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Arsenic and Mrs. Kinney

You never can tell where you’re going to find the next gem in terms of research. It’s a sure bet that one place The Legal Genealogist never expected to find a murder trial record was in the digital collections of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Yet there it is, in all of its PDF glory, the 62-page trial record in the case of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Hannah Kinney.1 And oh boy… for anybody with even a remote connection to this case — and there are an awful lot of people named in this record — this little document is a gem.

Hannah was born Hannah Hanson, a native of Maine. She married Ward Witham in Portland in January, 1822, had four children by him, and was divorced from him in February 1832 in Massachusetts. In September 1834, she married her cousin, Rev. Enoch W. Freeman of Lowell. In March of 1835, the Freemans visited his father in Maine and the father died suddenly of a stomach ailment. Then Freeman himself died 20 September 1835 after a sudden illness similar to the one that killed his father.2

Hannah had been a widow for three years when she married George T. Kinney in Boston on 26 November 1838.3 The authorities found it just a little bit more than peculiar that, not even two years later, Kinney died, on 9 August 1840,4 of a similarly sudden stomach illness.

And this time Hannah was charged with murder by arsenic poisoning.5

Her trial began just after 9:20 a.m. on Monday, 21 December 1840, before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw and Justices Samuel Putnam and Samuel Sumner Wilde of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts sitting at Boston. Massachusetts Attorney General James T. Austin and Samuel D. Parker, the Commonwealth attorney for Suffolk County, represented the prosecution. Attorneys Franklin Dexter and George T. Curtis represented the defendant.6

It only took 40 minutes and 21 potential jurors to reach a full panel of 12 jurors for the trial: Abraham W. Blanchard (foreman, appointed by the Court); Charles Arnold; James M. Barnard; Sewell Barker; George W. Bazin; James Blake; Charles Brown; Franklin F. Blood; Francis Codman; Josiah W. Daniel; Nathaniel G. Elliot; and Elisha Faxon. Jurors who were called but rejected were Job F. Bailey; Constant F. Benson; Otis Brigham; John E. Billings; Francis Bundy; George Callender; Caleb Coburn; Joshua Crane; and Samuel C. Demerest.7

Let’s see here… four pages (only two with text) and we’re up to 28 families whose histories ought to include some mention of this case — and that’s not including the immediate families of the defendant or her late husband!

Parker opened for the prosecution and told the jury the Commonwealth would prove that Hannah Kinney had murdered her husband by poisoning his sage tea with arsenic.8 He and Austin then produced 18 witnesses:

     • Dr. D. H. Storer, a physician who lived on Winter Street in Boston and treated the husband in his last illness;
     • Dr. J.B.S. Jackson, a Boston doctor who attended the autopsy of Kinney;
     • Dr. Martin Gay, a Boston physician who analyzed the stomach contents and said they contained arsenic;
     • Dr. Calvin Bachelder, who had given the dead man some pills;
     • William F. Goodwin, an acquaintance who was with Kinney when he died;
     • John Barnes, who worked for Kinney;
     • Hannah Varney, who did some work for Hannah Kinney;
     • Lucretia Beers, who boarded in the Kinney house;
     • Chester Brigham, who brought some pills for Kinney to take;
     • Mrs. Harriet Bingham, an acquaintance of Mrs. Kinney;
     • Thomas G. Bradford, who had sold arsenic but couldn’t identify Hannah Kinney as a purchaser;
     • Elizabeth B. Linnell, who worked at Mrs. Kinney’s shop;
     • Dr. Asa B. Snow, who treated Mrs. Kinney and a boarder;
     • Mrs. Aurelia Bingham who worked for Hannah Kinney and was learning a trade from her;
     • county coroner Ebenezer Shute;
     • Almira Adams, an acquaintance of Hannah’s;
     • Almira W. Collins, who helped at the Kinney shop;
     • Harriet Hosford, a niece of the dead man; and
     • Dr. Charles Mead, who kept an apothecary shop.9

Okay, we’re now up to page 20 (18 pages of actual text) — and there are 46 families (not including the Hanson and Kinney families) who might want to include this case in their family histories.

The defense started its case on Wednesday, 23 December. Curtis gave an opening statement and called on the jury not to be swayed by “the very atmosphere … rife with rumors respecting this case and the history of the defendant.” After focusing on the facts, pointing to a lack of any motive and offering alternative theories,10 he and his colleague began to call the defense witnesses:

     • Dr. Jacob Bigelow, who attended the post mortem;
     • Henry Bachelder, who was present when Kinney died;
     • Willard Lane, who’d known Kinney for 15 years;
     • Charles H. Johonnet, who’d known Kinney since childhood and Hannah for six or seven years;
     • Henry Danforth, who’d once worked for Kinney;
     • Charles Remick, who had boarded in the same house with Kinney before Kinney’s marriage;
     • Edward L. Tucker, a former Kinney business partner;
     • Dr. Enoch Hale, a Boston doctor who testified about the local water supply;
     • Ebenezer Smith Jr., executor of the Kinney estate;
     • Sally Rider, a friend of Hannah’s;
     • John Henshaw, a druggist;
     • Mrs. Sarah Goodsill, who’d boarded with the Kinneys;
     • Dr. Ethan Buck, who testified as to the taste and effect of arsenic;
     • Earnest H. Cheetham and Thomas Ridley, who testified about rumors about the cause of Kinney’s death;
     • Albert G. Leach, husband of Hannah’s sister;
     • Mrs. Hitchcock, who’d once been engaged to Kinney;
     • Coldridge Dewey, a cousin of Kinney’s;
     • Dr. Reuben Harrington, a partner of the Dr. Bachelder who was a prosecution witness;
     • Nathan Pratt, who described the type of pills Dr. Bachelder gave the dead man;
     • Addison Avery, an acquaintance of Kinney’s;
     • the jailor Mr. Coolidge, who’d once had Kinney in jail for debt;
     • Frederick T. Brown, a druggist who showed the jury what arsenic looked like…11

Okay, that’s enough. We’re only halfway through page 36 and we have another 22 families to add to our “have you included this case in your family history?” list.

When all the witnesses had testified, closing arguments began. Defense counsel Franklin Dexter began his final argument to the jury at 9:50 on Friday, Christmas Day, 1840. He reviewed the evidence in detail and argued that, if Kinney died of arsenic poisoning, it was not the result of any deliberate action by Hannah but rather the missteps of the dead man and his doctors and druggists, that all of Hannah’s actions were inconsistent with guilt and that she had no motive.12

Attorney General James T. Austin gave the closing argument for the prosecution and argued that there was poison in the house, that Hannah Kinney had it and used it to kill her husband and then to make it look like the whole family had had cholera.13

Chief Justice Shaw delivered the charge to the jury — the legal instructions it was to apply when considering the facts.14 When he was finished, the jury began its deliberations.

That took all of three minutes. That’s not a typo. Three minutes.

The jury came back with a not guilty verdict and, the trial record states: “The announcement was received with an applause that could not be repressed, and after Mrs. K. was discharged, the crowd went down into the street, and gave expression to their feelings in cheers.”15

The reporter who transcribed the record then stated:

Having minutely taken all the testimony and arguments in this case, which the Reporter begun with a strong prepossession from public rumor, he feels bound in justice to say, that in his opinion, and as far as he knows, that of the entire Bar, the Government not only failed to show the guilt of Mrs Kinney, but the evidence proved her innocence, and ought to relieve her from all unjust suspicion.16

It didn’t. The debate over Hannah’s guilt continued to play out for years in the press — as late as 1868, the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican noted in reporting on the publication of a history of Lowell that former resident “Hannah Kinney … is supposed to have poisoned the Rev Mr Freeman, her second husband, as well as Kinney, her third…”17

And it wasn’t just in the newspapers but in battling books. Hannah herself had an account of her life published in which she defended herself and her actions.18 That was followed promptly by an account written by the scorned first husband Ward Witham, who told a different tale.19

So did Hannah do it? Read the trial record and decide for yourself. But whether she was a serial killer who beat the rap or a just luckless lady who ran afoul of fickle fate, Hannah Kinney’s story is one that any genealogist whose family even remotely connects to hers can use to add to the depth and richness of family lore.

Alas, once again, that none of my ancestors — count ’em — not a single solitary one — hailed from New England. No Hannah Kinney for me, darn it. Sigh… maybe someday I’ll still find a pirate…


 
SOURCES

  1. “A Member of the Bar,” Trial of Mrs. Hannah Kinney for the Alleged Murder of her Husband, George T. Kinney, by Poison (Boston : Times & Notice Office, 1840); digital images, U.S. National Library of Medicine (http://collections.nlm.nih.gov : accessed 8 Jul 2012). The book was copyrighted by George Roberts, likely the publisher of the Boston Daily Times and Boston Notion.
  2. Charles Cowley, Illustrated History of Lowell, rev. ed. (Boston : Lee & Shepard, 1868), 111-112; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 8 Jul 2012).
  3. “Massachusetts, Town Vital Collections, 1620-1988,” database and images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 Jul 2012), City of Boston, Kinney-Freeman marriage, 1838; database entries are linked to images that appear to be in rough alphabetical order for an unstated range of years.
  4. Ibid., digital image, City of Boston, George T. Kinney death, 1840.
  5. “A Member of the Bar,” Trial of Mrs. Hannah Kinney, 4.
  6. Ibid., 3.
  7. Ibid., 3-4.
  8. Ibid., 4-9.
  9. Ibid., 9-20.
  10. Ibid., 20-29.
  11. Ibid., 29-36.
  12. Ibid., 38-48.
  13. Ibid., 48-56.
  14. Ibid., 56-61.
  15. Ibid., 61-62.
  16. Ibid., 62.
  17. “A History of Lowell,” Springfield (Mass.) Republican, 6 Apr 1868, p. 2, col. 2.
  18. Hannah Hanson Kinney, A Review of the Principal Events of the Last Ten Years in the Life of Mrs. Hannah Kinney: Together with Some Comments upon the Late Trial, Written by Herself (Boston: J. N. Bradley, 1841); digital images, Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 8 Jul 2012).
  19. Ward Witham, A Brief Notice of the Life of Mrs. Hannah Kinney, for Twenty Years (n.p., p.p. : 1842); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 8 Jul 2012).
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