The Last Days of Cleveland: and More True Tales of Crime and Disaster from Cleveland's Past

Overview

“Heroes and rogues fill the pages of this book. The stories will hold your attention and chill you to the bone.” — Crime Shadow News

Cleveland's master of historical crime and disaster returns with 15 more true tales in this sixth volume of his popular series, including . . .

• West Park sisters Helen, 11, and Marguerite, 10, who died after eating Rough-on-Rats brand poison in their grandmother’s basement— victims of a genetic “suicide mania,” or driven to death by the cruelest ...

See more details below
Paperback
$12.62
BN.com price
(Save 15%)$14.95 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (6) from $8.96   
  • New (4) from $8.96   
  • Used (2) from $12.61   
Sending request ...

Overview

“Heroes and rogues fill the pages of this book. The stories will hold your attention and chill you to the bone.” — Crime Shadow News

Cleveland's master of historical crime and disaster returns with 15 more true tales in this sixth volume of his popular series, including . . .

• West Park sisters Helen, 11, and Marguerite, 10, who died after eating Rough-on-Rats brand poison in their grandmother’s basement— victims of a genetic “suicide mania,” or driven to death by the cruelest caretaker since Hansel and Gretel’s stepmom?

• Joseph “Specs” Russell, who vaulted to fame in the summer of 1927 by staging as many as 52 stick-ups and making fools of Cleveland lawmen with his “impossible” escapes from their dragnets;

• Jeanette McAdams—just unlucky, or the Lucretia Borgia of Ashtabula County? After the suspiciously similar deaths of her five siblings, neighbors began to take note of the crowded family graveyard;

• Salty and ageless George Wallace, who served the city as a fireman for 62 years, 30 of them as chief, and endured to become the oldest fire chief in the world—with a mastery of incessant profanity that could be heard for four city blocks and made mule skinners blush;

And more true stories of courage, fear, deception, and villainy—including a disaster caused by the author himself!

Sometimes gruesome, often surprising, John Stark Bellamy’s tales are meticulously researched and delivered in a literate and entertaining style.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Newsherald.com - Jason Lea
Bellamy does not merely recount twice-told stories. He writes like newspapermen used to write before journalists were trained to write formulaic, AP-style abomination. He writes as if his supper depended on the evening’s headline . . . When Bellamy sticks to the subject, he is unimpeachable. And it’s not just his knowledge. More than anything it his enthusiasm and affection for his subjects (and their city) that makes Bellamy so compelling.
Akron Beacon Journal - Barbara McIntyre
There are half a dozen murders, several suicides, a shipwreck and the story of a persistent Roaring Twenties holdup man whose prison career was as engrossing as his crime spree. As Bellamy’s other books are replete with tragedy on an epic scale, these “tales of woe,” a phrase he likes to use, seem somehow intimate. That is, if a beheading can be intimate. The bloodless stories are just as interesting
Hudson Hub-Times - April Helms
A must for fans of local crime and disaster stories. . . The stories are at times amusing, at other times heart-wrenching . . . and always engaging.
Akron Beacon Journal
There are half a dozen murders, several suicides, a shipwreck and the story of a persistent Roaring Twenties holdup man whose prison career was as engrossing as his crime spree. As Bellamy’s other books are replete with tragedy on an epic scale, these “tales of woe,” a phrase he likes to use, seem somehow intimate. That is, if a beheading can be intimate. The bloodless stories are just as interesting
— Barbara McIntyre
Technorati
Even if you live in Cleveland, you don’t know as much about this city—rich in culture and history—as John Stark Bellamy II . . . He exposes the darker side of Cleveland—its murderers and petty thieves—and a few of the Forest City’s heroes (firemen and policemen, not politicians). He has made a career of chronicling Cleveland’s rowdy and sometimes funny past.
Hudson Hub-Times
A must for fans of local crime and disaster stories. . . The stories are at times amusing, at other times heart-wrenching . . . and always engaging.
— April Helms
Crime Shadow News
Heroes and rogues fill the pages of this book. The stories will hold your attention and chill you to the bone.
Newsherald.com
Bellamy does not merely recount twice-told stories. He writes like newspapermen used to write before journalists were trained to write formulaic, AP-style abomination. He writes as if his supper depended on the evening’s headline . . . When Bellamy sticks to the subject, he is unimpeachable. And it’s not just his knowledge. More than anything it his enthusiasm and affection for his subjects (and their city) that makes Bellamy so compelling.
— Jason Lea
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598510676
  • Publisher: Gray & Company, Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2010
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 254
  • Sales rank: 683,485
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 Suffer the Children The 1907 Curtis Horror

Seventeen years. That’s how long I’ve been mining the inexhaustible vein of Forest City dismalia. Seventeen years, nearly 150 tales of crime and calamity—and I have yet to discover a more heartbreaking story than the awful fate of the Curtis girls. Take it from me: there is simply no more poignant tale in the annals of Cleveland woe.

It’s difficult to have any sane perspective on the Curtis suicides—if suicides they were. The Cleveland of 1907 was a different place and a different time. Now-alien notions and values prevailed, and no chapter of human life was viewed more differently than childhood. What today would be considered child abuse was more often than not adjudged “good discipline,” and what was even then viewed as intolerable cruelty most often went unpunished. Diligent readers of these melancholy chronicles may remember the childhood of Tremont’s Otto Lueth, the teenaged killer of little Maggie Thompson in 1889. A grim feature of his murder trial was abundant and unchallenged testimony that his mother had habitually, indeed enthusiastically, abused him throughout the duration of his young life, kicking and beating him, tearing his hair, and even repeatedly slamming his head in a door to underscore her admonitions. Perhaps the most startling aspect of such testimony—at least to modern ears—was the fact that none of its auditors seemed to think her cruelty remarkably unusual, many of them simply discounting it as “good German discipline.” And on a personal note, let me relate a family story told by my maternal grandfather, who grew up in a similarly rigorous German home in 1890s Iowa. One Christmas morn in the early years of that gay decade, he and his brother Leo crept downstairs to peek at the family Christmas tree in the parlor, a transgression expressly forbidden by Frank Dessel, their stern Prussian father. Indeed, he was secretly waiting for them—and he hit Leo so hard with an iron poker that he broke his leg. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of the incident was that Leo’s brother, recalling the incident 70 years later, still considered their father’s brutal act a perfectly just act of paternal discipline. Frank was well matched with my mother’s other Prussian grandfather, Frederick Radkey. Fred was so enraged when his daughter Margaret (the author’s grandmother) sneaked off to a high school dance that he shaved her head when she returned home in the wee hours. So, bearing Otto, Leo, and Margaret in mind, let us journey back to the harsh world of 1907, more specifically, the Helen Curtis household in the Village of West Park. (West Park, now a neighborhood of Cleveland’s far West Side, existed as a separate village of Rockport Township until it was annexed by Cleveland in 1922.)

It is the month of June and things are not going well in the Curtis family. Other residents of Greater Cleveland may be concerned with recent public events, such as the Memorial Day interurban train crash in Elyria (six dead and many frightfully injured) or Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson’s controversial plan to eliminate the Erie Street Cemetery on East Ninth Street. But in the modest Curtis house at 40 Lakota Street in the newest “Lennox Park” allotment, a mile west of Cleveland proper, all concerns are domestic and chiefly focused on two of the four children there. They are Helen, 11 years old, and Marguerite (usually called Margaret), 10. Surviving photographs of the two girls subtly suggest their impending grim fate. Nicely dressed with beribboned hair, they stare at the camera, frowning forlornly, as if seeing something invisible to the viewer—something inescapable, something inhuman, something terrible. They probably do—for both Helen and Marguerite have been trying to kill themselves for some time. And despite family efforts to stop them, they will both get their death wish granted on June 7, 1907.

The real truth of the Curtis family tragedy will never be discovered. Aside from a limited amount of the testimony at the inquest into their deaths, most of what is known about Helen and Marguerite’s life consists of mere neighborhood gossip, mostly malicious, and the stark medical details of their self-destruction. A century later, we know only that they were unhappy, but we will never know just how much they were pushed—or pulled—into committing the final act that took their young lives.

For us, the Curtis family story begins in Liverpool Village, Medina County, not long after the Civil War. There, William Curtis, sometime sawmill proprietor and tavern keeper, lived and reared his family, including his wife, Helen, and sons Leland, Frank, and Freeman. Sometime in the early 1900s, William succumbed to stomach cancer, but his death only accelerated the ongoing exodus of his family from Liverpool. His son Leland had long since settled in Kansas with his wife, Louise, and four children, and by 1906 Leland’s two brothers were living with their widowed mother Helen in the newish, two-story frame house on Lakota Street. The dynamics of their household changed dramatically on March 12 of that year, when Leland’s four children—Helen, 10, Marguerite, 9, Frank, 7, and Claribel (“Clara”), 3—came to live with their grandmother Helen.

The simple explanation for the children’s arrival was that their mother was dead. Beyond that fact, her story gets morbid and murky. After the tragedy of Helen and Marguerite’s suicides, Leland’s mother, Helen, would insist that a mania for self-slaughter ran like a red streak in Louise’s family. Louise’s German-born mother, Helen claimed to reporters, was obsessed with suicide and had often tried to kill herself. And the unfortunate Louise had inherited her mother’s suicidal bent, continually threatening to kill herself. And Louise didn’t stop at threats, according to her mother-in-law:

She was accustomed [to] awaken [her husband] at midnight and tell him that she was going to take her life . . . Upon awakening, he often found his wife gone. He said searching parties then were formed to hunt through the woods and river banks, where it was her custom to go when resigned to melancholia.

Ultimately and inevitably, Louise made good on her repeated threats. One winter night in 1905 while Leland was sleeping, she fled from their farmhouse in her nightgown. He tracked her down the next morning, but she contracted pneumonia from her exposure and died a few days later. Living on a rough rural farm with four young children age 10 and under, Leland naturally did what was usual in such family situations in that age. He sent the four children to his mother, Helen, in Cleveland, believing that they needed a woman’s care. Such arrangements were common, virtually automatic in that age of extended families; my own mother and her brother were duly shipped to their aunt’s home when their mother died suddenly in 1924.

If Leland’s mother was telling the truth in the aftermath of her granddaughters’ suicides, she must have understood the risks of her new family commitment. Leland, she later stated, had tried to keep his children with him after their mother died but soon found himself unable cope with their own suicidal tendencies. The two eldest, Helen and Marguerite, often talked of doing away with themselves, and Helen made at least one attempt, drinking most of a bottle of whiskey. Doctors saved her life by using a stomach pump, but it proved the decisive incident in their transfer to Cleveland.

Life in their new Cleveland home would have been difficult for the children under any circumstances. The arrangement was for the children to live there and attend West Park schools while Leland continued his work at a Waukee, Kansas, grain elevator and sent his mother remittances for their support. But Mrs. Curtis was now 59 and, although not quite an invalid, suffered from both a heart condition and a painful lameness, which limited her agility and movement. But there may have been other circumstances specifically inimical to the mental health of the Curtis grandchildren. Although Freeman Curtis, when questioned at his nieces’ inquest, painted a portrait of his mother as a loving, tender parent, other voices were heard during that public investigation. Mrs. Angeline Worth, the proprietor of the Miller Hotel in Liverpool, had known Helen Curtis for many years, and she remembered some things Freeman may have forgotten:

Well, I know that she tied Freeman to his chair when he was a little fellow and left him. He fell off the chair and against a hot stove. He would have been roasted to death if neighbors had not heard his screams and saved him. He carries the scar to this day. I know that Leland was driven away from home by his mother and went to Kansas to shift for himself when he was a real young boy.

Mrs. Worth also recalled Helen Curtis, who was given to jealousy, chasing her husband, William, with a butcher knife after deciding he had been too accommodating to flirtatious females. And another inquest commentary on Helen Curtis’s parenting style came from John Wolf Sr., likewise a longtime Curtis neighbor in their Liverpool years. He recalled that she had so starved her own children that they used to come begging to his house for even a crust of bread.

Not long after the arrival of the Curtis children, disquieting stories about life at 40 Lakota Street began circulating in the Lennox Park neighborhood. Mrs. Curtis’s son Freeman would later state that it was the worst community he had ever known for vicious tale-bearing—and the Curtis neighbors certainly had many tales to bear. Marie Bodenlos, who kept a grocery and school supplies store a block away from the Curtis home, often saw Helen and Marguerite as they stopped by on the way to and from school. When they first started begging her for something to eat, she assumed they were simply eating between meals. But one day she teasingly asked them if they didn’t get anything to eat at home—and was shocked when they told her that Mrs. Curtis only gave them stale bread to eat. When she probed further, they told her that Mrs. Curtis bought 10 loaves every Tuesday and Thursday from a man who came by with his bread wagon. The bread would then be left in the basement to soften before being doled out to the hungry children. Helen told much the same story of nutritional abuse to Miss Jennie Albers, her teacher at the West Park school, adding that it was sometimes topped with jelly. Alice McClennan, who spent two weeks at the Curtis house while the children were there, would later testify that she saw no meat served to them during her sojourn. Mrs. Curtis would unequivocally deny such stories at the inquest, angrily insisting that her usual daily menu included potatoes, bread and butter, and gravy for breakfast, with the same at lunch, plus “bread and jell.” She added that they sometimes had chicken but maintained a coy indefiniteness as to how often. And whatever the deficiencies of her cuisine, she excused them with the plea that Leland Curtis did not send enough money to subsidize a more generous diet for his children. Considering that Leland regularly sent his mother $25 a month, not to mention the presence of two able-bodied Curtis sons in residence, Mrs. Curtis’s defense of her table was a remarkable statement. It was also noted by Lakota Street neighbors that while at home the Curtis children were habitually dressed in burlap bags, although their school garb was relatively normal, if drab and unchanging. Jennie Albers would later remember that Helen was so ashamed of her clothing that she ran away from school the day the class photograph was taken. Another neighbor commenting on the girls’ clothing, Mrs. George Heine, expressed the opinion that Helen and Marguerite’s grooming and garb made them resemble “gypsies more than white children.”

Far worse tales than those of Mrs. Curtis’s alleged short rations and clothing allowance circulated amongst her West Park neighbors. Mrs. Marie Prior, janitress of the West Park school and wife of school board member Frank Prior, would later recall that she saw the children tied to their chairs with their hands behind their back. She also remembered that they were often locked in the cellar for hours after they returned from school and then sent to bed without supper. During her fortnight’s stay in the Curtis home, Alice McClennan likewise witnessed the rituals of chair binding and cellar imprisonment. Truly, “good German discipline” was well in force at 40 Lakota Street.

Was Mrs. Curtis’s abuse even worse than that? During the last months of Helen and Marguerite’s lives the chief confidant of their childish sorrows was their teacher, Jennie Albers. Helen told her frequently of the unstinting beatings and whippings administered by Mrs. Curtis to her grandchildren. She eventually admitted, though, that there was no “whip” involved: Helen Curtis’s favorite instrument of chastisement was a piece of fence rail, which she laid on without restraint. Sometime in the spring of 1907, Helen came to school janitress Marie Prior and teacher Jennie Albers with bruised and bleeding wrists and hands. She allowed Mrs. Prior to bandage her up, but she refused to admit how she had been injured, saying only that her grandmother would not allow her to tell.

After the girls’ spectacular death, Mrs. Curtis, of course, had her own contrasting version of events. It was equally, if not more gothic than the child abuse narrative generated by the girls and the Curtis neighbors. According to Mrs. Curtis, the presence of Marguerite and Helen in her home had been a disaster from the beginning. Although she agreed with Jennie Albers’s assessment that the two girls were “bright,” she also insisted that they were “light-headed” and, worse, hell-bent on suicide from the moment they crossed her threshold in March 1906. Shortly after she arrived in Cleveland, Helen disappeared, after telling Mrs. Curtis that she was going to lie down on some railroad tracks until a train put her out of her misery. She was subsequently found on the tracks and rescued, but she continued her threats to thus end her life. Soon after that, Mrs. Curtis returned home to find Marguerite hanging out of a second-story window, a clumsy but frightening attempt at suicide. Soon, the girls were sharing their suicide wishes with the Curtis neighbors and, eventually, with Jennie Albers. Helen’s final threat in Albers’s presence occurred on May 29, a little more than a week before her death. She told Albers she could no longer endure the agonies of life with her grandmother and that she and Marguerite would kill themselves to escape her cruelty. To her regret, Albers never took the suicide threats very seriously. But even before Helen’s final threat she was concerned enough about such morbid words and about the apparent neglect reflected in the girls’ clothing and chronic hunger to report the situation to West Park school superintendent S. H. Pincombe. He first sent a truant officer around to the Curtis home—Helen had been absent for about six weeks at Christmastime—but the officer could not find anyone at home to answer the door. The officer than scoured the neighborhood to find someone to swear out a warrant for child abuse against Mrs. Curtis. Notwithstanding the many armchair critics of Mrs. Curtis’s childrearing methods, he found none, so a puzzled Superintendent Pincombe wrote to Leland Curtis in Kansas. The denouement of Pincombe’s investigation would be predictable to anyone conversant with abuse allegations. A baffled Leland turned the letter over to his brother Freeman, who later told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter:

It was a shock to me, that letter. I had never seen the children abused. I asked my mother about it, and she said, “Ask the children.” They denied that my mother had been cruel. Then I went to Mrs. Prior and to Miss Albers. They told me what they had heard from the children themselves—stories of beatings and neglect. But I was unable to get the girls to confirm it. “Grandma is good to us,” they told me. I am inclined to believe that the charges are trumped up by the people in the park. They were not on good terms with my mother; they have always seemed to me to be maliciously persecuting her.

Freeman did not disclose to the reporter that he had taken it upon himself to reply to Albers’s original letter, a response which she simply termed “impertinent.” And so the matter was dropped. Subsequently, Leland was further lulled into complacency by a letter from Helen and Marguerite in late May 1907, in which they assured him that they were “happy” and growing “fat as pigs” on their grandmother’s cooking.

Lacking much evidence, and with the lapse of a century, it is difficult to defend Mrs. Helen Curtis from charges of flagrant child abuse. Freeman Curtis, her son and most vociferous defender, ascribed all the accusations to lying, malicious neighbors—but his feigned ignorance of what was going on in his mother’s house is tellingly belied by his residence there at the time. On the other hand, it was clear, notwithstanding his mother’s behavior, that at least three of the Curtis children were, by any criteria out of control. Frank Curtis seems to have led a fairly normal life, but Helen and Marguerite continued to make suicide threats and attempts. One day they approached Mrs. Bodenlos and asked her for money to buy some carbolic acid. (A common household antiseptic, carbolic acid was often used to commit suicide, especially by turn-of-the-century females.) When asked why they wanted carbolic acid, they replied, “We want to commit suicide.” Failing to secure a supply from Bodenlos, they approached a saloonkeeper, who likewise refused to sell it to them. No matter—four-year-old Clara Curtis eventually found some in a trunk and, doubtless aping her older siblings, drank enough of it to burn her mouth and be sick for weeks. During that same eventful year, Helen and Marguerite also made at least three or four attempts to set the house on fire, one with a candle, one with a gasoline stove. The closest they came to a fatality was when they stoked a fire in a wood stove and tried to thrust Clara’s head into the blazing interior. Either the aperture was too small or Clara’s screams too loud, as alerted neighbors soon put an end to this appalling episode. But it burned all of Clara’s hair off and did not deter Helen and Marguerite from further morbid adventures. At some point Helen, too, tried the carbolic acid route to death, noticeably scarring her mouth but without securing her desired end.

Given this background of suicidal mania, something ghastly was bound to happen—and it took place on Friday, the seventh day of June 1907. No one knows what happened that morning, although an imaginative Cleveland Leader reporter later gussied up the emotional background of the tragedy with suitable foreshadowing:

Yesterday morning both girls seemed to be more cast down than usual and complained of the canker that was consuming their happiness. After a time they were seen crying as if their hearts were breaking. A little later the girls disappeared.

The actual sequence of the fatal event was a bit more prosaic. Shortly before noon, Mrs. Curtis, preparing for lunch, asked Helen and Marguerite to go down to the cellar, bring up some potatoes, and pare them. They dutifully descended the stairs, followed by little Clara and, a little later, their brother Frank. Owing to recent rains and poor sewerage, the cellar held two feet of water, so retrieving the potatoes would have been a risky business in any case. But they weren’t interested in the potatoes—and headed directly for some shelves built against a cellar wall. Climbing up to the top shelf, Helen picked up a container of “Rough-on-Rats” and brought it back down. Removing it to a dry patch of the cellar, she opened it and offered it to Marguerite . . .

An irresistible digression here. In turn-of-the-century America, Rough-on-Rats was likely the most popular anti-rodent preparation of the day. Developed by pharmacist E. S. Wells of Jersey City, its very active ingredient was arsenic, and Wells single-handedly created its vigorous advertising copy and such complementary proprietary compounds as Rough-on-Bile, Rough-on-Catarrh, and Rough-on-Corns, Itch, Pain, Piles, Toothache and Worms. Most of his advertising graphics pictured an impressively dead rat, whose side sported the reassuring mottos “Don’t Die in the House” or “Gone Where the Woodbine Twineth.” There was even a Rough-on-Rats song by composer Jules Juniper, which included this catchy chorus:

R-r-rats! Rats! Rough on Rats!

Hang your dogs and drown your cats;

We give a plan for every man

To clear his house with ROUGH ON RATS.

It is only fair to state that such Rough-on-Rats propaganda was not taken quite as seriously as inventor E. S. Wells might have desired. A brief sample of the kind of heartless parodies it inspired will suffice:

Willie and three other brats,

Ate up all the Rough-on-Rats.

Papa said, when Mama cried,

“Don’t worry, dear, they’ll die outside.”

—Anonymous

Meanwhile, back at the foot of the cellar stairs, the moment of truth had arrived. Looking at Helen’s proffered palm of rat poison, Marguerite stared back and said, “I will, if you will.” A moment later, Marguerite tipped the can to her mouth and then handed it to Helen, who did likewise.

Clara, who was sitting on the cellar stairs, probably had no clear notion of what her sisters were doing. But brother Frank, coming down the stairs, realized what they had done when he saw the poison can in Helen’s hand. Leaving him in no doubt, one of them said to Frank, “We are going to die.” Running up to the kitchen, Frank found Mrs. Curtis and screamed, “Marguerite and Helen said they are going to kill themselves!”

What occurred during the next few minutes is a bit hazy and supported mainly by the contradictory evidence offered later to newspaper reporters and to Cuyahoga County coroner Thomas Burke at the inquest. Mrs. Curtis, who was lame, took some time to get to the top of the cellar stairs. As she got there, she saw Marguerite, already in convulsions as she attempted to totter up the stairs. There was a telltale green stain on her lips from the rat poison and she managed to croak out the words, “Gran’ma, I’m dying!” before falling at the feet of Mrs. Curtis. Seconds later, Helen staggered up the stairs. She could no longer even talk, her face was deadly pale, and she fell almost on top of her sister.

Mrs. Curtis may have fainted at this point, or perhaps a bit later. At some juncture, however, she tried to administer home remedies to the unconscious girls, dosing with them with milk and a solution of baking soda and water. She later claimed that she thought they had poisoned themselves by drinking paint—hence the stains on their lips—but whatever her initial surmise, it was soon obvious that they needed real medical help. Alerted by her ensuing screams, neighbors started flooding into the house, one of them snagging Dr. Henry C. Kelker, who just happened to be walking past 40 Lakota Street. Examining the unconscious girls, he found a faint pulse in both of them but after summoning A. R. Nun’s ambulance service admitted to Mrs. Curtis, “There is little hope.” Mrs. Curtis would later claim—without any corroboration—that before the girls were taken away, they both completed exonerated her and acknowledged full responsibility for their suicidal act.

Rushed to St. John’s Hospital, the girls were attended by Drs. Joseph O’Malley and Frank Kuta and put into adjoining beds, and the deathwatch begun. The poison did its work on Marguerite faster, and she only regained consciousness once, about 4 p.m. that day. Opening her eyes, she gazed feebly around her and began mumbling the words of the Our Father prayer. She got about halfway through before lapsing back into unconsciousness and then drifted quietly off to her death at 7 p.m.

Helen fought longer and harder for life, but her end was never in doubt. She managed to regain consciousness late in the afternoon, long enough to talk to her uncle Freeman. According to Freeman—a perhaps unreliable witness—she told him the reason for the double suicide: “We took the poison because Grandma wanted us to go to school.” Asked if she had any message for her father, she said, “Tell him I’ve been a bad girl. Tell him I hope he will forgive me.” Unaware that her sister was already dead, she begged an attending nun, “I want to speak to Marguerite.” No one wanted to tell her of her sister’s fate, so the nun asked, “What do you want to say to her?” “Bring her over and I’ll tell her,” replied Helen. “Ah, after a while,” said the nun. Asked a few more questions about how she and Marguerite had obtained the poison, she simply replied, “I won’t tell,” before falling unconscious for the last time. She died at 9:55 a.m.

Mrs. Curtis immediately sent a telegram to Leland Curtis that simply said, HELEN AND MARGUERITE ARE DEAD; COME HOME. Ignorant of the nature of his daughters’ deaths, Leland arrived in Cleveland late Sunday night, only to be overwhelmed by the details of his family tragedy and the pestering attention of Cleveland’s four daily newspapers. Whatever he really thought or knew about his children’s history in Cleveland was consistently concealed by a public façade of unyielding denial. Insisting that there was no history of “suicide mania” in his family, he was likewise adamant in his claims that his mother was a loving custodian and that his children had been well cared for and happy. Talking to reporters, Leland defended his family and placed the blame for his daughters’ deaths on culture shock, his mother’s uncharitable neighbors, and the cruelty of the West Park children:

I believe that they were urged on to do this thing by being tantalized by the other children about the neighborhood who told them all manner of things and made them discontented with life. The girls were raised on a farm, and until eighteen months ago were used to living in the open. They often wrote me that they wanted to come back west, but always said that they were getting along with their studies fine, so I took it that they were contented.

Pending an official investigation and awaiting input from Leland Curtis, Coroner Burke ordered Frank and Claribel Curtis removed to the children’s detention home.

By the time Coroner Thomas Burke’s inquest opened on Monday, June 10, it is likely that the public mind had been thoroughly poisoned against Mrs. Helen Curtis. The story of Helen and Marguerite’s double suicide had dominated the four Cleveland papers since Saturday morning, and every available scrap of incriminating gossip and rumor had been thoroughly exposed and almost endlessly recycled by the time Burke’s proceedings began at 10 a.m. Nor did Burke himself disguise his own preconceptions about the case, discounting, only a day after the deaths, the theory of a familial suicide compulsion. Indeed, he went much further in a Cleveland News interview, presenting a harsh, albeit purple-prosed indictment of the childcare dished out by Mrs. Helen Curtis:

I can readily see the impelling cause that drove those two little girls to their death. The lives of children need love and laughter, as plants need sunlight and the rains, that they may flourish. I do not believe that heredity had anything to do with their deed. Heredity would scarcely manifest itself in that way before the fourteenth year, and they were only ten and eleven. But consider the situation of children whose longings and pleasures are looked upon by their guardians from the severe standpoint of old age; to whose protectors dolls are silly and tag is idiotic. Think of children who go mournfully from home in the morning, and return with fear at night; whose innocent plays are condemned with a cuff on the head; whose whole lives are compassed about with puritanical severity. Children ponder these things and feel them deeply. If you have ever been whipped as a child, you will remember the heartbreak and the wishes that you were dead. Extend this feeling over years and you have a cause that would drive any child to suicide.

In the actual event, Burke’s inquest was, on the whole, a fair one, although its tone seemed fatally prejudiced against Mrs. Curtis at the outset. After hearing Marie Bodenlos relate her memories of the girls’ unhappiness and hunger, Alice McClennan took the stand to talk of their starvation bread diet, the rags that served for their clothing, the chair-tying and cellar-locking discipline, and their general air of depressive misery. “They were not happy children—morose and never smiled—never had a chance to smile.” More ominously, she remembered Mrs. Curtis saying to her, “I wish those children were out of my sight!”

Finally, after eliciting from McClennan every incriminating circumstance of her two-week sojourn at the Curtis house, Burke got to the $64,000 question—and he wasn’t subtle about it. Nor was McClennan...

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Preface 9

1 Suffer the Children

The 1907 Curtis Horror 15

2 Some People Never Learn

The Specs Russell Saga 35

3 "A Little Excitement"

The Star-Crossed Corrigan Family 69

4 "I Dle an Innocent Man!"

The Gruesome Death of William Beatson 99

5 Ohio City Shootout

The 1875 Murder of Michael Kick 115

6 Cleveland's First Disasters

I The Perils of Ben, and His Startling Escape 125

II A Tragic Voyage 129

7 Murder on the Shaker Road

The Strange Deaths of John and Josiah White 135

8 Fireman's Fireman

The George Wallace Legend 141

9 The Last Days of Cleveland

The 1925 Adventist Hysteria 157

10 All Unhappy Families Are Not Alike

The Ashtabula McAdams Family Values 169

11 "They Say I've Been Killing Someone..."

The Butchery of Greenberry Hood 175

12 Shabby Death on Sheriff Street

The Murder of Louis Weik 189

13 Third-Rate Romance, Prospect Avenue

The Murder of" 197

14 Cleveland's Greatest Historian

S.J. Kelly's Forgotten Treasures 237

15 My First Disaster

How I Got to Be "The Cleveland Historian Your Mother Warned You About" 249

Photo Credits 255

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)