Over the past few centuries, arsenic poisoning has been a particularly popular way to kill someone. It's
odorless, tasteless, and builds up in the human body. A large dose will kill someone in hours, while a steady, small dose will cause someone to become ill and appear to die from natural causes. The poison used to be extremely difficult to detect after death, until James Marsh developed a reliable test in 1832. Even after that, only the victims of suspicious deaths were tested—so many arsenic killers tallied up multiple victims before being caught.
1. GIULIA TOFANA
was a poison-maker in 17th-century Italy. Some sources attribute the invention of the mysterious poison called Aqua Tofana to her, but there are earlier mentions of the “inheritance potion.” (Others attribute the development of Aqua Tofana to Teofania di Adamo, who was executed in 1633 and might have been Giulia Tofana’s mother.) At any rate, both women made and sold the concoction, which included a base of arsenic with some other ingredients, most likely lead and belladonna. Just a few drops could kill a person. At the time, many women had so little status and power that their only means of breaking away from a bad marriage was death, and there was no shortage of women who wanted to keep that option in a small bottle on their dressing tables. As many as 600 people may have died as a result of Tofana’s business over an 18-year period. Eventually, one of her customers was caught, which led to an investigation. Tofana was executed for her activities, along with her daughter and several other accomplices, in 1659.
2. AMY ARCHER-GILLIGAN
ran a nursing home in Connecticut from 1907 to 1917. When her first husband and business partner James Archer died in 1910, Archer-Gilligan was the beneficiary of a substantial recently-purchased life insurance policy. She married Michael Gilligan in 1913. Three months later, he was dead. Meanwhile, too many people were dying in the nursing home, particularly those who had recently paid for their care with a lump sum. A complaint from a relative led to a newspaper and police investigation, which led to exhumations. Her second husband and several patients tested positive for arsenic. Archer-Gilligan was tried on only one count of murder and found guilty in 1917. She was sentenced to death, but a new trial was granted to determine whether Archer-Gilligan was insane. That trial led to a life sentence, but she was later sent to a mental institution where she lived until her death in 1962. Archer-Gilligan's number of victims could be anywhere between five and 48. Her story is thought to have inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
3. BERTHA GIFFORD
was born in the 1870s in the town of Morse Mill, Missouri. She married a man named Graham, but when she took up with Gene Gifford, her husband died of a mysterious ailment. She and Gifford married and moved to Catawissa, Missouri, where Bertha became known as a Good Samaritan. She often took care of sick people in her community, going to their homes and cooking for them. She built a reputation as an excellent cook, and she also made home remedies. Quite a few children died under her care, but children, especially sick children, often died from one disease or another in those days. Older people died, too. But in 1917, two healthy, middle-aged men died. Sherman Pounds died at the Gifford’s home, and later hired hand Jim Ogle died after a dispute over pay with the Giffords. Pounds’ three-year-old granddaughter also died while staying with Bertha Gifford in 1922, and seven-year-old Irene Stuhlfelder died under Gifford’s care in 1923. In 1925, Ethel Schamel, two of her sons, and another relative all died within a few months, again under Gifford’s care. Farm hand Ed Brinley died in 1927. Finally, growing rumors of Gifford’s involvement in all those deaths brought an investigation. The bodies of Ed Brinley and the Schamel brothers were exhumed and found to contain large amounts of arsenic. It came out that Bertha Gifford had purchased a lot of arsenic over the years to poison barn rats. She went to trial for two murders in 1928, and was found criminally insane. She was committed to a state mental hospital, where she died in 1951.
4. MARY ANN GEERING
was born in 1800 and lived in Guestling, East Sussex, UK, in 1846 when her husband Richard Geering inherited £20. That was a lot of money back then, but not enough to induce murder plans in most people. Two years later, Richard died after a painful illness of five days. His death was attributed to heart disease. Four months passed, and Geering’s 21-year-old son George died. A few weeks later in 1849, 26-year-old son James also died from a painful illness of just a few days. A third son, 18-year-old Benjamin, fell ill shortly afterward on Easter Sunday. This time, doctors removed the patient from the home, and Benjamin recovered. His doctors raised an alarm, and Mary Ann Geering’s husband and two dead sons were exhumed. The bodies were full of arsenic. Geering was arrested and her three younger children were taken to a poorhouse. She confessed during her trial, and was hanged in 1849.
5. 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. Kiser died in 1966 of heart failure, although arsenic was later found in his body. Taylor himself died in 1973 after a mysterious 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 has suffered lingering health effects. The bodies of James Taylor and Raymond Reid were exhumed; both 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 her case was aired in 1993, in which Elizabeth Montgomery played the role of Moore. Incidentally, there is no truth to the rumor that Moore requested a live kitten for her last meal. Now 82, she is still on Death Row.
6. JUDY BUENOANO
was an abused child and already had a son when she married Air Force officer James Goodyear in 1962. The couple had two more children and settled in Florida. Goodyear served in Vietnam, but died of a mysterious malady three months after coming home to his wife in 1971. Buenoano collected on three life insurance policies. A couple of months later, she collected on another policy when her home burned (another insured home burned a few years later). By 1973 Buenoano had a new lover, Bobby Joe Morris. She and her children moved to Colorado with Morris in 1977, but he died of a mysterious malady in 1978. Again, Buenoano collected on several insurance policies.
Back in Florida by 1979, Buenoano's adult son Michael visited his mother and suffered base metal poisoning, which left him disabled but alive. He drowned in 1980 while on a canoeing trip with his mother, and Buenoano again collected on three life insurance policies. She dated a man named John Gentry and took out a life insurance policy on him. He was hospitalized with a mysterious malady, but survived, only to return to the hospital when his car exploded in 1983. Gentry cooperated with investigating police, telling them of the vitamins Buenoano gave him before his earlier illness. The "vitamins" contained paraformaldehyde and arsenic. Gentry also found out that Buenoano had told her friends that Gentry had a terminal illness (he did not). The bodies of James Goodyear and Bobby Joe Morris were exhumed and found to contain high levels of arsenic. In 1984, Judias Buenoano was sentenced to life for the murder of her son, and in 1985, she received a death sentence for the murder of James Goodyear. Buenoano was executed in Florida in 1998.
7. VELMA BARFIELD
was not home when a house fire killed her first husband Thomas Burke in 1969 in North Carolina. Another fire soon afterwards 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 1976, working 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 eventually confessed to several murders. 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.
8. NANNIE DOSS
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 Frank Harrelson through a lonely hearts column 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 1952 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.
9. ANNA MARIE HAHN
was the first woman to die in Ohio's electric chair and only the second woman executed by the state. She immigrated from Germany in 1929. After divorcing her second husband, Hahn began working as a private live-in nurse for elderly German men in Cincinnati. Her patients tended to die and leave their fortunes to Hahn, which helped pay for her gambling habit. The string of unusual deaths ended in 1937, when police found a suspicious amount of arsenic in George Obendoerfer's body. An investigation revealed a string of unusual deaths among Hahn's patients, and a survivor who caught her trying to poison him. Hahn was convicted of one murder, that of Jacob Wagner, in 1937. She was executed in 1938.
10. DAISY DE MELKER
was the second woman ever to be hanged for her crimes in South Africa. She married Alfred Cowle in 1909. Four of their five children died in infancy. Cowle died in 1923, and left de Melker a substantial inheritance. Three years later, de Melker married Robert Sproat, who died in 1927 after a painful illness that resembled Cowle's. De Melker once again collected a fortune in inheritance.
In 1931, Daisy married Sydney Clarence de Melker, a plumber, as her previous husbands had been. In 1932, de Melker's 20-year old son Rhodes Cowle died after drinking coffee his mother had prepared. William Sproat, the brother of de Melker's second husband, became suspicious and demanded an investigation. Rhodes Cowle's body was found to contain arsenic. James Webster, a man who had become sick after drinking some of Cowle's coffee but survived, also tested positive for arsenic. William Cowle and Robert Sproat, de Melker's first and second husbands, were exhumed and strychnine was found in the decomposed tissues. De Melker was charged with three murders but found guilty of only one, that of her son. She was hanged in December of 1932.
11. MARY ANN COTTON
had three husbands and at least 10 children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England. The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872, when she predicted the death of her apparently healthy young stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official. When Charles Edward Cotton died suddenly a few days later, Cotton's first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child's doctor, who refused to sign until a formal inquest was held. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged. Her story was made into a nursery rhyme.
Mary Ann Cotton,
Dead and forgotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.
12. TILLIE KLIMEK
Chicago resident Tillie Klimek had a reputation as a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later. Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband, John Ruskowski, died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. Husband number three, Frank Kupczyk, lasted only a few years before he died. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek's husbands. Klimek predicted the death of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well—and sure enough, the children all died. The widow remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number four, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.
BONUS: 13. MARIE BESNARD
was called the "Queen of Poisoners" in France, although she was never convicted. Her first husband, a cousin, died of tuberculosis in 1927. Besnard married Léon Besnard the next year. The couple moved in with Léon's parents, who both died separately within months. Léon's sister, who shared in the inheritance, died soon after. Marie Besnard's father also died during the period. Two boarders (a married couple) also died and left the Besnards their estate. Several other relatives who died named the Besnards as their heirs, including Marie's mother. Both Besnards, by now very wealthy, took lovers into their home. Léon became suspicious that his wife was trying to kill him, and said so to his paramour. He died in 1947. Marie Besnard, who inherited all the accumulated wealth, was finally a suspect. Léon's body tested positive for arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed, tested for arsenic poisoning, and Besnard was finally charged with 13 counts of murder. Her first trial in 1952 included eleven murders, but ended in a mistrial. The second trial in 1954 also was declared a mistrial. Besnard was acquitted during her third trial in 1961, and died in 1980.