"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
--Henry David Thoreau
Poison as a means of murder has long been considered the prerogative of the ladies. For centuries--particularly before tests to develop the presence of arsenic--a tip from a tiny bottle into the unfortunate's food or drink was an amoral woman's quick substitute for divorce proceedings or other protracted unpleasantness. But a man, a poisoner? Hard to imagine, historically speaking, unless the gentleman in question had ready access to an illicit substance (say a druggist or a doctor) and not-so-easy access to the victim.
Generally, it was women who killed with poison, not men. The exception that proves the rule: Thomas Thatcher Graves, M.D. One of the most shocking and widely covered murder trials of the late nineteenth century was the case of the unfortunately named Dr. Graves. A year before Lizzie Borden took an axe to her folks (alright, allegedly took an axe), Dr. Graves went on trial for the murder of one of his wealthy patients. Did the widely disseminated coverage of the Graves case spark ideas in Fall River? But I digress...
T. Thatcher Graves (1841-1893) was a descendant of a very prominent New England family and lived in Providence, Rhode Island. He served in the Union army as an aide-de-camp of General Weitzel and wrote a now-famous essay on President Lincoln's triumphant entry into the defeated southern city of Richmond, Virginia, that appears in comprehensive collections of Civil war memoirs. Shortly after the war, he married his first and only wife, Emma. They had no children. He became a doctor as well as a lawyer.
Enter Mrs. Barnaby. She apparently became acquainted with Dr. Graves as a patient. At one point, she became a widow. Dr. Graves learned that her wealthy husband had left her a pittance in his will, and he urged Mrs. Barnaby to challenge her husband's will (which would seem to your correspondent to have been excellent advice; under American law as it has existed for centuries, a wife who was omitted or short-changed in her husband's will had the absolute right to demand a minimum allotment, often a third of the estate; this right to elect against your husband's will is known as the dowry right). Dr. Graves referred his patient to a friend of his by the name of Colonel Daniel Ballou, also a lawyer. Ballou secured a $105,000 settlement for the widow, kept $10,000 for his fee, and gave Graves $500 for the referral.
Dr. Graves then became deeply enmeshed in Mrs. Barnaby's financial affairs, now that she had considerable assets in which he could enmesh himself. He told her what to do with her money and how to do it. He became a beneficiary of her new will. When she balked at his control, he threatened to put her in an asylum or have a guardian appointed over her.
And then she was murdered.
Her killer managed it by mailing her a bottle of whisky laced with arsenic of potassium while she was on vacation in Denver in April 1891. The bottle was accompanied by an anonymous greeting: "Wish You a Happy new Year. Please accept this fine old whiskey from your friends in the woods." She took a sip and declared it "poor stuff" but drank it anyway, then died hours later in agony.
Dr. Graves learned of her death; promptly began bad-mouthing her to everyone within earshot (declaring her an adulteress, a drunk, and a lesbian, among other things), and went to Denver and took possession of her body. He took Mrs. Barnaby's corpse back to Providence and promptly began withdrawing money from her accounts.
Needless to say, he was accused of the murder and put on trial in Denver, where the death occurred. Dr. Graves protested that the trial was a sham and that the prosecutor had it out for him. Regardless, the circumstantial evidence against him was unimpeachable, the handwriting on the bottle looked like his, and he was convicted in January 1892 of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang.
There's a fascinating footnote to the Graves trial for the well read true-crime aficionado. Anyone familiar with the Lizzie Borden case will recognize the names Henry G. Trickey and Edwin McHenry. Both worked up the case against Dr. Graves and testified against him on minor points at the trial. Trickey also told the jury about the disparaging remarks Dr. Graves made about his dead patient. Those who know the names will have an opinion on the credibility of their testimony.
For his part, Dr. Graves was shocked by the verdict. He was immediately escorted into custody by a deputy sheriff named Wilson who would walk away from the event with an interesting tale. It seems Dr. Graves, still reeling from the conviction, asked the deputy about the chances of a successful appeal; the deputy declared they were slim and it would be best for the defendant if he confessed and begged for clemency. At that point, per the deputy, Dr. Graves declared, "Ballou has brought me to the gallows. I know I am going to my death place... Ballou was worse than I am; worse than I am, Mr. Wilson; twice as bad."
He was thrown in the Colorado State Prison. While awaiting his fate, he wrote a prison memoir and essays protesting his innocence. Then there was another twist in the tale--the Supreme Court of Colorado reversed Dr. Graves' conviction and ordered a new trial.
But Dr. Graves was not up to a second trial. While awaiting the new proceeding, he killed himself in fall 1893 in prison. He left a suicide note (dated months before the acutal event) to the Denver coroner in which he said: "Dear Sir:--Please don't hold an autopsy on my remains. The cause of death may be rendered as follows: Died from persecution. Worn out. Exhausted. Yours respectfully, T.Thatcher Graves, M.D." A second letter to the public protested his innocence.
For years there were rumors that Dr. Graves did not actually die, and when his coffin was shipped home to New England, it contained a log.
Unfortunately, it appears that the case has been largely ignored by modern writers. The only publication of relatively recent vintage on the subject is A Revolting Transaction by Conrad Barnaby (Arbor House, 1983), which has proven impossible to find. Ah, well, the old accounts have more flavor anyway.
Update, 7/6/05: I received an intriguing comment on the subject of Dr. Graves from one "DP," which is so illuminating that it merits repeating wholesale herein:
A few years back I discovered the Graves story while in the Adriondacks in upstate New York (where Doctor Graves first met Mrs. Barnaby socially at the Prospect House in Blue Mountain Lake) and pursued it back in my home town of Denver. I must say that my own opinion, after reading quite a lot, including hundreds of newspaper articles, many books, and the Colorado Appellate Court decision, is that Dr. Graves was as likely not guilty as guilty. We'll never know, of course, but to say that the circumstantial evidence was 'unimpeachable' is uninformed. I also was in contact with Barnaby Conrad who wrote A Revolting Transaction; he is the victim's grandson and did not seem too convinced of Dr. Graves' guilt either. An interesting sidenote is that he (Mr. Conrad) is married to a woman who is directly related to the Fall River Bordens, surely making them the most prominent historical couple of 1890's U.S. murder trials anyplace. That's my two cents on this very fascinating episode.
Very interesting. Though I do stand by my remark that the circumstances were unimpeachable; that is the difficulty for a defendant facing a purely circumstantial case. I have invited the commenter to elaborate, and I certainly hope s/he is working on an updated examination of the fascinating case of Dr. Graves.