The Shocking Crimes Of Velma Barfield, The “Death Row Granny”

Published December 18, 2021
Updated December 29, 2021

Velma Barfield was a sweet God-fearing grandmother. Unfortunately, everyone in her life seemed to die mysteriously.

“You know, it’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” Velma Barfield’s son Ronnie Burke once said. “How could the good Lord allow this to happen to a faithful Christian like Velma Barfield?”

It was a question a lot of people wanted to ask. Even after the truth had come out and Velma Barfield was waiting to become the first woman to be executed in America in 22 years, many couldn’t understand how she’d gotten there.

Velma Barfield

Bettmann/Getty ImagesVelma Barfield.

She was a grandmother, a church-goer, and was so devoutly religious that even the Reverend Billy Graham sang her praises. She had the world so charmed that they were protesting for her freedom.

On the outside, she seemed like a perfect angel. And maybe that’s how she got away with murdering six people.

Velma Barfield’s First Husband — And Victim

Velma Barfield Photo

YouTubeVelma Barfield

The first person to die for getting too close to Velma Barfield was Thomas Burke, her first husband. The pair had married young when Velma was just 17, and, for the first few years, they seemed like a match made in heaven.

They had eloped in a hurry because Velma was desperate to get away from home. She’d been tormented for years by a father that, looking from the outside in, seemed to be nothing more than a doting, loving man. When the shades went down though, Velma’s father would break into the room of the daughter he called “daddy’s girl.”

For Velma, marrying Thomas was a way out of a terrible situation. And, for a while, it wasn’t too bad. They had two children together and got along fairly well until Velma had a hysterectomy and became addicted to painkillers. Soon, Thomas was drinking heavily and the two found themselves at each other’s throats.

After a bad fight, Velma snuck out with the kids and left Burke alone in the home. While she was out, the house mysteriously burst into flames and Burke was incinerated before sunrise.

Her children were devastated and, as far as anyone could tell, Velma was too. But Thomas’ death showed Velma a simple way to fix her problems and her life was soon filled with tragedy after tragedy.

Jennings Barfield and Lillian Bullard

As unfortunate as it was to lose her husband, Velma moved on and found love again. But, as it seemed to everyone around her, bad luck just kept catching up with her.

Her second husband was Jennings Barfield, a fellow widower who had kids of his own. He too would meet a mysterious end.

After the couple argued over her abuse of prescriptions and divorce was mentioned, Jennings became mysteriously ill. Less than a year after they’d gotten married, he contracted an illness that caused a heart attack and died.

Her parents were next. After a short relationship with another boyfriend ended in yet another of Velma’s homes mysteriously burning to the ground, Velma Barfield moved back in with her parents. In short time, though, both died.

Her father contracted lung cancer – the one death she couldn’t have caused – and then, shortly after, her mother became mysteriously ill.

It was a strange coincidence. Within a few years, Velma had lost both a husband and a mother to the exact same illness. Their symptoms both included vomiting and an internal burning feeling. It was awfully convenient but it would take years for anyone to make the connection.

Dollie Edwards, John Henry, And Stuart Taylor Fall Victim To The Death Row Granny

The Death Row Granny

Velma Barfield

After Velma Barfield’s mother died, people dropped like flies around her. She took a caretaking job working for Montgomery and Dollie Edwards and, within a year, both of them got sick and died. Then she started working for Record Lee and, within a few months, her husband John Henry came down with that same mysterious illness.

Her family still just thought she was a horribly unlucky woman. At least her new boyfriend, Stuart Taylor, could help her through these hard times, they thought. But even he wouldn’t make it through knowing Velma unharmed.

Stuart made his fatal mistake on Feb. 3, 1978. He’d found out that Velma had been forging checks in his name and the two had gotten into an argument. When they were getting ready for church and she handed him a beer, Stuart just thought she was just calling a truce.

However, in the middle of the service, he started feeling sick. He tried to be tough for as long as he could, but it felt like his whole body was burning up from the inside. After a while, Stuart excused himself so he could lie down in the truck, and, pretty soon, his sweet Velma was by his side stroking his hair trying to make him feel better. He didn’t have to act tough, she told him. She would drive him home.

Stuart spent the night vomiting and suffering and, in the morning, begged Velma to take him to the hospital. The doctor there didn’t find anything wrong and told him it must just be gastritis. He was told to go home, take some medicine, and in the morning, he’d feel better.

By the time morning came, Stuart couldn’t feel anything at all.

“I Only Meant To Make Him Sick”

Almost every person in Velma Barfield’s family came out to support her at Stuart’s funeral as it was unbelievable what had happened to this poor woman. Ever since she’d lost Thomas Burke, this poor woman had suffered nothing but heartache, they thought.

Well, almost everyone. While Velma was crying through the service, a woman claiming to be her sister called the police. Velma Barfield was a “murderer,” she told them, and she had killed her own mother the same way she killed Stuart Taylor.

The police didn’t think too much of it until Stuart’s autopsy came back. Just like the caller had said, there was arsenic from rat poison in his stomach. They started looking up every tragic death that had filled her life, and every time, they found traces of the exact same brand of rat poison.

Velma pretended to know nothing about it until her son Ronnie Burke asked her about it. She couldn’t lie to her son and broke down sobbing in front of him. It was an accident, she said. “I only meant to make him sick.”

The First Woman Executed in 22 Years

Velma Barfield interviewed while on death row.

Velma Barfield confessed to four of the murders. Thomas Burke’s death, she insisted, really was a freak accident, and Jennings Barfield had just gotten sick. The police were unable to prove anything about Burke, but they had reason to doubt her. She was definitely lying about Jennings as, like the others, he’d died with rat poison in his system.

She soon found herself on death row. It was the first time since the death penalty had been reinstated that any woman had been on her way to the execution chamber. Because of this, it became a media frenzy.

A whole movement rose up to protect her life. Her psychiatrist tried to convince the judge that she had multiple personality disorder, while Velma tried to present herself as a reformed Christian. The judge wouldn’t budge.

Velma Barfield’s execution came on November 2, 1984. She spoke to Billy Graham a little before, perhaps hoping he would use his influence to save her life. Instead, though, Rev. Graham just told her, “Velma, in a way I envy you, because you’re going to get to go to heaven before I do.”

A crowd had formed outside. Three hundred of them were begging for her life at the prison walls, holding candles and singing hymns. But across from them, there were eighty more demonstrators who wanted to see her dead chanting, “Die, bitch! Die!”

She ate one final meal which nothing more than a bag Cheeze Doodles and Coca-Cola. Then she followed the guards into the execution chamber.

She wasn’t worried, she told her family. “When I go into that gas chamber,” Velma Barfield said, “it’s my gateway to heaven.”

Witnesses said that she didn’t suffer. She just seemed to relax as the toxic poison flowed through her veins like all of the people she killed. For the first time in twenty-two years, an American woman had been put to death.

Outside, the people standing vigil put out their candles and softly sang Velma Barfield’s favorite hymn. The others cheered.

After reading about Velma Barfield, learn about the worst female serial killers of the 20th century, or learn about how one of the worst, Amelia Dyer, killed hundreds as a ‘baby farmer’.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
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Oliver, Mark. "The Shocking Crimes Of Velma Barfield, The “Death Row Granny”.", December 18, 2021, Accessed May 19, 2024.