Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part Two

Black Widows II

Drawing of Mary Ann Cotton
Drawing of Mary Ann Cotton

Belle Sorrenson Gunness, a Norwegian-American, insured her first husband and two of her children before killing them in the early 1900s and collecting the money. She took her other two children and bought a pig farm in Indiana, which she turned into a graveyard. Her then-husband, Peter Gunness was first. He was found under a large meat-grinder, his skull crushed. Belle soon put "lonely hearts" ads in the paper and those men who answered those ads disappeared.

When a fire leveled the place in 1908, investigators looked for Belle's burned body and began to turn up one corpse after another that had been interred in the farm's foundation or buried in the yard. The charred body of a headless woman was thought at first to be Belle, but the size and height were wrong. Then her two remaining children were found buried there as well. All of the victims had been poisoned. A handyman seen running from the fire was charged with arson, but he insisted that Belle was still alive. It was she who had burned down the house, faked her death, and then left. He'd even driven her to the railroad station. He also said that she'd had 49 victims — far more than the official estimates of a dozen or so. People speculated that some of her victims had been fed to the pigs. Belle was sighted many times, but always managed to get away. Then in 1931 in Los Angeles, an elderly woman named Ester Carlson was charged for killing her husband. Before her trial commenced, she died, and someone who had known Belle recognized her from a photo in the newspaper. The police found a trunk in a room where the deceased woman had been staying and it contained photos of Belle's children. Belle Gunness had managed to get away yet again.

Belle Gunness with her three children
Belle Gunness with her
three children

The "giggling grandma," Nannie Doss, dispatched four husbands during the 1940s and 50s, but she claimed that she'd done it for love, not money. She wanted the perfect mate and the men she had married failed to measure up. It was easy enough to slip each of them rat poison and move on to the next prospect — but also collect the insurance money. She also killed her mother, two sisters, two children, a grandson and a nephew by poisoning. Michael Newton points out that she had been molested by several men, hinting at a possible motive, but in a memoir that she penned from prison for Life magazine, she said she had killed because she enjoyed it.

Nannie Doss
Nannie Doss

Among the most prolific Black Widows was Vera Renczi in Hungary during the early part of the century. After she'd get involved with a man, she would suddenly grow jealous and afraid of rejection, so she would kill her lovers one by one. She then preserved the remains. When she later confessed and led investigators into her basement, they found her son (who had tried to blackmail her), her two husbands, and her many lovers in 35 separate zinc coffins.

Many Black Widows include their children among their victims, but women who kill only their children are another breed altogether.

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