From The Corpse in the Cellar by John Stark Bellamy II
Black Widow. The two words provoke several images, none of them cheery. Most people are aware, at least by repute, of the female black widow spider, the most lethal arachnid native to America, notorious for occasionally dining on her male partner after mating. Some, too, are familiar with the archetype of the female serial-killer spouse, memorably rendered in a number of films, most recently by Theresa Russell in Black Widow (1987). Few Clevelanders realize, however, that almost four score years ago their city riveted the attention of the nation for almost a fortnight with sensational news of a serial husband murderess. They should probably be readily forgiven for not knowing: the “Black Widow” story came out of nowhere, burned fiercely in the public mind for two weeks, and then, just as suddenly, disappeared forever.
Edward C. Stanton was probably the most interesting, aggressive, and effective prosecutor in Cuyahoga County history. During his tenure as county prosecutor (1921–1929), Stanton sent eight men to the electric chair and earned a deserved reputation as a publicity-savvy, cunning, and relentless lawman. Propelled into office by his avidity in prosecuting the alleged May Day rioters of 1919, Stanton quickly gained the public’s favor with his unexpected conviction of municipal judge William H. McGannon for perjury, for his dramatic pursuit and prosecution of those involved in the infamous murder-for-hire demise of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber, and for the long-awaited guilty verdict that ended the chilling criminal career of Cleveland’s Public Enemy No.1, George “Jiggs” Losteiner. (All of these trials are covered in the pages of the author’s previous volume, They Died Crawling.) Stanton’s zealous efforts also sent three men to the electric chair for their role in the brutal payroll robbery and murder of businessmen Wilfred C. Sly and George K. Fanner on the last day of 1920. (The author has chronicled the Sly-Fanner murders in another previous book, The Maniac in the Bushes.) It is likely, however, that none of Stanton’s celebrated cases was more bizarre, more chilling and yet paradoxically inconclusive than the ephemeral “Black Widow” phenomenon of 1922.
The story erupted on May 1, when Stanton announced that a 37-year-old Cleveland woman was under investigation on suspicion of multiple murder. Held in the county jail on an unrelated larceny charge, she was suspected, Stanton told reporters, of having poisoned two of her four children and perhaps as many as three of her five husbands in order to collect on various substantial insurance policies. The next day’s newspaper headlines left nothing to the reader’s imagination. The Plain Dealer blared, “Suspect Woman Killed Husbands For Insurance,” while the Press shouted, “Body Exhumed In Poison Plot.” Interestingly, neither Stanton nor the newspapers revealed—then or ever—the identity of the accused distaff Borgia.
Stanton, as usual, was in deadly earnest. Early the very next day, county coroner A. P. Hammond showed up at staid Lake View Cemetery to oversee the exhumation of the suspected poisoner’s fifth husband, a machinist who died in May of 1921. After removing the corpse to the county morgue on Lakeside, Hammond’s physicians quickly extracted the vital organs and turned them over to city chemists Harold J. Knapp and George Voerg for analysis. Pursuant to Stanton’s orders, they were looking for signs of metallic poisons: Stanton publicly vowed a murder indictment should so little as even a tenth of a grain of arsenic show up in the cadaver.
Meanwhile, the background story luridly unfolded in the pages of Cleveland’s three daily newspapers. And what a story it was. The woman, it seems, had originally come to Stanton’s notice a year before, when she sought his aid in collecting on her recently deceased husband’s insurance. Her sad story to Stanton was that her late spouse was a World War I veteran whose health had been fatally ruined by poison gas in the trenches of France, and that the heartless United States government had refused to pay off on his $5,000 war risk insurance. Stanton couldn’t help her, but he turned her over to the Cleveland offices of the American Red Cross.
This proved an imprudent move for the grieving widow. Not only did the Red Cross fail to expedite her insurance problem—it seems that Husband No. 5 had been remiss in his premium payments—but Red Cross official Esther Knowles became suspicious as she learned more and more details of the high-living widow’s lifestyle. Several months later, in April 1922, the widow would be arrested on unrelated larceny charges, and Esther would renew their acquaintance when the Red Cross took over care of the woman’s two teenage daughters. After talking with the daughters, Esther went to Stanton, and he went to the media on May 1.
Over the next week, the strange saga of the “Black Widow” unfolded in the newspapers. Her trail led back to Pittsburgh, where nearly 20 years before she had wed her first husband and produced two daughters. They did not last long: the heavily insured girls died after eating “poison tablets” in what was assumed to be an unfortunate household “accident.” The Black Widow soon divorced and married Husband No. 2, a Pittsburgh druggist. That marriage produced another two daughters, born in 1907 and 1908 but, alas, not nuptial felicity: the couple divorced during World War I. Husband No. 2 survived his experience with the Black Widow, but he would later recall that she did seem to have “a mania for collecting insurance.”
The pace of her marital adventures now picked up steam. She married Husband No. 3 in Pittsburgh, and she and her daughters moved with him to Cleveland, where he had found a splendid job opportunity. Indeed, it was so good that it even included a free $1,200 insurance policy as an employee benefit. Unfortunately, No. 3 didn’t stick around to enjoy it, as he died very unexpectedly only a week after it took effect. Described as in “perfect health,” he nonetheless fainted at work one afternoon and was dead within 24 hours. After cashing in his policy, the Black Widow took her family back to Pittsburgh.
There, she wasn’t lonely for long. Within the year she had snared Husband No. 4, a wealthy man likewise described as being in “perfect health.” Shortly after the nuptials were celebrated, however, he began to fail alarmingly and died in May of 1919. The Black Widow had by now begun to attract the attention of local lawmen, and an autopsy was conducted on her late No. 4. Robert Brauh, the Allegheny County chief of detectives, was not surprised when the autopsy turned up traces of arsenic in the stomach. But nothing further was done, because Husband No. 4’s physician testified that he had prescribed medicines for the deceased containing the potent metallic powder. The late No. 4 left $5,000 to his stricken widow, who now shifted her base of operations back to Cleveland.
As ever, the new widow did not pine long. Seven months after No. 4 shuffled off his mortal coil, she met Husband No. 5, an ex-soldier just returned after the Armistice. After a whirlwind courtship, which was by now her wont, the newlyweds settled down to marital bliss in an expensive flat on East 40th Street.
Probably more is known about the corpse of Husband No. 5 than about the living man, but it is fair to surmise that his brief married life was not a felicitous idyll. Unlike his immediate predecessor in the Black Widow’s mercurial affections, Husband No. 5—known to inquiring newspaper readers only as “Joe”—was not a wealthy man, and his machinist’s wages were not adequate to underwrite the lifestyle to which his spouse had become accustomed. Sad to say, very soon after tying the knot, his wife took to wistfully voicing her discontent aloud to her bosom friend Jessie Burns. It began with subtle wishes, modest daydreaming hints like: “Wouldn’t it be nice if Joe died? Think of the fun and parties we could have if Joe died.” Within a few more weeks, as the 25-year-old Jessie later reminisced, the Black Widow’s coy remarks became more direct and concrete: “I would like to get rid of him. I would like to give him arsenic.”
But all was not Lady Bluebeard gloom-and-doom at the East 40th Street love nest. Various roomers who sublet premises from the couple would later testify that Joe’s wife not only insisted on cooking all of his food herself but was shrewishly insistent that not a tasty morsel go to waste, often screaming profanely, “— —- you, eat that food. I’m not going to cook for you and have you leave everything!”
Perhaps more ominously for Joe, there were increasing hints that his wife had not lost her “mania for collecting insurance.” He complained to friends that she was constantly nagging him to join lodges that offered insurance benefits, and she attempted, unsuccessfully, in the weeks just before his death, to get his veteran’s insurance raised from $5,000 to $10,000. And to friends to whom she owed money, she promised that she was just about to come into an “expected windfall” of $5,000—the exact amount of Joe’s G. I. death benefit.
Although the Black Widow would later claim that Joe’s abrupt demise stemmed from longstanding health problems caused by his gassing in France, neither War Department records nor the recollections of Joe’s brothers supported her assertion. Indeed, Joe’s fatal crisis must have come unexpectedly. The couple’s only remaining roomer would recall leaving Joe in perfect health on a May day in 1921—and returning only three days later to find him laid out in a casket.
For her friends, who remarked that the new widow seemed rather jolly under the circumstances, the Black Widow had a ready explanation, encrusted with convincingly mundane detail: “Joe ate a hearty meal last night and drank six bottles of loganberry juice. At about 10 p.m., he went to take a hot bath. Eating, drinking and the hot water must have affected his heart, I guess, because when I got up the next morning I found him dead on the bathroom floor.”
Perhaps custom by now had steeled Joe’s widow to the familiar pain. But it is likely that she had already realized ready cash from his unexpected departure, as a mere 48 hours after her spouse’s funeral she was throwing parties and spending her substance in what a disapproving Stanton later characterized as “riotous living.” Moving to a luxurious East Side apartment, the Black Widow decorated with expensive furniture, splurged on $1,400 in diamonds, and bought herself a new car.
Also pampering her aesthetic side, she acquired a piano and, along with it, a new beau. His name was L. P. Farrell, a widowed 53-year-old, and he met the Black Widow when he delivered the piano to her new digs. They had a few drinks and struck up a conversation that soon developed, he would ruefully recall, into her “making violent love” to him after she discovered he was a man of some property. Over the next few months she wooed Farrell assiduously. The result was a wedding date set for April 24, 1922.
That problematic union never came off. The Black Widow was arrested that very morning on multiple charges of larceny brought by her neighbors, who connected her with the recent disappearance of their cherished valuables. After she was taken to the county jail, her children were turned over to the Red Cross, leading ultimately to Esther Knowles’s fateful conversation with Edward Stanton and the ensuing nationwide sensation.
The story peaked on May 5. That afternoon, Stanton announced that the autopsy of Husband No. 5 had turned up traces of both morphine and arsenic in the vital organs. Simultaneously, word came from Pittsburgh authorities that they had been trying to build a murder case against the Black Widow for three years. There was talk of impending murder indictments and the possibility of digging up husbands No. 3 and No. 4 and her two dead children from their graveyard homes. Yet another talkative friend came forward to tell police of an additional, now vanished child the accused had given birth to. A search of East Side drugstore records disclosed two purchases of arsenic in the spring of 1921 that bore her surname. The discovery of a cache of suggestive newspaper clippings at the Black Widow’s flat further inflamed police and public suspicions. One was a report of a judge’s charge to a jury, which seemed to have a lurid bearing on her present predicament: “Bear in mind that suspicion was an entirely different thing from legal proof, and it was in accordance with proofs and not suspicion that their verdict must be given.”
A second item provided a juicy rationale for the much-married suspect’s alleged modus operandi: “As to loving more than once, it certainly can be done. No love is so great that no one else can come along and take the place of the former love.”
What more did the authorities need to hear?—except, perhaps, this remark from the widow, kindly recalled by one of her friends: “Wasn’t Mrs. Kaber foolish to have her husband stabbed? Why didn’t she give him ground glass instead of poison?”
Excited Clevelanders didn’t know it, but the sensational story of the Black Widow was about to implode and disappear. Within five days it would vanish from the newspapers, Cuyahoga County coroner’s files, and police records forever. Almost everything known after May 5 consists of negative facts: We know that the supposedly infamous Black Widow was never indicted, never brought to trial, and never publicly exonerated from the terrible charges made against her. What happened?
In the absence of documented fact, conjecture rules—but it’s a pretty good guess that Stanton’s impressive case against the Black Widow was not so impressive after all. After the initial stories about the finding of arsenic in the corpse of No. 5, word leaked out that the amount was laughably insignificant. In fact, city chemist George Voerg at first reported that he could find no arsenic at all. Ordered to take a more scrupulous look, he eventually found the sought-for poison—at a concentration of one per three million parts in the dead man’s vital organs. This was considerably less that Edward Stanton’s indictment threshold of a tenth of a grain, so the body of No. 5 was once again dug up from Lake View Cemetery on the morning of May 6. Apparently, nothing more was found.
Nothing has been heard of the Black Widow since May 10, 1922, when Cuyahoga County authorities promised reporters that there would soon be “startling developments” in the flagging investigation. It is not known where she went, and whether she recovered her two daughters—whom the Red Cross had placed in foster homes—when she was finally let out of jail. Whether she was just a crass, unlucky gold digger or a fiendishly heartless serial killer remains an open question. It is only fair, however, to let her have the last word, considering the unproved charges against her. When she was first arrested, reporters could hear the Black Widow screaming from Stanton’s interrogation room, “It’s a lie! It’s a lie! I won’t answer another of your questions!” Her final word on her situation was issued through her attorney, G. W. Gurney, on May 8:
“I am the unnamed woman in County Jail. Much has been said unfavorable to me. I know the public wishes to know the truth . . . I am here because of false charges. It has been intimated that I may have poisoned my husband. The desire of public officials to gain applause for themselves soon opened the floodgates. If any of my accusers had any evidence that I had poisoned my husband, they kept it to themselves for nearly a year . . .
“I did not murder my husband. He died of natural causes. I loved him dearly . . . I have had many offers to marry since his death and some of the offers have come from wealthy men. If my business is to marry and kill for the love of gold, is it not a bit strange that I should have allowed a year to pass without any further pursuit of my profession? . . . There is no evidence of my guilt, for I am innocent. The county officials are merely trying to weave a chain of circumstances in my life that might make it possible for me to have poisoned the man I loved. How much easier it would be for them to weave a dozen chains to prove my innocence. My innocence would not please them. Meanwhile I must suffer . . . My greatest solace is that there must be someone who will believe me innocent, at least until some real evidence of my guilt has been discovered.”
Whatever her guilt or innocence, that “someone” was certainly not her one-time fiancé, piano mover L. P. Farrell. Upon learning of the charges against her, he replied, “When I read of her arrest, my blood turned cold. I am a lucky man to have escaped her . . . I had a feeling that I would meet a terrible end.”
After years of persistent inquiry, I finally learned the identity of the “Black Widow.” Her name was Edith Murray, and her last husband was John Joseph Murray. They were living at 1907 East 40th Street at the time of his suspicious demise. Edith survived John by almost half a century before she died in Pennsylvania in 1969. She was buried with John in Lake View Cemetery. Her guilt or innocence in his death remains undetermined.