The Most DANGEROUS WOMEN in Michigan's History.
In the mid-1870s, the state of Michigan transferred all women serving life sentences from the state prison in Jackson to a relatively new facility, the Detroit House of Correction. Over the next 60 years, that penal institution became a home for female serial killers, homicidal housewives, infanticides, and others convicted of murder most foul.
In Michigan's agricultural-based communities, farmers often used heavy-metal poisons to keep pesky rodents out of their granaries, so stores stocked supplies of arsenic- and strychnine-laced substances, such as "Rough on Rats." Those readily available poisons sometimes wound up in the coffee, tea, or milk of unwanted or abusive husbands. In an era when a husband could legally beat his wife, some wives may have employed chemicals to avoid a harsh life of abuse. Others, however, had more pernicious motives.
In 1869, Detroit resident Rosa Schweisstahl used arsenic to remove one husband to make room for another, exchanging vows with Nicholas Schweisstahl just three days after her husband died under suspicious circumstances. A sweep of Rosa's house revealed a quantity of arsenic, which she admitted to feeding to her first spouse. That admission earned Rosa a conviction for murder and a life sentence in prison, which ended 16 years later when she passed away on Christmas Day 1885.
During the fall of 1883, William Vanderhoof fell seriously ill with symptoms that convinced his physician he suffered from heart disease. On the night of December 1, he died after hours of thrashing in horrific agony. But he was not a victim of a failing heart--he was a casualty of a fading marriage. It was discovered mat his wife, Elizabeth, who had grown tired of her heavy-handed husband, had systematically fed him arsenic over a period of three months. The Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1888 and found enough doubt to vacate the sentence, ordering a new trial. A pardon soon followed.
Saginaw County resident Louise McKnight employed strychnine to rid herself of her aged husband, Peter, because, she said, she had become tired of living with him. McKnight served 13 years of a life sentence when Governor William A. Comstock commuted her sentence to 20 to 40 years, which led to her parole in 1934.
In 1920, Blanche Mottl admitted to purchasing arsenic for the purpose, she said, of ridding her farm of rats. Instead, she put the poison in her husband's food, allegedly to cash in on his $1,000 life insurance policy. Amen Mottl went six feet under with his presumed cause of death being food poisoning, but a close examination of his exhumed remains revealed his wife's rat killer. Mottl's life sentence amounted to a mere six years, for Governor Alexander J. Groesbeck pardoned the 36-year-old poisoner in 1926.
Cass County resident Maude Storick poisoned her first husband in 1923. She remarried just one month later, which led to raised eyebrows, an exhumation, and the discovery of a heavy-metal poison in her first husband's remains. Storick's quick metamorphosis from grieving widow to blushing bride helped sway the jury. The newlyweds waited for more than 26 years for their honeymoon. They were reunited in 1949, when Storick was granted a pardon.
Zelon Lake of Hillsdale County certainly did not rest in peace after his interment in 1923. Investigators conducted two separate exhumations, which led to the discovery of strychnine in his stomach. Suspicion immediately fell on his lover and common-law wife, convicted bigamist Marjorie Kuhn, who told everyone that Lake died of tuberculosis. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1925, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the verdict on appeal and ordered Kuhn's release. The county prosecutor could find no new evidence for a retrial, so he decided to drop the case.
Chesaning farm wife Mary Jane Smith was much younger than her husband, Charles, and very loving--especially toward teenage handyman Norris "Nock" Alexander. Smith wanted her husband out of the way, so she, along with her sister and brother-in-law, Julia and Freeman Cargin, brained the unsuspecting farmer while he lay in bed on the morning of September 13, 1877. The trio then carried Charles' body to the barn and torched the structure to make it look like he had died in an accidental fire. After listening to Smith sob about never seeing her children again, the trial judge took pity on her and sentenced her to 15 years. Julia Cargin, on the other hand, received a life sentence. Before she died in prison, Smith attempted to exonerate her sister with a deathbed confession, which ultimately led to Cargin's parole in 1885.
The following year, Edna Brass created a scandal that rocked Northern Michigan. Brass had begun a relationship with an energetic and charismatic individual named James Crafts behind the back of her husband, Miles. Described as a "traveling evangelist," Crafts worked in a Grand Traverse logging camp and visited the Brass farm when Miles was away. The lovers soon decided to do away with Brass' husband. They snuck into the bedroom while he was asleep, slugged him over the head with a flat iron, carried the corpse down to the root cellar, and buried the body. They then took up residence together, which, coupled with Miles' disappearance, triggered an investigation in 1887. The discovery of the farmer's remains prompted both Brass and Crafts to confess. In November 1907, a parole board decided that two decades behind bars was punishment enough and paroled Brass.
It was deja vu all over again in Ingham County. The bars of the Detroit House of Correction slammed on Carrie Joselin following a 1905 conviction for poisoning her husband. Joselin and her paramour, a farmhand named Isaac Swan, conspired to do away with her husband, Willie. Swan purchased the arsenic, which Joselin subsequently fed to Willie in small doses until he eventually died. "I made a fool of myself for Mrs. Joselin," Swan confessed, "because I loved her." Joselin received a parole in 1918, her life sentence ending after 13 years.
Suspected serial poisoner Mary Lucas' infatuation had turned deadly in 1912. Lucas and another woman, Paula Fingel, had eyes for the same man in the boarding house they shared in Lansing. To remove her rival, Lucas poisoned Fingel. Faced with damning evidence of her guilt, she confessed. A brief trial culminated in a life sentence, which amounted to a mere eight years when she received a pardon in 1921.
A discovery of a skeleton in a church cellar led to a murder trial that rocked Leelanau County. Charged with first-degree murder in connection with the disappearance of Sister Janina, a nun who had dropped out of sight over a decade earlier, church housekeeper Stanislawa "Stella" Lipczynska went to trial in 1919. Amidst salacious rumors of a love affair involving a parish priest and allegations of a coerced confession, the trial captivated headlines across the nation. Prosecution witnesses hinted that either jealousy or disgust over Sister Janina's relationship with the priest had provided motive. A mass of circumstantial evidence and hearsay testimony led to Lipczynska's life sentence. She was pardoned seven years later in 1926.
Euphemia Mondich shot her lover, John Udorovich, and concealed his body under her house. During her 1924 trial, the prosecutor placed Urdorovich's skull on the table in front of Mondich and pointed out the hairline fracture in the parietal bone--an effective piece of visual rhetoric that destroyed her self-defense claim but not her emotionless facade. Long suspected of being a serial killer, Mondich served 37 years at the Detroit House of Correction, dying in prison in 1961 at the age of 77.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a woman's presumed role in society was as a mother. Murdering one's children represented the ultimate betrayal and was a crime so black that the era's all-male juries remained largely unmoved by tears and sob stories. Nonetheless, a few of Michigan's most dangerous women killed their children in headline cases that shocked their respective communities.
In June 1869, Amanda Simmons committed one of the most horrific crimes in the history of Allegan County when she drowned her three children in the Kalamazoo River. She offered no motive other than that a friend encouraged her to do it. Her life sentenced ended in 1877 when she died inside the Detroit House of Correction.
Perpetrator of the "Thompsonville Tragedy," 29-year-old Benzie County resident Mate Askins wanted to spare her two children from a cold, cruel world. In October 1899, she served morphine-laced wine to her daughter, Margaret, and son, Glenn. Margaret died, but Glenn survived and later testified against his mother during the trial. In October 1903, just four years after the murder, Askins died of consumption in prison.
Soft-spoken Sarah Quimby of Gratiot County could not stand her heavy-handed second husband, Elmer, and his incessant bullying. Elmer did not like Sarah's children from her previous marriage, 9-year-old Beatrice and 7-year-old Eh, and made that fact very clear. Weary of a life of marital bondage, Quimby took drastic action. In 1901, she gave an overdose of morphine to her children and, as they slipped into unconsciousness, quaffed a concoction containing what she believed was enough morphine to complete a murder-suicide plot. Both Beatrice and Eh died, but Quimby survived to face a jury, who subsequently handed her a life sentence that ended with a parole in 1918.
It took the jury just one hour to find Ypsilanti-native Mary Frances Dewey guilty of beating to death her 11-month-old adopted child in 1912. Without emotion, Dewey denied committing the murder, but the jury did not believe her, choosing instead to trust witnesses who testified to seeing Dewey repeatedly abusing the child. After 49 years behind bars, Dewey left prison a free woman on parole at the age of 84 in 1961. She died four months later.
In 1915, Muskegon resident Martha Steele choked to death her 11-year-old stepdaughter, Evehna, because, she said, she was jealous of the attention that her husband, Albert, gave the girl. Steele initially buried Evehna's body in a woodshed but, fearing discovery, later disinterred the corpse and tossed it in a back alley. Two boys discovered the remains and alerted the police, who followed a ghastly trail of reddish sand to the Steeles' shed. After trying to explain away the crime as an abortion gone wrong, the 32-year-old stepmother finally confessed to pouring muriatic acid down Evelina's throat before strangling her. Steele was sentenced to fife but was later given one of the three pardons that Governor Groesbeck issued to female lifers in 1927.
While the hottest of passions moved some to murder, others were motivated by cold, hard cash.
In 1884, husband and wife Ole and Koren Larson of Muskegon County stood accused of feeding "Rough on Rats" to 60-year-old John Guild to obtain the old man's money Koren's trial came first, during which she was found guilty and received a life sentence. Ole faced the music in court a few months later and beat the rap, despite the fact that the prosecutor presented the same evidence used against his wife. That fact led to Koren's pardon in 1886.
The truth behind the 1895 murder of Detroit dentist Dr. Horace Pope shocked residents of Michigan's largest metropolis. After taking out a series of life insurance policies on her husband, Nellie Pope cajoled her lover, Billy Brusseau, into dispatching the dentist. As Dr. Pope slumbered in a chair, Brusseau crept up behind him and slammed an axe blade into the back of his skull. When his self-defense story fell flat, Brusseau blamed his lover for engineering the plot--a confession that put Nellie Pope on trial for murder. She spent over two decades in prison before her eventual parole in 1917.
In 1903, twice-widowed Jennie Flood lived with elderly farmer Barney Fingleton and handyman John London in Fingleton's Kent County farmhouse. Although Flood was not romantically linked to either man, the curious living arrangement led to all sorts of salacious rumors, and gossip ran faster than the rapids on the Grand River. Flood spent the better part of a year purchasing insurance policies on both men before executing the first part of her plan. She prepared a chicken dinner for John London and, while he ate, blew off the back of his head with a shotgun. Though she attempted to frame his death as suicide, the jury convicted Flood of murder in the first degree. Her life sentence ended in 1916, when she received a parole from Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris.
Detroiter Caroline Becker heard neighborhood rumors that her friend, Frances Bomholt, who distrusted banks, kept a large sum of money in her house. In January 1915, Becker tiptoed behind Bomholt and savagely smashed her in the skull with a chunk of coal. Becker then tried to pry the location of the money from the stunned woman by carving a series of lines into her arm with a knife, but Bomholt failed to answer, so Becker dispatched her with a frenetic barrage of blows that left her skull in shards. After rifling through the house, she only found two banknotes--a $10 and a $5, which she tucked into her shoe. When authorities discovered the bloody banknotes still inside her shoe, Becker confessed to the murder but later retracted her statement during her trial. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life, but she was paroled nine years later in 1924.
Mary Murphy McKnight's crimes defy categorization. Like shotgun slayer Jennie Flood, McKnight had buried two husbands who died under mysterious circumstances. Leaving a trail of suspicious deaths throughout Northern Michigan, McKnight moved into her mother's farmhouse in Springfield Township on the outskirts of Fife Lake. During the spring of 1903, her brother, John; his wife, Gertrude; and their daughter, Ruth, all perished of a strange curse that supposedly afflicted the family. The non-superstitious Kalkaska County prosecutor, E.C. Smith, ordered exhumations that led to the discovery of strychnine in the remains of all three bodies. McKnight, whom the press dubbed "The Michigan Borgia," confessed to poisoning her relatives, which ultimately led to a conviction and a life sentence. The motive most often presented for that string of murders had McKnight poisoning people because she enjoyed attending funerals. She left the Detroit House of Correction in 1920 on parole.
One Michigan woman committed a murder purely for revenge. In 1921, Sarah Elizabeth Lewen, a dressmaker known by the colorful sobriquet "Madam LaGrande," became embroiled in a dispute with her creditor. To take revenge for a perceived slight, she led the creditor's six-year-old son, Max Ernest, to a swamp on the outskirts of town and choked him by stuffing grass and mud down his throat, a crime that landed her behind bars for life. Following several failed pleas for parole, the convicted child killer died in prison in 1940 at the age of 72.
At one point or another, every one of the 34 Michigan women sentenced to life in prison claimed to be innocent. A few, like Caroline Collins, presented convincing cases. Collins, a native of Shiawassee County, was convicted of poisoning her handyman and alleged lover, George Lechman, with strychnine in 1903. An exhumation revealed trace amounts of the poison in Lechman's stomach, which led to a lively debate in court as to whether the presence of poison was residue left by the embalming process--embalming fluid often contained heavy-metal poisons--or evidence of murder. The jury believed the latter. Collins was sentenced to life, but when the Michigan Supreme Court reviewed the case and ordered a new trial in 1906, the county prosecutor decided to drop the case.
Second-Rate Citizens, First-Rate Criminals
A close examination of Michigan's 34 most dangerous women reveals certain patterns. In a majority of their crimes, the perpetrators used discreet methods such as poison. Only one female perpetrator actually wielded a blunt-edged weapon, two used firearms, and none used a bladed weapon. The murderesses who chose discreet poisons almost invariably employed either arsenic or strychnine, undoubtedly because of the overwhelming availability of such poisons in agrarian communities. Most farms stocked a supply, and a wife sent to purchase a quantity of "Rough on Rats" would not have raised suspicion.
Arsenic had the added benefit of producing the same types of symptoms as several lethal maladies of the era, including typhus and influenza, which meant that an unnatural death could thus be disguised as a natural one. For a battered wife consigned to the ignominious fate of serving her abusive husband meals, mixing poison into his morning breakfast might have presented an irresistible opportunity to obtain some poetic justice.
Other dangerous substances--including patent medicines and painkillers containing cocaine, heroin, and opium--were also easily obtainable through the local druggist. Surprisingly, only 2 of the 34 female lifers in Michigan prepared narcotic-laced concoctions for their victims. Both Mate Askins and Sarah Quimby fed their children an overdose of morphine, perhaps wanting to spare them the crippling, stomach-twisting agony of a slow death by arsenic.
In addition, 9 of the 34 women received pardons that prematurely ended their life sentences--cachet for state politicians who wanted to appear merciful. In some cases, a governor's grandiosity inflamed public opinion. Denied parole several times, Grand Rapids shotgun slayer Jenny Flood left prison a free woman when Governor Ferris pardoned her in 1916. For those knowledgeable about Flood's crime, the governor's act wiped away a just verdict.
Each of the Michigan women stunned her respective community with a crime that made statewide, if not nationwide, headlines. Some of those Shockwaves emanated from the fact that many violated one or more of society's precepts for women by refusing to tolerate abusive husbands or mind unwanted children, downing narcotics, taking lovers, or purchasing insurance policies on their unsuspecting victims.
They were certainly criminals, but they became first-rate criminals in a world that had consigned them to the status of second-rate citizens. They were among the most dangerous women in Michigan's history.
By Tobin T. Buhk
Tobin T. Buhk is a researcher and author who enjoys exploring the dark corners of Michigan's past. His explorations have led to the publication of numerous books, and he lectures about the seedier side of Michigan's history.
Caption: A sketch of the Detroit House of Correction that appeared in Silas Farmer's The History of Detroit and Michigan, published in 1889. (Photo courtesy of the British Library.)
Caption: Tiers of cells inside one of the cell blocks at the Detroit House of Correction. (Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.)
Caption: The Detroit House of Correction, c. 1880. (Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.)
Caption: An exterior view of the Detroit House of Correction. A guard stands atop one of the buildings. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-D4-33250.)
Caption: A cell block at the Detroit House of Correction, c. 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-D4-14537.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||prisoners of Detroit House of Correction in Plymouth Township, Michigan|
|Author:||Buhk, Tobin T.|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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