Arsenic And Old Cake

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse living in Devon, married for eight years and childless, the friends dredged up on the event of his death all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable, at least until Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office on the afternoon of Thursday, October 26th, 1922, when she discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett with a typewritten label, and without any return address but with a postmark of Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, was happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with the world. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Sterrett’s abstemiousness began to take on a greater significance; her husband became very ill, and after some delays caused by their own doctor’s being out, another doctor was brought in and he was taken to the hospital, during which time Mrs. Sterrett also became ill (there was some disagreement in the newspapers about whether her symptoms were similar to his, but as she was in a coma when he died we can safely assume they were severe enough). Both were taken to Bryn Mawr Hospital, and family were summoned — Sterrett’s brother Joseph, and niece Mary, the latter of whom was a nurse. There was speculation about whether arsenic or bichloride of mercury had been taken, but whatever measures the hospital took were not enough, and he died at about eight in the evening on October 28th.

Unspectacular in life, in death Mr. Sterrett became a nine-days’ wonder for what seems to have been the greater part of Pennsylvania, and a few stories about it reached The New York Times as well. Sudden posthumous fame didn’t extend as far as having them get his name right — in the initial stories he was referred to as Walter Sterrett, Wilmer Sterrett, Will Sterrett and — by the cautious — simply W.W. Sterrett. His wife’s name was another matter. As soon as it became clear, about a day or two after Mr. Sterrett’s decease, that Mrs. Sterrett was going to survive, the papers began taking a very sharp interest in her, advising readers of her maiden name (Martha Elizabeth Campbell), her former profession (nursing, which she had given up when she married but which, the attending doctor supposed, would help her recognize poisoning symptoms) and certain peculiarities of temperament which the neighbours, like the postmistress, were happy to share with the newspaper subscribers of Pennsylvania. Even in the first stories after her husband’s death, the Daily Local News, after informing its readers that “the Sterretts employed no servants and so to think of discharged help sending the poisoned package is eliminated,” went on to inform them further that “It is said Mrs. Sterrett was given to melancholia at various times and had been treated for the trouble. It seems odd to inquirers, that the wife after securing the package at the post office and she showing much anxiety over its contents, should have waited for the arrival of her husband before opening it.”

On October 31, the Inquirer, alongside a story headed “Jealousy Of Woman Seen As Motive In Poison Cake Case”, another story ran, headed “MRS STERRETT AWED NEIGHBORS IN DEVON. Widow of Poison Cake Victim Always Cool And Reserved To Them. Even Closest Friends Found Her Lacking Geniality On Occasional Visits.”

Pleasantly polite to some, haughtily aloof from others, but reserved with all, Mrs. Sterrett’s relations with her neighbors were distinctly casual and transitory, quite evidently an unimportant part of the life which was twined and intertwined solely about the tall, gentle-mannered man without whom she has repeatedly stated she does not wish to live …

Perhaps the most pertinent character analysis of the sick woman was made by Mrs. M. Marshall Smith, of 1025 Farragut terrace, a fellow member with the Sterretts of the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, who admitted that she was probably the closest friend made by Mrs. Sterrett during the half-dozen years she lived here [Philadelphia] following her marriage. “But I can’t say that even I got really close to her,” Mrs. Smith added … “It was always `Mrs. Sterrett’ with the children — there was something there that simply didn’t permit of intimacy… I remember when they were first married,” she said, “and Mrs. Sterrett, who of course, being a trained nurse, hadn’t had much chance to learn how to cook, joked about her cake baking. She said: `I’ll certainly have to learn to bake cakes if nothing else, for Will likes cake and candy better than almost anything else.’”

A Mrs. William Stokes and Mrs. Robert Wilson also gave their verdicts on Mrs. Sterrett: “She was not active in the church, did not belong to any societies and did not make any real friends among the church members,” was the former’s judgment, and the latter elaborated that “this is more or less like the country out here, you know … everybody speaks to everybody else, but Mrs. Sterrett was different. When she went into a store she would just give her order and then leave, without passing the time of day with the shopkeeper or stopping to talk to anyone else that might be there.”

It’s not hard to see which way the wind was blowing — or rather, which way the papers thought it would. As the lead investigators (Detective William Mullin and Major W. Butler Windle) repeatedly stated that nobody had been eliminated as a suspect but that they thought the poisoner was a woman, and questioning of Mrs. Sterrett began as she recovered, headlines like the October 31st “EXPECT EARLY ARREST IN STERRETT CASE” in the Daily Local News must have seemed like good bets. A crank postcard was received by a Devon couple stating that “a blonde” had sent the cake out of hatred for Mr. Sterrett, but it was dismissed as a joke. An appeal was put out to trace the typewriter used in making the label — it apparently was “worn” in an unusual way and had been used by an inexpert typist. On November 4th, Dr. Charles LaWall officially confirmed what everyone suspected already, which was that Mr. Sterrett had died of arsenic poisoning. As the Inquirer elaborated, the analysis “indicated that the arsenic was thoroughly mixed with the cake itself rather than with the icing.” How he was able to determine that when all of the cake had been eaten wasn’t explained. The “Imminent Arrest” headlines continued.

It all came crashing to halt on November 6th, just over a week after Sterrett’s death, when the Inquirer ran story headlined, with refreshing directness: POISON CAKE CLUES ALL PROVE WANTING. AUTHORITIES INVESTIGATING DEATH OF STERRETT ADMIT THEY ARE COMPLETELY AT SEA. And just below, the most significant part: “Victim’s Wife Eliminated From Suspicion, Chester County Detectives Say.”

District Attorney Windle, of Chester County, said last night he had not yet given up all hope of finding the murderer of Sterrett. “I think we will eventually solve the mystery,” he said, “although it may not be soon. I doubt, however, whether the case will ever be brought to trial,” he said significantly. “Many things have been brought to light in the week’s investigation that are surprising, to say the least, but they have no direct bearing upon the case except as pointing in one direction should one of the theories of the investigators stand up.”

While Windle was intriguingly vague about the “many things” brought to light, Detective Mullin became all too detailed in a long and, one suspects, extremely frustrated speech about tracing Mrs. Sterrett’s activities on and before the 26th of October:

“We have followed the movements of Mrs. Sterrett on the day previous to the receipt of the box and on the day and found nothing to point to the fact that she may have been the sender of the package.” Mullin continued. “On the day previous she attended a sale of household goods and bought an alleged antique table for $8 which was really not worth the price of firewood. She had a mania for sales and antiques and was known all over this section for being present at every sale and was a heavy buyer of all things with an appearance of being antique. We have the ticket she used on her last trip to Philadelphia, the names of the conductors receiving it on both trips to and from the city, every detail of her movements while away and, in fact, have checked everything up to our satisfaction. She visited the gas office, paid her bill and left a toaster to be repaired on the day the cake was received. We have eliminated her from the case.

As to the motive of jealousy on the part of any person who may have sent the cake for revenge for some fancied wrong, we are not so sure. It may have been the case, but so far neither myself nor the others investigating have anything to point to this. We admit we are mystified, but are still hoping a solution may be at hand in the near future,” he concluded.

And that, as far as the Inquirer was concerned, was that. The Daily Local News ran a few perfunctory stories further into November — how a woman Sterrett had golfed with on business trips to Youngstown, Ohio had been questioned, but was not under suspicion. It also ran the required notices that Sterrett’s estate had entered into probate, in case he had died owing any debts. Three weeks after Sterrett’s death, the paper ran a story refuting a rumour that the Devon Civic Association had condemned the police for not finding Sterrett’s murderer.

At a meeting of the Association, held on Friday evening, the Association discussed the unfortunate affair and decided that we were satisfied that the officials of the law were doing everything in their power to unravel the mystery and we hope it will be accomplished. Mr. Sterrett was not well-known in Devon. He came here because he found a house available, but was know to but few. We feel sorry that Mrs. Sterrett has been subjected to such embarrassment, but that is as far as we go.

Nobody else went any further. In January 1923 a brief notice was printed that the case was being closed, as the police saw no way of solving it. It’s with little surprise that the reader of these papers finds the Daily Local News telling its readers that Martha Campbell Sterrett had left Devon and moved back to her mother’s house in Clarendon, Pennsylvania — besides the poisoning itself, the newspaper coverage had demonstrated just how little care Devon had for either her or her late husband. Aged thirty-eight when she was widowed, she seems to have disappeared from accessible records afterwards. Her mother’s household appears in the 1930 census, but her daughter no longer seems to have been resident there. I could find nobody with her name or birth date (September 27 1883) in the SSDI or in Pennsylvania marriage records up to 1930, though there’s always the risk of incomplete information misleading the curious. She may have married again, she may have left the state, she may have died before 1930, or at any rate before social security numbers were assigned, or she may simply have fallen through the cracks of the official records and gotten on with her life somewhere in Pennsylvania. William Sterrett’s grave does not appear to be shared with anyone except his birth family — while there are several Martha Sterretts in the cemetery, and quite a few Marthas all together, none of them have the right middle names or birth dates.

It’s a sad, bizarre story, all the more so because of the way it flickers out at the end. Ordinary as Mr. Sterrett seems to have been, someone went to the trouble of baking an arsenical wedding cake and mailing some to him and his wife. (Accounts differed as to whether the label said “Mrs. W.W. Sterrett” or “Mr. and Mrs. W.W. Sterrett — later accounts leaning towards the latter). He had a slice for a treat before supper and died horribly for it two days later. Someone did it, and got away with it. Who I can’t even begin to guess — the papers certainly were expecting something to come of the wife, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was extremely lucky for her — if it was luck — that she happened to have such a strong alibi established on the day in question (not to mention quite sad that she’d need that alibi when her previous signs of criminal inclination consisted entirely of melancholia and not spilling her guts to her gossipy neighbours). If this were a novel, of course, it would only be the beginning. Arsenical wedding cake seems more like something which would appear in a book than in life, and yet the Sterretts anticipated Agatha Christie by about three decades — she would use an arsenical slice of wedding cake sent through the mail as a plot device in Funerals Are Fatal (1953). But really, you couldn’t make a novel out of it — it sounds too much like a pile of cliches; the elaborate, possibly symbolic conveyance for the poison, the unbreakable alibi, the very poison itself. And the ending would be very unsatisfactory.

Surrounding the Sterrett stories in the Daily Local News are the usual flotsam and jetsam — wire stories, advertisements, and social notices. At the bottom of one story, nestled between the promises to give more information soon and an advertisement proclaiming “SPECIAL FOR HALLOW E’EN: Dennison’s Hallow E’en Crepe Paper, Festoons And Border Strips”, is an innocuous social notice with a startling ending:

After spending the week-end at New Brunswick, N.J., Mrs. George K. Hiddleson, of Thorndale, has returned home, accompanied by her mother-in-law, Mrs. Anna R.J. Hiddleson, of Greenmount, who has spent the past two months in the same place with her daughter, Mrs. O.C. Crist, having had a very pleasant visit. While there they visited the Phillips farm and viewed the spot under the crab-apple tree where the bodies of Rev. Edward W. Hall and his choir singer, Mrs. Eleanor R. Mills, were found murdered.

The Hall-Mills murder is one of those which people talk about and argue over to this day, while the Sterrett murder sank without a trace. But for all the frustration of not knowing what happened, it sounds like they would have preferred it that way. Mr. Sterrett, the “home type” and Mrs. Sterrett, who didn’t stop to gossip, would probably not have liked their home to become a perennial tourist attraction, much less that the “surprising” things which Windle referred to should be known to millions. Perhaps, as Othello would put it, ’tis better as it is.

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One Response to Arsenic And Old Cake

  1. […] to be back on Wednesday, December 4th. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my venture into the 1920s: Arsenic And Old Cake. Happy […]

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