Arsenic Under the Elms
Murder in Victorian New HavenBook - 1999
A high-profile murder can function as a mirror of an era, and attorney and crime researcher Virginia McConnell provides a fascinating view of Connecticut in Victorian times, as glimpsed through the unrelated, but disturbingly similar murders of two young women near New Haven in the late 1800s. The colorful characters involved in the commission, investigation, and prosecution of these crimes emerge as real, vibrant individuals, and their stories, compelling in themselves, reveal much about Victorian sex and marriage, drugs from arsenic to aphrodisiacs, early forensic medicine, and 19th-century courtroom procedures.
Both victims in these sensational killings were young women from the New Haven area. The first, Mary Stannard, was a 22-year-old, unmarried mother who worked as a domestic and believed herself to be pregnant for a second time. The man accused of her murder, Reverend Herbert Hayden, was a married lay minister whose seduction of Mary was fairly common knowledge. Upon hearing from Mary of her pregnancy, he assured her he would obtain some quick medicine for an abortion and they agreed to meet in the woods. Mary's body was found clubbed and poisoned, her throat slit; chemical tests revealed she had been given 90 grains of arsenic. Hayden's wife perjured herself on the witness stand to protect him (subsequently becoming a darling of the press) and despite convincing forensic testimony from Yale professors, the minister ultimately went free.
Three years later, another woman of relatively low social stature was found floating face-down in Long Island Sound off West Haven. This strikingly pretty 20-year-old daughter of a cigar-maker came to be known as The Belle of New Haven, and though she had been seen frequently in the company of young people of questionable character, had never been a loose girl. The autopsy of Jennie Cramer revealed that she had not drowned, but had been savagely raped and poisoned with arsenic just before her death. Three people were put on trial for her murder: two scions of the wealthy Malley department store family, and their prostitute friend from New York. It was believed that the victim was killed to prevent her disclosure of the date rape by one of the young men, but they were likewise acquitted. Arsenic Under the Elms meticulously reviews the evidence, the personalities involved, and the society that produced them, resulting in a mesmerizing contribution to the literature of true crime.