Anna Cunningham was a serial killer between the years 1918 and 1922. She killed her entire family during that 4 year period with arsenic with the motive of insurance money. In 1924, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
MURDERING FOR MONEY
Anna Cunningham, who looked like a sweet, motherly figure, was arrested for and convicted of poisoning and killing her entire family in April of 1925. Suspicion was roused when her 20-year-old son, David, came to the hospital found suffering from arsenic poisoning. When authorities investigated, they found large quantities in the Cunningham home, though Anna said she had it to spray on her plants.
But her arsenic use did not begin with David and it did not begin in 1925. It began years earlier, in 1918, with her husband, also named David Cunningham. He died on July 2, 1918, and the family picked up and moved from Bachley's Corners Indiana to Gary, Indiana. Before they left, she was described as weird and eccentric, a regular church-goer and a mother with odd ideas about children.
Her husband had died following intense stomach pains, with sudden onset, and a few days of illness before dying. He had been insured for $1,000, which Anna collected after his death.
They moved, on the urging of her 23-year-old son, Harry. They sold their farm for $4,000 to a woman who owned an adjoining farm and set off to Gary.
In the years following, every member of her family died under the same suspicious circumstances, each death resulting in a payout for Anna. In December of 1919, 18-year-old Isabelle died, in September 1921, 19-year-old Charles died, in October of 1921, 23-year-old Harry died, and in September 1922, her last victim, 13-year-old Walter died. All of their life insurance policies listed their mother, Anna, as the beneficiary, and she collected thousands from the deaths of her children.
17-year-old Mae Cunningham was the only surviving daughter in the family, and she said that when they moved to Gary, her mother went off the rails, hysterical at times and chasing the kids around with a knife. She would often collapse after throwing a fit, screaming at her children. She would lock herself in her room, reading her bible for hours at a time.
Even though she had killed her husband and 4 children, nearly her entirely family evaporating, all dying with the same symptoms, police were not suspicious of her until 1925, when her son David Jr. came to the hospital expressing all of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
TRIAL AND CONFESSION
On April 11, 1925, Anna was held for questioning and eventually arrested after David Jr. survived an arsenic poisoning, and police looked into her history. The following day, she attempted to strangle herself.
On April 16, she was charged with just one of the murders of the 5 members of her family who had died in the last 6 years, and she confessed that she had poisoned her children. She denied poisoning her husband. She also confessed that she had only killed 3 of her children, saying that one of the other 4 children did not die at her hand, but did not say which child.
She also confessed that she had poisoned her son David and had actually taken some of the poison herself, but it was not enough to kill either of them. But during an interview with a newspaper reporter, she said that she had accidentally laced David's food.
Mae visited her mother at the hospital, and she came clean about everything to her. She said that she did not poison Harry, but had poisoned all of the other children. However, his body was exhumed, and the coroner's chemist found poison in his body, consistent with the poison found in the other bodies.
In her confession to Mae, she said that she spread arsenic on bread and butter, but ate some herself every time she did it to one of the children. She explained that she did it because something in her head told her to, because she thought she was going to die, and she wanted to bring her kids with her. (Perhaps she thought she was going to die because she was regularly eating poison?)
She also told her only remaining living daughter who she had not poisoned that she only poisoned the kids she loved best because she wanted them with her when she died, so that's really nice.
This has nothing to do with the story, but the article had a random paragraph saying that tragedy began in the Cunningham family when son Charles accidentally shot and killed the neighbor's young son. Which is interesting, but not at all relevant.
During her confession to the police, she went through each of the poisonings. She claimed that her husband died of illocolitis, and maintained that she did not poison him. And look, she probably did, but it would make sense for her to go off the rails after losing her husband. But she probably did it.
Isabelle's death certificate said meningitis, but she confessed that she had poisoned her, and she was insured for a sweet, sweet $350. Harry, a $1,000 insurance payout to Anna, had arsenic in his system when exhumed, though in her confession she said she did not kill him.
According to Charles' death certificate, he died from general pertonis, but she admitted that she killed him for the $1,000 insurance payout. Walter's cause of death was listed as endocarditis, but she admitted to killing him, as well.
David, the only surviving son, had come to the hospital sick, but recovered, only to become sick again. She admitted that she was poisoning him.
Anna Cunningham was sentenced to prison for the rest of her natural life. She was found guilty of the first-degree murder of her son, Walter. The jury deliberated for over 24 hours, but returned a guilty verdict. It is not clear why she was not charged with the other murders.
Ironically, despite killing her entire family for money, she did not have the funds to appeal, and entered her life sentence on October 12, 1925. Her son, David Jr., was partially paralyzed from the poisoning, but survived. (The cover photo of this article is him recovering in the hospital). Mae was never poisoned, because apparently her mother did not like her and didn't want to reunite in Heaven with her.
Because this happened in 1925, there is not that much information on the case. In the resource I used, which was a collection of 5 articles from the time, each article had a different age, date of death and insurance payout included for each child. It is really difficult to know exactly what went on with Anna Cunningham, but the cliffnotes are there: Woman kills children, maybe husband, for insurance money and is caught after attempting to kill another child.
1925 was 95 years ago, so obviously it makes sense that police investigations and legal processes were different, but it seems like, even 95 years ago, somebody should have raised a red flag when a 4 of a woman's 6 children died within a few years of each other... Perhaps her other children? Or hospital staff? Nowadays, it seems nearly impossible for 4 children in the same family to die within a few years of each other without raising a single red flag, but I suppose it likely does happen.
What is unclear to me from the articles I read is, was Anna Cunningham out of her mind? Or was she just greedy? It seems like a person who wanted to kill her children because she knew she was going to die and wanted to be joined in paradise with her favorite kids wouldn't care much about money, but every single article about her is about how she killed her kids for the insurance money. Did she, and she just tried to look crazy to get a lesser sentence? Or was her murder spree mischaracterized as a money grab? The world may never know.