Recently an Oregon woman was jailed for killing her convict boyfriend when two of the meth-filled balloons she had slipped him in a kiss ruptured in his stomach. We’ve discussed deadly kisses from both the living and the dead in this venue and, as a special Valentine’s treat, I bring you the improbable tale of another prison Kiss of Death.
A Deadly Poison Kiss for Love
How the Desperate Prisoner’s Pretty “Sister” Learned Its Secret, Unknown Even to the Cruel Borgias, from Their Innocent Living Descendant.
A Poison secret that the Borgias never knew!
Yet learned—strangely enough—by a desperate young girl of to-day from a living descendant of the famous Borgia family!
It is the “kiss of death.”
The girl who learned it—and put it to a deadly use—called herself Marie Kessler, though her real name remains a mystery.
A modern representative of the great medieval line which numbered Caesar Borgia, Pope Alexander VI and Lucretia Borgia among its members, is the beautiful opera singer, Lucrezia Bori, said to be a lineal descendant of the famous Spanish family. She hears the same name, with a slight difference in spelling—for Bori and Borgia are Spanish variations of one name.
Miss Bori is proud of her descent, and justly so, for the Borgias were a great and noble family. Modern United Italy itself is a monument to their genius and if it is true that some of them were experts in poisoning their enemies, it must be remembered that they lived in a time when such methods among the great were the rule rather than the exception.
It is needless to say that the modern Lucrezia Bori knows nothing whatever about poisons, and that she is innocent as a lamb of any direct connection with the tragedy which is recounted on this page. She knows none of the individuals involved, and in all probability has never even heard of them.
Yet by a coincidence, over which she had no control, she figures in this story, as you shall presently see.
Now forget the opera singer for a moment and visit, in your imagination, a cell in Moyamensing prison, Philadelphia. In that cell is—or was—a young man by the name of Nathan Kessler—for he is dead, slain at his own request by the sweetheart who posed as his sister.
Kessler, intrinsically, was not a very interesting young man—a poor, weak victim of circumstances, rather, who, if he were alive, would be greatly surprised to see his picture in a newspaper. He was a thief, and not a big thief at that. He had been convicted of stealing $500 worth of jewelry. In addition, he had made a pretty thorough mess of his life, and when he found himself in a prison cell he became depressed and made no secret of the fact that he wanted to die. In fact, he threatened suicide.
Because of this threat, the prison authorities set a guard over him, and watched him so carefully that he couldn’t carry it out. They saw that he had nothing with which he might hang or cut himself. They gave him neither knife nor fork, but made him eat his food with a blunt spoon. When visitors came to see him, guards watched to see that they conveyed to him no hatpin, knife or poison.
Poor, little mournful Kessler was not nearly so important as all that. It is doubtful if the prison officials would have cared if he had jumped into the river while outside their custody, but they didn’t want the scandal of a suicide in their prison, and so they watched him carefully.
But there was one person in the world to whom Kessler was intensely important—his sweetheart. She had been to visit him. She loved him. She knew that he wanted, above all else, to end his miseries by death. He was able to influence her and she agreed to help him die. But how?
For a long time she thought, and then she had an inspiration. Earlier in the Spring she had gone with him to the gallery of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on a Tuesday night, where they had seen the Metropolitan Opera Company, with Lucrezia Bori, in a beautiful but tragic music drama of love, murder and suicide, “The Love of Three Kings.” In this opera the hero dies from a kiss—from poison which has been smeared upon the lips of his sweetheart—a role played by Lucrezia Bori.
Now Kessler’s sweetheart remembered this episode and built her own plot upon it. A week later the girl, who was something of a beauty, appeared at the prison, saying she was Kessler’s sister, that she wished to kiss him goodbye. She is described as slender, dark-haired, of the Oriental type, her fingers heavy with diamonds, wearing jewel-studded bracelets and jade pendant earrings.
The girl, after first being searched by a matron, was admitted to the corridor facing Kessler’s cell. While guards watched close at hand, she talked with him in whispers, and a few moments later gave him a long kiss on the lips, after which she said, “Farewell, my dear one,” and went away. And Kessler died.
What had happened, as they afterward discovered, was this: The girl had braved death herself by secreting in her mouth a small quantity of deadly poison, wrapped tightly in several folds of cigarette paper. The poison was transferred to Kessler’s mouth by means of the kiss. Fifteen minutes later he was dead.
The police knew this from having found shreds of the cigarette paper. They also have a pretty definite suspicion as to the identity of the girl, but there would be a great deal of difficulty in proving any case against her. She has no criminal record of any kind, and her only “crime” seems to have been that she helped her sweetheart commit suicide at his own request. It would be impossible even to indict her for murder, must less get a conviction, so that it is quite likely that authorities, applying common sense rather than strict rules of justice to this extraordinary tragedy, may not press the matter.
You will probably never hear of this girl again, but by doing what she did she figures in one of the most interesting poison cases known to the authorities since mediaeval times.
The people of the middle ages knew many poison secrets which are not used in the twentieth century—but none exactly like this one. A manuscript has recently been discovered, showing that Catherine de Medici, queen-mother of France, was accustomed to use poisoned perfumes to rid herself of her private enemies.
Rodrigo Borgia, said to have been one of the world’s greatest poisoners, had two favorite devices. One was the famous Borgia ring. There were, so far as is known, three varieties. The first was a heavy gold one with a lion’s head, the mouth open. The teeth of the lion were sharp pointed steel needles embedded in the gold. When Borgia shook hands with a friend the lion’s head was on the back of his hand, on top of the finger, as a ring is normally worn, and no harm resulted. When he shook hands with an enemy whom he wanted to slay he turned the head inward and inflicted a slight scratch on the hand held tightly in his grasp. The scratch was sufficient to cause death. The second variation of the ring was the substitution of a serpent’s head, with steel needle fangs, instead of the lion. A third, more complicated ring, recently discovered, had a tiny hypodermic needle in the center of a movable, pierced jewel.
Rodrigo Borgia’s second favorite device was a jewel casket, which had a lock difficult to open, and a small key, on which there was a jagged pointed point which pierced the hand when one tried to turn the key….Poisoned gloves, poisoned medicine balls, poisoned walking-stick handles and many other strange devices were known in the middle ages, but the “kiss of death,” by which Nathan Kessler was enabled to commit suicide, seems to constitute an entirely unique method, wholly unknown in the time of the Borgias.
Hamilton [OH] Evening Journal 18 August 1923: p. 13
What a story! It sounds just like something from, well, an opera.
This is 1920s sob-sister journalism at its finest, dragging a beautiful and popular opera star into a story starring a mysterious, bejewelled, veiled “sweetheart” nobly helping her lover to commit suicide in prison. Oh, and some dubious fun facts about the Borgias who don’t really have anything to do with the story except for the singer, who, come to think of it, doesn’t either…
The illustrations, which look like something from a 1920s sex-novel add to the unreality of the thing. So, naturally, I went down the rabbit hole to see if any of this was based on fact. I couldn’t imagine that Lucrecia Bori had actually lent her name to this farrago as a puff piece. She was a much-loved star of the Metropolitan Opera and, while I refuse to pay the extra cash to my newspaper database to find details for 1923, the Metropolitan Opera Company with Miss Bori, did play La Boheme at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia on a Tuesday in March of 1922. [That “Tuesday” was such a peculiarly specific detail…]
As for “The Love of Three Kings,” this was a highly popular potboiler of an opera in the United States: L’amore dei tre re, by Italo Montemezzi, set engagingly in ‘The Dark Ages.”
The summary in Wikipedia reveals that poisoned lips were, indeed, the climactic plot point:
The unfaithful Fiora is strangled by her father-in-law blind King Archibaldo, who then poisons the lips of her corpse so her lover will die. Lover Avito kisses her, and dying, tells Prince Manfredo, her husband, that he was her lover and that King Archibaldo has poisoned her lips. Grief-stricken, Manfredo kisses her. King Archibaldo enters just in time to hear the voice of his dying son.
All straight? Good.
Obeying the writer’s directive to “ignore the opera singer” for the moment, Kessler was perhaps not as petty a thief as described, if this is the same Nathan Kessler.
IDENTIFIED AS ROBBER
Suspect Held in Rodborough Hold-up Netting $18,000
Identified as one of five men who staged an $18,000 hold-up in Rodborough on November 5, Nathan Kessler, 25 years old, of Thirteenth street and Columbia avenue, was held yesterday without bail for court by Magistrate Renshaw in Central Station. A second suspect in the robbery, the police say, is Edward “Reds” Gallagher, who was arrested several days ago after an exciting chase at Board street and Columbia avenue, where an aged woman was knocked down and a policeman and his traffic semaphore were overturned. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 17 December 1921: p. 19
STEELTON MAN IS HELD FOR THEFT
Philadelphia, April. 23. After a pistol fight, early to-day, detectives arrested three men, two of whom were identified by Miss Mabel Hills, of this city, as the bandits who had kidnapped her and robbed her of $50,000 in jewelry last Friday night. The men identified were Thomas Alexander and Nathan Kessler, both of Philadelphia. Ross Wolf, Steelton, Pa., the third man, was not recognized by Miss Hills. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 23 April 1923: p. 1
The value of the jewels was reduced to $5,000 in an article about the trial, which quoted a witness for the defense stating that Miss Hills and her party were “stupidly drunk.” Kessler was due to be sentenced on the day he died. Was he really looking at such a long stretch in prison that he took this way out?
Looking a bit further, to see if “Marie Kessler” was ever apprehended, I found information that cast some doubt on the scenario above.
Philadelphia, July 5. (By I.N.S.) Lieutenant of Detectives Andrew Emmanuel and Coroner’s Detective Frank Paul claim to have obtained a confession from a convict in Moyamensing prison that he sold narcotics, an over-dose of which killed Nathan Kessler, a convicted highwayman, in an adjoining cell, last Friday. Charles F. Morgan, a prison guard who resigned on the day Kessler died, has been arrested and is held in $5000 bail. A woman accomplice, now being sought, will complete the chain, the authorities declare. Evidence, according to the detectives, indicated that former purveyors of dope are permitted to ply their trade unmolested within the walls of the prison. New Orleans [LA] States 5 July 1923: p. 1
But if the convict next door sold Kessler the fatal dose, why was a “woman accomplice” needed? Deeper down the rabbit hole I found a number of articles about officials trying to “smash dope rings” at Moyamensing, complete with lurid details. For example:
Today in the Philadelphia magistrates ‘courts, tales of wild “snow parties” in the cells, of a highly organized system of “master-mind” dope peddlers and their “runners” all wearing the prison garb, are being unfolded by their victims, who cower in fear of possible retaliation awaiting them when they are taken back to their quarters. The Noblesville [IN] Ledger 26 July 1923: p. 10
Prison veterinarian, Dr. Burke, was charged with being the middleman between the “sinister drug syndicate” and the prison distribution network. A paroled convict described the lucrative system and added that guards were so deeply emeshed in the scheme, that convict drug ring members could ignore their orders with impunity.
All of which is fascinating social history and shows that things haven’t changed much, but gets us nowhere in the question of “Marie Kessler.” I’ve not been able to find that the authorities ever identified her, arrested her, or clarified what her actual role was. You would think that the prison might have had a register where the lady signed in on visiting day for easy identification. As an irrelevant aside, was “Marie” draped in jewels stolen by her lover?
Other examples of “mercy kissings”? The police matron is standing by for your search. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
One of the sons of General Yosif Vladimirovich Gourko was said to have passed a “capsule containing a swift poison” to an imprisoned, disgraced brother with a hearty Russian kiss, although this may just be an urban legend. It was also suggested that Frau Emmy Goering passed the poison capsule to Hermann Goering in a farewell kiss.
In one more irrelevant aside, Moyamensing had the dubious distinction of being the last residence of serial killer H.H. Holmes (who knew a thing or two about kissing and not telling) and the site of his execution.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.