I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Serial killers are most likely to be white males with above average intelligence, and their motives are usually sexual and sadistic.
Forensic psychiatrist Dr. James Knoll told the ABC program 20/20 that, “The research suggests that it is extremely uncommon” for women to be serial killers. “In the case of women, their primary motive is material gain.”
A less common trigger among women who kill multiple victims is revenge, and this is what seems to have driven Martha Wise.
Female Serial Killers are Methodical
TruTV’s Joseph Geringer writes that female serial killers “are sly, deliberate and careful in plotting their murders and performing them. Scenes of bloody rampages are rare, replaced by such modus operandi as poisoned foodstuff and staged domestic accidents.”
That’s a good description of how Martha Wise carried out her crimes around the aptly named town of Hardscrabble, Ohio.
Poverty, Constant Toil, and Abuse
Born in 1884 to a poor farming family, Martha Hasel, was ill-favoured by nature, with a pinched face and sunken eyes. Her genes and upbringing gave her little in the way of charm or intelligence. Feeble minded, she suffered the teasing and cruelties that is often the lot of those so afflicted. She was a dull, plain woman with little hope of finding a husband, let alone a good one.
However, romance of a sort did come her way in 1906 when Albert Wise, 20 years her senior came courting. To Martha, farmer Wise must have seemed a better deal that a long life of lonely spinsterhood, so she married the older man and quickly learned to regret the decision.
Mara Bovsun, wrote in The New York Daily News that Albert Wise treated his wife “like something between farmhand and pack animal, even after she became pregnant. ‘I kept ploughing and hoeing and baking,’ she would recall years later.”
And, to go along with the hard work and frequent pregnancies there was a liberal application of beatings. Her only relief from the drudgery and abuse was funerals. She attended services whether she knew the deceased or not, frequently wailing in grief.
Martha Wise Exacts Revenge for Family Criticism
The torment came to an end in 1923 when Albert Wise died suddenly. With four children to raise and a farm to tend, Martha went looking for another mate. She found one in Walter Johns, a younger man of whom Martha’s mother and the rest of her family strongly disapproved. There was a bitter quarrel and Martha agreed to stop seeing Johns.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1924, Martha joined her relatives for supper. Mara Bovsun relates that soon Sophie Hasel, Martha’s mother, “and several other members of the family fell ill, complaining of stomach upsets.” Within a month Sophie was dead of what the doctors called stomach inflammation.
In January 1925, there was more stomach inflammation and Martha’s aunt Lillian Gienke, and her uncle, Fred Gienke were being buried. As well, the Gienke’s children seemed to be suffering from a lot of food poisoning as well.
Family Tragedies are Investigated
Martha’s bad luck in losing so many family members to similar ailments attracted the attention of the law. After poking about at the local drug store, Sheriff Fred Roshon found that Martha Wise had bought some large quantities of arsenic.
It was time for a chat. Especially after an autopsy revealed that Lillian Gienke’s body was packed with arsenic.
Crimezzz.net records that “Under questioning, Martha confessed the three murders, but said, ‘It was the devil who told me to do it. He came to me while I was in the kitchen baking bread. He came to me while I was working in the fields. He followed me everywhere.’ ” Although later, when interviewed in prison by a reporter, she claimed she did not know why she had killed her family members.
Martha Wise Sentenced to Life in Prison
The press labelled her the “Borgia of America” and her trial attracted a lot of attention. The jury took an hour to come to a verdict of guilty of first degree murder. She was given a life sentence.
In November 1930, Walter Morrow of The Toledo News-Bee caught up with Martha Wise in prison. He described finding “a gaunt, leather-skinned, angular woman with red hands and the big knuckles that are the mark of a life of toil.”
At the age of 79, Wise was paroled in 1962. But, after three days on the outside she voluntarily returned to prison where she lived until her death in June 1971.
- According to Dartmouth College, “… from the time of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, arsenic was the king of poisons.” It has no colour, odour, or taste when mixed with food or drink and the symptoms once ingested mimic those of severe food poisoning. As arsenic trioxide a fatal does is about the size of a pea. For a long time, it was used as a rat poison and was sold through drug stores.
- Maria Swanenburg (1839-1915) was a fan of the lethal properties of arsenic. She lived in Leiden, Holland and cared for the elderly so well that she acquired the nickname Goede Mie or “Good Me.” However, while performing all manner of kindnesses she was planning to bump off her clients. After insuring them, Swanenburg administered arsenic and walked off with the proceeds. As the body count grew so did suspicions that Goede Mie might not be all that goede. In 1883, she was put on trial for killing 90 people but was found guilty in the deaths of only her last three victims. She spent the rest of her life in prison where she died in 1915.
- Claire Booth Luce was the United States ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1956. She fell seriously ill and the suspicion was that she had been poisoned by the Soviet Union. However, it was discovered that arsenic had been used in the lead paint on her bedroom ceiling and the dust was falling on her as she slept. She became so debilitated that she had to resign her post.
- “Your Questions Answered About Black Widow Case.” ABC News, April 27, 2009
- “Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness.” Joseph Geringer, TruT.
- “The Poison Widow of Hardscrabble.” Mara Bovsun, New York Daily News, October 7, 2007.
- “Weeping Martha Wise Sobs Over her Three Murders.” Walter Morrow, Toledo News-Bee, November 19, 1930.
- “WISE, Martha Hasel.” Elizabeth Wetsch, crimezzz.net, undated.
- “Arsenic: A Murderous History.” Roger Smith, Dartmouth College, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Suzie from Carson City on April 18, 2017:
Fascinating and rather spine-chilling. It amazes me, Rupert that someone could be so naive as to think after 3 or 4 people drop dead of the same ailment, after being in your presence, you would not be a suspect!!
While reading this, it was difficult for me to not think about my favorite Classic of all, "Arsenic and Old Lace" with Cary Grant! Of course it was a comedy and a really funny one at that. I can watch it any number of times and laugh just as hard each time!
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 18, 2017:
Goodness, that was interesting. She even looks evil. Fancy voluntarily going back to prison!