Saturday, March 28, 2020

Love and Arsenic.

Elizabeth Ragan
As Arthur Ragan lay dying of a stomach ailment, in Piqua, Ohio, on April 3, 1855, his wife, Elizabeth took the physician aside and told him she believed her husband had poisoned himself. She said she thought the cream of tartar he had been taking for his stomach was actually arsenic. Mr. Ragan died that day, and a post-mortem examination proved his wife correct, he had died of arsenic poisoning. However, there were reasons to believe that Arthur Ragan had not committed suicide, and suspicion fell on Elizabeth as his murderer.

After Ragan’s death the postmaster of Colesville, Ohio, came forward with a highly incriminating letter. The previous December, the letter had, by mistake, been given to a man named Murray. When Murray read it and realized it was not for him, he returned it to the post office. The letter had been intended for James Mowrey, and the postmaster made sure it was delivered correctly, but the contents had been so disturbing that he first made a copy which he turned over to the police:

Piqua, Dec'r 6, 1855. 

Dear Jimmy: - Once again I am seated to write a few lines to you. I said I would not write any more, but you know I can't refrain from it, and as I have been living in a perfect Hell, if you will allow me the expression, it is a hard one but nevertheless true, and I have been tormented day and night since I came home. He saw me kiss you and that was enough. Oh, I have had to suffer for it. I did not think he saw me, but he was watching me. I am so near beside myself I hardly know what I am doing. He says I shall not go home any more, and he says he will not get me any more clothes, and then I can't go as much as I have. Now I can't stand this any longer and I appeal for your help. 

I have thought of one more plan; I am going to make one more proposition to you, and if you will do it I will grant you the request you have so long asked of me, as soon as you do what I want you to do, or before, if you will only do what I want you. Now it is this, you make a proposition to him to go with you to look at some new country—to Oregon or Wisconsin, or some other place—and name the period right off, and if he says he has not the means, you tell him you will furnish him with the means if he will go for company; then I will persuade him to go, and then you can go on horseback or on the cars, and you can take your two horses and go part of the way on the cars, and you can take the horses and go the rest of the way—that is till you get a good ways from here, and you can procure your poison and administer it in his oysters and he will never know the difference; you can eat your oysters on the road or you can give them to some farmhouse, they will never know the difference, and you can pretend to take it hard to think you have to turn back. When you accomplish what I have told you, then you can telegraph to me that he is dead; I will tell the Templars and have them make up thirty dollars and send to you to bear his expenses. If you will come up as soon as you get this I will tell you better.—Now Dear do come, you know I love you—you are well aware of it. I will write no more till I see you. Come up right away. My ink is pale.  

Yours in life or death.

From yours or one that loves you.

The letter was from Elizabeth Ragan. James Mowrey was an old boyfriend, and they had seen each other the previous summer when Elizabeth had gone back to her father’s house in Colesville on church business. At the time, she was nursing a child. Although Mowrey had a wife and three children, he declared his affection for Elizabeth, saying that he had been miserable the last four years. He was in love with Elizabeth and wanted to elope with her, even if it meant living in a log hut.

Elizabeth Ragan was 22 years-old, graceful and strikingly attractive, with gray-blue eyes and voluptuous lips. She was intelligent and considered a sprightly, interesting lady. James Mowrey was 32 years-old, tall and strong, with a pleasant, gentlemanly countenance. By one account, he was “the last man to be picked out in a crowd for a villain.”

Arthur Ragan.
Elizabeth dismissed Mowrey’s proposal, saying she was a wife and a mother and ought not think of former days. But Mowrey persisted. They saw each other several times after that at church gatherings, each time he asked her to leave with him, and Elizabeth gradually softened to the idea. Arthur Ragan was cold and indifferent towards his wife and did not give her the affection she craved. She focused her affection on her young daughter, but when the baby died, Elizabeth began give Mowrey’s offer serious consideration.

The arsenic had been Mowrey’s idea, according to Elizabeth, he knew how much arsenic would kill a man, and he and Elizabeth began to consider several plans to administer it to Arthur Ragan. Though not affectionate toward Elizabeth, Ragan was a very jealous man. He had seen Mowrey kiss his wife at a church affair and was livid. He told Elizabeth that he would no longer give her money to buy clothes or allow her to travel to church events. After this, she wrote the letter to Mowrey, taking seriously the plan to murder her husband. 

Claiming that she wanted to kill rats, Elizabeth tried to buy five cents worth of arsenic, but the druggist would not sell such a small amount. She went together with a neighbor to buy a larger amount and split it. On Thursday, March 30, she put arsenic in his dinner, and continued giving him doses over the next five days until on Tuesday, Arthur Ragan died.

The police had the letter, and they had statements from the neighbors about Elizabeth Ragan buying arsenic. Her father told her the best thing she could do was to tell the truth, so Elizabeth confessed to murdering her husband.

The prosecutors wanted to pin the murder on James Mowrey and persuaded Elizabeth, possibly with the promise of immunity, to turn state’s evidence and testify against him. Elizabeth told the whole story at Mowery’s arraignment hearing, stressing that he was the one with knowledge of arsenic and that she had killed her husband at his urging. When asked if she loved Mowrey, Elizabeth she said she had affection for James Mowrey and had been ready to run away with him, but she supposed that she had never loved anyone, at least not “the love spoken of in novels.” 

In the end, due to some legal technicality, both James Mowrey and Elizabeth Ragan were discharged, and there was no trial for the murder of Arthur Ragan. The root of the problem, according to one indignant editor, was the State of Ohio’s reluctance to hang a woman.

Originally Posted March 26, 2016.

Tolford, C. W. Love & arsenic. Tippecanoe: Reflector, 1855.
Quinby, George Washington. The Gallows, the Prison, and the Poor-house:. Cincinnati: G.W. Quinby, 1856.
"The Great Ohio Murder Case." Plain Dealer 14 Apr 1855.
"The Piqua Poisoning Case." New York Times 17 Apr 1855.
"The Poisoning Case in Piqua." M'arthur Democrat 20 Apr 1855.


LadyMohan says:
March 26, 2016 at 10:55 PM

This is outrageous, she got off for committing confessing to first degree murder.

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 27, 2016 at 9:03 AM

My guess is they granted Elizabeth Ragan immunity to testify against Mowrey, but even with that there was not enough evidence to indict him for murder. They were left with no one to prosecute.

Shelley says:
March 12, 2021 at 2:54 PM

They probably had no way of proving that Mowrey knew about poison or that the idea to kill Arthur was his own and not Elizabeth's. Situations like this probably still happen today. It's sad that Arthur was murdered and didn't receive justice.

Post a Comment