Mental Floss

Who Not to Marry: 6 Black Widows

Miss Cellania
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Some women who vow to "love, honor, and cherish" end up violating those vows in a deadly manner. These stories of women who kill their men have some eerie similarities. A man dies, and someone notices his wife had already lost a husband or two due to a similar illness. An investigation reveals that each man had the same poison in his system. That's the story of the human black widow.

1. Belle Gunness

Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth was born in Norway and came to the US in 1881. Later known as Belle Gunness, she married Mads Albert Sorenson in 1884. The couple produced four children, two of whom died in infancy, but were fortunately covered by life insurance. During the marriage, both a home and a business burned down and insurance was paid out. Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally the one day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped. Belle married Peter Gunness in 1902. He already had an two daughters, one an infant who died while under his new wife's care. Gunness himself died in December of 1902 when a heavy machine fell on him. Peter Gunness' older daughter prudently went to live with an uncle. Gunness' death was investigated, but Belle was not charged -possibly because she was pregnant. Soon after, her adopted daughter Jennie Olsen, who was questioned over remarks she had made about Gunness' death, disappeared completely. Gunness began corresponding with men through a lonely hearts club. She invited suitors to visit her and bring money. John Moe, Ole B. Budsburg, and Andrew Helgelien were among the many men who came to visit Gunness and brought money to help the poor widow with her mortgage, and were never seen again. She became suspicious that her hired hand, Ray Lamphere would rat her out, so Gunness fired him and reported that he threatened her.

In 1908, the Gunness home burned down. Four bodies were found under the piano, three of Gunness' children and the headless body of a woman whose measurements did not match Gunness. However, dentures found in the ashes were hers, and the coroner pronounced Belle Gunness to be dead. As the property was cleared, depressions in the ground raised suspicions. Digging revealed the body of Jennie Olsen. The bodies of six suitors and two children were also found. Many other possible victims were reported to the police by concerned relatives. The hired man Ray Lamphere was convicted of arson and died in prison, but not before he revealed details of his days with Gunness. He had told a minister how Belle would kill her victims with strychnine or a meat cleaver, then dismember their bodies before Lamphere buried them. The fate of Gunness has never been positively determined. She had withdrawn her money from the bank before the fire. The identity of the headless woman has also never been determined.

2. Marie Becker

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3. Blanche Moore

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Blanche Taylor Moore married her first husband James Taylor in 1952 when she was 19 years old. She jumped into marriage to escape her abusive father, an alcoholic minister named  P.D. Kiser. Kizer died in 1966 of heart failure while under his daughter's care, although he reported symptoms that indicated poisoning more than heart trouble. In 1970, James Taylor's mother died of what was determined to be natural causes, despite evidence of arsenic poisoning. Taylor himself died in 1970 after a mysterious flu-like illness. Blanche had been carrying on an affair with her co-worker Raymond Reid for years, and they began dating openly after her husband's death. Reid, however, died in 1986. Blanche then was able to openly date another man she had been seeing secretly, the reverend Dwight Moore. The two married in 1989. Immediately after returning from their honeymoon, Rev. Moore was admitted to a hospital. Suspicious doctors found he had been poisoned with arsenic. Dwight Moore survived with treatment, but was disabled for life. The bodies of P.D. Kiser, James Taylor, Isla Taylor, and Raymond Reid were exhumed; all showed high levels of arsenic. Blanche Moore was arrested and tried in 1990 for the murder of Raymond Reid. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. Moore is on Death Row and continues to profess her innocence. A made-for-television movie about the Blanche Taylor Moore case was aired in 1993. Elizabeth Montgomery played the role of Moore.

4. Judias Buenoano

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5. Velma Barfield

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Margie Velma Bullard Barfield was not home when a house fire killed her first husband Thomas Burke in 1969 in North Carolina. Another fire soon after destroyed what was left of the home. She married Jennings Barfield in 1970, but he died in 1971. Barfield moved in with her parents, but her father died of cancer and her mother died in 1974 of a mysterious illness. A boyfriend also died in a car accident. Barfield moved in with Dollie and Montgomery Edwards in 1975 as a nurse for the elderly couple. They both died in 1977. The next elderly man in her care, John Henry Lee, also died in 1977. Barfield then moved in with her boyfriend Stuart Taylor, who soon died of a mysterious illness. Taylor's autopsy showing the presence of arsenic and a tip from Barfield's sister led to her arrest. Jennings Barfield's body was exhumed and also found to contain arsenic. The widow confessed to killing her mother, Taylor, and the elderly people she attended, but denied killing Burke or Jennings Barfield. In 1978, Velma Barfield was convicted of the murder of Stuart Taylor and in 1984 became the first woman in the US executed by lethal injection.

6. Nannie Doss

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Serial killer Nancy Hazle later became known as Nannie Doss and was also referred to in the press as "the Giggling Granny" because of her bizarre behavior. In 1921, when she was only 16 years old, she married Charlie Braggs. They produced four daughters. The two middle daughters died under mysterious circumstances in 1927, and Braggs left Doss. She met Robert Frank Harrelson through a lonely hearts club and married him in either 1929, 1937, or 1945 (accounts vary). He died from ingesting rat poison in 1945. Meanwhile, two of Doss' grandchildren died under mysterious circumstances. Doss married her third husband, Arlie Lanning in 1947. He died in 1950 of heart failure, although he had no history of heart problems. Soon after, their home burned. The house had been willed to Lanning's sister, but the insurance beneficiary was Doss. Soon after, Lanning's mother and Doss' sister died. Husband number four was Richard Morton, whom Doss married in 1952. During that marriage, Doss' father died and her mother came to live with her. The arrangement did not last long, as Louisa Hazle died within a few days of her arrival in 1953. Richard Morton died three months later. Nannie Doss immediately began looking for another husband, and married her fifth, Sam Doss, in 1953. Within a couple of months, he was hospitalized with a mysterious illness, but survived and was sent home on October 5th, only to die later that night. Sam Doss' suspicious doctor ordered an autopsy and found (you guessed it) arsenic. Nannie was finally arrested, and she confessed to murdering all four deceased husbands, a mother-in-law, her own mother, her sister, and a grandson. She pleaded guilty to the murder of Sam Doss and was sentenced to life. She died in prison in 1965.

See also: 7 Black Widows and 16 Dead Husbands

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