Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight

Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McKnight

by Tobin T. Buhk


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The spring of 1903 proved disastrous for the Murphy family. On April 22, the infant Ruth Murphy died in her crib. Within an hour, her mother, Gertrude, experienced a violent spasm before she, too, died. Ten days later, John Murphy followed his wife and child to the grave after suffering from a crippling convulsion. While neighbors whispered about a curse and physicians feared a contagious disease, Kalkaska County sheriff John W. Creighton and prosecuting attorney Ernest C. Smith searched for answers. As they probed deeper into the suspicious deaths, they uncovered a wicked web of intrigue. And at the center stood a widow in a black taffeta dress.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626192577
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Series: True Crime
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 731,186
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Tobin T. Buhk is a teacher by day and a crime writer by night, a unique moonlighting that began when Buhk did a brief stint as a morgue volunteer, which led to his first two books, Cause of Death and its sequel, Skeletons in the Closet. Buhk is also the author of True Crime Michigan, True Crime in the Civil War and The Shocking Story of Helmuth Schmidt.

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The Wake


Wednesday, April 22, 1903

Carriages lined the dirt road leading to a small white two-story house as relatives came to pay their last respects to Isaiah "John" Murphy's twenty- two-year-old bride, Gertrude, and their three-month-old daughter, Ruth. The young couple had moved in with John's sixty-six-year-old mother, Sarah, while they put the finishing touches on a new home on a nearby forty-acre parcel of land. John's widowed sister, Mary (Murphy) McKnight, and cousin Mary Mullen also lived with Sarah Murphy.

Two days earlier — on April 20 — Gertrude had gone to work at the new house and left Ruth in the care of Mary McKnight. Aunt Mary tucked Ruth into her crib for an afternoon nap. A few hours later, she went to check on the baby and found an appalling sight: Ruth, her skin baby-blue, lay motionless. She had apparently become entangled in the soft bed linen and suffocated.

Gertrude returned around lunchtime. When Mary broke the news about Ruth, she flew into hysterics, wildly gesturing, pacing back and forth and mumbling incoherent ramblings in between loud shrieks. Once Sarah and Mary managed to calm Gertrude, John went to Fife Lake to purchase a coffin from the undertaker Willis Brower.

While he was gone, Gertrude became suddenly ill. She complained of a neck ache and shivered as if she had the grip. Then she experienced a violent convulsion. Her body twitched spasmodically; she foamed at the mouth and threw her head back. Her lips were drawn, exposing her teeth and forming a sinister expression, like she had just seen a demon. She clenched her fists so tightly they turned white, and her balled hands snapped up toward her chest like some malignant puppeteer had yanked strings attached to her arms. The convulsion lasted for a few painful minutes, and then her body appeared to relax, her hands opening and dropping to her sides.

Mary McKnight, who witnessed the terrifying spectacle, had just managed to catch her breath when Gertrude's body began to twitch again. The convulsions came in waves, and she suffered from several more before she stopped moving. Her death occurred with shocking swiftness; she was gone within twenty minutes of the first episode and just an hour after her daughter.

The next morning, Dr. S.E. Neihardt made the trip from South Boardman. After listening to family members describe the symptoms, he concluded that Gertrude died from shock following an epileptic fit. Ruth, he wrote on the official death certificate, died following "spasms." The puzzled doctor didn't list an "immediate cause of death" or a "disease causing death" on the official paperwork.

Ruth and Gertrude Murphy would share a funeral and a coffin.

The Murphy women had prepared the house for a traditional Irish wake. They reversed a large oval mirror that hung on one wall of the parlor, and they stopped the hands of the grandfather clock. The casket was placed in the center of the room, where John stood by the side of his deceased wife. John Murphy glanced at the coffin containing his family. Gertrude held their baby in her arms. They almost looked like they were asleep, as if he could nudge them and they would wake. Gertrude even appeared to be slightly grinning in her slumber.

Sarah Murphy sat in a chair next to her son John and watched as her friends and relatives began filling the room. Men dressed in their best Sunday attire escorted women in black mourning dresses fringed with taffeta and lace.

Thirty-five years of carving out a place in the wilderness had taken their toll on the Murphy matriarch. Stooped over from an arthritic spine, she walked with a slight limp.

In 1870, she and her husband, Isiah, emigrated from Canada and settled in northern Michigan. Isiah worked in the lumber camps during the winter months and tilled a tract of land in the spring and summer. Together, they had five sons and four daughters. Already, the family plot contained the graves of two Murphy children, and the next day, it would grow larger with the addition of a daughter-in-law and a grandchild.

Most of the mourners understood John Murphy's pain. They all knew someone who had passed away unexpectedly. Hewing out a living from the area's forests was difficult labor and dangerous for northern Michigan's pioneer families. Accidents and disease claimed lives every year, but the Murphy family had endured more than their share of tragedy. Some even said they were cursed. Sarah and Isiah Murphy lost their eighteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, to unknown causes in 1894. Later that same year, Isiah passed away.

On December 3, 1902, Willie Murphy was killed in a tragic hunting accident. While Willie was walking through Maple Forest Township in Crawford County, a local named Asa Valentine mistook him for a deer. Valentine's shot struck Willie in the throat, tearing through his neck and spine. Paralyzed, he crumpled to the ground and screamed for help.

Valentine followed the screams and found Willie, motionless, in a heap. He ran for help, but by the time he returned, twenty-one-year-old William Murphy was dead. Ironically, the Grayling Avalanche noted in its December 3 article about the accident that "Murphy was afraid of the fool hunters who infest the woods and had put on a red sweater for protection." The wake took place just a few weeks before the family celebrated Christmas.

Mary Mullen stood next to Sarah, holding her hand. The twenty-eight- year-old adored Mama Murphy, who looked after her as a mother would. Sarah always shook a stick at people who mocked Mary or called her "touched."

Mary McKnight also stood next to Sarah. She knew, perhaps more than anyone in the room, the pain John felt with the passing of Gertrude and Ruth. She had lost both of her husbands and all five of her children. Three died in infancy and two died of diphtheria before they reached the age of five.

Gertrude's father and mother — Anson and Mary Ward — made the trip from Otsego Lake to say goodbye to their eldest child. Mary Ward shrieked when she saw Gertrude in the casket at the front of the parlor. She fell to her knees and began to sob. Anson put his hand on her trembling shoulder and thought of Gertrude's wedding day. It seemed like just yesterday he had given his daughter away in marriage, and she was so happy.

After a brief pause, Anson led his wife to where John stood. Mary Ward threw her arms around her son-in-law and kissed him on the cheek.

John's eldest brother, James Murphy, escorted his wife, Jennie, to the front of the parlor, where they both knelt and whispered a prayer. James and Jennie lived in Crawford County, where James worked a spread of land while Jennie looked after their three children. Just a little over a year earlier, they had lost their daughter Fern to scarlet fever.

Sarah Murphy squeezed John's hand when she noticed his younger brothers Danny and Charley enter the parlor. Danny Murphy walked over to the coffin, got down on one knee and muttered a prayer before approaching his brother. Overcome with emotion, he hugged John. Charley followed Danny's lead, first offering a prayer and then greeting John at the reception line.

Bracing herself on her husband's (William) arm, John's older sister Margaret (Murphy) Chalker approached the coffin. She gasped when she saw the baby in Gertrude's arms and covered her face with a gloved hand. William Chalker wrapped his arm around her waist and led her to John.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she embraced him. Johnny always looked after her and her sisters, and when Papa died, he had become the head of the family at twenty-four. Like her mother, Margaret knew the range of emotions John would experience in the coming months: an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness followed by an empty, hollow feeling. In 1893, her daughter Eliza had become ill after afternoon tea with Aunt Mary McKnight. She suffered from several seizures before she died.

Margaret unclenched her arms from John's neck. Her husband handed her a handkerchief, which she used to dry her cheeks, and they joined her brothers in the back of the parlor.

As Margaret moved toward the back of the room, her younger sister Martha (Murphy) Woodard and her husband, Jerome, approached the casket. After a brief prayer, Martha whispered something in John's ear before joining the others.

Dr. Perly W. Pearsall, with his wife, Adella, by his side, followed the Woodards. Dr. Pearsall had known the family for years, making periodic house calls from his Fife Lake office. When he visited the Murphy place on the afternoon Gertrude died, Sarah Murphy had escorted him to the upstairs room, where he found Gertrude's body sprawled out on the bed.

The position of her body indicated the agony she suffered in her last few minutes of life. Her still-clenched fists were pulled up to her chest, and the froth at the corners of her mouth had turned into an off-white crust. Pearsall thought that Gertrude suffered from an epileptic fit, but one thing particularly bothered him: Gertrude's limbs hadn't become flaccid before rigor mortis set in. They remained rigid in the hours immediately after her death as if frozen in some battle with an unknown enemy. He knew that a violent seizure could cause a rapid onset of rigor mortis, but the description of Gertrude's convulsions didn't sound like other epileptic seizures that Pearsall had witnessed. He was left with a vague sense that something wasn't quite right.

Unlike the other mourners, Pearsall paused at the coffin. The undertaker did excellent work, he thought as he recalled the strange conversation he'd had with William Wilson, who helped embalm the bodies in preparation for the wake. Wilson remarked that Gertrude's limbs were so stiff he had to push with all his strength just to straighten them. Pearsall shook his head and approached the grief-stricken husband. He grasped John's hand and held it for a few moments.

Joe Battenfield followed Dr. Pearsall. Battenfield lived about a quarter of a mile away from the Murphy farm. He had known the family for over twenty years. After Isiah passed away, Sarah Murphy often called on him when she needed help with something.

For the next two hours, neighbors continued to pour into the parlor.

Family and friends remained at the Murphy homestead throughout the evening. In the tradition of the Irish wake, they toasted the deceased with a spread of food and spirits supplied by the Murphy clan. Tears turned to reverent chuckling as those who knew Gertrude shared humorous anecdotes. The last revelers said their farewells just before midnight.

The next day, the mourners gathered at the Springfield Cemetery, where Gertrude and Ruth Murphy were buried together in a family plot that already included Isiah, Sarah and William Murphy.

The ground over the new graves would still be loose when the gravediggers returned. Just ten days later, the Murphy curse would claim yet another victim whose death would lead to one of the most notorious criminal cases in the area's history.

In the weeks to come, several of the mourners would become caught in a web of suspicion, innuendo and allegation. Joe Battenfield would become a key witness in a murder investigation. A skeleton in Dan Murphy's closet would cause his neighbors to suspect him of foul play. Cousin Mary Mullen would spend a few hours behind bars for a crime she didn't commit. Margaret Chalker would publicly stand by one of her sisters although whispers of alleged wrongdoing would shake her faith to the core.

And standing at the center of the web would be a shadowy figure in a black taffeta dress, a woman who would become known as Michigan's Lucrezia Borgia.


"It's No Good, Joe, I Am Dying"


Saturday, May 2, 1903

"Hold me down!"

Joe Battenfield heard the shrill cry from the upstairs bedroom as soon as he entered the Murphy house. He raced up the stairs of the small two- story farmhouse, taking the steps two at a time. Sarah Murphy hobbled up the stairs behind him to the same bedroom where, less than two weeks earlier, John's wife, Gertrude, had died.

Battenfield knew the Murphy family well. Sometimes when he ventured into nearby Fife Lake for supplies, he would pick up things for Sarah Murphy or her widowed daughter, Mary McKnight. Just four days earlier, on April 29, Mary had asked him to pick up the mail, to call on Dr. Pearsall to request a house call and to purchase five cents of strychnine — she wanted to kill some field mice that had gotten into the cellar. Battenfield dutifully bought the poison at LaBar's Drugstore and gave it to Mary Mullen when he passed by on his return trip.

If the Murphys needed something, it was usually John or Mary who did the asking. Their father, Isiah, passed away in 1894, leaving the farm in the hands of his widow, Sarah. In April, she celebrated her sixty-sixth birthday, but years of carving out a life in the north woods and raising nine children had taken their toll. She didn't get around as well as she used to and relied more and more on her children for the day-to-day business of the farm.

At about 9:00 p.m., Sarah Murphy appeared on Battenfield's doorstep. She was frantic and winded. Despite temperatures in the forties, beads of sweat covered her forehead. In between gasps for breath, she managed to explain. John had experienced sudden convulsions and crippling pain that left him prostrate in bed — the same strange symptoms Gertrude had experienced just before she died. Sarah feared John was to be the next victim of this awful curse that seemed to plague the Murphy clan, so she made a beeline for Battenfield's. She begged Joe to come at once and bring along a bottle of camphor.

Inside the bedroom, Joe found a disturbing sight: John Murphy lying across the bed with his back arched so severely that his weight rested on the crown of his head. His hands were drawn up as if he was reaching in his vest pockets for something, and his legs were stretched straight out with his feet on the floor. His face was distorted, his lips were pulled back in a forced grin and his eyes were wide open. It looked like every muscle in his body was flexed. John's older sister Mary stood by the side of the bed, holding his hand.

"Joe," John managed to utter when he noticed his longtime friend enter the room. Battenfield reached into his pocket for the bottle of camphor and asked Mary to give John some salt. Mary fished a salt tablet out of a dish at the foot of the bed and placed it in John's hand. For a few seconds, John appeared to relax. His back flattened and his hands dropped to his sides.

Joe pulled the cork from the bottle and placed it in front of John's nose. "It's no good, Joe," John groaned. "I am dying."

"It cannot be that you are dying, John," Battenfield responded in disbelief.

"Yes, I am gone," John muttered.

Then, with a suddenness that startled Joe Battenfield, John's body convulsed in a violent spasm. His back arched, pulling his hands up to his chest and forcing his bodyweight back onto his head.

"Hold me down!" John screamed in agony. "My feet will come right up." In an attempt to pin down John's legs, Joe braced his right knee against John's.

The convulsion lasted for a few terrifying seconds. "It was just a minute. Almost like a moment, a few moments at least. His face was relaxed and he was gone," Battenfield later recalled. He couldn't believe how fast it all happened. He had been there for only three to five minutes before John died.

When Mary realized John was gone, she began to sob.

Later that night, Joe helped Mary prepare John's body for the funeral. After Mary bathed her baby brother's body, she and Joe dressed John in his Sunday's best. It was a real struggle; oddly, John's body remained stiff as a board.

Dr. Pearsall viewed the body a few hours later. John's arms and legs, Pearsall noticed, were still rigid. Typically, the limbs would become soft before rigor mortis caused them to stiffen, usually four or more hours after death unless some other factor changed the process. Several family members told Pearsall that John suffered from a long-term problem with asthma. During particularly troubling spells, they said, John clawed at the air as he gasped for breath. A severe asthma attack could, Pearsall knew, in some cases lead to a seizure.

He also knew that a violent death involving such a convulsion could lead to the rapid onset of rigor mortis. Just two weeks earlier, Gertrude Murphy had died after suffering from an identical wave of seizures, and he had noticed this same rigidity in her limbs. But the two deaths were too similar to be explained away as mere coincidence. Pearsall left the bedroom with a sense that he was once again missing something.

Somewhat baffled by the symptoms, Dr. S.E. Neihardt listed John's cause of death as shock following an asthma attack. He decided not to conduct a postmortem but wondered about the presence of a contagious and potentially fatal disease.

John Murphy was buried three days later at the Springfield Cemetery alongside his beloved Gertrude and Ruth. Joe Battenfield missed the funeral. Terrified by the possibility of a contagious and lethal disease plaguing the Murphy family, Dr. Neihardt placed Joe in quarantine.


Excerpted from "Michigan's Strychnine Saint"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Tobin T. Buhk.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Introduction 9

Part 1 Death Suits Her

1 The Wake 15

2 "It's No Good Joe, I Am Dying" 25

3 All in the Family 31

4 "Don't You Ever Let Them Dig Me Up" 39

Part 2 Rumor Has It

5 The Birdcage 49

6 Skeletons in Her Closet 53

7 Confession 63

8 The Michigan Borgia 69

9 Examination 77

Part 3 The People V. Mary McKnight

10 The Trial of the Century 105

11 The Case for the Defense 119

12 "They Imitated Lucretia Borgia" 127

13 Verdict 131

Part 4 Epilogue

14 The Fates of the Players 137

15 There's Something about Mary 157

Timeline 169

Notes 171

Bibliography 185

About the Author 189

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