While females generally show less violence than males, when they do decide to kill and do so repeatedly, they can be especially deceptive, cunning and manipulative to achieve their aims. The so-called ‘Black Widows’ named after female black widow spiders who have a tendency to eat their male partners after intimacy are women who serially murder their husbands to get their hands on life insurance monies and assets.
With poison being the weapon of choice for most, these men are killed from a distance without any knowledge that the woman they love wants them dead. The cells that make up death row across states in America and in pre-1965 Britain have seen a number of these black widows occupy their windowless barren spaces awaiting their fates of execution for their crimes.
Betty Lou Beets, 1985, Texas
In August 1983, Betty Lou Beets fifth husband, firefighter Jimmy Don Beets, went missing after taking his boat out in Henderson County, Texas. Missing, presumed dead in a tragic boat accident, it was two years before Beets gruesome involvement in his death would come to light. Her son told police she had murdered Jimmy Don and made him help her dispose of his body. When police found his body buried in the flower garden of the family home they also, to their surprise, found the body of Betty’s fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Barker, buried under a shed in the back garden.
Multiple bullets riddled the bodies of both men, suggesting that Betty Lou Beets liked to make sure her husbands were dead. Her daughter also went to police and advised them she had helped Betty bury Doyle Wayne’s body in 1981. With both her children testifying against her and her husband’s bodies discovered in her garden, Betty Lou Beets did not have much of a defence. Furthermore, her collection of life insurance policies and her most recent husband’s pension only added to the suspicion. Only tried for the murder of Jimmy Don, she was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1985, serving 15 years on death row at a state prison in Huntsville, Texas before being executed aged 62 years old in February 2000.
Blanche Taylor Moore, 1990, North Carolina
Convicted of killing her boyfriend using arsenic, Blanche Taylor Moore is suspected of killing three other men, two whom she was in a relationship with and the other her own father. In 1971 her first husband died of a suspected heart attack and Blanche carried on an affair with a Raymond Reid after her husband’s death. In 1986, Reid developed what they thought was shingles and he died in hospital in October 1986. Still considered an unfortunate widow, she began dating Reverend Moore soon after her lover’s demise. Reverend Moore collapsed in April 1989 with suspected food poisoning and toxicology tests showed 20 times the lethal dose of arsenic in his system.
Moore survived but was left with sensation issues in his hands and feet and by now eyes of suspicion had fallen on Blanche Taylor Moore. The bodies of Reid, her first husband and her father, who had died in 1966 also of a suspected heart attack, were exhumed and tested, both showing high levels of arsenic. She was arrested and charged with the murder of Raymond Reid. Convicted in 1990 and given the death penalty, she was originally sentenced to die by lethal injection in January of 1991. Frequent appeals have ensured she has not yet been executed and she currently sits on death row at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women and still maintains her innocence.
Judy Buenoano, 1984, Florida
Judy Buenoano spent 13 years on Florida’s death row before she became the first woman to be executed in Florida in 150 years. She was executed in the electric chair on 30 March 1998 at 54 years old still protesting her innocence. Her serial crimes were discovered after she poisoned and tried to blow up her fiancé John Gentry in a car in 1983, an attack he survived and was able to provide police with the ‘vitamins’ Buenoano had fed him before the car bombing. Pills which were discovered to contain high levels of arsenic. Once police started digging into Buenoano’s background, the skeletons began to appear. In 1971 her husband of nine years, US Air Force Officer James Goodyear, died from what was believed at the time to be natural causes, leaving his multiple life insurance policies to be paid out to his devastated wife.
In 1980, their 19-year-old disabled son Michael Goodyear drowned after ‘falling’ overboard on a canoeing trip with his mother, an event he couldn’t possibly survive with metal callipers on his legs weighing him down. The bodies of both father and son were exhumed with tests showing they too had arsenic in their systems. In a trio of trials that took place between 1984 and 1985, Judy Buenoanao received the death penalty for her husband’s murder, a life sentence for her son’s murder and a 12 year sentence for the attempt on her fiancé’s life. A further death was also linked to Buenoano, that of Bobby Joe Morris, a man she had a relationship with after the death of her husband. He became ill in 1978 and after various stays in hospital with doctors baffled at what was causing his symptoms he died within one month.
By the time investigators had linked Judy Buenoano to his death she had already convicted and sentenced to death for earlier crimes, and she was never tried for Bobby Joe’s murder. The prosecutor who secured her convictions said Buenoano was a woman who “feeds off her mates and her young”, most likely out of “twisted greed”.
Mary Ann Cotton, 1873, England
In Victorian England times were hard with little spare money to go around. Mary Ann Cotton holds the title of a traditional black widow, a woman who poisoned her husbands and her own children for the money that would be paid out on their deaths. The unlucky widow until 1872 gained sympathy from those around her after three husbands had died along with up to 11 of her children across a span 20 years. When her stepson, 7-year-old Charles Cotton, died suddenly after she had been heard to comment that ‘he would soon die like the rest’, suspicion fell onto her and an investigation into the deaths that seemed to follow her around began.
When the child’s body was tested it was found to contain arsenic, prompting further exhumations of previous husbands and her lost children to be carried out, all of which revealed the result and conclusion; arsenic poisoning. Mary Ann Cotton went on trial for the murder of her stepson in 1873 in Durham, England, a trial which became a public spectacle and a media sensation across the country with people quickly turning on the young woman horrified at her actions. Convicted of murder, she was sentenced to die by hanging. Within weeks of her conviction, she was hanged at Durham County Gaol on 24 March 1873.
Mary Wilson, 1958, England
Between 1955 and 1957, Mary Wilson lost three husbands and one lover, one after the other inheriting sizable sums of money after each death in Tyne and Wear, England. John Knowles the chimney sweep was her first victim when he died suddenly in August 1955 after 43 years of marriage. Within a year she had married again to retired estate agent Oliver Leonard. He lasted just two weeks before he died. Ernest Wilson came next, a man who she married in 1957 and within two weeks she was calling in the doctor when he died of ongoing heart problems, or so they thought.
When suspicion finally fell on this grandmotherly figure at age 65 the bodies of Leonard and Wilson were exhumed to find the poison phosphorus in their systems. After a six-day trial in 1958, Mary Wilson was found guilty of both murders and sentenced to death. Although never charged for their deaths, it is believed her first husband, John Knowles, and her most recent lover, John Russell, also met their deaths at her hands. After one year on death row, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment saving her from the gallows. Mary Wilson died in London’s Holloway Prison in 1962 aged 70 years old.
Velma Barfield, 1978, North Carolina
The first female murderer executed in the United Stated since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976, Velma Barfield’s succession of murders ended after her latest victim, her lover, Stuart Taylor, died in 1977 after experiencing unexplained symptoms. At autopsy arsenic was discovered leading to a cause of death to be confirmed as arsenic poisoning and the woman who was nursing him, Velma Barfield, to be charged with murder. An insanity defence at her trial failed and she was given the death sentence for her crime.
After her conviction, Barfield decided to unburden herself and she confessed to the murders of her own mother in 1974 and two elderly patients she cared for as a nurse, John Henry Lee and Dollie Edwards. As for her motives, it seems Velma liked to steal money and when she couldn’t pay it back she made her victims ill to give her time to find more funds, or at least this is the story she told. Realising they had a serial killer on their hands, police exhumed the body of her late husband, Thomas Barfield, which tested positive for arsenic.
Although Barfield always denied being responsible for his death, it is widely believed he was indeed another one of her victims. 52-year-old Velma Barfield, also known as the ‘Death Row Granny’, was executed on 2 November 1984 by lethal injection at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.