Veteran journalist Carl Hoffman believes he’s solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. In 1961 at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller – son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in America ¬– travelled to remote New Guinea in search of primitive art for his father’s new museum.
Ohio’s Hahn “just an evil person”
In 200 years, Ohio has executed more than 400 men .and four women. Ohio Northern Law Professor Victor Streib says, We as a people have a much harder time taking the life of a woman than the life of a man.
Streib is the author of the upcoming book The Fairer Death: “Executing Women in Ohio.” He says it is difficult to determine why three of the women were sentenced to die. But in the case of Anna Marie Hahn, there was no doubt.
Hahn was 23-year-old when she came to the United States from Germany in 1929. She lived briefly with a distant relative in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Shortly after her arrival, Hahn began the activities that would take her to the electric chair nine years later.
Ohio author Diana Britt Franklin spent five years studying Hahn’s life and death. She says Hahn had a habit of betting on horses. “To feed the habit, she devised ways to get money out of old men and women, but especially men. She would say ‘Give me a hundred or give me fifty.’ In several instances, she took every nickel they had before she killed them.”
Franklin’s book on Hahn, “The Goodbye Door,” comes out next month. Franklin says she is puzzled why no one else has written a book about the woman nicknamed by the media the “Blonde Borgia.” Franklin explains: “She was indicted on two murders. All of her murders were poisons, arsenic, and she was convicted of one murder. She’d always maintained her innocence. After she died, they found a confession in her cell. She confessed to four murders, but she probably poisoned a dozen or so people. Nobody really knows.”
Not everyone Hahn poisoned died. One survivor was her husband, Philip Hahn. Franklin says, the two were estranged. Among other things, he was afraid of her.
Anna Marie Hahn’s trial began October 11, 1937, lasted more than three weeks and attracted reporters from many of the country’s largest cities. Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Charles Bell presided. Despite extensive publicity and a defense team that was inexperienced in capital cases, Franklin believes Hahn got a fair trial. But in the end, everyone associated with the trial got a big surprise. “No one expected her to be sentenced – especially by a jury with 11 women – without mercy,” says Franklin.
Judge Bell pronounced the sentence, and according to Franklin, “For the rest of his life, he found it hard to face that even though he was convinced she was guilty, he didn’t expect to have to give her the death penalty which was mandatory from the jury’s verdict. He broke down and cried after the sentencing.”
Ohio Northern Law Professor Victor Streib says, judges years ago not only refused to impose the death penalty on a woman, they explained why in open court. “In older cases,” Streib says, “judges would say ‘In respect to my mother, my sisters, my wife, I will not sentence you to die. If you were a man, I would.’
Streib says Hahn was the exception. She killed more than once. “Serial killers are unusual whether they’re men or women. Almost everyone who kills once won’t kill again.”
When Hahn was sentenced to die in 1937, Ohio had no death row facilities for women. She became the only woman among 4200 inmates at the Ohio Penitentiary. Franklin describes the cell built specially for Hahn as being large, with a bed, desk, rocking chair ..and curtains.
Although she could hear them, Hahn did not see her fellow death row inmates until the day guards walked her to the electric chair. Franklin says the prisoners stood at their cell doors and said, “Goodbye, Anna, goodbye.”
Franklin says up to this moment, Hahn had remained stoic, convinced she would not be executed. That changed. “She was really very scared as soon as they opened the ‘goodbye door,’ Franklin says. “The ‘goodbye door’ is what the prisoners called the door to the death chamber. Soon as they opened that and she faced the electric chair, she collapsed, screamed, and carried on. The warden said he’d never seen anything like it.”
Professor Streib notes, in death penalty cases, the sentence is based on the seriousness of the crime plus the background and character of the defendant. “Women usually have more sympathetic records and lives,” says Streib. “They are less likely to kill while committing another felony. They usually get a little mercy when sentencing time comes.”
However, in the Hahn case, author Diana Britt Franklin, like the jury in Hahn’s trial, was unable to show mercy. “I was trying to find a way to be sympathetic to her case, her plight, but you just couldn’t be sympathetic with her. She was just an evil person.”
The time that elapsed between Anna Marie Hahn’s arrest in Cincinnati and the date of her execution in Columbus was sixteen months.