The Naked City Jun 29 2010
TOLL OF THE BELLE
A real life case of arsenic and old lace.
Above is a Police Files from fifty years ago this month with a story on an Alabama waitress named Rhonda Belle Martin who killed her mother, two husbands, and three of her children by poisoning them with arsenic. It’s one of the most bizarre stories of the time. Martin was fifteen the first time she married. That union ended in divorce four years later. She married again, at twenty-one, to a man named George Garrett who became her first poisoning victim. She had no motive for killing him. There was an insurance policy, but she was well aware it would do little more than cover funeral expenses. Like the delusional old aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace, her reasons for killing seemed unfathomable.
 
Martin married a third time but divorced after five months. Or at least she tried to—but somehow, she married her fourth husband before the divorce was final. Her fourth had a son named Bud. When Martin poisoned husband number four, stepson Bud became her companion, and soon thereafter her fifth husband. This would normally have led to a prosecution for incest, but the fourth wedding was invalid from the start due to Martin’s failure to obtain a divorce from her third husband. This meant Bud had never legally been Martin’s son-in-law.
 
She claimed to love Bud with all her heart, but the old compulsion took hold and she poisoned him too. But this time she botched the job and left him not dead, but paraplegic. Bud’s illness set off police warning bells, finally, and prompted an investigation that uncovered the suspicious deaths of not just two previous husbands, but three children and Martin’s mother. All had been buried in the same cemetery and police exhumed the bodies in a carnival atmosphere as the story caught like wildfire and dominated front pages nationwide. A Montgomery Advertiser article blared: “Waitress Admits Guilt in Seven Poison Cases; Six Victims Met Death.”

At trial Martin pleaded insanity. The jury wasn’t buying. Rhonda Belle Martin was executed in October 1957 in the Alabama electric chair. As to whether she was truly insane like the aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace, we’ll never know, but her third husband, an orderly at a Veteran’s hospital that housed hundreds of insane people, said she wasn’t. “Rhonda Belle, she ain’t no good-looking woman,” he said, “but she’s got personality and she’s smart.” In the end though, she wasn’t smart enough to elude detection. And as far as her magnetic personality went—when she was buried there were fewer people at her graveside than she had killed.     

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
January 17
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
January 16
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
January 15
1919—Luxemburg and Liebknecht Are Killed
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps. Freikorps was a term applied to various paramilitary organizations that sprang up around Germany as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I. Members of these groups would later become prominent members of the SS.
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