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THE PERILS OF PEARL BRYANBetrayal and Murder in the Midwest in 1896
By James McDonald Joan Christen
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 James McDonald and Joan Christen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen the headless body of a woman was discovered on the Locke farm, America was in the midst of an extremely turbulent time in its history. The so-called "Gilded Age" was concluding. This phrase had been coined by American author and humorist, Mark Twain, and described the time span falling between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the 20th century. The United States had recently emerged as the most highly industrialized nation in the world. Twain's cynical reference had been directed at the marked contrast existing between the outwardly successful world of wealthy America, and the frequently corrupt political system and deplorable working conditions with which many within the same society had to deal. The term Gilded Age was derived from the golden peaked structures that so often were positioned on the tops of the fences and walls surrounding the huge, lavish mansions of the rich and which reflected their opulent self-indulgence.
Both an abundant supply of natural resources and a rapidly advancing technology had fueled the commercial advancement of the era. The swift expansion of the U.S. rail system and the development of the telegraph, telephone, and ultimately, of electricity, all contributed to the shift from a largely agrarian society to one in which manufacturing was the cornerstone. Togainemploymentinfactories,farmlaborersandimmigrantsalikeflocked to the cities. To accommodate the massive influx of newcomers from abroad, the federal government constructed Ellis Island in 1892 at the mouth of the Hudson River, and adjacent to the Statue of Liberty. During the next 5 years, some 1.5 million immigrants were processed. However, the inexorable march of urbanization inevitably produced contradictory outcomes. New employmentopportunities,technologyandcultureflourishedinthebigcities, but were at odds with the slums, tenements, disease, sanitation problems, child labor issues, graft, and corruption, which thrived as well.
In contrast to the big cities, rural life in the Midwest had not changed significantly since the end of the Civil War. Although everyday existence continued to be a fairly grim task for many, small rural towns afforded their inhabitants one major advantage: a strong sense of community and security. Families were typically well acquainted with one another, and generally provided assistance and aid to relatives, friends, and colleagues in need. Although worries about personal safety appeared to be minimal, acts of extreme violence, including murder, were not unusual across America. In fact, grisly homicides, scandalous trials, and shocking executions transpired during these times and often captured the imagination of many Americans.
The most notorious murderer of this era emerged without warning in England in the Whitechapel area of east London between August and November of 1888. There, the brutal murders of five prostitutes occurred in the course of a three-month time span. The perpetrator, who slashed and disfigured his victims horribly, soon came to be widely known as "Jack, the Ripper." Although the killer was never caught nor even identified, after the passage of that November, the alarming homicides ended mysteriously, as quickly as they had begun.
The American Midwest experienced its own share of vicious murders during the relatively brief time period of the 1880's and 1890's. On Christmas Eve, 1885, Nathaniel S. Bates left Council Bluffs, Iowa, and traveled to Hagerstown, Indiana, where he hoped to make peace with his estranged wife Kitty, and their two daughters, Stella and Mary. For three months, he undertook every conceivable plan to reconcile with Kitty, but to no avail. On the morning of March 23, 1886, angered by the continuing futility of his efforts, he entered the house where his wife and children lived. Finding Kitty alone and bathing in the kitchen, he once again pressed her to take him back. She dismissed his appeal scornfully, and told him she would rather die than accept his plea. In a fit of rage and frustration, he grabbed an ax handle standing in a corner of the room, and used it to crack her on the head. As Kitty slumped to the kitchen floor, he pulled a razor-sharp pocketknife from his pants pocket, bent over, and slit her throat. Quickly, she bled to death.
Several hours later, Nathaniel nonchalantly walked down the main street of Hagerstown, and shortly encountered Town Marshall Thomas Murray, who was perched on a wooden box in front of the local hardware store. Bates immediately confessed his crime to the disbelieving law enforcement officer, who then handcuffed him and led him back down the street to the local fire engine house. A large iron cage stood within this edifice, and served as the town jail. It was here that Bates was confined. As word of the brutal murder spread throughout the town, the authorities feared that an irate citizenry might organize a lynch party. Nationally, lynching had grown each year from 1866 through the 1880s, and had peaked in 1892. It was later estimated that from 1889 through 1918, mobs lynched 129 persons in the Midwest, as opposed to 2915 such victims in the South and the states bordering the South. By 1900, this punishment was reserved almost exclusively for African-Americans, a fact which bore testimony to the abysmal state of race relations at the time.
In response to growing concern over his safety, Nathaniel was quickly transported 20 miles east to the Richmond, Indiana jail where he was incarcerated, and subsequently charged with first-degree murder. Testimony at the trial characterized Bates as a mean-tempered, physically abusive husband with a chronic drinking problem who had previously threatened to take Kitty's life. On May 7, 1886, Nathaniel Bates was found guilty of murder, and his punishment was set at death by hanging. Approximately three months later, the sentence was carried out on the gallows located next to the jail. Some 100 witnesses attended, each of whom had been issued a pass in order to observe the event. During the procedure, several thousand additional spectators, including many residents from Hagerstown, celebrated in the streets of Richmond. This official public execution was the last one to be conducted in Indiana outside of prison walls.
While Kitty's murder and Nathaniel's subsequent execution were occurring in central Indiana, one of the nation's first female serial killers was about to begin her murderous onslaughts in Chicago, although she eventually found her way to a small farm located in rural, northern Indiana. Belle Gunness, a Scandanavian immigrant, had married fellow countryman, Max Sorensen, in Chicago in 1883. Max died mysteriously in 1890, and although Belle was widely suspected as having poisoned him, no formal charges were ever filed. In fact, Belle managed to collect $8500 from her husband's life insurance policy. Two years later, she married a man named Gunness and the two moved to a farm near La Porte, Indiana. Within a few years, her second husband was found dead on the premises, with the back of his head crushed. Belle's explanation to the investigating officers was that a sausage grinder had fallen from a shelf and killed him. No one was able to disprove her spurious account, and again she managed to claim her husband's life insurance money amounting to a sum of $3000.
Shortly thereafter, Belle began to methodically advertise for replacement husbands in various newspapers. Her strategy was frequently successful, and periodically she would be observed meeting a newly arrived stranger at the La Porte railroad depot, and then departing with her unsuspecting victim for her farm. In due course, these men would always disappear without a trace. Belle and her assorted male partners typically experienced life as rural recluses, and during this period, she bore several children, all of whom lived with the family on the farm. The mysterious goings-on at the farm generated a profusion of gossip among Belle's neighbors, and though suspicions ran rampant, no criminal investigation was ever initiated.
In April 1908, a fire of mysterious origin swept through the Gunness farmhouse, destroying it and apparently leaving no survivors. During the subsequent investigation of the blaze, numerous "soft spots" were noted in the ground adjacent to the house. Authorities began digging immediately, and the dismembered body of her most recent husband was soon discovered. More digging unearthed additional corpses, until a total of nine was found. Three were female. Belle's corpse was not identified among the ashes, and she was not to be seen again. Citizens of La Porte resolutely hypothesized that on the night of the fire, Belle Gunness had murdered her children and buried them next to the house in close proximity to her deceased husbands as well as an unidentified female corpse that she hoped would be identified as her own. She had then set fire to the house, and fled with all her ill-gotten money. Her legacy endures, and remains an intriguing mystery that is still unsolved 100 years later.
Belle Gunness pictured with her children Lucy, Myrtle and Philip. Courtesy of the La Porte County Historical Society, La Porte, IN.
Honora Kelly was born in Massachusetts in 1854 and as a toddler was raised in a poverty-stricken family which had a history of physical abuse, alcoholism and mental illness. After her mother's death, Honora's father raised her by himself, but when she was six years old, he abandoned her at a Boston orphanage. The little girl was soon assigned to a wealthy local family as an indentured servant. Her foster mother was Ann Toppan, who changed Honora's name to Jane Toppan. Jane came to despise her violent and abusive foster mother as well as her foster sister, Elizabeth. Nevertheless, she continued to live with the Toppans for the next 25 years.
In 1885, Jane left home to begin nurses' training at Cambridge Hospital. While a student there, she excelled in all her classes, but several of her professors were alarmed to see her unusual fascination with human autopsies. During her residency, she surreptitiously began to change her patients' prescribed dosages of morphine and atropine, and was enthralled to see major changes in their nervous system responses. Although a number of her patients died as a result of her drug manipulations, neither her teachers nor coworkers was aware of her clandestine activities..
Paradoxically, Jane was well-liked by her patients and her associates, and they nicknamed her "Jolly Jane." She passed her nursing exam in 1887, and became adept at currying favor with several influential physicians, eventually securing a recommendation from them for a position at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital. Shortly after assuming that vacancy, Jane began to walk the corridors of the hospital, secretly injecting patients with lethal drug doses. She was literally committing murder in the wards while functioning "under the radar." However, in 1889, she was abruptly fired because of an unrelated issue and had to quickly find new employment. As a result, she briefly returned to the Cambridge Hospital, but it wasn't long before she lost her position there for "prescribing opiates carelessly."
Jane next embarked upon a career as a private nurse, during which time she was later discovered to have poisoned her two landlords while also killing her foster sister, Elizabeth, with a dose of strychnine. Although death by poisoning was difficult to detect (much less to prove) during this era, a pattern had begun to emerge and authorities were becoming suspicious of Jane's connections with people who were dying suddenly of no obvious cause.
In 1901, Toppan moved in with the family of Alden Davis, an elderly man whose wife had recently died. She was assigned to provide care for Alden, but within a few weeks, Davis and two of his daughters had died mysteriously. Jane was obliged to move back to her hometown of Lowell where she began courting her late foster sister's husband. Her plan was to administer poison to him, and then nurse him back to health thus demonstrating her competence and love for him. However, he grew increasingly wary of her intentions and dismissed her from his home. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the Davis family ordered a toxicology exam of Alden's youngest daughter. Results verified their suspicions that she had been poisoned, and the authorities immediately put out an arrest warrant for Jane Toppan.
She was taken into custody on October 26, 1901, and within a few months had confessed to eleven murders. At her trial on June 23, 1902, Jane was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and was committed for life to the Taunton Massachusetts Insane Hospital, where she died in 1938. Following her trial, she was said to have confessed to her attorney that she had killed more than 31 people in all. She was also quoted as boasting that her ambition was, "to have killed more people - helpless people - than any other man or woman who had ever lived ...."
One of the most imaginative, yet unconscionable and devious serial killers of the Gay Nineties was Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H. H. Holmes. His homicidal escapades have been well chronicled in Erik Larson's novel, Devil in the White City. Mudgett was born in Gilmantown, New Hampshire on May 16, 1860. As a child, he was beaten and abused on a regular basis by his alcoholic father. During his formative years, he had an intense fascination with dead bodies, and animal sacrifices. Early in life, he decided to target his preoccupation with anatomy and death toward the study of medicine.
Mudgett graduated from high school in 1876, married Clara Laveringat two years later, and in 1884 earned his medical degree from the University of Michigan. He taught part-time at the university, but abruptly ceased the ethical pursuit of his profession. Instead, he devised a clever scheme to fraudulently collect money from life insurance companies. He began to steal corpses at the medical school, made them unrecognizable by the judicious use of acid, provided the bodies with fictitious names, and cited himself as their life insurance beneficiary. This scam was successful for a few months, but was dealt a severe blow when a night watchman discovered him stealing a female corpse. Mudgett was immediately dismissed for what the school authorities called 'unusual activities."
By 1886, he had abandoned his wife, moved to the Chicago suburb of Englewood, and assumed the alias of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes. In 1888, he was hired to work in a local Englewood pharmacy as a chemist. The proprietress of the drugstore was an elderly widow, and within two years, she had "mysteriously disappeared." Dr. Holmes promptly took possession of her business, and began inventing his own patent medicines and selling them by mail order. The sale of patent medicines was a flourishing concern in the United States during the latter portion of the 19th century. These medicaments were of questionable efficacy and their ingredients were generally kept secret. They were sold under very colorful names, and gave rise to even more colorful claims. Three of the most popular included Widow Read's (Benjamin Franklin was her son-in-law) ointment for the Itch; Kickapoo Cough Syrup; and Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root. Although the liquid concoctions that Holmes created had no therapeutic value, he highly touted several of them as cures for alcoholism and they became big sellers.
Without divorcing his first wife, he soon married a second woman, but she left him within the year. Holmes used the newly earned money from medicament sales and assorted other fraudulent schemes to begin the construction of a large wooden hotel located within a few blocks of what would become the site of the Great Chicago World Fair of 1893. His modus operandi was to hire contractors and workmen for short time periods and then fire them. Sometimes the laborers simply quit their jobs when he failed to pay them their rightful wages. Holmes had an insidious purpose for the building's ultimate use, but because of their short-term employment, workers shuffled in and out of the construction site, and remained unaware of what was to become an extremely bizarre and lethal floor plan.
Excerpted from THE PERILS OF PEARL BRYAN by James McDonald Joan Christen Copyright © 2012 by James McDonald and Joan Christen. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While this book is an entertaining work of fiction, it is supposed to be non-fiction and is wrongfully cataloged as such. The book is based on an actual event that happened in 1896. The 'Preface' of the book states, " While the complex account and cast of characters were to be based on actual fact, the fleshing out of certain involved individuals and some circumstances would be fictional, although as true to life as possible." Such a statement makes it hard to tell what is actual fact and what is the author's version of what happened. The Authors take liberties with conversations that no one was ever privy to. (an example of a ridiculous conversation imagined between Alonzo Walling and Scott Jackson: "You know, Wally," Scott said. "If Bert were somehow somehow were to die in this city, one could cut her body into small pieces, and dispose of them in the sewer system." Walling arched his bushy eyebrows, smirked, and said, "Yeah...right. I also believe that the moon is made of cheese!" They describe what the characters are thinking and feeling which they have no way of knowing. The story entails what the authors perceive as what happened on the day and evening of Pearl Bryan's murder. The authors have no way of knowing exactly what happened because the two defendants who were arrested and charged with the crime maintained their innocence until they were hung for the crime. Neither defendant in this case ever admitted to the killing nor gave details of what actually happened. While they do use facts ascertained throughout the trial, they use these facts to paint a picture of what they imagine happened on the night of the murder. Which is a work of fiction.