Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Belle Witwer, Ohio Black Widow Serial; Killer - 1901

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 4): Daytona, O., Oct. 14. – Mrs. Mary Belle Witwer, who has been held as a suspected wholesale poisoner, was arraigned in police court this afternoon on the charge of murder in the first degree.

The affidavit was sworn to this morning by Chief Detective Frank McBride, and it is charged that she did willfully, purposely, and by means of poison, kill and murder Anna C. Pugh by them and there knowingly, purposely, and unlawfully administering a large quantity of poison, arsenic. When arraigned before Police Judge Snelker, Mrs. Witwer entered a plea of not guilty.

The hearing was set for 9 o’clock Friday morning. Before then Professor Howard of Columbus will have reported in his examination of the remains of two alleged victims of Mrs. Witwer – Mrs. Anna C. Pugh and Frank D. Witwer.

~ Meets the Challenge Calmly. ~

Mrs. Witwer displayed little sign of emotion in court. The prisoner was told today of the Middletown report that she had been married five times instead of four, and that had deserted her after a brief time, taking $400 of her money. She denied the story. There has been little found by the police in their investigations.

The affidavit was filed today upon instructions from Coroner Hatcher and Chief of Police Whitaker, who, it is understood, had arranged with her attorney to either take this action or to release her.

Mrs. Witwer is seen by no one now except her attorney and the detectives. She declines all interviews.

~ Suspected of Causing Eighteen Deaths. ~

Although Mrs. Mary Belle Witwer is suspected of poisoning not fewer than eighteen persons – men, women, and children – among them four of her husbands, there is not at this

The analysis of telltale organs of two of the dead will be concluded within a few days, and then, if no poison is found, the woman must be set free. If these persons did not die of poison is found, then beyond all doubt all of the others died natural deaths.

~  Her Story of Her Career. ~

In Mrs. Witwer’s own recital of the facts of her career she has told of the deaths of seventeen persons with whom she came in contact, has acknowledged to four husbands, all dead. According to investigation, she had still another husband, who left her a few days after the marriage ceremony and is still alive. She also lived with a person not set down in her story, who also died suddenly.

Mrs. Stowe became the housekeeper for Witwer, and was married to him on March 10 last. On July 4 Witwer was a corpse, having succumbed to acute stomach trouble.

At the time of the illness of Witwer the doctor was puzzled over the strange actions of his patient. He would apparently grow better than worse. The afternoon of the night her died Witwer was seemingly so much improved that his physician expressed the belief that he would get well to Mrs. Witwer. When summoned again that night the suffering man in convulsions and passed away in terrible agony.

A grewsome incident that the investigation has brought out is that when her husband, William Stowe, died in Middletown Mrs. Witwer held the light for the doctor who made the autopsy, and she performed the same service for Dr. Broidenbach when he performed the autopsy on Witwer.

[“Mrs. Witwer Now Held For Murder – Arraigned in Dayton, O., on Charge of Killing Anna G. Pugh With Poison. – Other Crimes Suspected – Death of Seventeen Persons to Be Laid to Her if Present Case is Proven. – Woman’s Strange Career.” Chicago Tribune (Il.), Oct. 15, 1901, part 2, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 4): Hitherto the city of Dayton has been famous for its soldiers’ home, but now it figures in the newspapers as the home of Mrs. Mary Belle Witwer, who, if half the allegations made against her by professional and amateur sleuths are true, is the life destroyer par excellence of the beginning of the twentieth century, although some of the crimes she is said to have committed must be charged up to the nineteenth.

Mrs. Witwer has just had a hearing, preliminary in character, before the police court on the charge of having poisoned her sister, Mrs. Anna C. Pugh. A number of expert chemists testified in the case, and were emphatic in their statements that arsenic had been found in the stomach of the dead woman. On the strength of this testimony Mrs. Witwer was bound over to the court of common pleas, without bond, to answer to the charge of murder in the first degree. The accused maintained her composure when informed of the police magistrate’s decision and displayed a stoicism which amazed the authorities and confounded her attorneys. Many attempts have been made to entrap the prisoner, but they failed miserably, and it is quite apparent that she will make a good defense when her case is brought to trial before the court of record.

One fact must not be forgotten by those who are inclined to discuss this cause celebre. The evidence against Mrs. Witwer is purely circumstantial.

She is now, of course, charged directly with the murder of Mrs. Pugh, who was a professional nurse and lived with Mrs. Witwer, at No. 35 Liberty street, Dayton. Mrs. Witwer lost four husbands, and all died rather suddenly and under peculiar circumstances. In the wholesale charges informally made by police officials she has been accused of having caused the death of all, in addition to those of several children making a total of 14 deaths.

There is, however, no expectation that more than one crime can be fastened upon the prisoner; and even that is extremely doubtful, unless the authorities can produce much stronger testimony at the coming trial in the criminal court than they furnished before the police tribunal. Should the prosecuting attorney succeed in proving the woman’s guilt in the Pugh case, other charges may be taken up, but to the unbiased observer it seems as though the story of 14 mysterious murders will very likely evaporate in thin air. Moreover, even the most relentless pursuers of the defendant are unable to associate any evidence with the charges informally made.

A short outline of the Pugh case is necessary to understand the present position of Mrs. Witwer. Mrs. Pugh was ill not more than 48 hours and suffered great anguish. Prior to her death she summoned a lawyer and dictated the terms of her will. Mrs. Witwer was called in the room several times to refresh the patient’s memory for names and address of legatees. She herself was a beneficiary only upon the death of her mother, Mrs. Mary- Richmond, of Addison, Mich. Just as the lawyer handed Mrs. Pugh a pen with which to sign the document she sank back dead. Her estate, supposed to have been worth $4,000, has been reduced to $2,500, of which $500 is in personal property and $2,000 in real estate – a small farm near Franklin, O. Two applications for the administration of the estate have been made, one by an attorney, at the suggestion of the Witwer family, and the other by Mr. Nevis, on recommendation of the prisoner. The latter is an inconsequential beneficiary. Mrs. Richmond is more than 80 years old.

At her death the estate is to be distributed among Mrs. Lizzie Brown and Mrs. Witwer, of Dayton, O.; Nannie Parashot, of New York; Frank Richmond, of Addison, Mich., and John Richmond, of Nashville, Tenn.

Mrs. Witwer makes the assertion that her mother bought poison to kill rats which were eating potatoes, but Mrs. Richmond denies the charge. While the police were unable to find potatoes in the cellar when they made their first investigation, they made another search and discovered some sweet potatoes near a rat hole. These potatoes appeared to have been bitten by human teeth rather than by rats, and by the police Mrs. Witwer was at once given credit for the act in the hope that she might thereby deceive the detectives.

If looks count for anything, the average observer would certainly not connect the accused with any crime whatsoever. She is what women call a “good dresser,” and does not look her age – 47.  Her hair is slightly tinged with gray and she has the bearing of a woman of intelligence and refinement. In Dayton church circles she has long been well and favorably known, having since her residence in the city been a member of the Hartford street and Riverdale United Brethren congregations. She has been an active member, taking a lively interest in home and foreign mission, and other church affairs. While all of her friends are loathe to believe the charges against her, yet none of them came to her aid after she had been formally accused, and it devolved upon her neighbors to take an interest in her case, or she would probably have been unrepresented at her preliminary trial.

Mrs. Witwer’s marital history certainly is unique. Frank D. Witwer was the last of her husbands who died suddenly. She was married to him last March, and on July 4 he died. Like all her husbands, he had stomach trouble a short time before his death. He was taken violently ill some time after eating a luncheon which, according to the sleuths, his wife sent to him. Mrs. Witwer’s first husband was Frederick Sweinger, who died near Nashville, Tenn., in 1877, supposedly from smallpox. The second husband was Frank Brown, of Middletown, O., with whom she lived for several years. Soon after his death she married William Stowe, in Middletown, and his death was strange and startling. Mrs. Witwer admits that he died from morphine poisoning, but says a clergyman administered the fatal dose.

John Williams, her next matrimonial venture, deserted her two days after the wedding. She then came to Dayton and served as housekeeper for John E. Wenz, who died from poisoning and a complication of diseases. While in the woods he was poisoned by ivy, but there is a suspicion that poison was given to him while in bed, as several physicians were unable to diagnose the ease. Mrs. Witwer also acted as housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. John Gabler, and both died apparently from heart trouble within the few months she was in their employ. George D. Keller, who resided in the east end of Dayton, died apparently from cerebral meningitis, though his case puzzled two doctors, and it is asserted that he was one of Mrs. Witwer’s victims. In Middletown, the police allege to have found a woman who was intimate with the prisoner and who pays that, while discussing their husbands one day, Mrs. Witwer remarked that to get rid of hers “she would poison him.”

There is no doubt that the police officials who have had charge of the case against Mrs. Witwer have been honest and governed by the best of motives, yet the impression prevails here that they have gone out of their way to create a sensation. The woman may be guilty of the crime for which she is soon to be tried, but the rumors upon which her notoriety as an American Lucretia Borgia has been established are rather flimsy and hardly susceptible of being introduced as testimony in a criminal court. Every town that has a little local excitement nowadays has the ambition of making it a national episode, and the peace officers of Dayton, swayed by this craze, would, some think, like to surprise the world by weaving a web in which the most cruel murderess of the age is to be caught.

And while all this has been going on Mrs. Witwer has kept up an indifferent attitude and asserted her innocence in terms forcible and logical. – Franklin B. Betts

[Franklin B. Betts, “Faces Fate Boldly. - Mrs. Mary Belle Witwer, Ohio’s Alleged Wholesale Poisoner. – Held to the Grand Jury After as Examination is Police Court.- Evidence Against Her Purely Circumstantial.” The Richmond Planet (Va.), Jan. 11, 1902, p. 3]


FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 4): A few weeks ago Mary Belle Witwer of Dayton, Ohio, was arrested upon suspicion of poisoning her sister, and is now held for trial. Since her nearest neighbors and acquaintances of the woman have reported the sudden death of twelve persons who have been associated with her, including three husbands, five persons in whose families she had served as housekeeper, and four children. It is due to Mrs. Witwer, however, to say that she stoutly protests her innocence.

Close upon the heels of the Witwer case follows the arraignment of Jane Toppan at Barnstable, Mass., a professional nurse, upon the charge of murdering Mary D. Gibbs, suspicions also resting upon her of murdering Mrs. Gordon, sister of Mrs. Gibbs, and Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Davis, their father and mother, all of whom had been attended by Jane Toppan in the capacity of nurse. She is also suspected of the murder of three other persons. The evidence in this case seems stronger than that against Mrs. Witwer. The accused woman shortly after their decease attempted to commit suicide.

There is an apparent lack of motive in the first case. Mrs. Witwer does not seem to have profited in any way by the numerous deaths of which some think she may have been the cause, nor does there appear to be any special reason way she should have removed people in such a wholesale manner. Miss Toppan had been employed as nurse in the Davis family for years, and in the Brigham family, three members of which died suddenly, she was regarded almost as a daughter. It is said that she owed Mr. Davis money and that some money which was on the person of one of the women she nursed could not be found after her death. If money was her motive her crimes got for her only about $1,200.

It Is not safe yet to assume that either woman is guilty. If their guilt shall be established, and if it shall appear also that Miss Toppan did not benefit in a pecuniary way by the deaths laid at her door, it will have to be assumed that both these, women had an abnormal love of killing, induced by that same species of insanity which inspired Nero and Lucrezia Borgia in their alleged butcheries.

[“Alleged Poisoning. - The Cases of Mary Belle Witwer and Jane Topnan [sic].” Yjr Morning Sun News-Herald (Io.), Nov. 14, 1901, p. 3]


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 4):  Dayton, O., Jan. 27 – The grand jury, because of lack of evidence, yesterday ignored the case of Mrs. Mary Witwer, who was charged with poisoning of her sister, Mrs. Pugh. The case attracted considerable attention last fall [due to the] deaths of a number of persons were because of the allegation that [they were] caused by Mrs. Witwer who had acted as a nurse. She will go to her home in Michigan.

[“Drop Dayton Poison Charges. – Grand Jury in Ohio City Ignores Case of Mrs. Witwer, Accused of Killing Patients.” Davenport Daily Leader (Io.), Jan. 22, 1902, p. 1; missing words in the original have been instated]


18 suspected victims, including:

Anna C. Pugh, sister (case leading to investigation);
Frank D. Witwer, fourth husband, married Mar. 10, 1901;  died Jul. 4, 1901
Frederick Sweinger, first husband, died 1877
Frank Brown, second husband
William Stowe, third husband
Albert D. Wenz
John E. Wenz
Albert Wenz, child
Mr. and Mrs. John Gabler
George D. Keller
Patients in her capacity as nurse, including Mrs. Mary Richmond (over 80)

Disposition of case: Jan. 22, 1902, Grand Jury refuses to return true bill














More: Champion Black Widow Serial Killers


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


Monday, December 30, 2013

Stanka Penovic (Petcovic), “The Village Witch," Serial Killer for Hire – Serbia (Yugoslavia), 1939

FULL TEXT (Translated from German): Belgrade, May 31st. - A monster poisoning trial has begun before the Pozarevac District Court, in which almost all residents of the eastern Serbian town of Krepolje appear as accused. The main accused is the "village witch" Stanka Penovic, who brewed a poison with a safe effect from various poisonous plants for all those villagers who wanted to get rid of any family member or relative About twenty people died one after the other without knowing exactly what the people had actually died of. Most of them were women who, with the help of the "village witch", sent their husbands, their parents, their siblings, even knew how to get rid of their own children to their deaths  for material advantages or other advantages. A number of death sentences are expected.

["Monster poisoning trial in Yugoslavia." Oedenburge Zeitung (Sopron (Oedenburg), Hungary), Jun. 1, 1939, p. 3]


FULL TEXT: Sixteen peasants, each one accused of poisoning husband or wife or relative in order to marry a lover or get at an inheritance, are on trial in the district court of Passarovic [in Serbia]. Sketchy or even non-existent medical supervision in backwoods areas made possible the long series of mysterious sudden deaths

Blegrade, July. 30. – A sensational poison trial has just begun in the district of court of the city of Passarovic, Yugoslavia, a trial with few precedents in the history of all crime. Sixteen peasants, men and women, have taken their places on the benches reserved for the accused. They are variously charged with having expedited the death of a husband or wife or close relation [note: all victims mentioned in this article are male] by administering strong doses of poison.

The mere reading of the indictments would offer pointers to the most dramatic of detective stories. Young peasant women having allied themselves by marriage with rich, old men, then gave way to a strong temptation to rid themselves of their burdensome husbands in order to inherit their fortune and then marry their lovers. In other cases children administered poisonous food to their fathers and thus entered quickly into possession of their long-coveted patrimony.


Such horrible facts have been revealed by the inquiry.

It had been noticed that the small district of Krepoinija during 1936, 1937 and 1938 an unusual number of men in perfectly healthy and robust condition died in strange and mysterious ways after remarkably short illnesses. Suddenly they would be taken with terrible pains, and, after a few days, would die in horrible suffering. Since medical supervision is almost non-existent in the country districts of Yugoslavia, the deceased were buried before anybody could establish the real causes of their deaths.

Then one day Farmer Dragomir Pasojevic presented himself at the local police station with a story for the chief.


“I have just overheard a conversation between my brother Krsta and his wife, Persa Kolarcevic,” he said. “They are planning to poison her father, who is eighty. He recently decided to get married again. They wouldn’t stop at anything to keep from losing the inheritance. Something must be done quickly.”

The police immediately started an investigation. Soon they found that a couple of providing poison to the inhabitants of the locality.

A search was made of the Petcovic household. In the clothes-closets the detectives discovered much arsenic and numerous pots and boxes of dried, poisonous plants, and vials of snake venom. The quantity of noxious material discovered at the Petcovics was sufficient to end the lives of the entire population of the district.


Investigations revealed that the couple had cleverly extended the circle of their acquaintances among the peasants of the locality until they had gained the confidence of a large number. In this way they had been able to line up possible clients who would pay well.

There is the case of Irina Pitic, now 22 years old, married at 18 to a rich peasant of 68. nut everyone knew she loved a young shepherd who would not marry her because she had no dowry. Irina had hoped that the old peasant would die soon and leave her his fortune, but the old man was strong. Meantime it was suggested to the young woman that she get rid of him with a strong dose of arsenic. She finally agreed to the plan and at the end of the week she was a widow.

A peasant woman, Militza, is charged with having put a powder she got from the Petcovics in the soup she served her father, who was 76. she was his only heir and her husband was eager to get the inheritance immediately, so as to be able to straighten out his financial situation.

Naum Novacovic, another peasant, and his wife are charged with having poisoned their nephew, who had land from his father and mother. His uncle, Naum Novacovic, had been named his guardian and trustee and they wanted the boy’s fortune.

After eating the poisoned food he was served, the boy collapsed with violent stomach pains, and developed a burning thirst.

He asked for a drink but his aunt refused him. The suffering boy still had the strength to drag himself as far as the courtyard, where he drank from a bottle of stagnant water. The next day he was completely recovered. Naum Novacovic and his wife denied having tried to poison him.

Another woman is charged with having poisoned her husband with whom she had lived for 42 years, with a powder obtained from the Petcovics. She had for many years been the mistress of a young laborer on the farm. Immediately upon the death of her husband, she began living openly with this young man.

But among the cases listed in the indictment, that of Jagoda Jeftic, 29, is without any doubt the most tragic. She is also accused of having given her husband poison. On the day the funeral was taking place, the house was full of mourners. Somehow the vial containing the remainder of the poison fell into the hands of her son, who was only seven years old. The child drained the vial and died two days later in the most terrible suffering. His funeral was celebrated just four days after his father’s.

[Francis Bourg, “Poison Is Way Out For Bored Yugoslav Couples - Sensational Trial Of Sixteen Peasants,” World’s News (Sydney, Australia), Sep. 30, 1939, p. 17]


Cases mentioned in this article:

Krsta Pasojevic & Persa Kolarcevic (perps), Elder Pasojevic (intended victim)
Irina Pittic (perp), husband
Frau Militza & husband (perps), father
Naum Novacovic & wife (perps), nephew (survived)
Unnamed woman (perp), husband)
Jagoda Jeftic (perp), husband, son (accidentally)


Požarevac (Serbian Cyrillic: Пожаревац, pronounced [pǒʒareʋats]) is a city and the administrative center of the Braničevo District in eastern Serbia. It is located between three rivers: Danube, Great Morava and Mlava.  As of 2011, the city has a population of 44,183 inhabitants, while the city administrative area has 75,334 inhabitants.


FULL TEXT: (Sch.) Belgrad, 31. Mai. – Vor dem Kreisgerich tin Pozarevac hat ein Monster-Giftmordprozeß begonnen, bei dem fast alle Bewohner des ost-serbischen Ortes Krepolje als Angeklagte erscheinen. Hauptangeklagte ist die “Dorfhexe" Stanka Penovic, die aus verschiedenen Giftpflanzen ein sicher wirkendes Gift für alle jene Dorfinsassen braute, die irgendeinen Familienangehörigen oder  Verwandten zu beseitigen wünschten. Etwa ein Jahr lang herrschte im Orte ein großes Sterben, das man sich nicht recht zu er klären wußte. Etwa zwanzig Personen starben nacheinander, ohne daß man recht wußte, woran eigentlich die Leute gestorben waren. Meistens waren es Frauen, die auf diese Weise mit Hilfe der “Dorf-Hexe" ihre Männer, ihre Eltern, ihre Geschwister, ja sogar die eigenen Kinder wegen materieller Vorteile oder auch anderer Vorteile wegen aus der Welt zu schaffen verstanden. Man rechnet mit einer ganzen Reihe von Todesurteilen.

[“Monster-Giftmordprozeß in Jugoslawien.” Oedenburge Zeitung (Sopron (Oedenburg), Hungary), Jun. 1, 1939, p. 3]





For more than two dozen similar cases, dating from 1658 to 2011, see the summary list with links see: The Husband-Killing Syndicates


Links to more Serial Killer Couples