"...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, November 26, 2018

The Laurel Hill Poisonings

"Hazelton Sentinel," February 4, 1884, via Newspapers.com

On January 31, 1884, Mrs. Catherine Collier (or Collyer) of Laurel Hill, Long Island, went to the butcher’s and bought onions and beef. She used her purchases to make soup and a hash for dinner. That evening, she, her husband Thomas, and their two-year-old daughter Annie all ate the meal. Thomas, however, complained the food was too peppery, and declined to eat very much of it. Catherine and Annie, however, ate without noticing anything unusual.

Very soon, it became evident that there was something extremely unusual indeed about the meal. Thomas was struck with agonizing stomach pains and constant vomiting. Catherine fell ill as well, but only many hours later. Little Annie was completely unaffected, even though she had eaten the same food as her parents.

The next day, Catherine died. Thomas began to recover, and it was assumed he would survive. A few days later, however, he had a sudden relapse, and also passed away. Autopsies showed the two had died from arsenic poisoning. The remaining portion of their dinner was analyzed, and found to be full of arsenic. No poison was found in their house, and it was a puzzle how it got into the food, considering their daughter had eaten the same meal with no ill effects.

The mystery only deepened when the authorities exhumed the body of Catherine’s father, Dennis Cowhey, who had died suddenly only two weeks previously. It was found that he, too, had ingested large amounts of arsenic.

Cowhey’s two surviving children, John and Annie Cowhey, were arrested for murder. The theory was that they committed this triple homicide in order to get sole possession of their father’s money (which amounted to about $2,000 in cash and real estate.) Annie “kept house” for her widowed father, and had prepared the beefsteak he ate immediately before becoming ill. She also admitted having bought rat poison on more than one occasion. However, she and her brother denied their guilt in the strongest terms.

Public opinion strongly supported John and Annie’s innocence, (they both had excellent reputations,) and the case against them immediately fell apart from lack of evidence. No proof was ever found that the “Rough on Rats” Annie bought had been the source of the arsenic. Relations between all members of the Cowhey/Collier families were said to have been extremely harmonious. John and Annie were soon released.

There was another minor mystery associated with the case. After Dennis Cowhey died, his relations made an unsuccessful search for his bank book. (He had not left a will, but his children agreed to split his estate equally between them.) After the Colliers died, Thomas’ mother, while going through her son’s possessions, found the bank book. No one knew how it got into his possession. According to John Cowhey, the Colliers had always denied knowing where it was.

Who poisoned Dennis Cowhey and the Colliers? The inquest was no help at all in answering that question. The verdict of the coroner’s jury was that the Colliers had died of arsenic poisoning, but they declined to say how it was administered. Popular rumor had it that Mrs. Collier had poisoned her father in order to prevent him from remarrying, and then “went insane” and killed herself and her husband.

This strikes me as a very unsatisfactory solution, but that seems to have been the last word about the crime.

This is one of those cases full of nagging questions left unanswered by the contemporary newspaper accounts. If Dennis Cowhey’s daughter did not poison him, who did? There was no evidence anyone other than Annie had access to the meal which killed him. But how could she have also poisoned the Colliers? Neither she nor her brother had the opportunity to doctor their food. There is an equal lack of evidence that any outside party had the motive or opportunity to poison any of the trio.

If Catherine Collier was guilty, how did she manage to murder her father? And why? Why go on to kill her husband and herself? Why was Thomas Collier the only one of his household to complain about the “peppery” quality of the food? If the hash and soup were what poisoned them, how did their daughter escape the wholesale slaughter?

Who knows?

1 comment:

  1. My first thought is that Thomas Collier (or Collyer) did it, but it is of course based solely on very flimsy evidence. His mention of the food's taste could be establishing an alibi in that he could have pointed out that he actually suggested something was amiss. He avoided killing his daughter but killed his wife to get her father's money; his bankbook was already in Collier's possession. He had murdered his father-in-law earlier (waiting perhaps day after day until he had a chance to poison his meal). Collier ate some of his own poison to avoid suspicion, but ate too much.

    A fictional mystery could use that as a frame-work, but in real life, it's no more than the loosest of theories.


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