On February 12, 1950, Buffalo socialite Marion Little Frisbee* was discovered in a frozen ditch in a suburb 12 miles outside the city, a .32-20 rifle bullet through her left temple.
Within 24 hours, a 19-year-old Native American** youth named Harley LaMarr had been caught at a boarding-house and copped to the crime.
While the coroner did report an “attempt at criminal assault,” the motive for Frisbee’s abduction/murder had been robbery. Harley LaMarr needed money because his mother, Amelia Palwodzinski, had had a fight with her second husband the month before. In the course of that fight, she planted a butcher’s knife in the man’s chest.
As Amelia went off to serve a 30-year stretch for manslaughter, she made her boy Harley promise to give the victim a decent burial. Harley had no money: he did have a .32-20. He took it to a tony part of town and waited for an opportunity.
Marion Frisbee’s purse netted him about $6. He didn’t bother taking her diamond ring because, he said, he just wanted cash for the funeral. Harley insisted the gun went off by accident: the jury in a four-day trial that April didn’t buy it.
The day before Harley LaMarr’s electrocution at Sing Sing on January 11, 1951, the Empire State’s prison officers brought his mother from Bedford Hills a few miles down the road to death row for one last goodbye with her tragically dutiful son.
The youth met with his mother for 20 minutes after authorities brought her from Bedford Hills.
They spoke together in low tones. The woman took a long last look at her son and walked away from the visiting cage dry-eyed.
“Thank you for coming, ma,” the youth called after her. (Source (pdf))
On this date in 1858, youthful delinquent James Rodgers was hanged in New York City.
The 19-year-old Irish immigrant Rodgers, according to the New York Herald‘s Nov. 13 post-hanging review, was one of a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells “well known to the police of the Sixteenth precinct as loungers about the corners.”
Corner-loungers evidently share behavioral DNA with the common high school meathead, for Rodgers (drunk on rum) precipitated his trouble by carrying “his arms a-kimbo, so that one elbow hit [John] Swanston violently as he went by him.” Swanston, a respectable burgher returning from market with his wife, didn’t take kindly to this territory-marking, and exchanged words with Rodgers until the punk terminated the conversation by planting a knife between Swanston’s ribs. The unfortunate gentleman, perhaps second-guessing his decision to make such a big deal over the elbow, expired painfully in the street as witnesses rushed to the scene.
If the Herald is to be believed, a concerted clemency push (including author Caroline Kirkland, who called personally on Gov. John King) went begging owing to a general public outcry against corner-lounging Irish hoodlums and their a-kimbo elbows.
Even though Rodgers was hanged in private in the Tombs, New Yorkers strained the roofs of nearby buildings (and ten to fifty cents per head) just to get a glimpse of him being walked to the gallows with the rope picturesquely around his neck and whatever else they could peep over the walls.
Reportedly contrite (he slept on the stone floor of his cell and ate bread and water by way of self-mortification), prayerful, handsome, and at the gallows unflinching, the youthful Rodgers died game … and also harrowingly.
The Tombs was already by this point employing a gallows that jerked the condemned upward rather than dropping him through a trap: the idea was that this method would humanely kill the wretch on the first strike of the knot.
That was not the case for James Rodgers.
By the time the executioners axed through the rope restraining the counterbalance and the fall of a 250-pound lead weight yanked Rodgers into the air, the noose’s knot had slipped to the nape of the culprit’s neck where it would fail to deliver a lethal fracture. The killer twisted and fought horribly for some eight minutes as he strangled to death, even freeing his right hand from its restraint and with it tearing at his heart. “Sickening to behold,” reported the New York Times.
So, that was James Rodgers. Like many murderers of the time, and especially those who could be constructed as sympathetic people led astray by drink, the man got himself a hanging ballad, “The Lamentation of James Rodgers.”
Come all you tender Christians,
I hope you will draw near,
And likewise pay attention
To those few lines I have here:
For the murder of Mr. Swanston
I am condemned to die,
On the twelfth day of November
Upon the gallows high.
My name is James Rodgers
The same I ne’er denied,
Which leaves my aged parents
In sorrow for to cry,
It’s little ever they thought
All in my youth and bloom,
I came into New York
For to meet my fatal doom.
Come all you tender Christians
Wherever you may be
And likewise pay attention
To these few lines from me.
For the murder of James A. Garfield
I am condemned to die
On the thirtieth day of June
Upon the scaffold high.
My name is Charles Guiteau
My name I’ll never deny,
To leave my aged parents
To sorrow and to die.
But little did I think
While in my youthful bloom
I’d be carried to the scaffold
To meet my fatal doom.
Here’s the Garfield version … as the guilt-ridden young tough James Rodgers is not much remembered on YouTube.
Rather than just break the thing off,* he arranged — so the jury found, though Videto always denied it — to kill the poor woman. (Literally poor. Her last husband had left her, abandoning her penniless.)
Videto contrived a whole scenario where the colored man was lurking around his house … the red-colored man, in this case. Scary Indians.
Claiming to be spooked by encounters with mysterious native prowlers, Videto armed himself up; sure enough, one night soon, an Indian shot into his bedroom and started a firefight. The perennially discarded Fanny Mosley was killed in the crossfire.
For the apparent calculation that went into this cover story, Videto was awfully careless about the details. As rudimentary as crime scene forensics were in 1825, it was still self-evident that the glass in the window had been shot outward, not inward; and, that the ball causing Mosley’s fatal wound had likewise originated from within the house, not without. And come to think of it, the “Indian footprints” outside that window looked an awful lot like Videto’s own. And nobody else had ever seen these Indian stalkers Videto was on about — not that night, nor in his buildup of the preceding days.
The evidence might be circumstantial, but those were a whole lot of circumstances. The jury took 15 minutes to convict him, although Videto maintained his innocence to the last — even waving a written declaration of such to the onlookers after the trap fell, while he was strangling to death.
After a large concourse of people had assembled which was estimated at six or eight thousand, [Videto] was then taken from his place of confinement and conducted by the sherif and guard of seven independent companies to the place of his execution. Then, with 2 assistants, he ascended the gallows, where a discourse was delivered by Elder [Nathaniel] Culver from Luke 13th 23, in which he pointed out to him awful situation and then he protested his innocence of the crime alledged against him and likewise stated that he was no way accessory. Then after giveing a parting hand to each one of his attendants and to a Brother, which was all the relation of his present, his hands were then bound; the rope about his neck was then fastened, and the moment was at hand. The fatal stud was then nock-d out, and now, do not you see him in your imagination hung & strangling. O twas a solemn sight, but the laws must be put in execution.
Although he protested his innocence, it (is) generally believed that he was guilty but protested innocence on account of the conexions. Thus it is that we see man snached from the hand of existence by the Executioner, thus we may justly say “the wicked do not live out half their days.” He (had) a long trial and without doubt an impartial one. But we are frail mortals all hastening to our Mother, ____our joys are like the morning dew before the morning sun. They pass we know not where and we are led to reflection:
Mortals behold the hour glass.
And leave your wordly care
It shows how swift our minutes pass
And bids us all for death prepare.
** As a Vermont Vilas, we suppose that this writer was probably related to politician Levi Baker Vilas and to his (future, at this point) son, eventual U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior William Freeman Vilas.
On this date in Sing Sing Prison in New York, Italian-American Anna Antonio was electrocuted for murder.
She’d been convicted of hiring two hit men, Sam Ferraci and Vincent Saetta, to kill her husband Salvatore for his $5,000 in life insurance. The dirty deed was done at Easter in 1933: Salvatore’s body turned up beside a country road, full of holes. He’d been shot five times and stabbed fifteen times.
When Saetta and Ferraci were picked up, they implicated Anna. All three conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. They spent sixteen months on death row, where Anna was the sole female inmate, attended by three matrons.
As chronicled in Geoffrey Abbott’s book Amazing Stories of Female Executions, Anna had been originally scheduled to die with Ferraci and Saetta at 11:00 p.m. on June 28. The executioner, Robert G. Elliott, arrived, set everything up and waited … and waited … and waited …
No one appeared.
It wasn’t until 1:15 a.m. that he was told to just go home: no one would die tonight.
Just ten minutes before eleven on that night, Saetta had had a talk with the prison warden, unburdened himself and signed an affidavit. He admitted he and Ferraci had killed Salvatore, but he said the motive was a $75 drug debt. He swore Anna had had no part in the crime.
In an earlier conversation with a prison clerk, Saetta had said he and his partner in crime had only said Anna was involved because they thought this would save their own lives: “They’ll never send me to the hot seat. Not while there’s a dame in the case. In New York they don’t like to send a woman to the chair and they can’t send me and not her.”
The governor, Herbert Henry Lehman, thought it prudent to issue a 24-hour stay for all three of the condemned in order to investigate this new evidence. Anna Antonio fainted with relief at hearing the news.
Twenty-four hours later, she was again facing the chair. Again, Executioner Elliott showed up at Sing Sing, and again he was turned away: the stay had been extended by a week.
At the end of the week, a further stay was granted; the state was still mulling over what to do.
Meanwhile, the suspense was, pun intended, killing Mrs. Antonio. Abbott records:
At that stage the state of the condemned women can hardly be imagined; suffice it to say that her wardresses reported their prisoner’s condition alternated between bouts of hysteria and collapsing into a semi-coma. Eventually the decision was issued that all executions would take place on 9 August and all hopes were dashed.
She had weighed 100 pounds on June 28, but in the interim she stopped eating and dropped fifteen pounds in six weeks: she was probably among the smallest people to ever sit in the electric chair.* At one point she cried in anguish, “I have already died enough for a million men!” The Crime Library provides a detailed account of her execution.
On the last day of her life (which, horribly enough, was also her daughter’s birthday), Anna told the prison warden she was innocent. She reminded the warden that her late husband had been a drug dealer and said if she had wanted him dead, she could have just killed him with one of the guns that were lying around the house.
She did, however, admit that prior to the murder, Ferraci and Saetta had told her they intended to kill Salvatore. She said she had chosen not to try to prevent it because she was afraid for herself and her three children. Anna didn’t particularly care much for Salvatore anyway; he was violent and abusive.
Anna spent the day of August 9 playing with her children. She may have been expecting yet another reprieve; when she was told the execution was definitely on this time, she seemed stunned.
When asked about a last meal, she said simply, “I want nothing.”
She walked calmly into the death chamber at 11:12 p.m. and was pronounced dead four minutes later. Ferraci came after her, and Saetta was last.
* Even 14-year-old George Stinney, who was too small for the electrocution mask, weighed in at 90 pounds.
On this date in 1852, a white woman and a black man — no connection between them — were hanged on an upward-jerking gallows in Poughkeepsie, New York.
31-year-old (though she looked 22, said smitten newsmen) Ann Hoag was a foundling who’d been raised by an adoptive family, then married a local farmer in a union that featured at least five children, financial loss, and a good deal of unhappiness. The sequence of causation among those mutually convivial characteristics is left for the reader’s imagination. Eventually — the New York Times (July 31, 1852) is most piquant on this — succumbing to the thrall of a younger lover, “the ill-starred woman plunged into misery and degradation, renounced virtue, reputation, husband, and children, until at last she murdered her husband” with arsenic and eloped with her paramour to Bridgeport.
Luckily for Ann, her brief summer of carnal liberty sufficed to quicken her belly, with the result that her delicate condition bought her a few extra months of life. On April 18, 1852, she gave birth to a baby daughter, and sealed her own fate.
A most interesting scene occurred in the separation of the child from the unhappy mother, which none but a mother’s heart can conceive. It appeared as if the last prop of life, the very cords of the heart were being severed, when, with the most endearing caresses, amid tears and sobs, the mother looked for the last time on that innocent babe, which sine its birth had unconsciously shared her solitude and been her solace. As it passed forever from her sight, she exclaimed — “Now let them execute me — I have nothing to live for — one by one they have dragged my children from me.” (Albany Journal, Aug. 5, 1852)
Although the faithless wife left a 70-page statement implicating her lover William Somers, that gentleman was acquitted in October of 1852 on a charge of accessory to murder.
Jonas Williams, Ann Hoag’s partner upon the gallows, was much less the sighed-over. Williams committed a “fiendish outrage” upon his 11-year-old stepdaughter, killing her.
On this date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.
Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.
Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.
By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.
Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.
Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.
In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.
Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.
Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.
In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.
After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”
The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.
But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.
Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.
The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.
She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.
Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.
Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.
He was the only one.
A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.
The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.
Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.
To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)
By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.
In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.
While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.
On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.
Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.
A century ago today, 20-year-old Albert Walter strolled the 15 feet from the death cell to the Sing Sing electric chair, calling out “Good-bye boys” to his fellow-prisoners as he died for the murder of 15-year-old Ruth Wheeler in a possible white slavery crime two years earlier.
Wolter left a note steadily — all the reports remark on the youth’s sangfroid; he took a nap while the jury went to deliberate with his life in its hands — avowing his innocence, and indulging the “hope there may come a time when the conscience of the perpetrator will overpower him, and he will come to the front and acknowledge his guilt.” He charitably added for “those who have maliciously prosecuted and killed me, for them I pray God’s forgiveness.”
Lots of New Yorkers would have had to ask it.
Despite his cool under fire, Wolter was overwhelmingly acclaimed the guilty party, the evidence against him being as close to airtight as circumstantial gets.
Newsmen ravenous for virginals despoiled by outlanders instantly sunk fangs into the story of the layabout 18-year-old German immigrant — idle lifestyle the product of parasitism upon the drudgery of a young countrywoman toiling 12-hour days at a bakery — who lured the “saintly” stenographers’ school graduate to his apartment with the promise of work and had her charred and headless trunk bundled up on the fire escape by morning. (Other charred remains, and Wheeler’s monogrammed signet ring, were retrieved from inside the apartment.)
Reporters soon sketched the persona of a burgeoning little pimp who had already routed several girls into prostitution. In industrializing, urbanizing, early 20th century America, you couldn’t ping a more compelling (pdf) moral panic than white slavery.* Congress was at that very moment in the process of legislating the (still-extant) Mann Act named for the Illinois legislator who sponsored it after a notorious 1909 Chicago case.
But the Big Apple, as the country’s largest city and its gateway for Europe’s polyglot huddled masses, was the reputed center of the whole reputed business.
This illustration from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls is outstandingly captioned:
“THE FIRST STEP. Ice cream parlors of the city and fruit stores combined, largely run by foreigners, are the places where scores of girls have taken their first step downward. Does her mother know the character of the place and the man she is with?”
The men and the women who engage in this traffic are more unspeakably low and vile than any other class of criminals. The burglar and holdup man are high-minded gentlemen by comparison. There is no more depraved class of people in the world than those human vultures who fatten on the shame of innocent young girls. Many of these white slave traders are recruited from the scum of the criminal classes of Europe.
And in this lies the revolting side of the situation. On the one hand the victims, pure, innocent, unsuspecting, trusting young girls — not a few of them mere children. On the other hand, the white slave trader, low, vile, depraved and cunning, — organically a criminal.
While the Empire State enacted its own Wolter-inspired law charging schools with vetting the employers who recruit their graduates, Wolter entered the criminal justice system on greased lightning (just like he left it). He was a condemned murderer within five weeks of Ruth Wheeler’s death.†
Wolter himself (evidently surprised to learn that he was old enough for the death penalty; that may not have been the case where he was from) tried to put the blame on a phantom Teuton, one “Frederick Ahner” who was the mastermind in Wolter’s own fall and who must have done the Wheeler business while Wolter was out at the park. That’s “the perpetrator” to whom Wolter’s last letter refers: his conscience never led Ahner to so much as materialize, much less to confess.
The fate of Wolter’s bakery-girl cohabitant — and, one might think, prospective accessory — Katchen “Katie” Mueller was very different. She precipitously aligned herself with her lover’s prosecutors, urged “My dear Al” to confess (almost successfully), and got respectable patronage “to break away from the life she had been leading”. A year after Wolter’s electrocution, Mueller’s redemptive next marriage made the society pages.
** Similar dubious (pdf) vice-crusader porn is to be had in (among many other period pieces) a 1911 tract by another Chicago prosecutor, Clifford Roe. Though The Great War on White Slavery is in the public domain, I haven’t been able to locate a complete text online — only this excerpt.
† On the other hand, the then-protracted period of 22 months required to proceed from conviction to execution made Wolter “dean of the death house” by the time he died.
Sketch of a Brutal Crime — The Condemned Man Owns His Guilt and Admits the Justice of His Sentence.
OSWEGOOWEGO, N.Y., January 21. — The first instance of capital punishment in Tioga county occurred here to-day at noon. The extreme penalty of the law was inflicted upon Daniel Searles, an illiterate negro, who in June last murdered Eldridge Rewey, an aged farmer, who lived alone in the neighboring vilage of Newark Valley.
The murder was for the purpose of robbery, and was one of fiendish atrocity. Calling at the farmer’s house in the early evening of June 25, Searles felled him senseless to the floor, and then cut his throat with a razor.
He obtained about $300 by searching the house, and, on preparing to leave, noticed that his victim had revived. Rewey had also drawn a knife from his pocket, as if to defend himself, which the negro wrested from him, and with which he nearly decapitated his helpless victim.
He was arrested next day, tried before Judge Follett at OswegoOwego, and on December 8 was sentenced to be hung to-day.
Searles has made no attempt to deny his guilt, openly confessing the crime and saying he deserved to die for it. He has preserved a brave exterior throughout, and passed his last night on earth seemingly with less anxiety than did his executioner.
The execution took place in a temporary frame structure in the jail-yard, erected for the purpose. A cordon of military attended. The gallows was the same on which Penwell was executed at Elmira in July, 1877, for wife murder. The ponderous drop weighed three hundred pounds.
The spectators were in attendance at 11:45, some two hundred being present. Prayers were said in the prisoner’s cell at noon and the death warrant read to him.
When reflecting upon the life and times of Edgar Allan Poe, Edward Wagenknecht once wrote that “One might also say of Poe that he lived in a Gothic novel. Hardly anybody behaves normally in this history.” Of all the names one finds in Poe’s biographies, no one better illustrates these words than Marie Louise Barney Shew Houghton. While there were many players in Poe’s life story who undoubtedly deserved to be put in the dock, (the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold being merely the most famous example,) Mrs. Houghton was the only one of the lot who faced the prospect of being tried, and very possibly convicted and executed, of first-degree murder.
This was the date in the year of the nation’s centennial that Houghton slipped the noose.
Mrs. Houghton is known to history as having been the nurse of Poe’s wife Virginia during her final illness, as well as an all-around Poe family benefactor. This saintly reputation, unfortunately, comes largely from her own boasts on the matter, made many years after the poet’s death. In 1875, she began a correspondence with Poe’s early biographer John H. Ingram. Her avowed intent was to insure that she—as opposed to other ladies who were vying for the title—would be remembered as Poe’s dear friend and guardian angel. Unfortunately, at the time she contacted Ingram, she was clearly in appalling shape, mentally and emotionally. The numerous extant letters she wrote him—which date from January to June of 1875–are always rambling, usually incoherent, and occasionally quite insane. She related to Ingram many colorful stories about Poe that are completely uncorroborated, patently absurd, and often at complete variance with the known facts. Ingram privately acknowledged that Mrs. Houghton was mentally unstable, and he suspected as well that she was enhancing, or even completely inventing, many Poe anecdotes, in order to keep their correspondence alive. He wound up dismissing her with the euphemism, “imaginative.” In spite of all this, Ingram—who was desperately in need of original source material about the ever-elusive Poe—wound up relaying far too much of her dubious information in his 1880 biography, and, even more unforgivably, Poe’s modern-day historians repeat unquestioningly this same apocrypha to this day.
One wonders what Ingram’s reaction would have been if he had known anything about his pen-pal’s personal life. Marie Houghton was a predecessor to today’s “New Age” devotees. Her first marriage, to the “water-cure” practitioner Joel Shew, gave her an avenue into what were the more extreme circles of Transcendentalist faddism, which embraced alternative medicine, “free love,” “freethinking,” communal living, and disdain for established institutions. Ironically, she represented everything Poe most despised in contemporary society.
In the mid-1840s, Marie Louise separated from her husband and entered into an affair with another member of their circle, Dr. Ronald Houghton, although she continued to live with Dr. Shew. In 1849, she gave birth to a son, Henry, who was probably acknowledged as Houghton’s, although at least one historian has theorized that the father was a third man who was living with (and financially aiding) the Shews. The next year, the Shews divorced and she married Houghton. Although they had several more children, the marriage proved unhappy, and they too separated. She continued to work as a nurse, while indulging in a number of extremely complicated and very dodgy financial and property transactions on the side.
However, it was this son Henry who proved to be the catalyst that brought Mrs. Houghton serious trouble. After a varied and exciting career out west where he was charged with adultery, mule thievery, swindling, and “open and notorious lewdness,” Henry Houghton returned to the family home in New York, bringing with him his mistress, a Mary E. Stanley, who had evidently been Henry’s partner in crime as well. With them was a toddler who was understood to have been their child, even though Mary was at the time married to another man.
In 1876, the now-pregnant Mrs. Stanley was living with the Houghton family, although by this point Henry appears to have tired of her. Her common-law mother-in-law, Mrs. Houghton, acted as her sole medical attendant. Unfortunately, Mrs. Stanley died soon after giving birth. The Houghtons failed to summon a doctor until she was obviously at death’s door. Very curiously, she was quickly buried without a death certificate having been issued, apparently at the instigation of Marie Houghton. After her burial, the undertaker prevailed upon the physician who had been at her deathbed, a Dr. Bleecker, to provide him with some sort of certificate. Bleecker was reluctant to do so, as he had never actually treated the deceased, but finally issued one with the noncommittal statement that the cause of death appeared to be “congestive chills.”
Of all who hail thy presence as the morning–
Of all to whom thine absence is the night–
The blotting utterly from out high heaven
The sacred sun–of all who, weeping, bless thee
Hourly for hope–for life–ah, above all,
For the resurrection of deep buried faith
In truth, in virtue, in humanity–
Of all who, on despair’s unhallowed bed
Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen
At thy soft-murmured words, “Let there be light!”
At thy soft-murmured words that were fulfilled
In thy seraphic glancing of thine eyes–
Of all who owe thee most, whose gratitude
Nearest resembles worship,–oh, remember
The truest, the most fervently devoted,
And think that these weak lines are written by him–
By him who, as he pens them, thrills to think
His spirit is communing with an angel’s.
Mary Stanley’s death would have passed unremarked had it not been for a collection of letters she had written to a friend, which was soon brought to the attention of the authorities. In brief, these letters stated that Mrs. Houghton wished to perform an abortion on her. (It was alleged that Houghton supplemented her income as a professional—and, on occasion, fatally incompetent—abortionist.) When Mrs. Stanley refused, she attempted to give her patient certain “medicines” which Mrs. Stanley believed were intended to permanently rid the Houghtons of her as well. Faced with this uncooperative attitude, Mrs. Houghton “became cruel to her, and starved both herself and her child.” The question of why she remained in the household appeared to be answered by murky and never-clarified issues regarding the estate of Mrs. Houghton’s late estranged husband. It was said that she stubbornly stayed put in an effort to defend the interests of Mrs. Houghton’s other son, Frank, who was involved with a legal dispute with his mother over a certain piece of property. There was a good deal of nightmarishly complex litigation surrounding Dr. Houghton’s estate, and evidently Mrs. Stanley played some crucial role regarding the dispute over the distribution of Roland Houghton’s properties. According to these letters, Mrs. Stanley was attempting to act as some sort of a roadblock in schemes Henry and his mother were attempting in relation to the matter.
After the local coroner and District Attorney had read their fill of these missives, their first act was to have Mrs. Houghton arrested.
An inquest was soon held, and these letters, as well as testimonies of friends of the dead woman, were presented to the jury. A lurid picture was painted of Mrs. Houghton’s long career of poisoning (including two alleged attempts against her husband,) abortions both successful and fatal (Mrs. Stanley wrote of seeing “terrible things” in the Houghton’s cellar that related to this practice—other testimony agreed that she literally knew where the bodies were buried,) financial fraud, and all-purpose cruelty. Mrs. Stanley wrote that “I do not think there is another woman as bad as her living,” and if half of what was related about her at the inquest was true, this was a genteel understatement. Mrs. Stanley also declared that the Houghtons wanted her dead, not only for the fact that she “knew too much” about their depraved dealings, but because she was threatening to “swear her child” on Henry Houghton—i.e., hit him with a paternity suit. (The inquest also included testimony that Mrs. Houghton expressed great joy that Mary Stanley’s death freed her son from taking responsibility for his mistress and their child.)
When Mrs. Houghton took the stand in her defense, it was said that she gave her testimony “fairly and with much plausibility.” She simply denied everything the dead woman had written. Mrs. Stanley, she said, was a designing criminal who had robbed her son “not only of his money, but of his good name.” She had allowed the pregnant woman to live in her house out of pure Christian charity. Mrs. Stanley’s death, on September 12th 1876, was of a “congestive chill” that came on so suddenly there was no time to send for a doctor. She admitted that she had practiced medicine from 1851 until the previous year, when she was threatened with imprisonment if she did not cease her unaccredited ministrations. She also conceded that Mrs. Stanley had threatened to “crush” the Houghton family, and that “something disagreeable” had occurred several months before that had inspired Mrs. Stanley to write these accusatory letters. However, it was also revealed that at the time of Mrs. Houghton’s arrest, certain family papers were seized by the authorities which corroborated much of what the deceased had alleged.
When Dr. Bleecker testified, he could say only that an autopsy on the dead woman “could not determine the cause of death satisfactorily.”
After all this, it is quite startling to read that the jury ruled that Mary Stanley died of natural causes, “from hemorrhage and exhaustion while in labor.” The only way of explaining this conclusion (which seemed to have no evidence to back it up) is to note that from the newspaper reports, the jury was clearly on Mrs. Houghton’s side from the beginning. In fact, the jury attempted to halt the inquest very early on, claiming they had heard enough evidence to reach a verdict. The coroner and DA overruled them, insisting that they hear additional witnesses. Also, one of the jurors questioned a doctor who testified, asking if it wasn’t true that pregnant women were often prone to paranoid fancies, where they imagined dangers that did not exist. When the doctor admitted that such things were possible, this obviously sealed the deal for this panel. The reason for this obvious bias in favor of the defendant is, most unfortunately, unknown.
The case was left open for further investigation, but as far as can be ascertained by a search of contemporary newspapers, the matter was closed as far as the authorities were concerned. Marie Houghton left the court a free woman, if not exactly one without a stain on her character. She died less than a year later, at the age of fifty-five, on September 3, 1877.
One of the strangest things about this case is the fact that it has attracted so little attention, from that time to this. The only detailed contemporary accounts I have been able to uncover are a handful of articles from one newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, and two columns in the New York Herald which simply repeated some of the information published in the Eagle. Even though the story contained enough scandal to keep a platoon of yellow journalists in clover for years, it was otherwise ignored. Despite the fact that the central character was a figure well-known to anyone who has the slightest interest in Poe’s life, this odd little episode appears to be unknown to his biographers. It is a great pity deeper investigation in the matter appears impossible at this late date, as from what was reported, Marie Houghton was either the most viciously slandered woman of her era, or a monster Poe himself could not have created in his darkest fits of imagination.
Sources: Brooklyn Eagle, Sept. 21, Sept. 23, Sept. 25, Sept. 30, Oct. 3 1876 New York Herald, Sept. 22 and 23, 1876 Building Poe Biography, ed. John Carl Miller
Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer — stock, as their name suggests, of vintage Dutch family whose more reputable products ca be found on various Empire State placenames — were doomed for the Christmas Eve, 1901 murder of their uncle.
The family tree’s branching over generations had put family enmities between relatives; in this case, working stiff John van Wormer’s home in Columbia County, N.Y. was mortgaged to his brother-in-law (and the eventual murder victim), richie-rich Peter Hallenbeck. After John passed away, Peter lowered the boom and foreclosed on the widow, booting John’s sons out of the house.
The boys got even with an unsubtle gangland masked home raid, riddling their Uncle Scrooge with bullets.
(Signs of the times: the murder happened mere weeks after William McKinley‘s assassination, and testimony had one of the boys bragging with reference to the fatal gut-shot wound inflicted on the late president. “I made a Czolgosz shot. I shot him in the stomach.”)
Though these three attracted national public sympathy — someone even telegrammed a bogus reprieve signed, “The President of the United States” in a vain stab at delay — their case was pretty open-and-shut.
Since they were doing death as a brother act, it was only fair that they sort out precedence within the family: the condemned themselves decided the order of their execution, with Willis first, Frederick second, and Burton third. The whole thing took 15 minutes.
But leave it to the youngest child to stick out from the crowd. Frederick, the baby of the family, actually managed to survive the electric chair, sort of. Not walk clean away from it like Willie Francis would do, but impolitely revive when he was supposed to be laid out dead like folkused to do back in the bad old hanging days.
The executions went off without a hitch and the brothers were pronounced dead. Later, after they’d been laid out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them out in the autopsy room, a guard saw one of them, Frederick Van Wormer, move a hand. Then an eye flickered. The prison doctor was immediately summoned. Putting a stethoscope to the “dead” man’s heart, he discovered it was still beating. Frederick’s heart (it was determined later) was bigger than that of anyone executed up to that date, so two charges of full current had failed to kill him. The convict was carried back to the chair and kept in it until he was dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. [he died without actually being re-executed -ed.]
In part because of accidents like these during the early decades of the electric chair, numbers of people weren’t convinced it was as deadly as it was supposed to be. (Source)
They’re not kidding about that brain bit, either.
A fellow by the name of Edward Anthony Spitzka autopsied the van Wormers, “direct[ing] my attention especially to the brains. The opportunity afforded by this triple execution was certainly most rare, and a similar case will not soon occur again,” and found Frederick with a robust 1.6 kg brain, compared to less than 1.4 kg for his siblings. Now that JSTOR has opened its oldest journal content, you can read all about Spitzka’s meddlings in the van Wormer grey matter here.