“You might be killed too, Father.”
— Anna Marie Hahn
To the priest at her execution, 1938
“I cannot cry.”
— Dovie Dean
Executed for her husband’s murder in 1954
The state of Arkansas made world-wide news last week when it carried out four executions in the span of eight days, including the first back-to-back executions in America in 17 years.
The history of executions in the United States is generally divided into three eras, those carried out prior to the electric chair (around 1890), those carried out prior to 1972, when the Supreme Court temporarily halted executions and those carried out since 1976, when the Supreme Court approved of new procedures and allowed executions to continue.
Since 1976 Ohio has carried out 53 executions and 139 more inmates are on death row in Ohio. The most executions by any state in the last 30 years, by a very wide margin, have occurred in Texas, where 542 executions had occurred as of the end of April.
Nationwide, nearly 1,500 executions have occurred in that time period. Of those 1,500, only 16 of the prisoners executed have been women.
Ohio has carried out several executions of female inmates, although none since 1976. Among those was the January 1954 electrocution of a bespectacled, grandmotherly Clermont County woman named Dovie Dean.
Looking the part of Cary Grant’s Aunt Abby from ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’, Dean fulfilled the role completely. Throughout the month of August 1952, she slowly and methodically poisoned her husband by placing arsenic in his milk. He began to complain of severe stomach pains and she drove him to the hospital. When he died, medical examiners found that his organs were bright red, showing obvious signs of arsenic poisoning.
Dean first blamed the murder on her son from a prior marriage. Her son denied the crime and investigators quickly determined that he could not be responsible for the murder. When they then asked her if she wanted to remove the implication of guilt from her own progeny she responded, “and take the blame myself?”
She did eventually change her story and claim that she killed her husband only after he threatened to kill her. She also claimed that her husband only wanted her as a housekeeper, that she gave him arsenic as a headache cure and that, “he could not perform his husbandly duties.”
During her mental examination prior to trial and during the trial itself, Dean was completely unable to muster emotion. Even in the electric chair, witnesses said Dean was emotionless, earning her the moniker “ice queen.”
Ohio’s most notorious female serial killer is Anna Mae Hahn, a German-born woman who settled in Cincinnati in the 1920s. Between 1933 and 1937, her gambling habit led her to poison five elderly Hamilton County men in order to steal money from them. Like Dean, she used arsenic to carry out her crimes. She was convicted following a lengthy trial in November of 1937 and executed a year later in Ohio’s electric chair.
One out of every ten persons convicted for murder in the United States is female. However, only one out of every 72 death row inmates is female and only one of every 100 executions has involved a female convict. The last woman executed in the United States was Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia in September of 2015.
More information about executions in the United States, including a searchable database of all executions since 1976, can be found on the website of the Death Penalty Information Center at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.