Saturday, March 19, 2011

Found Drifting with the Tide

When the body of beautiful young Jennie Cramer was found on a sand bar in the ocean off West Haven Connecticut in August 1881 it was assumed that she had drowned, and possibly committed suicide. But there was no water in her lungs and a thorough examination of the body revealed that the cause of death had been arsenic poisoning. It was also revealed that she had lost her virginity within the last forty-eight hours, and not consensually—she had been violently raped. Suspicion fell immediately on Jimmy Malley, Jennie’s current beau and nephew of the richest man in New Haven. The problem for the prosecution, and everyone since, was determining what exactly happened in the last two days of Jennie Cramer’s life.

Date:  August 6, 1881

Location:   New Haven, Connecticut

Victim:  Jennie Cramer

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:   Jimmie Malley, Walter Malley, Blanche Douglas

Jennie Cramer was the daughter of Jacob Cramer, a New Haven, Connecticut cigar merchant, and his wife Christina. Sickly as a child—probably anemic—Jennie was pampered by her family, and was the only one of the Carmers’ three children who did not work in the cigar store. She grew up to be a striking beauty, with dark brown hair and dark blue eyes, and a fair and soft complexion.  Jennie Cramer was universally known as “the Belle of New Haven.”

Jennie Cramer
At age 15 Jennie left school and, with her mother’s blessing, devoted her time to her appearance and her social life. Jennie had many suitors and Mrs. Cramer kept a sharp eye on kind of men who courted Jennie, hoping Jennie could use her beauty as a means to rise in class. Jennie became a notorious flirt, very forward in approaching men who hadn’t been introduced to her. She loved having a good time and staying out late and, although she kept her virtue intact, she had a reputation as a “fast” girl.

In 1881, at age 21, Jennie met Jimmy Malley who was two years her senior. Like Jennie, Jimmy liked to dress well and have fun and he still lived at home with his parents. Jimmie worked in his uncle’s department store and Jennie would stop in to flirt with him. Jimmie was soon infatuated with her.

Jimmy Malley
Jimmy Malley was especially close to his cousin Walter, son of Edward Malley, owner of Malley’s department store and the largest taxpayer in New Haven. Walter was the opposite of Jimmie; shy and reserved, he preferred art and music to sports and social life. He had attended Seton Hall and Yale but graduated from neither. Walter showed no ambition and was a disappointment to his father.

Walter Malley
Walter and Jimmy began making frequent trips to New York City and there, at a brothel run by Lizzie Bundy, they met a young prostitute named Blanche Douglas. She was born Anna Kearns, but escaping first an abusive stepfather, then an abusive husband, she changed her name and joined Lizzie Bundy’s house. She has only been there two weeks when she met Walter and Jimmie.

Blanche Douglas
Walter fell madly in love with Blanche Douglas, spending two or three nights a week with her and writing her letters and telegrams when he was not with her. Blanche had no education and Walter wanted to introduce her to art, literature and the finer things. Against her better judgment, Blanche agreed to visit Walter in New Haven when his father was out of town. Blanche was overwhelmed by his wealth.

Meanwhile, Jimmy was trying to court Jennie Cramer, but she had refused to go riding with him without a chaperone. The solution was to go out together with Walter and Blanche, who was introduced to Jennie as Walter’s rich fiancĂ© from Long Island. They would go riding together, going to restaurants and other resorts where young people gathered. The night of July 23, 1881 she did not come home until 4:00 A.M. and Mrs. Cramer was beside herself. Jennie told her that they had gone back to the Malley’s mansion and though she had tried to leave, Jimmie refused to escort her.

On Wednesday, August 3, Jennie went out again with Jimmy, Walter and Blanche. Walter’s father had gone to Saratoga so the two couples stayed all night at the Malley mansion. Jennie returned home Thursday morning accompanied by Blanche. Jennie had a terrible argument with her mother who was upset over what the neighbors would think. Blanche said that Jennie had stayed in her hotel room and nothing improper had happened. Mrs. Cramer would have none of it and told Jennie if she were going to stay out all night she should find a new place to live. Jennie left with Blanche and it was the last time her mother saw her alive.

Around dawn on Saturday, August 6, an oysterman named Asahel Curtis, while preparing his boat before heading out for his day’s catch, saw a white object on a nearby sandbar swaying back and forth with the incoming tide. It was the body of a young woman, finely dressed, all in white; she had died recently enough that there has been no decomposition. It would not have been unusual for a young woman to be so dressed up at the beach, the popular Savin Rock Amusement Park was nearby and a woman fitting Jennie’s description was seen there the night before. Other observers soon recognized her as Jennie Cramer, and though there were indications to the contrary, it was assumed that she had drowned. When the circumstances of her disappearance were learned, it was further assumed that she had drowned herself in despair.

While the body was still in a boathouse on the beach, doctors Painter and Shepard performed an examination. They determined that there was no water in her lungs or stomach and it was unlikely that she had drowned. They also found that she had lost her virginity within 24-48 hours of her death. Damage to the fourchette, a tough tendon near the vaginal entrance, indicated that she had been violently raped. An inquest was scheduled for the following Monday.

Jimmie, Walter and Blanche were questioned by reporters and Sheriff Peck, and after some initially contradictory statements they all agreed that they had been with Jennie Wednesday night, but none of them had seen her after noon on Thursday. They had not been at Savin Rock Friday night.

Edward Malley returned from Saratoga to find his son and nephew implicated in the death of Jennie Cramer. He wasted no time hiring two powerful attorneys to represent the boys and Blanche Douglas and two private detectives to track down clues and witnesses. When confronted by reporters about Walter’s relationship with Blanche, and the goings on at the mansion on Wednesday night, he denied any knowledge of Walter ever being with a girl, then added,

“Boys will be boys. And you’ll find that’s all there is to the matter.”
An autopsy that lasted seven hours produced no new information. It was almost certain that Jennie Cramer did not drown but the cause of death remained unknown. Various organs were removed and preserved in jars, leading to rumors that the doctors would look for traces of drugs or poison. It was popularly thought that Jennie had been drugged with laudanum or chloroform before she was raped.

At the inquest Blanche Douglas testified that the two couples had been at the Malley mansion on Wednesday night and that Blanche had been too sick to return to her hotel. Walter said she could sleep there and she persuaded Jennie to stay with her. They slept in the same room. The next morning they had breakfast together then Jenny left her.

After her testimony, Blanche returned to New York. The prosecution realized that talking to Blanche away from the Malleys was their best hope of getting a conviction. When they went looking for her in New York they found she had given a false address. She was soon tracked down to Lizzie Bundy’s and her true identity was made known. She was arrested for perjury and extradited to New Haven. One of the autopsy doctors, Dr. Painter, had taken a special interest in the case and advised Blanch to sever her ties with the Malleys since they were likely to betray her. Blanche was afraid of jail and agreed to cooperate when Sheriff Peck offered to let her stay with his family rather than be locked in jail.

In several closed door sessions Blanche made a confession of sorts to the inquest jury. She revealed that she had been part of a scheme to assist Jimmy in seducing Jennie. The night Jennie had stayed out until 4:00 AM they had been in a private room over the Redcliffe Restaurant. She and Walter went to another room and she could hear Jennie crying loudly “Don’t, don’t.” On Wednesday night, August 3, they were at the mansion and got quite drunk on wine. Then Blanche feigned sickness to get Jennie to stay with her. But they did not stay together; Blanche went with Walter and Jimmie carried Jennie, kicking and screaming to another room. That night she heard loud frightening screams from that room. She also testified that two men, one of whom was Edward Malley’s brother, came to her in New York and asked how much money would convince her to take an ocean liner to Europe for a year or so.

But she still insisted that she did not see Jennie Cramer after Thursday at noon, saying:
“If you was to hang a rope around my neck I couldn’t say different.”
A chemical analysis of Jennie’s organs had revealed eight tenths of a grain of arsenic distributed among her stomach, esophagus, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, intestines and brain indicating that two to four grains, a lethal dose of arsenic, had been ingested prior to death.

Jimmie and Walter Malley were arrested for murder on August 15. The inquest, which began on August 6, interviewed more than 50 witnesses and lasted until September 3.

Trial: April 25, 1882

Blanche had been held on perjury charges but when it was determined that she would give no more information, the charge was changed to murder. Before the murder trial itself, the case was put before the Justice Court to determine if there was probable cause to try the Malleys and Blanche for murder. Five counts of murder were listed in the indictment against the Malleys: arsenic poisoning, drowning, suffocation/asphyxiation, chloroform, and the use of liquor and drugs. For Blanche, the only charge was arsenic poisoning. The trial before Justice Steven Booth examined over two hundred witnesses—mostly people claiming to have seen the defendants at various times and places—and lasted until the end of October. At the end Justice Booth found probable cause to charge James Malley, Walter Malley, and Blanch Douglas with murder but limited to one count: arsenic poisoning.

The trial would not be held until April 25, 1882. It would take a week to empanel a jury because of the difficulty in finding anyone in New Haven who did not already have an opinion on the guilt of the Malleys.

The charge of arsenic poisoning presented a problem for both the prosecution and the defense. The prosecution could not accuse the defendants of suffocating Jennie on impulse, arsenic poisoning implied planning and deliberation. The defense would have trouble proving the Jennie fell or jumped deliberately into the water. Both sides agreed to exhume the body for a complete analysis, including the bones, to determine exactly how much arsenic was ingested. While the prosecution wanted an exact amount to present to the jury, the defense hoped to prove that Jennie was an “arsenic eater” –a woman who indulged in the popular Victorian practice of ingesting small amounts of arsenic to lighten the complexion. It was determined that Jennie had ingested at least three grains of arsenic, but there was none in her bones, indicating that she was not an habitual user.

In the end, however, there was only circumstantial evidence—sparse and vague—that the defendants had poisoned Jennie Cramer. After deliberating only an hour, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Verdict: Not guilty


Jacob Cramer had been devastated by the death of his daughter and did not live to see the end of the trial. The official cause of death was listed as phthisis, another word for consumption, but it was more likely suicide. By 1883 Christia Cramer had become mentally unbalanced and was convinced that her daughter was not dead and would be coming back to her. In July 1891 Christia Cramer hanged herself.

In February 1882, Malley’s department store burned to the ground. Arson was suspected and the insurance company refused payment on a technicality.

Walter Malley used his time in prison to draw landscapes on the cell wall and to compose a waltz, “Under the Elms” which was published and sold as sheet music.

Another piece of music, “Found Drifting with the Tide” was written about Jennie Cramer by A. C. Willis.

Following the verdict the Malley’s held a lavish party at the Tontine Hotel which was sharply criticized by the press. Blanche Douglas went back to jail that night because she had nowhere else to go.

Walter Malley kept in contact with Blanche Douglas and at one point was the target of a blackmail scheme involving letters stolen from Blanche. He married a woman named Anna Madden who many believe was actually Blanch Douglas (Anna Kearns.)

The true circumstances surrounding the poisoning of Jennie Cramer have never been determined.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
Most Horrible and Shocking Murders

McConnell, Virginia A. Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999. 
The beautiful victim of Elm city: being a full, fair, and impartial narrative of all that is known of the terrible fate of the trusting and unfortunate ... Blanche Douglass, Walter Malley ? [1881]. New York: M.J. Ivers, 1881.


Anonymous says:
March 19, 2011 at 9:30 PM

Wonderful writing, wrong mansion part of it still survives in New haven, CT.

Anonymous says:
March 19, 2011 at 10:01 PM

Next time I go to visit my family in Ct. I want to see where the mansion is. What is the real one?

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 20, 2011 at 5:21 PM

The picture is from an 1881 edition of "The Beautiful Victim of Elm City" and can be seen here:

Anonymous says:
February 5, 2012 at 10:04 PM

Try this picture website for the mansion, if you want to see what the remains look like, look up Pike International and find 22 Batter Ter. in New Haven, CT.. I also know where the Malley's family is buried, I'm still looking for Jenny and her family because they were poor...

Caroline says:
March 2, 2012 at 5:54 PM

Am I the only one who thinks the Malley boys looked like old movie villains? It must be the mustaches.

JoeK says:
June 29, 2014 at 11:20 AM

I doubt that Walter Malley married Blanche Douglas. It appears that she died and was buried in a pauper's grave in Chicago in November 1889. You can read the paper's summary of her life and more details of the crime here…,6057424

JoeK says:
June 29, 2014 at 11:22 AM

Shorter link here…

lets kick it says:
September 9, 2015 at 10:01 AM

I actually lived in the Malley mansion and the address is 28 batter ter. And I remember living on the first floor and every summer we would get a lot of mice and every year they would have to exterminate.

323isthenumbereyesee says:
November 27, 2017 at 12:56 AM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna says:
February 25, 2018 at 7:12 PM

Is there still a copy in existance of the song Found Drifting With The Tide by AC Willis?

Robert Wilhelm says:
March 2, 2018 at 1:32 PM

I haven't been able to find "Found Drifting with the Tide" but "Under the Elms Waltz" is available from the Library of Congress

Donna says:
March 10, 2018 at 6:48 PM

Robert, thank you for the information for the song "Under the Elms". If you ever come across "Found Drifting" please let me know and I will post if I find it here, thanks!

Post a Comment