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Angels of Death: 6 More Medical Murderers

In this third installment of Angels of Death, we'll take a look at several serial medical murderers you may have never heard of. They each left a trail of victims behind them and a lot of unanswered questions.

Small Town Nurse

The locals were shocked when nurse Vickie Dawn Jackson was arrested for a series of murders at Nocona General Hospital in Nocona, Texas. After almost a year of exemplary service, Jackson began injecting patients with mivacurium chloride, a muscle relaxant. Over a two-month period, she may have killed twenty patients. The victims included people she had known for years. Her husband's grandfather was a victim. Jackson was fired after a would-be victim survived and complained that she gave him unauthorized medication that made him pass out. An investigation led to ten murder charges. However, the trial was stopped before it began when Jackson pleaded no contest to the charges, and received a life sentence. Jackson still says she is innocent.

The Would-be Hero

250angelo.jpgMost of the medical killers profiled today killed for reasons that will remain a mystery. Richard Angelo had a motive. He wanted to play the hero by rescuing patients in distress, only he caused the distress by injecting victims with the muscle relaxer Pavulon and sometimes couldn't save them. Angelo worked as a night shift nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in New York, where 37 code blue emergencies saw the deaths of 24 patients during his shift. One patient managed to call for help after Angelo injected him with Pavulon and Anectine. An investigation followed, in which the nurse's home was searched and the drugs in question were found. Angelo was eventually charged in four deaths. His defense was that he suffered from multiple personality disorder, but the evidence was the result of polygraph tests, which the judge did not allow. He was convicted and sentenced to 61 years to life.

Murder as Sexual Thrill

200graham_g.jpgGwendolyn Gail Graham was a nurses aide at Alpine Manor Nursing Home in Walker, Michigan. She had a lesbian relationship with her immediate supervisor, Catherine May Wood. The couple practiced erotic asphyxiation, and began killing elderly patients to achieve a sexual thrill. Graham would smother a victim while Wood stood guard, then they would stop for a sexual interlude together. They even bragged about their activities, but coworkers did not believe them. Eventually, Graham put pressure on Wood to commit a murder herself, which led to the couple splitting. Graham left town, and Wood confessed to her ex-husband. A year later, he approached police with the story. The following investigation unearthed eight suspicious deaths, five of which yielded enough evidence to take to trial. Wood testified against Graham in return for a reduced sentence. Graham received six life sentences; Wood drew 20 to 40 years.

Two-month Nursing Spree

100DIAZ.jpgRobert Diaz wanted to be called Dr. Diaz, even though he was a nurse. Diaz held a series of temporary nursing jobs in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Berardino Counties in California in 1981. At each hospital, an unusual spike in the death rate coincided with his employment. Twelve dead patients exhibited a high level of the heart drug lidocaine. A search of Diaz' home found vials and syringes of lidocaine in concentrations ten times as high as their labels indicated. He was arrested on twelve counts of murder committed in a two-month period. A judge found him guilty of all counts in 1984 and sentenced him to execution. Diaz is still on death row at San Quentin.

Don't Breathe

244Saldivar.jpgEfren Saldivar was a respiratory therapist who confessed to killing around 50 people between 1988 and 1998. Saldivar would inject one of several paralytic medicines into his patients, which caused breathing, or the heart, to stop. His early victims were undetected because he killed only patients who were near death, so the death rate on his shift wasn't noticeably abnormal. Still, the staff at Glendale Adventist Medical Center had suspicions. Co-workers once broke into Saldivar's locker to play a prank and found drugs and syringes he did not have legal access to. They didn't report the find for fear of getting into trouble. After an informant approached the hospital with second-hand knowledge of the staff's suspicions, police were called in to investigate. During his first contact with police, Saldivar, who was connected to a polygraph, started telling stories of how he killed terminal patients out of compassion. Within a few days, he recanted his confessions. Police spend a year and a half looking for evidence in exhumed bodies, and built a murder case around six suspicious deaths in which the bodies had high levels of Pavulon, a derivative of curare that paralyzes the respiratory system. In 2002, Saldivar pleaded guilty to six counts of murder and received life in prison.

Orderly Murder

440harvey.jpg

Donald Harvey claims to have murdered 87 people during his 17 year career as a hospital orderly. He began working at Marymount Hospital in London, Kentucky when he was eighteen years old. Harvey later confessed to killing at least a dozen people in his ten months there. The first victim, according to Harvey, rubbed feces in his face, angering the orderly so much he strangled the patient. No investigation followed. Harvey used a variety of methods to kill patients: poison, overdoses of medication, strangulation, turning off or misusing equipment, and introducing infections. He was arrested for burglary, served a short time in the army, and  was in a mental ward for a time before working at a couple of Lexington, Kentucky hospitals where he had little opportunity to kill. Harvey later worked at the Cincinnati V.A. Hospital and Drake Memorial Hospital in Cincinnati. At both hospitals, unusual numbers of deaths took place during his shift. He also used poison on his lover, Carl Hoeweler, and both of Hoeweler's parents. Hoeweler's father died as a result. After one suspicious patient death, Harvey's home was searched. Police found various poisons and his incriminating diary. Harvey confessed to dozen of murders in order to avoid the death penalty. He pleaded guilty to 25 counts of murder and received four consecutive life sentences. Harvey earned an additional eight life sentences with a guilty plea in Kentucky. Later, an Ohio court added another three life sentences. There were also sentences for attempted murder and assault. His first scheduled parole hearing will be in 2047.

For stories of more medical mayhem, see Angels of Death: 8 Medical Murderers and Angels of Death: 7 More Medical Murders.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Hulton Archive//Getty Images
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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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