Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part Two

Black Widows I

Velma Barfield
Velma Barfield

Margie Velma Barfield's first husband died while drunk and smoking in bed. Because he was abusive like her father, there were those who believed that this "Death Row Granny" did him in, but that wasn't really her style. She preferred poison and she seemed to like to watch her victims die writhing in pain. Starting her killing career in her late 30s, she took out her second husband in 1971, followed by her mother. Both deaths were attributed to natural causes and both netted Barfield some money, which she desperately needed to feed her growing addiction to tranquilizers. In fact, it was this addiction that became her defense years later for committing four murders: she'd been in a fog and didn't know what she was doing when she fed arsenic to her victims. The jury convicted her and in 1984 she died by lethal injection in North Carolina.

Book cover: Murder Most Rare
Book cover: Murder Most Rare

A Black Widow is a woman who kills family members — generally a string of spouses. She's named after the deadly spider that mates with a male and then eats it, and according to Michael Kellerher in Murder Most Rare, she doesn't begin her killing until after she's 25. Her reasons are generally tied to personal gain (money, status) or to being rid of a burden, and she tends to kill for over a decade before she's finally stopped. She's not the classic serial killer who feels compelled by sexual or delusional motives, but she may certainly kill enough people in a similar manner to be called a serial killer. She tends not to kill strangers, but doesn't restrict her murderous activity to family. She's generally patient and fairly organized in her approach, and favors the use of poison.

Mary Ann Cotton killed her mother, all of her children, several stepchildren, an acquaintance, and four husbands with arsenic. They all died of "gastric fever," a diagnosis common in the 19th century.

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