Mary Frances Creighton, Fanny to her friends, was a rather appealing 24-year-old in the summer of 1923. She had curling dark hair, pale skin, “deep, luminous eyes,” according to The New York Evening Post, and lush, “petulant lips,” according to The New York American.
The New York Times more sedately described her as a “comely brunette,” or as “a young mother.” She had a three-year-old daughter, Ruth, and a newly born son, John Jr. The baby had been born in the Newark, N.J. jail, while both she and her husband, John, (together, above left) awaited a trial on charges that they’d killed Fanny's young brother with arsenic.
Hence all the publicity. The newspapers ran few photos of scrawny sandy-haired John. But Fanny Creighton willingly posed for admiring photographers: dressed in long-sleeved demure black, despite the summer heat, eyes lowered, carved silver cross hanging around her neck, infant cradled in her arms.
The image was of a gentle Madonna, the least likely person to have killed a younger brother for a life insurance payout.
The jurors also believed her an unlikely murderer. Both the Creightons were found innocent of the charges. But, in fact, although her husband was only a dupe in the affair, Fanny Creighton was guilty. She admitted to the killing a dozen years later. That was after she’d been charged with yet another arsenic murder.
In the second case – the murder of a close friend’s wife on Long Island – Creighton (and the close friend) went to the electric chair. This time, the press did not find her so appealing: “The Black-Eyed Borgia” screamed one headline. And this time the evidence was not so easily brushed away – the forensic results were so precise that the laboratory could identify the brand of arsenic-laced rat poison used – and the guilty decision came very quickly.
The different endings to two prosecutions of the same woman offer a remarkable measure of how much and how fast forensic science had grown up in the intervening decade. Today, we tend to take such scientific expertise for granted. This is not to imply perfection in a human enterprise. We’ve all followed recent scandals involving overworked criminal laboratories that misstated or even made up some of the findings. But that involves people making bad, really bad, decisions. The basic science itself – our ability to tease a poison out of tissue, identify a blood type, analyze traces of fibers or soils – those techniques stand as solid.
That was far from true in the early 20th century. Elected coroners often knew nothing about science or how to determine cause of death. As I learned in researching my book, The Poisoner's Handbook, death certificates from the time period sometimes merely gave “Act of God” as the cause. Police detectives regarded these strangers from laboratories with real suspicion, refusing to accept their findings. And lawyers found laboratory results to be a wonderfully easy target.
All of that worked perfectly to Fanny Creighton’s advantage in her first murder trial: “My clients know nothing of how this boy came to be poisoned!” her lawyer declared.
John Creighton and Mary Frances Avery were long time friends when they married in 1919. He was the son of an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. She, her brother and two sisters were orphans, cared for by affluent grandparents.
The newlyweds moved in with Creighton's parents, who owned a big, two-story home in Newark’s comfortable Roseville neighborhood. They shared the space for a year until his mother died at age 47 of apparent attack of food poisoning in 1920. His father, also 47, died the following year, of a sudden heart ailment.