Monday, May 6, 2013
Phosphorus and Dr. Bowers
Like many people, Dr. J. Milton Bowers was unlucky in love. Unlike many people, the doctor’s ill-fated marriages eventually made him an object of intense interest to the police.
His first wife, Fannie, died of unknown causes in 1874, after they had been married for only a few years. Not long afterwards, he wed a beautiful young actress named Teresa Sherek. Before she too passed away in 1881, the second Mrs. Bowers distinguished herself by publishing a pamphlet titled “The Dance of Life.” This was a rebuttal to “The Dance of Death,” a little book describing the evils of waltzing that was, unbeknownst to the general public, a satirical hoax co-written by a San Francisco journalist named Ambrose Bierce. (Bierce gleefully published reviews of both books, describing them as about equally dreadful.)
Four months after Teresa’s death, Bowers married one of his patients, a young widow named Cecilia Levy. Four years later, Cecilia, like Bowers’ previous brides, mysteriously sickened and died.
Knowing the good doctor’s “if at first you don’t succeed…” spirit, this pattern could have run on for years, except for the fact that some anonymous observer felt that enough was enough. The day after Cecilia Bowers died, the San Francisco city coroner got an unsigned letter strongly advising that her demise deserved a little investigation.
Coroner O’Donnell was obviously a man who could take a hint. He ordered an inquest into Mrs. Bowers’ death, which was held on November 3, 1885. The hearing uncovered nothing that seemed unusual. The deceased had been ill for about two months before she died. She was attended by two outside physicians, as Dr. Bowers felt it was improper to treat members of his own family. He and these other doctors all agreed that she had died of an abscessed liver.
That probably would have been that, if it had not been for some unexpected observers at the inquest: Several representatives of life insurance companies. Life insurance companies where the late Mrs. Bowers had taken out several sizable policies, in favor of her husband. They displayed what was, for Dr. Bowers, a quite distressing cynicism about his wife’s death. At the close of the inquest, they made it clear that they didn’t give two hoots about the medical evidence that had been presented. They wanted an autopsy.
Dr. Bowers, as he had been throughout the proceedings, was the picture of amicable cooperation. The only objection that he made was that his wife’s funeral had already been arranged, and delay would be a great inconvenience. A compromise was reached: the service would be held as planned, but the body would then be returned to the undertaking parlor for the autopsy.
However, the day after the funeral, the doctors who were to perform the examination found that Mrs. Bowers’ body had disappeared. It was finally discovered that, contrary to the agreed-upon plans, Dr. Bowers had had his wife buried immediately after the service. The body was swiftly exhumed.
This bit of double-dealing made everyone suddenly very suspicious of Dr. Bowers. These suspicions were soon confirmed when the autopsy uncovered the fact that his wife had actually died of phosphorus poisoning. That very same day, he was arrested and charged with murder.
Bowers’ maintained his usual unruffled demeanor. In no time at all, he asserted, his name would be cleared. He would not be such a fool, he said, to use a substance such as phosphorus that would permeate the entire system. (The irresistible interpretation: "Hey, I'm a better poisoner than that!")
When a reporter commented on his string of marriages, the doctor smiled and said, “I’d get married twenty times if I chose.”
Considering his track record, that must have been a chilling thought for the women of San Francisco.
In the meantime, the police were busy digging into Bowers’ past, where they found some very interesting details. For one, they discovered that his medical practice was almost exclusively devoted to performing abortions, which netted him a quite handsome living. Five years earlier, he was charged with petty larceny, a trial which ended in a hung jury. Acquaintances described him as a boastful womanizer, an abusive stepfather, and a wife-beater. Henry Benhayon, Cecelia Bowers’ brother, all but point-blank accused his former brother-in-law (whom he had always disliked) of murder. And, of course, everyone was becoming increasingly curious about the early deaths of the first two Mrs. Bowers. The only friends Bowers seemed to have left were his nurse, Charlotte Zeissing, and Teresa Farrell, a former maid in his household. Those two stood alone in describing the doctor as a loving husband and altogether saintly figure.
Bowers’ trial was heavy on complicated medical and chemical evidence, which produced the usual muddled results. To make a very long story short, the prosecution argued that phosphorus, and only phosphorus, could have been responsible for Cecilia Bowers’ death, while the defense claimed with equal certainty that all of those same symptoms,as well as the autopsy findings, could have been the result of natural causes. Hampering the prosecution’s case was the fact that no phosphorus was found in Bowers’ possession, and no solid evidence was uncovered that he had ever obtained any. (There was, however, a good deal of suspicion that the loyal Nurse Zeissing, who had the key to the doctor's office, had swiftly cleared it of anything incriminating.) When Bowers himself took the stand—calm and smiling as always—he simply offered either glib explanations or flat denials for all the accusations against him.
The six-week legal drama was, at that time, the longest murder trial in San Francisco history. However, when it was all over, it only took the jury half an hour to find Bowers guilty of first-degree murder. At his sentencing, Bowers had an unusual request: “Fully knowing that my late dear wife did not die of phosphorus poisoning,” he asked that “I should be placed somewhere with the same surrounding conditions, etc., and a crowd of medical men be around and administer to me as the prosecution has claimed has been administered to my late dear wife. I am willing to show that she did not die of phosphorus poisoning.”
The judge sentenced him to hang instead. Bowers continued to sit in jail while his lawyers appealed the verdict to the State Supreme Court—a process that lingered on for three years.
It was at this point that this seemingly simple, straightforward murder case began to get extremely weird.
In October of 1887—a year and a half after Bowers was convicted—a young man visited a boarding house on San Francisco's Geary Street. After inspecting the building, he asked to rent room number 21. The landlady informed him that the room was currently occupied, but it would be empty the following Saturday. The next day, a second man visited the house and said he had heard room number 21 would be available Saturday. He put down a deposit for the room and obtained the key.
On Sunday morning, a servant entered room 21 to tidy up. He found a dead man lying on the floor. The body was not of the man who had first asked about the room or the man who had rented it; in fact, the landlady had never seen him before. On the table by the bed was a half-empty bottle of whiskey, a bottle of chloroform, and, most ominously, a bottle containing cyanide. The table also contained three letters: One to a local newspaper, one to the city coroner, and one to Dr. J. Milton Bowers. It was soon established that the dead man was Henry Benhayon—Bowers’ vengeful brother-in-law.
The letter to the newspaper requested that they publish an ad asking for the return of a lost memorandum book. The note to Bowers warned him against false friends, advised him that Cecelia had lost a good deal of money in the stock market, and that some diamonds the doctor had bought his wife were fakes. He also asked that his mother not be held responsible for Benhayon’s actions: “I made all the reparation in my power.” The letter to the coroner was a confession that he had poisoned his sister and had intended to also murder Bowers. The message said that his motive had been to become the administrator of the estate of Cecelia’s daughter, where he “would have the benefit of the insurance.”
J. Milton Bowers was finally vindicated! An innocent man was saved from the gallows!
Well…perhaps not. Suspicions soon arose that Benhayon’s death was, in fact, another murder—one designed to get Bowers off the hook. Investigators pointed to the fact that Benhayon’s body was found in an unnaturally composed position. The bottle containing the poison was tightly corked. Cyanide is a very fast-acting poison, making it unlikely that he could have taken a swig from the bottle and reseal it before his death. The pen found with the “confession letters,” which presumably had been utilized to write them, had never been used. People familiar with Benhayon’s writing all asserted that the letters were forgeries. And what of those two other men who were involved with renting the room?
Detectives quickly turned their attention to Bowers’ most devoted supporters, Charlotte Zeissing and Teresa Farrell. Throughout the doctor’s imprisonment, they had visited him virtually every day. Could they have been his agents in staging a diabolical hoax? It had come out during the trial that Farrell was secretly married, to a John Dimmig. (He wed her several years back under the alias of "Wilson," supposedly because "I didn't want the boys to know I was married.") When he was brought before the landlady of the boarding house where Benhayon had died, she immediately identified him as the man who had rented room 21 from her.
Dimmig admitted taking the room, but cheerfully declared that he rented it to spend some quality time with one of his numerous “side issues,” a Miss Timkins. Teresa corroborated his statement. She knew all about his “side issues,” she declared, but chose to take the broad-minded view of such things.
The police were not nearly so tolerant. They promptly charged Dimmig with murder.
The case made against him at his trial looked quite damming. He knew Benhayon well, and often visited Bowers. Shortly before Benhayon’s death, Dimmig had purchased cyanide. (For a “skin ailment,” he shrugged.) Dimmig had recently hired Benhayon to copy some documents for him, presumably to get samples of his victim’s handwriting. The dead man was described as a most unlikely candidate for murder and suicide; a cheerful, well-balanced young man with a promising future and an unwavering belief that Bowers had killed his sister. Dimmig, on the stand, changed his story about why he rented the room (he now said it was "to sell books.") He produced yet another letter, purportedly sent to him from Benhayon just before the latter's death. It said that Benhayon was in "a devilish fix" and needed advice. He asked Dimmig to meet him in...room 21, No. 22 Geary Street. Dimmig stated that as he was busy at the time he received the letter, he just stuffed it in his pocket unopened. He said matter-of-factly that he had not troubled to read the message until after he heard of Benhayon's death. And that was all he knew about the tragedy.
The letters Benhayon supposedly wrote wallowed in the usual utter confusion created when “expert witnesses” collide. To put it most simply, the prosecution’s handwriting experts said the letters were not in Benhayon’s handwriting, while the witnesses for the defense said they were. This Battle of the Experts was probably responsible for the jury’s inability to reach a verdict. Dimmig remained in prison to await a new trial.
In the meantime, these allegations of suicide and deathbed confessions prompted the Supreme Court to order a new trial for Bowers.
At Dimmig’s second trial, the jury found the same difficulty as the first panel in reaching a verdict. When the judge pressed them to come to a decision, they threw up their hands and declared Dimmig “not guilty.” He walked out of the courthouse a free man.
After Bowers had been granted a retrial, he confidently asserted that “No jury will be found to convict me.” He was right. In August 1889, Benhayon’s “suicide” and Dimmig’s acquittal led the DA to agree to dismiss the charges against the doctor. Under those circumstances, he reasoned, trying to obtain a conviction would simply be a waste of public time and money.
After Bowers was freed, he resumed his practice as “a specialist in the treatment of women.” Probably wisely, he did not try to collect the insurance taken out on his wife. Sometime after 1901, he married for the fourth time, and died in 1904. Rather amazingly, his wife survived him.
When Bowers died, he left many unanswered questions as his legacy. How did his first two young wives die? Was Benhayon’s death murder or suicide? Who sent the letter to the coroner urging him to look into Cecelia Bowers’ death? Why were Teresa Farrell and Charlotte Zeissing so devoted to this unctuous little Bluebeard—to the point where they may have been willing to kill for him? Assuming Henry Benhayon's death was the result of foul play, how on earth was Dimmig persuaded to become involved? Was Dr. Bowers responsible for one death, two, three, four, or, conceivably, even more?
We’ll never know.
[Note: Many thanks to the curator of the delightful blog The Pet Museum for picking Verrazano in the Kentucky Derby. OK, so the horse finished fourteenth--after starting from post 14!--but backing him was still fun while it lasted.]