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A.K.A.: "Aunt Killer"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 1 - 2
Date of murder: May 1, 1952
Date of arrest: 7 days after
Date of birth: 1900
Victim profile: Shirley Diann Weldon, 2 (her niece)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Elmore County, Alabama, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution at Kilby Prison on September 4, 1953

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 vomited.

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 everybody."

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.


Earle Dennison

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.

Shortly 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 birthdays.

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 brother.

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.

Eventually investigators 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 the press.

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 electrocuted.

“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 Tonight

Hattiesburg American

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 soul."

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 N. McQueen.

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 poison."

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 $5,000.

Then, when an autopsy was ordered on Shirley Diann’s body, Mrs. Dennison watched the operation which revealed the arsenic.





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