The alleged ‘wife poisoner’ of Wilton Centre
Editor’s note: This is the first 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 II will run in this space on Sept. 15.
Since the first newspapers rolled off of comparatively tiny presses centuries ago, headline-writers have been tasked with one of the most important responsibilities in the business: Make sure their headlines catch readers’ attention and make them want to read the story.
Today, I tip my hat to whomever wrote headlines for our predecessor-in-name The Nashua Daily Telegraph in the late summer of 1874, because who in their right mind would skip over a story after reading the headline, “Wilton: The Wife Poisoner.”
Then, “The Trial of Elwin Willis Major for the Murder of His Wife, Ida N. Major.”
Now, I’ve been accused of not being in my right mind before — hopefully teasingly — but the moment I saw those headlines and glanced over the first few paragraphs of the story, this was definitately not one of those times.
Yes, you could say I was hooked.
Indeed, the Elwin Major case, at once bizarre and fascinating, takes more than its share of twists and turns over the course of its roughly two-year existence. The reader eventually finds that most of those twists and turns are tied to something Major said or did, and also how he reacted to certain comments made or testimony presented during his trial.
It’s also quite obvious early on that one must be a patient, focused reader to navigate the Elwin Major story. While newspaper writing as we know it today must be concise, meaty and to-the-point to keep the reader reading, The Daily Telegraph and its competitor at the time, The Nashua Gazette — which also covered the Major case — literally filled edition after edition with verbatim testimony of each witness, the arguments of both the prosecutors and the defense attorney, and everything the judge said as well.
Throw in the tiny typeface, or font, popular at the time, and you’ve got a pretty formidable challenge ahead.
To me, it was well worth a few bouts of tired, bleary eyes to wade my way through the impossibly detailed coverage.
I read stories in both the Telegraph and Gazette on the Major case, and also found a very well-written, at times cleverly jocular, account that author Mary Elizabeth Naugle wrote in 2008 for “The Hatchet: Journal of Lizzie Borden Studies,” which of course leads to the question: Is there some connection between the Lizzie Borden and Elwin Major cases?
Yes. Naugle’s 2008 piece for “The Hatchet,” “Bit Players in the Borden Case: Edward Stickney Wood,” refers to the young physician and Harvard Medical School chemistry professor who was also the chemist for Massachusetts General Hospital.
Wood testified at length in the Major trial, mainly concerning the analysis he conducted upon Ida Major’s stomach three days after her Dec. 20, 1874 death.
He testified the exam showed the presence of strichnine in the stomach, which he said he determined by using a new test called the “Dragendorff process.” Absent any other condition that could have caused Ida Major’s death, “it is probably that poison was the cause of death,” Wood testified.
Nearly 20 years later, Wood was in Fall River, Mass., helping investigate the Borden case. His part in that case was limited, Naugle wrote, adding that Wood “began his career much more dramtically as the central medical witness in the most notorious poisoning case in New Hampshire history.”
That of course would be the Elwin Major case.
Major met young Ida Lovejoy, and her somewhat older sister, Ella, when he went to work for their father, Moses Lovejoy, a well-respected farmer.
“It was not many months later,” the Telegraph reported, “that both Ida and Ella were in trouble,” at the time a “polite” euphamism for “pregnant.”
Sometime later, Ella died, and it was “public opinion that she had been poisoned.” She was 19.
As for Ida, Major did “the right thing” and quickly married her. She was 13 at the time. She bore four children in succession; two died “suddenly,” also of suspected poisoning. When Ida died — she was 18 — the coroner, at autopsy, found within her a nearly fully developed fetus.
The Telegraph described Major as “a person of no great mental aquirements” but on the ball enough to work on a farm. Major was described by those who knew him as “cold and unsympathetic” who was not only feared by the people of the town but by Ida and her relatives.
Naugle, the author, had better description of Major: “A cross between Bluebeard and Ernest T. Bass.”
He’d been suspected, Naugle wrote, but apparently never charged with “a variety of crimes” ranging from murder and arson to “breaking windows in the Baptist Church, stealing from the collection plate and defacing a Bible.”
Ida, virtually confined to her home to care for the surviving children and do the chores, told a neighbor “she never could find her man to get him to bring water” from the well, according to Naugle and the Gazette.
That’s probably because he was out spreading the rumor that Ida “had taken up the dangerous habit of eating camphor,” which, Major was quite sure, would bring about “her swift demise,” the accounts state.
Major was also said to be traveling to Nashua and environs to ask druggists and physicians questions about abortions. One said he’d never performed one, but told Major how he would do it — tools, he said, would need to be involved.
Major had also begun calling on young Sarah Howard, who had just lost her father, and doing chores for her.
Naugle puts it colorfully: Soon, “Sarah, like most girls who crossed Major’s path, was ‘in an interesting condition,'” another “polite” euphamism for “in trouble.”
Elwin Major surely had no idea at the time what would happen some months down the road when Sarah Howard took the witness stand at his trial.
Next week: The suspect goes to trial. What will Sarah Howard say on the stand? Will the evidence be strong enough for the jury to convict Major? Or will the defense prevail, having convinced jurors all the state’s evidence was circumstantial?
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256, firstname.lastname@example.org or@Telegraph_DeanS.