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.
January 23
1912—International Opium Convention Signed
The International Opium Convention is signed at The Hague, Netherlands, and is the first international drug control treaty. The agreement was signed by Germany, the U.S., China, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam.
January 22
1946—CIA Forerunner Created
U.S. president Harry S. Truman establishes the Central Intelligence Group or CIG, an interim authority that lasts until the Central Intelligence Agency is established in September of 1947.
1957—George Metesky Is Arrested
The New York City "Mad Bomber," a man named George P. Metesky, is arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut and charged with planting more than 30 bombs. Metesky was angry about events surrounding a workplace injury suffered years earlier. Of the thirty-three known bombs he planted, twenty-two exploded, injuring fifteen people. He was apprehended based on an early use of offender profiling and because of clues given in letters he wrote to a newspaper. At trial he was found legally insane and committed to a state mental hospital.
January 21
1950—Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury
American lawyer Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury in connection with an investigation by the House unAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), at which he was questioned about being a Soviet spy. Hiss served forty-four months in prison. Hiss maintained his innocence and fought his perjury conviction until his death in 1996 at age 92.
1977—Carter Pardons War Fugitives
U.S. President Jimmy Carter pardons nearly all of the country's Vietnam War draft evaders, many of whom had emigrated to Canada. He had made the pardon pledge during his election campaign, and he fulfilled his promise the day after he took office.
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