Roberta Elder: The Case of a Black Woman Serial Killer

First floor corridor in a cell block in Philadelphia County Prison, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection)

The killings may have started as early as 1938, but no one suspected murder until Reverend William M. Elder died after eating “bananas and cheese” in 1952. Reverend Elder, a respected Baptist preacher in Atlanta, Georgia, lost his daughter Fannie Mae to pneumonia one year before his own death, and another daughter, Annie Pearl, died of pneumonia two years prior. The same coroner that examined his daughters was bewildered when Reverend Elder’s skin looked ruddy and his body was emaciated. Concerned about the multiple Elder family deaths, the coroner decided to test whether Reverend Elder could have died of arsenic poisoning, the symptoms of which present much like pneumonia. After finding arsenic in the Reverends body, he decided it was time to alert the authorities to the multiple deaths coming out of the Eason Street home where the Elder family lived.1

Police attention immediately turned to the Reverend Elder’s wife Roberta. Roberta and William were only married for a little over two years when he died. The two set up a household with William’s five children from a previous marriage. But only one year into their marriage William’s daughter Annie Pearl became ill and died, followed by Fannie Mae. William, a construction worker by day, became violently ill at work, telling his co-workers he had just eaten “bananas and cheese.” Roberta called in a doctor who gave him medicine and instructed the family to call if the Reverend did not improve. The doctor was not called again until William was dying. Reverend Elder’s children observed that Roberta gave him Milk of Magnesia, as she did for their sisters, to help ease their symptoms. But they later suspected this was how she administered the poison. The surviving family members were all treated for exposure to arsenic after showing symptoms themselves. Each of the deceased Elder family members had a life insurance policy taken out in their names by Roberta. Police ordered the exhumation of Annie Pearl and Fannie Mae. Trace evidence of arsenic was found in both women’s hair, enough evidence, the police believed, to arrest Roberta Elder.2

As the police continued the investigations, they found that Roberta Elder left a trail of bodies in her wake starting in 1938 with the death of her common law husband John Woodward. Ten more potential victims were identified that died mysteriously while living with Roberta. The victims included an adult son, two of Roberta’s infant children, one only one week old, the other two weeks old, a grandchild, and her mother. Roberta took out life insurance policies on several of the deceased in amounts ranging from $50 to $225, with the largest policies on Reverend Elder for $500 and $550 on Fannie Mae. She collected on the policies after their deaths. The police, however, could never prove that she ever purchased arsenic, though William’s surviving children believed she got it from her brother’s farm. Roberta was convicted to a life sentence based on circumstantial evidence and remanded to prison. The prosecutor lamented that Roberta could not be executed because the law prevented it under circumstantial prosecutions. Throughout the investigation and trial, Roberta maintained her innocence.3

Roberta Elder, was dubbed Atlanta’s Mrs. Bluebeard, a pejorative term often referring to those that killed multiple family members, based on the children’s fairy tale in which a wealthy man with a blue beard kills multiple wives and leaves their bodies to rot in a special room in his home. According to Pittsburgh Courier reporter William Fowlkes, Roberta “outdid the original namesake” in her killing. Because of the number of deaths to which she was linked by police, the Black press began to refer to Roberta as a serial killer, or someone who kills multiple people, without motive, following a predictable pattern. While Roberta’s killing spree did not draw attention from the mainstream white press, the Black press, including the Pittsburgh Courierand Chicago Defender, reported on the case and on Elder’s victims. The coroner declared Roberta’s killing spree an “unheard of thing” that read like something out of a story book, and still it received little attention. Elder was sent to prison, having never confessed, and her killing and victims went on unremembered.4 A female serial killer, a novelty to reporters and scholars alike, seemed to arouse no interest. The same year as Roberta’s prosecution, a white woman named Nannie Doss, was accused of killing four out of her five husbands. Called Lady Bluebeard or the Giggling Grannie because she giggled every time she was asked about the killings, the police later suspected that Doss may have killed eleven family members. Nannie Doss’ case garnered national attention and continues to arouse public interest today, evidenced by her name appearing in top ten notable female serial killers as well as studies on female killers.5

Doss’ notoriety and popular culture capital, nearly seventy years after her crimes, reveal the disturbing trend in American history that Black victims do not draw the kind of media scrutiny and interest that white victims do. Studies have shown that Black perpetrators are disproportionately overrepresented in the media, while Black victims are underrepresented. Meanwhile white victims are overrepresented out of proportion to the rate at which whites are crime victims. Psychologist Scott Bonn argues that myths about serial killers and their victims have led to the assumption that Black serial killers do not exist in significant numbers. He argues that this occurs because 90 percent of serial murderers kill people of the same race. Because American culture devalues Black lives and misrepresents violent crime as something perpetrated by Black criminals against white victims, Black violent crime victims remain invisible.

The media perpetrates this myth by giving air time to the kinds of killers that target sympathetic victims, particularly white women. Bonn describes this phenomenon as “missing white girl syndrome.” In his analysis of the veracity of the missing white girl syndrome, Zach Sommers argues that race and gender disparities in news coverage of Black versus white victims are supported by the evidence, and that the race and gender of a victim effects not only whether the victim receives any attention, but also how much attention. Though Sommers analyzed missing, as opposed to women confirmed dead, media studies scholar Sarah Stillman argues that these images and messages offer “a subtle instruction manual” on which victims to empathize with and which ones to overlook. This has led to the marginalization of Black victims in both media portrayals and by extension the public consciousness.

This kind of sensational news coverage of “white women and girls in peril” not only obscures a portion of violent crime victims, it reifies the value of whiteness over non-whites who are often at greater risk of violent crime. Not strictly an American affliction, Stillman argues that in at least one particularly egregious case, Canadian news broadcasts ran hours of news coverage of a whale that died after colliding with a boat propeller, while simultaneously ignoring the murder and disappearance of thirty two indigenous women. She points out that the deaths of non-white people, particularly women, have become “naturalized” in media coverage. According to her this is made brutally apparent by the value of one whale’s death over that of indigenous women, while white women’s disappearances and murders continue to circulate and are even commodified.

Though Roberta Elder’s victims died decades ago, the phenomenon of consistently devaluing Black violent crime victims remains to this day, evidenced by the persistent public fascination with Nannie Doss and her white victims, while Roberta Elder and the victims she is accused of killing remain forgotten. Between 1952 and 1954, the Black press followed Elder’s case through the criminal justice system, while law enforcement found more potential victims to blame on Elder and the white press took little interest. Meanwhile, mainstream media became distracted by the “Giggling Granny” who continues to attract infamy as a notorious female serial killer.  The danger in ignoring Black victims is not only in the devaluation of Black life, but also in ignoring systemic oppression that makes Black people more vulnerable to violent crime and less likely to receive justice.

  1.  William Fowlkes, “Atlanta’s Bluebeard: The Strange Case of Roberta Elder!” 23 August 1954, The Pittsburgh Courier, p. 5.
  2. William Fowlkes, “Atlanta’s Mrs. Bluebeard,” 11 September 1954, The Pittsburgh Courier, p. 5.
  3.  William Fowlkes, “Atlanta’s Mrs. Bluebeard,” 18 September 1954, The Pittsburgh Courier, p. 5.
  4. William Fowlkes, “Atlanta’s Bluebeard: The Strange Case of Roberta Elder!” 23 August 1954, The Pittsburgh Courier, p. 5.
  5. “Woman Admits Killing 4,” 29 November 1954, The New York Times.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.