Folk have no need to agitate themselves about the throngs of innocents hounded to the gallows or the electric chair by brutal police, hectoring district-attorneys and corrupt judges. If they would read a few trials, in place of mystery novels; or attend some court sessions instead of crook plays, they might recover their peace of mind. It is a long and hard process to get a murderer convicted, much harder to get him executed. With a woman, she needs must poison an entire orphan asylum before anybody dare suggest anything so harsh.
From "The Man Pays--Sometimes," in Instigation of the Devil, Edmund L. Pearson
The State of Ohio has hanged, shot, bludgeoned, or electrocuted more than 450 convicted killers from 1792 to the present day, and this grand total of executed persons has, very occasionally, included a murderess.
The first woman known to have been executed in the Buckeye state -- known because these matters were handled by county governments, and for all we know, some records are missing -- was Esther Foster. She was a prison inmate (why, I couldn't ascertain), a black woman who was found guilty of killing a fellow white female inmate by beating her to death with a shovel. Though her defense raised provocative questions as to whether the killing was premeditated (and thus whether the ultimate penalty was appropriate), it was the second murder at the Ohio penitentiary in the span of a few weeks.
Ms. Foster was executed in Columbus on Feb. 9, 1844, by hanging. Strung up alongside her was another condemned, a white man named William Clark, an inmate who'd killed a prison guard. The crowd attending the execution was so massive that one man was trampled to death.
A newspaper that studied her case sixty years later had the following to report: "The Foster woman was not mentally bright and the chronicles of those days tell that she sold her body to a surgeon for all the candy she could eat from the time of the making of the bargain until she was hanged."
Over the course of the century, many more women would hear a judge pronounce a fatal sentence, but rarely was the rope invoked. In 1889, a white woman named Mary Garrett of Spencer was sentenced to die for killing her two "imbecile" or "idiotic" stepdaughters by burning down the house around them. After her condemnation, the public was aroused, the Pardon Board begged the governor to release her, and in 1899, after serving ten years in prison, she was given a Christmas pardon. In 1890, "Big Liz" Carter, a black woman, was convicted of poisoning her lover. The generosity of the age was extended to Big Liz, whose sentence was commuted, and she was eventually paroled.
In 1931, Julia Maude Lowther came close to being the second woman executed in Ohio when she was found to have arranged the murder of the wife of her paramour. But the appellate court overturned the trial court, and during a second proceeding, she was sentenced to life.
It would take a brutal string of crimes by a poisoner to break the chain. Anna Marie Hahn was the subject of intense inquiry and grim headlines when she fell under suspicion for the murders of several old German pensioners. The death of her last victim, 78-year-old Jacob Wagner, was originally attributed to heart trouble, but someone close to the family had noticed a pattern and insisted on an exhumation. Arsenic was discovered. Her husband found a bottle of said substance and to his credit he gave the bottle to the police. Following one of the longest trials in Ohio history, in which a reported 99 witnesses testified to the death of Mr. Wagner and several other old men who were under Mrs. Hahn's care, a jury of one man and 11 women convicted the 31-year-old blonde of murder for gain. She was electrocuted in 1938.
The third and fourth executions of females would follow in quick succession; 1954 saw the electrocution of Mrs. Dovie Smarr Dean, 55, who poisoned her husband, and Betty Butler, 25, who bludgeoned and drowned another woman.
The succeeding decades saw the conviction and condemnation of another nine women. Before the state could go on a tear, each sentence was reversed by an appellate court or commuted by a lame duck governor. But Ohio may once again break its streak. Donna Roberts, convicted of murdering her ex-husband in 2001, received the ultimate sentence in 2003 (after reportedly asking for it during her trial) and may become Ohio's fifth Dead Woman Walking. Her case hasn't aroused much attention, not even from death penalty opponents who often set up websites dedicated to obtaining mercy for this or that condemned female. There isn't a website called "Free Donna Roberts" -- no photos, either, from what I could find, which may not be an unrelated fact.
UPDATE: Some kind Clews visitor sent a photo of Donna Roberts. This comes from The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction http://www.drc.state.oh.us/OffenderSearch/Details.aspx?id=W055276&pg=xlink
For more interesting Ohio reading, see a nicely written history of the Ohio Penitentiary, "Inside the Pen," by David Lore for the Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 28, 1984, which can be found online at http://www.drc.state.oh.us/web/histop1.html.
Victor L. Streib, a professor of law at Ohio Northern University, has a book in the works that will detail all these stories in full. Condemned, Ignored, Forgotten: Life and Death Stories from Ohio's Death Penalty for Women will come out next year from Ohio University Press.