Authors: Harold Schechter
Her cell contained a window overlooking the prison yard. Flowers bloomed directly below the window, and vines clung to the wall. “But Mrs. Robinson sees them not,” wrote the reporter. “The glazed glass shuts out the scene,” allowing daylight into the room but affording her no glimpse of the outside world. Once a day, for the space of an hour, when the other prisoners were inside, she was allowed to take a stroll around the yard, an attendant guarding her every step.
Though she confessed that she was not especially fond of prison life, Mrs. Robinson never complained. However grim her existence, she had “never tried to escape, never thought of suicide. She calls herself a philosopher and grows fat.”
The supervisor of the jail, Sheriff Fairbairn, considered her a model inmate. “Never was there a more tractable, calm, contented prisoner,” he declared. “She gives no trouble and never did.” When the commissioners asked if there was anything she needed, she replied that she had “everything she wanted.” She enjoyed her occasional chats with the chaplain. She was permitted to borrow one book a week from the prison
library. Invariably she chose religious works, her favorites being
The Lives of the Saints
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
. She regarded herself as a deeply devout person—“just as she did fifteen years ago,” the reporter dryly noted, “when she was poisoning her own family.”
As for the object of his visit—learning her thoughts on America’s latest homegrown “Borgia”—the reporter came away disappointed. Shut away from the world, Mrs. Robinson had never heard of Nurse Jane Toppan—another homicidal nurturer whose own eating habits would eventually become a matter of keen public interest.
Prof. Wood has evidence which will prove beyond a doubt that the arsenic found in the bodies, and which caused death, was not in the preservatives injected by the undertaker. These women were murdered by the administration of arsenic which they took with their food or drink.
T WAS COMMONLY BELIEVED THAT—LIKE
Robinson and Lydia Sherman before her—Nurse Toppan had dispatched her victims with arsenic. Dr. William Lathrop, for example, was clearly operating under this assumption when he argued that, since Oramel Brigham had displayed no symptoms of “arsenical poisoning” the previous summer, his illness could not have been caused by Nurse Toppan. Neither Lathrop nor any other authority saw fit to question the findings of Professor Edward Wood of the Harvard Medical School, whose chemical analysis had turned up significant amounts of arsenic in the viscera of Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs—“enough to have depopulated the summer colony at Cataumet,” according to the
. Wood, after all, was the country’s leading forensic expert. He had been involved in hundreds of criminal cases. His testimony had been instrumental in the conviction of Mrs. Robinson. And he had been a star witness at the most
sensational murder case of the day, that of the Falls River parricide, Lizzie Borden.
It was only natural, therefore, that, in building its case against the suspect, the government began by attempting to tie Jane to the ostensible murder weapon—“to find evidence connecting Nurse Toppan to the purchase or acquisition of arsenic,” as the
put it. No sooner had Jane been taken into custody than detectives began visiting pharmacies in Falmouth where, according to unverified reports, she had bought her arsenic. They were hoping, the
wrote, “to locate any druggist who remembers having sold the deadly compound to Miss Toppan.”
Nothing came of their efforts. Within days of Jane’s arrest, papers were reporting that “there is at least one missing link in the government’s chain of evidence against Miss Toppan. The government has failed to ascertain that Miss Toppan purchased at any place or any time any arsenic, the poison of which Prof. Wood says he found in the stomachs of Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Gibbs.”
There was a very good reason for this failure. Jane had never made such a purchase in Falmouth or elsewhere. In the long course of her murderous career she had never resorted to arsenic. Professor Wood, it turned out, had come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. Jane’s Cataumet victims had, in fact, been murdered—but not with arsenic.
How, then, did this substance end up in such lethal quantities in the intestines of the two sisters? The answer was provided by a gentleman named W. C. Davis. Davis (who was unrelated to the Cataumet clan murdered by Jane) was the owner of a large furniture store on Main Street in Falmouth. He was also the
local undertaker, who had prepared the bodies of Minnie Gibbs and Genevieve Gordon for burial. Interviewed at his funeral parlor on Friday, November 1, Davis revealed that arsenic was a main ingredient in his embalming fluid.
Davis’s revelation was a godsend for the defense. Jane’s attorney, James Stuart Murphy, was now free to argue that Genevieve Gordon and Minnie Gibbs had died of natural causes, just as his client claimed, and that their organs had become infused with arsenic during the embalming process.
The press took immediate note of the state’s vulnerability on this point. “It is understood here that the embalming fluid that the undertaker used in the preservation of the bodies of Mrs. Gordon and Mrs. Gibbs contained large quantities of arsenic,” one newspaper reported on Saturday, November 2. “If the undertaker filled the cavities of the bodies of the members of the Davis family with fluid that contained arsenic, it is asked how can the government prove that there were traces of that poison in the body of Mrs. Gibbs before her death and that it was arsenical poisoning that caused her demise?”
In spite of this serious flaw in their case, authorities doggedly stuck to their belief that Nurse Toppan had murdered her victims with arsenic. Interviewed in Boston on Sunday, November 3, District Attorney Lemuel Holmes stated unequivocally that the “arsenic found in the intestines of the Davis sisters had been administered by way of the mouth” and “could not have been any residue of the embalming fluid.”
By the following day, however, authorities were offering a revised theory. An unnamed official, quoted in the
, acknowledged that the arsenic
may indeed have come from W. C. Davis’s embalming fluid. He pointed out, however, that Nurse Toppan was known to be in the “habit of assisting the undertaker in preparation of bodies for burial.” “What would have been easier for her,” he proposed, “than obtaining the arsenical solution used for embalming purposes and subsequently giving it to her patients in the Hunyadi water many of them seem to have been given?”
With the continuing failure of the police to find a druggist who had ever sold arsenic to Jane, this theory quickly gained ground, since it identified a possible source of the poison she had presumably used on her victims—a link between the suspect and the ostensible murder weapon. Without such a link, the prosecution would be forced to build its case on the notion of “exclusive opportunity”—i.e., the theory that Jane
to be the killer since no one else had been alone with the victims. The state wasn’t eager to resort to this argument, which had been made, to no avail, at the Lizzie Borden trial.
In their blind faith in Dr. Wood, it seems never to have occurred to District Attorney Holmes or any other official that the professor was wrong and that Jane’s victims hadn’t been poisoned with arsenic at all. There was, however, one man who arrived at precisely that conclusion. Not only did he harbor serious doubts about Wood’s findings; he had an alternate theory about Jane’s MO that would prove to be startlingly correct. This unlikely individual wasn’t a physician or a chemistry professor or an officer of the law. He was none other than Captain Paul Gibbs—the “bluff old veteran of the sea” (as the newspapers never tired of describing him) whose suspicions of Nurse
Toppan had helped lead to her arrest in the first place.
In their search for any scrap of information regarding Jane, reporters lost no time in tracking down Captain Gibbs. The first to interview him was a writer for the
, who found the old man seated on a wheelbarrow at the sandy edge of the Drinnell estate in Cataumet, contemplating the waters of Buzzards Bay. No sooner had the reporter introduced himself than Gibbs—who hadn’t seen a paper in several days—eagerly asked for the latest news about Professor Wood’s analysis. The young man’s reply—that massive amounts of arsenic had been found in the viscera of both Genevieve Gordon and Captain Gibbs’s daughter-in-law, Minnie—left the old sailor deeply troubled.
Bowing his head, he stood silently for several moments, so deeply lost in thought that he seemed to forget about the reporter. When the latter finally asked what was wrong, Captain Gibbs shook his head and replied: “I’m surprised to hear that arsenic was detected in the bodies. I suspected that they had been poisoned, but I didn’t think Jennie Toppan would use anything as easily detected as arsenic.”
Even more striking than this response—which revealed a shrewder understanding of Jane’s criminal cunning than the police or prosecuting attorneys seemed to possess—was the old man’s next statement. When the reporter asked what sort of poison he believed Nurse Toppan had used, Captain Gibbs said that he “thought it might be found that Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Gordon had been killed by morphia and atropia.” He then went on to explain “that atropia expanded the pupils of the eyes, whereas morphia contracted them, so that if a person had been killed by
these poisons, the pupils of the eyes would practically be in their normal state, and to detect the traces of poison would naturally be very difficult.”
Exactly how the long-retired fishing-boat captain knew so much about morphine and atropine was never explained. Evidently, Captain Gibbs was one of those practical, hard-headed Yankees who took a keen interest in the way things work, and who—in the course of his seventy years—had picked up information on a wide range of subjects, including the physiological effects of the opiates so freely dispensed by the physicians of his day. In any event, his speculations would turn out to be remarkably precise, putting the authoritative pronouncements of the experts to shame.
Gibbs went on to describe some of the things that had stirred his suspicions of Nurse Toppan. “She tried to make us believe that Mrs. Gordon committed suicide by taking Paris Green by injection,” the old man told the reporter. “She said she threw the syringe into the lavatory.” State Detective Whitney, however, had dug around in the outhouse muck and managed to locate the syringe, which had been sent to Professor Wood’s laboratory for chemical analysis. No trace of the lethal insecticide had been found.
There were also the odd circumstances surrounding the shockingly abrupt death of his daughter-in-law, Minnie. According to Gibbs, the young woman was “as well as could be on the Monday before her death. We were all at Falmouth, and when we came back that evening she was lively and in the best of spirits.”
The very next morning, however, Gibbs “was called to the Davis house, being told that Minnie was very sick. We knew she was not a rugged woman, but still it was strange that she could be taken so quick and in such
a peculiar manner. She lay on her bed with her eyes partly open, barely breathing. I took hold of her hand and she could not speak. The next morning she was dead. Jennie Toppan had been caring for her all the time.” Later that same day, Genevieve’s widower, Harry, took the old captain aside and told him that, during the last hours of her illness, Minnie had seemed “afraid of Jennie Toppan, shrinking away from her whenever she came into the room.”
On the subject of Jane’s motives, Gibbs was firmly convinced that Nurse Toppan had perpetrated her outrages for the most mundane of reasons: money. According to the old man, Jane—who owed several hundred dollars to the Davis family—had asked Minnie to sign a paper relieving her of the debt. “This my daughter-in-law refused to do,” said the old man grimly. “And so she died.”
Gibbs also claimed that Alden Davis had received $500 as repayment of a loan shortly before his death. In fact, he was still carrying it around in his pocket when he took ill. The money had subsequently vanished without a trace. The old sailor insisted that Jennie Toppan—who had prepared Alden’s body for burial—was “the only person who had the opportunity to take it.”
Captain Gibbs’s accusations—which he shared with other reporters—became immediate front-page news. “MOTIVE WAS TO GET CASH!” trumpeted the
. “DID JANE TOPPAN KILL FOR MONEY?” read the headline of the
—which had learned of Jane’s amorous designs on Oramel Brigham (including her efforts to blackmail him by claiming that he had gotten her pregnant) ran a variation of the theme in its Saturday headline:
“MARRIAGE AND MONEY—MISS TOPPAN EVIDENTLY DESIRED BOTH.”
Deacon Brigham himself—who had previously attributed Jane’s actions to morphine addiction—now seemed inclined to believe that she had been driven by mercenary motives, as Captain Gibbs claimed. Jane, it turned out, owed Brigham $800. Dr. Lathrop’s opinions notwithstanding, the deacon remained convinced that he had been poisoned by Nurse Toppan the previous summer. Was it possible that she had tried to do away with him in order to avoid repaying the debt?