Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vamp of New Orleans

James Walkup, successful businessman and politician from Emporia, Kansas met Minnie Wallace on a trip to New Orleans in December 1884 and instantly fell madly in love. He was 48 years old, she was 15. A year and a half later they were married and a month after that James Walkup was dead from arsenic poisoning. During her murder trial Minnie would have help from other prominent, successful men. The same was true in 1897 when her second husband, also much older, died mysteriously.  And again in 1914 when a male companion died from cyanide after including Minnie in his will. What power did this New Orleans vamp have over middle-aged men?

Date:  August 22, 1885

Location:   Emporia Kansas

Victim:  James Reeves Walkup

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:   Minnie Wallace Walkup

James Reeves Walkup
James Reeves Walkup was successful at everything he did. He was a Civil War veteran from West Virginia who made money on coal mines before moving to Kansas where he took up farming, railroad contracting and buying and selling grocery stores. In Emporia be became a city councilman and was elected president of the council, making him acting mayor when the elected mayor was away. In 1884 he had outlived two wives and had three grown children.

Walkup was a man with hearty appetites, especially prone to sexual excess. Throughout his marriages he visited prostitutes and had a mistress fifteen years his junior. Two Emporia physicians would later testify that they had treated him for gonorrhea and that he had hired them to treat prostitutes as well.

In December 1884 Walkup traveled to New Orleans with his friend Eben Baldwin, ostensibly to attend a world’s fair—The New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition—but also to visit the city’s famed bordellos. On the recommendation of a man they had met in Baton Rouge, Walkup and Baldwin stayed at a boarding house on Canal Street run by Mrs. Elizabeth Wallace.

Mrs. Wallace, divorced, had two daughters, Dora and Minnie, who played piano and sang in New Orlean’s red-light district, Storyville. The Wallace girls were famous for their beauty and had caught the eye of Judge William T. Houston. He tried to persuade Mrs. Wallace to let Minnie live with him and his wife saying, “She’s too beautiful to be stuck in a boarding house.” Judge Houston escorted Dora Wallace to a Mardi Gras ball, though she was married to someone else. He would later kill a newspaper man who criticized in print his public affection for the Wallace girls.

Wallace's Boardinghouse
On his first night at Mrs. Wallace’s boardinghouse James Walkup met 15-year-old Minnie Wallace and became hopelessly infatuated with her. He spent the evening chatting with her and listening to her play the piano while her sister sang. The next morning Walkup told Mrs. Wallace that he was in love with her daughter and wanted to marry her. Mrs. Wallace laughed and said “Minnie has many such admirers.” Walkup would not be dissuaded and for the rest of the trip spent as much time as he could with Minnie. He asked if he could write to her when he returned to Emporia and Mrs. Wallace finally agreed provided the letters were addressed to her rather than to her daughter.

After a couple of token letters to her mother, Walkup began writing directly to Minnie. He remained so obsessed with her that he could not concentrate on his business. The following April Walkup took his daughter Libbie to see the fair and they stayed at Mrs. Wallace’s. Walkup spent the week showering Minnie with attention. He finally offered her mother $4000 to let him marry Minnie. Mrs. Wallace refused the money and left the decision to Minnie. Then Walkup made offers to Minnie herself. He promised to buy her mother a house and support her, he would give Dora’s husband a job in one of his enterprises, and he would see that her cousin Willie had a good education. Minnie said maybe.

In May, Walkup was in New Orleans again, pleading with Minnie and this time she relented. She agreed to an October wedding in New Orleans but first she and her mother would visit Emporia and see if they approved of where Minne would be living. They decided to travel to Emporia in July then go to Cincinnati to visit Mrs. Wallace’s sister. When Minnie, her mother and her nephew Milton came to Emporia in July, Minnie liked what she saw. Walkup couldn’t wait and wanted to get married immediately. Mrs. Wallace finally agreed provided they were married in Cincinnati so her sister could attend the ceremony. Since neither was a citizen of Ohio, they were married in Covington, Kentucky. They hurried back to Emporia so Walkup could show off his 16-year-old bride.

Walkup kept his promises and in Emporia Minnie lived a life of ease spending most of her time shopping. She began buying clothing and merchandise and shipping them to her family in New Orleans. She also began a series of visits to drug stores. First she had a druggist analyze some powder she had purchased in Cincinnati. She told him it was a remedy given to her by a friend and she wanted to be certain what it was. He told her it was quinine. She had, in fact, purchased strychnine in Cincinnati but the druggist had given her quinine by mistake. At another drugstore Minnie bought eight grains of strychnine—half a grain is enough to kill a person. He had her sign the “poison book,” a legal requirement when buying strychnine, but did not notice that she had left the purpose blank. At another drugstore she was refused strychnine because she would not state the purpose.

On Saturday, August 15, James Walkup had returned from a trip to Topeka and that evening was taken ill. The symptoms were nausea, diarrhea, and a tightening is his leg muscles—classic symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Dr. Luther Jacobs treated Walkup for what he thought was either indigestion or cholera. Walkup recovered on Sunday morning.

Sunday Minnie went downtown and purchased some arsenic. This was much easier to purchase because it was common for women to use arsenic to lighten their complexion. Though Minnie’s complexion was naturally quite pale, she had no trouble buying arsenic stating complexion lightening as the reason.

On Tuesday Walkup was deathly ill again with similar symptoms. Dr. Jacobs was surprised, though, that there was no fever. He began treating Walkup with morphine and by Thursday Walkup was well enough to be eating canned oysters and drinking soda pop. Shortly after eating he began vomiting again and Minnie blamed the oysters.

Dr. Jacobs was beginning to suspect arsenic poisoning and wanted to take a urine sample but Walkup’s kidneys had ceased functioning. The doctor had confided his suspicions with Dwight Bill, Walkup’s business partner, who went to see Walkup. He told his partner that the doctor suspected arsenic poising and it was known that Minnie had recently purchased arsenic. Walkup, on his deathbed, was ready to have his wife arrested. On Saturday August 22, exactly one month after his wedding, James Walkup was dead. Minnie Wallace Walkup was placed under house arrest.

Trial: October 1885

William Jay
On hearing the news of Minnie’s arrest, Judge William T. Houston hurried from New Orleans to Emporia to help with the defense. Mrs. Wallace, worried that Judge Houston would try to marry her daughter if she were acquitted, proposed that, since Minnie was a minor, a legal guardian be appointed by the court. The judge said, nonsense, her marriage had made her an emancipated minor and he was perfectly capable of handling her affairs. In the end, the court appointed 65-year-old ex-mayor of Emporia, William Jay, as Minnie’s guardian. Judge Houston left in a huff.

An inquest was held and Minnie Wallace Walkup was indicted for the murder of her husband. One witness at the inquest signaled what would be the defense’s strategy at the trial. Dr. Charles W. Scott of Kansas City testified that in the fall of 1884, James Walkup had visited him complaining of abdominal pains. Walkup volunteered that he was taking prescribed pills that were a combination of arsenic and opium. He took them for two reasons: treatment for a chronic disease (for which he was also taking mercury) and he believed that arsenic was a male enhancement drug. The implication was that Walkup was a chronic user of arsenic and was being treated for syphilis.

An autopsy was performed which revealed what everyone knew; James Walkup had died of arsenic poisoning. However, a thorough examination showed no sign of syphilis and no indication of chronic arsenic use.

For Minnie’s trial, the largest courtroom in Emporia was modified to seat 300 people and the witness stand was placed on a platform so all could see the testimony. At times as many as two thirds of the spectators were women. When the trial started the public was evenly divided, for and against Minnie. Newspapers cautioned against rushing to judgment and seemed to relish any news that might exonerate the poor teenager.

Between the medical testimony and the testimony of druggists who sold Minnie strychnine and arsenic, the prosecution had a fairly tight circumstantial case against her. The defense contended that Walkup’s chronic arsenic use had caught up with him. In what the New Orleans Daily Picayune called “a carnival of filth,” James Walkup’s prodigious sex life was paraded before the court. Pimps, fellow cavorters, and doctors who treated Walkup and his whores for sexually transmitted diseases told all.

Dr. Scott and others testified to Walkup taking arsenic as treatment for disease and to “keep up.” The problem for the defense was that all of these witnesses were from out of town. There is no record Walkup buying arsenic—which as Minnie’s experience showed would have required signing the poison book—and no local doctor had prescribed it. The solution to this came with the testimony of William Jay, Minnie’s new guardian.

William Jay was Minnie Walkup’s most ardent supporter. As she did with all older men, Minnie had thoroughly charmed him—so much so that the testimony he gave was almost certainly perjury. Jay testified that in July 1885 Walkup had come to his office to transact business. He claimed he was not feeling well and asked Jay for a knife and a glass of water. He put some white powder on the knife the poured it into the water then drank it. He told Jay he had better wipe off the knife because the powder was arsenic.

The most controversial claim of the defense was that arsenic that Walkup had taken in Toledo killed him nearly a week later. To support this they cited a case where a woman had tried to kill herself with arsenic but failed. When she succeeded a year later, an autopsy showed that the original arsenic had not killed her because it formed a cyst in her stomach. The same, the defense said, happened to Walkup.

The jury deliberated for fifty-two hours then found Minnie Walkup not guilty. The reason for the verdict was probably their reluctance to send a 16-year-old girl to the gallows. As one juryman said later,

“If I had voted for that little girl’s conviction, her face would haunt me to my dying day.”
Verdict: Not Guilty

The trial of Minnie Walkup had gotten national publicity and there was talk of Minnie going into show business. Nothing ever materialized and she moved back to New Orleans. She traveled for a while with U. S. Senator and former Louisiana Governor, William Pitt Kellogg. Kellogg, Minnie’s senior by 39 years, was, according to observers, acting like a “decidedly ‘gone’ lover.” They traveled the southwest together and may have travelled to Europe as well. Kellogg financed Minnie’s move to Chicago.

John Berdan Ketcham
In Chicago, though she was probably not a prostitute, Minnie associated with known courtesans and kept a separate room where she entertained men salon-style. Just as her money was running out, Minnie met wealthy (and married) John Berdan Ketcham. After his wife divorced him Ketcham moved into Minnie’s house where she kept him a virtual prisoner. In 1897 Ketcham was dying of alcoholism. Minnie took him to Wisconsin for a secret marriage ceremony. On November 1, 1897 Ketcham signed a will that left everything to Minnie. Twelve days later he was dead.

Because of Minnie’s background, an autopsy was performed, specifically looking for signs of poison. None were found and the cause of death was listed as “acute alcoholism.” Though the Ketcham family challenged the will and the marriage, Minnie inherited $250,000, the same amount her first husband had left her.

DeLancy Horton Louderback
In 1900, Minnie began a relationship with DeLancy Horton Louderback—20 years her senior and a married man. Louderback and Minnie would travel together while he was still married. After his wife died he updated his will to leave a quarter of his estate to Minnie. Soon after he died of cyanide poisoning. The official cause of death was “overdose of cyanamide, taken medicinally.” Since there is no medicinal use of cyanamide, the death had to have been either suicide or murder. Minnie could not have been directly responsible because Louderback died in Chicago and Minnie was in Europe at the time, though there are theories that she or an accomplice could have poisoned his food or medicine.

Minnie died in 1957 at the age of 88 in San Diego, California where she was living under the name Estelle Minnie Keating.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century


McConnell, Virginia A.. The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2010.

French, Laura M.. History of Emporia and Lyon County, Kansas. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2008.

The Kansas City medical index-lancet, Volume 6

"Minnie Walkup's Trial", The New York TImes, October 23, 1885


Iceni says:
January 13, 2021 at 6:44 PM

Very interesting. Amazing that she lived so long herself in those days. Especially if one of her husband's had a venereal disease.

Leslie says:
February 23, 2021 at 9:15 AM

Penicillin became widely available in the 40s, so maybe she was cured that way unless it was syphilis that had already progressed too far.

Equality Evermore says:
June 15, 2021 at 11:30 PM

How did DeLancy's wife die?

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