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Authors: Harold Schechter

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Over her sister-in-law’s protests, Mrs. Melvin immediately assumed the role of nurse. She sat at Prince Arthur’s bedside throughout the night, soothing his forehead with a moist compress and feeding him small sips of brandy, along with the medication prescribed by Dr. Nichols: tincture of nux vomica, two drops every hour.

When Nichols arrived early the next day for his morning visit, he was relieved to find that Prince Arthur’s condition had grown no worse. He was even more gratified when he returned that afternoon. For the first time since the onset of his mysterious sickness, the patient actually seemed slightly improved.

That night, Sarah urged her sister-in-law to get some sleep.
She
would resume the care of Prince Arthur. Mrs. Melvin, however, insisted on staying up with her brother again. The next morning, he felt so much better that, for the first time in days, he expressed a desire for food.

Believing that her brother had turned a corner, Mrs. Melvin—who had her own family to take care
of—departed that morning, physically exhausted but feeling hopeful about his recovery. She had no way of knowing that she had returned him to the malevolent care of a madwoman, who was more determined than ever to have him hurry up and die.

That same night—after drinking a cup of the odd-tasting tea prepared by his sister-in-law—Prince Arthur took a violent turn for the worse. Shortly before midnight—Saturday, June 27—he went into convulsions and died, while Sarah Jane Robinson stood at his bedside and looked on with vague, detached interest.

Dr. Nichols, who still could not guess what had killed Prince Arthur Freeman, certified the cause of death as “disease of the stomach.”

As dreadful as his suffering had been, Prince Arthur at least had the comfort of knowing that his six-year-old son, Tommy, was well provided for. Two months after the funeral, the Order of Pilgrim Fathers made good on his life insurance policy, paying $2,000 to his beneficiary, Sarah Jane Robinson. She immediately paid off her creditors, moved into a larger flat, purchased new furniture and clothing, and took a trip to Wisconsin to visit her brother. When she returned, she used the remainder of the money to take out an insurance policy on the life of her twenty-five-year-old daughter, Lizzie.

Six months later, in February 1886, Lizzie was stricken with a catastrophic illness and died after several weeks of acute suffering.

In the meantime, little Tommy Freeman had received no benefits at all from the money left by his father. His aunt Sarah—who had been so nice to him while his father was alive—now acted as though she
could barely stand the sight of him, treating him like a particularly onerous burden she’d unfairly been saddled with. Visitors to the Robinson household were taken aback by how pale, skinny, and utterly forlorn the little boy looked. When they questioned Sarah about the child, she explained with a sigh that the poor boy missed his parents dreadfully. “Sometimes,” she remarked to one of her neighbors, “I think he would be better off following in their footsteps.”

On July 19, 1886, a year and three weeks after the death of his father, Tommy fell ill with uncontrolled vomiting and diarrhea. Sarah had one of her premonitions, telling several acquaintances that the boy would never recover. He died four days later, on July 23.

The terrible fragility of life—the possibility that anyone, no matter how young and healthy, could be struck down at any moment—was a lesson that the inhabitants of the Robinson household could hardly fail to learn. Perhaps for that reason, Sarah’s oldest son, twenty-three-year old William, insured his life with the Order of Pilgrim Fathers shortly after the death of his beloved sister, Lizzie.

One month later, in August 1886, William—who was employed at a commercial warehouse—suffered a minor accident when a wooden crate toppled from a shelf and struck him between the shoulder blades. He shrugged off the mishap: the box was empty, and though the breath had been knocked out of him, he hadn’t been seriously injured. Not long afterward, however, he felt suddenly nauseous and threw up the breakfast his mother had prepared for him that morning.

That evening at dinner, his mother fixed him a cup of her special tea. William took a sip and wrinkled his
nose. It tasted very strange to him. Still, at his mother’s urging, he drank it all down. No sooner had he finished his meal than the nausea returned, worse than ever. He took to his bed and was up all night with racking cramps and constant vomiting.

The next morning, his mother sent for Dr. Emory White, a local physician affiliated with the Order of Pilgrim Fathers. White knew about the strange series of tragedies that had befallen the Robinson household—most of them involving family members insured by the Order—and resolved to keep a close eye on William. When the young man continued to deteriorate, White shipped a sample of his vomit to a Harvard toxicologist named Edward Wood. He also informed Police Chief Parkhurst of his suspicions regarding Sarah Jane Robinson. Parkhurst dispatched a couple of his men to keep watch over Mrs. Robinson. Two days later, word arrived from Dr. Wood: William Robinson’s stomach was saturated with arsenic. By then, however, the young man was beyond saving. He died that same afternoon. “The old lady dosed me” were the last words anyone heard him say.

Sarah Jane Robinson was immediately arrested for the murder of her son.

In the weeks that followed, authorities exhumed the bodies of six more of her victims: her daughter, Lizzie; her sister, Annie; her brother-in-law, Prince Arthur Freeman; her nephew, Tommy; her husband, Moses; and her former landlord, Oliver Sleeper. Arsenic was found in all of the corpses.

For the second time in living memory, New England had produced a homegrown “Borgia,” a female “poison fiend” in the monstrous mold of Lydia Sherman.
Public excitement over the case was intense, and the newspapers showed little restraint in their sensationalistic coverage. The
New York Times
placed the number of her victims at an even dozen, while one widely circulated story claimed that she’d once poisoned more than a hundred people at a picnic.

Largely as a result of prosecutorial incompetence, her first trial ended with a hung jury. She was immediately indicted again, this time for the murder of Prince Arthur Freeman. During her second trial in February 1886, the government argued that Prince Arthur’s killing had been part of an elaborate plot to obtain his $2,000 life insurance policy, a scheme that also necessitated the murder of both Annie Freeman and seven-year-old Tommy.

Interestingly, it was the defense attorney, John B. Goodrich, who did a better job of identifying Sarah Jane Robinson as the homicidal maniac she so clearly was. In his closing argument, Goodrich argued that money couldn’t possibly explain the horrors of which his client stood accused. “The idea is repellent; it is unnatural; it is unreasonable to suppose that that would be a sufficient motive,” he insisted. The crimes allegedly perpetrated by his client could have only one cause: “uncontrolled depravity.” If “such be the case,” he told the jury, “you must pity her. You cannot condemn her.” After all, it took a “monster” to commit such atrocities, said Goodrich, and “I do not know that the law hangs monsters.”

In the end, the jury required less than one day to side with the prosecution. Sarah Jane Robinson was found guilty of first-degree murder and condemned to hang, though her sentence was later commuted to life in prison. She lived out the remainder of her days in a
narrow cell decorated with engraved portraits of her victims, clipped from local newspapers.

•   •   •

As in the case of Lydia Sherman, one of the most striking features of the Sarah Jane Robinson affair was the harsh light it shed on the state of nineteenth-century medicine. Though various medical men had been called in to examine her victims throughout the years, none of them had seriously suspected foul play until Dr. White came along—by which time there were virtually no members of Mrs. Robinson’s family left for her to murder.

To be sure, this failure was partly a function of her own plausibility—of the “mask of sanity” that she, like other psychopaths, was so skillful in presenting to the world. But it was also a reflection of the inadequacies of horse-and-buggy physicians like Drs. Driver and John T. G. Nichols.

For Dr. Nichols, at least, there was some consolation to be taken from the experience. It had taught him several valuable lessons. For one thing, he was now completely conversant with the symptoms of arsenical poisoning and would, he felt, have no trouble identifying them in the future, should the occasion arise.

Even more important, he had discovered that human depravity can come in many different forms—even in the guise of a perfectly ordinary-looking Boston matron. In the exceedingly unlikely event that he ever encountered another creature like Sarah Jane Robinson, he would not be fooled again.

Or so he believed.

3

And girls defenseless, wretched, poor,

Snatched from the haunts of vice and care,

From ill examples here secure,

Instruction and protection share.

Train’d soon in Wisdom’s pleasant ways,

And taught to be discreet and good,

Virtue will be through all their days

From habit and from choice pursued.

—H
YMN, SUNG BY THE
O
RPHANS OF THE
B
OSTON
F
EMALE
A
SYLUM
, T
HIRTEENTH
A
NNIVERSARY
C
ELEBRATION

B
ESIDES THE ALMSHOUSE, ONLY THREE MUNICIPAL
charities existed in Boston prior to 1800: the Boston Dispensary, the Boston Humane Society, and—oldest of all—the Boston Maritime Society, founded in 1742 for “the relief of distressed mariners, their widows, and their children.” It was not until 1799 that the idea for a public orphanage for destitute young girls was first proposed by Mrs. Hannah Stillman, wife of the Reverend Samuel Stillman of the First Baptist Church of Boston, one of the most beloved clergymen of his day.

In September 1800, Mrs. Stillman’s pet project came to fruition when the Boston Female Asylum accepted its first orphan, a young girl identified in later histories only as “Betsey D.” The circumstances of her admission
became part of the official lore of the society, a kind of sacred myth clearly meant to show that the Deity Himself had taken a direct hand in the founding of the institution. As recounted in an 1844 pamphlet issued by the society, the story went as follows:

Having lost her parents when about five years of age, [Betsey] was received by an aunt, affectionate but poor, who adopted her as her own. Soon after, disease attacked this aunt and she expected to die. Her principal anxiety now was what would become of this destitute child. In the moment of her distress, she was visited by a friend, who told her that a place was just established under the management of the ladies of Boston for female orphan children, and that they would certainly receive the child on application being made to them.

Overjoyed at this unexpected information, she exclaimed: “Thank God for providing that place for my little girl!”

The asylum had been in existence for just a few months when the Board of Managers was confronted with an unforeseen dilemma. At its fourth meeting, in December 1800, a young mother “in a very distressed situation” appeared before the board. Unable to provide for her little girl, the distraught woman made a tearful plea to the managers, beseeching them to accept her child “in the name of humanity.” Since the asylum had initially been conceived strictly as a place for “those who had neither father nor mother,” this appeal set off a spirited debate among the board members.

In the end, by a vote of eight to six, they agreed to accept the little girl. From that day forth, the Boston Female Asylum was open not only to orphans, but to any suffering child, even if her parents were still alive. Anyone who placed a girl in the institution—whether parent, guardian, or next of kin—was required to sign an official “form of surrender,” relinquishing “all right and claim to her and her services,” and promising “not to interfere with the management of her in any respect whatsoever.”

In the following decades, the asylum continued to expand its operations. By the middle of the century, the society was able to purchase a plot of land in the southerly part of the city and erect a handsome new building. Nearly 100 girls between the ages of three and ten resided there at any given time.

Their breakfasts consisted of hasty pudding, boiled rice with molasses, or milk porridge thickened with flour, depending on the season. Their dinner menus remained the same from week to week: soup on Monday and Wednesday, boiled meat on Tuesday, pork and beans on Thursday, lamb broth on Friday, fish on Saturday, and roast meat and pudding on Sunday.

Their education was restricted to “those useful things suitable to their age, sex, and station.” Since their sex was female and their station distinctly lower class, this meant that (according to official reports of the asylum) they were taught to read, spell, and cipher only “so far as necessary.” Mostly, they were instructed in domestic skills: sewing, knitting, cooking, and housekeeping.

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