Saturday, October 26, 2019

Married at 15, Dead at 20.

James Tout, a wealthy businessman of Byron Center New York, died before the birth of his daughter Florence, but before he departed this world, he set up a sizable trust fund for the new baby. The inheritance, which would be hers when she married, was managed by a banker, and by the time she was in her teens had grown to a small fortune.

When Florence was 15 years old, she received the attentions of Howard Benham, an ambitious young man of 23 who worked as a travel agent, booking trips to the Chicago World’s Fair on the installment plan. For many reasons, Florence’s mother and stepfather did not approve of the courtship but were fearful that their opposition might drive Florence to run away with Benham. On the night of August 3, 1892, she told them to have no fear; she had no intention of running away. The following day, she said she was going to Batavia to consult a dentist, but instead, she traveled through to Rochester, where she met with Benham.  The two were married in the private office of Justice White.

The Benhams bought a house in a fashionable neighborhood in Batavia. Howard took over management of Florence’s inheritance and engaged in the private banking and money loaning business. The couple had one son, but after five years together, it was apparent to outsiders that the marriage was not a happy one. Howard mistreated his wife and was said to be leading a fast life outside of marriage.

In the early hours of January 4, 1897, Florence Benham died in her home following a short illness. The cause of death was said to be rheumatism of the heart. At first, the announcement did not attract more than the ordinary sympathy for the bereaved family, but soon rumors began to circulate that Florence’s death had not been natural. The rumors grew until the clamor of speculation became too strong for Coroner Barringer to ignore. He began an investigation, calling on Mr. Benham, who agreed that, under the circumstances, an inquest and autopsy were necessary.

The coroner began selecting jurors for the inquest and engaging doctors for the autopsy. He had planned to have Florence’s heart, stomach, and other organs removed for chemical analysis, but the four doctors who examined her deemed this unnecessary. They unanimously agreed that she had died of heart failure. Death had been caused by atrophy and degeneration of the muscular heart tissue, probably resulting from a severe injury to pelvic organs when her son was born. Florence was buried on January 7.

The following day, Sam J. Elliot, a pharmacist at a local drug store, reported that about a week before Mrs. Benham’s death, he had made two sales, a few days apart,  of an ounce of prussic acid to Howard Benham. At the first sale, Benham told Elliot he wanted the strong poison to kill a dog. Elliot was reluctant at first but finally agreed to sell Benham the poison. Benham asked him not to tell the proprietor of the store about the purchase. A few days later, Benham came in again for another ounce of prussic acid. The druggist jokingly asked if he hadn’t already killed the dog. Benham said never mind the dog, he wanted the acid. Elliot refused again, but when the argument that followed threatened to come to blows, he relented. 

At 3:00 a.m. the next morning, the coroner obtained an arrest warrant against Howard Benham from Justice Dunham; at 5:00 a.m., the Batavia police arrested Benham and took him to jail. Coroner Berringer ordered the body of Florence Benham disinterred for a second autopsy. This time, the heart, liver, stomach, and a pint of blood were turned over for analysis to Dr. Frank P. Vandenbergh, former City Chemist of Buffalo, who was frequently called for poisoning cases in Western New York. Dr. Vandenbergh estimated it would take at least two weeks to determine if the organs contained any prussic acid.

The inquest began without waiting for the chemical analysis, and this time, the autopsy doctors were not as positive as they had been. Dr. Morris W. Townsend, who had been involved in both autopsies, said that the first autopsy had been done in haste, and they had not been looking for poison. After the second autopsy, he saw indications that the death might not have been natural. “I do not believe that death was due to natural causes,” he said, “and facts were brought out on the autopsies that showed that it might have been caused by prussic acid.” Dr. Tozier, the family physician who had been treating Mrs. Benham at the time of her illness, said that she had been perfectly healthy and he had thought it was a simple case but became disturbed when her husband said she was in the habit of taking powders and said she was habitually using morphine.

The inquest stretched on for more than a month. About two weeks in, it was reported that Dr. Vandenbergh had discovered prussic acid in Mrs. Benham’s organs, but only trace amounts. After meeting with Benham’s lawyers, District Attorney Le Seur decided not to call Dr. Vandenbegh to testify. He probably wanted to avoid turning the procedure into a battle of experts.

The most damaging testimony of all came at the end of the hearing, when Florence’s mother took the stand. She was at her daughter’s house the night Florence died and was awakened by the Benhams’ son. As she went to quiet him, she heard voices from the sick room. It seemed as though Behham was trying to force his wife to take medicine. She heard her daughter protest and exclaimed, “I do not see what you want me to take it for!” and later, she said, “I don’t care, Howard; I think you are mean to treat me so.” The inquest closed, and Howard Benham was held for first-degree murder.

Howard Benham’s trial for murder the following July took much the same course as the inquest. This time, Dr. W.B. Hatch, who examined Benham in jail, testified that Benham was suffering stricture, a disorder which was commonly treated with prussic acid. Dr. Vandenbergh testified for the prosecution that he had found traces of prussic acid in the brain, liver, and blood, but the quantity was not determined. According to the Buffalo Currier, “Dr. Vandengergh’s words, as well as his manner, led listeners to believe that there was even some doubt about the trace.” However, the circumstantial evidence proved strong enough; Howard Benham was convicted of first-degree murder.

Benham’s attorneys filed a request for a new trial. After two months of deliberation, the request was denied and Benham was sentenced to the electric chair at Auburn State Prison. The defense then filed an appeal which was rejected by the Court of Appeals in October 1899.

While at Auburn, Benham hired a new lawyer and converted to Catholicism. One or the other seems to have worked for him because, in February 1900, he was granted a new trial. In his second trial held that June, Benham was found not guilty.

"Benham Arrested,” Buffalo Evening News, January 9, 1897.
“Benham Behind The Bars,” Buffalo Courier, January 10, 1897.
“Benham Found Guilty,” The Buffalo Enquirer, July 29, 1897.
“Benham Held for Murder,” The New York Times, February 13, 1897.
“Benham is at the Bar,” Democrat and Chronicle, January 21, 1897.
“Benham Murder Trial,” Watertown Daily Times, July 17, 1897.
“Benham Now A Catholic,” The Buffalo Times, January 17, 1900.
“Chemist and Coroner,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 1, 1897.
“Conference of Benham Lawyers,” Buffalo Evening News, February 11, 1897.
“Death of Mrs. Howard Benham,” Buffalo Evening News, January 4, 1897.
“Found Much Morphine,” The Buffalo Commercial, January 16, 1897.
“Genesee,” Democrat and Chronicle, January 8, 1897.
“Hardly a Trace,” Buffalo Courier, July 10, 1897.
“Married at 15, Died at 20,” The Buffalo Times, January 4, 1897.
“Not Guilty,” Evening Tribune, June 21, 1900.
“Serch Begun,” The Buffalo Enquirer, January 11, 1897.
“The Testimony Very Damaging,” Democrat and Chronicle, January 13, 1897.
“Wild Excitement in Batavia,” Buffalo Courier, January 7, 1897.


djpass says:
January 1, 2022 at 11:49 AM

Just a word to let you know how much I enjoy this site.

Tish says:
January 1, 2022 at 8:21 PM

I do too djpass.

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 2, 2022 at 9:42 AM

djpass and Tish, Thank you both!

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