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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The Naked City | Vintage Pulp Apr 30 2009
SURELY YOU DON'T MEAN ME?
Criminals of yesteryear were every bit as brutal as those today.


You learn something new every day. For one, we never knew police height identification charts went as low as two feet six, but even Tom Thumb is probably capable of murder. We got curious today whether the cases referred to on the covers of these true crime magazines we like to post are factual. After a little deep background we found sources confirming two of the three cover blurbs from this issue of Police Files. Reading the stories was informative, and also made us question whether the past was indeed gentler, as is widely believed. We agree there is more crime now, which follows from the simple fact that there are more people. And we also agree we hear bloodier details about crimes than in the past, mainly because journalists and editors stretch the envelope a little more every year to shock people. But have we really gotten more brutal? We’re not so sure about that. Jaded, we agree. Brutal? Ultimately, to kill you have to spill enough blood, and we think it takes just as much brutality now as it did in the past. But don’t take our word for it—read on.

“Nude Nurse in the Seabag” refers to the case of Virginia Covel, who was beaten to death in Los Angeles by her ex-boyfriend Hilding Fridell on July 4th, 1957. Upon realizing he had killed her, Fridell took an overdose of sixty sleeping pills, but did not shuffle off this mortal coil. Instead he awoke July 5th next to her stiff corpse, whereupon he opted for plan B, which involved wedging her in a canvas bag along with rocks and barbell weights, hauling her out to berth 233 in San Pedro, and consigning her to the deep blue sea. We don’t know if she sank temporarily and was buoyed up later by decompositional gases, or if she never sank in the first place, but in any case, the bag was spotted on July 12th floating right where Fridell had dumped it. A Los Angeles Times article from the next day tells us the corpse had a cord tied so tightly around its neck and beneath its knees the body was folded in half. Virginia Covel became known as the Sea Bag Victim, and Fridell the Sea Bag Murderer.

Meanwhile across the U.S. that same summer in Vineland, New Jersey, the story referred to by the header “Voodoo Love Kill” was reaching a climax. It had begun the previous autumn, when a farmhand named Juan Aponte fell in love with his boss’s fifteen year-old daughter. Aponte was a believer in the Caribbean religion of santería—voodoo to us squares—and decided he needed supernatural help to make the girl reciprocate his feelings. He located a love spell that required multiple ingredients. Bat wings—check. Lizard entrails—checkeroo. Powdered skull of an innocent boy—um. While sane men might have abandoned the gory enterprise, Aponte went ahead with his plan, so consuming was his lust for the teen girl. The boy he picked to kill was 13 year-old Roger Carletto, who was chosen not so much for his innocence, which was a given, but because he was Italian and Aponte had a thing about fascists. Aponte snatched the boy up as he returned from a movie. It was October, and nobody had a clue what happened to Roger Carletto until the next summer.

Aponte was a simple man, a farmer. He didn’t know much, but
he knew the trick to powdering bone was it needed to be dry first. So he buried Roger Carletto under a hen house and waited. Finally, on July 1st he dug up the body and took most of the skull, along with a few other pieces. But he was drunk, and consumed with horror over his actions. In the final stages of manufacturing his love potion, he simply cracked. He became catatonic, and when police were called, he admitted to them that he had killed someone. He led police to the hen house of horror, where they found Roger Carletto, minus a hand, a foot, and most of his skull. Aponte never completed the spell, so it’s impossible to say whether it would have worked. But he believed it until the end. He told a cellmate, just before being transferred to state prison, “I know that it would have worked. I would have had the power to have any woman I wanted.”

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
June 06
1944—D-Day Begins
The Battle of Normandy, aka D-Day, begins with the landing of 155,000 Allied troops on the beaches of northern France in an event codenamed Operation Overlord. The German army by this time is already seriously depleted after their long but unsuccessful struggle to conquer Russia in the East, thus Allied soldiers quickly break through the Nazi defensive positions and push inland in the largest amphibious military operation in history.
June 05
1963—John Profumo Resigns
British Secretary of State for War John Profumo resigns after the revelation that he had been sexually involved with a showgirl and sometime prostitute named Christine Keeler. Among Keeler's close acquaintances was a senior Soviet naval attaché, thus in addition to Profumo committing adultery then lying about it before the House of Commons, authorities pressed for his resignation because they also feared he had been plied for state secrets.
June 04
1939—Journey of the St. Louis
The German passenger liner MS St. Louis, carrying 963 Jewish refugees, is denied permission to land in Florida, United States, after already being turned away from Cuba. Forced to return to Europe, many of its passengers later die in Nazi concentration camps. The event becomes the subject of a 1974 book, Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, and is later adapted into a film with the same title, released in 1976.
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