sister took ill and died. And her mother took ill and died.

She married her fifth and last husband, Richard Doss, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early Fifties. But, when he died (again, after eating Nannie's stewed prunes), Doss' doctor, who knew his medical history, grew wary. He ordered an autopsy.

When the professional discovered that his patient's stomach contained rat poison, the police apprehended the jolly widow at home. Her marriage record was traced state-to-state and obliging authorities allowed investigators to exhume her spouses. All had met Doss' fate. Nannie confessed.

During her trial, newspapers dubbed her "The Giggling Granny" because she nervously chuckled whenever she discussed her killings. The public was stunned that this overweight, graying, motherly creature in bifocals could have slain so many so long. However, the jury wasn't fooled. It pronounced her guilty and recommended life behind bars.

To the end, Nannie played the lovesick schoolgirl. "I killed'em for love," she told reporters. "My husbands were dull, and all I wanted was romance."

The Poison Queen

Occasionally one comes across a Black Widow with a slight mix of characteristics found usually in other female serial killer classifications. Such was Marie Besnard, the most famous of Gallic warlocks. She worked a good part of her 22-year career with a male accomplice, that trait of "partnering" being rare among the Black Widow breed. And yet, she is of that breed, for all her murders were motivated strictly by self-gain and the majority of her victims were relatives and in-laws.

A native of Loudon, France, Marie Davaillaud married Auguste Antigny in 1920. She was 23 years old, he closer to thirty and a kissing cousin. What contentment the union brought rapidly weakened until, by 1927, Marie had had enough of Antigny. The latter did not live long enough to see 1928.

A year later, the widow had remarried Leon Besnard. He wasa scamp and every bit as formative ano-goodnik as his wife; it was truly a marriage made in hell. They were cons, the pair of them, swindlers, cheats and eventual serial killers. Together, the two hatched a get-rich-quick scheme to poison off their relatives, collecting their inheritances, one by one.

To go about this, they used stealth. For many months the couple made furtive endeavors to cement their relationships with both their families parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and just about everyone they could think of within the Besnard and Davaillaud circles to insure their place on their respective wills. Marie and Leon Besnard evidently had acting talent; their plan worked well.

Marie is perceived as having been the "brains" of the partnership. Whether or not this is true, and it seems to be true, Besnard was a willing and adept disciple. The first to go were his two spinster aunts, each in the money, each regarding their nephew and his lovely new wife as a wholesome young couple. One aunt went to her grave in 1938, the other two years later, after sipping a bottle of gift wine. Both aunts bequeathed a sizeable reward for the Besnard's kindness to them in life.

Between the years 1940 and 1947, members of both inter-related families may have thought that a curse had visited them. The Davaillauds and Besnards dropped like flies; Marie's father; Besnard's father and sister; cousins Pauline and Virginie Lalleron, in that order. Causes of death were suspiciously imitative, either of water in the lungs or of cerebral hemorrhaging, but not a single doctor noted the similarities.

According to the Kellehers' Murder Most Rare, the villainous man and wife team aimed their poisonous arrows at others besides their immediate family another standard Black Widow factor from which Marie ventures. Neighbors, too, were their targets. The deadly Besnards convinced an aged, sickly and very rich couple named Rivet to lodge with them that they might tend to their faltering health. The nave elders, completely duped, moved in with Marie and Leon, only to pass away just after their arrival. Before they died, they had shown their appreciation to the Besnards by leaving their total wealth to these guardian angels.

Leon Besnard fell trap to his own devices in 1947 when his partner, Marie, spiked his wine with a taste of his own medicine. The lady had fallen in love with another man and figured it was time for Leon's exit.

In control of all the money now, Marie grew dizzy with power. She became greedier. And stupid. She killed her mother, then, when she heard the neighborhood was gossiping, physically went about door-to-door threatening the chatterboxes with their lives. She was arrested.

Leon Besnard was exhumed and his body proved toxic. So were the cadavers of those family and in-laws whom she killed. She was charged with thirteen counts of murder. But, in the end, as unbelievable as it seems, Marie beat the rap.

With her vast wealth, and at a time when the world was influenced by wealth, she was able to hire France's top defense team who managed to maneuver three separate trials, between 1951 and 1961, into hung juries.

By escaping justice so remarkably, wrote the Kellehers, "Marie Besnard rewrote the definition of the perfect crime and eclipsed even the remarkable legend of Belle Gunness."

No Georgia Peach

Black Widows generally do not have a criminal record before their active burst. Many of them, up to the time before they commit their first murder, have spotless civic reputations and are often caryatids of faith, family and community. There is little forewarning of trouble. In a layman's vernacular, they simply snap.

But... is that word misleading? Experts on serial killers would argue that Black Widows are not insane. They would agree that Janie Lou Gibbs, although a recognized church pillar and devoted mother, was of sound mind and deliberate strategy when she murdered her husband, three children and a grandson in Cordele, Georgia, for their life insurance policies.

Her first victim was husband Marvin Gibbs, who died after eating one of his wife's family meals in 1965. Collapsing at home, he was rushed to the hospital where doctors blamed his death on the effects of a previously undiagnosed liver disease. There followed a general outpouring of sympathy from the Gibbs' fellow church members, other Christian Fundamentalists, who came forth to offer the widow and her children consolation and support. In appreciation, Janie donated part of the money she received from Marvin's life insurance policy to the church.

One year later, 13-year-old Marvin, Jr., died of what was diagnosed as a similar ailment. Again the community assembled and again bowed its heads in prayer for the reassurance of the unfortunate Gibbses. Again, Janie proudly gave her congregation a percentage of the insurance payout.

Within months of his brother's funeral, Lester Gibbs, who had just turned sixteen, developed a series of dizzy spells and headaches. When he was found dead in January, 1967, the hospital pronounced it hepatitis. At his wake, out of earshot from the weeping mother prostrate over the coffin, general dialogue ruminated about the plague that seemed to have struck the Gibbs family. What the hell is going on? they asked in a more pedantic manner.

When her tears subsided, Janie announced she wanted to give the church another sum of money left to her.

Throughout much of 1967, peace seemed to have come to the household. Janie's oldest son, Roger, and his wife were expecting their first child. Janie's attention seemed to have turned from dark days to the upcoming baby. In August, she beamed for all to see when she became a grandmother.

By September, both baby Raymond and his dad were dead.

Medical men could not understand what happened to the newborn. He had been healthy, strong, with organs in perfect working order. Even an autopsy failed to detect anything anatomically wrong.

As for Roger, his kidneys had seemed to just quit working without any apparent cause, and again an autopsy resulted in a non-conclusion. The hospital grew suspicious, especially since his son had died only weeks earlier, also of undetectable origin. The family physician called in the state crime lab to consult.

Results strongly evidenced arsenic poisoning. Armed with this information, authorities disinterred the remains of the other Gibbs children and the grandson for like examination. When results came in affirmative, Janie Gibbs was arrested.

Her lawyers pleaded her insanity, but the State of Georgia was not swayed. The Georgian Black Widow, no peach of a woman, is still in prison where she is serving a life sentence for each of her victims.

Almost a Perfect Crime

The deaths of Waneta Hoyt's children in New York State were, for many years, framed in scholarly medical publications as concrete examples of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. SIDS is a tragic and spontaneous illness that kills children literally overnight in their beds; it is believed to be genetic and gives no warning signals. Simply, it causes "loss of breath," according to an article in the New York Times, and children suffocate in their sleep.

In researching SIDS for a scholastic industry study of the disease, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, a pediatrician from Syracuse's Upstate Medical Center, learned in 1972 that the Hoyt family of Oswego had lost five of its six children to a SIDS-like affliction between the years 1965 and 1971. The Hoyt case (identified in his paper only as "the H. case" for respect of the family's privacy) became landmark and Steinschneider's findings appeared in medical journals and magazines worldwide, including the highly respected Pediatrics magazine, in October of 1972.

Steinschneider details the deaths of several toddlers who died from SIDS, which he believes is an advanced form of apnea, a failure of a child's internal breathing apparatus. Among the case histories examined are the deaths of Molly and Noah, the last two Hoyt children to die.

In 1986, New York State Prosecutor William Fitzpatrick was researching infant-death statistics for a case he was conducting against a mother who allegedly murdered her infant. He came upon Steinschneider's report and, in reading about the "H" case, was struck by stark similarities between the murder case he was prosecuting and the symptoms of the disease that killed the Hoyt kids. The more he studied youth mortalities, the more he truly believed that the Hoyt children were murdered by someone in their family.

Despite the professionalism of the medical verbiage and the excellent, earnest work done by Dr. Steinschneider, Fitzpatrick remained unconvinced that the five Hoyt youngsters ranging from six weeks to two years at the time of their deaths died of natural causes.

That skepticism haunted him. When appointed District Attorney of Onondaga County (New York) in 1992, he secretly opened an investigation on the Hoyts. He sought the help of fellow DA Bob Simpson of neighboring Tioga County, where the Hoyts lived. Medical files were reviewed, doctors were questioned and evidence was drawn from the investigative files of each of the five Hoyt children. When the two district attorneys were certain they had accrued enough evidence, Simpson issued an arrest order for the children's mother, Waneta E. Hoyt, in March of 1994.

Forty-six year-old Waneta denied all allegations until she broke down under interrogation. She admitted that she could not endure the children's crying and, frustrated, not knowing how to quiet them, simply smothered them either under their pillow or by pushing their faces against her breast. Her first victim had been three-month-old Eric, on January 25, 1965. Six-week-old Julie died on September 5, 1968, to be followed by her two-year-old brother, James, two weeks later.

Two years passed before Waneta and her husband decided to have more children. At the time, friends praised the mother's bravery; she had lost three of her four children and yet (as they saw it) she took on the odds despite great personal anguish. Molly Hoyt was born in 1970, but died a year later. Noah came into the world in 1971, only to leave it in 1972.

Waneta sits in a state prison today, for life. Perhaps her greatest aberration is the memory she has of her children, the tiny, helpless faces she sees in her dreams, night after night.

One Busy Lady

Blanche Taylor Moore of Alamance County, North Carolina, could not have fashioned herself as another Nannie Doss any better than if her predecessor came back to life herself. But, while Nannie was basically a congenial sort well, on the surface Blanche leaned towards the moody and grim.

A product of a Depression-era alcoholic father who forced her into prostitution to pay family bills, Blanche Kiser finally found an escape from this dysfunctional home. She flew her small burgh of Tarheel by grabbing the first man who asked her to marry him. She was 19 years old; husband Jim Taylor was twenty-four. The year was 1952.

Rash or not, the marriage ran happily for many years. Blanche bore two children, one in 1953 and another in 1959. After a decade of harmony, however, the relationship began to crumble. Jim found another love, the amber-toned Lady Whiskey, whom he would enjoy at the local tavern every night after work. To compensate for her abandonment and to buff the pain of her husband's newfound recreation which was so reminiscent of her hated father Blanche found a replacement, too. But, hers was flesh and blood. In fact, there followed a queue of many men, any one who listened to her and held her like she wanted to be held.

By 1966, Blanche had had enough of kisses going nowhere. As if Jim Taylor's binges had reawakened girlhood nightmares, and as if she thought eradicating the unpromising past would erase the disappointing present, Blanche began to pave the way for a new fulfilling life for herself.

She committed her first murder by killing her father, Parker Kiser. During a visit, she dumped a spoonful of arsenic into the disagreeable old man's beer stein. After his funeral, when she realized that her act had saved her nothing, she returned to the escapist arms of lover Raymond Reid, a stockman at the local grocers. In the meantime, she contemplated the snuffing out of husband Taylor.

Taylor was destined to go (after eating one of Blanche's meals), but not before his invalid mother, for whom Blanche cleaned and cooked on a daily basis. Once Taylor had safely deposited the inheritance from his deceased mother into the family bank account, he inadvertantly signed his death warrant. Like Mr. Kiser's and Widow Taylor's, Jim Taylor's death was diagnosed as natural.

Boyfriend Reid's remonstrance of marriage suddenly began to peter off. The cold feet he encountered may have been attributed to a suspicion he felt about the all-too-easy removal of roadblocks on their way to the altar. If so, Blanche sensed his caution and soon Raymond Reid was a tombstone in the local cemetery. She had poisoned him a little at a time, slowly, surely, to perplex the town doctors. In the end, they attributed his illness and death to a hard-to-treat anatomical quirk.

Before she put Reid six feet under, by the way, Blanche had maneuvered him into signing over half of his property. She may have lost a fiancee, but she gained 50 grand.

Blanche didn't blanch at the prospect of a new meal ticket. She now set her sites on the new pastor of the local United Congregational Church. Reverend Dwight Moore and she met in 1985 at a community function. A thorough planner, Blanche wrapped herself in the cloak of a wholesome middle-age widow seeking Christian comfort and a happy retirement. The reverend bit. Over the next four years their relationship escalated until they became man and wife in 1989.

Her name on both his will and bank account, Blanche proved expeditious in attempting to unload herself of the cleric. On their honeymoon, she made sure that his breakfast included bacon, waffles and arsenic. Moore grew ill and had to be rushed to the hospital. Somehow, he survived. Doctors said he had caught a virus.

Back in North Carolina only a few days, Moore's symptoms returned. Worse than before. Once more, his bride brought him to a hospital. Routine tests again indicated signs of a virus.

But, unlike others she had encountered, Blanche found the doctors at North Carolina Memorial Hospital much more astute and suspicious. They ordered toxic tests. In doing so, they not only saved Reverend Moore's life, but undoubtedly the lives of other well-off males Blanche would have caught in her web. The results of the tests performed on the pastor concluded that he had ingested a great deal of arsenic over the previous week a great deal of poison, in fact. That he lived was a miracle from God.

Moore at sentencing (AP)


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