A troupe of temperance players who visited the town of Berlin, New York in December 1844 had a profound effect on Henry G. Green. It was not their message of sobriety that moved Henry, but the charm and beauty of their leading lady, Mary Ann Wyatt. When the troupe left Berlin, Henry followed and was soon courting Mary Ann. On February 10 they were married. Eight days after that Mary Ann Wyatt Green was dead from arsenic poisoning. There is little doubt Henry Green murdered his wife but his motive in doing so is an enduring mystery.
Date: February 18, 1845
Victim: Mary Ann Wyatt Green
Cause of Death: Poisoning
Accused: Henry G. Green
"The Ballad of Henry Green" - The Golden Eagle String Band
Mary Ann Wyatt was born in Thornton, New Hampshire in 1822. When she was eighteen, she left home with her brother David to work in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. They worked in Lowell for three years, then in 1843, they joined a travelling company of temperance players performing a play called The Reformed Drunkard—probably a pirated version of The Drunkard, later produced by P.T. Barnum.
Henry G. Green was the same age as Mary Ann Wyatt. He was from a prominent family that had lived in Rensselaer County for several generations. In 1842 he opened a store in Berlin and around the same time he had been publicly reprimanded and expelled from the Baptist Church for intoxication. His business faltered and in the fall of 1844 a suspicious fired destroyed the store. Though Green collected insurance on the store, rumors of arson persisted. During this period he had been courting a woman named Alzina Godfrey who refused Greens proposal of marriage. He joined the temperance players looking for a new start.
At first Green just sang in the chorus but soon had an acting role. He was also making progress winning the affections of May Anne Wyatt and came to replace her brother David as May Ann’s source of strength.
The performing company was not doing well financially and after an engagement in Kinderhook, New York they disbanded. Henry and Mary Ann decided to return to Berlin and be married. She stayed in Stephentown while Henry and David went to Berlin to prepare for the wedding. The date was set for February 17 and Henry invited all of his friends, including Alzina Godfrey. On February 10, Henry went back to Stephentown to see Mary Ann, and on that day, despite the wedding plans, Henry Green and Mary Ann Wyatt were married.
On Thursday Henry organized a sleigh ride for his friends to make up for the missed wedding. Alzina Godfrey was along on the ride and reportedly said to Henry:
“Why did you marry Mary? I would have married you in the end.”Mary Ann caught cold on the sleigh ride and on Friday Henry began to treat her. He first persuaded her to take six pills that had been prescribed for him by Dr. Rhodes. They allegedly contained opium. On Saturday he was with some friends at Dennison and Streeter’s, which was a grocery store as well as a tavern. Henry exclaimed that he had seen a mouse on one of the shelves and asked Dennison why he did not put out arsenic to kill the mice. A conversation ensued as to the danger of arsenic, and it was later alleged that Henry had stolen some arsenic from Dennison and Streeter.
On Saturday night David Wyatt asked Dr. Hull about his sister’s condition and he was told that she would soon die. David went to his sister and said:
“Mary, the doctor thinks you can’t live.”Mary Ann then called Henry to her bedside. She asked him if she had ever deceived him in any respect and if she had ever done anything to injure his feelings. He answered no to both questions. She told Dr. Hull she knew she was about to die and told him about everything Henry had administered to her. Dr. Hull had her repeat the information to Mr. B. Streeter. Her condition worsened to the point where she could no longer speak and at 10:00 AM, Monday morning she died.
A coroner’s inquest was held and a postmortem examination proved that Mary Ann had died of arsenic poisoning. Henry Green was arrested for the murder of his wife.
Trial: July 7, 1845
Henry Green was asked if he had anything to say why the judgment of law should not be pronounced. Green said faintly, “Not guilty.” To which Judge Parker replied:
That is adding nothing to what has been said before. That plea was put in for you by your counsel, and the issue has been tried with every advantage on your part. You have had the advantage of very distinguished counsel whose endeavors have been unremitting to secure your acquittal. You have had the aid of rich and powerful friends—friends of high respectability and character, who have secured you every opportunity of presenting your whole case to the jury fully and fairly…Your case in all its aspects, exceeds in enormity any of which I have ever heard. It will no doubt stand out on the page of history, as the most criminal, awful case of murder that ever came before a court and jury.Henry Green was sentenced to hang on September 10, 1845.
Verdict: Guilty of murder
Though an appeal was denied, Henry Green’s “rich and powerful friends” worked very hard to pressure Governor Silas Wright for executive clemency. They called Green insane; they requested time for the legislature to change the murder laws; they requested time for Green to adequately prepare for death. Henry Green was so sure that he would be reprieved that in August he helped his cellmate escape from the Troy jail, but did not escape himself.
In the end, the governor refused all of the requests and on September 10, Green was hanged. It was a private hanging with only fifty spectators, but outside the jail yard thousands of people had gathered for the event. Five days after the hanging Henry Green’s confession was published. In it he exonerated his mother and Alzina Godfrey but offered little to explain why he had murdered his wife.
This monument is erected by the Citizens of Berlin in memory of Mary Ann Wyatt, wife of Henry G. Green, who was married Feb. 9, 1845 and on the 14th day of the same month was poisoned by her husband with arsenic without any real or pretended cause.
Beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous, she was wept over by the community, and the violated law justly exacted the life of her murderer as a penalty for his crime
The murder also inspired a number of ballads. As Olive Woolley Burt said in American Murder Ballads and Their Stories:
"This case had everything a balladeer could ask for: a rich young man, a beautiful bride, passion, jealousy, married bliss, and tragedy. Practically everyone who could make a rhyme, it seems, composed verses about the crime."There are at least seven known version of this story in song with titles such as “The Arsenic Tragedy, “The Berlin Murder Case,” “The Murder of Miss Wyatt,” and “The Murdered Wife or the Case of Henry G. Green”
One more bit of folklore:
Around 1885 Mary Ann Wyatt’s body was exhumed to make room for building lots. When her coffin was brought to the surface it broke open revealing a white skeleton in rotted clothing. Over the head and shoulders were cascades of beautiful auburn hair, visible only for a moment before a gust of wind “shattered it to nothingness.”