Rhonda Bell Martin, Alabama Serial Killer - 1956
Mother Tells 6 Killings by Poison
By Rex Thomas -
Mar. 14, 1956
Montgomery, Ala., Mar. 14 – State’s attorneys headed for court today
with the bizarre tale of a middle-aged waitress who, they said,
admitted slaying her mother, three small daughters and two of her five
husbands with poison.
Plump, 49-year-old Mrs. Rhonda Bell Martin also told in a signed
statement, according to Circuit Solicitor William F. Thetford, how she
fed ant poison once was her stepson. He is still alive though
The auburn-haired waitress waived preliminary hearing in City Court
today on the only formal charge thus far drawn up against her – the
killing of Claude Martin, her fourth husband, in 1951.
Mrs. Martin was bound over to the Montgomery County Grand Jury without
bond and ordered moved from the city to the county jail. The next
regular session of the grand jury starts May 14.
She is now married to Martin’s 29-year-old son, Ronald, who has been
under treatment for nine months for poisoning.
It was Ronald’s illness that led to the murder investigation. City and
state authorities arrested Mrs. Martin Friday in Mobile.
After three days of questioning, Thetford announced yesterday that the
bespectacled waitress had signed a statement admitting she poisoned
the two Martins, and five other kins-people.
Mrs. Martin was vague about a motive for the killings, the solicitor
said, but she told of having insurance on all six victims who died.
The amount was not disclosed, but Thetford said she recalled receiving
between of Claude Martin.
She married Martin’s son eight months after the death of his
Poisoner Gets Death Decree
Alabama Waitress to Die in Electric Chair For Killing Husband
The Gastonia Gazette
Jun. 5, 1956
Montgomery, Ala. – A hefty, auburn-haired waitress who killed
her fourth husband with arsenic was sentenced last night to die in the
electric chair Mrs. Rhonda Belle, Martin, 41 and 170 pounds, admitted
killing Claude C. Martin and live other members of her family, but she
was tried only for the death of her fourth husband. Her other victims
were three daughters, her mother and another husband.
A jury of 12 men deliberated three hours and 10 minutes last night
before convicting her of poisoning Martin after about a year or
When the verdict was read, Mrs. Martin buried her head in her arms and
The woman’s attorney based his defense on a plea of insanity. The
prosecution countered that Mrs. Martin served arsenic in coffee to her
husband in order to “collect some paltry amount of insurance and to
get him out of the way so she could marry his son.”
Eight months after Martin’s death on April 27, 1951. Mrs. Martin
married her steps Ronald C. Martin, 21 years her junior. She now lies
in a veterans hospital paralyzed by arsenic poisoning. Ronald Martin’s
illness, for which Mrs. Martin is under indictment for attempted
murder, touched off .the investigation had brought to light the series
Under Alabama’s automatic appeal law, last night’s conviction will go
to the supreme court. The sentence is postponed until the appeal is
Solicitor William F, Thetford introduced evidence that Mrs. Martin
collected $2,750 on three insurance policies upon alter her husband’s
Modern Borgia Wills Her Body to Science
The Hutchinson News
Oct. 11, 1957
Montgomery, Ala. – A plump, 50-year-old waitress who killed three
daughters, her mother and two husbands with rat poison died in the
electric chair early today.
She left behind a wish for her body to be turned over to a medical
institution. She said she wanted it learned “why I committed the
crimes I have committed.” Mrs. Rhonda Belle Martin died clutching a
New Testament in her left hand.
Mrs. Martin was put to death for the poisoning of her fourth husband,
Claude C. Martin.
After her arrest in March In
1956, she signed a statement admitting that she fed rat poison to two
other husbands three of her children and her mother.
Her fifth husband, Ronald Martin, survived the poisoning, but the
other victims died. Ronald Martin is the son of the victim for whose
killing the waitress paid with her life.
Prison officials yesterday found in Mrs. Martin’s Bible a note she had
written Oct. 14, 1956. It was turned over to authorities at Kilby
Prison, where the electrocution was carried out.
The note said:
“At my death, whether it be a natural death of 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.”
The condemned woman was strapped in the chair at 12:07 a.m. and
received 2,200 volts of electricity three minutes later after one
false start. When the switch was thrown the first time, it was
discovered the electrodes hadn’t been plugged into the chair and the
task had lo be repealed. Gov, James E. Folsom denied an appeal, for
Besides Claude Martin, the woman admitted poisoning her second husband
George Garrett in 1939. She also told of feeding rat poison to three
daughters, 3-year-old Emogene Garrett in 1937 Anna Carolyn Garrett, 6,
in 1940; and Ellyn Elizabeth Garrett, 11, in 1943. She also admitted
that she killed her mother Mrs. Mary Frances Gibbon in 1944.
Her written statement said she had small insurance policies on the
lives of all six victims. She was tried only for the death of Claude
'Q. Did he [the deceased] have an automobile? A.
'Q. Was there any kind of insurance policy on that
automobile that it paid up at his death? A. Yes sir.
'Q. What kind? What kind of automobile was it? A. A
'Q. Did you inherit anything else from him? A. No
sir. I don't think there was anything else.
'Q. When did you start going with his son? A. Well,
it was three or four months after he died.
'Q. Did his son live with him? A. He was in the
'Q. In the Navy the whole time you were married? A.
'Q. When did he get out? When was he discharged? A.
This February two years ago.
'Q. He was in the Navy when you married him? A. Yes
'Q. Where did you move after Mr. Martin died?
Claude Martin died? A. 519 Montgomery Street.
'Q. Did he own any real estate? A. No sir.
'Q. You gave him three or four more doses? And the
last dose was two or three weeks before he died? A. No sir, longer
than that, a month or more before he died.
'Q. After Mr. Martin's death, you married his son?
A. Yes sir.
'Q. How long after? A. December 7, 1951, that would
have been how long after his death.
'Q. How long after Mr. Martin's death? A. He died
in April, about eight months, I guess.
'Q. You did all the cooking there at the house [of
the deceased]? A. Practically all of it, most of it.'
Code 1940, Tit. 34, § 1, as amended by Act No. 296,
approved. Aug. 18, 1947, Gen.Acts 1947, p. 148, to the extent here
pertinent, provides that 'the son must not marry his * * *
step-mother', and declares such marriage to be incestuous.
Code 1940, Tit. 14, § 325, makes such incestuous
marriage a felony punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary for
not less than one nor more than seven years.
Counsel for appellant insists that defendant's
marriage to her deceased husband's son was incestuous and for this
reason it was error to receive in evidence that part of the confession
admitting such marriage. The argument is that such admission relates
to a criminal offense entirely separate and apart from the offense for
which the defendant was being tried and hence it was reversible error
to receive it in evidence. Sims v. State, 253 Ala. 666, 669, 46 So.2d
564; 20 Am.Jur., Evidence, § 489, p. 426; Wharton's Criminal Evidence,
Vol. 2, § 361, p. 74. We cannot agree that the marriage was incestuous
and violative of § 1, Tit. 34, as amended, supra. What was said in
Tagert v. State, 143 Ala. 88, 90-91, 39 So. 293, 111 Am.St.Rep. 17, is
conclusive on the point, viz.:
'Incest,' says Mr. Bishop, 'where the statutes have
not modified its meaning, is sexual commerce, either habitual or in a
single instance, and either under a form of marriage or without it,
between persons too nearly related in consanguinity or affinity to be
entitled to intermarry.' Bishop on Statutory Crimes, § 727. Section
4889 of the Criminal Code of 1896 [Code 1940, Tit. 14, § 325, supra]
reads as follows: 'If any man or woman, being within the degrees of
consanguinity or relationship within which marriages are declared by
law to be incestuous and void, and knowing of such consanguinity or
relationship, intermarry, or have sexual intercourse together, or live
together in adultery, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned
in the penitentiary for not less than one, nor more than seven years.'
The degrees of consanguinity or relationship within which marriages
are declared incestuous are fixed by section 2837 of the Civil Code of
1896 [Code 1940, Tit. 34, § 1, as amended, supra]. One of these
degrees is, as known in common parlance, that of step-father and
step-daughter. The language is that 'No man shall marry the daughter
of his wife.' [As applicable to this case the provision is that 'The
son must not marry his * * * stepmother.']
'It cannot be seriously doubted that the relation
of consanguinity or affinity between the parties must exist at the
time the act of intermarrying or sexual intercourse occurs. If the
relationship, previous to the time when the act of marrying or sexual
commerce takes place, has ceased to exist, then the act of
intermarrying or sexual intercourse is not incestuous, however
offensive it may appear to good morals, or punishable as a crime under
other criminal statutes.'
See, also, Henderson v. State, 26 Ala.App. 263, 157
Although it was held in the Tagert case that 'after
the death of the wife living issue of the marriage continues the
affinity between the husband and her blood relations', that principle
has no application to the case before us. There is no evidence
indicating any issue, living or dead, of the marriage of defendant and
her deceased husband, Claude C. Martin.
The only defense offered was that the defendant was
insane at the time of the commission of the alleged murder. The
principal witness for the defense was a psychiatrist who testified
that he had examined the defendant and in his opinion she was a
sehizophrenic. He further testified that schizophrenia is a permanent
mental disorder that exists throughout the life of one afflicted, and
that the defendant was probably a schizophrenic at the time she
poisoned her husband. Expert opinion evidence to the effect that the
defendant was sane was offered in rebuttal by the state.
It is insisted here that, in view of the position
taken by the defendant that she was a schizophrenic, several remarks
made by the trial Judge while qualifying the jury had the effect of
creating a strong prejudice in the minds of the prospective jurors
against the accused's defense of insanity. The trial Judge, apparently
at the request of the defense, questioned each successive group of
prospective jurors as to whether any of them was familiar with the
term 'schizophrenic' or the symptoms of 'schizophrenia'. The following
exchanges contain the remarks to which appellant objects:
'The Court. Are each of you familiar with the term
'schizophrenia'? It was explained a while ago.
'Mr. Cameron. Judge, the word, 'a dual
personality,' is misleading. It is insanity, definitely applied to
'The Court. I am sure they are not familiar with
that, because the court is not. I am sure they are not familiar.
'The Court. Each of you familiar with the term
'schizophrenic' or the symptoms of schizophrenia? I know you are not.
Do any of you all know anything about that?
'A Juror: I don't know what it is.
'The Court. I don't know much myself.
'Mr. Cameron. If you will, have them identify
'The Court. All right.
'(The jurors at the rail identified themselves.)
'The Court. You are qualified.
'The Clerk. Next group.
'The Court. That is no disqualification? Any of you
familiar with the term 'schizophrenic' or know the symptoms of
'A Juror. I am not familiar with them.
'The Court. I am sure you are not.
'A Juror. Just what do you mean by that?
'Mr. Cameron. It is a type of insanity where a
person loses contact with realization. In other words, they have no
control over their actions. Skis-o-frenia is the correct
pronounciation of it, I believe.
'The Court. You want their names called?
'Mr. Cameron. Yes, sir; please.
'The Court. All right. Start.'
The sole defense, as already noted, was the
defendant's insanity. Counsel for defendant sought to prove that at
the time she poisoned her husband she was suffering from schizophrenia
and was not legally responsible for her actions. It is contended that
the remarks of the trial Judge struck at the very heart of this
defense by making light of it before the prospective jurors. We have
carefully examined the comments of the trial Judge in the light of the
entire record and cannot see how it can be said that such comments
prejudiced the jury against defendant. The expert witness for the
defense was allowed to explain to the jury the meaning of
schizophrenia and to state in detail its symptoms and effects, and the
trial court, in its oral charge, clearly and correctly stated the test
which the jury should apply in determining whether insanity had been
proved as a defense. We see no merit to the insistence that the
defendant was prejudiced by any of the comments made by the trial
We have carefully considered all of the testimony,
even though no lawful objection or exception was made thereto, as is
required of us, and we do not find any testimony that was seriously
prejudicial to the rights of the appellant; nor can we say, upon
consideration of all the testimony, that the verdict is so decidedly
contrary to the great weight of the evidence as to be wrong and
unjust, which would call for an order reversing the judgment and
granting a new trial. Code 1940, Tit. 15, § 382(10), Pocket Part; Act
No. 249, approved June 24, 1943, Gen.Acts 1943, p. 219, § 10, supra.
The verdict is amply supported by the evidence.
No error to reverse appearing, the judgment is due
to be, and is, affirmed.
All the Justices concur.
On Motion for Rehearing.
It is insisted by counsel for appellant that we
erred on original deliverance in holding it was not reversible error
to receive in evidence that part of defendant's confession relating to
her marriage to her deceased husband's son. It is argued that such
admission, in the absence of an affirmative showing by the state that
there was no living issue of the marriage of defendant and her
deceased husband, 'tends' to establish a separate crime, and for this
reason should have been excluded from the confession. In answer to
this we quote again the following from Tagert v. State, 143 Ala. 88,
91, 39 So. 293, 294, 111 Am.St.Rep. 17, supra: 'If the relationship,
previous to the time when the act of marrying * * * takes place, has
ceased to exist, then the act of intermarrying * * * is not
incestuous.' The confession itself shows the death of the husband,
thus bringing about a cessation of the relationship unless there be
living issue of the marriage. We do not think it was incumbent on the
state to negative a continuance of the affinity by an affirmative
showing that there was no living issue of the marriage of defendant
and her deceased husband. Furthermore, it seems to us, as argued by
the state, that evidence of defendant's marriage to her deceased
husband's son was relevant and admissible to show a motive for the
poisoning of the husband, that is, to get rid of him so that she could
marry his son.
We have again reviewed the entire case and find
nothing in the record calling for a reversal.