Aunt Killer

On May 1, 1952, 2-year-old Shirley Diann Weldon greeted her aunt, Earle Dennison, with a big hug and climbed up on her lap to enjoy the orange soda that Earle gave her.
 
Shortly after, Shirley became violently ill, vomiting on her mother and complaining of a severe stomach ache. Earle, an operating room nurse with 25 years of experience, gave Shirley another soda to help settle her stomach. The toddler was unable to keep the drink down and again was stricken with a bout of throwing up. About five hours later, afflicted with severe convulsions and in obvious pain, Shirley Diann died at the Wetumpka, Alabama, hospital.
 
Shirley’s mother, Cora Belle Weldon, had delayed taking her daughter to the doctor because she trusted the advice of the nurse who said Shirley was simply suffering from “an upset stomach.” It would not have made any difference. Taking Shirley to the physician earlier would not have saved the girl’s life, pathologists said.
 
Shirley’s death was an almost-identical repeat of an earlier tragedy for the Weldon family. On the day Shirley was born, her older sister, Polly Ann, was being watched by Earle when she also became profoundly ill with stomach pains and vomiting after being given a celebratory ice cream cone by her aunt.
 
In the same hospital where her mother had hours before given birth to another healthy baby girl and where Earle worked, Polly Ann died. No one suspected foul play when Polly Ann died and the matter was simply put down to a tragic event that would forever mar the celebrations of Shirley’s birthdays.
 
Earle, 52, was the girls’ aunt only through marriage. Under the law, she was actually considered an “aunt-in-law” because she was related to the Weldon family through her marriage to the late Lem Weldon, Cora Belle’s brother.
 
Immediately after Shirley’s death, Cora Belle and her husband, Gaston, suspected foul play. In their eyes, there was only one consistent factor in the deaths of their daughters: Earle Dennison. They demanded an autopsy, which was performed by Dr. C. J. Rehling, the state toxicologist.
 
While Earle watched the procedure, Rehling examined the girl’s organs and found overwhelming indications that the girl had been poisoned. Heavy metal poisoning leaves a number of readily visible signs. The mucosa of the body displayed an uncharacteristic bright red color. Mucosa is a moist tissue that lines particular organs and body cavities throughout the body, including nose, mouth, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. There were also Aldrich-Mee’s Lines — white arcs that run parallel to the cuticle — on the little girl’s fingernails. Each of these told Rehling to examine the tissues for arsenic, which he found in above-normal amounts.
 
Rehling also examined physical evidence taken from the Weldons’ home. After his wife took Shirley to the hospital, Gaston Weldon gathered up several items he felt were connected to Shirley’s illness. In a paper bag he put his wife’s vomit-soaked dress, the little girl’s similarly coated clothes, a towel, and a Coca-Cola bottle. He stored the items at his brother’s house until Shirley died at which time he turned them over to the county coroner. The coroner gave the items to Rehling who detected large amounts of arsenic on the clothing. There was no arsenic found in the soda bottle. At the Weldon home, however, police found the cup that Shirley used to drink the orange soda and that was found to have trace amounts of arsenic.
 
Two witnesses would later say they saw Earle take the Coke bottle and cup into the kitchen, although no one saw her wash them. Cora Belle, however, recalled that Earle had brought the Coke in from outside the house and was gently shaking it just prior to giving it to Shirley.
 
Police learned that while Shirley was being treated by doctors, Earle left the hospital and stopped off at a local insurance agency and paid a past-due premium on a life insurance policy she had taken out on Shirley. The policy was set to lapse due to non-payment on May 2, 1952.
 
Eventually investigators learned that Earle had taken out $5,500 (about $42,000 in 2006 dollars) worth of insurance on the little girl.
 
“If, therefore, it were necessary to search for a motive we would find it here,” the Alabama Supreme Court would opine later
 
On May 8, Earle Dennison was arrested for the murder of Shirley Weldon. When the sheriff arrived to take her into custody, he found Earle in bed. He gave her a few minutes to dress, only to find that while he waited Earle took an overdose of barbiturates in a suicide attempt. She was taken to the hospital and had her stomach pumped. Within a couple of days she was taken to the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
 
There, in the presence of the prison superintendent, Edwina Mitchell, Rehling, and Sheriff Lester Holley, Earle confessed in writing to the murders.
 
During the four-hour questioning, Earle was “as cool as anyone could be,” Holley told the press.
 
Authorities exhumed the body of Polly Ann — who was also insured by Earle — and found fatal traces of arsenic. They also dug up Lem Weldon’s body, but he apparently died of natural causes.
 
Earle was set to go to trial on August 14, 1952, but the day before she was to appear in court she smuggled a razor blade into her cell and again attempted suicide. She was foiled a second time and apologized to the matrons in the prison.
 
“I’m sorry, I must have been out of my mind,” she told them.
 
The trial began the next day and the prosecution presented overwhelming evidence that Earle committed the crime. She countered by admitting she had access to arsenic, but said she was using it as a bug killer.
 
The all-male jury convicted her and recommended a death sentence. The sentence made national news because she was the first white woman to be condemned to die in Alabama’s electric chair.
 
Justice was swift in the 1950s, and on September 4, 1953, 55-year-old Earle Dennison was electrocuted.
 
“God has forgiven me for all I have done,” she said while being strapped into the yellow wooden chair. “Please forgive me for what I did. I forgive everyone.”
 
Gaston Weldon was somewhat magnanimous in his post-execution comments.
 
“I feel nothing but sorry for Mrs. Dennison and her family, but at the same time I have to remember that she did not show any mercy to my little girl.”
 
The Weldon family would eventually win a $75,000 wrongful death settlement against the companies that insured the two girls. They argued that because Earle had no “insurable interest” in the children, the companies should have been suspicious of her motives.
 
The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the verdict, stating that the “acts of the defendants placed the insured child in a zone of danger, with unreasonable harm to her and that the defendants in issuing the alleged illegal contracts, knew, or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have known that…Mrs. Dennison had no insurable interest in the life of the insured.”