"...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 15, 2021

The Fatal Wedding Cake

"Pomona Bulletin," March 17, 1923, via Newspapers.com

It has been noted that poisonings are often among the most difficult murders to solve, for the simple reason that the guilty party does not have to even be near their victim in order to kill them.  An outstanding example of that is this undeservedly obscure case.

To all outward appearances, William and Martha Sterrett of Devon, Pennsylvania seemed a thoroughly uninteresting couple.  William, an accountant, was one of those people who attracted little notice, either positive or negative.  Some of their neighbors thought Mrs. Sterrett was a bit standoffish, but they had nothing else to say against her.  The childless couple, who were both in their thirties, were quiet people, who caused no trouble and attracted no trouble.

That changed very abruptly on October 26, 1922.

Around midday, Mrs. Sterrett went to the post office to collect the mail.  When the postmistress handed her a large parcel marked “Special delivery,” Mrs. Sterrett expressed surprise, commenting,”I wonder whom this could be from?”  The package, with the typewritten address, “Mrs. W.W. Sterrett,” contained a round tin box, about ten inches in diameter.  It was postmarked “Philadelphia, Pa.,” but gave no indication who had sent it.  It had been mailed at the Penn Square postal station, very close to William’s office.

When Mrs. Sterrett returned home, she opened the parcel, to find that it contained two slices of what appeared to be a wedding cake.  Presuming that it had been sent by some friend who had forgotten to include his or her name, she put the cake on the dinner table, as a dessert treat for her husband.

People who blithely eat or drink food items sent anonymously to them usually prove to be a boon for true-crime writers, and, sadly, the Sterretts were no exception.  Within an hour after eating the cake, William was taken very ill.  His symptoms quickly became so dire that his wife frantically phoned the family physician, Dr. John Spangler.  Before her marriage, Martha had been a trained nurse, and immediately recognized the signs of poisoning.  She knew her husband needed a stomach pump as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, it was several hours before she was able to reach him.  In the meantime, another doctor, Ella Williams, was called in.  By the time Dr. Spangler finally arrived, Mrs. Sterrett was also ill.  During the night, a neighbor stayed with the couple, but by morning the condition of both had so deteriorated that they were brought to Bryn Mawr hospital.

The cake was clearly the source of their illness, but as the Sterretts had eaten every crumb, it was impossible to immediately know what sort of poison it had contained.  However, the fact that the couple displayed markedly different symptoms--William was vomiting and obviously violently ill, while Martha merely fell into a strange lethargy, as if she had been drugged--led police to suspect that different poisons were put in the two pieces.  

On the night of October 28, William Sterrett died.  Although Mrs. Sterrett was hospitalized for some time, she eventually recovered.  The coroner’s autopsy on William showed that he had died from ingesting an impressive amount of arsenic.

This was one of those cases where the police were almost immediately stymied.  From all they could find, the Sterretts had led frustratingly model lives.  Their marriage, as far as their friends and relatives knew, was a perfectly happy one, and they had no known enemies.  The associate manager of Price, Waterhouse, & Co., the firm which employed William, could not imagine why anyone would want to kill him or his wife.  “Sterrett was one of the most popular men in the office,” he told a reporter.  “Everyone liked him.  He was regular in his duties and had absolutely no sporting proclivities that I know of...Sterrett had no business enemies and no personal enemies that I know of.  I am sure of this.”  Everyone who knew the couple delivered similar tributes.  It is, of course, a very good thing to lead an exemplary life, but it is of no help whatsoever when investigators are trying to find your murderer.

The neat way in which the package of death had been wrapped and addressed led police to believe a woman had sent the cake.  Could jealousy have been the motive?  Was the intended victim really Mrs. Sterrett?  It was pointed out that the mailing of the parcel had been timed to reach Devon at a time when Mrs. Sterrett would be alone, and that there was scarcely enough cake for one person, let alone two.  She could easily have eaten it all herself, if she hadn’t chosen to save some for her husband, who was known to have a sweet tooth.   If Martha was indeed the target, that possible clue went nowhere.  Everyone who knew William was adamant that during the years of his marriage, he had not shown the slightest interest in any other woman, and no one could imagine any other motive for poisoning Mrs. Sterrett.  In early November, it was reported that the police were searching for a man who had escaped from the West Chester Asylum three days before the Sterretts received the poisoned cake.  This man had worked with Sterrett eight years before, and had been put in the asylum for poisoning animals and attempting to do the same with children.  I have been unable to find if they ever captured this man, but in any case this lead also fizzled.  The coroner was unable to even hold an inquest into William’s death, due to the lack of any one tangible thing upon which the jury might return a verdict.

Mrs. Sterrett was, naturally, extensively questioned by the police, but she was unable to tell them anything helpful.  At one point, the authorities appear to have regarded her as a possible suspect, but they were able to verify every statement she gave them, and she had an alibi for the time the cake was mailed.  In the beginning of November, it was announced that the typewriter used to create the address label on the fatal parcel had been found in New Jersey, and the newspapers reported eagerly that an arrest in the case was imminent.  However, if this story was true, it proved to be one more dead end.  By November 3, it was being reported that the case was at a complete standstill.  Within two weeks after William died, the authorities were publicly admitting defeat.  In January 1923, Mrs. Sterrett appealed to the county DA to reopen the investigation, but if this was done, the second inquiry was no more successful than the first.  The case quickly went “cold,” and cold it has remained to this day.


  1. The fact that Mrs Sterrett's poisoning was much less serious than her husband's might suggest that she poisoned herself - a little - to avoid suspicion that she had poisoned her husband - a lot. But nothing else would suggest that. I imagine the police looked into insurance claims as much as they had the Sterretts' personal relations. And Mrs Sterrett would probably have not tried to get the case re-opened if she were the culprit; those double-bluffs are not found much in real life.

    1. Although she showed different symptoms, it sounds like Mrs. Sterrett was genuinely very ill; at one point, the newspapers reported that she wasn't expected to live. She never remarried and, as far as I know, William wasn't heavily insured. Outsiders can never really know what goes on in a marriage, but Martha had no obvious motive, and at least appeared to be genuinely distraught when she learned of his death.

  2. Certainly a weird, disturbing case. Was there any information on how the police tracked down the typewriter in NJ, from Pennsylvania? An Agatha-Christie-like twist would have Mrs. Sterret as the murderer, mailing the poisoned slices to herself and then encouraging her husband to eat the arsenic-soaked slice while she ate the safer one with the drug, to throw off suspicion. But that would presume Mrs. Sterret as a criminal mastermind of almost psychopathic cunning and nerve.

    1. No, there wasn't much information of any sort published about the reported discovery of the typewriter. In fact, that story disappeared from the papers so quickly I suspect it may have been a hoax.

    2. The discovered typewriter sounds more like a rumor that got published. I would bet there was no such discovery.


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