Illinois’ Executed Women: Marie Porter & Elizabeth Reed
Marie Kappen was born August 10th, 1899, in St. Louis, Missouri to George and Anna Kappen. She was the youngest of four children and was close with her brother William, born in 1898. Marie married William Porter and gave birth to their first daughter in 1915, when she was just fifteen years old, and her husband was seventeen years old. The couple welcomed three more daughters in 1922, 1928, and 1933.
Marie’s mother passed away in 1921 and the great depression soon followed. William and Marie (pictured above) moved her father, George Kappen, in with them. George was described at the time as being eccentric and mentally disturbed. In today’s modern world of medicine, it is believed George Kappen suffered from dementia. On July 26th, 1935, George came down to the breakfast table and shot William Porter (pictured below) in the head, killing him instantly. He then shot Marie a few times during a struggle for the gun, but she suffered only surface wounds.
George Kappen was sent to a sanatorium and Marie was left devastated and widowed. She was now alone to raise four daughters with no income. However, William had planned accordingly and taken out a life insurance policy. Marie was awarded $5,000 following the death of her husband. This is equivalent to about $98,000 today. Marie utilized this money to support her family, move her brother William in, and open a candy store near their home in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Before long, the candy store began to fail as people did not have money during this time to spend on gourmet candies. Marie began to struggle financially and was relying on her brother William to help her support her children. In 1937, William announced his engagement and informed his sister he would be moving in with his soon to be wife. Marie was upset and worried as she relied on William’s income. She had squandered away the small fortune from her husband’s life insurance policy, but she had a policy on William.
On the morning of July 3rd, 1937, the day thirty-eight-year-old William Kappen was to marry his fiancé Irene, his body was found in a field near Belleville, Illinois. Dr. Leo Madden performed the autopsy on Mr. Kappen and determined he was killed by a single bullet to the head. His body was left in a patch of poison ivy.
Investigators were immediately suspicious of Marie Porter. For one thing, she threw a party on the evening of July 3rd because she did not want to waste the decorations, food, and other items purchased for William’s wedding. Additionally, a young employee at her candy store, Angelo Ralph Giancola had poison ivy up and down his arms. They searched his car and found a shell casing and blood. It was the 1930’s, so there was not a lot of forensic science.
Angelo was interrogated along with his brother John Giancola. The brothers told a story about sibling rivalry, greed, and murder. The brothers said that Marie Porter had asked the men to kill William Kappen for $800. She had an insurance policy for $3,300 on her brother, but the beneficiary would change to his wife after the wedding ceremony. The Giancola brothers pointed to Marie as the mastermind, but they changed their stories multiple times on who pulled the trigger.
Angelo at first named Marie as the person who pulled the trigger. He said that he and his brother and Marie convinced William to come out with them for one last night of fun before he married. They drove him out on a back road near some fields and Marie shot her brother in the head. According to the Deadly Women episode on this case, she said “Well that’s over with” before asking the brothers to drag the body out to the field. Angelo later claimed he had fired the shot. John’s confession pointed the finger at Angelo as the triggerman. Marie Porter adamantly denied any involvement in the murder.
Marie Porter, Angelo Ralph Giancola, and John Giancola were charged with first degree murder and the prosecutor in St. Clair County sought the death penalty. During the trial, in which all three defendants were charged together, Marie Porter’s attorney petitioned for a separate trial, but that motion was denied. Angelo Giancola and Marie Porter were both found guilty and sentenced to die in Illinois’ electric chair. John Giancola was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison for his role in the crime. “If there ever was a more deliberate, premeditated, cold-blooded and atrocious murder, I’ve never heard of it” Judge Dick A. Mudge said after sentencing Marie Porter (Gribben).
In the days leading up to the executions, Marie Porter refused to eat. She was distraught over leaving her four daughters without a mother or father. According to Facebook posts by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Marie kept a journal, and her descendants believe she may have been wrongly convicted. She did not choose a final meal, as she was refusing to eat. Angelo Ralph Giancola chose strawberries, fried chicken, and creamed peas for his final meal.
On January 28th, 1938, just six months after the murder of William Kappen, Angelo Ralph Giancola was executed at Menard Correctional Center in Chester, IL. Ten minutes later and just after midnight on January 28th, 1938, Marie Kappen was led to the electric chair. Marie weighed approximately 250lbs, very heavyset for the depression era, and had to have a specially designed overall suit to allow the straps of the electric chair to be attached to her (RowDiva). Marie Porter was the first and only woman executed by the electric chair in Illinois. Although she was the last woman executed in Illinois, she was not the first.
On the morning of August 15th, 1844, Elizabeth Reed was caring for her husband Leonard who had fallen ill. They lived on a farm in Palestine, Illinois. Mr. Reed passed away that summer day and the physician believed he had been poisoned. Neighbors considered Mrs. Reed to be mysterious and believed she was a witch (Decatur Daily Review). She was arrested and charged with first degree murder based on the suspicion of authorities and neighbors.
Shortly after being jailed, Mrs. Reed set fire to her jail cell. The flames were extinguished but it remained unclear if she was trying to escape or commit suicide. When she was indicted, it read “Elizabeth Reed not having the fear of God before her eyes but being moved by the devil contrived to kill her husband with poison” (Decatur Daily Review).
Mrs. Reed pled not guilty and was granted a change of venue to Lawrence County. During the trial, circumstantial evidence was produced, as forensic evidence was not available in 1844. Eveline Deal, a domestic servant in the home, testified for the prosecution. She testified that Elizabeth Reed placed white powder in her husband’s tea. The state claimed the powder was arsenic.
After a ridiculously short deliberation, Elizabeth Reed was convicted of murder and sentenced to death via a public hanging. When Alex McCarter passed away at one-hundred years old in 1935, an article in the Lawrence County News described him as the last living witness to Mrs. Reed’s execution. Mr. McCarter had been ten years old and was sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders as he watched the woman be hung. He described watching her body flail around. He told people he wished he was not brought to the public spectacle, which was treated more like a county fair than an execution.
According to an article in the Daily National Pilot from 1845, Elizabeth Reed was found to have ground glass and brick in her stomach after her death and it was believed that she attempted to commit suicide. According to this article, Elizabeth Reed made a full confession to killing her husband prior to her hanging death. Elizabeth Reed was executed on May 23rd, 1845.
With the abolishment of capital punishment in Illinois in 2011, it is likely that Elizabeth Reed and Marie Porter will be the only two women ever executed in the state. Advancements in forensic technology and defendant’s rights since the trials, in 1844 and 1937, present the question: If these women were tried today, would either have been convicted io these crimes? It is unlikely they would have been executed, especially not just mere months after the crimes they were convicted of.
Row Diva (Date Unknown) Marie Porter; Retrieved at: Porter (rowdiva.com)
Deadly Women (2014) Hunger for Cash; Season 8 Episode 6
Gribben, M. (unknown) Cold Feet; Retrieved at: Cold Feet | (malefactorsregister.com)
FindAGrave (Unknown) Angelo Ralph Giancola; Retrieved at: Angelo Ralph Giancola (1915-1938) - Find A Grave Memorial
Marie Kappen Porter; Retrieved at: Marie Kappen Porter (1899-1938) - Find A Grave Memorial
William H. Porter; Retrieved at: William H. Porter (1897-1935) - Find A Grave Memorial
William Kappen; Retrieved at: William Kappen (1898-1937) - Find A Grave Memorial
Herald and Review (1938) Woman murderer is sent to death in electric chair; Herald and Review; 28 Jan 1938
Belleville Daily Advocate (1937) Mrs. Porter, Giancolas are taken to prison; Belleville Daily Advocate; 27 Nov 1937
Belleville News Democrat (1937) Mrs. Porter is blamed by 2 Giancolas; Belleville News Democrat; 2 Nov 1937
Daily National Pilot (1845) Execution; The Daily National Pilot; Buffalo, New York; 14 Jun 1845
Decatur Daily Review (1935) First Husband Slayer Hanged 90 Years Ago; The Decatur Daily Review; 13 Mar 1935
Lawrence County News (1935) Death claimed oldest citizen; Lawrence County News; 8 Aug 1935
Lawrence County News (1958) Early Lawrence County News; Lawrence County News; 20 Mar 1958