"...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, September 10, 2018

The Admiral Faces a Mutiny

The most puzzling murderers are not necessarily the ones who are never caught. They are often the ones who are caught, put on trial, and then, thanks to some quirk of fate, get clean away with it.

A prime example is the peculiar death of Rear Admiral Joseph Giles Eaton—a case now completely forgotten, but which, for a brief period early in the 20th century, was the “crime of the century” du jour.

Eaton was born in Alabama in 1847. A graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, in 1867 he served as part of Farragut’s fleet, and went on to many other naval assignments around the world. After his long and distinguished career, he was made commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1905.

Joseph Eaton, via  Dracut Historical Society

In 1871, he married Mary Ann Varnum. Their only child died at the age of thirteen. Early in 1906, Mrs. Eaton fell ill with what was diagnosed as “cerebral apoplexy.” After her death in February, her nurse, a Mrs. Jennie May Ainsworth, took up residence in the Eaton household, along with her two children. The Admiral had been led to believe she was a widow, but in fact she was still married to a D. G. Ainsworth. In July, Mrs. Ainsworth obtained a divorce from her husband, (it was only then that Eaton learned she was married,) and two weeks later she and Joseph Eaton wed. The newlyweds settled down in Assinippi, Massachusetts.

Jennie Eaton, via Library of Congress

Eaton’s second marriage was troubled almost from the start. If the new Mrs. Eaton was to be believed, this highly-respected, accomplished Admiral was in reality a first-rate monster. In August of 1909, the couple announced the birth of a son. It did not come out until later that the child was not biologically related to either of the parents, but was an illegitimate newborn whom the Eatons had secretly adopted. The baby suddenly died a few months after his birth, and Mrs. Eaton publicly declared her husband had poisoned him. Her assertions were so loud and insistent that a police investigation was made into the baby’s demise. An autopsy showed no signs of poison or any other foul play, and the matter was dropped.

Unsurprisingly, this caused a rift within the Eaton marriage. Mrs. Eaton moved out of the family home, but although one would think accusations of child-murder would be difficult to forgive or forget on either side, some months later the couple was reconciled. At this time, the household also consisted of Jennie Eaton’s mother, Mrs. George Harrison, and Jennie’s two children, June (whose husband had recently divorced her on the grounds that the child she had recently delivered was not his,) and Dorothy.

As soon as the Eatons had patched things up, Mrs. Eaton was back spreading horrifying stories about her husband’s iniquities. She told the family doctor that her husband was insane, a drug addict who was plotting her murder, and a fiendish womanizer who held orgies in their home and made advances to her own daughters. Oh, and she fully expected him to burn their house down. Eaton himself tried passing all this off as “a joke,” but he once sadly admitted that “they now represent a terrible tragedy.”  When asked his address, Eaton took to replying, "a lunatic asylum."

Little did he know that the lunacy was just getting started. On March 7, 1913, Eaton began suffering terrible stomach pains and vomiting, which he attributed to some fresh pork he had eaten the night before. Early the next morning, his wife called their doctor to announce that the Admiral was dead. He was so startled by the news that he immediately brought in the Medical Examiner to do a thorough investigation. While doing the autopsy, the medical men noticed a number of bottles in Eaton’s room, which the widow told them was probably poison. Before they left, Mrs. Eaton pulled the doctor aside and said “I do not know anything about poison. I never made a study of it,” and asked if he found signs of “homicidal insanity” in her late husband. She went on to state calmly that the Admiral had been a drug addict for years, and had an extensive knowledge of poisons.

After an enormous amount of arsenic was discovered in the dead man’s body—at least eight times the amount that could kill—Mrs. Eaton found herself arrested for murder.

"Washington Post," March 23, 1913, via Newspapers.com

The defense argument was simple: Admiral Eaton had been an insane drunkard and drug addict who finally chose to end his utterly worthless existence. Their witnesses included a doctor who in 1909 had received a letter from Mrs. Eaton stating that her “dangerous, insane” husband had murdered their child, and was now plotting her own poisoning, as well as men who “had heard” allegations that Eaton had been “intemperate in his habits.” Their star witness was an eighty-three year old doctor who testified that he had sold the Admiral 45 grains of arsenic. The force of this man’s assertions was greatly weakened when it was revealed he was a regular guest of the prison system, and was, in fact, currently serving a stretch for performing “illegal operations.”

One of the trial’s most curious moments was when a friend of the Eatons testified that, about eight months before the Admiral’s death, Jennie May confided to her that she had a “wealthy lover” in Chicago who wanted her to leave her husband and marry him. The prosecution presented this as a probable motive for her to turn poisoner, but this rich Chicagoan—who was never identified—was very likely imaginary.

Mrs. Eaton took the stand with the same smiling, unruffled demeanor she had displayed ever since her husband’s death. During her six hours of testimony, she defended her actions and deflected all damaging insinuations with remarkable poise and adroitness, causing one lawyer to describe her as “the most wonderful witness I have ever heard.”

There was conflicting testimony about when Eaton ingested the arsenic. A doctor testifying for the defense opined that there was only one large dose of the poison, which the victim swallowed directly after the mid-day meal the day before his death, at a time when it was established that Mrs. Eaton was not at home. Under cross-examination, however, he admitted that it was also possible that Eaton first took the poison late the following day, and that he could have swallowed several other doses between that time and his death.

In his closing argument, Mrs. Eaton’s attorney described her as a sterling character with no motive to murder her husband. In contrast, the District Attorney portrayed the defendant as a “paranoiac,” whose hallucinations led her to murder. He strongly urged a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Instead, after deliberating for nine hours, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty,” period. As a result, a hitherto highly-respected Naval officer not only suffered an agonizing death, but was posthumously branded a libertine, a drunkard, a drug addict, a murderer, and finally a suicide.

Seven months after Jennie was acquitted, she remarried her first husband. About a year later, her daughter June startled their community with the announcement that a “secret son” of the late Admiral was stalking the family. No one else ever saw any signs of this sinister prowler, and considering that soon afterward, June was committed to a mental hospital, it is safe to assume that she was being harassed by nothing more than a guilty conscience.

In 1918, Jennie May Ainsworth again found herself under arrest, this time for abandoning June’s four-month-old baby in an apartment building. I have been unable to find how this case was resolved. In the 1920s, she and her family were managing a boarding house in Washington, D. C., but after that, this peculiar household disappeared from history.


  1. Wow, what a thoroughly unpleasant - and probably murderous - woman Mrs Eaton / Ainsworth was. She was likely smug, too, confident that she could get away with anything. It's too bad the admiral didn't have a 'secret son', plotting justice.

  2. I doubt that the 120+ year old Jennie is still around but if she is I wouldn't turn my back towards her.

  3. She sounds like the typical attention seeking serial poisoner: likely poisoned the first wife that she was nursing, poisoned the child and then finished off the husband in order to financially benefit. It's hard to understand why anyone found her compelling.


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