A Philadelphia Serial Killer on the Loose?

Yesterday, on July 18th at 11:30 a.m., Pennsylvania State Police responded to the report of a suspicious person off the Allegheny Avenue off-ramp. When they arrived to the scene they found the body of a man near the exit ramp.

Photo courtesy of CBS3

An investigation is currently under way to identify the victim and to determine the cause of death.

No link has been made, but this is the third body that was found in Philadelphia within the last two days.

Screenshot courtesy of NBC Philadelphia

The same morning, at 9:40 a.m., a man’s body was found wrapped in plastic wrap. A Spring Garden neighborhood property owner discovered the body in a home that is under renovation to be converted into an apartment. Needless to say, an investigation is currently underway.
“We don’t know his manner of death other than it’s clearly under suspicious circumstances,” Philadelphia Police Homicide Capt. Jack Ryan said. “Clearly he didn’t do it himself.”

Okay, so this is all getting a little weird and our true crime minds are spinning… obviously this guy didn’t do it himself!! 

Now didn’t I mention something about a third body?!

Photo courtesy of CW Philly

Tuesday afternoon, at 4:15 p.m., the body of a woman was found stuffed in a suitcase in Southwest Philadelphia. A passerby made the discovery while walking by a 2-foot-by-2-foot suitcase on the sidewalk within a housing development.

They noticed a strong odor and maggots coming from inside the luggage. They then uncovered the remains of an unidentified woman inside. As with the other bodies, investigators are working to identify the woman and determine the cause of death.

Photo courtesy of NBC Philadelphia

Unfortunately, cities are plagued with murder and death. Rates typically increase during the the warmer summer months. Clearly, the City of Brotherly Love is no exception to those statistics.

But what is going on here?! Three mysterious bodies all with mysterious deaths. Could Philly have a serial killer? I sure hope not, but I do hope that we come to the bottom of what happened to these people.

This hits close to home for us here at The Hex Files and I will update the post as details emerge. Stay safe out there, Philly!

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History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part V: Leonarda Cianciulli

In Part III, we covered the life and crimes of the “jolly” nurse Jane Toppan. Today’s entries are being released concurrently as they focus on two more women you would never have seen coming. Much in the way people trusted Toppan as a nurse, these women didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a killer looks like. Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli would have reminded you more of your Grandma than of Ted Bundy. They might have even offered you tea and cookies, but you’d be wise not to accept any consumables from these ladies.

Leonarda Cianciulli was a beloved figure in her Italian community. She was by all appearances a sweet elderly woman fond of entertaining and preparing food for her guests. Like the case of Nannie Doss, no one saw the wolf behind the sheep’s clothing until it was too late.

Born in Italy some time between 1893 and 1894, Leonarda’s childhood was nothing short of tragic. She was conceived through rape, and her mother was left with few options. Rather than face being ostracized by her community, she was forced to marry her rapist Mariano Cianciulli. Leonarda was a painful reminder to her mother of the terrible decision she had to make. Needless to say, this resentment made for an unhappy childhood, resulting in two separate attempts at suicide at a young age.

Leonarda struck out on her own as soon as she was able. Going against her parent’s wishes she married in 1917 to Raffaele Pansardi. She would come to believe her mother had placed a curse on them for this transgression. Leonarda was extremely superstitious and often sought the council of fortune tellers. This propensity for the mystic arts would have a lasting effect on the direction her life would take.

She and her husband were met with an unfortunate series of events early on and were forced to move around on more than one occasion. One move in particular came as a result of an earthquake in 1930 that struck their region, killing over 1,400 people and leveling their home. Leonarda attributed this all to her mother’s alleged curse.

From there, the couple finally settled in Correggio, where Leonarda set up a small shop and quickly earned a reputation as a kindly neighbor and loving mother. For a time it seemed her misfortune had run its course.

This turn wouldn’t last however, and Leonarda began to feel once again like a cursed woman. Out of 17 pregnancies three would miscarry and 10 would die at a young age from a variety of illnesses. She was understandably protective of her surviving four children, especially her son Giuseppe, her eldest and favorite child.

During this time, Leonarda met with a fortune teller who prophesied that she would have many children but would lose them all before she died. Her fears for her remaining children deepened. In 1939, as Italy was entering the war, she learned that her son Giuseppe was to be drafted. She would do whatever it took to redirect what she saw as fate coming to claim another of her offspring.

Leonarda decided the only way to cheat death was to provide a replacement soul for the afterlife. She had become something of a fortune teller herself and could easily manipulate the elderly women who came seeking her services. One particular client, Faustina Setti, was drawn in by Leonarda’s promise of providing a husband. She convinced her to write all of her family and loved ones informing them of her great fortune and that she would be travelling to Pola to meet her future husband.

Leonarda made sure Faustina stopped in to say goodbye before her trip. Ever grateful, her client was happy to oblige. Leonarda drugged the wine she provided her guest and before long Faustina was rendered unconscious. Wasting no time, Leonarda took an axe and cut the woman into nine pieces, collecting the blood into a basin.

In her memoir, Leonarda goes into detail about her unsettling process.

“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.”

 It turned out just one soul wasn’t enough to put Leonarda’s worries to rest. Her first kill had gone smoothly enough that her method varied little for the ones to follow. This time instead of a husband, she claimed to find a job for a Francesca Soavi at a girl’s school in Piacenza. Once again, farewell letters were written to explain her disappearance, and a final appointment made for Francesca to come visit Leonarda before her departure. The visit took place on September 5, 1940 and mirrored that of Faustina’s. Again, the remains didn’t go to waste and were used to make soap and more of Leonarda’s famous tea cakes.

Just to be safe, Leonarda decided a third victim was necessary. Virginia Cacioppo was lured into her trap with a promise of a secretary position in Florence. According to a chilling statement by Leonarda:

“She ended up in the pot, like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”

 Her third victim would prove to be her undoing. Virginia’s sister-in-law wasn’t satisfied with the explanation she was given for her disappearance and decided to look into it herself. When she learned Virginia was last seen entering the Cianciulli’s home, she relayed her concerns to the local chief of police.

After an investigation, Leonarda was arrested. She confessed to the murders almost immediately, and even made corrections to the official account of her crimes during her trial in 1946. She was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three in a criminal asylum.

Leonarda Cianciulli died on October 15, 1970 of cerebral apoplexy while housed at the women’s criminal asylum in Pozuolli. Artifacts from the case, among them the pot she used to boil the bodies of her victims, are on display at the Criminological Museum in Rome.

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Sources:

gizmodo.com “The Superstitious Murderer Who Turned Her Victims into Cake and Soap”

murderpedia.org “Leonarda Cianciulli”

youtube.com “Making Bodies Into Soap” – Leonarda Cianciulli

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part IV: Nannie Doss

In Part III, we covered the life and crimes of the “jolly” nurse Jane Toppan. Today’s entries are being released concurrently as they focus on two more women you would never have seen coming. Much in the way people trusted Toppan as a nurse, these women didn’t fit anyone’s idea of what a killer looks like. Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli would have reminded you more of your Grandma than of Ted Bundy. They might have even offered you tea and cookies, but you’d be wise not to accept any consumables from these ladies.

Nannie Doss, born Nancy Hazle on Nov. 4, 1905, in Blue Mountain Alabama, had an unhappy childhood. She and the rest of the Hazle family lived under her father James’ strict and often abusive rule. As education was of little import to the family, Nannie left school after sixth grade to focus on household chores.

At 16, Nannie began work at a linen factory where she met her first husband, Charley Braggs. While living at home, she and her sisters were never allowed to wear dresses or makeup and talking with members of the opposite sex was likewise forbidden. She saw Charley as an escape from this oppression and the two were married within the first year of their meeting. She moved in with him and his mother in 1921.

Despite her high hopes, Charley turned out to be an abusive alcoholic and his mother a control freak much in the same manner as Nannie’s father. Six years and four children into the marriage, she found the escape she had been seeking. In 1927, the Bragg’s two middle children died suddenly after breakfast one day. Doctors attributed the deaths to food poisoning, a more common killer at the time.

Suspicious of Nannie, given their deteriorating marriage, Charley moved out with their eldest daughter, Melvina. The controlling mother-in-law didn’t last long after her son’s departure, and died under mysterious circumstances. In 1928, Charley returned briefly to drop Melvina off, and finalize their divorce. He would be the only man to survive a marriage to Nannie.

Before long, Nannie decided it was time to move on and took to the lonely hearts column of her local paper for prospective mates. It was through these ads that she met and married her second husband, Frank Harrelson in 1929. They spent a mostly unhappy 16 years together. Like Nannie’s first husband, Frank was an alcoholic. After a particularly hard night of drinking with friends, he returned home and forced himself on Nannie. Revenge was swift, and came in the form of rat poisoned corn whiskey. Frank died an agonizing death while Nannie watched on.

In 1943, Nannie became a grandmother at just 38 years old. Her daughter Melvina had a son, Robert, and a daughter who died shortly after being born. Accounts from family that were present at the hospital would later surface that allege Nannie had stuck the newborn with a hairpin while Melvina recovered from the delivery. Just a few months later, Robert died from asphyxia while in his grandmother’s care.

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A concerned looking Melvina keeps a wary eye on Doss with children. source

Nannie was married again in 1947 to Arlie Lanning, another alcoholic. This marriage lasted only two and a half years before the man fell suddenly ill and died. No autopsy was performed as doctors believed the death was due to a heart attack brought on by Arlie’s lifelong drinking.

1952 saw Nannie’s fourth marriage to a Richard L. Morton. Although this one was not an alcoholic like her previous beau’s, he seemed to have a tenuous grasp on the sanctity of marriage. He didn’t last long after Nannie discovered he was seeing an old flame on the side. One arsenic laced thermos of coffee later, Morton joined Frank and Arlie on Nannie’s burgeoning list of victims.

Nannie’s fifth and final marriage was to Samuel Doss in 1953. This time she decided to go against her usual type. Samuel was neither abusive nor an alcoholic. If anyone could temper her murderous tendencies, this man was it. Or so it seemed for a time.

It would seem Nannie’s previous husbands had ruined her for more mild mannered individuals. She found Samuel uptight and boring. He lived a strict and disciplined life, enforcing household bedtimes and forbidding what he saw as frivolous activities like magazines and television.

Nannie was particularly not fond of Samuel’s tight grip on their finances. She ended up moving out for a short time until he agreed to add her name to his bank account. She returned a much more affectionate bride and Samuel believed the matter settled. Such was their marital bliss that he didn’t think twice when she convinced him to take out two life insurance policies with her as the sole beneficiary.

When Nannie decided it was time to collect, she set right to work. An arsenic-laced prune cake almost did the trick, but resulted instead in a months long hospital stay for Samuel when he complained of extreme stomach pains. Nannie’s upped the dosage for her second attempt, this time in his morning coffee.

Her deceased husband’s doctors took note of how quickly he passed after returning home and ordered an autopsy. When the report showed staggering levels of arsenic in Samuel’s system at the time of his death, Nannie topped the list of suspects and was arrested in 1954.

Nannie was surprisingly forthcoming with her confession, which police received in return for allowing her to keep romance magazines in prison. She appeared to actually enjoy the attention she received during her trial and the investigation into her murders. She was often seen smiling and laughing and made jokes about her late husbands. She earned the nickname the “Giggling Granny” for her unsettlingly cheery manner throughout interviews and the trial process.

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Nannie Doss leaving Tulsa County Attorney’s Office in Tulsa, OK in 1954. source

On May 17, 1955 Nannie Doss received a life sentence at 50 years old. After eight years of incarceration, she died of leukemia in 1963 while housed at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. She is believed to have claimed at least 11 lives before she was caught.

Sources:

encyclopediaofalabama.org “Nannie Doss”

gizmodo.com “The “Giggling Granny” Serial Killer Who Smiled All the Way to Prison”

thoughtco.com “Profile of ‘The Jolly Black Widow’ Nannie Doss”

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part III: Jane Toppan

Today’s entry falls roughly in the same time frame as the previous two. The turn of the century seemed to be something of a hotbed for killers. Or perhaps information about our recent past is just more readily available, meaning we’re simply more aware of events the likes of which had been occurring since the dawn of time. It was certainly easier to evade detection for long stretches before modern technology made a number of these stories impossible to reproduce today. In 2018 if someone disappears from social media for more than 48 hours people start to wonder. Information traveled much slower in the 1800’s, making it frightfully easy to disappear without anyone realizing for months.

This week’s killer is a tough pill to swallow. A successful, and for a time beloved nurse who took a chilling turn to sadism with the unfortunate patients in her care. You may want to have a bed pan handy, you’re about to meet “Jolly Jane” Toppan, the woman who makes Nurse Ratched look like Patch Adams.

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“Jolly Jane” Toppan. Source

Not unlike other killers of her ilk, Toppan’s tumultuous childhood seemed to lay the groundwork for her future turn to violence. Born Honora Kelley around 1857, she was the youngest of four girls. A family of poor, Irish immigrants, life was not easy for the Kelleys. While she was still very young, Honora lost her mother to a bout of tuberculosis.

Her father, Peter Kelley, was an abusive alcoholic who struggled with his waning sanity. Those around him knew him by his less than flattering nickname “Kelley the Crack;” as in “crackpot.” Living up to this moniker, Peter is said to have once sewed his own eyelids shut while working as a tailor.

In 1863, he brought Honora and her older sister Delia to the Boston Female Asylum and skipped town. This particular asylum placed orphaned or abandoned girls with well-to-do families looking to adopt. Honora ended up an indentured servant to the wealthy Toppan family of Lowell, Massachusetts.

She took the name Jane Toppan after some time living with the family. This new name meant a second chance for her, an opportunity to craft a new identity from scratch. Jane reportedly did very well in school and had many friends. When she turned 18, she was released from her indenture.

In 1885, around twenty years after her adoption, Jane began studying to become a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. Here, her gracious demeanor and outgoing personality earned her the nickname “Jolly Jane.” By all appearances she was flourishing, but lying in wait just underneath her sparkling facade was Honora, daughter of “Kelley the Crack.”

It is during her residency at Cambridge that Jane began performing twisted experiments on several of her patients. She seemed fascinated with death; during her training colleagues noted her apparent obsession with autopsies. This fascination drove Jane’s experiments on her patients.

She would first administer a dangerously high dose of sedative, completely immobilizing her chosen guinea pig. Once rendered helpless, she would often lay with the person and hold them. Jane is one of the few female killers motivated, at least in part, by sexual thrill. Her victims were conscious through long stretches of this experience but unable to move a muscle.

She would alternate drugs, bringing them close to death with a meticulously measured overdose, and then pull them back from the brink with something to revive them. She would repeat this process over and over, employing her medical expertise to keep her victims teetering between life and death.

An article about Jane published in a 1902 issue of the Indianapolis Journal describes this brutal tug-of-war:

“She said that the paroxysms of desire were intermittent and there were times when patients were quietly dying that her better nature would become uppermost and she would try to check approaching death. She might nurse the patient ever so carefully and seek to effect a cure. Then would come a craving to administer poison, and this amounted to the strongest uncontrollable impulse, which only physical restraint would stop, and then would render her patient unconscious. In the presence of death she would gleefully fondle the patient, stare into the eyes as if it were to see the inner workings of the soul, do all possible to intensify the agony of the patients, and then when the end came she would become herself again.”

Jane was very good at what she did. She preyed on the weak and the elderly of her hospital’s population, those whose deaths wouldn’t come as a shock. No foul play was suspected of any of the deaths at Cambridge Hospital.

After a brief stint at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the killings continued unchecked, Jane took to private nursing. Doctors recommended her to their wealthy clients for home care. She was a great success, despite the unusually high mortality rate of her patients, and traveled from one rich household to another.

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Massachusetts General Hospital. Source

Around this time, Jane lured her foster sister Elizabeth to come visit her after she had complained about feelings of depression. Jane made an attempt at alleviating Elizabeth’s ills with a picnic at the beach, but ended up poisoning her with strychnine.

In 1901, Jane set her sights on the elderly Alden Davis and his family. She created a vacancy in the house when she murdered the man’s wife, and promptly moved in to care for him in his time of loss. After only a short time in the Davis home, Jane claimed the lives of Alden and two of his daughters.

She left what remained of the Davis family and spent some time back in her home town to seemingly take a stab at relative normalcy. She sought the affections of her late foster sister Elizabeth’s widower, Oramel Brigham after inserting herself into his home. Although he made it clear he was not interested, Jane made several attempts to win him over. Most notably poisoning him just enough to be able to nurse him back to health. He was less than charmed and she was ordered out of the house.

While Jane had been busy making ham-fisted attempts at expressing love, one of Alden Davis’s surviving family members ordered a toxicology report on his body. When it was discovered he had been poisoned a police detail was assigned to Jane. After a brief investigation she was arrested for murder on October 26.

By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. When her sanity was called into question during her trial she replied:

“How can I be insane? When I killed those people I knew that I was doing wrong. I was perfectly conscious that I was not doing right. I never at any time failed to realize what I was doing. Insanity is complete lack of mental responsibility, isn’t it?”

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Despite her claims to the contrary, Jane was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed for life to the Taunton Insane Asylum. There she took her turn as a patient until her death on August 17, 1938.

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Sources:

http://murderpedia.org/female.T/t/toppan-jane.htm

Indianapolis Journal, Volume 52, Number 176, Indianapolis, Marion County, 25 June 1902

http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/jolly-jane-toppan-killer-nurse-obsessed-death/

http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2017/01/27/the-twisted-but-true-tale-of-serial-killer-nurse-jolly-jane-toppan/

History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part I: Lavinia Fisher

Recorded history has an unfortunate tendency to bury or simply ignore the achievements of women in our world. Before the 2016 film addressing this issue, Hidden Figures, few knew of the brilliant work of three African American women that gave NASA an edge in the space race. Their story is one of many that may never see the light of day. Much in the same way women’s achievements and contributions to mankind have been swept under the rug of history, their crimes are often overshadowed by their more notorious male counterparts.

Researching serial killers, one has to scroll a ways down past the Dahmers and Gacys of the world before hitting on a single female. Other than perhaps Eileen Wuornos, famously portrayed by Charlize Theron in Monster, the serial killer deck is overwhelmingly stacked in favor of men when it comes to notoriety. The celebrity attached to killers is very real, and has led to countless films, books and television shows seeking to explore the minds of these individuals.

Such fame has, for the most part, eluded women who kill, despite their murders being just as intriguing as and often more terrifying than the men standing in the serial killer spotlight. Perhaps we’re just more comfortable with the idea of a man committing violence, as it fits more comfortably with traditional gender roles. These killers don’t fit this preconceived notion. We’re more content with the woman as nurturer archetype.

This is a big part of what makes the women in this series so unsettling. A number of them worked as nurses or caretakers, people you might be quick to trust with your own well-being or that of a loved one. These women knew how to exploit this trust and draw their victims close. These killers you never see until it’s too late.

Part I: The Legend of Lavinia Fisher

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Image Credit: swordandscale.com

We’re starting things off with a woman widely cited as America’s first female serial killer: Lavinia Fisher. Long before H.H. Holmes and his “murder castle,” Lavinia and her husband John owned and operated the original hotel of horror, the Six Mile Wayfarer House near Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800’s. Like Holmes’ castle, the hotel came fully equipped with all the trappings of an evil lair. Complete with hidden rooms and passages and a bed designed to fall through a trap door at the flip of a switch.

According to legend, Lavinia would employ her considerable looks and charm to lure men to the parlor of the hotel and offer them tea. After imbibing the drug-laden beverage, the victim would be put to bed and subsequently swallowed by the trap door on a one-way trip to the basement. Rumors began to circulate after a number of men disappeared with their last known location being the Wayfarer House. Absent proof, Lavinia and her husband initially evaded prosecution, claiming ignorance of the whereabouts of the men in question after they left the hotel.

It wasn’t until a man by the name of John Peeples came for a stay that things took a turn. As was her method, Lavinia offered Peeples some tea, and they sat and talked. Fortunately for the intended victim, he didn’t much care for the Fisher’s particular brand of tea, and took an opportunity when Lavinia wasn’t looking to dispose of it in secret, as not to offend his host. Believed to be sufficiently drugged, Peeples was led to a recently vacated room where he remained awake in a chair by the door, unable to shake an uneasy feeling about his conversation with Lavinia. After some time, Peeples was startled by a loud bang as the bed across the room suddenly disappeared. After peering down into a dark basement through a newly opened hole in the floor, Peeples hastily escaped out of a window and made for the Charleston police station.

The subsequent investigation turned up enough evidence to convict the couple, and the two were sentenced to death by hanging. While jailed in the same facility, awaiting an appeal for their conviction, Lavinia and John set to planning their escape. This took the form of a long rope fashioned from bed sheets they tied together. The attempt was almost a success, but the makeshift rope broke after John reached the ground. Unwilling to leave his wife trapped in the cell, John turned himself back in and the two were kept under much heavier security.

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Charleston Jail Image Credit: zulkey.com

On the day of their execution, February 18, 1820, John went quietly, offering an apology to anyone he had offended in life before he was hanged. Lavinia on the other hand offered no such apology, opting instead to arrive to her execution dressed in her wedding gown. According to the law at the time, a married woman could not be executed, which is why John was first to hang, rendering her a widow. When it came time for her last words, Lavinia addressed the crowd, inviting any man present to marry her in a last ditch effort to stay her fate. When no one took a knee for her, she turned on them shouting, “If any of you has a message for the Devil, tell me now… for I will be seeing him in moment.” With that she took her own life, opting to jump from the hanging platform rather than wait for the executioner. According to witnesses of the event, Lavinia left this earth with a chilling sneer frozen on her face as she hung.

Much of this particular version of the legend of Lavinia Fisher has been disputed or downright debunked, however it remains the most colorful telling of what transpired at the Six Mile Wayfarer House. For a different, perhaps more historically sound version of this story check out Sword and Scale’s article The Truth Behind the Legend of Lavinia Fisher. Stay tuned for further entries in this series, next week we delve into the story of the six foot tall, 200 pound killing machine Belle Gunness. See you then.

Sources:

https://www.legendsofamerica.com/sc-laviniafisher/

http://swordandscale.com/the-truth-behind-the-legend-of-lavinia-fisher/

http://www.historicalcrimedetective.com/charlestons-most-inhospitable-hosts-the-story-of-john-and-lavinia-fisher/