RALEIGH, NC — On November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield, 52, eased back on the kill room gurney in North Carolina’s Central Prison. The woman nicknamed “Death Row Granny,” who was clad for the occasion in pink pajamas, had made peace with her fate.
After a final meal of Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola, the matronly, soft-spoken Southern lady who loved to crochet dolls and had fatally poisoned at least six victims said she simply wanted to “die with dignity.”
Witnesses to Barfield’s final moments — the first execution of a woman in the U.S. since 1962 — said she did just that.
Born into poverty in 1932, Velma escaped her rural South Carolina upbringing by marrying her high school sweetheart, Thomas Burke, as soon as she turned 17.
Despite producing two beloved daughters, Velma and Thomas’s union proved to be a nasty trudge. It ended in 1969 when Burke perished in a house fire and — perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not — his grieving wife collected a nice insurance payout.
The following year, Velma married Jennings Barfield. Just a few months later, he died from heart complications. Again, the widow turned a profit, but no one seemed to be connecting any unsavory dots — yet.
In 1974, Velma Barfield turned her attention to Lillian Bullard, her own mother. Barfield had developed a prescription pill addiction and took to stealing both money and medication from her mom — a practice she’d continue with each subsequent target.
Midway through the year, Bullard fell severely ill with digestive ailments, but recovered. Just before Christmas, though, Bullard’s stomach acted up and, this time, it killed her.
Three years after burying her mother and living off an inheritance, Barfield scored a job caring for elderly couple Montgomery and Dollie Edwards.Within a few months, Barfield was out of a gig because Mr. and Mrs. Edwards were in the ground. They had also experienced nuclear-level cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea on the way out.
Wasting no time, Barfield found work attending to 76-year-old Record Lee whose husband, John Henry Lee, shortly thereafter seized up holding his guts before keeling over dead.
Until 1978, the quick expirations befalling those around Barfield tended to hit the old and the infirm, thereby arousing little suspicion.
Such was not the case when Barfield spiked beer and tea she served to her boyfriend, Rowland Stuart Taylor, with arsenic. Taylor’s sudden demise jolted his daughter, who asked the coroner for a toxicology exam.
Once the doctor found Taylor’s system riddled with arsenic, police arrested Barfield and she came clean. She’d poisoned all her victims with the noxious substance.
In court, Barfield claimed she didn’t mean to kill the half-dozen unwitting recipients of her fatal cocktails — she just wanted to make them sick so she could nurse them back to health while repaying the money she’d been pilfering from their bank accounts.
That strategy flopped when prosecutors pointed out that there is no “nursing back” someone from consistent overdoses of arsenic. The jury took less than one hour to pronounce Barfield guilty.
North Carolina had only reinstated capital punishment two years earlier, and Barfield became a history-making female recipient.
While locked up, the “Death Row Granny” converted to Christianity and worked tirelessly to help other prisoners turn their lives around.
Famed evangelist Billy Graham took up the cause of getting Barfield’s death sentence commuted, and lawyers filed appeals all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nothing changed.
Barfield also figured as a political football during North Carolina’s savagely waged 1984 Senate campaign. Governor James B. Hunt — a democrat running for the seat of arch-conservative incumbent Jesse Helms — was accused of not granting clemency to Barfield to show that his party was plenty “tough on crime.”
Hunt lost the election, and Barfield got her lethal injection, regardless.
She’s lived on, in a way, through acclaimed singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd’s composition “Velma.” Byrd musically recounts the saga from a very personal point of view: Jennings Barfield, Velma’s second husband and first official poisoning victim, was Byrd’s grandfather.
To learn more about Velma Barfield, watch the “Hearts of Stone” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Velma Barfield/YouTube video [screenshot]