Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Frances Creighton & Everett Appelgate

An Immoral Woman

Nanny Doss and Mary Ann Cotton
Nanny Doss and Mary Ann Cotton

Female murderers who use poison are a special breed of killer. Frequently described as "black widows" or the often misused "femme fatale," they are among the most difficult criminals for police to identify, apprehend and convict. Nannie Doss, one of the most notorious of the genre, was active for decades before she was finally arrested and brought to justice. Britain's Mary Ann Cotton, who was sent to the gallows for her many crimes, poisoned four husbands and eight children before the mysterious deaths were solved. In most cases, the suspect kills for profit, usually insurance money or inheritance funds. In other cases, revenge may be the primary motive.

Historically, the poison of choice was arsenic, a somewhat antiquated drug whose reputation as a murder weapon was well deserved. Arsenic poisoning is a painful, torturous way to die. It attacks vital organs such as liver, kidneys and lungs. In its final stages, arsenic brings on shingles, convulsions and delirium. Consuming small amounts over a period of time will prolong the agony and cause intensive suffering. Prompt and proper medical attention is essential if the victim is to be saved. However, in these types of situations, the killer is usually a caretaker for the victim and as such, is in a position to either conceal or minimize the illness until it is too late.

This is a sordid story of child sexual abuse, betrayal and murder. At the center of the vortex was a deeply disturbed woman who was acquitted at two murder trials and later killed her boyfriend's wife so he could marry her sexy 14-year-old daughter. Always dressed neatly and a meticulous housekeeper as well, she hosted formal lunches for neighborhood wives who would play bridge and sip teas. But once betrayed, she could turn to murder at the slightest provocation. Her name was Mary Frances Creighton and in 1935, they called her Black-Eyed Borgia.

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