Friday, April 2, 2010

Meet the Ann Rule of Victorian era mayhem

In Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven, attorney and college professor Virginia McConnell focuses on two murders that shocked the residents of New Haven, Connecticut in 1878 and 1881 but have since been forgotten. The victims were not showgirls or society ladies, but average young women who fell prey to unscrupulous men. Their sensational deaths, however, spawned media frenzies that exposed the contemporary attitudes toward male promiscuity and female virtue.

The first half of Arsenic Under the Elms describes the killing of Mary Stannard, a simple-minded, 22-year-old unmarried mother, who convinced herself and the Reverend Herbert Hayden, a married minister, that she was pregnant with his child. He lured her into the woods in September 1878, saying that he had procured some medicine that would induce abortion. What he actually gave her was ninety grams of arsenic, which did such a surprisingly slow job of killing her that Hayden had to complete his grim task by clubbing her and slitting her throat. The evidence against Hayden was damning, but he went free after his blindly devoted wife provided exculpatory testimony on the witness stand, perjuring herself to protect him.

The second murder case is that of 20-year-old Jennie Cramer, a beautiful girl known as the Belle of New Haven, who defied propriety by associating with two rich, morally bankrupt young men and their prostitute associate. Her body was found floating in Long Island Sound in August 1881, and an autopsy revealed that she had been raped and poisoned with arsenic. Jennie’s erstwhile companions were hunted down and tried for murder, but presented a united front on the witness stand and were, like Reverend Hayden, acquitted.

McConnell’s lucid prose and detailed research make this book more than just a recount of two Connecticut tragedies. The sufferings of Mary Stannard and Jennie Cramer ended the second they died, but McConnell eloquently shows how their deaths forever altered the lives of their loved ones and the communities they called home. By way of example, she delves into public records to show that Mary’s illegitimate son Willie suffered from anxiety-driven rages for the rest of his life, and Jennie’s mother committed suicide.

I read somewhere that Virginia McConnell wants to be the Ann Rule of Victorian era crimes. After reading Arsenic Under the Elms, I’d say that she has an excellent chance of grabbing that golden fleece.

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