Dedicated with great relish to Miss Vicki Richards, a real connoisseur of Cleveland woe
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.”
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’s reply, a model of incriminatory evasion:
Burke: Do you think that Mrs. Curtis put the rat poison where the children could procure it, or were they induced to eat it when put on bread?
McClennan: I cannot say. If those two little girls took it of their own volition they were pretty game. I know I would not have taken poison myself at ten years of age.
Burke: Do you think that Mrs. Curtis put the rat poison where the children could procure it, or were they induced to eat it when put on bread?
McClennan: I cannot say.
Burke: Was a physician hurried in?
McClennan: I think that Mrs. Curtis did not do so on account of the expense.
Jennie Albers followed McClennan, and offered copious and heartbreaking testimony of the girls’ unhappiness and preoccupation with suicide. In her emotional testimony she told the inquest jury:
They were bright children, and many times I bought them paper and pencils. Morning after morning they would come to school crying. I would ask them what was the matter, then both little girls would reply, “Grandmother is mean to us.”
Albers, who had already talked much to Cleveland newspaper reporters, was given ample opportunity to recall Helen and Marguerite’s numerous allegations of abuse before Coroner Burke led her to his ultimate question:
Burke: Under oath I want you to answer this question: Was that poison put where Helen and Marguerite Curtis could get it?
Hesitating for a moment, Albers looked up at the ceiling. Then, with quivering chin and a shaking voice, she answered Burke’s question with her own: “Why did Mrs. Helen Curtis lock up food and not lock up poison?”
Albers’s rhetorically charged question set the stage for Mrs. Helen Curtis. Not surprisingly, she denied that she had been cruel to the dead girls and even that they had ever talked of suicide, much less repeatedly rehearsed it. (This was much at odds with her earlier disclosure to reporters that she knew the girls were suicide prone and that she had attempted to hide all household poisons and had even buried a tempting can of green paint in the ground.) She wisely refrained from criticizing the dead girls, saying that they were “happy and obedient” children. And she insisted that they had been well cared for, amply fed, and adequately dressed, even after Coroner Burke confronted her with one of the burlap sack dresses. Failing to make a dent in her impassive equanimity, Burke concluded the morning inquest session with a scathing and unequivocal indictment of Mrs. Curtis’s veracity and moral responsibility:
My dear woman, the testimony of your neighbors does not bear you out in the statements you have made here. You are not telling the truth, and also that you, before God, are the murderer, perhaps morally, of those two children, Helen and Margaret Curtis.
There was less to Burke’s thundering accusation than met the ear. Although his last words to Mrs. Curtis were hailed with applause by the crowd of 25 neighborhood women in the inquest room (led by Jennie Albers), Burke’s peroration was undoubtedly spoken for mere grandstand effect. The canny Burke, no stranger to politically sensitive inquests, knew exactly how much legal wiggle room was involved in the words perhaps and morally. So, even before hearing the rest of the inquest witnesses—most of them likely prejudicial to Mrs. Curtis—he issued the following statement at noon on Tuesday, June 11, a kind of apotheosis of irrefutable legal reasoning and bathetic, if crowd-pleasing, slobber:
Justices Kennedy and Babcock have held that to prove a case of criminal negligence a violation of some law must be shown. In this case that seems impossible. For, even if Mrs. Helen Curtis placed the poison before the eyes of the children and then left the room, she would have violated no law; hence a charge of criminal negligence would not be feasible. We would have to show that she actually gave the children poison or placed it in food, which she knew they were to eat, and there is absolutely nothing to indicate that. But I do think that the inquest will be of broad benefit. An exposure of conditions which have been related here will tend to bring babes nearer to their mothers.
There is no offspring as helpless as a human child. The animals almost from birth are able to care for themselves. So are the birds. The human babe is helpless. Also, the thorough inquest conducted will make mothers more careful where they leave deadly poisons when there is a possibility of a child being near.
Mrs. Helen Curtis’s critics got in a few last licks before the formal end of Burke’s inquest on June 12. A delegation of former neighbors from Liverpool appeared Wednesday, most of them eager to relate delicious gossip and hearsay to her detriment. Angeline Worth, who apparently still nourished jealous suspicions about her husband William’s bygone attentions to Helen, led off the parade with her characterization of Curtis as a “hard, grasping, avaricious woman.” Moving on to how Helen had mistreated her sons Leland and Freeman, she eventually got around to the demise of her husband:
There were suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. He was a big, strong, healthy man. For a few months he was a little sick and then he died quite suddenly. The rumors that all was not right were so persistent, that I think an autopsy was held by a doctor who is now dead. I do not think he ever gave the result of the autopsy to the public.
Prodded by Burke, Mrs. Worth couldn’t remember whether Mrs. Curtis had purchased any arsenic before William’s death, but she helpfully volunteered that she’d seen Helen chasing him with a butcher knife. Two final witnesses appeared on Wednesday morning, one testifying to Mrs. Curtis’s fine character, the other swearing that William Curtis had died of stomach cancer instead of spousal poisoning. Burke’s formal conclusion to the inquest was more masterful treacle for the sentimental public he served:
This investigation has accomplished this much, I hope. It has impressed on the public the need of individual love and care in the bringing up of children. There is nothing in the testimony upon which I can hold any one legally responsible for the death of these little girls. But the inquest has accomplished something. During the first year of a baby’s life there does not exist a living thing more helpless. Older children hunger for love and caresses and personal attention, which these little girls, it appears to me, did not always get.
And that was the end of the Curtis tragedy, save for the funeral and burial of the dead girls. On Tuesday afternoon, June 11, the Reverend Amos F. Upp of the Simpson Methodist Church conducted a short and simple service for Helen and Marguerite at the Curtis home. Before and during the service the Curtis yard was crowded with neighbors and the simply curious, many of whom audibly speculated about Mrs. Curtis’s responsibility for their tragic end. In his brief remarks, the Rev. Upp alluded only gently to the circumstances of the deaths, saying, “God is our judge, not man. He knows our motives and our thoughts.” Then the funeral party headed for the West Park Cemetery, with Mrs. Curtis and her sons leading the way. At the graveside there, Simpson spoke briefly, again delicately alluding to the suspicions swirling around Mrs. Curtis, praying, “God give us strength. Give us everything we need in this hour of trial. Dispel the clouds that hang over us.” Then, as Helen and Marguerite’s maternal aunt Maggie sobbed helplessly and little Clara looked uncomprehendingly over the open grave, a sweet-voiced female sang “There’s a Land That Is Fairer Than Day” (a hymn also known by the title “In the Sweet By and By”). Ten of the dead girls’ West Park school classmates served as pallbearers, while two others carried wreaths and bouquets sent by fellow students and teachers, displays which, as a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter wrote, “almost seemed to mock in their futile prettiness the barrenness of the dead girls’ lives.” Then the dirt was shoveled over the coffins and everyone present resumed their lives.
As stated at the outset of this unspeakable story, no one will ever know the truth about the Curtis horror. But even if one allows that Helen and Marguerite Curtis were pathological liars—an instance not unknown in my experience of apparent child “victims”—it was clear that Mrs. Curtis was not telling the whole truth in her account of her life with the doomed children. And surely Freeman Curtis was correct when he opined—too late—“Mother is too old to have the care of children.”
The final word about this malignant Cleveland Cinderella story belongs to Mrs. Helen Curtis, last recorded wearily sinking into a chair at her Lakota Street home after the funeral. “What I have said is the truth,” she sobbed. “I don’t care who hears it. Some other time I may have more to say.”^ top
Excerpted from the book The Last Days of Cleveland, copyright © John Stark Bellamy II. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by John Stark Bellamy II
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 . . . [ Read More ]
John Stark Bellamy II is the author of six books and two anthologies about Cleveland crime and disaster. The former history specialist for the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he comes by his taste for . . . [ Read More ]YouTube Channel