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Martha WISE






A.K.A.: "The Borgia of America"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Serial poisoner - She gave poison to 17 people
Number of victims: 3
Date of murder: December 12, 1924 / February 1925
Date of birth: 1884
Victim profile: Sophie Hasel (her mother) / Fred and Lily Geinke (her uncle and aunt)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Medina County, Ohio, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in May 1925. Died in prison on June 28, 1971
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Martha Wise (1924-1925) aka "the Borgia of America" was a 39-year old widow from Ohio who fell deeply in love with a younger man whom her family was opposed to. She devised a plan to poison (arsenic) her family members one-by-one, killing 3 of them before the rest got suspicious and reported her to authorities.

When questioned, she confessed to the murders, several other attempts, and even burning down a church that expressed a reluctance to carry out the marriage ceremony. Her defense at trial was "the Devil made me do it". She was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Wise, Martha Hasel

Born in 1885, by age 40 Martha Wise was an impoverished widow, living alone on a farm near Medina, Ohio. She fell in love with Walter Johns, a man much younger than herself, but members of her family were blunt in their denunciation of the May-October romance, heaping ridicule on Martha for her "cradle-robbing." 

Furious at her mother's nagging, Martha poisoned the old lady on New Year's Day 1925, waiting a month before she silenced her uncle and aunt, Fred and Lily Geinke, with a double dose of arsenic. Her efforts to annihilate the Geinke family in a single stroke were futile, other members of the clan recovering from grievous illness after several days and taking their suspicions to the local prosecutor. 

Under questioning, Martha confessed the three murders, but said, "It was the devil who told me to do it. He came to me while I was in the kitchen baking bread. He came to me while I was working in the fields. He followed me everywhere." She also cleared the books on other felonies, with her confessing to a string of burglaries and arson incidents. "I like fires," she explained. "They were red and bright, and I loved to see the flames shooting up into the sky." At Martha's trial, sensational reports described her as the "Borgia of America." 

She pled insanity, and Walter Johns helped out with testimony that Martha had "barked like a dog" during sex, but jurors found her sane and guilty of first-degree murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, she subsequently died in jail.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans


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.

Early life

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 wedding ring.

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 executive clemency.

Later life

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.

In media

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 -

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 mourners.

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 kin.

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.

Cookin' good

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, Walter Johns.

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 inflammation.

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 arsenic.

Authorities decided to conduct one autopsy, of Lily Gienke. Her stomach and intestines were saturated with the poison.

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 house.

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.



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