Friday, June 6, 2014

Roberta Elder, Prolific Georgia Serial Killer of Family Members - 1952


The suspected victims of Roberta Elder include 3 husbands (including “Common law husband”), 4 of her children, 3 step-children, her mother, her grandchild, a cousin, and the former wife of a husband. (See list at end of this post)

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FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 7): Atlanta – Police sought today to determine whether a 43-year-old Negro woman, jailed for the poison death of her husband and a step-child, also did away with 10 other relatives for insurance money.

Roberta Elder was charged with murder yesterday by order of a coroner’s jury after a state expert testified that her husband the Rev. William Elder, died of arsenic poisoning Aug. 21.

The woman’s step-daughter, 9-year old Pearl Elder, also died of arsenic poisoning Jan. 11 1951, City Detective J. E. Helms said.

The other deaths in her family since 1948 include her mother, two previous husbands, three of her children and another step-child.

Helms told the coroner’s jury that the woman took out insurance policies ranging from $50 to $3,000 on most of the persons whose death is being investigated.

[“Negro Woman Jailed For Poison Deaths of Husband, Child,” syndicated (AP), Waycross Journal-Herald (Ga.), Sep. 20, 1952, p. 2]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 7): Atlanta – Tagged as “Mrs. Bluebeard” by local police, Mrs. Roberta Elder, 43, is being held here as a suspect in thirteen deaths which may have been caused by poisoning.

Police say that thirteen relatives of Mrs. Elder have probably died from arsenic poison seasoning of food during the last fourteen years. Among the dead was listed the name of Mrs. Nora Scott Harris, a 94-year-old friend who lived at the 1328 Eason Street home and who died on Dec. 22, 1951.

Coroner's physicians, who examined death certificates, concluded that all of the listed causes of death in the suspected foul play cases, such as pneumonia and food poisoning, could be manifestations of arsenic poisoning.

The list of other deaths being investigated by police is as follows:

THE REV. WILLIAM M. ELDER Sr. – late husband of the suspect, whose death according to State Toxicologist Herman Jones was caused by arsenic poisoning.

ANNIE PEARL ELDER, 9 – daughter of the minister by a previous marriage, whose death, officials say, came front arsenic poisoning on Jan. 11, 1951.

MRS. KELLY BROWN  – mother of the suspect, who died here in 1945.

WILLIE MAE THURMOND – 2-week-old daughter by her first marriage.

LIZZIE MAY THURMOND – one week-old daughter by her first marriage. (Both children died when the mother lived in the rear of a Harris Street address)

JOHN WOODWARD, 36 – common law husband of Mrs. Elder, who died of an undetermined cause in 1938.

WILLIE THURMOND, 12 – who died in 1939 from malnutrition and respiratory trouble a recorded on the death certificate.

JIMMY LEE CRANE HUNTER, 2 – grandson of Mrs. Elder by a previous marriage, who died in 1943.

GLORIA EVANS – the suspected woman's cousin, who died from food poisoning Dec. 26, 1944.

JAMES GARFIELD CRANE, 45 – her husband by a previous marriage, who died in 1947 from food poising.

MRS. WILLIE MAE ELDER, 41 – previous wife of the deceased minister, who died from influenza in 1950.

FANNIE MAE ELDER, 15 – died in 1951 from pneumonia.

ANNIE PEARL ELDER, 9 – died in 1951 from pneumonia.


At a coroner's jury hearing. Mrs. Elder denied knowing what arsenic looked like, but admitted taking insurance policies on most of the deceased a few months prior to their demise with herself as beneficiary. The policies ranged from $50 up to $3,000.

It was further revealed that two living daughters of the poisoned Hunter Hills Baptist Church pastor have been treated for poisoning this year at a local hospital.

The woman was arrested by order of a Fulton County coroner’s jury and the case was being investigated by Detectives L. T. Bullard and J. E. Helms.

The Rev. Mr. Elder became  bedridden at his home after he took sick on a construction project where he was working as a carpenter’s helper. Mrs. Elder said she thought he became ill from eating bananas and cheese while at work.

[William Fowlkes, “Quiz Woman in 13 ‘Poison’ Deaths’ – ‘Poison’ Deaths Probed,” Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Sep. 27, 1952, p. 1]

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FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 7): Atlanta – Roberta Elder faces life imprisonment for the poison murder of her husband, the Rev. William M. Elder.

Police said 14 members the 45-year-old Negro's family have died under mysterious circumstances in 14 years. She still is to be tried on murder charges brought for the poison deaths of two step-children.

A Superior Court jury yesterday convicted her of murdering her husband but recommended mercy and made a life sentence mandatory. Witnesses testified that the woman, treasurer of the religious organization, was short in her accounts and had a $500 insurance policy on her husband at the time of his death.

[“Roberta Elder Faces Life Imprisonment For Husband's Death,” syndicated (AP), Thomasville Times-Enterprise (Ga.), Oct. 2, 1953, p. 7]

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FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 7): Atlanta, Ga. – When Atlanta’s Rev. William M. Elder died in 1952, after reportedly “eating bananas and cheese,” his family physician refused to sign the death certificate.

The doctor noticed that the skin of the middle-aged Baptist minister had “shifted” and that there were sores in ruddy spots of the man’s emaciated body.

Oddly enough, he recalled that he had signed a death certificate the year before for This is the first of a aeries of four articles by the Courier’s William A. Fowlkes. Elder’s daughter, Fannie Mae, the cause of death having been listed as pneumonia. He admitted he “might have been in error.” And the year previously Dr. had signed a certificate for Annie Pearl Elder, another daughter, the cause of death also having been listed as pneumonia.

The medic associated the similarity in symptoms of pneumonia and arsenic poisoning.

He then notified the coroner that there should be a postmortem examination, and suggested that an investigation be launched at the Eason Street, N. W home of the Rev. Mr. Elder and his careful-talking, almost emotionless wife, Roberta.

Tests showed that enough grains of arsenic were in the Rev. Mr. Elder’s body to kill three men two and seven-tenth grains.

Atlanta detectives called into the case – principally Detective J. E. Helms – carefully compiled a list of persons who had died since, 1938 while living in the households of Roberta Elder in her native Watkinsville, Ga., and in Atlanta’s Northeast and Northwest sections.

They found thirteen possible victims, from two weeks old to 93 years of age. Most of them had died of pneumonia, uremic and or “food poisoning.” Most of them were insured with policies worth from $30 to $500. Most of them died a year or slightly more after being insured.

When Detective Helms presented his findings to the hastily assembled coroner’s jury, listing the possible victims and the sequence of their deaths in Mrs.. Elder’s dwelling places, Fulton County Coroner Ed Almond declared:

“This is an unheard of thing . . . Why, this reads like something out of a story book . . !”

Indeed, it was!

The jury ordered Mrs. Elder held for murder . . subsequent court orders resulted in the bodies of two of the Rev. Mr. Elder’s young children being exhumed from the lonely “garden of death” Mrs. Elder had “planted.” They found the tell-tale evidence in their young bodies – arsenic!

Although the state only tried Mrs. Elder on one of the three murder indictments, Fulton County Grand Jury returned against her, and was able only to get life imprisonment for the accused, she will probably never get out of prison.

The other two murder accusations are waiting against her should she and some lawyer decide the time is ripe to appeal for parole after serving seven years in a Georgia prison. Mrs. Elder never confessed a thing, although the state pointed as strong an accusing finger toward her as has been pointed toward a murderer.

Circumstantial evidence in a Georgia murder may be appealed away from any electric chair conviction and does not stand up in higher courts.

Atlanta police claim Mrs. Elder, whom they continually referred to as “Mrs. Bluebeard,” outdid the original namesake and all his tribe in both the Old and New Worlds!

[“Atlanta’s ‘Mrs. Bluebeard’ – The Strange Case of Roberta Elder!” Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Aug. 29, 1954, p. 5]

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FULL TEXT (Article 5 of 7): Roberta Elder “was cool as a cucumber” when Atlanta police told her she would have to attend an inquest seeking the cause of death of her husband, the Rev. William M. Elder, a Baptist minister and week-day carpenter. She way just as “cool” when the state finally got a life-term sentence against her nearly two years later. With as much indifference as a cornered opossum, Mrs. Elder merely shrugged her shoulders when deputies escorted her from the courtroom.

She never confessed anything!

She was “positive” that she did not place - any of the “pink stuff”“ used to sprinkle and kill insects on flowers into a bottle of milk of magnesia, contents of which allegedly were given her “sick” husband.

The Rev. Mr. Elder became ill on his construction job. He started vomiting and sweating. His stomach was real sick. When asked what Was wrong, he told his foreman he had eaten “bananas and cheese.”

Later, as the Rev. Mr. Elder lay on his deathbed, his body wasted away, fellow - workman Henry Smith said he commented:

“Well, I didn’t know bananas and cheese would hurt you.” “I didn’t know it myself!” the Rev. Mr. Elder replied, never knowing what was sapping his life blood away. All the while, Mrs. Elder testified in coroner’s hearings and in an unsworn statement

Mrs. Roberta Elder entering at her trial that she was “caring for” her sick man.

Family physician Dr. --------- testified that Mrs. Elder called him to the home when the minister first became ill. The sick man was given medicine and Mrs. Elder was told to call the doctor if the Rev. Mr. Elder failed to show improvement and cure. The doctor later told the court that he was not called again until the Rev. Mr. Elder was dying. It was then that he noticed the preacher’s skin had slipped and there were peculiar skin discolorations and sores on his body.

The doctor refused to sign the death certificate and called in the county coroner, the circumstances proving to be deaths suspicious.

When the bodies of Annie Pearl Elder and Fannie Mae Elder were exhumed later, a coroner’s physician and licensed criminologist reported 1.20 milligrams of pure arsenic were found in the hair and the skin tissues. Their death certificates showed “pneumonia” listed as the cause of their deaths.

Mrs. Elder is still under indictment for murder in the Annie Pearl-Fannie Mae Elder deaths.

The state, which listed thirteen possible victims of Atlanta’s “Mrs. Bluebeard,” holds these accusations over her head in the announced aim of keeping Mrs. Elder behind bars for the rest of her natural life.

[William. A. Fowlkes, “Atlanta’s ‘Mrs. Bluebeard’ – The Strange Case of Roberta Elder – Matron Goes to Prison – Georgia,” Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Sep. 4, 1954, p. 7]

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FULL TEXT (Article 6 of 7): Atlanta police were never able to find a record where Mrs. Roberta Elder actually purchased arsenic which Fulton County grand jurors accused her of using to kill her husband and two step-daughters for their insurance money.

Witnesses told coroner’s and grand jurors that sacks of the “pink powder” would turn up at the Atlanta Eason Street home of the Elders after Mrs. Elder took trips .to a brother’s farm near Watkinsville. The powdered poison was “to kill plant insects,” survivors said they, were told.

Police could not produce a witness who saw Mrs. Elder place arsenic in a milk of magnesia bottle, the contents of which were invariably given the sick who came under Mrs. Elder’s care.”

The Rev. Mr. Elder’s surviving children – William Jr., Dorothy and Viola – whose lives also were covered with policies with Mrs. Elder as beneficiary, “knew” the bottle and its effect. Their two sisters – Fannie Mae and Annie Pearl – died from arsenic poisoning, the state determined.

Dorothy told a coroner’s jury she was ill once after Mrs. Elder gave her some “milk of magnesia.” Viola said she vomited and was ill after her step-mother gave her “some medicine.”

Police claimed the following persons died under “suspicious” circumstances while living in a household with Mrs. Elder since 1938.

John Woodard, 36, 519 Bedford Place, N. E., alleged common-law husband of Mrs. Elder. Died in December, 1938.

James W. Thurmond, 13, 519 Bedford Place, a son of Mrs. Elder by her first marriage. Died In June, 1939.

Jimmy Lee Crane Hunter, 2, 1221 Eason Street, a grandson of Mrs. Elder. Died Dec. 16, 1941.

Gloria Evans, 3, 1221 Eason Street, N. W., died Dec. 26, 1944. (Cause of death: acute gastro empiritis [sic].)

James Garfield Crane, 1. Died December, 1943.

Willie Mae Elder, stepdaughter of Mrs. Elder, 279 Chappell Road, N. W. Died January, 1950.

Fannie Mae Elder, 1221 Eason Street, N. W., stepdaughter of Mrs. Elder. Died March, 1951. (Cause of death originally listed as pneumonia and uremic poisoning.)

Collie Brown, mother of Mrs. Elder. Died in 1945.

Willie Mae Thurmond,” 2 weeks old, daughter of Mrs. Elder by a previous marriage, who died in Watkinsville, Ga.

Lillie Lou Thurmond, 1 week old, daughter of Mrs. Elder by a previous marriage, who died in the rear of a Morris Street, N. E., Atlanta, address.

Nora Scott Harris, 93. Died December, 1951.

The Rev. William H. Elder, husband of Mrs. Elder. Died in August, 1952.

[William A Fowlkes, “The Strange Case of Roberta Elder (Part 3) – Atlanta’s ‘Mrs. Bluebeard,’” Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Sep. 11, 1954, p. 7]

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FULL TEXT (Article 7 of 7): Roberta Elder, whose insurance arsenic murder case shocked Atlanta and the nation, admitted to Atlanta officials she had two husbands and friends.

One of these friends John Woodward died in 1938 under mysterious circumstances in the Grady Hospital, according to Mrs. Elder’s admission.

Incidentally, Mrs. Elder testified that she had a $125 policy on him when he died. She collected it, she said.

The husbands she alleged were the Rev. William M. Elder, whose arsenic murder led to her life-term sentence, and Garfield Crane, reportedly still living in Atlanta. Police say she had only one legal husband.

The insurance money which the state claimed was the motive in most of the foul play deaths, came for the most part, in amounts from $50 to $225.

A larger policy was held on the Rev. Mr. Elder, the benefits of which the insurance company refused to pay because of the nature of death.

Depositions taken by police from officials of an Atlanta fraternal organization, some of which were testified to in court, revealed that Mrs. Elder had misplaced a fairly large sum of money as treasurer.

Irregularities were first noted in the bank account of the group when a check bounced. There was no satisfaction of this item by Mrs. Elder at first, even though, newly elected leaders insisted that she meet them at the bank with the bank book.

Mrs. Elder always forgot the bank book, they said.

At one inquest Mrs. Elder testified that she had one $500 policy on the Rev. Mr. Elder which was taken out in 1951, the year before he died.

The policies on Fannie Mae Elder, of which Mrs. Elder was chief beneficiary, totaled $550, police reported.

When asked if she had given the Rev. Mr. Elder’s daughter, Annie Pearl, proper care, Mrs. Elder told a coroner’s jury: At all times.

Asked three times if she had ever bought any kind of poison, including arsenic, the accused Mrs. Bluebeard replied:

“No. I wouldn’t know what it looks like!”

Of the minister’s worsened condition following the doctor’s visit, Mrs. Elder admitted he had a “set-back” after he ate “some cheese and eggs” cooked at home. His first alleged attack came from eating “bananas and cheese” bought away from home and eaten on his construction job, she said.

Atlanta police held Mrs. Elder in jail over nine months before her case was presented to the grand jury, and over fifteen months before the case finally went to trial.

Mrs. Elder was from the hubbies and really living on Easy Street policies she held on deceased friends for compiling the convincing circumstantial evidence.

It was believed that the accused would break down and confess under the strain of waiting and watching the web of circumstantial evidence being wound about her.

However, Roberta Elder has never admitted poisoning any of the thirteen possible victims of arsenic who died while living under her household roof. The state, which can’t electrocute her under the circumstantial evidence code, says she won’t ever get out of prison for these revolting crimes.

[W. A. Fowlkes, “The Strange Case of Roberta Elder (Part 4) – Atlanta’s ‘Mrs. Bluebeard,’” Courier (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Sep. 18, 1954, p. 7]

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The suspected victims of Roberta Elder include 3 husbands (including “Common law husband”), 4 of her children, 3 step-children, her mother, her grandchild, a cousin, and the former wife of a husband.

Husbands – Rev. William H. Elder (died Aug. 21, 1952); John Woodward (36, common law h, died 1938); James Garfield Crane (45, died 1947)

Children (her own) – Willie May Thurmond (2-weeks-old); Lizzie May Thurmond (1-week-old); James Garfield Crane (1, died Dec. 1943); James W. Thurmond (13,  Jun. 1939)

Step-children – Willie Thurmond (12, died 1939); Fannie Mae Elder (15, died Mar. 1951); Annie Pearl Elder (9, died 1951);

Mother – Mrs. Kelly “Collie” Brown (died 1945)

Cousin – Gloria Evans (died Dec. 26, 1944)

Grandchild –Jimmy Lee Crane Hunter (2, died 1943)

Former wife of husband – Mrs. Willie Mae Elder (41, died Jan. 1950)

Friend – Nora Scott Harris (93 or 94, died Dec. 22, 1951)

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Photo "Homicide Detective..." from: [“13 Dead, Call Woman ‘Bluebeard’ – Admits Insuring All Dead Kinsmen,” Chicago Defender (Il.), Sep. 27, 1952, p. 1]

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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/2012/11/female-serial-killers-of-africa-african.html


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