BUNDLED in a pink plaid robe, the mother who killed more of her babies than any in American history was propped on a worn easy chair in her West Kensington living room, waiting to die.

Marie Noe smothered eight of her infants, one after another, over a 19-year span, ending in 1968.

If not for her own hands, Noe would be surrounded by grandchildren. Instead she lives alone with her cat, Blackie.

Her husband of 61 years, Arthur "Art" Noe, who always believed that his wife was innocent - even after she pleaded guilty - died in his sleep of heart disease at their modest house on American Street near Tioga two days after Christmas.

"He's up there in the box," Noe told a Daily News reporter recently, her index finger shaking as she pointed to a large cardboard box containing his ashes on the mantle. "That's what he wanted. He didn't want a funeral. He wanted nothing to shake the barrel."

At 81, Noe is frail, diabetic, arthritic and barely able to move. A shock of uncombed gray hair frames her sunken, pale cheeks and vacant eyes.

When asked about the faded black-and-white framed photos of her last two children, Catherine and "little Artie," on the mantle, she replies: "They're my children. They were the children I was supposed to have killed, among others."

Although Noe pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder in 1999 and was sentenced to five years under house arrest and 20 years of probation, she won't speak of what she did.

"I don't want to think of it!" she bellowed, as she thrust her spindly fingers to her head. "Please, no!"

With a furrowed brow, her body stiffened and her hands paled as she gripped both armrests. Her eyes turned to ice.

An image of torment.

At that moment, it looked as if Marie Noe couldn't keep the ghosts at bay.

"I don't think of what happened," she said coldly. "I'd rather not know."

Nurses visit Noe every day, but she couldn't survive at home without her neighbor, her lifeline.

Maria, the block captain, who won't give her last name, has spent every day with Noe since her husband's death. She cooks, cleans, puts Noe to bed in the dining room, helps her to the portable commode and watches old black-and-white movies with her.

"She's been through a lot," was all Marie would say about her generosity.

"I have to depend on other people now," Noe said. "She's the only person who gives a damn about me."

So many dead babies

In the 1960s, Arthur and Marie Noe garnered intense national sympathy. Between April 1949 and January 1968, they lost all 10 of their children. None lived longer than 14 months. Some thought the Noes were victims of incredible bad luck.

It is undisputed that two died of natural causes; one was stillborn and another died in the hospital six hours after birth.

The eight others left the hospital in good health, only to die at home when they were alone with their mother.

Marie Maxymuik, now 81, once lived two doors down from the Noes on American Street. On Feb. 25, 1966, Marie Noe told Maxymuik that her 14-month-old daughter, Catherine, wasn't feeling well.

"She asked me to take her to the hospital," Maxymuik recalled in an interview last week. "I went to her house and she was home alone with Catherine, who wasn't awake."

Catherine was limp, but not blue, Maxymuik said. "I put them in my car and took them to Episcopal [Hospital]."

Noe held Catherine in her arms.

"I just wanted to get there as quick as I could," Maxymuik said. "She seemed very upset. I assured her everything would be all right.

"I stayed with her. Then the doctor told me Catherine had died," Maxymuik said.

Maxymuik didn't know that the Noes had lost eight children before Catherine. Marie Noe didn't mention it. In fact, Noe babysat Maxymuik's four children sometimes.

"Nothing ever happened," she said.

Even though doctors, cops and medical examiners had their suspicions over the years, the deaths were written off as a bizarre series of crib deaths.

That changed in the late 1990s. Stephen Fried, then a reporter for Philadelphia magazine and now author and adjunct professor at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, investigated the case after he read the book "Death of Innocents," which uncovered how some cases of crib death are infanticides. Without naming Noe, the book cited her case.

Fried tracked her down. Marie Noe told him that no one could prove she harmed the children. None had a bruise, she said.

"Just one of them stupid things that happens," she told Fried. "We just weren't meant to have children, I guess."

"The Lord needed angels," her husband added, "so we got a ton of them up there."

When Fried asked homicide detectives about the Noes, the police special-investigations squad reopened the long dormant case.

In a 12-hour interview with police in March 1998, Marie Noe finally told her secret. She killed her babies with a pillow.

This is how she killed Richard, her first born, one month after he was born in April 1949:

"He was always crying. He couldn't tell me what was bothering him. He just kept crying. . . . There was a pillow under his face . . . I took my hand and pressed his face down into the pillow until he stopped moving."

Two years later, she killed her second child, Elizabeth:

"She was in the bassinet. I put her on her back, and then I took a pillow from the bed and put the pillow over her face and suffocated her. She was fussing. Elizabeth was a lot stronger than Richard was, and she was fighting when the pillow was over her face. I held the pillow over her face until she stopped moving."

She specifically recalled the deaths of the first three and the fifth. She couldn't remember what she had done to the other four. When talking with police, she often referred to each baby as "it," not by name.

She told detectives that she had hoped police would discover the murders because "I knew what I was doing was very wrong."

Detectives asked her why she wanted to harm her children.

"All I can figure," she said, "is that I'm ungodly sick."

Brought to justice

Early in the morning of Aug. 5, 1999, police pounded on the Noes' front door. Cops collected photographs of the babies in boxes, took Marie Noe into custody and charged her with eight counts of murder.

At first, bail was denied. A prosecutor called her a "serial killer," and compared her to Ted Bundy.

On a talk radio show, her husband defended her and told listeners that he was never once suspicious.

"She's my friend, my companion," Art Noe said. "The most beautiful woman in the world for me. I'll fight to the death to show she never harmed them."

"He never thought I did anything wrong," Marie Noe said in a recent interview.

In exchange for pleading guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder, Noe was sentenced to 20 years of probation. For the first five years she was under electronically monitored house arrest and underwent psychiatric treatment.

Prosecutors said that it was important to understand Noe so that authorities could prevent other women from doing the same thing.

By 2001, psychiatrists and psychologists ruled out neurological problems, Munchausen syndrome by proxy - in which adults make children ill to gain attention and sympathy - and multiple personalities.

A report for the court by psychiatrist John O'Brien II, which has not been made public before, concluded that Noe suffers from mixed personality disorder, including avoidant, dependent, narcissistic, histrionic, borderline paranoid and anti-social traits.

In some ways, though, Marie Noe had an ordinary life.

She had a fifth-grade education and married at 19. She worked mostly in factories. Art Noe worked as a machinist and a clerk. They moved at least four times to rowhouses they rented, all within a mile of each other in Kensington.

"We moved every time Marie was pregnant," Art Noe told a Daily News reporter in 1958. "Tried to change our luck. But fate seemed to dog us. We couldn't escape it."

What he couldn't escape was his wife's dark side.

She told psychiatrists about episodes of what she described as "blindness" after the loss of three of her children. She said that everything went "blank." Sometimes she described these episodes as "space trips."

One psychologist described her as "a psychologically complex and primitive woman" who was subjected to severe childhood physical and psychological abuse, parental neglect, possible childhood sexual abuse and a history of promiscuity.

She has an IQ of 78 and admitted she was a "substantial drinker."

She expressed rage at her mother for not preparing her for motherhood and felt overwhelmed. "[S]he felt she never belonged and did not know what to do as a mother," the report said.

She gave various reasons for killing her children that included being transfused as a child with a prisoner's blood, being a blood cousin of her husband or being "a wicked person."

Sometimes she recalled murdering her children. Other times she alleged total amnesia and took no responsibility. O'Brien concluded that Noe doesn't need further psychiatric evaluation or treatment.

Marie Noe couldn't answer what everyone wanted to know: Why?

A quiet neighbor

In the five years of house arrest, Marie Noe had one violation when she went to an Applebee's to eat after a doctor's appointment.

"Other than that, she was fine," said John Gonzalez, who was her probation officer at the time.

Neighbors seldom saw her the last 10 years. But neighbor Vanessa Velazquez said that whenever Art Noe felt sick, he asked Maria, the block captain, to care for his wife if he died.

"Maria knows Mrs. Noe has no one left," said neighbor Walt Levy. "She's all alone. She's just waiting to die."

For a year, Marie Noe has slept in the dining room, unable to get upstairs. At 6:15 every morning, her husband would trudge downstairs to care for her.

The morning of Dec. 27, the house was silent. At 6:30, Marie Noe started to crawl up the hardwood steps. "I got up there at 7," she said.

She said she knew that her husband was dead as soon as she touched him. "He was as cold as I don't know what," she said.

Neighbors came to console her. "She was very upset. She was very shaken," said neighbor Terry Levy, who has lived there 30 years.

But neighbor Lynn Ayala, a mother of five, said that Noe looked devoid of emotion.

"She just sat there in the dining room," she said. "She seemed like nothing had happened. I don't know if it was shock, but she had a cold look.

"There was a terrible noise when they put him in a tarp to bring his body downstairs. I cried. I could barely breathe. She never moved."

A month since her husband's death, Noe said that she wants serenity. "I like to keep it quiet," she said.

In the end, the stillness in the house on American Street could be her life sentence.

"I got a lot of time left," she said.