The following is the first chapter from the book “True Crime Storytime: 12 Disturbing True Crime Stories to Keep You Up All Night”
Rhonda Belle Martin
At the time of her death, redheaded Rhonda Belle Martin had long been making headlines as “Grisly Mama.” A serial killer who took the lives of the most innocent children. What makes her crimes even more chilling is that there is no apparent motive for her madness. Unlike other killers, there is no financial gain or revenge to help those left behind wrap their minds around how someone could do something so cruel.
Rhonda said as much herself; in a note found tucked in a bible she clutched until her final moments in the electric chair, she wrote, “At my death, whether it be a natural death or 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 committed. I can’t understand it, for I had no reason whatsoever. There is definitely something wrong.” Indeed—something was very, very wrong.
The Many Marriages of Rhonda Belle Thomely Martin
Though Rhonda died in the headlines, her life didn’t start as front-page news. There is little to no record of her birth, upbringing, or family history. It’s suspected that she was born in 1907 in Mississippi and moved to Alabama at a young age. Her father operated a sawmill, and her mother ran a boarding house. She had a few siblings, including an adopted half-brother. When Rhonda was only twelve, her father deserted them with little disregard for their wellbeing. A family trait that perhaps influenced Rhonda as a wife, mother—and murderer.
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In her early adult years, Rhonda dabbled as a waitress but, more often than not, could be found enjoying cocktails and the company of gentlemen. After all, Rhonda was married five times.
Her first marriage was to W. R. Alderman when she was only fifteen years old in 1922. W.R., or Willy Robert, was one of Rhonda’s mother’s borders, a World War One veteran and twenty-seven years old when they married. Four years later, before her twentieth birthday, the pair divorced. Then, in 1928, Rhonda went to the altar with George W. Garrett.
Rhonda had five children, all with her second husband, George W. Garrett—none of which survived to adulthood.
George had been Rhonda’s next-door neighbor. The young couple had a whirlwind romance and an even quicker boom of children after their marriage. By the late 1930s, they had five daughters: Mary Adelaide, Imogene, Judith, Carolyn, and Ellen Elizabeth. It was during this fateful year when four-year-old Mary Adelaide made a simple request of her mother, could she please have a glass of water. Rhonda, as if a woman possessed, moved toward the fridge. She filled a glass with milk instead of tap water and added a spoonful of ant poison. Turning from the counter, she handed her unsuspecting daughter the poison-laced milk and went about her day.
Mary Adelaide quickly succumbed to the tainted drink. However, Rhonda claimed that it was pneumonia that took her oldest daughter. Imogene, next in line, not in birth order but for cold-blooded murder, was only three in 1937, when Rhonda suddenly felt the old familiar urge. A cold glass of milk, a spoonful of poison—another daughter dead. This time, Rhonda told her husband, friends, and neighbors it was a heart attack.
“Poor Rhonda,” everyone agreed; such a terrible thing for a mother to lose two children. It seemed as quickly as Rhonda dispatched her daughters that another one was born. Two years later, one-year-old Judith suffered the same fate as her siblings. Rhonda decided to try the same tactic with her husband that same year. Except for this time, she laced his whiskey instead of mixing the poison in milk. The toxic mixture had profound results. A confused George writhed in the front yard before dying of “pneumonia” shortly after “jaundice” came for Judith. Carolyn must have pleased her mother somehow, making it to six years of age before Rhonda turned on her, covering up her death under the guise of a “throat disorder.”
One daughter remained by 1940, eleven-year-old Ellen Elizabeth. It’s hard to argue that she had found some ounce of favor with her mother when you realize Rhonda decided to draw out her death over the course of a year. Slowly poisoning her day by day until the young girl wasted away, slipping into paralysis and finally being nothing but skin and bones. A “stomach disorder was to blame,” said Rhonda. She buried her final daughter next to her father and her four siblings in a specific area of the cemetery named the Last Supper.
The loss of five children and a husband was bittersweet for Rhonda, she was free, but she was also out of victims. Matricide turned out to be the perfect outlet for Rhonda’s poisonous tendencies. She laced her mother’s coffee in 1944, using the same technique she had perfected with Ellen. Bit by bit, her mother deteriorated, first becoming completely invalid before she finally perished at the end of a torturous year. Once again in the market for a murder victim, Rhonda looked for love. After a night of riotous drinking, one of her regular diner customers agreed to marry her. Talmadge regretted his decision the moment he was sober but decided to make the best of the situation. They were married in 1947 and separated later that same year, their divorce being finalized a few years later. Rhonda’s odd behavior was hard to overlook for Talmadge during the time they were husband and wife. She refused to explain the quick succession of deaths befalling her late husband and children. What’s more, Talmadge would often find her sitting and staring at two photos of her children she kept on the mantel—with a look of mourning and mystification. Four months was all that Talmadge could tolerate, and the pair went their separate ways.
Photo Credit: murderpedia.org
In 1950, Rhonda married Claude Carol Martin. A widower, he walked into Rhonda’s life not long after. He had children too, although his were still living. He quickly proposed to Rhonda, hoping that she could be the mother his family desired. Claude never saw his dream come to fruition. After a healthy insurance policy was taken out by Rhonda, she set to work swapping out the sugar in his coffee for ant poison. In 1951, Rhonda’s fourth husband died. Rhonda’s payout? Several thousand dollars and her stepchildren.
As her first act as a stepmother, Rhonda had Claude’s first wife’s body exhumed and moved to Rhonda’s preferred burial grounds, the Last Supper section of the cemetery, telling the children it was Claude’s dying wish to have his wife buried next to him. From that point on, Claude’s dying dream for his family turned into a nightmare.
Rhonda proceeded to seduce his eldest son, twenty-one-year-old Roland, and the pair married. Roland’s older sisters abhorred her and would later allege “he never would have married if she hadn’t kept him drunk or doped up all the time.”
Those that knew her could attest that Rhonda must have had substantial powers of persuasion to get all these men to marry her. She wasn’t known for her beauty, didn’t have money to offer, and her personality left much to be desired. Allegedly, Rhonda had help in convincing her suitors to say, “I do. ” Help that came in the form of a liquor bottle.
The Ruin of Rhonda
In Alabama, at the time, marrying your stepson could get you charged with incest. However, this would be the least of Rhonda’s worries when her fifth husband became violently ill. Surprisingly, the couple was happy for four years before Rhonda felt the ant poison bottle beckoning her once again. Though Roland became sick quickly, he didn’t pass quietly as her previous victims had. His worried sisters had him hospitalized, where, out of Rhonda’s care, he began to recover.
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Ronald was sent home, cured of his mystery illness until it struck him a second time. He was whisked back to a different Veteran’s hospital. This time, paralysis set in, and Roland remained in the hospital for nine months. When doctors learned of his previous hospitalization at a different facility, they became suspicious. His hair was tested for traces of hazardous compounds and poison. The results confirmed their worst fears—arsenic poisoning.
Ronald’s doctors bypassed Rhonda, who had been visiting him weekly bearing small gifts, and went straight to the police. One suspected victim was terrible enough, but authorities quickly dug up information on Rhonda’s favorite hiding spot: the Last Supper section of an Alabama graveyard.
On March 9th, at the Seabreeze restaurant in Mobile, Alabama, Rhonda went about her typical waitressing duties when a squadron of police cars pulled into the restaurant parking lot. Their sirens were on and the lights ablaze; Rhonda knew her day had finally come. While most individuals could count on one hand the number of immediate family members buried in a cemetery, Rhonda needed two. To make matters worse, she had put all of them there.
Rhonda realized she wasn’t being booked for incest, it was much more likely that her hospitalized husband’s failing health had more to do with the arrest. Two months previous, when doctors discovered Roland had been poisoned, authorities began collecting evidence. A plainclothes police officer was a weekly regular at the Seabreeze. An unmarked car had been following her movements for much longer.
Furthermore, they had linked the similar and equally suspicious deaths of her former husbands, mother, and five daughters. All of them portrayed the classic arsenic poisoning symptoms of gastrointestinal issues and paralysis; arsenic being a common ingredient in ant poison. The bodies were exhumed, and police had their concrete evidence.
Rhonda, depicted as the Grisly Mama and a Redheaded Hellcat, told the press she was innocent. She claimed she had never poisoned anyone and was simply the unfortunate victim of personal tragedy after tragedy. Upon interrogation, though, she confessed to the killings. Oddly, Rhonda would never admit to killing two-year-old Mary Adelaide or one-year-old Judith.
If Rhonda portrayed any emotion, it was relief that she no longer had to look over her shoulder and no remorse. In fact, investigators noted how little emotion she showed at all. Still, it wasn’t how a sociopath feels apathy for the victim. Instead, Rhonda seemed like she knew what she did was wrong, but it was so much a part of her character she simply never questioned it. The arsenic-loving Rhonda was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and one charge of assault with intent to murder. She pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity.
Photo Credit: murderpedia.org
Despite numerous doctors brought in on behalf of the defense and attestations of insanity, Rhonda was found guilty on June 4, 1956. Experts for the prosecutor and even the prison warden testified that Rhonda was not insane nor dumb; she actually possessed beyond average cognitive abilities. Talmadge, Rhonda’s third husband, could attest to that. He told police, “I ain’t never seen a shrewder, more smart person in the whole country than Rhonda Belle.”
She became the third woman in Alabama sentenced to “Yellow Mama;” the garish yellow electric chair painted with the same coloring used to mark the road lines of the state’s highways. Her day finally came on October 11, 1957.
When Rhonda was strapped in, clutching her Bible and wearing a homemade black dress with black shoes, the executioner flipped the switch—nothing happened. The chair hadn’t been appropriately prepared, a cruel twist of fate for a wicked woman.
Staff reconnected the electrodes, and Rhonda breathed her last.
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