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.
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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