The number of murderers put to death since the United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976 has now topped a thousand. Since journalists like to have a "news hook," the occasion has resulted in a plethora of stories about the death penalty in theory and practice in the United States. It seems that public opinion is slipping a bit; polls show that support for the death sentence has dropped from four in five Americans to two in three... but that's still a clear majority.
And it's stories like the murder of Shirley Dianne Weldon that engender such support.
It's hard for the mother of a little 2 1/2-year-old boy to write about a murderess such as Miss Earle Dennison, the sixteenth woman executed by the State of Alabama. The very fact that she was the first white woman ever executed in Alabama tells you she did something perfectly awful and horrible to contemplate.
Miss Earle Dennison was a widow and a surgical nurse; she worked at the Wetumpka General Hospital for more than 25 years. Her late husband had a sister who also had a husband and a little girl named Shirley and a boy named Orville.
Shirley was a little over two years old when Aunt Earle paid an early afternoon call to their humble farmhouse in rural Elmore County on May 1, 1952. During the visit, Aunt Earle gave little Shirley an orange drink that included a substance that is very bad for little girls. When Shirley began to vomit, Aunt Earle gave her a bottle of Coca-Cola that was also laced with something. Shirley became terribly sick, and her mother insisted on rushing her to Wetumpka General.
When it appeared that the little girl was gravely ill and would die, Aunt Earle left the hospital. She drove twelve miles to the home of an insurance agent. There she paid the premium for a life insurance policy she had taken out on her niece's life -- the policy was about to lapse. Aunt Earle, you see, had insured little Shirley for $6,500.
In 1952, that was about enough money to buy three nice new cars.
A few hours after the policy on her life was renewed, Shirley Weldon died. An autopsy revealed the presence of arsenic, which was also found in the cup and Coca-Cola bottle out of which the little girl drank. Arsenic was also found on the dresses worn by the girl's mother and aunt, where Shirley had vomited.
The existence of the insurance policies was discovered in a matter of days. Earle Dennison took an overdose of sleeping pills and was unconscious when arrested. Her life was salvaged at the hospital and thereafter she confessed on several occasions and in writing to having murdered her niece.
Dennison was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the decision (Dennison v. State, 259 Ala. 424 (1953)). She was executed in the electric chair on September 4, 1953. Her last words were "Please forgive me for everything I did. I forgive everybody."
From the date that Earle Dennison murdered Shirley to the date of her execution, one year, four months, and three days elapsed. Justice was swift for confessed child murderers in 1953. Much more swift than it is today. And if every case were as clear as the Dennison case and as awful to contemplate, one has to wonder whether public support for the death penalty wouldn't be even stronger.