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Alleged ‘Wife Poisoner’ goes to trial, proclaiming innocence until the end

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story on the “Wilton Centre Wife Poisoner,” the 19th century murder case that captivated the rural farming community for weeks. Part I ran in the Sept. 8 Telegraph).

It was Ida N. Lovejoy Major’s terrible habit of eating camphor gum that caused the spasms, the bad headaches, the painful cramping — and eventually her demise at the tender age of 18.

At least that’s the story her reportedly less-than-reputable husband, Elwin S. Major, told anyone who would listen. And it’s the story the skirt-chasing oddball would tell in court, playing the poor widower who cared very much for the woman — actually, young girl — he married about five years earlier, after finding out that the then-13-year-old Ida was pregnant.

Last week in this space I introduced you to the stocky, mustachioed man with the perpetual frown, the one who turned the quiet, peaceful farming village of Wilton Centre into a cauldron of suspicion, fear, confusion and even anger for the better part of two years some 145 years ago.

“A cross between Bluebeard and Ernest T. Bass” is how author Mary Elizabeth Naugle, best known for her contributions to “The Hatchet: Journal of Lizzie Borden Studies,” a compilation of articles devoted to that infamous Fall River, Mass. case, summed up the 29-year-old Major.

It was around this time of year in 1875, about 10 months after Ida Lovejoy suffered the fatal bout of symptoms on Dec. 20, 1874, that her widower went to trial.

Key to the testimony was that of a Dr. Edward Wood, a young Harvard-educated physician and Massachusetts General Hospital chemist.

Wood was sure, he told the prosecutor and Major’s lawyer, Attorney B. P. Cilley of Manchester, that based on the symptoms Ida Major presented in her final hours and his findings upon conducting the autopsy, that the young woman died of strychnine poisoning.

But how? She only had a camphor habit — not good, but not as bad as a strychnine habit — so if Dr. Wood is correct, how the heck did a young mother who almost never ventured further than her and her parents’ homes get ahold of strychnine?

Easy. What her conniving husband insisted was a camphor habit was really a strychnine habit — not one that Ida picked up one day on her own, but one her husband carefully and methodically introduced her to — without her even knowing it.

The man Ida Lovejoy married in November 1869, when she was 13, bore his four children — two of whom died, under rather suspicious circumstances — and was carrying his fifth when she died, was coming more and more under suspicion by townfolk, which finally caught the law’s attention.

Consider his “Ernest T. Bass side” — allegedly burning down several village buildings, smashing out windows of a church and robbing it, and defacing a Bible. Not to mention chasing young girls around and making an unusual number of trips to Nashua, allegedly to discuss his wife’s illness with the big city’s advanced physicians.

It was actually that increasing suspicion among civilians that prompted the authorities to look hard at Major as a suspect; low and behold, they found probable cause to arrest him.

I guess that’s how law and order worked back in the 1870s.

Speaking of how things worked way back then, check out the Nashua Daily Telegraph “exclusive” that ran in early September 1875: “Interview with the Accused” was the headline, and it was indeed an interview with Major — conducted about a week before his trial began as he sat in jail in Nashua.

My question: Where was Attorney Cilley?

According to the reporter who interviewed Major, he “spoke freely of his life in Wilton … he alluded to his early indiscretions, and narrated the circumstances attending several affairs that had brought him, he claimed, into unjust repute in Wilton.”

He and Ida got along swimmingly, Major insisted. Their relationship was “pleasant,” with nary an unkind word spoken between them.

Sadly, Major told the reporter, his beloved wife died from eating camphor.

What about the allegations he burned buildings, smashed church windows, stole from it and defaced the Bible?

Oh, those were all committed by his enemies, in an attempt to frame him, Major reasoned. He reminded the reporter he’d never been charged with “having fired (torched) the buildings of Mr. Peter Putnam.”

It was just about the same time of that interview that back in Wilton Centre, people with good memories began recalling the death about five years earlier of Ella Lovejoy — Ida’s elder sister.

Ella was stricken while away at a nearby boarding school — possibly Appleton Academy in New Ipswich — came home and died the next day. She was 19; her death was considered, “in light of present events, suspicious,” the Telegraph reported.

Suspicious enough that a county attorney named Barrett decided to investigate, which meant exhumation of Ella’s body some five years after she was buried.

Enter Dr. Wood, the Boston physician and chemist. Indeed, he found while examining what was left of Ella’s stomach, she, also, died of strychnine poisoning.

And oh, they mentioned almost as a footnote, Ella was likewise in “a family way” when she died.

Then there was Miss Sarah Howard, whose age wasn’t given but saying she was “young” wouldn’t be inaccurate.

Sarah’s father, growing feeble and in need of help to get around, hired Major for the job, which by all accounts he performed satisfactorily.

Young Sarah caught Major’s eye, however, and it wasn’t long before the suspicious grew more so about Major’s “lifestyle.” When her father died, in November 1874, she asked Major to help out with chores like chopping wood and fixing the chicken pens and so forth.

He gladly obliged, and the two began keeping company on occasion — even though Ida Major was still around, although sick off and on.

The possibility Major and Sarah Howard collaborated to do away with Ida was investigated, but not proven.

And oh, like Ida and Ella, Sarah, too, soon found herself “in a family way.” It was said that Major, on the day before his wife died, had gone to Nashua to “inquire concerning how to procure an abortion.”

It was once thought he was asking on behalf of his wife, whose failing health — strychnine will do that to you — was complicating her pregnancy.

But it was later confirmed he was hoping to procure an abortion for Sarah Howard, to which the Telegraph responded: “To the honor of the medical profession in Nashua, all the physicians refused him.”

Come Major’s trial, the prosecution, although seemingly flush with hard evidence and highly corroborative testimony well beyond the salacious-affairs allegations, was undone by the very process through which Dr. Wood and his associates were able to determine that Ida and Ella were fatally poisoned — and that Elwin Major was their killer.

On the stand, Wood told jurors he used a fairly new chemical test called the “Dragendorff process” to prove the presence of strychnine in Ida’s and Ella’s stomachs.

Apparently, at least some jurors were a tad leery of this new-fangled Dragendorff thing. Perhaps it was so new it was unreliable, they probably mused. In the end, their skepticism won out. They found Major not guilty.

Disappointed but not deterred, the Attorney General, a man named Clark, “made arrangements with the court” to schedule a new trial for Major. It was to begin Nov. 29, a mere two months after the first one ended in Major’s acquittal.

Man, the justice system moved along quite swiftly back in the day.

The second time was the charm; the new jury convicted Major and he was sentenced to hang.

That grisly process was carried out Jan. 5, 1877, up in Concord. Confident that “the governor would step forth and commute his sentence at the last moment,” Major smoked cigars, paced in his cell, shed tears then smiled moments later “as quickly as a child’s grief changes to joy,” the Telegraph reported.

He was also “sorely grieved that his counsel did not call upon him … as promised,” and asked, rhetorically, those present, “‘Why do they desert me in my last hours?'”

In trying to convince Major he’d reached the point where there was no hope his life would be spared, a clergyman named Rev. Pendleton came in and spoke.

“There is no more hope for you, Major, than there is reason to expect a bird to come from yonder cage and build a nest in my pocket.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or@Telegraph_DeanS.