Pastor's Wife: Arsenic and Old Lace?

The Baltimore Sun

She seemed a perfect bride for the minister: pretty, friendly, outgoing and at age 56, she had a sweet voice for hymns.

So it came as a shock when police said that she had poisoned the pastor with arsenic as soon as they got back from their honeymoon. The pastor, the Rev. Dwight W. Moore, survived.

Then authorities started digging around in graveyards and soon declared that Blanche Taylor Moore had poisoned to death a boyfriend three years ago and a husband 16 years ago.

And her father, who died 23 years ago, had abnormal levels of arsenic in his body, authorities said, though it was heart disease that did him in.

Now Mrs. Moore, a woman described by those who know her as "a sweet, Christian lady," sits in the Alamance County jail facing two charges of murder and one charge of assault by poison.

Her two devoted daughters come to see her for the 15-minute visits permitted on Sundays. They kiss through the glass partition, and sometimes one of her three grandchildren comes. They all wonder about this bizarre turn of events, the daughters say.

"Nobody wants the truth more than we do," says Cynthia Taylor Chatman, 30.

"One thing is certain," adds her sister, Vanessa Woods, 36. "Behind the headlines is a person who is not capable of doing this."

Also perplexed is Moore, who struggles in a hospital to regain the use of hands and feet that were deadened by what doctors told his family is the highest dose of arsenic anyone has survived. Growing slowly on his fingernails are white streaks that doctors say are a telltale sign of the poison.

And wondering, finally, are the police, who are mulling over a half-dozen other deaths of people who knew Mrs. Moore. They will probably ask to exhume some of those bodies, the chief investigator says.

"I would say it is the most talked-about crime this county has seen," said Lt. Steve Lynch.

Indeed, it is what one resident called "a delectable topic" of conversation in this languid Piedmont stretch of tobacco fields, textile mills and outlet stores that siphon tourists off Interstate 85.

Some are amused. Bad jokes abound, and a Blanche Taylor Moore Cookbook T-shirt with ant poison recipes made a brief appearance. Others are annoyed. "We're tired of you all coming around," a woman barked at a reporter. "This ain't been nothing but aggravation for us."

Blanche Moore spent most of her life in Alamance County. For 32 years, she worked in a supermarket. She was friendly. Customers would pick her checkout line just to chat with Blanche.

"She was always pleasant and outgoing to customers," said Brenda Green, a former co-worker. And attractive--the photograph of a drawn, old woman taken at Blanche Moore's arrest is atypical. "The sadness doesn't let her picture do her justice," said a friend.

Her father, Parker Kiser, was a mill worker, insurance salesman and womanizer who left home "to find himself a younger woman," according to divorce papers filed in 1960 by Flonnie Kiser.

Blanche, one of seven children, was gone by then. At 19, she married James Napoleon Taylor, a furniture restorer just back from the Korean War. Taylor was a burly man, quick to become annoyed. He spent his Sundays editing tape recordings of the sermon from the Glen Hope Baptist Church, so tapes could be sent for overseas missionary work.

In 1966, Blanche's father died. He had remarried, and become a preacher. At age 62, he was declared to have died fom heart disease.

Seven years later, James Taylor died, at age 45. Blanche told a co-worker she awoke hearing an alarm clock ringing incessantly beside her husband's bed, and she knew he was dead. It was declared a heart attack.

A widow at age 40, Blanche Taylor did not lack from attention. She was pretty, bright and always dressed sharply. She began dating Raymond C. Reid, a divorced manager of the Kroger store in Burlington where Blanche was the head cashier.

"Mom never expected to spend the rest of her life by herself. She had too much to offer," said daughter Cynthia Chatman. Reid "was a very good man. He was good to us," said her sister, Vanessa Woods.

But her long employment with Kroger was troubled. Despite her popularity with customers, she was not universally liked by those who worked with her.

Kroger gave her top ratings in her job, called her a "good leader" and used her to train checkers. But "if you got on her bad side, she could be vindictive," said one co-worker, who asked not to be identified.

"Everyone thought she was two-faced," said another colleague. "She could be underhanded."

More troublesome was a top company official, area manager Robert J. Hutton. Blanche Taylor alleged he had long made advances and fondled female clerks.

He had reached up her dress, exposed himself, and finally in October, 1985, grabbed her from behind in a conference room, Mrs. Taylor contended. She said that he was nude from the waist down and said, "Are you ready for this?"

She grabbed his pants and underwear and fled from the store. Hutton had to leave in a meat cutter's smock.

Blanche Taylor never returned to work. Three months later she filed a sexual harassment suit, but the experience was debilitating, she said then.

She began seeing psychiatrists. In an affidavit for her lawsuit, Dr. Jesse N. McNeil said that the long sexual harassment contributed to depression, anxiety and "a serious suicidal condition."

She said that she felt "completely alienated and antagonistic toward men and has not been able to maintain any meaningful social contacts with members of the opposite sex," according to the suit.

Her lawyer now, Mitchell M. McEntire, implies that was so much hyperbole for the lawsuit.

'Not a Man-Hater'

"She is not a man-hater," he said last week. "Her response was very normal . . . and in no way suggestive of some psychological change that could explain a person turning into a murderer."

Easter Sunrise Service

Before she left Kroger, a relative took her to an Easter sunrise service at the Carolina United Church of Christ, which served a neat, quiet community overlooking the textile mills on the Haw River outside Burlington. The minister, Moore, was her age, divorced, with two grown children.

He began to call on her, telephoning and leaving notes on her door when she was not home, according to her daughters. She agreed to meet him for an ice cream cone and soon began to accompany him to church gatherings.

Her daughters believe her relationship with Reid had "cooled" by then. But the minister's sister, Nola Halbrook, said that Blanche Taylor apparently was seeing both men, and Moore did not know it.

In 1986, Raymond Reid became ill and was hospitalized with nausea and numbness in his limbs. He died five months later. Doctors thought that he had Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Blanche Taylor visited him often in the hospital and seemed distraught by his death, said her daughters.

The year after Reid's death, the long-simmering sexual harassment suit against Hutton and Kroger was settled just as a jury was picked to hear the case.

The parties will not disclose the terms, but one lawyer said that Mrs. Taylor received a "good sum of money" in the settlement.

Repeatedly Hospitalized

By 1988, she and the minister Moore were talking of marriage. They planned a nice wedding in his church after Thanksgiving. But just before the affair, Moore became ill, vomiting, and weak.

He was repeatedly hospitalized, and twice in the next two months doctors operated on his intestines. Slowly, he recovered, but it was not until this April 19 that he and Blanche got married--this time a simple affair witnessed by two church members.

"She had on a real pretty dress. Seemed like it was white and had some figures on it," recalled Doris Pender, a witness at the ceremony and friend of both. "They were beaming. It seemed like there was electricity there. It seemed like they were very much in love."

After the wedding, the newlyweds left for a long weekend in New Jersey to see Moore's new grandchild. They returned on a Monday, and that week the minister worked around the modest, white-frame parsonage where he had brought Blanche to live.

On Wednesday he sprayed for dandelions and ate a chicken sandwich that Blanche brought him from a fast-food store, Halbrook said. Within hours, he was deathly ill.

A series of trips to the hospital eventually led him to the intensive-care ward of N.C. Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. There, doctors gathered the family and told them that Moore had ingested arsenic.

"We thought it was an accident," Halbrook said.

Police Suspicious

But the police did not. Their suspicions quickly centered on Blanche, and they began backtracking through her life. They exhumed Reid's body from the Pine Hill Cemetery in June, and the medical examiner said that he died of arsenic poisoning. They dug up James Taylor's body in July from the same cemetery and found the same results.

The headlines of this clannish town chronicled the saga for six weeks while Mrs. Moore held her head high. She continued to visit her husband until he finally told her the marriage was over. Mrs. Moore left the hospital in tears.

"Dwight defended her and wouldn't believe it until the authorities gave him the evidence on Reid," said Halbrook of her brother. "It was emotionally devastating to him."

Blanche Taylor Moore was arrested at her daughter's home July 18. Her attorney, McEntire, points out what has puzzled townsfolk about the case. "There was no apparent motive for her to have done any of this," he said.

Warren Sparrow, the district attorney of Forsyth County, where Reid died, dismisses that question.

"We don't have to get into why," he said. "When you start looking for a rational motive, you generally start overthinking. I just know that this guy died and the state medical examiner said he had a fatal level of arsenic in him."

Possible Death Penalty

Sparrow said that he will consider bringing death-penalty charges for Reid's death if she is convicted in the other cases. Steven A. Balog, the district attorney of Alamance County, said it will be a year before she is tried in the cases involving Moore and James Taylor.

Attorney McEntire said that his client believes it is some horrible mistake.

"This is incredible to her," he said. "She said it was a nightmare that seemed to be stalking her. How do they know to go first to her husband, then a friend, and then her former husband? There seems to be some figure that seems to be pointing out where to go."

Lynch, the chief investigator, denies that. The case was one of "just applying common sense. No one said Blanche put arsenic in Pop's food."

McEntire declined to allow an interview with his client. But "she said she is not guilty. She wants the public to know that," he reported.

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