Mmmm, the groaning Thanksgiving table! What could be tastier or more wholesome than the traditional cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, turkey roasted to a golden turn, and pumpkin pies?
Well, to be perfectly frank, actually just about any other foodstuffs, if you heed the warnings of the papers of the past. Cranberries, for example, have a blameless and even medicinal reputation, but not in this case.
A Family Poisoned by Cranberries.
Trenton, N.J., April 7. Mrs. Ritter and her three children, residing at No. 122 Allen street, in this city, were taken violently ill yesterday with symptoms of poisoning. A physician was summoned, who declared that the family had been poisoned by cranberries that had been eaten for dinner. The woman and children have suffered greatly, but are believed to be out of danger to-day. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 8 April 1886: p. 1
A fictional tale called “Poisoned Cranberries” by Claire Wesson told of a woman who was tired of having the family cranberries stolen by the neighbors. She pointedly announced that the cranberries were poisoned, and had her children help her sprinkle flour on them, after displaying a pail marked “Poison, Arsenate of Lead.” Daily Nonpareil [Council Bluffs IA] 3 July 1926: p. 2
Green beans, which were often canned in deadly ways, had other dangers:
Green Bean Proves Fatal.
Washington, Ind., June 28. Ralph McKinney, while eating green beans, lodged a bean in his throat, finally causing death. The Daily Palladium [Richmond IN] 28 June 1904: p. 6
Poisoned by Green Beans.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Willis Brown received a slight cut in his left thumb, while cutting some meat. He paid only little attention to the cut, which seemed to be healed. A week later, he handled some green beans in pods, and was poisoned so that he suffered most excruciating pain, not only in the injured hand but in all parts of the body. Poultices were applied to the hand and antidotes administered until now, as we stated, Saturday, the gentleman is getting much better.
We make mention of the case because of its peculiar nature, that others may take warning in handling green beans. The Ogden [UT] Standard 1 September 1884: p. 3
Then there’s the humble and wholesome potato.
An entire family was poisoned at Reading a few days ago by eating new potatoes, which are supposed to have been impregnated with Paris green sprinkled on the stalks to destroy the Colorado bug. If this is the effect of Paris green the popular potato bug remedy will be given a very wide berth. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 26 June 1874: p. 1
Came Near Causing Death of a Whole Family.
Columbus, O., Dec. 30. A special to the Dispatch from Zanesville, O., says:
“Hon. F.A. Durban, Mrs. Durban, Marie Maillot, a French maid, and Mary Tyinger, a servant, narrowly escaped death by poisoning last night. At dinner last evening mashed potatoes were served. All felt slightly indisposed when retiring last night, and early this morning Mr. Durban awoke very weak and ill. He called a physician by telephone, who at once pronounced arsenical poisoning. Six hours’ work were required to get the patients past the danger point. Physicians think the poison got into the potatoes through spraying them with bug poison during their growth. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 31 December 1899: p. 5
While these appear to be genuine cases, the notion that potatoes would absorb the poison meant for the destructive potato bugs was usually scoffed at by farm columnists or it was suggested that the bugs were worse than the poison.
What could be more palatable than a “gravy-poisoner” sentenced for attempted murder?
The Gravy-Poisoner Sentenced. Los Angeles, Cal., Nov. 30. E.W. Jones, aged sixty-seven, was sentenced to-day to four years at San Quentin for attempting to poison his family with poisoned gravy. San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 30 November 1886: p. 3
Jones poisoned the flour used to make gravy for the family’s meat and potatoes dinner, with “Rough on Rats,” then refused the gravy. He apparently had been arrested before, charged with murdering his wife, but “got off on a theory of a doctor that she died of a bursting blood-vessel.” Four years, even at San Quentin, seems a bit lenient.
Books on domestic economy often recommended setting out toxic foodstuffs for vermin in what seems to us an almost criminally casual way. You would think that it might have been considered prudent to carefully mark a saucer of poisoned flour so as to alert the household, but ingesting lethal flour by mistake was a common cause of tragedy.
FIVE ARE POISONED
Gravy Blamed for Illness of Wooster (O.) Family.
Wooster, O., May 6. Five members of the family of Frank Snell, living near Canaan, are recovering from poisoning.
Snell mixed poison with flour to kill rats. One of the women used the flour by mistake for making gravy. Cincinnati [OH] Post 6 May 1921: p. 1
Made Gravy with Poisoned Flour.
Harvard, Ill., Dec. 2 William and Patrick Barry, farmers, residing six miles south of this city, in the absence of their mother yesterday decided to cook flour gravy. They found a saucer that contained flour and used it, not knowing that strychnine had been mixed with it to kill rats. Two hired men and a nephew joined them at dinner. Shortly after dinner all were taken violently ill and it is probable that three of the five will die. Hutchinson [KS] Gazette 3 December 1896: p. 1
Even today, turkeys come with warnings about thawing, salmonella, e coli, and deep-fat fryers. Things were not much simpler when the turkey came straight from the farm or the butcher’s shop.
Embalmed geese, turkeys with painted legs, and diseased chickens instead of healthy, untainted poultry are sold extensively in the Paris markets. A market porter recently died from blood poisoning from the bite of an insect which was battening on some turkeys. The practice of embalming long-demised birds is comparatively of modern origin, but the painting of turkey’s legs is old. Pere Chapelleer made a fortune out of it. He found that fresh-killed turkeys had black, shiny legs, but later they would turn to a dusky brown color. He invented a peculiar varnish, and his services were requisitioned in every market. The effect of his varnish was so conclusive that it deceived experienced cooks and housekeepers, who often bought tainted fowl in preference to newly killed. The Religio-Philosophical Journal 5 May 1888: p. 5
Tainted fowl wasn’t the only problem. You may have noticed a common theme among these poisoned holiday foods: that of “indirect poisoning,” which I’ve written about previously. A sentimental, if misguided youth was the cause of this first case:
IDAHO YOUTH CAUSES ILLNESS OF HIS FAMILY
Feeds Poison to Flock of Turkeys Thanksgiving Morning
Results are Disastrous
Two of Those who Eat the Poisoned Birds in a Precarious Condition and May Die.
Boise, Idaho, Nov. 30. James Bashor, a 12-year-old boy, poisoned his entire family Thanksgiving day, and his brother and sister are so seriously ill that they may die.
The Bashers live on a farm and have a large number of turkeys. It was James’ duty to take care of the fowl and he became very fond of them.
As Thanksgiving day approached the youth heard talk of killing some of his pets. He protested against the slaughter, but his appeals were made light of. On the morning of Thanksgiving day he fed the turkeys a poisonous substance used in the preparation of seed wheat, thinking it would sicken them temporarily and their lives would be saved.
The hired man killed two plump birds and they were served at dinner. Every member of the family was taken sick shortly after the meal and an investigation was made. The boy finally made a full confession. He said that he thought the turkeys would be taken sick, and as no one wants to eat an unhealthy bird they would not be molested.
The physicians who were called in pronounced the members of the family out of danger but two—a boy and a girl. Their lives are despaired of.
All the poisoned turkeys died before nightfall, but the condition of the flock was not noticed until after the dinner had been served. The San Francisco [CA] Call 1 December 1900: p. 8
Farmers with a grudge against wolves did in this wild gobbler.
Two Families Feed on a Poisoned Turkey
Little Rock, (Ark.), April 10th. Advices received here to-night from Conway, a small town in the interior of Faulkner County, gives the particulars of a most singular poisoning, which happened near there last evening, of which it is feared has resulted in the death of several persons. Sixteen in all were stricken down in a single hour, and notwithstanding the attention of the best physicians to be had, at last accounts their efforts seemed unavailing to save hat least half the number.
Two families, Hayes and Crownings, gave a turkey dinner, Will Browning having killed a large wild gobbler turkey. It’s thought the bird got some strychnine just before it was killed, the farmers in the vicinity having put out poison in the woods to kill wolves. Every member of the dinner party was affected in a similar manner, and all but four were thrown into convulsions, and at last accounts eight of the number were in a very critical condition. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 April 1890: p. 1
But what of pumpkin pie? Surely there could be nothing more innocuous? Au contraire….
Poisoned Pumpkin Pies
Richmond, Va., January 1. A special to The Dispatch from Louray says the family of Benjamin Sours were poisoned today by eating pumpkin pies, which were supposed to contain rat poison. Sours and one child died, and others are dangerously ill. The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 2 January 1891: p. 2
Death From Pumpkin Pie.
Smoot, Wyo. A post mortem examination of the remains of James H. Bruce has been made, and the result will be known in a few days. Bruce died suddenly at his ranch near here a few days ago after eating a quantity of pumpkin pie. It is alleged that death was due to strychnine poisoning. Bruce did not have an enemy in the world, and the suicide theory is scouted. The Columbus [NE] Journal 3 April 1907: p. 6
A case of poisoned pumpkin pie was the sensation of the Pennsylvania press in 1882.
On Thursday last the family of Charles H. Garber, of Norristown had pumpkin pie for dinner, of which all ate heartily. The flour with which the pie crust was baked subsequently proved to contain quantities of crystallized arsenic. When the victims of the poison were attacked with pains in the abdomen and violent vomiting Dr. Mahlon Preston, the family physician, was called in. He treated them for malarial fever. Dr. Munstead, the family physician of the visitors, also was called in. He prescribed for the same disorder. The ladies were removed to their homes after a few days. Mrs. Garber had but a slight attack. Henry B. Garber, the only son, recently admitted to the Montgomery county bar, is very weak and not expected to survive. Mr. Garber, the head of the family, died Thursday morning at half-past eleven o’clock.
Last Saturday afternoon Mrs. Garber, having an errand to do, called from the street little Ivan [also reported as Ivins] Steinbright, a four-year old son of John Steinbright. In reward for the boy’s favor Mrs. Garber kindly gave him and his little sister each a piece of pumpkin pie, which she had baked the Wednesday previous, and some of which she had set before her family and visiting friends. The little girl ate a mouthful, but, disliking the taste, gave her piece to her little brother, who ate both pieces. Later in the afternoon, Ivan was taken violently sick and died early on the following morning. A post mortem examination showed a quantity of arsenic in the stomach. A small piece of Mrs. Garber’s pumpkin pie was fed by Dr. Ellwood Corson, the boy’s attending physician, to his cat. The cat was seized with violent vomiting within twenty-five minutes and has not been seen since. Dr. Corson obtained half a pound of her family flour from Mrs. Garber for chemical analyzation, but found it was unnecessary, as he could pick from the flour crystals of the poison.
Mrs. Garber keeps her flour in a crock in her kitchen. She used some of it two weeks ago, but without bad effects. The poisoned pumpkin pie was baked from the same flour a week later. Some one probably threw the arsenic into the crock in the meantime. On Wednesday Mrs. Garber had left the house for awhile, leaving the back door ajar, and she supposes that during her absence some one had entered the house and done the mischief. Lancaster [PA] Daily Intelligencer 10 November 1882: p. 2
A singular part of the mystery is that the poison found is not what is known as common arsenius arsenic, but the pure acid, the finest kind of arsenic known to medicine….[a purer quality than that usually sold by druggists.]
On Tuesday night, Nov. 1, the Garber family went to visit a friend up town. On their return they found the back door of the kitchen which led into a stall alley had been unlocked during their absence. As nothing was missing the matter was soon forgotten. The next day Mrs. Garber baked the fatal pie from the flour which was kept in the crock in the back kitchen near the door. Now it is claimed that the person who committed the deed saw the Garbers go out of the house, and knowing that the flour was kept in the rear kitchen, the assassin opened the door by means of a false key, put the poison in the flour in the crock, and got away. Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 13 November 1882: p. 5
Much of the inquest testimony was printed in the paper and Mrs. Garber hinted that her father, John Boileau and her brother Albanus might have had something to do with the poisoning. There was bad blood between the Boileaus and the Garbers over her mother’s will as well as money Mrs. Garber took from the house after her mother’s death. The inquest ended with a verdict of “death by poisoning,” but the poisoner was not named or charged. Perhaps I wrong her (and what was the motive?), yet I found this detail suggestive: “For desert they had pumpkin pie, of which all but Mrs. Garber partook heartily. Mrs. Garber ate but little.” Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 13 November 1882: p. 5
So pull up a chair to the groaning Thanksgiving board! Cranberries are full of anti-oxidants; potatoes are full of vitamin C; turkey is low in fat and cholesterol. Pies? Well, it’s only a once-a-year indulgence. C’mon, where’s that hearty appetite? Dig in!
As for me, I’ll be enjoying a bowl of gruel and some water—in a dirty glass.
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 latest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.