Arsenic under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

Arsenic under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

Arsenic under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven

Arsenic under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven


A high-profile murder can function as a mirror of an era, and attorney and crime researcher Virginia McConnell provides a fascinating view of Connecticut in Victorian times, as glimpsed through the unrelated, but disturbingly similar murders of two young women near New Haven in the late 1800s. The colorful characters involved in the commission, investigation, and prosecution of these crimes emerge as real, vibrant individuals, and their stories, compelling in themselves, reveal much about Victorian sex and marriage, drugs from arsenic to aphrodisiacs, early forensic medicine, and 19th-century courtroom procedures.


Anyone who has ever longed for a time machine only needs to spend a few hours reading through old newspapers to realize that the past is still alive. It's alive in two senses: in the "You-are-there" eavesdropping feeling you get as you scroll through the issues, and in the awareness you have that, as different as some things might have been back there, not all that much has changed over the centuries.

Murder provides us with a mirror of an era. Today, our impersonal, technological society has spawned random, stranger versus stranger violence: drive-by shootings, serial killings, cold-remedy tamperings. in the Victorian era, where abortion was illegal and bastardy strongly condemned, there was a great temptation for a young man to rid himself of "an inconvenient woman." Yet, in both eras, the old motives still prevail, motives that have been around since Cain and Abel: power, revenge, money, sex, jealousy, fear of discovery.

The murders of Mary Stannard in 1878 and of Jennie Cramer just three years later are unique in their similarities and in what they reveal about life in the microcosm of New Haven County in the late nineteenth century. Two young women in their early twenties, both of a lower class than the suitors accused of murdering them, were found with lethal doses of arsenic in their systems. the world, through its reporters, flocked to New Haven's door to cover these stories and, with the second death especially, since it followed so closely on the heels of the first, New Havenites worried about what that world would think of them.

These murders are unique from a forensic point of view as well. the proximity of this relatively small New England city to a major research institution (Yale) and a major international city (New York) gave New Haven access to advanced forensic techniques that would not have been available to any other city of its size.

For example, while the Jennie Cramer case hinged largely on supposed eyewitness testimony, the Mary Stannard trial was the beneficiary of the most sophisticated arsenic testimony ever presented in a courtroom at that time. Its . . .

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