"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Case of the Poisonous Picnic

In this week's post, let's talk about the first day of summer. Picture a family picnic in beautiful, quiet American countryside. What could be more idyllic, more serene, more removed from the problems and horrors of life...

...Oh, come on now. This is my blog we're talking about. Meet the Simmons family of Simmons Corners, Indiana, who win the Strange Company prize for Worst Picnic Ever.

On June 21, 1931, the Simmons clan held their annual family reunion. On this particular year, they chose to celebrate with a picnic held at Memorial Park in Lebanon, about 60 miles from Simmons Corners. The family was well-off, and seemingly happy and united. The gathering appeared to be pleasantly uneventful until one picnicker noticed something odd about his chicken sandwich: it contained capsules full of white powder. (Before you ask, the name of this person was not given in any of the newspaper reports.)

Sensibly enough, he declined to eat his sandwich. Not so sensibly, he omitted to tell anyone there of what he had found. Instead, he silently left the park and took the sandwich to a nearby doctor's office. The doctor treated the find rather casually. He did not bother testing the capsules. He simply shrugged and opined that they might contain quinine.

Because, of course, quinine is such a common condiment for chicken sandwiches.

The picnicker returned to the park, only to find that while he had been gone, others had also received capsule-laced sandwiches. However, these less fussy diners had opted to eat them, although they all noted that the food had a curiously bitter flavor.

They very soon realized this was a bad move. These five people--Lester Carr, Horace Jackson, John W. Simmons, and John's two young daughters, Alice Jean and Virginia--quickly became seriously ill, and were taken to the hospital. The adults all survived, but by the end of the day, 10-year-old Alice and 14-year-old Virginia were both dead. The sandwiches were so toxic that birds who ate crumbs left from the food also perished.

Alice and Virginia Simmons

It was soon determined that the capsules had contained strychnine. Some pickled beets served at the picnic were found to also be sprinkled with the poison. But when was this food doctored, why was this done, and, most importantly, who wanted to wipe out the Simmons clan in such a cruel and seemingly indeterminate fashion?

The first part of the above question was the only one that provided easy answers. The capsules could only have been added either when the sandwiches were first prepared, or when the Simmons family stopped en route to the park to visit with a distant relative, Isaac Pollard. During this stop, the car containing the sandwiches had been left unattended for about an hour. Curiously, only twelve of the eighteen sandwiches had been poisoned, making the act seem less like an attempted mass murder and more like a warped game of "Russian Roulette." And if you wished to poison someone, serving them capsule sandwiches seemed like an almost comically obvious way to go about it. It was looking like the murderer was not just a fiend, but also an idiot.

As for who poisoned the sandwiches and beets, the obvious main suspect was the person who had prepared the food: John Simmons' wife, Carrie. Although she vehemently insisted that she was as mystified by the poisonings as anyone else, on July 3 she was indicted for the murder of her two daughters. Her trial opened on September 27.

It soon became clear that the only reason Mrs. Simmons was charged with the crime was that the authorities could not find anyone else to blame. The fact that she had fixed the chicken sandwiches was literally the only evidence against her. Prosecutors were utterly unable to present the slightest reason why this seemingly sane, normal woman would want anyone, particularly her two little girls, to die an agonizing death. Carrie's surviving family members--her husband John and children Elizabeth, George, and Dale--all strenuously declared their belief in her complete innocence.

An apparent bombshell moment came when a druggist named Charles Friedman testified that on June 18, he had sold Mrs. Simmons sixty grains of strychnine. Unfortunately for the prosecution, two days after Friedman told his story, a woman named Louise Robinson took the stand and asserted that Friedman had been mistaken. She herself had bought the strychnine on the day in question, not the defendant. When confronted with this witness, Friedman admitted his error.

Another druggist testified that a few days before the fatal picnic, he had sold strychnine to Mrs. Simmons' brother-in-law, Horace Jackson--the same Horace Jackson who had been among the poisoning victims. However, when cross-examined, the druggist had to admit that he could not be certain Jackson was really his customer. (Interestingly, it emerged that Jackson had recently spent time in prison for violating the Mann Act. He had blamed John and Carrie Simmons for his arrest. He had also been the last person seen outside the Simmons car during their visit to Isaac Pollard.)

Some of the most valuable testimony came from a Mrs. Claude White. She was a stranger to the Simmons family, but the case so intrigued her that she decided to play detective. This Midwestern Marple fixed a bunch of chicken sandwiches that she liberally laced with strychnine capsules. She discovered that the capsules dissolved fairly quickly. However, the ones eaten at the picnic had been virtually intact. This suggested that the capsules had not been placed in the sandwiches when they were first prepared, but were added some considerable time later--most likely, when the Simmonses stopped over at the Pollard home. In short, although Carrie Simmons undoubtedly fixed the sandwiches, she was not necessarily the one who poisoned them.

So, who else might have tampered with the food? No one had any idea.

The jurors were faced with an unenviable dilemma. There was no proof that the defendant poisoned her family, but, on the other hand, there was nothing to actually vindicate her. The panel was left hopelessly deadlocked, voting eight to four for acquittal. Afterward, some of the jurors said that while they didn't buy the suggestion made by the defense that Horace Jackson was the murderer, they also couldn't see Carrie Simmons as the killer. They simply had no idea who was the guilty party.

The State brooded over the matter for a while, with the prosecuting attorneys finally deciding that a second trial would be a waste of time. In May 1933, all charges against Carrie Simmons were formally dropped.

The mystery of who was responsible for the deaths of Alice and Virginia Simmons is still unsolved. Someone went to his or her grave with a very nasty secret on their conscience.

[Note: Eerily enough, this was not the first time the Simmons family was connected to a bizarre murder case. In 1917, Carrie's father, Benton L. Barrett, was tried in Santa Monica, California for the murder of his second wife, Irene, and her son, Raymond Wright. Barrett voluntarily confessed to the murders (he had recently learned that his new wife was an adulteress and con artist who was only after his money.) He claimed that he had incinerated the bodies in his back yard and thrown the remains in a cesspool. This cesspool was searched and, sure enough, an assortment of bones was found. However, at his trial, some fairly convincing evidence was presented that Irene and Raymond were still very much alive, having fled to Canada. (If such was the case, no one was able to say just whose bones were in that cesspool.) The jury found Barrett "not guilty by reason of insanity," and he spent the rest of his life in Patton State Hospital.]


  1. What a chilling story: the seemingly random act, which could very well have killed the perpetrator for all we know. Very disturbing.

  2. What sort of menu did this family usually have that sandwiches topped with bitter tasting capsules was not considered unusual???

    On the other hand I'll bet they had no problem with ants at the picnic.


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