FULL TEXT: An order authorizing the exhumation of the body of a former Philadelphian who died in St. Augustine, Fla., last June 3 was issued Friday by Judge Leo Weinrott in Quarter Sessions Court to determine if death was caused by arsenic poisoning. Walter C. Merrill, 75, was buried here in Mount Peace Cemetery four days after his death. Florida police authorities said evidence subsequently was advanced to suspect murder.
The petition was presented to Judge Weinrott by Assistant District Attorney Richard M. Rosenbleth. Howard E. Stern, who represented the Odd Fellows Cemetery Co., operators of Mount Peace at 31st st. and Lehigh ave., St. Augustine, and that three brothers of the deceased, Robert L., of Haines City, Fla., and John T. and Ernest S., both of Norfolk, Va., requested Florida authorities to investigate the circumstances surrounding Walter’s death.
SENT TO HOSPITAL
On May 28, he became ill and a Dr. A. C. Walkup sent him to a hospital in St. Augustine. He reportedly was suffering from a cold and other illnesses, including stomach pains.
The death certificate indicated Merrill had no relatives. After his will was filed for probate, a clipping was mailed to the brothers. This was the first time they had heard of his death.
The brother from Haines City arranged for Florida authorities to investigate the death after talking to Dr. Walkup, who said the symptoms were similar to arsenic poisoning. A woman was named sole executioner and heir to the estate.
The cost of exhumation and examination will be borne by St. by St. Johns county, Fla.
[“Exhumation Ordered Here In Florida Poison Inquiry,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Pa.), Dec. 31, 1960, p. 13]
FULL TEXT: NOW let us consider the case of Effie L. Norris, 66, a sprightly grandmother of Orlando, Fla. After being twice widowed, she was determined to have a little fun before the years whittled her away.
Some of her pleasure came in attending the town's senior citizens' dances. In August. 1959, she met Walter Cleveland Merrill, 75, at one of these parties. Like Effie. this transplanted Philadelphian looked and acted younger than his years. He was the picture of health, loved to dance and had a roving eye until Mrs. Norris caught and held his interest: They began dating regularly.
Merrill told her of his lite as a ship designer, how his first wife died and how he sold his Philadelphia house, retired and moved to Orlando in 1951. He married again, but his second wife, Ida, died early in 1959. He had been a widower six months now too long for a man with his zest for living.
Effie told him that her first husband, Car! Rickard, a miner, died in 1931 after 19 years of marriage. Her second husband. Earl D. Norris, also died and she had been a widow for seven years. She had three daughters by her first marriage. All were married and she had three grandchildren.
~ A Friendly Loan ~
Childless Merrill had only brothers and nieces and nephews as kin.
Well, Effie and Walter became so friendly that she borrowed $1,700 from Walter two months after their first meeting. This left him a little short, so he telephoned his brother John in Norfolk to send him some money. He did not mention Effie.
There are people who say Merrill was afraid of Effie. They believe that was why he grew ill and moony and moved from Orlando to St. Augustine. But his actions certainly don't bear out that gossip.
He let Mrs. Norris pilot him about in his month-long search for a house he liked; she was present when the deal was closed. And on Jan. 24, 1960, he asked his Orlando lawyer to draw up a will making Effie sole heir and executrix of his estate.
True, he moved alone into the new place on Menendez Road in St. Augustine. True, she went off to Los Angeles. But that was to take care of a sick daughter, and she returned to Florida in March. 1960, when her old beau sent word that he was lonely and wanted her back.
Those who say he was now in fear of Effie point to the fact that when she moved into the St. Augustine house, Merrill moved out to an apartment on nearby Sanchez St. However. Effie's defenders contend that she and her dear friend were just observing the proprieties. In fact, Effie herself said "it wouldn't look good" if two unmarried people lived together. At any rate, she went to see Merrill daily, was his sole companion and handled all his business affairs.
On May 28, when Merrill took a turn for the worse, she called in Dr. A. G. Walkup. He found the patient suffering; from enlarged heart, skipping pulse, congested lungs, shortness of breath, upset stomach, dysentery, low blood pressure and badly swollen feet. Both Merrill and Mrs. Norris told Walkup that he had a history of heart trouble. So the doctor wrote out prescriptions for medicine to steady his heart, blood pressure and stomach.
"I'm solely responsible," said Mrs. Norris. The doctor assumed she meant Merrill had no relatives.
Three days later, Dr. Walkup found him patient so much worse he suggested hospitalization. Two days after that, Merrill died in Flagler General Hospital. On the death certificate. Dr. Walkup listed the cause as "acute cardiac dilatation abnormal expansion of the heart due to chronic hypertrophy."
Mrs. Norris explained to undertaker Augustus H. (Gus) Craig that her dead friend was Virginia born, a Methodist and a member of the Odd Fellows. She knew Merrill wished to be buried in a lot he owned in Philadelphia's Mount Peace Cemetery. He had several brothers, nieces and nephews, but she said she didn't know how to get in touch with them.
So Craig took charge of funeral and burial arrangements and Effie prepared to return to her home in Orlando. Before she left St. Augustine, she told Merrill's downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Edward Tart, that the old man had quarreled with his relatives and wouldn't want them to know he was dead.
When Merrill's will was filed for probate three weeks later, she swore before Orange County Probate Judge George Adams that he had no close relatives living.
The Orlando Sentinel published a notice to Walter Merrill's creditors and, on June 28, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Arens, two of Merrill's friends, mailed this advertisement to one of his nieces in Leesburg, Va. Astonished to hear her uncle was dead, she forwarded the notice to his brother Robert, who lived in Plant City, Fla. Robert was shocked; his brother John in Norfolk was just as astounded and bewildered about Walter's death as he was.
Robert asked St. Augustine authorities to "do something" about the mystery of his brother's death.
HAMILTON UPCHURCH, assistant state prosecutor in St. Augustine, put investigation of Walter Merrill's death up to the Florida Sheriff’s Department. Richard (Dick) Marsh, a bureau agent, was assigned to look into the case.
In mid-December, William W. Judge, state attorney for Florida's 7th Judicial District, wrote Victor Blanc, district attorney in Philadelphia, asking that Merrill's body be exhumed and examined "with all convenient speed and dispatch."
Blanc petitioned Judge Leo Weintraut in Quarter Sessions Court for "permission to exhume." Affidavits with this petition included one from John Merrill, saying the family "suspected" arsenic poisoning. Dr. Walkup declared that Merrill s symptoms "were consistent with having been poisoned with such a poison as arsenic."
~ Autopsy Completed ~
Permission to exhume was granted and the autopsy began on Jan. 19, 1961, some seven months after the old man's death. The autopsy was simple enough, but the work of the toxicologists was not. Thus it was not until April 27 that Dr. Joseph W. Spelman. Philadelphia's chief toxicologist, was able to send Assistant Prosecutor Upchurch a complete report of the scientific research.
In brief: in the two weeks before Merrill's death he consumed at least nine grains of arsenic, a lethal amount. Death was due to pneumonia induced by arsenic poisoning.
Dick Marsh, the Sheriffs Bureau agent who had worked sporadically on the case all this time, now stepped up his investigation. He was aided by Sgt. Jack Bach-man of the Orange County sheriff's office in Orlando and Sheriff L. O. Davis of St. John's County (St. Augustine).
A whole year later April 28, 1962 Marsh announced that there was sufficient evidence of poisoning for the St. John's County prosecutor to take the case before the June grand jury.
Merrill's will had long since been probated. Mrs. Norris took title to $11,600 in Florida property, banked $25,000 cash, and began moving about. She lived for a while at various addresses in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Daytona Beach, well aware that her benefactor's death was being investigated and, that his brothers were now contesting the probate of the will.
On Friday, June 1, 1962, she moved back to Orlando. On Tuesday, June 5, she was indicted for murder. On the night of June 6, Marsh, Bachman and Sheriff Davis arrested her.
"Nonsense!" snapped the widow, and her eyes were "steely," according to Marsh.
At 4 A. M. she was lodged in the county jail in St. Augustine. Next afternoon- she pleaded innocent before Circuit Court Judge Howell Melton. Attorneys she had hastily retained asked that the indictment against her be thrown out because it was "vague and indefinite." When this was refused, they sought her release on bond.
~ Six Witnesses Called ~
Thirteen days later, State Attorney Dan Warren called six witnesses at the bond hearing. One was John Merrill. Another was Dr. Walkup, who defended his diagnosis of heart trouble as the cause of death, conceding that it "could have been aggravated by arsenic.”
Then came Mrs. Arens, who had started all of Effie's trouble by sending the notice to Merrill’s niece. The witness testified that while she was dancing with Merrill in November, 1959, the old man told her he was "scared Effie will get all my money." According to Mrs. Arens, he also complained that Effie was "making" him drink bitter, black coffee, and he thought his stomach upset came from that.
When Mrs. Arens' startling testimony was concluded, L. E. McEldowney, chemist for the State Board of Health, revealed that the bodies of Mrs. Norris' two husbands, and a man for whom she worked as housekeeper for seven months in 1953, had been exhumed and autopsies had been performed. One of the bodies contained arsenic, the chemist testified.
So Mrs. Norris was held for trial. Her attorney, Frank Howatt, said he would withdraw his plea for bond for her, "because it would cost too much to bring witnesses to St. Augustine for a hearing." (In application for bail the burden of proof lies with the defense to show the state lacks sufficient evidence to hold the person indicted.)
Warren issued 65 subpoenas. Howatt said he would call six witnesses.
The trial began last Oct. 15 before Circuit Judge Melton in St. Augustine. The courtroom was crowded with spectators who wanted to look at the defendant.
She was a rather attractive little woman with well-coiffed silver hair. There was a smart choker about her wrinkled throat and her stylish dress of black crepe had been fashioned to hide the spread of her hips. The age of her hands was hidden beneath lace gloves. Outwardly, at least, she was calm even smiling perhaps for the benefit of her three daughters, who hovered about her.
It took Howatt, Warren and his assistant state attorney, Edward Bush, only two hours to pick an all-male jury. Then Warren called his first two witnesses, Dr. Walkup and undertaker Craig.
On cross-examination, Walkup admitted he had never before treated a case of arsenic poisoning, so he wasn't speaking from experience when he said in his affidavit that Merrill's symptoms were "consistent" with such poisoning. He insisted there was no arsenic in the drugs he prescribed for Merrill.
Craig testified that there was no arsenic in his embalming fluid. He said he failed to find the Merrill relatives Mrs. Norris "thought" were in Philadelphia. She never mentioned the brother in Plant City, Fla., over near Tampa. Next, the relatives testified ...
John Merrill read three letters from his brother, Walter. In the first, written in March, 1959, Walter said he was looking forward to a senior citizens' dance. In a June letter, he said he was looking forward to a trip to Norfolk. In November letter he said he was un able to make another trip to Norfolk because he was suffering from diarrhea.
John insisted that Walter was active, fun loving and in splendid health "he never had a heart condition" when he came to Norfolk in June, 1959. In fact, Walter, who was two years John's senior, went ocean bathing on that trip and laughingly proposed marriage to an elderly Norfolk woman.
"I've never seen a healthier man for his age," said John.
~ Terms Brother Active ~
Robert Merrill also testified that his brother was active and jolly until November, 1959; after that time he seemed to be afraid of something or someone. The brothers passed this off as a "mental condition," and they all remained on excellent terms. Walter never mentioned Mrs. Norris to them.
John's wife, Mary, said that when Walter was unable to make his November trip to Norfolk, she and her husband and daughter went south to see him. They took along the old friend to whom he had proposed marriage.
"He seemed different . . . sick and confused and he had no interest in us," Mrs. Merrill testified. "We had planned to stay 10 days, but we stayed only two."
Was it significant that he did not mention Mrs. Norris to them or that she did not appear while they were in Orlando?
THE defense did not point out that Walter was ill in November, almost three months before he made a will leaving his estate to her. Perhaps the prosecutor's retort would have been that the defendant was weakening her victim to a point where she could persuade him to make a will in her favor.
At any rate, after calling several witnesses to establish the obvious fact that Merrill and Mrs. Norris were friendly in Orlando and St. Augustine, Warren called Mrs. Arens. Howatt objected, claiming that the state was trying to prejudice the jury with 3-year-old hearsay.
"This testimony is relative to the state's case and should be introduced," the prosecutor insisted.
After the jury was excused, the judge listened to Mrs. Arens' testimony about the coffee.
"There is no evidence that the bitter coffee contained arsenic," argued Howatt. Judge Melton sustained his objection, and Mrs. Arens stepped down.
~ Jury Recalled ~
The jury returned to hear Dr. Spelman, Philadelphia's chief medical examiner.
In his effort to show that arsenic administered orally caused Merrill's death, stale attorney Warren questioned Spelman so carefully that jurors heard details of the exhumation and autopsy. The testimony became so lengthy and technical that the judge observed he probably would have to hold night sessions to. speed up the trial.
The gift of the expert’s testimony that in Merrill’s remarkably preserved body he found "a significant amount of arsenic in each organ – liver, brain, kidney, heart." In Spelman's opinion, it was fed to Merrill from, four months to four day before he died; if it did not actually kill him, it contributed significantly to hit death.
After cross-examination, Spelman told the judge that in fairness to the defendant he wished to give additional information which was not asked of him by either side.
So the jury was excused again while Spelman told the court that Merrill did have a heart condition an enlarged heart and that he had long had high blood pressure.
Q. (by Warren) And what do you think wat the cause of death? A. Arsenic poisoning.
When the jury returned, Merrill's will was introduced into evidence. The prosecutor also read that part of probate testimony in which Mrs. Norris swore that Merrill had no close relatives.
Next, chemist McEldowney testified he found arsenic in the bodies of two men associated with Mrs. Norris. One of these was her second husband, Karl Norris, and the other was Vinton M. Pace.
Norris died in Orlando on Jan. 13, 1952, after a short illness was diagnosed as acute heart failure. There was no autopsy on his body at the time of death because the widow (who inherited $35,000) did not wish it. Pace was 79 when he died in 1953. Acute kidney trouble was blamed for his sudden death.
McEldowney's testimony was cut short when Howatt objected that the defendant was on trial only for Merrill's death. Old Friend Speaks Without so much as raising an eyebrow. Warren called a witness who identified himself as Charles Houtkanip, a friend of Pace for 50 years. Houtkanip testified that for seven months prior to his friend's death. Pace's housekeeper was Mrs. Norris. "who performed all duties including the cooking."
Harold Pace of Norfolk testified he didn't even know his father was ill until he received an urgent message from Houtkamp. Simultaneously, he received a note from Mrs. Norris saying her elderly employer was in the hospital "just for a checkup." After a telephone call to Houtkamp, young Pace flew to Florida, where he found his father on his deathbed.
Q. (by Howatt) Was Mrs. Norris named as beneficiary in your father's will? A. No.
That apparently ended the effectiveness of that line of testimony. But the state attorney seemed satisfied, for he felt he had shown the jurors a modus operandi in prior crimes.
(He did not trouble to point out what criminologists know that there are chronic poisoners (usually women I who are not always motivated by desire for money. Some poison for the sheer zest of it, others to make themselves "useful" during the invalidism of their patients.)
For the third time. Warren tried in vain to get Mrs. Arens' testimony before the Jury. Then he rested the state's case.
TO THE surprise of everyone in the courtroom, with the possible exception of the defendant, Howatt also vested. Not a single witness was called for the defense.
Howatt had tried to show through cross-examination that there was ill feeling between Walter Merrill and his brothers. Thus Mrs. Norris was just carrying out her dear friend's wishes by not notifying them when he died.
The defense lawyer also endeavored to create suspicion among the jurors that somebody else had a motive for getting rid of Merrill.
The gist of the diffuse summation tens that the state's case was all circumstantial, all surmise and speculation, nothing but unproved theory.
~ Reasonable Doubt ~
"Are we going to guess this woman into the electric chair?" Howatt demanded. He cited 20 examples of testimony which, he said, constituted reasonable doubt of the defendant's guilt.
First, you could doubt that Merrill died of arsenic poisoning, since his physician and the Philadelphia medical examiner, too, said he had heart trouble. Second, the slate offered no proof that Mrs. Norris purchased arsenic. Third, the state offered no proof that she administered arsenic. Etc., etc., etc.
But it seemed to some listeners that Howatt did not make enough of the fact that Merrill was complaining of stomach pains and other symptoms of arsenic fully three months before he made his will.
In concluding, he said, "the electric chair is blocked by the tree of reasonable doubt and the state is required to remove every branch of that tree. The state has not done so."
~ Moment of Truth ~
Warren stressed that the old man worsened after he made his will.
"The footprints of guilt are written all over this case after that."
The prosecutor contended that the concentration of arsenic in the old man decreased in February, while Mrs. Norris was in California and that "it increased after her return." Merrill would not take his own life gradually, said Warren, and since the defendant was his sole companion, only she could have administered the arsenic.
"The moment of truth," the prosecutor told the jurors, "comes to every trial and points either to the guilt or innocence of the victim. That moment of truth came through the testimony of Mr. Joseph Spelman."
Warren did not ask specifically for the death penalty: he asked that the jurors give Mrs. Norris the same consideration she gave her victim "while she was administering arsenic to him "
The jury reported back in a little less than four hours. Mrs. Norris was brought in, still calm but no longer smiling. The judge told her she might remain seated. (Customarily, the defendant stands to hear the verdict.) Her jurors found her guilty and recommended mercy life imprisonment.
The jurors and the judge retired, but the spectators lingered because the defendant was slow to go. Tearless, she sat there surrounded by three tearless daughters. Later, on the way back to the county jail, the condemned woman cried and cried.
[Ruth Reynolds, “The Bitter Taste of Death; In retirement, he found sunshine, companionship - and arsenic,” Sunday News (New York, N. Y.), May 26, 1963, p. 128]
1912 – Effie marries Carl Rickard.
1931 – Carl Rickard, husband #1, dies; miner. 19 years married. 3 daughters.
Jan. 13, 1952 – Earl D. Norris, husband #2, dies. $35,000 inherited. Effie blocks autopsy. Exhumed in 1962, arsenic found.
Mar. 23, 1953 – Vinton Myles Pace (79), employer of Effie as housekeeper, dies. Arsenic
Aug. 1959 – Effie meets Walter C. Merrill at senior citizens dance.
Jun. 1960 – Walter Cleveland Merrill (75) dies; Philadelphia shipbuilder; employer of Effie as housekeeper.
Dec. 20, 1960 – Philadelphia DA office seeks permission to exhume Merrill body, based on Florida authorities’ request following Merrill brothers’ suspicions.
Jun 5, 1962 – Effie Norris indicted for murder, Orlando.
Jun. 6, 1962 – arrested.
1962 – arsenic found in exhumed body (from deaths in 1931, 1952 or 1953, not identified)
Oct. 18, 1962 – Effie (66) convicted Merrill murder; St Augustine circuit court.
Dec. 5, 1963 – Conviction reversed; North Florida District of Appeals; new trial ordered.
Dec. 11, 1964 – Effie (69) freed on $7,500 bond.
For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.