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7 Black Widows and 16 Dead Husbands

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We consider it natural for a wife and mother to feed her family to ensure their health. That's why we are so horrified when the food leads to death. Last week we looked at the cases of six women who poisoned their husbands and often other family members for personal gain. Here are the stories of seven more black widows.

1. Amy Archer-Gilligan

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 police investigation, which led to exhumations. Both of Archer-Gilligan's husbands 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 Amy-Archer 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 inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.

2. Daisy de Melker

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Daisy Louisa de Melker was the second woman ever to be hanged for her crimes in South Africa. She married Alfred Cowle in 1909. Three of their five children died in infancy. Cowle died in 1923 and left de Melker a substantial inheritance. Three yers 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, who, like her first two husbands, was a plumber. 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, 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, due to the testimony of the chemist she bought the arsenic from. She was hanged in December of 1932.

3. Mary Ann Cotton

260maryanncottonMary Ann Cotton had three husbands and twelve 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 10-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official who was asked to find the boy employment, even though the child appeared healthy. The official happened to also be the parish coroner. 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 because the coroner had alerted police about the conversation he'd had with Cotton. Besides, the doctor had seen the child only the day before and noticed no illness. 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,
She's dead and she's rotten
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.

4. Marie Besnard

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Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud (pictured center) was called the "Queen of Poisoners" in France. Her first husband, a cousin, died 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. Leon's body tested positive for arsenic. Other bodies were exhumed, tested for arsenic poisoning, and Besnard was 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.

5. Ottilie Gburek/Tillie Klimek

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Chicago resident Tillie Klimek was a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs in 1911 with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband of 29 years, 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. The same thing happened to husband number three, Joe Guszkowski. Husband number four, Frank Kupczyk lasted four years. 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. Husband Kupczyk died in 1920. The widow was remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number five, 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.

6. Stacey Castor

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History is full of black widows, but they are not a bygone relic. The only difference in 21st century husband killers is that, with improved communications and forensic techniques, they are likely to be caught sooner than their predecessors. Even the most modern instances seem eerily familiar, such as the case of Stacey Castor. In 2005, Castor's second husband David Castor died from what at first looked like a suicide. Investigators found he had ingested ethylene glycol, which is found in antifreeze. Suspecting his wife, they exhumed the body of Castor's first husband, Michael Wallace, who died in 2000 of a heart attack. Chemical analysis showed that his body contained ethylene glycol as well. This threw more suspicion on Stacey Castor, but she had a backup plan. She arranged evidence to point the finger at her own daughter, Ashley! Castor accused her teenage daughter of killing both her father and her stepfather, despite the fact that Ashley was only eleven years old when Michael Wallace died. In 2007, Ashley Wallace was hospitalized for an overdose of prescription pills and vodka.There was a suicide note in which she confessed to the murder of her stepfather. The only problem was that Ashley survived to testify against her mother at her 2009 trial. Castor faces 25 years to life for the murder of David Castor and the attempted murder of Ashley Wallace. She has yet to be charged with the murder of Michael Wallace.

7. Wendi Mae Davidson

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Wendi Davidson reported her husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Leslie Severance missing from his home in San Angelo, Texas in January of 2005. The next day, she filed for divorce. Not long after, she confided to her brother that she had found Severance dead and hid the body because she assumed another family member had killed him. Police found the body in a fish pond a few weeks later and arrested Davidson for tampering with evidence. Severence's body had been weighted down with cinder blocks and stabbed 41 times, but that wasn't the cause of death. He had been killed with pentobarbital, a drug that was readily available to Davidson, who was a veterinarian. Wendi Davidson pleaded no contest at her trial in 2006 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

See also: Who Not to Marry: 6 Black Widows and 5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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