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)
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).
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.