"...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, October 1, 2018

The Baltimore Borgia

Elizabeth Wharton, via Newspapers.com

Elizabeth "Ellen" Nugent Wharton was a sparkling ornament to 19th century Baltimore high society. She was, in the words of a contemporary, "highly prepossessing," with a vivacity and charm that won her many admirers.

Sadly, her personal life had more than its share of tragedies. In the late 1860s, her husband, Major Henry Wharton, died suddenly and mysteriously. Not long afterward, her only son, Harry, joined his father in the grave, leaving Mrs. Wharton with no consolation except the large life insurance policies she had taken out on her unfortunate menfolk. When her brother-in-law Edward Wharton and his daughter also passed away during a visit to her home, her friends greatly sympathized with poor Elizabeth. Mrs. Wharton's only remaining close family member was her daughter, Nellie. Nellie Wharton's health also took a dramatic downturn during this period, but fortunately, she survived.

In late June 1871, an old friend, Eugene Van Ness, paid her a friendly social visit. Van Ness, a bookkeeper, kept the records of Mrs. Wharton's accounts at the banking firm of Alexander Brown & Sons. On June 28, another of Mrs. Wharton's friends, General William Scott Ketchum, also came to spend the weekend at her home. The object of his visit was not just pleasure, but business. Some time back, the General had loaned Mrs. Wharton $2,600. He wanted the loan repaid before she set out on a voyage to Europe which was scheduled for the following week.

The ever-hospitable and popular Mrs. Wharton had a full house of weekend guests. Aside from the General, the widow was still playing hostess to Eugene Van Ness and his wife, as well as three or four other friends. It was a cheery, convivial group.

Well, cheery and convivial until the evening of Ketchum's arrival, when both he and Eugene Van Ness became extremely sick. They were too ill to return to their homes. Van Ness remained in an dangerous state for several days, but he eventually recovered. Unfortunately, although Mrs. Wharton was the most attentive of nurses, the General died a week later. One of the last things Ketchum ever said was, "Mrs. Wharton has poisoned me with a glass of lemonade."

Witnesses was inclined to wave off this ungallant statement as a "jocular remark." But when an autopsy was performed on General Ketchum, everyone stopped laughing. This post-mortem revealed that he had some twenty grains of tartar emetic in his system. Ketchum's physician was inspired to examine the glass Van Ness had used before falling ill, and darned if that didn't contain tartar emetic as well.

Mrs. Wharton's preparations for her European trip were abruptly interrupted by her arrest for murder.

While the widow sat in jail awaiting trial, the police found many interesting details about her recent activities. It turned out that she had recently bought a large quantity of tartar emetic. She blandly explained that she had used it all for "a mustard plaster which she placed on her breast."

It also emerged that immediately after Ketchum's death, his waistcoat--which contained Mrs. Wharton's note for the $2,600--had unaccountably vanished. Shortly afterward, it reappeared--minus the note. Mrs. Wharton had an explanation for that, too. She stated that she had repaid the loan--in cash--and the General then destroyed her note. Not only that, but the Ketchum estate owed her $4,000. That was, she said sweetly, the amount of some bonds the General had been holding for her. (These alleged bonds were never found, and Mrs. Wharton had neglected to obtain a receipt for them.)

As for Eugene Van Ness, it turned out that he had been keeping two sets of accounts for Mrs. Wharton: one for official public view, and another, private one, detailing certain dodgy financial transactions she preferred not to let the world know about. (Although Mrs. Wharton came from a wealthy family, she was always recklessly extravagant--she had a particular obsession with fancy clothes--which led to frequent issues with "cash flow.")

Edward Wharton's widow, M.J.A. Wharton, now came forward, asserting that Elizabeth had poisoned Edward and their daughter. She claimed that the motive was that Elizabeth had owed Edward $2,500. She explained that at the time her husband and daughter died, she had accused Elizabeth of their murder, but her relatives dismissed her charges, saying that her "mind was affected."

Meanwhile, the "Baltimore Sun" reported on a curious detail from Elizabeth's early life. When she was twenty, she issued invitations to her upcoming wedding, to a Mr. Williamson. On the appointed day, her many friends and relatives arrived at her family's mansion, eager for the gala event. Miss Nugent, decked out in her lavish bridal finery, greeted them like a queen. The stage was set for a fairytale wedding. All it needed was the groom.

The groom...who never showed up. Servants were set off to find the tardy Mr. Williamson. They returned with the disquieting news that "Mr. Williamson had not contracted the marriage and knew nothing about it." Elizabeth's father, naturally troubled by this episode, spoke of sending the girl to an asylum. Before this could be arranged, she eloped with Henry Wharton, to whom she was said to be "passionately devoted."

Elizabeth was clearly a great deal more interesting than your average Southern society lady.

Mrs. Wharton stood trial only for the death of General Ketchum. Her lawyers managed to get any reference to the suspiciously simultaneous illness of Eugene Van Ness omitted from the evidence presented to the jury. Like most poisoning trials, the case against Mrs. Wharton suffered from a lack of direct evidence. Even though she had unquestionably purchased tartar emetic, no one had actually seen her actually put any of it in the drinks and medicines she served Ketchum. The motive offered was also fairly unconvincing. Mrs. Wharton was a well-to-do woman who, her lawyers argued, had no need to murder one of her oldest and dearest friends for the sake of $2,600.

Mrs. Wharton's trial, via Newspapers.com

As is usually also the case with alleged poisonings, her trial was dominated by a battle between medical "experts." The doctors brought in by the prosecution argued that General Ketchum had died as the result of poisoning by tartar emetic. The defense, however, presented an impressive team of physicians who insisted that the chemical analyses done by the prosecution experts were hopelessly inept and inaccurate. These worthies--with the aid of a working model of Ketchum's stomach, which must have greatly entertained jurors--maintained that the General had died from perfectly natural causes, such as "cerebro-spinal meningitis."

As so often happens When Experts Collide, the jury was left in a state of utter confusion, leaving them no alternative but to acquit Mrs. Wharton. She was still under indictment for the poisoning of Eugene Van Ness, but after the fiasco of the Ketchum trial, the State threw up its hands and dropped that charge, leaving Mrs. Wharton free as the proverbial bird.

I regret to say that Baltimoreans failed to share the court's confidence in Mrs. Wharton's innocence, and the nickname given to her by contemporary newspapers--"The Baltimore Borgia"--had an unflattering tendency to stick. As crime historian Edmund Pearson noted, "a number of years had to pass before there was any real rivalry for an invitation to one of her week-end parties."


  1. The fact that she killed so freely - and her early fantastical engagement - suggests that Mrs Wharton was, in medical parlance, a bit of a loon.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.