Thursday, September 22, 2011

Marie Becker, Belgian Serial Killer Nurse - 1938


Ten of Marie Becker’s eleven victims were wealthy widows.

FULL TEXT (article 1 of 2): SHADES were drawn some time ago in the parlor of the Ramacle home, in Liege, Belgium, and a wreath on the door told others outside to hush in the presence of death as did those friends and relatives who came in bareheaded to pay their respects. Mrs. Maria Ramacle had died suddenly after a violent attack of vomiting. What had she died of? Well, the nurse was a little vague about that, the family had to admit on thinking it over. ‘The subdued whispering in the parlor swelled into gossip, and the upshot was, at the last moment and on a wild hunch, that a post-mortem was performed and an inquest ordered. It was found that the woman had died of poisoning by digitalis – a drug extracted from foxgloves, used to strengthen the heart in small doses but deadly in large amounts.

Nobody was accused because it was not known whom to accuse. The police, if they had only put two and two together, might have had a suspicion, for the nurse was Mrs. Maria Alexandrine Petitjean Becker. Only the year before she had been warned by a judge not to treat patients any more with her “witch’s broths” made from herbs and minerals. The warning had been made after the suspiciously sudden death of Mrs. Lambert, a widow 67 years old.

But the authorities at last woke up when they received an anonymous letter soon after the Ramacle death, naming Mrs. Becker hi connection with the deaths of two other patients she treated — Francois Lange, 85, and Marie Weiss, 62.

Arrested , the prosperous nurse was found with a handbag containing digitalis.

One clue led to another, and one by one the bodies of her former patients were exhumed, and all of them showed traces of digitalis present.

After 19 months in prison she was tried and accused of nothing less than the wholesale murder of ten women, one man, and the attempted murder of five other persons. Pounded by a battery of ten skilled lawyers and 294 witnesses, and faced by 1,800 pieces of evidence, she couldn’t avoid paying the penalty for her crimes and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Modern debunkers of history declare that Lucrezia Borgia, the Italian byword for intrigue and murder, was really a good-natured woman who has been a victim of unsupported calumny. And as Mrs. Becker, since her trial began at the Palace of Justice in Liege, has been named the “Belgian Borgia,” sentimentalists point out that she, like Borgia, is being sacrificed to prejudice.

The unemotional defendant contested all the statements of witnesses. Judge Fettweis was finally moved to ask: “Everyone in the case is lying except you?” To this she said “Yes,” and nodded vigorously. Becker’s attitude throughout the proceedings has been that of a deeply wronged woman – and if she is innocent she has indeed been wronged. She kept asking for the case to be hurried up as she had other matters to attend to. It was then pointed out to her that she still hadn’t cleared herself.

For example, the digitalis found in her purse. “I suffered from heart trouble,” she explained in court, “and I had to take it. I did not want my lover to know.”

The trouble is that doctors can find nothing wrong with her heart. As the judge put it, “in spite of your heart trouble you were known to go to dance halls and behave like a strong and flirtatious young woman. The druggist and chemist you name are dead, but the police have found no entries of your case in their registers.” Confronted with such evidence as this she croaked, “There is a hole in my memory.” The nurse who is 59 years old was up to ten years ago the wife of a respectable cabinetmaker, and was herself a milliner by occupation.

Then, something happened to change her life, and in 1932 she branched out into the – for her – more lucrative livelihood of being a nurse. She found patients hard to get at first.


It is asserted that she walked the parks, looking for prospects among the old women with whom she would get into conversation.

Usually there would be something the matter with the women, and Mrs. Becker would offer to cure it, the prosecution holds. About 20 accepted her services, gave her money and some left her large sums in their wills, it is alleged.

The motive for Mrs. Becker’s fantastic array of murders, as outlined by the Belgian authorities, was to get money to satisfy her extravagant whims and her lover, named Hody, 13 years younger than herself. In 1933, Mrs. Becker was secretly engaged to rich Lamber Beyer. He died in her arms November 2, 1934, and most of his fortune was found to be spent. Julia Bossy, who knew the truth, was killed four months later, the prosecution says. The list of those who allegedly died of “Becker indigestion” reads like a telephone directory.

In reply to all this evidence and her conviction, Mrs. Becker insists that everybody is against her and that there is really no case against her at all.

[“The ‘Belgian Borgia’ Tries To Explain How Eleven Trusting Patients Died,” The American Weekly (San Antonio, Tx.), Sep. 11, 1938,  Magazine section of the San Antonio Express, p. 2]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 2): Foxglove is a humble weed that grows profusely all over Europe where the ground is dry and rocky. It’s bell-shaped flower contains five .red stamens that look like fingers – “bloody fingers” the Scotchman calls it. From this wild flower the pharmacist gets digitalis – a drug which, administered in proper doses, evenly regulates the heartbeats of those suffering from cardiac ailments. An overdose produces a violent gastric condition, contraction of the heart muscles – and death.

On the morning of October 3d, 1935, Police Commissioner Honore Le Brun, of the industrial city of Liege, Belgium, scanned through the death reports of the previous day. It was routine, but there was something vaguely familiar in a name that appeared on one that gave notice of the death of Theresa Weiss, 62, of Rue Saint-Gilles. The attending physician had noted as was customary that the deceased had been nursed by Marie Becker, and this name the commissioner was sure he had seen before.

The officer called for the file of death certificates and went back through it chronologically until he came lo September 26th, when it was reported that Yvonne Lange, 86, on the same street, had died of the same ailment as the Weiss woman: acute indigestion, and moreover had been attended by the same nurse, Marie Becker.

The commissioner buzzed for his aide, Detective Edouard Schmidt.

“Here is something of interest,” greeted Le Brun.

The ferret-like Schmidt studied the papers and looked up with a twinkle in his eyes.

“The nurse Becker is most unfortunate in her choice of patients.”

“It is so. However, do you note the coincidences?”

“But yes,” answered the detective. “There are three: the same street, the same sickness and the same nurse. “Two of these might be accidents. Three? No!”

“I agree; therefore you will in all secrecy investigate the past of this nurse and learn of the other unfortunates who have been cared for by her. There might be others.”

The detective left to begin an inquiry whose developments astonished even that case-hardened veteran.

~ Originally a Seamstress ~

Marie Becker, nee Pettijohn, Schmidt learned, was born in 1880, at Warmont, coming from a respectable family of hardworking people who raised her in the fitting decorum of a small town family. As a young girl she journeyed to the big city of Liege where her skill with needle and threat brought her employment in the town’s biggest dress house. There she was known for ten years as a shy, chaste, capable seamstress.

In 1906, according to the church records, she married a fairly prosperous wood-worker, Charles Becker, who owned a saw-mill. Marie kept her job, however, until she and her husband had enough money to build a furniture factory which prospered from the beginning.

In 1930, after twenty-four years of happiness, the fifty-year-old, dignified matron suddenly began to powder and paint, dress like a twenty-one-year-old demi-mondaine and took to going out at night with youths young enough to be her sons. Her husband seemed resigned in his beloved wife’s vagaries.

Like most flighty, middle-aged women, Marie had a favorite young man named Paul Castadot, a gendarme in the Liege Police Department, who with his wife occupied an upper apartment in the house where the Beckers lived and which they owned. Marie and the young childless couple became such intimate friends that she made a will in their favor.

~ A Strangely Swift Death ~

Then, Detective Schmidt learned, the hapless and worried Charles Becker, though in the best of physical health, was suddenly stricken in 1932 and died. From the city files the investigator learned the cause of Becker’s strangely swift death; acute indigestion!

If Marie Becker had ambitions to become the second Mrs. Castadot, she was doomed to disappointment. Shortly after she found her lover entertaining a young lady in his apartment, so Marie changed her will and removed the many pictures of the handsome officer that decorated her bedroom, though she still remained friendly with him.

At this point, it seemed to Schmidt, Castadot must have become quite concerned about his own good health because he reported the strange sequence of similar deaths to his superiors. The latter ordered a local investigation with Castadot in charge; but nothing came of it.

Detective Schmidt wondered how many more friends of Marie Becker had died suddenly from the deadly malady, so he took the next logical step of scrutinizing every death certificate filed during the years 1933 and 1934. sure enough, one Lambert Beyer, 43, had succumbed to acute indigestion on October 29th, 1934. Schmidt traced the man’s activities prior to his death through his family and learned that the deceased had been a prosperous landlord, the owner of four apartment houses and of a bank account that totaled 40,000 francs.

Beyer, who attended the cathedral every Sunday morning, had noticed that for three Sundays in succession a devout little lady in black occupied the seat beside him, and in time he spoke to her as they left the church. It was thus that he became acquainted with Marie Becker, and soon proposed marriage.

But like the prudent Latin, Beyer, as a matter of course, investigated his prospective bride’s financial condition and found that it didn’t check with her statements. In fact Marie had dissipated her husband’s money.

Though Beyer called off the marriage he continued the romance. Then, on October 19th, he was stricken with an intestinal illlness. Marie Becker nursed him. A few days later he was dead.

Beyer had been canny about his business possessions; his relatives informed Schmidt that the dead man had a cash box in hiss bachelor apartment that contained 10,000 franc. But the boxd had disappeared and no trace of it was ever found.

Schmidt submitted a volumnious report on the case to his superior who studied the dossier carefully and concluded that he would take the matter up with a magistrate; in most countries of Europe that official has the sole authority to bring an illness for questioning.

~ Suspicions Are Aroused ~

The necessary papers were quickly obtained from the magistrate and Schmidt set out for the nurse.

Magistrate Oscar Destreshe read to Marie Becker the list of her patients with special emphasis after each name on the cause of dealth, “acute indigestion,” and when he concluded he commented: “it seems that those who entrust themselves to your care have an undeviating tendency to die suddenly.”

“But they are old, what would you have? Is it not that everyone dies so, sooner or later?”

“That is true,” replied the judge: “but also it is possible for the old to die before their time. I understand that you invariably served your patients tea, and justice demands that you inform me what you inform me what you put into the tea that you inform me what you put into the tea that you [make].”

“Herbs,” she cried, “only herbs of the most beneficient kinds. Herbs that would have healed them if it was that they were to live.”

“Well, we will certainly learn more about your healing herbs by examining the bodies of Mrs. Weiss, Mrs. Lange, Mrs. Castadot and Mr. Beyer,” the magistrate concluded, “and you will remain prison until that information is disclosed.”

But how cleverly Mr. Becker had contrived to do away with her victims was not appreciated by magistrate, commissioner or detective until a staff of examining physicians reported that they were unable to find any traces of poison in the exhumed bodies.

To Magistrate Destresche fell the exasperating duty of formality releasing the prisoner whom the public, police and courts were convinced was a mass murderess. And Marie Becker strode out of court.

Death took a ten-month holiday.

In August, 1936, while seated on a parkk bench, the Becker woman made the acquaintance of aged Widow Martin who lived on Rue Pont D’Avrory. The old lady soon became very intimate with her new found friend, and because she was so solicitous and charming she invited her to liver in her home as a companion. Finally she became so contented that a will was made in favor of Marie Becker – and this was the kindly old woman’s death warrant. She died suddenly a month later, on September 15.

Both Commissioner Le Brun and Detective Schmidt pleaded with the courts to reopen the case, but the presiding magistrates were wary of the treatment they had received at the hands of the press when the deadly widow was released previously.

Though Schmidt no longer had any authority to pursue the case against Mrs. Becker he followed her career as closely as his other duties permitted because he was convinced that overconfidence would lead her to some error – and when that happened he wanted to be prepared to strike.

In February of the following year of the following year the widow struck up another park acquaintanceship, an old maid named Julia Bossy, who died within ten days from the deadly ministrations of her new friend.

This was followed by Widow Jeanne Perot, 68, and Aline-Louise Dammotte, the youngest of her victims, both of them whom were buried as a result of the increasingly common malady called “acute indigestion.”

~ “Indigestion” Strikes Again ~

But in April, Marie Becker made [missing text in original] which Schmidt had been waiting so long and so patiently. Mrs. Becker, like a cobra approaching a bird, fascinated 42-yeart-old Anne Stevart, her neighborhood grocer, with the usual results – the grocer woman became ill. But Detective Schmidt had a few hours to spare at the time so he watched the house and kept himself informed of what was going inside.

A constant visitor to the house was a man who, the detective learned, was the sick woman’s brother. Schmidt accosted the man as he was leaving one day and, after identifying himself, learned that she was being poisoned by the tea served her by Mrs. Becker.

“You have poisoned me,” he heard his sister shout to her friend. “Get out of my sight – get out!”

But the Becker woman seemed to exert some diabolical influence that calmed the sick woman, for when her brother threatened to throw the nurse out his sister remonstrated with him and told him to mind his own business.

The detective pledged the man to secrecy because he wanted to be sure that the suspect had no inkling that he was watching. Marie Becker, he was convinced, was too shrewd to leave her insidious poison around the house – therefore when she went on an errand she must have it on her person. So the next time she left the house Schmidt arrested her.

Hidden in the bosom of her dress a matron found a green flask containing twenty grains of digitaline, a drug which administered in small quantities alieviates the pain of what is considered the most excruciating malady known to medicine. Administered in larger doses it produces the symptoms of nausea and acute indigestion which eventually result in death.

“I break no law in carrying this drug,” was her glib, ready response when asked why she had it on her person. “I am suffering from heart trouble, therefore why should I not carry it?”

The detective expected this reply and was ready for it: “If vyou are suffering from heart trouble kindly tell me what pharmacist Dr. Mettray filled it.”

Schmidt knew from readiness of her responses that the woman had prepared for such a contingency as this; he guessed that the information could not be checked for some reason – probably because the two doctors had died. And so it proved when he made inquiries.

But now that the magistrates know that the examining physicians had something specific to look for they held the woman and ordered the bodies of her many suspected victims exhumed.

~ Dressed Like a Flapper ~

The staff of surgeons who performed the autopsies agreed unanimously that each and every body contained traces of digitaline, and they so testified at Martie Becker’s trial which began June 7, 1938.

The 58-year-old defendant, made up gaudily and dressed like a sixteen-year-old flapper, defended herself vigorously and accused the police of conspiring against her.

But after a round dozen of former teen age lovers testified that she had lavished money and presents on them, she was forced to admit that she was practically almost always in need of money.

In spite of this amazing revelation the cold-eyed woman remained adamant in her continued denials that she had lavished nothing more than love and affection on her alleged victims. She referred constantly to herself as a sort of kindhearted “Angel of Mercy” who had a natural affinity for old people and young people as well.

“As for my going out with young people,” she declkared, “my theory has always been that one is as young as one thinks oneself to be. As for what little money I spent on my friends from time to time, well, somehow Providence always saw to it that I was well cared for in worldly things. I seldom worried.”

Then, after the doctors had completed their tesatimony, Mrs. Becker for the first time lost her poise and wept into her handkerchief.

The jury found her guilty of eleven murders in all and imposed the death sentence. But in Belgium this is automatically commuted to life imprisonment, ever since 1863 when a witness went insane as he saw the head of a criminal roll way from the guillotine.

The beady-eyed poisoner was transferred from Liege to the penitentiary in Brussels where she died four years later, on June 19th, 1942. Annd in death, as in life, there was the macebre tough – Marie Becker died of acute indigestion!

[Terry McShane, “The Strange Case of the Borgia of Belgium,” The Albuquerque Journal (N.M.), Aug. 23, 1942]

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Marie Becker’s trial began on June 7, 1938. The jury found her guilty of eleven murders and imposed the death sentence. But in Belgium capital punishment is automatically commuted to life imprisonment. She died in the Brussels prison of acute indigestion on June 19, 1942.

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For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.

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http://unknownmisandry.blogspot.com/2011/12/female-serial-killers-who-liked-to.html

Links to more cases: Female Serial Killers Who Like to Murder Women

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