For decades it was a great medical mystery--how eight young children from one family could die so suddenly and so swiftly. One by one, limp and blue in the face, they were rushed too late to the emergency rooms of local hospitals.
Some coroners suspected it was heart failure or crib death, now known as sudden infant death syndrome. Autopsies seemed inconclusive. But other medical examiners and detectives suspected, sometimes privately, that the cause of the deaths were far more sinister.
After a Life magazine story in 1963, Marie Noe--a Philadelphia housewife and part-time factory worker--became for a time perhaps the most famous bereaved mother in America.
On Wednesday, murder charges were brought against Noe, now 70. She was accused of suffocating eight of her 10 children, beginning almost half a century ago. Her other two infants died of natural causes, authorities said.
“For years, it was treated as unexplained,” said Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham, who announced the indictment for first-degree murder. “What really is telling is [that] our refusal or our unwillingness to believe moms kill their children may have played a role in this. We really don’t want to believe moms can kill their kids.
“She gave a statement. She admitted she smothered four of the eight,” the district attorney added. “The other four, she said she either didn’t remember how the children died, or the specifics of how they died.”
David S. Rudenstein, a lawyer for Noe, said she has denied the charges.
Police said Noe’s husband, Arthur, a machinist who also held low-level political jobs, was not at home at the time of any of the deaths. He was not charged.
“He was always at work, and she always admitted being alone with the children,” Abraham said. “She would tell the neighbors she heard the gasping for breath and turning blue, but the child was already dead.”
Authorities, who declined to speculate on a motive, said insurance policies were taken out on six of the children.
According to court papers, all the children allegedly were murdered between April 1949 and January 1968 in the modest row houses the Noes occupied in a rundown blue-collar neighborhood of the city.
“The investigation of the deaths . . . indicates that all of the babies were normal at birth and all of them were healthy and developing normally,” an affidavit for an arrest warrant stated.
“All of the eight infants were in the exclusive custody of the mother, Marie Noe, at the time of their deaths. All eight infants were described by the mother, Marie Noe, as gasping for breath and turning blue in her reports to either neighbors or rescue personnel who were called by her and who discovered her to be alone with the babies,” it continued.
“All eight infants were pronounced dead on arrival at the various hospitals where they were taken. Upon pronouncement of death, there was no physical evidence of trauma and no reasonable medical explanation nor any finding of natural disease as to the cause of the deaths,” the affidavit added.
Over the years, detectives questioned Noe several times. Each time, her story was basically the same: The child was “blue in the face and not breathing.”
After an article in Philadelphia magazine and a book, “The Death of Innocents,” which contended most multiple crib deaths from the same family should be considered as possible homicides, police decided to reopen the investigation.
According to court papers, death certificates and available autopsy reports were reviewed by Dr. Haresh Mirchandani, Philadelphia’s medical examiner, and his deputy, Dr. Ian Hood. Both concluded all eight infants were suffocated.
The affidavit supporting the arrest warrant said Noe admitted suffocating her first child, Richard Alan, who was born on March 7, 1949, and taken home in good health from Temple University Hospital. After 31 days, he was dead.
She also admitted, the court papers said, killing her daughter Elizabeth Mary, who after five months and nine days was pronounced dead on arrival in Temple’s emergency room.
She said she may have suffocated her third child, Jacqueline, who was pronounced dead at another hospital after 21 days of life, and her fifth, Constance, who was born on Feb. 24, 1958, and died after 28 days.
Prosecutors said Noe “has no specific memory or could not remember the details of the deaths” of the other four children.