Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Wilton Tragedy.

Moses Lovejoy was a respected, well-to-do farmer with a large spread in Wilton, New Hampshire. He had two lovely daughters, Ellen and Ida; both were intelligent and refined. Everything was rosy until 1868 when Moses hired Edwin Willis Major as a farmhand.

22-year-old Edwin Major came from Goffstown, New Hampshire; he was five foot ten, thickset and muscular with a heavy black mustache. When Lovejoy hired him, he already had a reputation as a bully, feared by people in town. Major was soon intimate with both of the Lovejoy girls; at the time, Ellen was 19, Ida was 13.

In July 1869, Ellen returned from picking blueberries, then suddenly collapsed and died. Her death could not be explained and was vaguely attributed to a spasm. Those who laid out her body for burial believed that she was pregnant when she died. The following November, Ida discovered that she was pregnant. Edwin Major was the father; he married Ida, and they lived together in her father’s house.

At first, it appeared that marriage would reform Major. He joined the Baptist Church in the Centre village and, for a time, was a zealous convert who became sexton of the church. But when money disappeared from the church’s charity fund, suspicion fell on Major, and he was expelled from the church. When relations became strained between Major and his father-in-law, he and Ida left the farmhouse and moved to French Village.

Major took a job at a furniture factory but was soon discharged for undisclosed reasons. A short time later, one of the workshops at the factory burned down. Suspicion rested on Major, but no movement was made toward his arrest. People lived in terror, fearing that if they brought charges against him, Major would retaliate and burn down their buildings.

In the five years since the wedding, Ida gave birth to four children, two of which had died suddenly, but no investigation was made. In 1874, Ida was pregnant again. Major started telling people that his wife was ill, suffering from spasms. He said that Ida was a “camphor subject,” meaning she habitually took camphor oil, a cough suppressant that could be addictive or even fatal when taken internally.

On Saturday, December 19, 1874, Major took a train to Nashua, New Hampshire, where he met with several physicians. He asked about procuring abortion, an illegal operation at the time; for his cousin, he said. When Major returned on Sunday, Ida appeared to be in good health. At 6:00, she prepared supper; at 7:00, she was dead. Ida had begun having spasms, and when neighbors were called to help, she was too sick to recognize them. They summoned a doctor, but she was dead before he arrived. This time the doctor was suspicious and sent for Coroner B.B. Whitmore. He did not arrive until after Ida’s funeral the following Tuesday.

Coroner Whitmore ordered Ida’s body disinterred and held Major in custody pending an inquest into her death. He sent Ida’s stomach to Boston for analysis by Dr. Edward S. Wood of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Wood analyzed the stomach contents using Drogendorff’s process, including three tests; 1. Taste, 2. Reaction with sulfuric acid and bichromate of potash, 3.the physiological test—the substance was fed to a frog. The frog died instantly, and Dr. Wood determined that Ida’s stomach contained strychnine. He presented his findings to the coroner’s jury, who concluded that Ida was poisoned by Edwin Major.

As Major awaited trial, Ellen Lovejoy’s body was exhumed. Though she had died five years earlier, her stomach was still intact; it was sent to Dr. Wood for analysis. He performed the same tests, this time administering the substance to a dog, producing death. Ellen had also been poisoned with strychnine. In addition, the exhumation proved conclusively that Ellen was pregnant at the time of her death. 

Edwin Major’s trial for murder began on September 13, 1875. Though public sentiment was strongly against Major, the evidence against him was circumstantial. The trial lasted about twelve days, and after deliberating for eighteen hours, the jury was hopelessly split and could not agree on a verdict. The second trial held the following December lasted four days, and after two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. He was sentenced to hang on January 5, 1877.

In the year between sentencing and Major’s scheduled execution, his supporters circulated a petition to commute his sentence to life in prison. Major was confident that he would not be executed and was devastated when the governor refused the petition.

Major was hanged in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 5, 1877. At the scaffold, he was pressed to make a confession, but he reiterated his innocence. Major appeared calm on the gallows, but before the trap was sprung, his nerve deserted him, and he fell upon his knees, utterly broken down. He died without a struggle. 

“Arrest for Wife Murder,” Sunday Times, December 27, 1874.
“Edwin Willis Major,” Illustrated Police News, January 13, 1877.
“The Gallows,” Chicago Daily News, January 5, 1877.
“Major Held for Trial,” Daily Patriot, January 11, 1875.
“The Major Poisoning Case,” Daily Patriot, September 14, 1875.
“The Major Poisoning Case,” New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, September 15, 1875.
“The Major Poisoning Case ,” Lake Village Times, September 11, 1875.
“Miscellaneous Items,” New England Farmer, December 9, 1876.
“New England Matters,” Boston Traveler, September 6, 1875.
“New Hampshire,” Lake Village Times, July 31, 1875.
“News Article,” Vermont farmer, September 24, 1875.
“Supposed Murder at Wilton,” Farmers' Cabinet., December 30, 1874.
“Twinkles,” Providence Morning Star, November 29, 1875.
“The Wilton Poisoning Case,” Boston Journal, September 18, 1875.
“The Wilton Tragedy,” Boston Traveler, January 3, 1876.


Unknown says:
March 30, 2021 at 10:32 AM

A taste test was part of the approach to confirming the presence of poison??? The man doing the autopsy had to taste a bit of her stomach contents????

toadbile says:
April 3, 2021 at 9:56 AM

CSI:1875 Of course they do the taste test, that is what interns are for.

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