Kelly Cochran helped her husband kill her boyfriend – and then she turned around and killed her husband, too. At least that’s what the Michigan prosecutors allege, and Cochran now sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. And while her crimes may sound shocking, they actually fit into a pattern of female killers, who, unlike men, usually murder the people closest to them. These black widows – named after the desert spiders whose deadly female often eats their partner after sex – act out their anger, sociopathic tendencies, or desire for financial gain by killing their husbands and boyfriends, or in Cochran’s case, both. While serial killers are rare – and female serial killers even more so – there are many examples of black widows who have exacted revenge on abusive husbands, made a profit from their brutal crimes, or committed cold-blooded killings for their own sick reasons. Here, the eight most notorious black widow killers.
It wasn’t surprising that the residents of Amy Archer-Gilligan’s Windsor, Connecticut nursing home passed away. After all, many of her boarders were elderly and ailing. What was surprising, though, was that dozens of them died shortly after naming Archer-Gilligan in their life insurance policies, or forking over $1,000 for their care “while they still breathed.” Between 1911 and 1916, at least 48 people died while in Archer-Gilligan’s care – including Archer-Gilligan’s husband. When one of her boarder’s sisters got suspicious and went to the local Hartford Courant, they began to investigate what they later dubbed “the murder factory.” Soon, police began to investigate the trail of bodies in Archer-Gilligan’s wake – and every one they exhumed during their investigation had traces of either arsenic or strychnine. Local shopkeepers confirmed that she purchased large quantities of arsenic “to kill rats,” and police also discovered that she had taken out “sizable insurance policies” on her husband. Archer-Gilligan was arrested and indicted for poisoning five people, including her second husband. While suspected of killing at least 20 people, her lawyer convinced the prosecutor to charge her with only one murder, though. She was convicted, but the state appealed; she was re-tried, pleaded insanity, found guilty and given life in prison. She was eventually transferred to a mental hospital where she died in 1962 at the age of 94. Her dark history became the inspiration for the play (and later the Frank Capra movie) Arsenic and Old Lace.
Everyone agreed that Evelyn Dick was beautiful. They also agreed that she was a cold-blooded killer, who earned her infamy as the "Torso Killer." Dick’s crime came to light when some children hiking through the woods outside Hamilton, Ontario found a limbless, headless torso in the woods. The torso belonged to 39-year-old John Dick, a streetcar and bus driver who had been married to Evelyn for less than six months, thought the two were already estranged. Suspicions quickly turned to his spouse, who told police a string of strange tales about mafia hits and boyfriends. She was eventually charged with murder, along with her father and one of her boyfriends.
Her trial became a media circus, dominating headlines across Canada as tales of her dalliances with many powerful, rich, married men came out. Despite her connections in high society, she was convicted of murder in 1946 and sentenced to the gallows. Though she was acquitted on a technicality, her father was convicted of being an accessory after the fact in the murder of John Dick, specifically for dismembering his corpse in the basement of his home and burning the body parts in the furnace. When police searched her home and found the mummified body of an infant boy encased in cement in a suitcase and stored in her attic. It was Dick’s own son. On trial for her the infant's murder, it turned out she had slept with over 150 men, including the judge’s own son. She was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1958 after serving only 11 years.
After her arrest, Dick disappeared, and has been out of the public eye ever since. Her story lives on in the form of two books, films and a musical, How Could You, Mrs. Dick? named after a maudlin playground song inspired by the gruesome event and sensational trial.
Between 1955 and 1957, the U.K.'s Mary Elizabeth Wilson loved and lost four husbands, earning herself the title of the “Merry Widow of Windy Nook.” While some of her marriages lasted only a few short weeks, it was enough for her to establish herself as the rightful heir of their estates, inheriting money after each death. It’s not surprising that people started to get suspicious of the happy widow, who had a penchant for dark humor, asking the local undertaker for a discount. According to the BBC, at one of Wilson’s many wedding receptions, her friend asked her: "What shall we do with these sandwiches and cake?" Wilson replied: "We'll keep them for the funeral." Police soon caught wise to her actions. The bodies were exhumed and found to contain insecticide. She was sentenced to death in 1958 for murdering two of the husbands.
Wilson was poised to become the last woman hanged in England, however her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. She died four years later, aged 70, in 1963.
Betty Lou Beets shot and wounded her second husband, but she didn’t kill him. Her fourth husband wasn’t so lucky. Neither was her fifth.
In August 1983, after Beets reported her fifth husband, retired Dallas firefighter Jimmy Don Beets, missing, police found his boat floating in a nearby lake and presumed he drowned. That is until two years later, when Betty Lou Beets’s son came forward and admitted he helped his mother bury the body. Investigators searched her property and not only found Beets's body hidden under the plastic wising well, but the remains of her fourth husband, Doyle Wayne Barker, buried underneath a storage shed in the yard of her mobile home as well. Both men had been shot multiple times in the back of the head.
Police believe Beets had killed her fifth husband for insurance money. She denied murdering the men, claiming that her son had murdered Jimmy Don Beets during an argument and that she had buried the body to protect him, since he was on probation for burglary. Beets’s son and daughter, who had helped their mother get rid of the bodies, testified against her at trial. The jury found her guilty of her Beets's murder, and sentenced her to death.
After the conviction, her lawyers argued that since she had been physically and sexually abused her whole life – first raped at five years old, she accused her husbands of abuse as well – she should be granted clemency. Anti-domestic violence advocates asked then-Texas Governor George W. Bush to stay her execution, but he denied the request, even traveling back to the state for the 62-year-old great grandmother's execution in February 2000.
Katherine Knight had a long history of violence towards the men in her life, all ramping up to the shockingly brutal murder of her boyfriend.
The night the Australian butcher married her first husband, David Kellett, she allegedly tried to strangle him. Then, while pregnant with her daughter, she torched his clothing and walloped him on the head with a frying pan. He eventually left her and she took up another man, David Saunders. She murdered his puppy in front of him as a warning, but he didn’t leave her until she stabbed him in the stomach with a pair of scissors during an argument.
In October of 2001, Knight, brutally stabbed her new live-in boyfriend, John Price, 37 times while he tried to escape. She then skinned him, hanging his skin from a meat hook, chopped him up, and started to cook his body parts. She set the table for a macabre dinner party with his children’s names on place cards. Price had been concerned that something like this would happen and had told his friends that if he didn’t show up at work the next day, Knight had killed him. When he wasn’t on the job, they called the police. When investigators searched her home, they found his head in a pot, boiling away on the stove with some vegetables. Knight was promptly arrested. She is now known as “Australia’s most notorious psychopath,” and became the first woman in Australian history to be sentenced to life without parole. A movie based on her life and crimes is currently in the works.
All five of Betty Neumar’s husbands died, most of them mysteriously. When her first husband was shot in the head in 1970, almost two decades after their divorce, it was ruled a homicide but she wasn't charged. In the mid-1950s, her second husband had either “froze to death in a truck” or was shot to death “on a pier” in New York was a bit of a mystery. In 1965, her third husband shot himself in an apparent suicide, although that finding has been questioned as he may have been shot twice. Her fourth husband, Harold Gentry, was gunned down in their home in 1986. And when her fifth husband passed away in 2007, the state of Georgia investigated to determine if he was poisoned, but could find no evidence of Neumar’s involvement. His family did not agree with the finding. Neumar’s son also committed suicide in 1985, and Neumar was named as the beneficiary on his $10,000 life insurance policy.
It was the death of the fourth husband would eventually bring police to Neumar’s door. Gentry’s brother was convinced that Neumar was behind it, and urged police to re-open the case. They finally did in 2007, and Neumar was charged with hiring hitmen to kill her husband. As the police investigated her, they uncovered more and more mysteries. The former beautician and bus driver had multiple driver’s licenses, secret bank accounts, and passports and credit cards in other people’s names.
Before she could be tried – or answer any questions about her past or the fate of her many husbands – Neumar died of complications from cancer in 2011. She was 79.
Antifreeze was the preferred weapon for Stacey Castor. She had met her first husband, Michael Wallace, when she was just 17, and they married a few years later and had two daughters. Then, as their marriage crumbled, Wallace started to feel ill, dying in 2000 after a mysterious ailment. His doctors called it a heart attack, but the family was suspicious, at least in hindsight. In 2003, Castor married David Castor. Two years later, Castor called the police saying her suicidal husband had locked himself in the bedroom after an argument and she was concerned. They broke down the door and found David Castor dead with a bottle of antifreeze at his side. Castor buried him next to the body of her first husband in the same upstate New York cemetery. At first they thought suicide, but evidence soon started to mount that Castor had force-fed her husband the poison with a turkey baster. They exhumed Wallace’s body and found evidence of antifreeze poisoning as well.
As the police closed in, Castor panicked and decided to frame her daughter, Ashley Wallace, for the murder. She invited the 20 year old over for a drink, and dosed her with so many pills that she wound up in a coma for 17 hours. While her daughter was unconscious, Castor forged Wallace’s name on a suicide note in which she confessed to killing her father and David Castor. Police didn’t buy it, though, and Castor was arrested for murdering David and attempting to murder Ashley. She was convicted and sentenced to 51 years, but died in prison earlier this year.
To this day, Chisako Kakehi, Japan’s most notorious black widow, insists she’s innocent. She claims that she’s not a serial killer but has been "doomed by fate" – though it's also possible that she is a ruthless murderer who systematically killed at least eight men for insurance money. According to Japanese authorities, between 1994 and 2013, at least seven men that Kakehi – a.k.a. "the Black Widow of Kyoto" – either dated or married died, leaving her alone, save for around $7 million in insurance payouts. Some of the deaths in her wake were originally deemed of natural causes (two husbands died of "unknown causes", one had a stroke, and a boyfriend died possibly of cancer), but when traces of cyanide were found in her new groom's dead body, police started to become very suspicious of the repeat widow. "Given their advanced age, we have to proceed carefully to judge whether their deaths were actually the result of foul play or not," an investigator told the AFP new service. So far, Kakehi has been charged with the 2013 murder of her husband, Isao Kakehi, 75, who collapsed in his home with cyanide in his system a month after their marriage, as well as in the death of her common law husband, 71-year-old Masanori Honda, who died in a motorcycle crash after she allegedly poisoned him. Last year, she was also charged in the attempted of a 78-year-old boyfriend, after she allegedly slipped hydrocyanic acid into his drink while they dined at a restaurant in 2007. He collapsed in a parking lot, but didn’t die until two years later. While police found a small bag of cyanide compounds in a plant pot she ditched at a recycling center near her home, Kakehi claims she has no idea how to kill someone. It’s safe to say that the police don’t believe her.