CAROLINA CASES – Lavina Fisher

October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

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) []

Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, Charleston Mysteries (2007)


October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

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).

Other reading:

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).

Expert Opinions?

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.


October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

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.

Excerpts from:

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.

Florence Maybrick

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).


October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

Razor Girl

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 []

Rae Carruth

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).


October 4, 2016 // jd // No Comments // Posted in Crime Files

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).

Velma Barfield

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).

Ann Miller

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 []

McKissock, Timothy M. 1996, July/August. “Where Ethical Rules and Morality
Conflict,” South Carolina Lawyer, pp. 15 – 17.

North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct:

Weigl, Andrea (2004, June 13). “Secrets may not ever go to jury,” The (Raleigh) News & Observer. Retrieved from: