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A 19th century autopsy unmasks a poisoner

Updated Thursday, 23 June 2016
14 physicians gather at a graveside to untangle a tale of American settlers, poison, weak alibis, murder and suicide.

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Horrid murder and suicide - Warsaw, April 8th, 1816

About three weeks since, the wife of Dr Abel Watkins, of Middlebury, Genesee county, [New York state], died, as was supposed, of a fever; in consequence of which, Watkins persudaed a neighbour and intimate friend of his, by the name of Perry, to remove with his family into his house, and take care of his children.

Shortly after, Mr Perry was taken very ill with the cholera morbus, as stated by Watkins, by whom his life was despaired of, and Dr Chauncey L Sheldon, of Warsaw, was sent for, who attended him through the day, and till nine o'clock at night, and left him apparently much better.

Watkins attended him the remainder of the night, and Perry died the next day.

Nux vomica Nux vomica - also known as strychnine

Mr Perry and Mrs Watkins being attended with similar symptoms in their sickness, together with an appearance of familiarity between Watkins and Perry's wife, soon created a suspicion that Watkins had poisoned both his wife and Perry.

Inquiry was made of Dr Sheldon (of whom Watkins purchased his medicine) if he had purchased any poison of him; and it was ascertained that he purchased one ounce of arsenic and some nux vomica.

Dr Sheldon and other persons conversed with Watkins respecting it, who stated that he bought the arsenic for a man, but could not tell his name nor where he lived, but said that he gave the poison to a certain dog, which is yet alive.

Suspicion increased, and Watkins was advised to have the bodies taken up and examined, for the purpose of satisfying the minds of the populace, and clearing his own character.

Accordingly, on Friday the 5th inst, 14 physicians appeared at the graves: the body of Perry was dug up and examined; the stomach was taken out and carried into a house, where the physicians tried many chemical experiments on the contents, and it was ascertained beyond a doubt that there was a considerable amount of arsenic in the stomach, which was much corroded. The physicians reported that his death was occasioned by arsenic.

Watkins was informed of the opinion of the physicians about three o'clock the next morning; he shortly after went out of his house, and in about an hour and a half was found in the woods, 15 or 20 rods from his house, suspended by a handkerchief to a small bush; his legs, part of his body, and his hands on the ground. On examination he was found to be dead.

The physicians proceeded to examine the body of Mrs Watkins, and reported unanimously that her death was occasioned by vegetable and mineral poison.

A coroner's inquest was summoned to sit on the body of Watkins, who shortly returned with a verdict of suicide. Yesterday, Mrs Perry was taken into custody and is this day to be examined.

Watkins and Perry, with their families, have resided in this country about a year. Two children have died out of each family since last fall; and it is generally believed that some of their deaths were also occasioned by the wicked hands of Watkins. Mrs Watkins was delivered of a still-born child a few hours previous to her death.

- originally published by the Ontario Messenger, June 1816


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