Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part Two

Murder Mystery

Marie Noe
Marie Noe

Some people believed she was the unluckiest mother alive. Life magazine even did a story on her in 1963 as the most famous bereaved mother in the country. Marie Noe had one child after another, ten in all, and every single one of them died. One was stillborn, one died right after birth, but the others had all seemed healthy. Only one lived as long as 14 months. For each there was an investigation, and for eight of them the conclusion was the same: sudden infant death syndrome, also known as SIDS.

Then on June 28, 1999, Noe shocked those involved with the cases when she pleaded guilty in Philadelphia to killing her children. The second shock came when it was learned what the sentence would be: 20 years probation. She was 70. She wasn't going to have any more children, that was true, but how did 20 years amount to punishment for the deaths of all those children? Andrea Yates got life in prison for five and Susan Smith for two.

Perhaps it was because the confession itself was in some doubt.

The murder spree seems to have begun in 1949, when her first child was born, and to have ended in 1968. All were dead within months after birth, yet the autopsies were inconclusive. There was no evidence of violence or foul play, but an adult can smother a child without leaving a mark.

Stephen Fried, a reporter for Philadelphia Magazine, got interested in the case when he spotted some clips about Noe in a book called The Death of Innocents. That author claimed that any multiple cases of SIDS from the same family should be investigated as potential murder. Fried interviewed the Noes, the medical examiner, and other parties, and then after writing his story, he gave his findings to authorities on March 24, 1998. "We just weren't meant to have children," Noe had stated to him, while her husband had added, "The Lord needed angels." There was just too much oddity to this tale to accept past conclusions, so medical examiners reviewed the autopsy reports and thought it likely that the children had been smothered. In retrospect, health care workers recalled Noe has being "emotionally flat" with regard to all her losses and as rarely visiting the children when they were hospitalized. She had assumed that each child would die quickly, and a nun remembered that Noe had once threatened a baby during feeding with, "You better take this or I'll kill you."

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