Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black-Eyed Borgia

by Deborah Blum

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.
In the 1920s, a powdery form of arsenic called white arsenic, also known as arsenic trioxide, was mixed into an astonishing array of home products. These included a tonic to improve one’s complexion (Fowler’s solution), prescription medicines, weed killers and pesticides, such as the popular rat poison Rough on Rats, which was 10 percent soot and 90 percent white arsenic. In their analysis of Charles Avery’s body, forensic scientists could easily detect arsenic in the tissues – tests had been available since the mid-19th century – but they were unable to figure out which of these many poisons was responsible.

Fanny Creighton used Fowler's Solution to improve her pale complexion. But as her attorney pointed out, the mixture was so dilute that it would have taken gallons to kill the boy. Avery had access to rat poison at the grocery where he worked. The Creightons' attorney suggested that he might have taken it himself. His sister said he was depressed about a girl. The jury found the poison evidence so inconclusive that they quickly returned a not-guilty verdict. The angry prosecutor – convinced that Fanny, at least, was a murderer - then charged her with using arsenic to kill her mother-in-law. But that case foundered on even thinner scientific results. As Fanny Creighton walked away from the courthouse, she sent the prosecutor a message of forgiveness: “I bear no malice toward anyone.”

After the trial, the Creightons left New Jersey and moved to the small town of Baldwin on Long Island. During the Depression, they rented part of their home to another couple, Everett and Ada Applegate. Fanny had lost her dark Madonna looks by then. But her daughter Ruth was a rather lovely 15-year-old, and Ev Applegate decided he'd much rather be married to Ruth than to Ada, who was both fat and ill-tempered. Ev began sleeping with Ruth on the sly, and he told Fanny that if only he were free, he'd be glad to marry her daughter.

On September 27, 1935, Ada Applegate died of acute gastrointestinal distress. Prompted by an anonymous letter, the police opened and investigation and requested a forensic analysis. This time the tests -- done by New York's star toxicologist Alexander Gettler -- were inarguable. Not only did Gettler find three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada Applegate's body, he was able to identify the impurities in the poison as soot -- in fact, the exact proportion of soot found in Rough on Rats. The police traced the purchase of the poison, and Applegate and Creighton admitted to buying it together.

Creighton (left) also admitted, in an interview, that she'd used Rough on Rats to kill her brother. Investigators just hadn't known then how to identify it so precisely. It was such precision -- and a new awareness by police and the public of the science itself -- that changed the way we think about forensic medicine. There also was a very definite message in the end of Mary Frances Creighton's story. 

On July 16, 1936, she and Everett Applegate went to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison.


Suzanne Arruda said...

One of the fascinating things about the time period that I write (1920's Africa) was the lack of fingerprint use in prosecuting crimes. The authorities literally fingerprinted every Kikuyu for intimidation/indentured work purposes, but frankly had no interest in using fingerprints off murder weapons in several cases which I've discussed in past blogs at It's a reason I like writing this time period.

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