1836: Two English poisoners

Add comment April 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1836, two different Englishwomen hanged in Gloucester and Liverpool for seeing off their respective husbands with arsenic.

They’re the subjects of an excellent pair of posts by Naomi Clifford, author of such topical-to-Executed Today fare as Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837 and The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, which concerns the long overdue abolition of juridical trial by combat in Great Britain … after an accused murderer used this artifact to escape prosecution in 1817.

Here’s Clifford on our poisoners, bound for separate gallows on April 9, 1836:

Clifford makes a triptych here with a third post about yet another poisoner who shared the same fate five days later.

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1673: La Chaussee, for the giblet pie

Add comment March 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.

The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.

A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.

That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.

Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:

“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”

“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”

“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”

“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”

“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”

“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”

“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”

“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”

“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”

“What makes you think so?”

“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”

“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”

“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”

La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.

“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”

The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.

He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.

* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.

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1789: Giovanna Bonanno, la Vecchia dell’Aceto

Add comment July 30th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1789, the Sicilian poisoner Giovanna Bonanno was hanged in Palermo.

Portrait of an Old Woman, by Giorgione (c. 1500-1510)

Bonanno (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) had borne the unremarked burdens of the poor into her ninth decade; her life prior to the brush with infamy is all but dark to us save a suspected marriage record from 1744. She seems to have scrabbled her way by beggary and folk magic.

In 1786, she chanced upon the formula to concoct a lethal yet subtle draught from white wine vinegar and arsenic. (She never divulged its precise composition.)

For a few years in the late 1780s this vinegar of our latter-day Locusta became the hit choice for the choice hit. It was the ideal concoction: victims couldn’t detect it and doctors couldn’t diagnose it — so dissatisfied spouses, overeager heirs, rivalrous lovers, keepers of grudges, and all other manner of winnowers beat a path to her door.

Inevitably this business was betrayed as word got about; although it would surely have occurred by means of some other leak soon enough, in the event it happened when Bonanno’s delivery-woman realized that her parcel was intended for someone that she knew, and warned him.

As usual, it was the purveyor who bore the brunt of the law, as suppliers and clients alike damned her for a sorceress as well as a poisoner. Although hanged for her crimes, La Vecchia dell’Aceto — “The Old Vinegar” — entered instantly into Sicilian folklore; Italian speakers might enjoy Luigi Natoli‘s novel of that title.

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1730: Sally Bassett, Bermuda slave

Add comment June 6th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Perhaps on this day in 1730,* an elderly mulatto slave named Sarah or Sally Bassett was burned at the stake for attempted murder in the British Caribbean colony of Bermuda.

Sally was the property of Thomas Forster, as was her granddaughter, Beck. (Thomas Forster was the grandson of Josias Forster, who was governor of Bermuda from 1642 to 1643.) The Forster family lived in Sandys Parish.

Being so old, Sally wasn’t worth much: her value was appraised at one pound, four shillings and sixpence, or about $160 in modern U.S. currency. She also had the reputation of a troublemaker: in 1713, for example, she was whipped the length of Southampton Parish after being accused of threats, property damage and killing livestock.

On December 18, 1729, Sally allegedly gave two bags of poison, said to be “white toade”** and “manchineel root”, to her granddaughter, Beck, and told her to poison Thomas, his wife Sarah, and Nancey, another slave in the Forster household.

Beck slipped a dose into the master and mistress’s food, “where if her Mistress did but smell on’t twould poison her.” She put the rest of the poison in the kitchen door, where Nancey found it and “by only looking at it ye said. Nancey was poyson’d.” (Quotes are as cited in Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782.)

Sally was not arrested and charged with the crime until June 2, nearly six months later. The victims were all still “sick and Lye in a very Languishing and dangerous Condition,” but Sarah Forster was at least well enough to drag herself out of her sickbed and testify against her slaves.

Beck was acquitted but Sally, “not having the fear of God before her Eyes, Butt being moved and seduced by ye Instigation of the Devil,” was convicted of petit treason for her attempt on her master and mistress’s lives.

Although she maintained her innocence, she was sentenced to death.

Barefoot, wearing only pants and a loose blouse, on the way to the place of execution Sally is said to have looked at the crowds rushing to see the show and quipped, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun ’til I get there!” When she looked at the logs waiting to fuel the fire she supposedly said, “Ain’t they darlin’?”

She was burned alive on an unusually hot day, in public, either on an island off Southampton Parish or at Crow Lane at the east end of Hamilton Harbor. After her death a purple Bermudiana, Bermuda’s official flower, is reputed to have grown in the ashes. Days later, Bermuda enacted new laws to tighten control of the “many heinous and grievous Crimes as of that Secret and barbarous way of Murdering by Poison and other Murders … many times Committed by negroes and other Slaves and many times malitiously attempted by them.”

Sally’s death has passed on into legend and is considered part of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. Even today, nearly three hundred years later, a very hot day in Bermuda is sometimes called a Sally Basset day. In 2009, a ten-foot statue of Sally was dedicated at the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton, the first time in Bermuda that a slave was so memorialized.

* There are some shouts for June 21, 1730. If there is an authoritative primary document establishing the execution date with certainty, we have not been able to unearth it.

** The involvement of white toad, as historian Justin Pope observes, points — alarmingly for 18th century white Bermudians; intriguingly for posterity — to transatlantic black (in multiple senses) economies.

There were no indigenous white toads in Bermuda. However, as noted by the Bermudian historian Clarence Maxwell, poisonous toads were used in ceremonies among Akan speaking peoples in the tropical forests of West Africa and carried into the voudou traditions of San Domingue.

… If there really was a white toad used in the Bermuda poisoning conspiracy, then it was almost certainly brought to the colony by a slave mariner who believed he was arming a spiritual practitioner against her enemies. It was not something that Sarah Bassett could have asked for lightly. The person who purchased the item would have easily been able to discover, or at least suspect, its usage. Whoever carried it had to be trusted. The toad would have had to been captured or cultivated in the tropical forests of West Africa or northern South America, purchased in the slave markets of towns like Paramaraibo, on the Surinam River of Dutch Guyana, or in the markets of Elmina, on the southern coast of West Africa. We can only surmise the origins of the poisonous toad, yet its very presence on the island of Bermuda suggests a trade in poisons, betweens slave societies and through the hands of black mariners.

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1679: La Bosse, Poison Affair culprit

1 comment May 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the French soothsayer Marie Bosse went to the stake as France dealt out death for the Affair of the Poisons.

After the disgrace and 1676 execution of that aristocrat Locusta, the Madame de Brinvilliers, Louis XIV set his pathbreaking police chief on the trail of the “divineresses” whose potions were sought and feared as the remedy to every domestic ill.

Over six-odd years some 36 souls would succumb to this investigation, 34 upon the scaffold and two tortured to death in prison. Perhaps the best-known of these was a woman named La Voisin, whom we have met in these grim pages before. Our subject today is the woman who named La Voisin to her prosecutors.

Too deep in her cups at a Christmas 1678 party — a time at which the few arrests of alchemists and folk magicians could not yet really be said to be a Poison Affair — our principal La Bosse dropped some indiscreet braggadocio as to her prowess and market share in the poisoning game.

When word got back to the torchlit cowls at the Chambre Ardente, she’d be arrested and interrogated to great profit for investigators. La Bosse blabbed all about other poisoners, including the king’s own lover, the Madame de Montespan and the aforementioned La Voisin.

This was fatal to La Bosse as well as to La Voisin but proved less so to highest muckity-mucks. Accusations reaching the king’s own bedchamber and perhaps even compassing contemplated regicide were thought dangerous to explore and helped to drop the curtain on the entire poison-hunt: “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard,” in the supposed words of the investigator.

Later in 1679, a Thomas Corneille-Jean Donneau de Vise comedy ridiculing poisoners and pretended magicians debuted. La Divineresse, whose title character was named “Jobin” and had an associate named “Du Clos”, was a smash hit, running for several months — which was more than could be said by that time for these characters’ real-life inspirations. (La Voisin went to the stake in February 1680.)

Recommended: an eight-part blog series on Poison at the Court of Louis XIV begins here; scroll down to advance installment by installment.

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1824: John Smith

2 comments March 14th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1824, John Smith, 25, was publicly hanged before an angry crowd at Lincoln Castle for the murder of his fiancee, 24-year-old Sarah Arrowsmith.

John and Sarah had been seeing each other for a long time. Sarah had a three-year-old son by him, and was heavily pregnant with another child. She was under the impression that the wedding banns had been published and they would marry soon, but matrimony was the furthest thing from John’s mind.

On December 4, 1823, he bought a pound of white arsenic from the chemist for nine pence, saying he was going to use it for washing sheep. Instead, Smith mixed the arsenic with some flour and gave it to Sarah. She, in turn, baked some cakes with the poisoned flour and served them to her friends for tea.

Neil R. Storey records what happened in his book A Grim Almanac of Lincolnshire:

In less than a quarter of an hour, Sarah, her sister-in-law Eliza Smith, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Dobbs, and three children—two of them her younger sisters, and one of them Smith’s illegitimate child with Sarah—all suffered intense burning in their throats and excruciating pains in their stomachs. Several medical men were sent for and, immediately on arrival, the surgeons, Mr. Tyson West and Mr. Pell, set about administering antidotes and emetics. They rapidly had to admit that Sarah Arrowsmith was in a hopeless condition and sent for magistrates to take her deposition from her death bed. Sarah told them who had given her the flour and soon two constables were sent to the cottage where Smith lived in Little Steeping; they arrested him.

Although Smith presented two character witnesses at his trial who described him as a good farmhand and a sober, even-tempered and hard-working man, the evidence against him was strong and public sentiment equally so. The London Morning Chronicle reported on Dec. 27, 1823, that as Sarah Arrowsmith lay painfully expiring so heavy was the crush of gawkers that her bedroom’s only supporting cross-joint “snapped in the middle, and had not every person except the sufferer, who was in bed, made a hasty retreat, the floor would have fallen in.”

She succumbed the next day (to the poison, not to a fall) and “a great concourse of persons was assembled from all parts of the country round” to lay her to rest — “and the only feelings displayed upon the solemn occasion, were those of indignation against the unhappy wretch who was the author of the untimely death of the poor woman and her child.”

Smith could surely tell that his goose was cooked, and even as his life hung in the balance there was “an extraordinary apathy about him.” (Storey) Prior to his death he admitted his guilt.

It is believed that the other poisoning victims survived.

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68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)

[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.


Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …

-Tacitus

The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)

One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.

Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)

In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)

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1873: Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman hanged in South Australia

Add comment December 30th, 2016 Headsman

Elizabeth Woolcock on December 30, 1873 became the first and only woman ever hanged in South Australia.

The daughter of a gold prospector, Elizabeth Oliver (as she was then) began a lifelong bout with chemical dependency when she became hooked on the opium used to treat her after she survived a rape at the tender age of seven. (This attack also left her permanently unable to bear children.)

At 19, she joined the Moonta household of alcoholic Cornish immigrant Thomas Woolcock — first as his housekeeper helping to mind the sole child to survive the tuberculotic ravages that had carried away his brother and mother, and within a few weeks as Woolcock’s wife.

Elizabeth was very young and had not known Thomas long. Her infelicitous choice opened an unhappy union that, in the trial to come, would mark her with an obvious motive for murder. “I have to put with it as long as I can but Tom has got so bad, that I cannot bear it any longer,” she wrote to her stepsister a few months before the events that would lead her to the gallows. “He is a perfect devil; and if stop [sic] here much longer I shall hang myself.”

Motivation aside, however, quite a few people not only latterly but also in Woolcock’s own time have suspected that she got a bum rap, product of shoddy medical evidence and a sort of self-confirming communal tunnel vision when Thomas wasted away over a period of weeks in 1873. Thomas Woolcock’s cousin in particular appears to have spearheaded the campaign to open a coroner’s investigation of the death aimed squarely at his widow.

Three different physicians treated Thomas from the time he fell ill at work on July 23 of that year until his death six weeks later. Drs. Bull, Dickie and Herbert each made different diagnoses and prescribed, as this examination of the case puts it, “a bizarre (to modern eyes at least) range of medication that included rhubarb, cream of tartar, mercury and lead acetate.”

Dr. Bull’s prescription of pills containing mercury seems like any obvious place to begin the inquiry since the government’s chemists concluded that mercury poisoning had killed the man, and since the erratic Bull had a chinashop-type relationship to medical competence. (Dr. Bull had done time in the insane asylum; a few months after Woolcock’s execution, he died of an opium overdose.)

Instead, and seemingly driven by the suspicions of local chin-waggers, the investigation and subsequent trial focused on Elizabeth’s acquisition of “poisons” in a dismayingly unspecific sense: she used her stepson to hustle the local druggist for morphine and opium to service her own addictions, and this was a “poison”; she obtained a dandruff medicine that (like many household products of its day) contained mercury, and this was a “poison”;* she had some strange draught called antinomial wine that she was seen to spice with sugar and this too was inferred a “poison”. It all painted Elizabeth Woolcock as a latter-day Tofana without quite telling a coherent story of how she went about killing her husband. It’s not even clear now — and was publicly questioned in 1873 — whether the initial determination of death by mercury poisoning was itself reliable, nor can be certain whether, if mercury is supposed to be the lethal agent, it alone accounts for the entire span from health to grave or if instead a small exposure from Dr. Bull’s pills or contact with the skin medicine only finished Thomas off in a context where unrelated illness had already broken his health.

The evidence as it survives for us doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it’s difficult to reconcile it with anything like the confidence that ought to sustain a death sentence. However, Elizabeth’s garbled last letter did appear to vindicate the prosecution with an admission, though it’s one that her defenders have dismissed as pro forma for a confessor who would have been pressuring her to acknowledge the crime in the context of a final spiritual redemption.

in a evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave any poison for i more and i being very self willed i told him that i knew what power the poison had as i took it my self for some months and i was so ill treated that i was quite out of my mind and in an evil hour i yielded to the temptation he was taken ill at the mine and came home and quarreled with me and Satan tempted me and i gave him what i ought not but thought at the time that if i gave him time to prepare to meet his god i should not do any great crime to send him out of the World but i see my mistake now i thank god he had time to make his peace with his maker.

Efforts, thus far unavailing, to secure a posthumous pardon for Elizabeth Woolcock continue to the present day.

* The family dog died shortly before Thomas got sick; it would be postulated against Elizabeth that she experimented with poisoning on the pet before moving on to the man. An alternative hypothesis that fits the facts could be that the dandruff medicine was administered to treat a skin condition of the dog, which then proceeded to lick at the ointment and poison itself.

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1893: Two women lynched in Quincy, Mississippi

Add comment September 10th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in September 10, 1893, the same day that they admitted to their roles in a murder conspiracy, Mehaley (or Mahaley) Jackson and Louisa Carter were lynched in the town of Quincy in eastern Mississippi, 137 miles east of Memphis.

The two black women’s slayings were only part part of a grisly tragedy that resulted in the deaths of six people, perhaps more.

What little that is now known about the case is reported in cultural historian Kerry Segrave’s Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851­1946.

In late August or early September 1893, a white gentleman named Thomas Woodruff fell ill along with his entire family. Two of his five children died. Two weeks later, what was left of the Woodruff family were all still languishing in the hospital, and there was little hope that any of them would recover. Neighbors who nursed the sick family also became ill.

A search of the Woodruff property turned up three packages of Rough-­on-Rats, an arsenic-­based poison, in the well.

Suspicion fell on Ben Woodruff, a local black man. The previous fall, Ben had “entered Woodruff’s house violently, and so excited his wife, who was in a delicate condition from childbirth, that she died in a few hours.” Ben had faced criminal charges in connection with the incident, and Woodruff was one of the witnesses against him, which, it was thought, provided motive to for Ben to kill him. (The news report below prefers a stolen wagon as the source of the friction.)


New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 10, 1893.

On September 9, during the inquest following Ben Jackson’s arrest, a group of unmasked men dragged him away from the police who had custody of him and hanged him. The murder inquiry continued without the suspect and, a day later, his widow, Mehaley Jackson, and mother-­in­-law, Louisa Carter, testified before the jury. They admitted they had known of Ben’s plan to poison the Woodruffs’ well. The two women were not arrested, but it would have been better for them if they had been: when they left the courthouse, an armed mob was waiting for them and hanged them as well.

Vigilante justice wasn’t finished yet: Mehaley and Louisa had said a neighborhood man named Rufus Broyles had given Ben Jackson the money to buy the poison. Broyles fled the area after Ben’s death and went into hiding in a nearby town.

On September 14, he was caught there, and strung up like the others.

Circuit court judge Newman Cayce made a “forcible and peremptory” order to the grand jury to identify and indict the lynchers. Predictably, there’s no record of any charges being brought against anyone.

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1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

Add comment May 5th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,USA,Wrongful Executions

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