1876: Marie Louise Houghton escapes capital murder prosecution

Thanks to Undine of the blog The World of Edgar Allan Poe for breaking her posting hiatus with this guest entry. -ed.

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.”

“To Mary Louise”
by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

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

On this day..

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