The 1922 murder trial of Herbert Rowse Armstrong is discussed in the book currently in the works. Armstrong was the only lawyer hanged for murder in England — but was he really guilty? For more information, see “Dueling Wife Killers?” under British Cases tab.
For further reading on the case:
Beales, Martin. The Hay Poisoner (1995, 1997).
Clarke, Kate, “Major Armstrong of Hay,” Who Killed Simon Dale? (1993).
Fisher, Jim, Forensics Under Fire: Are Bad Science and Dueling Experts Corrupting Criminal Justice? (2008).
Graham, Evelyn, Lord Darling and His Famous Trials.
Jones, Frank. “A Tale of Two Lawyers,” Beyond Suspicion (1992).
Pearson, Edmund L. “Nineteen Dandelions,” in More Studies in Murder.
Rose, Andrew. Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist (2007).
Odell, Robin, Exhumation of a Murder (1975, 1978).
Young, Filson, ed. Notable British Trials: Trial of Herbert Rowse Armstong.
The 1819 crime itself was not so unusual for that time: highway robbery and murder. The waylaying and killing of travelers on the desolate roads leading into Charleston was not encouraged but also was not uncommon. The murderers, not the murders, made this trial noteworthy.
Lavinia Fisher has been called South Carolina’s most famous mass murderer—although only two bodies were found buried near Six Mile House tavern (located north of Charleston where Old Dorchester Road crosses Goose Creek Road at Ashley Ferry). Other gangs of highwaymen prowled the north roads, preying on upstate trappers and farmers bringing goods into Charleston. But, unlike run-of-the-mill highwaymen, Lavinia earned a spot in Charleston legend. By all accounts, she was tall and strikingly beautiful, though no one describes whether she was fair or dark. Her husband John was tall and handsome, and together they commanded a ruthless band of ruffians. Lavinia, the most ruthless of all, dispatched her victims by poisoning their breakfasts. Another tale—but unsupported—tells of a collapsing bed that dumped bodies into the tavern basement.
On February 18, 1819, mounted vigilantes rode out to capture the notorious Fisher gang. Not knowing which tavern housed the gang, the posse burned Five Mile House, then proceeded to Six Mile House where the Fishers and others were captured.
They were jailed in the old Magazine Street Jail until their trial and hanging for the crime of highway robbery. Judge Elihu Bay—a colorfully eccentric jurist, elderly, deaf, and beset by a painful stutter—presided at the trial.
Lavinia, ruthless in life, was not brave in the face of the hangman’s noose. She and John used every delaying tactic available–even gaining a respite from the governor to give them a few extra days to “meet their God.” (Dr. Richard Furman–Furman University is his namesake–prayed daily with the Fishers and even walked with them to the gallows.)
The ladies of Charleston rallied to Lavinia’s cause, petitioning to spare her. In the end, she mounted the scaffold, apparently still expecting a reprieve. It didn’t come. Stories say she screamed to the crowd: “If you have a message you want to send to Hell, give it to me–I’ll carry it!” and carried herself into Charleston legend.
See also, Caskey, James, Blog: “The Top 10 Lies Told About Charleston’s Lavinia Fisher” (October 17, 2014) [http://www.jamesbcaskey.com/2014/10/lavinia-fisher-charleston/]
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, Charleston Mysteries (2007)
Merrett and Spilsbury
With the ever-increasing reach of forensic science success stories comes cautionary tales.
For me, one of the most sobering exposés has been that of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Read enough forensics books, especially from England, and you’ll know his name. He may have handled more classic cases than any other forensic expert, starting with the Crippen case [see British Cases Tab]. But later experts have called into question whether he was really an expert—or just a good showman.
Spilsbury, aided by a “celebrity” firearms expert, helped acquit Donald Merrett of killing his mother. According to Merrett, his mother was sitting at her desk writing and he was standing nearby when she shot herself. The prosecution expert pointed out the absence of gunpowder residue or stippling near the wound, meaning the gun wasn’t near her head when it discharged. And she couldn’t, within reasonable belief, have held the gun at the angle needed to create that trajectory. Nonetheless, the star power of the experts convinced the jury that Donald was wrongly accused and set him free.
He inherited his mother’s estate, promptly spent it all, and later murdered both his wife and mother-in-law. He fled to Germany and killed himself as the police caught up to him, avoiding another trial, with or without forensic evidence.
For more, see Jim Fisher, Forensics Under Fire: Are bad science and dueling experts corrupting criminal justice? (2008).
Andrew Rose, Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist (2007).
For a sampling of other interesting glimpses inside forensic science:
Block, Eugune B., The Wizard of Berkeley: Edward Oscar Heinrich (1967).
Block, Eugene B., Science vs. Crime: The Evolution of the Crime Lab (1979).
Camps, Francis E., Camps on Crime (1973).
Camps, F.E. with Richard Barber, The Investigation of Murder (1966).
Douglas, John and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (1995) and later books.
Lane, Brian, The Encyclopedia of Forensic Science (UK: 1992).
May, Luke S., Crime’s Nemesis (1936).
Ragle, Larry, Crime Scene (1995, 2002).
Ressler, Robert and Tom Schactman, Whoever Fights Monsters: My 20 Years Hunting Serial Killers for the FBI (1992).
Thorwald, Jürgen, Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology (1966, translated from German).
Thorwald, Jürgen, The Century of the Detective (the last half of the 19th century)(1964, translated from German).
A couple of examples raise the frightening question: how often do the so-called scientific or medical opinions of “experts” send an innocent person to jail—and thereby let the guilty go free?
Dr. Roy Meadow
In 1996, when Sally Clark was accused of murdering her second son Harry, she came up against Sir Roy Meadow the Crown prosecutions’ go-to expert whenever a British baby died unexpectedly.
Harry was the second of the Clarks’ children to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or “cot death” in the UK). The Clarks had the support of a program called Care of the Next Infant (CONI), and those professionals saw Sally as a competent, caring mum.
Dr. Meadow, though, saw something else in the death of small children. With his kindly, grandfatherly air of concern and understanding, he was deadly effective in front of a jury. Sally Clark said his testimony so effectively painted her as guilty that she herself could doubt her innocence.
Meadow’s testimony carried extra weight because, after all, he’d written the article that introduced the world to seemingly normal mothers who harm their children to get attention. He called it Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and the article in The Lancet medical journal earned him a knighthood.
On the stand, testifying for the prosecution against Sally Clark, he stepped beyond his role as pediatrician and made arguments unsupported by science and based on glaring math errors. His memorably famous phrases captured jurors: “there is no evidence that cot deaths run in families, but there is plenty of evidence that child abuse does” and “one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, three is murder” [Schneps 13].
He went further, saying the likelihood that the second of Sally Clark’s children would die of SIDS was 1 in 73 million (1½ times the population of England). Trouble was, his math was faulty. The odds, using the study he cited, should have been about 1 in 8543, for either the first child or the second. In technical terms, he multiplied non-independent probabilities and got a woman convicted of murder.
Trouble was, the doctor’s math error was huge. By multiplying together related rather than independent elements, he got 1-in-73-million as an answer, when the real probability was closer to 1-in-8500. Not nearly as rare and unheard of as he claimed—or as the jurors believed.
While she was in prison, Sally’s husband Steve kept investigating, eventually turning up medical records showing Harry most likely died from a severe, undiagnosed staph infection. The Royal Statistical Society got involved, too, filing a complaint with the Lord Chancellor. Sally’s conviction was quashed on appeal and she was released.
The publicity surrounding her appeal and release led to censure of Dr. Meadow and of his testimony in other cases, freeing other wrongfully accused women.
But Sally Clark never recovered from the accusations or the loss of her children or her three years in prison; she died four years after her release, at the age of 42.
Meadow, Roy. “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: The Hinterlands of Child Abuse,”
The Lancet, August 13, 1977, pp. 343-45.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “True Crime: Books on Trial,” Mystery Readers Journal: Medical Mysteries 2014.
Schneps, Leila and Coralie Colmez. Math on Trial (2013), pp. 1-21.
Watkins, Stephen J. “Conviction by Mathematical Error,” British Medical Journal 320:2-3, January 2000.
Dr. Louise Robbins
In another case of misguided expertise, Louise Robbins, an anthropology professor in North Carolina, literally wrote the book on footprint evidence. When a foot or shoe impression in the victim’s blood is found at a crime scene and linked to a peculiar marking or defect in a shoe sole, it helps build the case against a criminal defendant.
Dr. Robbins claimed, however, to carry the “science” a step further [yes, couldn’t resist the pun]: She didn’t need to link a print at the scene to a shoe with unique markings. She just needed a shoe, any shoe, from the defendant’s closet. She said her research enabled her to link a suspect with a foot impression, no matter which of his shoes he’d worn at the scene of the crime! There was no need to find a characteristic mark that could only be left by a particular shoe; every step we take marks itself as uniquely ours, and she could tell by looking inside our shoes.
However, no other scientist or footwear impression expert could replicate her research or her findings in criminal cases. William Bodziak, an FBI expert, was called by the defense to testify against Dr. Robbins in a growing number of cases. FBI experts don’t often testify for criminal defendants; they’re typically on the other side. But as he saw innocent men convicted in courts across the country, Bodziak knew her claims of groundbreaking science were dangerous and unfounded.
Eventually, in 1987 (coincidentally, the year she died of a brain tumor), a 135-member panel, convened by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) to investigate her work, found it had no basis in science. Easy to see why jurors could be swayed by what looked like science when the “expert” had written the book, but hard to explain to the twelve or more men who went to prison based on her expert testimony.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “True Crime: Books on Trial,” Mystery Readers Journal: Medical Mysteries (2014).
Robbins, Louise. Footprints: Collection, Analysis, and Interpretation (1985).
Schneps, Leila and Coralie Colmez. Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom (2013), pg 1-21.
Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen
The 1910 case of Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen is well-known: he murdered his wife, buried her in his basement, told her friends she’d gone visiting in America, then took off with his young “secretary” aboard the Montrose, bound for Canada when the police questions got too pointed.
Marconi’s new trans-Atlantic wireless helped Chief Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard capture Crippen; he wired ahead to alert officials and jumped aboard a faster ship to apprehend Crippen and his lover, Ethel Le Neve (who traveled dressed as a young boy—unconvincingly, thanks to her curvy hips). [See Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, tracing the parallel stories of Crippen and Marconi.]
Bernard Spilsbury has been called the father of modern forensic pathology and was knighted in 1923. The Crippen case, in 1910, was his first big media case. In an act of forensic pathology legerdemain, he identified the decomposing, headless torso in the basement based on scar tissue that he said resulted from an abdominal surgery Cora Crippen had. (Cora had shown her scar to friends and talked about surviving what was, at that time, a difficult surgery.)
Crippen’s defense expert argued at trial that the specimen was not scar tissue; the sex of the torso couldn’t even be identified from the remains. Nonetheless, Crippen was convicted and quickly hanged.
Val McDermid, in her wonderfully readable Forensics, reports that, in 2002, the tissue slides were again studied—applying almost 100 years of forensic progress. In that review, Professor Bernard Knight couldn’t attest that the samples were scar tissue; they looked like normal skin. More telling, DNA tests on the tissue didn’t match DNA profiles of Cora’s descendants. McDermid asks, was Spilsbury’s name-making case a mistake?
For more, see Val McDermid, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime (2014).
Gribble, Leonard, “An Element of Farce,” in Adventures in Murder (Roy: New York, 1955), pp. 114-123.
Hynd, Alan, “The Case of the Lady Who Lost Her Head,” in Poison! Incredible True Stories of Toxic Homicides, by Jones, Richard Glyn, editor (Berkley 1987), pp. 193-205.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “Biblio-Murder: When Life Imitates Art,” Mystery Readers Journal 3:2013.
_____, “Classic London Crime,” Mystery Readers Journal, London Mysteries II 2:2011
Dueling Wife Killers? The Greenwood and Armstrong cases
Within two years, in a small part of South Wales, two cases were linked in the public mind from the beginning, by locale, by the legal profession, and by persistent doubt about guilt.
One was that of Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, whose case is explored in my novel A Southern Guide to Homicide. In an earlier case, Solicitor Harold Greenwood set up practice in Kidwelly, South Wales, with the help of his wife Mabel’s money, in 1898.
Greenwood had a way with the ladies. That was all anyone really had to say against him, though. His marriage to his often-ailing wife seemed happy, except for his penchant for what, according to the gossip, was benign and well-received flirting.
But one June weekend in 1919, Mabel took ill with severe vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor was summoned. He sent pills. He sent a bottle of bismuth. She died anyway. The doctor’s death certificate blamed her heart.
When Greenwood, with a flock of women chasing him, rushed to the altar 3½ months later with the newspaper owner’s daughter, the town gossips began blaming something other than her heart.
As is often the case, conflicting stories grew. Particularly damning was the testimony of the 18-year-old parlor maid who did more than anyone to fit Greenwood for a noose. He was in the pantry alone with the port for fifteen minutes, though he never went in there. The bottle the missus drank from disappeared. No one else drank that.
Her testimony was soundly countered, especially by Greenwood’s daughter: her mother didn’t drink port; they both drank brandy. Harold always washed his hands in the pantry—he’d had a towel roller installed so he wouldn’t have to go upstairs.
But the gossip burned too hot to ignore, even though less than ¼ the minimum lethal dose was found. The trial illuminated the holes in the prosecution case the gossip had ignored: Greenwood lost his wife’s income when she died, so no financial gain. The doctor wasn’t clear what pills he’d sent—opium or morphine? How much? Had he confused bismuth for her upset stomach with Fowler’s solution of arsenic? The bottles were the same.
Or was it the gooseberry tart at supper after all? Maybe tainted from the arsenic weed treatment?
Legendary defense attorney Sir Edward Marshall Hall wove his magic. Greenwood testified—and did well. His daughter did even better; even though she hadn’t been pleased with his quick remarriage, she pointed out she and her mother both drank from the same bottle. Everyone ate the same food. And the parlor maid was disgruntled over almost being sacked.
The jury took only an hour to acquit Greenwood, at which time the gossips twaddle about why he’d ever been tried at all.
Only months later and a few miles away, Herbert Rowse Armstrong was accused of poisoning his wife, Katherine.
Armstrong had been much admired in Hay-on-Wye. At first, people were aghast he’d been arrested.
Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, lacked the flash and fire of Greenwood’s attorney. Usually serving as a prosecutor, he also apparently lacked faith in Major Armstrong.
Worse yet, Armstrong drew the pro-prosecution judge Mr. Justice Darling. Throughout the trial, Darling pelted witnesses with pro-prosecution questions and allowed evidence about a tea party and a box of chocolates though no relationship could be drawn with Mrs. Armstrong’s death.
The forces gathered against Mr. Armstrong proved stronger than the doubts. He was hanged on May 31, 1922, five months after his arrest. With dignity, he pronounced his innocence to the end, the only lawyer ever hanged in England.
Beales, Martin. The Hay Poisoner.
Jones, Frank. “A Tale of Two Lawyers,” in White-Collar Killers.
Pearson, Edmund L. “Nineteen Dandelions,” in More Studies in Murder.
Rose, Andrew. Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy. “Legal Mysteries Line-Up,” Mystery Readers Journal 2: 2012.
Brides of the Bath
George Joseph Smith had no trouble marrying women, but he did have trouble keeping his wives alive. He was convicted and hanged in 1915 for the drowning deaths of three women.
A con-man who lured the women into marriage for financial gain, he managed to drown them without leaving any physical signs of an attack. Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury [see Dark Side of Forensics tab] suggested that he’d grabbed their legs and quickly jerked them up, leaving them unable to struggle. Some suggest that a sudden mouthful of water put pressure on the vagus nerve, causing them to faint.
Apparently one of the experiments to test Spilsbury’s hypothesis left a policewoman needing medical attention.
In a landmark decision, the court allowed testimony of the similar fates of Smith’s wives—one of the first to admit “pattern” crimes in evidence.
Born in Mobile Alabama, Florence Chandler met much-older James Maybrick aboard ship and married the English cotton broker in 1881. They made their home in Battlecrease House, near Liverpool.
Maybrick used arsenic for a variety of ills and had mistresses. Florence, 23 years his junior, followed suit with Alfred Brierley—and her compromising letters caused her more harm in front of the jury than did her use of arsenic as a cosmetic.
In 1889, Maybrick died following a series of bouts of illness—including one resulting from giving himself strychnine. His brother agitated for an examination; Maybrick’s body contained small amounts of arsenic—but he was known to be an “arsenic eater,” using it as a tonic. In Battlecrease House, officials found enough arsenic to kill 50 people.
Perhaps more because of the judgment about her lifestyle than any evidence that she’d caused his death, Florence was convicted and sentenced to die. She served 14 years, was released, and returned to the U.S. She lectured and wrote a book, then lived as a recluse in Connecticut, with only her cats. Few knew of her past when she died in 1941.
Edwards, Martin, The Golden Age of Murder (2015).
Maybrick, Florence Elizabeth, Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1905).
I first learned of Razor Girl’s 1926 case visiting a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police exhibit at the Museum of History in 2010. No historical crime review of a Southern city can overlook a case that so neatly highlighted the privilege of being a murderess in an older South, at least if you were small and funny and knew how to flirt.
True, her 23-year-old bigamist husband Alton Freeman was, as we say, no better than he ought to be. He’d been running around on her, a convicted thief living off her $15-a-week factory wages. One night, he told his 19-year-old wife Nellie he was leaving her as soon as he pulled off a whiskey heist.
Nellie calmly told the officer who later arrived at their little house that she’d hugged him around the neck, asking if he didn’t love her. He didn’t. She didn’t know how sharp the knife was, she said, until he lay on the floor, only a bit of flesh and bone holding his head to his body.
Nellie wasn’t shy about talking to police and to newspapers. She attracted the best lawyers in town to her defense team. Charlotte juries had a habit of acquitting women of murder, and prosecutor and former mayor Frank McNinch vowed he’d see the end of women getting away with murder. The battle was set.
The courtroom was packed every day of the trial. Women in particular flocked to see the spectacle. After all, a woman couldn’t be sent to prison, could she? That wasn’t the done thing. All that was missing was a cotton candy vendor, but someone was selling replica straight razors to commemorate the event.
The jury deliberated for two days, read some Bible verses on forgiveness, talked the manslaughter hold-outs around, and found Nellie Freeman not guilty by reason of insanity, it being not unheard of that a woman could be “struck crazy” for a short period of time, long enough to kill a lying, cheating husband. The judge allowed her to take her bloodied dress and her razor with her, and she seems to have vanished from Charlotte.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press 2014).
Henry Louis Wallace: The Unexpected Serial Killer
Little-known outside Charlotte is its own extranormal serial killer—unusual because of who he was and because of who he killed. Henry Louis Wallace was black. He preyed on his friends and acquaintances. According to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit (the profilers made famous by one-time Charlotte reporter, novelist Patricia Cornwell), neither of those were supposed to be the norm.
Was that why no one really noticed? Some argued that black women are so marginalized that no one cared. But plenty of people cared. Michelle Stinson’s sister was three when she died. Twenty years after the murder, she commented on a YouTube video memorial, saying how much she missed getting to know her sister. The most-reprinted photo of her sister shows Michelle bending over, maybe taking a sip of something? A young woman, like the others, living her life. Most of the nine Charlotte victims were single moms, most of them worked in fast food restaurants or retail. Some were attending Central Piedmont Community College or were working to make better opportunities for their children. All of them lived around Eastland Mall.
Unfortunately for them, they all crossed paths with a charming young black man who seemed to love women and babies, was even called “Uncle Henry.”
Why did no one notice a pattern sooner? That’s the question that’s always asked in such cases. He operated for 22 months, from 1992 to 1994, when Charlotte’s murder rate was 87 among a fast-growing population of 400,000. To compare, Charlotte saw 52 murders in 2012 and had more than double the population. The police had only seven full-time investigators. Could they have put the pieces together faster? Or was Wallace that good?
The murders all took place in a five-mile radius in east Charlotte. The community was scared, pushing for action, blaming the police for not doing more or for ignoring the cases because the victims were black women. Those cries had to be painful for lead investigator, Detective Sergeant Gary McFadden, who was black.
This killer cleaned up the scenes. This killer had extraordinary access to the women he killed. He eluded police dragnets. He defied the rulebooks given to serial killer hunters. In the end, though, it was good detective work that found him. Too many of the women had one common name somewhere in their lives: the friend of a sister, a customer in a Taco Bell, the friend of an ex-girlfriend. Too many connections.
Unfortunately for his last victims, he seemed either to increasingly enjoy the killing or to need more money for drugs in the final days. He killed three in the last three days before his arrest.
Henry Louis Wallace as the “Charlotte Strangler” hasn’t achieved the notoriety of Wayne Williams, convicted of the Atlanta child murders, or Derrick Todd Lee, the Baton Rouge serial killer. Charlotte’s civic promoters, always wondering why the city gets overlooked, are likely glad its serial killer is ignored. The victims’ families and those touched by their loss continue to make sure they aren’t forgotten.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press: 2014).
“Where are they now? Henry Louis Wallace,” Charlotte Magazine, August 2010 [http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/August-2010/Where-are-They-Now/Henry-Louis-Wallace/]
Rae Carruth was first known in Charlotte as 1997’s 27th NFL draft pick, with a four-year, $3.7 million contract to play wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers. Football fans expected great things—until he brought Court TV and star forensic expert witness Henry Lee (also of O.J. Simpson fame) to town.
Cherica Adams was driving on Rea Road between Colony and Highway 51, leaving the late-show movie she’d watched with her boyfriend Rae. In 1999, the part-time realtor and one-time men’s club dancer was sitting sassy in her BMW. Rae led the way in his Expedition down the dark section of road.
He stopped, her car behind his, to let another car pull alongside her. Six shots punctured her car door and shattered her window.
Anyone who has heard what happened next, even without knowing Cherica, knows she had to be feisty and strong. Hit four times, she managed to turn right into a small subdivision, into the yard of the first house. She honked her car horn and summoned the homeowner. She called 911 and, in a shaky voice, told the dispatcher what had happened and who was involved. She even wrote out a note when she got to the ER, prompted by the physician trained, as many in Charlotte are, to preserve evidence. Doctors saved her baby. She hung on for a month before she died. The police went looking for Rae Carruth and found him in Virginia, hiding in a car trunk.
This tragedy embarrassed Charlotte. Jerry Richardson, the owner of the relatively young Carolina Panthers franchise, the only NFL owner to have played in the league, was known to hire for good character. This wasn’t the kind of player or the kind of publicity he wanted—or that anyone wanted for him.
Van Brett Watkins, the guy who admitted pulling the trigger, pled guilty, got life, and helped put Carruth in prison, in one of the most riveting performances I’ve ever seen on a witness stand. Court TV featured his testimony among its most memorable courtroom moments.
The real heart of the case, though, is Chancellor Lee Adams, the little boy Cherica fought to save—the little boy Rae wanted to kill so he wouldn’t have to support him. Cherica’s mother, Saundra Adams, is raising him. Because of Cherica’s blood loss, his brain was damaged. He’s got cerebral palsy and requires a lot of care. But a happier thirteen-year-old would be hard to find, a loving spirit that infects those who meet him, including a Sports Illustrated writer whose article made me cry.
Saundra Adams gives us another important picture of Charlotte: a woman of faith deep enough to offer forgiveness. Van Brett Watkins has written her from prison; he’s sent $5 or $10 at times to help her out; he asked her to forgive him. In a beautiful note, she acknowledged the hole in her heart, but she prayed he would have peace.
A loving teenager who looks startlingly much like his self-absorbed father and a grandmother with a hole in her heart—those pictures of resurrection from the worst of indifference and evil are the other side of the worst that people can do.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, 27 Views of Charlotte (Eno Press 2014).
Nannie Doss, the “giggling grandma”
For three decades, the cheerful, giggling Nannie Doss (born Nancy Hazel) traveled the country poisoning at least eleven of her family members, including four husbands, her mother, and her grandson.
She was born in Alabama and was eventually imprisoned in Oklahoma, but her third husband, Arlie Lanning, died of a supposed heart attack in Lexington, North Carolina. The house where they lived was bequeathed to Arlie’s sister, but when it burned down, the insurance proceeds went to Nannie.
Rat poison was apparently her poison of choice, and, while some of the murders helped her escape bad or abusive relationships, she typically received only modest insurance payouts following the deaths. She found some of her husbands in lonely-hearts column, the precursor of online dating.
She was sentenced to life in prison in 1955, but died in 1965 of leukemia. She loved cooking and unsuccessfully requested to work in the prison kitchen.
Kelleher, Michael & C.L., Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer (Praeger: 1998).
Manners, Terry, Deadlier than the Male (Pan Books: 1995).
As with the other Southern serial poisoners mentioned here, Velma Barfield grew up poor and lived hard and developed a penchant for arsenic. She admitted killing four people, including her mother. The motive was usually modest insurance proceeds or to cover up her forgeries and thefts, all to support her prescription drug habit.
As with Nannie Doss, she was a grandmother—but she was seen as cold and unsympathetic, not reveling in her notoriety as Nannie did.
In 1984, Velma became the first female executed in the U.S. in eight years. The focus of much of her story has been her prison conversion and her decision not to fight her death penalty sentence.
Jerry Bledsoe’s Death Sentence is a detailed look at Velma, the death-penalty process, and questions of punishment and justice, leaving us with visions of both the cold-bloodedness of arsenic poisoning and of Velma in her pink pajamas going to her execution.
Blanche Taylor Moore
In 2015, Blanche Taylor Moore marked the 25th year after her conviction for poisoning her boyfriend, Raymond Reid. She is also a grandmother, a preacher’s daughter, accused of at least four deaths, and, at age 82, the oldest death-row inmate in North Carolina.
Her husband, the Rev. Dwight Moore, survived a poisoning attempt five days after their wedding. He marks the events with continued pain and neuropathy from an arsenic level higher than any his doctors had ever seen: at least 100 times the normal amount.
It was his survival and his mention that Blanche’s boyfriend had died of Guillain-Barre syndrome (the neuropathy it causes can look like arsenic poisoning) that prompted the investigation and arrest.
Blanche became famous as the gentle caregiver who spooned arsenic-laced banana pudding into her victim as he lay in intensive care. Books were written and Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched TV-show fame starred in a TV-movie (Black Widow Murders), bringing even more notoriety to the case.
She was sentenced in 1990. Less than three weeks later, her husband filed for divorce.
Moffett, Margaret, “Blanche Taylor Moore remains on death row after 25 years” (December 20, 2015)
Schutze, Jim, Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore (1993).
Wireback, Taft and Justin Catanoso, “Blanche Taylor Moore timeline” Raleigh News & Record (December 13, 2015).
On December 2, 2000, Dr. Eric Miller, a 30-year-old pediatric AIDS researcher at UNC Hospitals, died at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Two weeks earlier, in mid-November, Miller’s wife Ann had taken him to the hospital. He’d been complaining of severe gastric pains after spending the evening at a bowling alley with some of Ann’s co-workers. He was admitted to intensive care early the next morning.
Three days later, unable to find an explanation for his intense symptoms, a doctor ordered a heavy metals test. The results of that test didn’t come back from the lab until his second hospitalization on December 1. Between his two hospitalizations, though, his health had been improving. The night of November 30, his parents had taken the night off from staying with him to go out to dinner, and he felt well enough to eat some chicken and rice his wife heated up for him.
He was hospitalized the next day. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead. He left behind his wife Ann and a young daughter.
The heavy metals test ordered during his November hospital stay revealed massive amounts of arsenic in his system. In the investigation, detectives also discovered that Ann Miller had been having an affair with Derril Willard, her co-worker at GlaxoSmithKline drug company and one of the members of the bowling party the night of Eric Miller’s first hospitalization.
Six days after Dr. Miller’s death, Derril Willard consulted attorney Rick Gammon, a well-known Durham defense attorney, former police officer, and long-time friend of the lead homicide investigator, Chris Morgan.
Learning of the affair, Morgan got a warrant and officers searched Willard’s home. Three days later, Willard hanged himself in his garage, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. In his suicide note, he said, “I have taken no one else’s life but my own.”
From early in the investigation, Detective Morgan suspected Ann Miller in her husband’s death but could not satisfy the district attorney that they had enough evidence to convince a jury of her guilt.
Finally, in February 2002, the prosecutor petitioned a judge for a hearing to compel attorney Rick Gammon to reveal what Derril Willard had told him about anyone who had harmed Eric Miller or intended to harm him. Police had asked Gammon to tell them voluntarily, but Gammon refused to breach his client’s confidentiality without a court order.
The district attorney’s petition asking the court to force Gammon to reveal what Willard told him in their attorney/client meeting bounced back and forth in the courts. In a landmark opinion on attorney/client privilege, the appellate court held that Gammon must provide the county prosecutor a very limited statement of what his client revealed. Gammon hand-delivered a paragraph to the court in a sealed envelope.
Willard had said Ann confessed to him that she’d injected a poisonous “substance” into Eric’s IV while he lay in the hospital, but Willard maintained his innocence in the death.
Ann pled guilty to murder and conspiracy and was sentenced to at least 25 years in prison. Derril Willard’s widow said, “She’s admitting responsibility for what she did to Eric, but she’s not admitting what she did to Derril. That really makes me angry and sad …” [Lamb 2005].
Lamb, Amanda (2008). Deadly Dose. New York: Berkley.
Lamb, Amanda, “Kontz avoids life sentence with plea deal in husband’s death [Eric Miller case,” posted November 8, 2005, updated July 24, 2007 [http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/121692/#Y0iBFs08v7Sqs8pS.99]
McKissock, Timothy M. 1996, July/August. “Where Ethical Rules and Morality
Conflict,” South Carolina Lawyer, pp. 15 – 17.
North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct: www.ncbar.gov/rules/rules.asp.
Weigl, Andrea (2004, June 13). “Secrets may not ever go to jury,” The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Retrieved from: http://www.newsobserver.com.
Dates and times for upcoming appearances.
We all love to soak up the knowledge of successful writers … right? We madly attend classes in plotting, and character development and setting, in suspense and editing and structure and genre, and figure that if we could just learn this stuff, we, too, could write a bestseller.
But what we don’t often see at conferences is a discussion of flat-out nuts and bolts. Not “how to” when it comes to writing a book—but “how to” when it comes to being a real writer, living the writing life, taking that mental and emotional journey.
So in this series of interviews, we’re exploring how we work. The basics. Our personal internal dialogues. The structure of our writing lives.
And as I read these answers, I am overjoyed, each time, by how different we are—and yet how similar. And how much we can learn from each other.
I can just hear Cathy Pickens chortling now … she’s so low-key and modest about her success. And so generous. But you know what? She’s brilliant at thinking about thinking. About creativity, too–and at understanding how she works, and what works for her and why. Will it work for you?
Her answers to these eleven questions (plus two really difficult ones for extra credit) are thought-provoking, inspirational, and I have to say, unexpected.
1. When you need to do your writing for the day, how difficult is it to get yourself to begin? Why?
Any difficulty is related to how confident I am in what I’m working on that day. Rewriting a difficult passage? Something I haven’t quite processed in my head? The hard stuff? That takes longer. The best solution? To just get to work.
Research into the concept of flow [being delightfully engaged in a project to the point that time passes unnoticed] says the secret is simple:
Show up at the same place
The same time
Do that, and the work has a better chance of flowing well even on those days I don’t want to show up at all.
2. Is there something you say to yourself every day? Whether it has to do with responsibility, or deadlines, or commitment, or fear, or optimism, or creativity?
Nope. I don’t have to cheer myself on to brush my teeth in the morning either. I just do it.
3. When you sit down to work, what’s the first thing you think?
See the above. No cheering, no thinking, just work. Sounds boring. For me, it’s how things get done.
4. What’s the first thing you do? Really? Do you check your email, or Facebook, or Twitter FIRST?
Julie Morgenstern wrote a time-management book called “Never Check Email in the Morning.” Wise advice. That also includes not compulsively checking your email or succumbing to other temptations (wired or wireless) throughout the day.
Because I work full-time, email contact is important. When I’m not expecting an issue with work or family, I just start writing and save the emails until late morning, when I can catch people before they leave for lunch. Segmenting that activity means I can concentrate and knock it out faster.
At times when things are popping at my other job, I check emails first to get that out of the way so I can concentrate. Sometimes that backfires—something explodes in my inbox and that takes my attention and energy. But most days, I can move on with my writing for the day.
5. How do you handle the temptations of the internet?
If I need to do research, I mark the spot in the manuscript or on a notepad as I go and do all the research at once, after my brain is drained from a stint of writing. Research requires a different part of my brain and not as much concentration as writing or editing, so I can do that when I need to change things up. It can serve to refresh me – or at least let me squeeze a little more productivity into my time, even though I’m tired.
Segmenting my work is important. As everyone’s mother said, one thing at a time and that done well. Brain science now tells us that’s very true—we’re more productive when we concentrate on one thing at a time, rather than skipping randomly about. Multitasking is a myth. Brains don’t work that way—no one’s brain does. Concentrating is more productive.
Recognizing my own work rhythms can also keep me working longer, if I do the things that require a fresh brain first (especially the hardest things!).
6. When you begin writing, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where you’ll be two hours later?
I don’t know that I have any judgment about what I expect. I’ll have accomplished the work I set out for that day (or sometimes I won’t), but I’ll have worked. Judgment of the merits of that day’s work come later, when I’m rewriting.
A remarkable discovery was when I realized, during an initial rewrite, that I couldn’t tell which days the writing came easily and which were difficult. Respecting—and enjoying—the process are the keys.
7. Do you have a daily word of page quota? How committed to that are you?
Absolutely. My dad once worked as a time-and-motion studies expert. (Remember the father in “Cheaper by the Dozen”?! Is it faster to button your vest starting at the top or the bottom? Like that guy!) Achievable quotas or goals are the tried-and-true secret to productivity in any field.
The number of pages I set for myself depends on where I am in the book—the first draft moves at a different pace than the twelfth draft, so I set different quotas at each stage.
Ideally, I write in the morning. If I know the day will be busy or chopped up, I try to plan for that, carrying a notebook or pages with me to work on between appointments.
If I don’t make the quota in my morning writing time or at other times during the day, I don’t add it to my quota the next day. That’s a sure-fire way to demoralize myself because it just can’t work.
Instead, I give myself a page quota for the week that I should be able to do in five days; that gives me a couple of extra days each week to do the pages I didn’t get done on one or more of the days. That’s worked well.
In setting quota, I push myself but not so hard that it becomes frustrating. What you can produce changes with your skill level and other responsibilities. So those goals have to be recalculated periodically—and with every new project.
8. Do you work on the book every day? How do you feel when you have a day where you don’t write? How often do you think–“I should be writing!”?
Every day is my goal. It took me a while to quit beating myself up when life intrudes. Lots goes into writing a book besides just putting words on the page or moving them around. That’s important—but so is thinking, reading, researching, planning, re-visioning. All of it fits together. So on the days when I can’t (for whatever reason) add or move actual words, I deliberately find even a small amount of thinking space to work on what will make it easier the next time I can sit down.
As with physical exercise, keeping up the momentum is important … every day.
9. Are there things you have given up as a result of your–well, okay. What have you given up to allow yourself to write?
This is a question people don’t tend to ask – maybe because we don’t really want to think about giving things up as a necessity. Years ago, when I decided to get serious about writing, I realized I needed to put aside lots of other things.
My life is relatively streamlined. No kids, no pets, no houseplants. A self-sufficient husband. I (quite literally) boxed up my other creative interests: painting, needlework, woodworking, dancing, and others. Separate boxes for each. And the lids have been closed for many years now.
I limit social obligations; as an introvert, I have to manage my energy levels and pay attention to my productive rhythms. My job as a professor and consultant demands most of that external energy, so social activities have to be limited.
We all must make choices, and each of us makes different choices. But creative work demands the primo parts of your brain and energy. Protect those parts.
10. Do you actually drink the wine or champagne your friends gave you when you succeeded at something? Or do you save it for a more special occasion?
For me, it’s an ice cream sundae. Celebrations are important—as are reasons for eating ice cream. (BTW, celebrating makes ice cream a perfectly acceptable meal substitute. That saves calories otherwise spent on healthy alternatives.)
11. Think of your last success. When it happened … how long did you float? How soon after did you start focusing on the next success?
Floating? Hmm, interesting. I’m terrible at remembering to take time to celebrate or acknowledge a good event. Celebrating is important—as is allowing yourself to lick your wounds and lament. (Just not too long.) I’m quick—maybe too quick—to move on to the next thing. Floating, you say? Sounds nice. Should try it.
12. For extra credit: what do you wish someone had told you? (Something personal and specific. Not like how wonderful Sisters in Crime is, or how supportive everyone is, or how wonderful librarians and bookstores are. We agree.) What is something you really–learned?
My first agent told me that, whatever my professional goal when I started, it’ll keep moving. Ah, I got a personalized rejection rather than a form! Oo, an agent asked to see the full manuscript! Wow, I got published! Reviewed in PW! Starred review in PW! Dreams should keep growing. I needed to recognize that we all need things to aim for, and those things should be realistic given where we’re standing right now. And we’ll never be satisfied.
The other thing that surprised me was how much “community” there is in the “mystery community.” When I was young and wanted to be a writer, I pictured a cabin in the woods, far from anything [note: see “introvert” mention earlier]. Turns out, I don’t live in a cabin far back in the mountains—and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun as finding out that mystery readers and writers alike belong to a big, wonderful family. A family with a fair number of introverts, of course, which makes it all the more pleasant. But a family nonetheless. An unexpected and pleasant surprise.
12+. For double-duty extra credit: because this is a very important question which may be difficult to answer but may be very helpful to others. Do you think you are a good writer?
Yet another question no one ever asks out loud. In a happy collision of the two sides of my life, as a business school professor/consultant and a mystery writer, I’ve spent several years recently immersed in researching how creative people work.
Before I started that work, had you asked me, “Do you consider yourself creative?,” I would have answered with a puzzled look. I would’ve said I’m a good artisan, a good worker bee. Just like my parents and grandparents. But creative? I know so-oo many people who are startlingly, delightfully creative, who write amazing books. I’m not in that league. I rarely delight myself.
Then I looked at other artists, not just writers. According to a study done by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of art students, the best among them were never satisfied. They wanted to fix it, play with it, tweak it, right up until someone took it away. That sounds familiar to most writers I know. We aren’t satisfied.
Can we be? If we ever once created THE PERFECT book, the one that matched the perfection we’d envisioned in our heads when we started, one that others lauded as magnificent, would we have the courage to ever try it again?
That’s one of the gifts given to writers and other creative people, I think. That we’re never satisfied. That way, we have the opportunity to happily keep working toward perfection, on that next project, and the next one, and the next …
A good writer? Not nearly as good as I want to be, which is what keeps me working at it.
HANK: So—never being satisfied is a good thing! Delighted to hear that. I just sent in my copy edits, and it was all I could do to push “send.” I kept thinking—I know there’s something I should tweak. The wonderful and best-selling Lisa Unger, who will be here soon (watch this space!) once said to me—Everyday when I sit at my computer, I think –today I can be better than I was yesterday.
So how about you, sisters? Questions for Cathy? Does any of this speak to you?
And of course, I’ll send a book to one lucky commenter!
(Hurray–Last week’s winner is Nancy G West! Nancy, just send me your address at h ryan at whdh dot com.)
* * *
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 Emmys and dozens of others honors for her ground-breaking journalism. The best-selling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: two Agathas, the Anthony and the Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the Mary Higgins Clark award. Her newest thriller THE WRONG GIRL (now an Agatha and Left Coast Crime nominee) was dubbed “Another winner!” in a Booklist starred review. Her upcoming novel is TRUTH BE TOLD (Forge, 2014.) She is 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com
Bestselling author JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is the winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, and an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist.
Who were your literary influences growing up?
First, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Brains Benton. Then Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, John D. MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner. All-time favorite book? To Kill A Mockingbird. Oh, to have written such a perfect book.
How did it feel to win the euphoniously named St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Contest (“SMPMDBFTMC” for short…)?
Well, you tell me. First, to get a call from Ruth Cavin, an iconic editor in the mystery world. Then a congratulatory email from the much-honored winner two years’ previous. Oh, wait. That was you, wasn’t it? Frankly, I’m a bit slow-witted. It took months for it to sink in.
I spent years listening to writers talk about how they “broke in” (the active, even violently criminal implication of the phrase “broke in” was not lost on me). I eventually discovered there’s no one secret path to publication – there’s a different path for each author. However, I feel particularly blessed that my path was SMPMDBFTMC. What a wonderful path it’s been!
Why did you decide to make Avery Andrews an attorney?
People fight for their lives (and livelihoods) in courtrooms every day. What better place to wrestle with the important, the difficult, and the bizarre? I know you very deliberately avoided casting a lawyer as the lead in your books, but while practicing law, I met people and dealt with cases that, even years later, left me asking, “So, what’s the moral of the story?” Planning trial strategy is much akin to plotting a novel. The nice thing about fiction, though, is you get to pick the winning side—though that hasn’t always worked out for Avery!
Is Dacus, South Carolina based upon a real locale?
Yes. In my head, it looks suspiciously like Walhalla, South Carolina, the small Upstate town where I grew up. It’s easier to set a mystery in a large city like New York or LA and not worry about killing off people you really know. But in a small town, killing off the mayor – or, worse yet, casting the mayor as the murderer – might inadvertently involve someone I went to high school with. This way, I can avoid misunderstandings and still keep the streets straight in my head.
Tell us about Hog Wild.
I like this one a lot. It’s a return to a more traditional puzzle mystery format, after the heavy courtroom focus in Done Gone Wrong. It hearkens back to what I love in the Golden Age English village mysteries: poison pen letters and poisoned chocolates. Avery’s decided that she’s back in Dacus to stay. While the police are chasing down a runaway pot-belly pig, Avery is tackling a developer who’s taken advantage of a woman up on the mountain. When he’s found dead a stuffed into an abandoned gold mine, things are off and running.
Have you quit your day job yet? Which is what by the way?
I’m a tenured professor in the school of business named for the fellow who put together Bank of America. Actually, though, I mostly teach at nights because I prefer the graduate students who are returning to school part-time, bringing their real-world experience with them. I’m blessed to be able to indulge two passions—teaching and mystery writing—and one feeds the other in interesting ways. I have to admit, though, that juggling it all is a bit crazy-making at times.
Do you define yourself as a mystery writer, or a Southern writer?
I’ll have to give the lazy answer to that one. The two are entwined in me. I’m a mystery writer by choice – my life-long dream. But once you hear me say “Hey” (which has at least two syllables, three at times), you know where I hail from. The South has a rich storytelling tradition and can be both hilarious and Gothic—good ingredients for mystery.
We both write about small town life, with a supporting cast of characters. What do you feel to be the advantages and disadvantages of setting your story in a small town?
The “Jessica Fletcher syndrome,” where someone keeps stumbling across dead bodies in a small town, is a problem. Surely the police start looking askance at the one conveniently involved in so many inconvenient deaths. But I’ve always loved the snow-bound country house murders or small college campus murders because of the finite cast, the sense that the capacity for great courage and great evil exist in the most ordinary people.
Which brings us to writing (or trying to) a book a year. Outline of freestyle?
I laugh when I say I outline because “outline” implies a carefully linear plan. Ha! My “outline” looks like an art project gone bad, with arrows and swoops and colors adorning Post-It notecards stuck haphazardly on a large sketch book. And the book resembles the “outline” in only the broadest sense. But I like a roadmap as I write, even if I wander off the path. Unfortunately, though, more outlining doesn’t mean less rewriting. Oh, were that so.
Who are some new voices you enjoy in crime fiction?
Some of my favorite “new” authors are some of my long-standing favorites who are trying new directions: Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains is a wonderful book, and Susan Dunlap has started a new series with A Single Eye.
Do you think that “cozies” are taken less seriously by critics and publishers?
Hmm. I tend to say yes, especially “funny” cozies. Noir, hard-boiled, or thrillers imply more momentous subjects. But to me, the stereotypical fictional serial killer is less frightening than the evil that can sit next to us in church or lie next to us in bed.
Grits! Buttered or not?
Is this a trick question? Grits are merely a vehicle for getting butter and salt into your mouth in the proper proportions. Don’t let anybody serve you grits that aren’t swimming in butter. And for Pete’s sake, keep the sugar away from your grits. Save the sugar for your green beans.