When it comes to the term ‘black widow’, the first image that may come to mind is the terrifying spider with the red hourglass on its belly. Anything named after something that’s a symbol of fear and death isn’t much of a compliment, especially when we consider that a black widow is much more than an insect – it’s a female with blood on the brain. The term ‘black widow’, then, is often used to describe women who will go after someone close to them, often romantically, and kill them. Whether it is a husband, friend, or a child, a black widow sees no limits in killing another so that she can get what she wants – which, in many cases, is money. And we all know that money can motivate people to do some crazy things.
Some of the earliest recorded accounts of black widows date back to the early 1800s. When looking at the numbers, it’s alarming to see how strong the tradition of the black widow has been – and that’s just what recorded history in the 19th century can tell us. There seems to be similar qualities in the style of killing that these black widows use – poison being the main similarity. Of course, the popularity if poisoning can be attributed to the fact that the death needs to look natural so that the black widow can remain blameless.
Well over a dozen black widows have made the news, with a few even inspiring plays and movies. Here, we’ve compiled the stories of ten most notorious black widows. These murders aren’t just limited to husbands, but extend to members of the woman’s family, clients, and even friends. Basically, anyone who might get caught up in the black widow’s dark web can become a target for murder…
10. Stacey Castor: 2 Murder Charges
Stacey Castor’s second husband, David Castor died in 2005 from an apparent suicide. But after investigators examined Castor’s body, they found a high amount of ethylene glycol, which is a component of antifreeze. Stacey’s first husband had died in 2000 from an apparent heart attack – so they exhumed his body and found that it, too, had evidence of ethylene glycol. So, Stacey found herself in some trouble. But she attempted to accuse her daughter, Ashley Wallace, of killing the two men, even though Ashley would have been 11 at the time of her father’s death. Ashley supposedly attempted to commit suicide in 2007 and left a suicide note confessing to the murder of her stepfather, but Ashley survived and testified against her mother during her trial in 2009. Stacey was found guilty and faces 25 to life for the murder of Castor and the attempted murder of her daughter.
9. Betty Lou Beets: 2 Murders
In 1972, Betty Lou Beets pled guilty to a misdemeanor of wounding her husband, Bill Lane, by shooting him. But thirteen years later, the bodies of Jimmy Don Beets (husband number five) and Doyle Barker (husband number four) were found buried in Beets’ backyard in Texas. Both men were shot in the head several times. Beets was tried and found guilty for the murder of Jimmy Don Beets and was sentenced to death. Protestors against the death penalty alleged that Betty Lou was abused by her father and all five husbands, but she was still executed in 2000 at the age of 62.
8. Judias “Judy” V. Buenoano: 2-4
This is a classic case where money was the main motivator – in this case $240,000 in insurance money. Judy killed her first husband, James Goodyear, in 1971 by poisoning him with arsenic. She then killed her 19-year old son Michael by poisoning him with arsenic, too, but it left him paralyzed instead – so she pushed him out of boat for him to drown. In 1983, she tried to kill her new fiancé twice, first by bombing his car and then trying to give him vitamins with arsenic and formaldehyde. Gentry went to the police and the bodies of Goodyear and Michael were exhumed and showed high levels of arsenic. It is speculated that she might have killed two additional people. Judy was executed by the electric chair in 1998, becoming the first woman to be executed in Florida since 1848.
7. Daisy Louisa de Melker: 3 Murders
Daisy married Alfred Cowle in 1909 in South Africa. They had five children, but three died in infancy. Then, in 1923, Cowle died of a mysterious illness, and left Daisy with quite an inheritance. In 1926, Daisy married Robert Sproat, who died a year later from a similar illness as Cowle. Daisy then married Sydney Clarence de Melker in 1931. A year later, Daisy’s 20-year-old son died of a mysterious ailment after drinking some coffee his mother made for him. Becoming suspicious, deceased husband Sproat’s brother demanded an investigation. Another man had drunk the same coffee as Daisy’s son and became ill, but survived. He tested positive for arsenic. The bodies of Cowle and Sproat were exhumed and tested positive for poison as well. Daisy was tried and found guilty for the murder of her son after a chemist testified that she bought the arsenic from him. Daisy was hanged for her actions in December of 1932.
6. Blanche Taylor Moore: 4 Murders
Blanche Moore got married at the young age of 19, to escape, it seems, life in an abusive household. Her father, P.D. Kizer died in 1966 while under his daughter’s care. It was determined that he died of heart failure but his symptoms were more indicative of poisoning. Moore’s mother-in-law died in 1970 – deemed to be a death from natural causes even though there was evidence of arsenic. Later that year, Moore’s husband died as well.
Moore then began dating Raymond Reid, with whom she was having an affair before her husband died. Reid died in 1986. Moore then began dating the reverend Dwight Moore, and married in 1989. Moore was rushed to the hospital after the honeymoon and it was determined that he was poisoned with arsenic. The reverend actually survived but was disabled for life. Suspicions fell on Blanche, and the bodies of Reid, James Taylor, Kizer, and Isla Taylor were exhumed and all showed high levels of arsenic. Moore was tried and found guilty for the murder of Raymond Reid and was given the death penalty. She is still on death row. Her story inspired the Lifetime movie The Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story.
5. Tillie Klimek: 9 Murders
Tillie Klimek was a self-proclaimed psychic based in Chicago, and she was known for predicting death. She predicted the death of several dogs in 1911, which came true. She also predicted the death of her first husband of 29 years, and he died three weeks later. Tillie remarried after collecting the life insurance money, and her second husband died months later, which of course she predicted.
Husband number three died within months, but husband number four had four years of married life before dying as well. Other victims included Tillie’s neighbor, who began to become suspicious, as well as three children belonging to a family that had issues with Tillie. Of course, Tillie predicted all of these deaths. Her fifth husband, Anton Klimek, fell ill in 1921, and after having his stomach pumped, it was discovered that the food he consumed contained arsenic. Tillie was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the attempted murder.
4. Marie Becker: 10 Murders
Marie Alexandrine Becker is a classic black widow. She started out as a bored housewife in Belgium in the 1930’s, married to Charles Becker. Then her life got a bit more exciting when she met Lambert Beyer and started an affair. Charles died and left her an inheritance large enough to open her own business. Then Becker married Beyer who, oddly enough, died only a few months later but not before he added Becker to his will as sole beneficiary. So, Marie took up a lifestyle of dancing, drinking, cavorting with men – essentially, living the high life. But money started to run out. Becker then went into the profession of caring for elderly people, who would leave her an inheritance after they died. Becker was doing pretty well, until she offered to help a friend kill her husband. Said friend got suspicious, found the poison digitalis in Becker’s home, and went to the police. Becker was tried and found guilty of 10 murders (but there is speculation that there may have been more victims) and was sentenced to life in prison. Becker died two years later.
3. Nannie Doss: 11 Murders
Wherever Nannie Doss went, death seemed to follow her. Also known as Nancy Hazle, Doss got married at the young age of 16, in 1921, to Charlie Braggs, and they had four daughters. The two middle daughters died from mysterious ailments in 1927. Braggs left Doss soon after, but it didn’t take long for her to move on. She married Robert Frank Harrelson sometime between 1929 and 1945 (there are no accurate records of the marriage). Harrelson, along with two grandchildren, died in 1945 – Harrelson’s death was attributed to ingesting rat poison but the grandchildren’s deaths were of unknown causes.
In 1947, Doss married Arlie Lanning, and he died in 1950 from heart problems even though he had no medical history relating to the same. Lanning’s mother and sister died as well – and we can add Doss’s father and mother to the list too. After Lanning died, Doss married her fifth husband, named Sam Doss, in 1953… who also died. But this time the doctors did an autopsy on Sam and found that he was poisoned with arsenic. Nannie pleaded guilty to Sam’s murder and also confessed to killing all four of the deceased husbands. She died in prison in 1965, and had at least 11 possible murders tied to her.
2. Marie Besnard: 13 Murders
Known as the “Queen of Poisoners” in France, Marie Besnard’s first husband died in 1927. Marie then married Leon Besnard in the next year and moved in with Leon’s parents, who both died within months of each other. Then Leon’s sister, who of course shared the inheritance, died. Marie’s father died as well, along with a married couple that was boarding on the property. Interestingly enough, the boarders left Marie with their estate. Marie’s mother died along with several other relatives who named Marie as the beneficiary in their will. Leon would eventually die in 1947, leaving Marie as a suspect (finally). She was tried for 13 counts of murder after numerous bodies that were exhumed tested positive for arsenic and other poisons. The first trial in 1952 ended in a mistrial, as well as the second trial in 1954, and then she was acquitted in the third trial in 1961. Marie continued to enjoy her free life until she died in 1980.
1. Amy Archer-Gilligan: 5-48 Murders
From 1907-1917, Amy Archer-Gilligan ran a nursing home (you probably see where this might be going). Her first husband, James Archer died in 1910. She remarried, to Michael Gilligan in 1913 – he died three months later. Many people were dying in the nursing home, too, specifically those who paid for their nursing home care in full. Understandably, the patients’ relatives complained and so an investigation was initiated. Police exhumed the bodies of a few patients and the woman’s husbands – and they all tested positive for arsenic. However, Archer-Gilligan was tried for only one count of murder, for which she was found guilty. She was granted a new trial for reasons of insanity, and lived out the rest of her days in a mental institution. Up to 48 people died under her care, and at least 5 murders seem reasonably certain. Her story inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
Feature image via Keith P. Rein, ‘Slaughterhouse Starlets’