Authors: Harold Schechter
Sarah, however, seemed strangely dismayed at the sight of her sister. After spending a few minutes quizzing Annie about her health, she asked to speak to Mrs. Marshall in private.
Retreating to the kitchen, Sarah told Mrs. Marshall about a terrible dream she’d had the night before. In it, Annie had gotten sicker and sicker, until she had wasted into a skeleton.
“I just know she’ll never get any better,” Sarah exclaimed as she finished describing the nightmare.
getting better,” Mrs. Marshall replied, seeking to reassure the obviously distraught older woman.
But Sarah would not be consoled. “Whenever I
have a dream like that,” she said, “there is always one of the family who dies.”
Later that day, after Prince Arthur returned home from work, Sarah persuaded him to dismiss Mrs. Randall. Why waste good money to pay for a nurse when she herself could tend to Annie? To demonstrate the point, she proceeded to fix her sister a nice bowl of oatmeal gruel and a cup of freshly brewed tea. Both appeared to have a strangely bitter quality to Annie, though her sense of taste had been so impaired by her illness that she could not really be sure.
That night, Annie took a sudden and devastating turn for the worse. She was overcome with nausea, and seized with savage stomach pains. She lay awake all night, alternately retching into the chamber pot and writhing on her mattress in agony. When Dr. Davidson arrived for his morning visit, he was completely bewildered by her altered condition. Only one day earlier, his patient had been well on the way to recovery. Now, she had not merely suffered a setback; she had begun to display an entirely new set of symptoms. Davidson prescribed a common nineteenth-century remedy for acute gastric distress: bismuth phosphate, each dose to be dissolved in three parts water and taken at regular intervals.
In spite of the medicine—faithfully administered by Sarah, who made sure that her sister swallowed every sip of the doctored water—Annie continued to grow worse. In addition to her other symptoms, she was stricken with a ferocious burning in the pit of her stomach. She begged for anything to soothe the pain. Sarah bought her some ice cream, and fed it to her a few spoonfuls at a time. But the ice cream only made Annie’s nausea worse, and intensified the vomiting
until she was bringing up nothing but a thin, blood-streaked fluid.
When Susan Marshall came by several days later, she was shocked at her friend’s transformation. The last time she’d visited, Annie had clearly been on the mend, her strength returning, her appearance improved. Now—as Mrs. Marshall would later testify—her “features were very much bloated,” and her complexion was of a ghastly “discolored” hue. It was clear to Mrs. Marshall that her friend wasn’t suffering from “any ordinary sickness.” Her throat was so constricted that she could barely speak, though she did manage to voice a desperate plea for something cold to drink, to ease the dreadful burning in her stomach. She was afflicted with a blinding headache, overwhelming nausea, and another, deeply puzzling, symptom—terrible cramps in the calves of her legs. Even with the opium that Dr. Davidson had prescribed to alleviate the poor woman’s suffering, she remained in an almost constant state of agony, groaning miserably and rolling back and forth on her mattress.
Utterly aghast, Mrs. Marshall questioned Sarah about this sudden, inexplicable reversal in Annie’s condition. “We have been doing all we can for her,” Sarah replied, shaking her head mournfully. “But I do not expect that she will ever leave her bed.” Then, after a brief pause, she gave a heavy sigh and added: “It is happening just as in my dream.”
On February 27, 1885—slightly more than a week after Sarah came to care for her sister—Annie Freeman died in the presence of her weeping husband, several grief-stricken friends, and her dry-eyed older sister.
Sarah Jane Robinson’s dream had come true.
No sooner had Annie emitted her last, tortured
breath than Sarah asked to speak to Mrs. Marshall and another family friend, Mrs. Mary L. Moore. Much to the consternation of the two sorrowing women, Sarah—who seemed bizarrely unaffected by her sister’s death—wanted to discuss a matter of obviously paramount importance to her. She wanted them to use whatever influence they possessed to persuade Prince Arthur to come live with her, along with his two children. It was, she declared, her sister’s last wish. To be sure, no one had heard Annie express such a desire in her final days. But then, no one had spent as much time in the dying woman’s company as Sarah, who had remained at her sister’s side night and day, refusing to allow anyone else to feed her or to administer her medication.
Mrs. Marshall and Mrs. Moore promised to do everything in their power to see that Annie’s last wish was honored.
The last shovelful of dirt had barely been tossed onto Annie Freeman’s grave when Sarah herself spoke to Prince Arthur, telling him the same flagrant lie that she had told Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Marshall: that Annie had expressly wanted him and the two children to come live in Sarah’s home. The stricken man—who had just seen his beloved wife vanish forever into the ground—seemed too stunned to think clearly about the subject, though he did permit Sarah to take his two small children home with her to Boylston Street that night. He himself followed a few weeks later, taking up residence at the home of Sarah Jane Robinson in early April 1885.
Three weeks later, Prince Arthur suffered a second devastating blow when his one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, developed a sudden case of “intestinal catarrh.”
Sarah gave little Elizabeth the same watchful care that she had lavished on the baby’s mother, and with the same results. In the last week of April, Elizabeth died in great distress and was laid in the ground beside her mother.
Immediately after the child’s funeral, Sarah sat her brother-in-law down at the kitchen table and explained what must be done. Like other laboring men of the time, Prince Arthur belonged to a “mutual assessment and cooperative society”—the United Order of Pilgrim Fathers of Boston—whose main function was to provide low-cost life insurance to its working-class members. He owned a policy worth $2,000. Annie, of course, had been the beneficiary. Now that she was gone and Prince Arthur and his remaining child—a six-year-old boy named Thomas—were residing with Sarah, it was only reasonable that
be made the beneficiary. That way, little Thomas was sure to be well taken care of. Just in case anything unfortunate should happen to Prince Arthur.
One month later, on May 31, 1885, Prince Arthur’s $2,000 life insurance policy was made over to his sister-in-law, Mrs. Sarah Jane Robinson.
Almost immediately, people around Sarah began to notice a dramatic shift in her attitude toward Prince Arthur. Ever since the deaths of his wife and infant daughter, she had treated him with utmost kindness and consideration. Suddenly, he became a constant source of annoyance to her. It was as though she no longer had the slightest use for him. And she didn’t hesitate to let others know exactly how she felt.
During the first week of June, for example, a friend named Belle Clough dropped by Sarah’s apartment for a cup of chamomile tea and some neighborly gossip. As
they sat at the kitchen table, Sarah suddenly burst into a bitter denunciation of her brother-in-law. He was “worthless”—“good-for-nothing”—“too lazy to earn a living.” His wages amounted to only six dollars a week, half of which he spent on trolley fare. She ended her harangue with a comment whose sheer vehemence caused Mrs. Clough to raise her eyebrows in surprise.
“I wish,” said Sarah, virtually spitting out the words, “that
had died instead of my poor sister.”
Just a few days later, Sarah was seated at the same table, this time with her twenty-five-year-old daughter, Lizzie. They were eating a modest supper of boiled beets and codfish. All of a sudden, Sarah gave a violent shudder and went deathly pale.
“Mama, what’s wrong?” Lizzie cried in alarm.
Sarah passed a hand across her eyes. “I felt a ghost tap me on the shoulder,” she replied.
Though Lizzie herself had never experienced such supernatural visitations, she knew that her mother was particularly prone to them. Sarah was often possessed by dark forebodings regarding family members, and her premonitions had an uncanny way of coming true.
“Did he say anything?” asked Lizzie.
Sarah nodded. “He said he would be coming for someone in the family.” Here, she emitted a theatrical sigh before adding sadly: “I shouldn’t wonder if something happened to your uncle very soon.”
The ghost proved remarkably prescient. Just a few days later, on June 17, 1885, Prince Arthur and Sarah were seated in the parlor, when—apropos of nothing—she announced that it would be a good idea if he paid an immediate visit to his mother. Given the precarious nature of human existence, it might be his last chance to see her.
Prince Arthur was inclined to take his sister-in-law’s words to heart. He, too, believed that she possessed a strange, prophetic gift. After all, hadn’t she foreseen the death of his wife, when everyone else, even Dr. Davidson, had been so optimistic? Now, she appeared to have been visited by some dark apprehension regarding his mother. And it was certainly true that the old lady had been in a bad way since taking a fall the previous winter and fracturing her left hip. Early the following day, he set out for Charlestown.
When he arrived at his mother’s home, he was relieved to find her in generally sound health and good spirits. Though still hobbling around with a cane and unable to travel, she seemed more energetic than she’d been in months. When he explained the reason for the unexpected visit, she pooh-poohed Sarah’s grim premonition.
“Why, I’m fit as a fiddle,” she declared. She planned to be around for a good many years to come. Prince Arthur stayed long enough to share a meal with his mother—ham simmered in milk, boiled potatoes, sweet pickles—before kissing her good-bye and heading back to Cambridge.
It turned out to be their final farewell—just as Sarah Jane Robinson had intended.
On the morning of June 22, 1885, after finishing the bowl of oatmeal and molasses Sarah had prepared for his breakfast, Prince Arthur set off for his job at the Norwegian Steel and Iron Company in South Boston. He hadn’t gotten very far when he was suddenly overcome with nausea. Staggering into an alleyway, he threw up his breakfast. Feeling slightly better, he continued on his way. It wasn’t long, however, before the sickness returned.
Just then, an acquaintance named F. J. Hayes happened by. At his first glimpse of Prince Arthur, Hayes could see that something was wrong.
“Are you all right, Mr. Freeman?” he asked. “You do not look at all well.”
“I’m feeling awfully queer in the stomach,” Prince Arthur admitted.
“Well, if I was you,” said Hayes, “I’d turn right around and go home.”
“I can’t,” said Prince Arthur, wincing at the spasms in his bowels. “I’ve already missed a considerable number of days on account of sickness, and I am only getting paid six dollars a week. I have to look out for my family.”
He continued on his way to the foundry, but by the time he arrived, he was feeling so wretched that his boss insisted he go home.
A short time later, he arrived back at his sister-inlaw’s flat on Boylston Street. Strangely, she seemed unsurprised to see him—almost as if she’d been expecting him to return. She put him to bed and fixed him a cup of tea, which he was unable to keep down. Throughout the day, she fed him small amounts of strange-tasting water, telling him that it was mixed with bismuth phosphate.
“Here,” she said, holding the glass to his lips. “It will make you feel better.”
But the nausea and stomach pains only grew worse.
That evening, Sarah told her daughter, Lizzie, that the message she had received from her dead husband’s ghost appeared to be coming true. “I fear your uncle will never get out of bed again,” she said, arranging her features into a suitably somber expression.
The following afternoon, Prince Arthur received a
visit from Dr. John T. G. Nichols, a physician who resided on the same block as Sarah. Nichols—as he would later testify—found the patient suffering from “headache, vomiting, pain in the stomach, thirst, quick pulse, and low elevation in temperature.” He prescribed the usual remedies—mustard and milk, lime water, soda water, opium. In spite of these measures, however, the symptoms grew worse over the next several days. By Wednesday, June 24, the baffled physician summoned a colleague, Dr. Driver of Cambridge, who—like Nichols—could find no sign of organic disease.
It was Driver who first raised the possibility that the patient might have been exposed to some sort of “irritant poison.” Questioning Mrs. Robinson, they discovered that Prince Arthur spent his days at the foundry immersing iron bars in an acid bath, a process known as “pickling.” The doctors, however, were inclined to doubt that even prolonged exposure to the fumes of sulfuric acid could produce such a devastating sickness.
Was it possible, they inquired, that her brother-inlaw had inadvertently ingested arsenic? Such accidents were not uncommon. People who used it as rat poison were often surprisingly careless in handling the stuff, using household utensils to sprinkle it around the floorboards, then neglecting to wash the implements with sufficient care.
Mrs. Robinson dismissed the notion out of hand. She never kept arsenic around the house. If the doctors wished, they were welcome to examine her cupboards and utensils. Nichols and Driver declined her offer. After all, Mrs. Robinson was clearly such a nice person—so frank and natural in her responses—that
there was no reason to doubt her. As Nichols would later put it, “there was nothing in her behavior to warrant the slightest suspicion.”
Two days later, Prince Arthur’s last hope for survival arrived in the form of his older sister, Mrs. Catherine Melvin, who had just gotten word of his desperate condition. At her first glimpse of her brother, she let out an involuntary gasp. She had heard that he was very sick, but she was unprepared for the sheer ghastliness of his suffering. Face contorted, frame shockingly wasted, he thrashed back and forth on the mattress, while begging for something—
—to ease the terrible pain in his stomach.