Money, romance, success…but what would Marie Becker stop at to get it?
There was nothing remarkable about the death report. An old woman had died of acute indigestion.
Everything was in order.
A doctor and a nurse had been present when she’d died in Liege, Belgium.
There were no suspicious circumstances. But, as soon as police commissioner Honore Lebrun saw the report on the morning of 3 October 1935, he knew something was wrong.
He’d seen the name of the nurse – Marie Becker – before, on another death report, filed just a month earlier… When another old woman had died of acute indigestion.
And, just a week before that, he’d seen her name on yet another death report.
Three old women dead, all from acute indigestion. Could it be a coincidence?
The police commissioner asked his top detectives to look into it.
What they learned about the nurse alarmed him…
Marie Alexandrine Becker had been born into a family of poor farm workers in Wamont, east Belgium, in 1877. Life had been hard, and, from a young age, Marie was expected to help out with the farm work.
But she’d been looking for more out of life. So, whenever she had time, she’d beg the local priest to teach her to read and write, how to add and subtract. And, by the time she was 16, Marie was ready to break free.
Marie had left her family, moving to the city of Liege, where she’d started an apprenticeship in dressmaking.
Soon, she was married to Charles Becker, the owner of a sawmill. And, after a few years together, the couple had invested in a furniture factory.
At last, things were going well for Marie, but she’d wanted more – excitement, romance.
So, whenever she had time, Marie would make dresses for herself based on designs fashionable in Paris.
And she took young lovers.
But if Honore Lebrun and his detectives wanted to know what Marie’s husband thought about her affairs, it was too late to ask him.
Charles Becker had died in 1932. The cause of death? Acute indigestion. Like Marie Becker’s three elderly, female patients…
Marie was only 55, and she had the world at her feet. She had money, a business, and a lover 20 years her junior – the handsome Maximilian Houdy.
But, two years on, the business failed. The money had started to dry up. So Marie had a problem…
She’d been used to the high life, to showering Maximilian with lavish gifts.
Perhaps she was scared he might leave her if she was poor. Perhaps she couldn’t face going back to the hard life of a farm worker.
So she’d come up with a get-rich-quick plan.
Only, now, Lebrun was on to her…
Marie had started working as a nurse, taking care of rich, elderly women.
She’d talk them into lending her money, or writing her into their wills.
Then, she’d drop poison into their tea. Just like she’d done to her own husband.
Marie was arrested, and brought before a local judge.
‘My patients are old,’ Marie told him. ‘And doesn’t everyone die sooner or later?’
With no evidence found against her, the judge had to let her go.
For anyone else, a close shave like that might have acted as a wake-up call. But not Marie.
She may have felt that she’d got away with it before, so she’d be able to get away with it again.
Or perhaps her need for money was greater than her fear of getting caught.
Either way, 10 months later, she started working for rich, old women again.
But then, a friend complained about her husband to Marie – and the nurse offered to provide her with a traceless poison…
The friend tipped off police, and, when Marie set off from her house to take the substance round, an officer stopped her. In her handbag, he found a flask of the deadly poison digitalin.
Marie was arrested – again.
This time, in court, Marie protested that she was carrying digitalin because she herself had a heart complaint.
And it was feasible – because, in small doses, the poison can regulate and strengthen a weak heart.
But, in larger doses, it kills, often producing symptoms similar to acute indigestion.
Ultimately, Marie Becker was found guilty of murdering 11 elderly people for their money.
She was suspected of murdering up to six more, and was sentenced to life in prison.
During her trial, Becker claimed that she was the victim of prejudice – that, clearly, the police didn’t like to see a woman enjoying herself, dressing well and having fun with men younger than herself.
So, she claimed, they’d cooked the evidence against her.
‘One is as young as one thinks oneself to be,’ she said.
And she was right about that.
Why shouldn’t she have enjoyed herself? Why shouldn’t she have given gifts to the men she liked?
Marie still denied murder. She said she’d just been lucky that her victims had left her money when they’d died.
Two years into her prison sentence, in 1938, Marie Becker died.
She’d spent her life wanting more – more than the drudgery of a farming life, more than was deemed acceptable for a woman at the time.
She’d killed to get it. And now, aged 61, Becker, in turn, was dead.