"...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, August 5, 2019

Strychnine in the Ale: The Puzzling Murder of Almon Farnsworth

"Rutland Herald," February 13, 1872, via Newspapers.com


Poisonings are often notoriously tricky murder cases to solve. Resolution usually comes when the guilty party is obliging enough to have a very obvious motive, and very obvious access to both the poison and the victim. If the case is lacking any of these factors, even the most skilled detectives can easily have an unsolvable riddle on their hands. One now-forgotten, but highly intriguing example took place in Hermon, New York, early in 1872. It is a classic "clue-free murder": very short, very simply-told, and very baffling.

The scene of our little crime was the Farnsworth Hotel, owned by one Almon Farnsworth. Farnsworth was an ordinary, respectable citizen who made a good living and appeared to have no real enemies. On the evening of January 22, the hotel was particularly full. A traveling phrenologist was plying his popular, if quackish trade in the sitting room, drawing many Hermonites eager to have their true characters "revealed" by the shapes of their skulls. If only the phrenologist had the ability to determine who was plotting a murder, our story would have ended very differently.

A little after 8 p.m., one of the hotel's regulars went into the bar for some ale. Almon's son Theron refilled the ale pitcher and placed it on a shelf under the counter. About one hour later, Almon went behind the bar to refresh himself from this pitcher. He drank a glass of ale and went off to treat himself to the lecture on phrenology.

However, the hotelkeeper almost instantly began to feel "very queer." His limbs began tingling oddly. Within a few minutes, he went into seizures. By the time a doctor was summoned, Farnsworth was having convulsions, but the stricken man was just able to say that he had been poisoned by the ale. He died at 9:30.

The doctor, E.G. Seymour, immediately confiscated the remaining ale. He instantly recognized the symptoms of strychnine poisoning--a suspicion that was confirmed by giving a dose of the ale to an unfortunate cat, who suffered an agonizing death within ten minutes. The coroner's jury had little difficulty determining that Almon Farnsworth died as a result of drinking ale that had been laced with strychnine--judging by the swiftness of Farnsworth's end, a lot of strychnine. The problem was, who put the poison in the pitcher, and why? All that could be ascertained was that one or two people drank from the pitcher just a few moments before Almon took his deadly glass, giving a very small window of time for the poison to have been added.

Unfortunately, it seemed that pretty much anyone in the crowded hotel could have had access to the pitcher, leading to a grand amount of rumor-mongering, wild theorizing, and general finger-pointing. In the words of a "Burlington Democrat" reporter, "Men looked upon each other with doubt and distrust. Suspicion was in the very air." At first, it looked like investigators had themselves a first-rate suspect. It emerged that one Oscar Brown had once boarded with Farnsworth, and then left owing a large amount of back rent. The two had been violently quarreling about the matter. Brown was a morose, solitary man who was not generally liked or respected in the community--in short, he made an excellent target. Even more ominously, a witness claimed that a few months before, he had seen Brown buying poison from Mr. Healy, the town druggist.

Case closed! Well, not quite. Healy spoiled everyone's fun by vehemently denying that he had sold a package of strychnine to Brown, or to anyone else for that matter. The charges against Brown were abruptly dropped, and everyone went looking for more suspects.

Next to be scrutinized were the victim's own sons, Theron and Amos. After all, it was Theron who was the last person to refill the fatal pitcher. It was known that the dead man had quarreled with his sons over financial issues. A man named Marshall Reed came forward with a claim that he had been peeping through a hotel window on the evening of the poisoning, when he saw Theron take a pitcher from behind the counter and pass it to one Halsted Smith. Smith them took from his pocket a small paper packet containing a "white powder," which he shook into the pitcher. Alas for Mr. Reed's credibility, he did not tell anyone of what he allegedly saw until his good friend, Oscar Brown, was about to go to trial for the murder. Besides, if the Farnsworth sons had anything to do with the poisoning, wouldn't their very first action have been to dispose of the pitcher and its damming contents?

Despite the weakness of this evidence, prosecutors were obviously anxious to charge someone--anyone--with the murder. The Farnsworths and Halsted Smith soon found themselves indicted by the Grand Jury and thrown in jail to await their trial, which took place in March 1874.

The case against the trio was, to be blunt, pitifully thin. Aside from Reed's rather suspiciously helpful testimony, there were other witnesses who claimed to have seen Smith and the Farnsworths huddled together talking at various times in on the fatal evening: information that could mean something, or mean precisely nothing. No one seemed to have any clear recollection about who had been in the barroom when. On a more interesting note, it was pointed out that, on the previous summer, Halsted Smith had fired a gun at Almon Farnsworth. Smith insisted that he had just been joking around--indulging in the sort of light pleasantry that makes small-town life a joy. He added, perhaps unwisely, that if he had really wanted to shoot Almon, he would not have missed.

It proved to be one of the most anticlimactic murder trials in New York history. In his opening statement, defense attorney W.H. Sawyer swiftly shredded Reed's testimony for its multiple improbabilities and inconsistencies, then pointed out that without Reed, there was literally no case against his clients. After examining the other witnesses, Sawyer asked the District Attorney, J.R. Brinkerhoff, if he felt there was enough evidence to justify bringing the case to the jury. Brinkerhoff had to concede that now that Sawyer mentioned it, no, there really wasn't. The jury, without even bothering to leave their seats, acquitted the prisoners.

The trial was over. Unfortunately, so was any effort to find the poisoner of Almon Farnsworth. The residents of Harmon had to live with the fact that someone in their town--possibly their neighbor, possibly their best friend, possibly their husband--got away with murder. No one could even say for certain that Farnsworth had been the intended target, which must have added to the general air of unease.

I imagine that it took some time for anyone in Harmon to have any real desire for a glass of ale. Particularly if they were unsure who had poured it.

4 comments:

  1. The board game Clue taught us that murder weapons could be diverse.
    My favorite version of the game, Clue Master Detective, featured
    eight potential weapons: candlestick, lead pipe, wrench, horseshoe,
    poison, rope, knife, and of course, the revolver....

    And of course..Strychnine is a white, odorless, bitter
    crystalline powder that can be taken by mouth, inhaled,
    or mixed in a solution and given intravenously....
    (injected directly into a vein). Strychnine is a strong
    poison; only a small amount is needed to produce severe
    effects in people...

    AND...it has been used in the past as a medicine. Strychnine
    was once prescribed as a remedy for heart and respiratory
    complaints and as a stimulant. It is no longer used today
    because the size of an effective dose would be toxic...

    Great..Nice thorough read..love anything to do with crime,
    especially murder..it's always fascinating..as long as they
    keep writing books and making films about it..keeps me focused,
    and busy..!

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's strange that authroities didn't seem to look elsewhere than Healy's chemist's shop for the source of the poison; perhaps Brown had bought it after all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I get the impression that the police who investigated the murder would not exactly have been confused with Hercule Poirot.

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  3. The difficulty with suspecting the sons is, as you point out, the timing. If several people had drunk the ale before the unfortunate victim, how would the sons know when their father would take a drink? It's always possible that he may have said something in passing to the sons ("I'm off to take a swig of ale," something like that), but then, that means one of the sons would have had to nip into the room and poison the brew before his father got there, and without being seen. I'm thinking maybe the police got some details or the chronology wrong. Or someone committed the perfect crime.

    ReplyDelete

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