Claudius the fourth Roman Emperor also known as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was in the midst of big marriage problems with wife number five Agrippina. He was heard publicly to complain about his bad luck in marrying so many disagreeable women. This might have spurred Agrippina into action not so much out of a need for vengeance as a fear from losing out on the position. She saw herself and her son trying to occupy when Claudius was out of the picture. He was also making statements regarding reconciliation with son Britannicus which would have knocked Agrippina’s son Nero out of the running for ruler of Rome. She needed her husband out of the way, but it couldn’t have been just logic that drove her since the poison, that was administered to him, was slow and painful. When it seemed the old man wouldn’t die quickly enough Agrippina sent in a slave with a feather to induce vomiting, claiming it would cure him. Of course, vomiting might in fact have helped Claudius if the feather hadn’t been dipped in yet more poison.
Englishwoman Mary Ann Cotton is another for-profit serial killer, predating Belle Gunnes by thirty years. Married at age twenty to William Mowbray, the newlyweds settled in Plymouth, Devon, to start their family. The couple had five children, four of whom died of ‘gastric fever and stomach pains’. Moving back to the north-east, tragedy seemed to follow them; three more children born, three more children died. William soon followed his offspring, dying of an ‘intestinal disorder’ in January 1865. British Prudential promptly paid a 35 pound dividend, and a pattern was established. Her second husband, George Ward, died of intestinal problems as well as one of her two remaining children. The power of the press, always a force to be reckoned with, caught up with Mary Ann. The local newspapers discovered that as Mary Ann moved around northern England, she lost three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother and a dozen children, all dying of stomach fever. She was hanged at Durham County Gaol, March 24, 1873, for murder by arsenic poisoning. She died slowly, the hangman using too short a drop for a ‘clean’ execution.
It appeared a cold-blooded killing, but Betty became an icon for scorned women and first wives everywhere. Supporters mobbed the courthouse when her trial opened on Oct. 22, 1990.
After nearly two weeks of testimony, and four days of deliberation, the jury deadlocked, unable to decide between murder and manslaughter. Two jury members believed the defense assertion that she had gone to his house intending to kill herself, but shot the couple in a blind rage. Later, one of the holdouts told a reporter that he accepted the notion that emotional battering had driven Betty to kill. His only question was "What took her so long?"
In December 1991, after a second trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to 32 years to life.
In 1884, Gunness married Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson in Chicago, Illinois, where, two years later, they opened a confectionery store. The business was not successful; within a year the shop mysteriously burned down. They collected insurance, which paid for another home.
Though some researchers assert that the Sorenson union produced no offspring, other investigators report that the couple had four children: Caroline, Axel, Myrtle, and Lucy. Caroline and Axel died in infancy, allegedly of acute colitis. The symptoms of acute colitis — nausea, fever, diarrhea, and lower abdominal pain and cramping — are also symptoms of many forms of poisoning. Both Caroline's and Axel's lives were reportedly insured, and the insurance company paid out. A May 7, 1908 article in The New York Times states that two children belonging to Gunness and her husband Mads Sorensen were interred in her plot in Forest Home cemetery. On June 13, 1900, Gunness and her family were counted on the United States Census in Chicago. The census recorded her as the mother of four children, of whom only two were living: Myrtle A., 3, and Lucy B., 1. An adopted 10-year-old girl, identified possibly as Morgan Couch but apparently later known as Jennie Olsen, also was counted in the household.
Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, reportedly the only day on which two life insurance policies on him overlapped. The first doctor to see him thought he was suffering from strychnine poisoning. However, the Sorensons' family doctor had been treating him for an enlarged heart, and he concluded that death had been caused by heart failure. An autopsy was considered unnecessary because the death was not thought suspicious. Gunness told the doctor that she had given her late husband medicinal "powders" to help him feel better.
She applied for the insurance money the day after her husband's funeral. Sorenson's relatives claimed that Gunness had poisoned her husband to collect on the insurance. Surviving records suggest that an inquest was ordered. It is unclear, however, whether that investigation actually occurred or Sorenson's body was ever exhumed to check for arsenic, as his relatives demanded. The insurance companies awarded her $8,500 (about $217,000 in 2008 dollars), with which she bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte, Indiana.