Janie Lou Gibbs got lucky with her first murder. Her husband, Charles, had collapsed shortly after dinner one otherwise uneventful evening in 1965. A meal that Janie cooked just the same as any other night. . .at least as far as her husband knew. When he died a few hours later at the hospital, the doctors informed her that he had been suffering silently from undiagnosed liver disease. No one inquired further.
At just thirty three years old, Janie Gibbs had become a widow.
Janie was an avid church goer, some might even say a fundamentalist, and when she received the balance of her late husband’s life insurance policy, she gave a generous donation to her church. Friends and neighbors gathered to grieve with Janie and her three sons Lester, Roger and Marvin. She was moved by the outpouring of support. She shouldn’t have been surprised; she was extremely trusted and well liked in her community. So much so that, on any given day, she had twenty five or so small children running around her house, whose parents were patrons of her sought-after daycare services.
Janie was matronly in appearance; a little plump with auburn hair — and close friends were known to comment on her strong work ethic. In other words, Janie Lou Gibbs was probably the last person the town of Cordele, Georgia who any would suspect to be a emerging serial killer.
About eight months after his father’s death, the youngest Gibb’s boy, Marvin, fell ill. His condition rapidly deteriorated and he died in August of 1966. The physicians who treated him at the hospital in Cordele found it peculiar that he seemed to have succumbed to a similar liver-related illness as his father had not even a year earlier. His death certificate said hepatitis; he was just twelve years old.
Still, no one questioned the deaths; just a string of “very bad luck” for the Gibbs family, it seemed. The town, however, rallied around poor Janie, who had now lost her beloved husband and a child.
She collected another life insurance policy and again, gave a large percentage of it to the church. Community members remembered her as “kind” and “courageous” in the face of such unbelievable tragedy. They, too, remembered how she managed to keep her composure, only occasionally breaking down in the presence of a thoughtful neighbor or fellow churchgoer.
A couple of month’s after his little brother’s funeral, Lester Gibbs got sick too — he had just turned sixteen. At first, he had headaches. Then came the dizzy spells. An otherwise robust and healthy young man, the symptoms were certainly unusual. Maybe he thought it was puberty. Maybe a special girl had caught his eye. Perhaps the stress of losing his father and little brother in just a little more than a year had started to take a toll on him. When he died, suddenly, in January of 1967, the doctors told Janie that he had apparently been suffering from a very rare muscular disorder.
Another life insurance policy collected and donated to the church. Another funeral with townsfolk crying and whispering about the unluckiest resident of Cordele, Ms Janie Lou Gibbs. Now, she had lost almost her entire family: just one more son remained.
After Lester’s death, the rest of 1967 was a fairly quiet year for the Gibbs family. Janie may have thought that her murderous spree was nearly complete, now that she only had one son left to kill. But, at 19, Robert had a girlfriend who soon gave birth to a little boy.
Janie Lou Gibbs was now a grandmother.
AUGUST 1967. Janie could be seen around town beaming with her new grandson, a little boy named Raymond. Raymond’s parents, Janie’s only surviving son Robert and his young wife, were living at home with her in Cordele, in the same house where the family had lost a father and two brothers in the span of just two years. The town, not having forgotten the tragedy that had seemed to have engulfed the Gibbs’ family, was happy to share in the joy of a new baby. Maybe, they thought, this will bring some much needed happiness into poor Janie’s life. Though she was young to be a grandmother — just thirty-five, she was thrilled to show off her new grandson to anyone who came to visit.
So, at the end of another sultry Georgia summer, when baby Raymond became ill, the town of Cordele held its breath for the Gibbs’ family. When the baby died, it not only shocked the town, but the medical professionals too: Raymond had been a normal, healthy baby. Even the autopsy performed after his sudden death revealed nothing abnormal.
It was almost as if the Gibbs family was cursed.
In an almost unspeakable finale to the whirlwind of death that had passed through the Gibbs family from 1965 to 1967, Janie’s last surviving son, Roger died just a month after his infant son: an autopsy revealed that his kidneys had suddenly stopped functioning. Finally, the hospital, who had now seen five deaths in the Gibbs family in just two short years, called the state crime lab to investigate.
When the results came back, the shock was palpable. Roger had a fatal amount of arsenic in his body, implying that he had somehow ingested it, most likely in the form of rat poison. Suspecting the worst, authorities arrested Janie Lou Gibbs on Christmas Day for the murder of her nineteen year old son.
And just to be safe, the police ordered the bodies of her husband and three sons to be exhumed.
Medical examiners and crime scene detectives marched up the hillside cemetery in Cordele where the Gibbs family was buried. As they removed each body from the ground, they laid out tarps and the autopsies were performed immediately; right smack in the middle of the cemetery.
Car-fulls of locals parked along the dirt road and watched as each body was brought up from the grave; the shock of the small town was heavy in the air, and those who knew Janie, the generous churchgoing babysitter, couldn’t believe that she would be capable of such a crime.
Meanwhile, Janie only had a few words for the detectives that were interrogating her about the deaths of her family members:
“I don’t question God’s work. The Bible says they will get their reward; and I’m sure they will.”
Investigators quickly began to put together a picture of what had happened in the Gibbs household that lead to the death of five family members. Arsenic had been found in all five bodies.
Slowly, methodically, Janie had poisoned their food and coffee with rat poison.
Rat poison is actually acceptable for human consumption in very specific formulations: Warfarin, for example, is a blood thinner prescribed for people who may be at risk for blood clots. That being said, the use of these drugs doesn’t come without risks: people are more likely to have hemorrhaging, meaning their blood doesn’t clot well when it’s supposed to. In larger and more concentrated doses, however, it can cause fatal heart attacks and liver failure, as was seen in the deaths of Charles Gibbs and his three sons.
Within the Crisp County Police Station, Janie sat and stared into space for hours at a time while waiting for her case to go to trial. Her lawyers wanted to her plead innocent by reason of insanity. In piecing together the story, lawyers and investigators alike parsed out the true demented nature of Janie’s crimes: when her husband was dying in the hospital, she had brought him homemade soup which was laced with arsenic; a final fatal dose.
Her increasingly disturbed behavior threw several attorneys off her case, and the prosecuting attorney, D.E. Turk, was emotionally ravened by it, calling it “one of the saddest cases” he’d ever worked on.
At this time in history, there was no death penalty in Georgia. Had there been, it is likely Turk would have pursued it. It was soon clear that even if she was mentally stable, there was no counsel willing to defend her.
So, instead, she was declared unfit to stand trial and confined to a mental institution: where she worked as a cook.
“IT WAS SOME OF THE HIGHEST LEVELS I’VE EVER SEEN.”
Such was the sentiment of Dr. Larry Howard, who testified that all five bodies contained fatal levels of arsenic. Friends and neighbors gathered to say that they believed Janie Lou Gibbs knew right from wrong, the professionals who had dealt with her during the two years she systematically murdered her family agreed that she had seemed mentally fit — she should be tried and go to jail. A chaplain from the mental institution where she had been held spoke out in the early 1970’s, stating that she knew right from wrong — and she should go to prison.
She was sentenced to serve five life sentences.
In jail, she was often visited by her only living kin: a sister, who seemed to want answers more than anyone else:
Why did you kill your family, Janie?
Janie said she didn’t know.
Her sister pressed her further: Do you feel guilty?
Janie said she didn’t know.
Tearfully, her sister made one final plea: Can I do anything to help you?
Janie said she didn’t know.
Epilogue: Janie Lou Gibbs remained imprisoned until 1999, shortly after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. She was released on medical reprieve into the custody of her sister, after being denied parole 17 times. She spent the last few years of her life confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home in Georgia.
She died alone on February 7th, 2010.