Rhonda Bell (or Belle) Martin went to the Alabama electric chair in 1957 clutching a New Testament in her hand. When the Good Book was turned over to her attorneys after it was pried from her cold, dead fingers, they found a note tucked inside the cover:
At my death, whether it be a natural death or otherwise, I want my body to be given to some scientific institution to be used as they see fit, but especially to see if someone can find out why I committed the crimes I have committed. I can’t understand it, for I had no reason whatsoever. There is definitely something wrong. Can’t someone find it and save someone else the agony I have been through.
Rhonda, who spent her time awaiting execution reading romance novels, was right. There was “definitely something wrong.” Although she went to the chair for the murder of her fourth husband, Claude C. Martin, the 50-year-old former diner waitress freely admitted killing three daughters, her mother, and two husbands with rat poison. She also attempted to kill her fifth husband, Claude’s son, Ronald. He survived, but was paralyzed.
Her crimes were truly motiveless: in some cases she received modest insurance payouts, usually just enough to bury her victim, but in others she received no tangible benefit.
Rhonda married her first husband in 1922 when she was 15 years old. That marriage ended in divorce.
Her second husband was not so lucky. In her 11-page handwritten confession, Rhonda described feeding rat poison to her husband George Garrett in his whisky. His death in 1937 was attributed to pneumonia.
During their 12-year marriage Rhonda and George had five children.
One, 3-year-old Emogene, died the same year as her father and grandmother, Mary F. Gibbons, Rhonda’s mother. No cause of death was recorded for either. Three years after Imogene and Mary were killed, Rhonda gave her 6-year-old daughter, Ann Carolyn, milk laced with rat poison, the same concoction that killed Ann’s sister. Grandma Gibbons drank poisoned coffee, Rhonda said. In 1943 11-year-old Ellyn Elizabeth Garrett drank poisoned milk and died. Her death was attributed to a “stomach ailment.”
Sometime after Ellyn was murdered Rhonda married Talmadge Gibson. That marriage lasted just five months, but Gibson managed to walk away with his life.
Rhonda met Claude Martin, a widower with three daughters and a son. The couple married and lived happily until 1951 when Claude finally up and died. He had been sick for about a month as his wife fed him a daily dose of arsenic in his coffee.
Death by arsenic poisoning is an extremely unpleasant way to go. If subjected to a large dose of arsenic, the victim suffers from intense gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, vomiting blood and other nasty effects such as palsy, numbness and paralysis. Smaller doses given over a longer period make the victim feel as they are suffering from a never-ending bout of a very bad flu. Eventually, the victim’s resistance weakens simply from the fact that they are receiving no nutrition. Essentially arsenic victims starve to death because all parts of the digestive system have been burned away.
It has been easily detectable for more almost two centuries: Any pathologist will immediately notice the blackened organs that have suffered chemical burns and the red brick-colored mucosa and test for the mineral. Because arsenic does not readily degrade, it remains detectable even after cremation.
Claude’s death was ruled natural. Rhonda received a $2,000 life insurance payment for Claude and used $400 of the proceeds to move the body of his former wife to Claude’s burial site so they could be together.
Eight months after Claude died, Rhonda married her stepson, Ronald Martin, 25, in violation of Alabama law which considers a marriage of this sort to be incest (or at least it did according to Code 1940, Tit. 34, § 1, as amended by Act No. 296, approved. Aug. 18, 1947. What the law is now I neither know nor care.)
Ronald and Rhonda lived happily until the middle of 1955 when he was discharged from the U.S. Navy. In early 1956 he became ill with a stomach ailment and complained of pains in his extremities. The doctors at the Veterans Hospital in Biloxi tested everything they could think of, including his hair, which contained an enormous amount of arsenic.
Ronald’s illness was reported to police who began a quiet investigation into Rhonda’s background. The greater-than-normal number of deaths in her past prompted them to exhume a few bodies and traces — no, chunks — of arsenic were found in the bodies of her dead husbands, mother and children.
Confronted with her crimes in March 1956, Rhonda quickly confessed to everything but could not answer the only question that mattered: Why?
Rhonda went to trial claiming insanity, was convicted of Claude’s murder and sentenced to death.
On October 11, 1957, holding tightly onto her Bible, Rhonda was strapped into the electric chair. The warden gave the signal and the switch was thrown.
The staff investigated the situation and realized that the leads from the power source to the chair had become disconnected. They were quickly reattached and the execution was carried out.