Why No One Wept for Miss Dennison
The number of murderers put to death since the
United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976 has now topped
a thousand. Since journalists like to have a "news hook," the
occasion has resulted in a plethora of stories about the death
penalty in theory and practice in the United States. It seems that
public opinion is slipping a bit; polls show that support for the
death sentence has dropped from four in five Americans to two in
three... but that's still a clear majority.
And it's stories like the murder of Shirley
Dianne Weldon that engender such support.
It's hard for the mother of a little 2
1/2-year-old boy to write about a murderess such as Miss Earle
Dennison, the sixteenth woman executed by the State of Alabama.
The very fact that she was the first white woman ever
executed in Alabama tells you she did something perfectly awful
and horrible to contemplate.
Miss Earle Dennison was a widow and a surgical
nurse; she worked at the Wetumpka General Hospital for more than
25 years. Her late husband had a sister who also had a husband and
a little girl named Shirley and a boy named Orville.
Shirley was a little over two years old when
Aunt Earle paid an early afternoon call to their humble farmhouse
in rural Elmore County on May 1, 1952. During the visit, Aunt
Earle gave little Shirley an orange drink that included a
substance that is very bad for little girls. When Shirley began to
vomit, Aunt Earle gave her a bottle of Coca-Cola that was also
laced with something. Shirley became terribly sick, and her mother
insisted on rushing her to Wetumpka General.
When it appeared that the little girl was
gravely ill and would die, Aunt Earle left the hospital. She drove
twelve miles to the home of an insurance agent. There she paid the
premium for a life insurance policy she had taken out on her
niece's life -- the policy was about to lapse. Aunt Earle, you
see, had insured little Shirley for $6,500.
In 1952, that was about enough money to buy
three nice new cars.
A few hours after the policy on her life was
renewed, Shirley Weldon died. An autopsy revealed the presence of
arsenic, which was also found in the cup and Coca-Cola bottle out
of which the little girl drank. Arsenic was also found on the
dresses worn by the girl's mother and aunt, where Shirley had
The existence of the insurance policies was
discovered in a matter of days. Earle Dennison took an overdose of
sleeping pills and was unconscious when arrested. Her life was
salvaged at the hospital and thereafter she confessed on several
occasions and in writing to having murdered her niece.
Dennison was found guilty of murder and
sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court unanimously affirmed
the decision (Dennison v. State, 259 Ala. 424 (1953)). She was
executed in the electric chair on September 4, 1953. Her last
words were "Please forgive me for everything I did. I forgive
From the date that Earle Dennison murdered
Shirley to the date of her execution, one year, four months, and
three days elapsed. Justice was swift for confessed child
murderers in 1953. Much more swift than it is today. And if every
case were as clear as the Dennison case and as awful to
contemplate, one has to wonder whether public support for the
death penalty wouldn't be even stronger.
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.
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.” 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
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
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 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.
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 confesed in writing to the murders.
During the four-hour
questioning, Earle was “as cool as anyone could be,” Holley told
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
“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.”
Baby Poisoner to Die
Sep. 3, 1953
Montgomery, Ala. – Gov.
Gordon Persons today refused to spare the life of Mrs. Earle C.
Dennison, the nurse who poisoned her infant niece and must die in
the electric chair tonight.
In a dramatic announcement to
newsmen following a clemency hearing, Pearsons said. “I will not
interfere with the sentence.”
His refusal to intervene
means Mrs. Dennison, 55-year-old former hospital nurse from
Wetumpka, Ala., will become the first white woman ever
electrocuted in Alabama.
Mrs. Dennison is scheduled to
die shortly after midnight at Kilby Prison.
The governor said, "I am
sorry, of course, to have to be the governor to make this decision
for the first time. The poisoned child is just as dead as if the
crime had boon committed by a man "God bless Mrs. Dennison's
Persons' decision come
despite a last-minute plea from the condemned woman to "have mercy
on me. Save my life."
The gaunt, 85-year-old widow,
clad in a plain black dress, sat impassively-throughout most of
her clemency hearing before the governor's legal adviser, William
But her nerves gave way and
tears welled in her eyes as she whispered her, simple plea.
She is to pay the penalty for
the arsenic poisoning of 2-year-old Shirley Diann Weldon, who died
in convulsions in a Wetumpka, Ala. hospital on May 1, 1952.
The state contended she
killed the Weldon child to collect $5,500 from two insurance
policies she had on the tot.
She also was charged with
killing Weldon child, Polly Ann, but was never tried for that
offense. Arsenic was found in the bodies of both girls.
Mrs. Dennison, who had been
chief operating room nurse at the Wetumpka, Ala., hospital, was
arrested May 8, 1952, seven days after Shirley Diann died in
convulsions at the hospital.
She admitted in two signed
statements that she gave arsenic to the blonde, curly haired child
in a soft drink during a visit to the Weldon home. Mrs. Dennison
recalled that Shirley Diann had climbed affectionately into her
lap and hugged her around the neck just before she swallowed the
While the child lay dying,
Mrs. Dennison said, she drove to the home of an insurance agent
and paid an overdue premium on n $500 policy on the child's life.
The aunt was the beneficiary on that policy on the child’s life.
The aunt was the beneficiary on that policy and on another one for
Then, when an autopsy was
ordered on Shirley Diann’s body, Mrs. Dennison watched the
operation which revealed the arsenic.