"...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, June 27, 2022

The Man Who Wanted to Be Murdered

"I lay my head on the railroad track 
And wait for the Double E 
The railroad don't run no more 
Poor poor pitiful me." ~Warren Zevon

"Omaha News," September 2, 1908, via Newspapers.com

Dr. Frederick T. Rustin wanted to die.  Although he had wealth and a respected position in Omaha, Nebraska society, he was increasingly depressed and morbid.  He turned to drink, drugs, and “evil companions.”  As a result, his reputation, his finances and his career all began to suffer.  All of this just increased his feelings that he had had enough of this world.  However, he wanted his family to be able to collect on his life insurance policies, so he did not want his death ruled a suicide.

This resulted in some of the most extraordinary attempts at self-destruction on record.  They began in 1903, when Rustin told friends that he had malignant throat cancer.  Apparently, he had injected himself with the cancer cells, but despite his dramatic pronouncement, months went by finding him still alive.

His next step was to obtain through a bacteriological laboratory tubes containing pure tetanus and typhoid cultures.  Two weeks later, he came down with typhoid of the most severe type.  For weeks, he lay on his bed, feverish and suffering, but distressingly alive.  He repeatedly injected more of the culture into his veins until he became too delirious to continue.

Months later, he emerged from what for any normal person would be a deathbed, body bowed but resolution definitely unshaken.  Next, he tried the tetanus.  However, no matter how much of the stuff he injected into his leg, he remained appallingly immune.

He turned to more direct measures.  After a train in which he was a passenger was wrecked, he quickly opened a vein in his wrist, but—never forget the gods have a very strange sense of humor—this man who so ardently pursued death remained indestructible.

By this time, Rustin was getting exasperated with all these artistic touches.  He brushed off the pleas of friends that he should take a hint and forget about suicide, vowing, “The next time I try it there will be no doubt about it.  I will be successful.”

Finally, in one way or another, he was.  On September 2, 1908, Rustin was found on the front porch of his house with a bullet wound to the abdomen.  “A man shot me!” he gasped before dying.  There was no gun found anywhere in the vicinity, and there were no powder burns on his body, which would suggest he had not been shot at close range.  However, his friends, knowing of both his determination and his cunning, assumed he had somehow engineered a diabolically clever way to shoot himself.

It turned out that perhaps he had—but if so, it was not as clever as he had thought.

Nine days after the murder, a Dr. J. P. Lord identified a man named Charles E. Davis as the man he had seen leaving the Rustin house minutes after the murder.  Davis was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown woman suddenly entered the story: Abbie Rice, Rustin’s mistress.  When called to the stand at Rustin’s inquest, she claimed that there had been a “triple death compact” between Rustin, Davis, and herself.  Rustin, she explained, had pleaded with her to shoot him, so that his death would not look like suicide.  When she refused, he persuaded Davis to do the job.  Davis had a taste for suicide attempts himself, with equally unsuccessful results.  The deal, Rice said, was that Davis would shoot Rustin, after which he would swallow the poison Rustin had previously given him.  Rice added that she now regretted the promise she had given Rustin to kill herself as soon as he was dead.  She now planned, she said, to become a nurse in a charity hospital, “in the hope of thus expiating her sins.”

At Davis’ trial, Rice’s testimony was, unsurprisingly, battled every step of the way by his lawyer, but her story finally emerged.  For many weeks before his death, she said, Rustin “trained” her to murder him.  He would take her to operations, to numb her to the sight of blood.  He then preached to her of the nobleness of self-sacrifice, giving her books such as “A Tale of Two Cities” where one friend sacrificed his life for another.  Sydney Carton, she said, was his favorite fictional character.  He also impressed upon her the fact that he could not kill himself without his family losing his life insurance.  “I guess I’ll have to get some one to kill me,” he would say to her meaningfully.

She could take a hint.  Unfortunately for all the care the Doctor had put into her training, she found that at the last minute, she couldn’t do it.  They made several attempts to “stage” her murder of him, but to Rustin’s indignation, she just could not bring herself to actually pull the trigger.  “The training had not been complete, and I failed him.”

Then, one day Rustin came to her in unusually good spirits.  He told her he had arranged for a man to kill him, someone who wanted to die as badly as he did:  Charles Edward Davis.  

The best laid plans, etc.  Davis did indeed try to kill himself after Rustin’s shooting, but with the peculiar perversity that characterized this whole saga, he met yet another failure.  He took so much of the poison at one time that it acted as an emetic.  And Rice herself was brought in by the police before she could fulfill her part of this ghoulish bargain.  She kept silent for several days, but when she overheard someone comment, “Well, the doctor’s wife gets the insurance anyhow,” the whole story came out of her like a flood.

Davis’ defense was simply that he had indeed obtained poison from the doctor with the intention of killing himself, but he was not Rustin’s murderer.  He claimed he was in his lodgings at the time of the shooting.  (Davis may have wanted to end his life, but he obviously jibbed at the thought of letting the state do it for him.)

After thirteen hours of deliberation and, it was said, nineteen ballots, the jury brought in a verdict of “not guilty,” and Davis was freed.  It is not known whether the jury believed Davis’ alibi and rejected Rice’s story, or whether they believed the lady and figured that the good doctor had merely gotten what he wanted.

It was announced that no further prosecutions in Rustin’s murder were expected unless new evidence was uncovered.  To no one’s surprise, it never was.

[Note: Rustin's widow did "get the insurance anyhow," but only after many years of litigation against the insurance companies, who insisted, not unreasonably, that Frederick had indeed committed suicide.  All of Rustin's curious efforts to do away with himself without directly doing away with himself were very nearly in vain.]


  1. No wonder people nowadays choose "suicide by cop" so often.

  2. If it weren't all true, it would make for an effective comedy movie. Davis was lucky the jury let him off, though there seems just room enough for doubt. I wonder what happened to Davis; if anything would have cured him of wanting to kill himself, the legal problems of it alone should have.


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