Martha Wise (1884 – June 28, 1971), born
Martha Hasel, was an American poisoner. After her husband
died and her family forced her to end a relationship with a new
lover, Wise retaliated by poisoning seventeen family members, of
whom three died, in 1924. She was convicted of one of the murders,
despite defense claims that she was mentally ill and that her
lover had ordered her to poison her family. The case is considered
one of the most sensational of the era in Ohio, where it occurred.
Wise was born in 1884 to Sophie Hasel and her
husband, farmers in Hardscrabble, a town in Medina County, Ohio.
Three brothers and a sister were also born to the family, although
contemporary sources name only one, a brother named Fred. In 1906,
Martha Hasel met the substantially older Albert Wise at a box
social; the two were married, though Wise neglected to give her a
The marriage was not happy. Martha moved onto
Albert's 50-acre (20 ha) farm, but quickly discovered that he
expected a farmhand more than a wife, and life was no less poor as
a married woman than it had been when she lived with her parents.
Even when pregnant, she was forced to do farm work that was
generally male-oriented (such as plowing fields and slopping hogs)
as well as the usual household chores of baking and cleaning. The
couple's first child, Albert, did not survive infancy; four
others, Everett, Gertrude, Kenneth, and Lester, did.
Wise's main source of diversion during this
period was funerals; she seldom missed a visit to any funeral held
in or near the town, whether she had known the deceased or not.
When questioned, she simply said that she liked funerals. Albert
Wise died suddenly in 1923, leaving his wife a 40-year-old widow
with four children. Her odd behavior and fixation on funerals
became more noticeable, and she began not only attending funerals,
but openly crying and lamenting at them, no matter who had died.
Within a year of Albert Wise's death, Martha
Wise, though not considered a particularly good or attractive
catch, found new male companionship in the form of Walter Johns,
who worked as a farmhand on property adjacent to her farm. The
relationship was frowned upon by Wise's family, and both Wise's
mother, Sophie Hasel, and her aunt, Lily Gienke, made no secret of
their desire for Wise to end the relationship. By the end of 1924,
Wise had acquiesced, and the relationship ended. Johns moved to
Cleveland and the couple lost contact.
On Thanksgiving evening, 1924, several members
of the family, including Sophie Hasel, fell ill with a severe
stomach ailment. The others recovered shortly, but Hasel's illness
worsened, and she died on December 13, 1924.
New Year's Eve of 1925 brought more illness.
Wise's uncle Fred Gienke, his wife, Lily, and several of their
children all began suffering stomach pains similar to those Hasel
had experienced before her death. Several family members were
hospitalized, and Lily and Fred were both dead by February 1925.
In total, seventeen relatives were taken ill with similar symptoms
in the fall and winter of 1924/1925. Four of the Gienke children
were left partially paralyzed from the mysterious illness.
After the deaths of the Gienkes, authorities
began to investigate the cluster of deaths. The county sheriff,
Fred Roshon, soon discovered that Martha Wise had signed at a
local drug store for a series of purchases of large quantities of
arsenic. An autopsy on Lily Gienke confirmed the presence of
arsenic in her digestive tract. Brought in for questioning by the
sheriff, Wise at first claimed she had obtained the arsenic to
kill rats, but eventually confessed that she had used it to poison
family members by putting it in water buckets and coffee pots the
family drank out of.
Despite her confession, Wise pleaded not guilty
to the charge of murdering Lily Gienke in front of a grand jury on
March 23, 1925. She told the grand jury that she was irresistibly
attracted to attending funerals, and that when there were not
enough funerals in the community, she was driven to create them by
killing. Wise was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder on
April 7, 1925.
Wise's trial for murder began on May 4, 1925.
She was represented by Joseph Pritchard and prosecuted by Joseph
Seymour. Defense claims included that Wise was criminally insane
and that she was ordered to commit the murders by her former
lover, Walter Johns. A number of setbacks plagued the defense,
including the May 6 suicide of Wise's sister-in-law, Edith Hasel,
and the subsequent collapse of her husband Fred Hasel, both of
whom had been prepared to testify for the defense; the recantation
of testimony by a man named Frank Metzger, who told the
prosecution on cross-examination that the defense had asked him to
perjure himself to support claims that Wise was insane; and Wise's
choice to take the stand on her own behalf. Family members
including Wise's son, Lester, and three of the Gienkes' children
testified against her.
After one hour of jury deliberation, Wise was
found guilty of first-degree murder. The jury urged mercy in
sentencing, and the judge sentenced Wise to a life sentence in
prison, under the terms of which she could only be freed by
In 1962, as a result of Wise's good behavior in
prison, Ohio governor Michael DiSalle commuted Wise's sentence to
second-degree murder and she was paroled at age 79. Wise's
remaining family refused to take her in, and a number of rest
homes for the elderly similarly declined her residency; within
three days Wise returned to prison, lacking anywhere else to go.
Her parole and the commutation of her sentence were revoked. Wise
died in prison on June 28, 1971.
Wise was featured in a 1930 Toledo News-Bee
article series profiling "[w]omen who are paying the price for
folly, women who gambled against society and lost". A 1962 issue
of the St. Joseph Gazette called the Wise case "one of Ohio's most
publicized crimes of the era", and she has been labeled the
"poison widow of Hardscrabble" and a "poison fiend".
Wise's case was covered in a 2008 episode of
the Investigation Discovery network series Deadly Women.
The Poison Widow of Hardscrabble
By Mara Bovsun - NYDailyNews.com
March 25, 2008
There was not really much to do around the town
of Hardscrabble, Ohio, especially for a woman who was raw-boned,
simple and poor.
Perhaps, then, Martha Wise could be excused for
her odd choice of hobby. Death. She'd happily attend any funeral,
wailing along with the bereaved relatives, whether she had known
the deceased or not.
"I like funerals," she told acquaintances. She
loved having sad people around her and hearing the weeping of
For 15 years, she had not missed a funeral
within 20 miles of town, even if it meant she'd have to walk until
her feet were sore.
Starting in 1923, however, Wise no longer had
to travel far to find misery. That's because she had plenty of
funerals of her own. First her husband, Albert Wise, then, in
quick succession, her mother, Sophie Hasel, her aunt, Lillian
Gienke, and her uncle, Fred Gienke.
For a time, no one thought anything was amiss.
But her relatives kept getting sick, and soon, people began to
talk about the woman's weird ways, and the strange deaths of her
Her life had always been a sad one. She was
born Martha Hasel, in 1884 to a poor farming family. Her teachers
found her dull, and she possessed few of the charms needed to
snare any husband, never mind a good one. That she was constantly
running to the doctor with ailments he could neither find nor cure
did not improve her prospects.
She was well on her way to becoming an old
maid, when, in 1906, she attended a Hardscrabble "box social," a
quaint tradition in which young ladies demonstrate their culinary
talents for potential beaus. Martha's chicken sandwiches were
impressive enough to make Albert Wise overlook her sunken eyes and
advanced age. He came a-courting, and soon proposed.
This was no fairy-tale ending for the morose,
homely girl. Marriage turned out to be a fate far worse than
spinsterhood. Albert, about 20 years his new bride's senior,
treated her like something between farmhand and pack animal, even
after she became pregnant. "I kept plowing and hoeing and baking,"
she would recall years later. It's unknown whether the workload
had anything to do with it, but the baby - whom she named Albert,
after his father - died soon after birth.
Four more babies - Lester, Everett, Gertrude
and Kenneth - would follow, and survive, but they were little
comfort to their mother. She still had to plow the fields and slop
the hogs, or risk a beating from her husband.
It was making her crazy. There would be times
when her eldest son Lester would watch her as she wandered around
the fields at night, as if she was looking for something.
In late 1923, Albert Wise died suddenly. His
wife's behavior took a turn for the worse. Her nocturnal
wanderings ranged far from the farm, and she would show up at
neighbors' homes, wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth. Some said
she would bark like a dog.
At the same time, at 40 and with four children,
she set out to find herself another man. Incredibly, she appeared
to have some success, and started keeping company with a neighbor,
Her 72-year-old mother did not approve of her
daughter's new flame, and told her so. Hasel insisted that Wise
drop him. They quarreled bitterly.
Wise reluctantly bowed to her mother's will,
and docilely showed up at Thanksgiving dinner, alone.
That night, Hasel and several other members of
the family fell ill, complaining of stomach upsets.
Everyone was soon feeling better, except for
Hasel, whose condition deteriorated in the following weeks. When
she died, on Dec. 13, doctors chalked it up to stomach
As she had at the funerals for strangers, Wise
wailed as they laid her mother to rest.
Finally, a probe
More illness and death would follow. After
their 1925 new year's celebration, Wise's uncle, Fred Gienke, his
wife Lily, and six of their children, ranging in age from 9 to 25,
got really bad bellyaches. Several landed in the hospital.
Lily died in early January, Fred on Feb. 9.
These deaths also were chalked up to stomach
inflammation, perhaps food poisoning. It was only after a series
of mysterious fires in and around Hardscrabble, that the sheriff
decided that it was time to launch an investigation.
He quickly turned up a clue. No master
criminal, Wise had signed her own name to a series of purchases in
a local drugstore. The item was arsenic. Large quantities of
Authorities decided to conduct one autopsy, of
Lily Gienke. Her stomach and intestines were saturated with the
Medina County Sheriff Fred Roshon brought Wise
in for questioning. Ethel Roshon, the sheriff's wife, also was
present and would play an important role in the interrogation.
Wise held out for hours, insisting that she
knew nothing, that the arsenic had been purchased to kill rats.
She might have continued to deny everything,
had it not started to rain.
Hearing the raindrops, Ethel Roshon took a new
tack. "Listen, Martha," the sheriff's wife murmured. "The rain -
it is the Voice of God. ... It says, 'You did, you did, you did.'"
It took just a few moment of listening to the
raindrops to break Wise down.
She shrieked. Then came the confession. "Oh,
God, yes I did it. The Devil told me to."
She admitted that she had first spiked her
mother's drinking water with arsenic on Thanksgiving Day. After
her mother's death, she hit the water buckets at the Gienke
household. All told, she gave poison to 17 people.
"Brain monster warps souls of Medina killer,"
screamed one headline on March 19, 1925, right after the
confession. The murders were a result of Wise's "craze for
funerals," newspapers declared.
Don't drink the water
But a few days later, another more mundane
motive came to light. It was well-known among the gossips in the
community that Sophie Hasel had not approved of her daughter's new
boyfriend. But few knew that Hasel had threatened to disown her
daughter if she did not end the affair.
Wise went on trial for only the murder of Lily
Gienke on May 4, 1925. Three of the Gienke children, crippled by
the poison, were brought in to testify. One was carried into the
courtroom on a stretcher. Martha's own son Lester, 14, squealed on
his mother, saying that he had overheard her talking about poison
with one of her male friends. Lester also said that she told her
children to never drink out of the water buckets at the Gienke
Her attorneys tried to make a case for
insanity, but the jury took less than an hour to find her guilty
of murder in the first degree. They recommended mercy, which meant
a life sentence.
When she heard the verdict, Wise immediately
found another entity to blame. It wasn't the Devil, but her
boyfriend who had convinced her to murder her family. Johns denied
everything, including any romantic interest in the crazy widow. He
said he was hanging around because he pitied her. Police arrested
him, but they could find no evidence to support her assertion that
Johns had put her up to the killings.
Prison life agreed with Wise. She excelled at
mundane chores, doing laundry and caring for the chickens. Granted
parole in 1962, the sickly 79-year-old had no place to go. After
three days of freedom, she returned to prison. There, the funeral
addict waited a decade for one more grim sendoff, her own, which
came on June 28, 1971.