The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Seven

On September 26th, 1917, Lena finally passed away, six days after having swallowed her fatal dose of corrosive sublimate.  Could a sudden change in her condition explain why the family was not present at her death?  It appears that the family was not notified of her tenuous hold on life, otherwise they would surely have rushed to her bedside.

My grandma had told me that Lena’s father, George, and her two brothers-in-law, Oscar “Ray” Champion and Oliver Arras, traveled to Boston when they were notified that Lena had died.  This fact was corroborated in a letter from Lena’s younger sister, Hulda, to my great-uncle, Theron Arras.

The presence of Oscar “Ray” Champion in Boston after Lena’s death is confirmed by her death certificate.  Interestingly, he is listed as the informant.  I expected the death to have been reported by a hospital employee since none of the family was nearby.  Instead, her death was not recorded until about a week and a half after her passing.

lena smith death record

Perhaps it was necessary for a family member to be present to identify the body and provide other pertinent information, such as the names and birthplaces of her parents.

The delay may also be accounted for by the involvement of the medical examiner, who likely performed an autopsy.  The doctor certifying her cause of death was the medical examiner of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Dr. Timothy Leary.

(If you’re like my mother, you might have just giggled.  No, it’s not THAT Timothy Leary, but he was his great uncle!)

In 1927, an article, “The Medical Examiner System”, authored by Dr. Leary, appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  In it, he acknowledged the differences between a medical examiner and a coroner, a distinction that I did not realize existed.

At the time, Massachusetts had been using the medical examiner system for fifty years.  Nearly all the other states in New England had also transitioned to the system by 1927, along with the state of New York.

The job of both a medical examiner and a coroner is to investigate the cause of death when a person dies either suddenly and unexpectedly or under suspicious circumstances.  The distinction between the two is that only a medical examiner is required to have a medical degree.  Though systems vary depending on location, a coroner can be either elected or appointed.

Surprisingly, this situation has not changed over the last hundred years.  In fact, it was addressed by NPR’s All Things Considered as recently as 2011:

While Lena was lucky enough (?!) to die in a state where her death would be properly investigated, it seems highly unlikely that any new information emerged from her autopsy.  The cause of death, corrosive sublimate poisoning (suicidal during temporary insanity), directly ties to the information given in the initial newspaper article.

lena smith death record

Following the medical examiner’s report, Lena’s body would finally have been released to the family for transport home.  She was buried in the family plot at Arlington on October 11, 1917.

mary m smith grave

So perhaps the big question is, “Why?”  Why was Lena’s death a mystery for generations?  If her father and brother-in-law were present to collect her body and provide information for the death certificate, it seems rather unlikely that they would have been unaware of her cause of death.  Surely the body would not have been released for burial until the cause had been determined.

Perhaps, on that final train journey, with Lena’s body behind them, they wracked their brains for a way to tell the family what had happened.  But how do you tell a mother whose teenaged son has just shipped out for France that her daughter, the only other child to leave home, has killed herself?

I think, in all likelihood, George and Ray made a pact of secrecy.

Together, they lied to Lena’s mother.

They lied to her two adoring sisters, Clara and Minnie, and the rest of her younger siblings.

But it was a lie told out of love.  By keeping her cause of death secret, they spared those who loved her the pain of knowing what agony Lena had experienced in her final days and that she had chosen that fate for herself.





The Family Photo Album: The Arras Family, about 1930

henry arras family 1930

This photo, depicting the family of Henry and Johanna M. (Crates) Arras, was taken in about 1930.  Henry and Johanna themselves are seated at center.  To the right of Johanna are sons Oliver and Homer Arras.  To the left of Henry are Elvina (Arras) Weihrauch and Clarence Arras.  The grown children in the back row are, from left to right, Helen (Arras) Weidman, Carrie (Arras) Huffman, Willard and Ted Arras.

The photo must have been taken outside the home of one of the children, but who?  Clearly someone with a love for plants.  Just look at all those pots!

The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Six

The average fatal dose of mercuric chloride for an adult is three to five grains.1 According to contemporary newspaper articles, one tablet used for antiseptic purposes contained 7.8 grains.2

Lena had ingested three of these tablets before seeking help.3  Nearly 24 grains, five to eight times the average fatal dose, had been swallowed by a woman who couldn’t have weighed much more than 100 pounds.

Initial symptoms would have appeared very rapidly, within ten to fifteen minutes if unbroken tablets were swallowed.  If she had taken the time to dissolve the tablets in water, Lena would have experienced extreme abdominal pain almost immediately, accompanied by “violent, painful and obstinate vomiting”4.

Most likely, this would have been the point at which Lena ran out into the street, searching for help.

Another famous case involving poisoning by mercuric chloride, that of D.C. Stephenson and Madge Oberholtzer, gives us some indication of how Lena would have been faring during these initial moments.

madge oberholtzer
Madge Oberholtzer (

In March 1925, Stephenson was the grand dragon of the Indiana Klan.  He, with the assistance of an associate, kidnapped and violently raped a woman he claimed to love, 28 year old Madge Oberholtzer.   The following day, she requested to be taken to purchase makeup to cover the bruises on her face.  As Stephenson’s bodyguard waited outside, Madge purchased corrosive sublimate tablets and secreted them in her coat.  Back at the hotel, she waited until her captors fell asleep and choked down six of the tablets.  According to the statement she dictated on her deathbed, she had planned to take all eighteen tablets, but only managed six as they “burnt [her] so”.

Six hours later, when she was finally discovered, she admitted to having taken the tablets.  She had been vomiting blood all day long; the cuspidor was half-full of curdled blood and parts of several tablets.5

According to contemporary sources, immediate action was necessary to give the poison victim a fighting chance at life6.  He or she would be given a drink consisting of the whites of one dozen eggs, as well as an injection of apomorphine.  Next, gastric lavage (commonly known as stomach pumping) would take place.

gastric lavage

Essentially, the idea was to bind and neutralize as much of the poison as possible, then remove it from the stomach via the strong emetic (i.e., vomit-inducing) action of apomorphine and subsequent mechanical means.

Unfortunately, this remedy was far from foolproof.  Egg whites were swallowed in order to cause the formation of albuminate of mercury, but that substance was not entirely insoluble in the stomach’s acid.  While absorption was reduced, mercury continued to enter the body’s tissues.  In addition, the chemical reaction that occurred released hydrochloric acid, which further increased acidity in the stomach.  Even back in Lena’s day, alternative means of binding were being sought.7

At this point, if treatment had been rapidly obtained, it was possible for the initial symptoms to recede.  To the untrained eye, it might appear that the victim was out of the woods and on the road to recovery.  However, this was not always the case.

Further treatment received at the hospital might vary, but one protocol8 recommended the following:

  • Every other hour, the patient should drink a solution made up of one dram each potash and sugar and one ounce of lemon juice in two cups of water.
  • In the alternate hours, one cup of milk should be consumed.
  • Constant rectal irrigation, drop by drop with a solution of acetate of potash in water.
  • The stomach should be pumped once daily and the colon washed twice daily.
  • Five hot packs given every 24 hours.

Again, the focus was on flushing as much of the poison from the body as possible.  At this point in history, there was little to be done to treat the organ damage that occurred when mercuric compounds were swallowed.

Severe damage to the digestive tract inevitably occurred.  Mouth lesions might appear, along with severe pain and swelling in the mouth and throat9.  A case in which the internal organs of a victim of corrosive sublimate were studied after death appeared in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1861.  According to the article, the interior surface of the stomach “presented the appearance of having been scorched in some places, varying from a reddish slate color to an almost perfect black.”10

Mercury would accumulate in the patient’s kidneys, the body’s filter system, causing damage and eventual shutdown.

Indications of a fatal result might take between 48 and 72 hours to emerge.  The production of urine would slow and eventually even halt altogether as the kidneys failed.  Without that natural process for flushing the body, toxins would begin to build up.

The patient might lapse into unconsciousness, which by this point in the process, was a mercy.  The combination of effects caused by mercuric bichloride resulted in severe and widespread pain.  Thankfully, opioid pain relief was available, as mentioned in the 1913 Walker case.  The doctors and nurses at Boston City Hospital likely did all that they could to ease Lena’s passing.

However, the most tragic aspect of the entire situation was that Lena had clearly regretted taking the pills almost as soon as she had done so.  She had run out into the street, late that night, looking for help.  Perhaps she had experienced some hope in those first days as her initial symptoms lapsed, only to have the world come crashing down on her.  Ultimately, she would never step foot outside the hospital again.

1 Modi, JP. A Textbook for Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology. Bombay: Butterworth & Co. (India) Ltd., 1940. Google Books. Accessed 9 Oct 2017.
2 LeMars Globe Post (LeMars, Iowa), 11 May 1925, p 7 col 2.
3 “Lena Smith, Discouraged, Takes Poison Tablets,” Boston Daily Globe, 21 Sep 1917, p 4 col 2.
4 “Treatment of Poisoning by Mercuric Chlorid,” Southern Medical Journal vol 9 issues 1-6, p . Google Books. Accessed 9 Oct 2017.
5 Linder, Douglas O. The Dying Declaration of Madge Oberholtzer, <>, accessed 9 Oct 2017.
6 “Treatment of Poisoning…”, Accessed 9 Oct 2017.
7  Hayward, Edward H and WH Allen.  Corrosive Sublimate Poisoning by Means of Antiseptic Tablets.  JAMA.  1913; 60(22): 1727.
8 “Treatment of Poisoning…”, Accessed 9 Oct 2017.
9 “Mercuric Chloride Poisoning”, , accessed 9 Oct 2017.
10 White, James C. Death from Corrosive Sublimate — Was Bed-Bug Poison the Preparation Employed? Boston Med Surg J 1861; 65:169-175.

Indexing: Wills of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, 1854

If you need help navigating to the Pennsylvania probate records on FamilySearch, click here for guidance.

Today’s data is from “Wills 1839-1870 vol 3-5”. Check the first column of the table below for the image number. Type it into the box near the top of the page on FamilySearch (Image __ of 701) to find the desired image.

233 Book 4 Begins
234 John Gant East Huntingdon 16 Jan 1854
235 William Caven Donegal 18 Jan 1854
236 Robert Beatty 19 Jan 1854
Christian Greenawalt Sewickley 24 Jan 1854
237 James George Loyalhanna 26 Jan 1854
John Ashey 28 Jan 1854
238 Daniel Remaley or Remeley Franklin 31 Jan 1854
Robert Foster Salem 1 Feb 1854
239 John Blair Fairfield 14 Feb 1854
Robert Ewing Donegal 20 Feb 1854
240 John Klingensmith West Newton 20 Feb 1854
241 Caleb Peterson Franklin 22 Feb 1854
Henry Slotterbeck West Newton 27 Feb 1854
George Hammer Hempfield 4 Mar 1854
242 Thomas Anderson Sr Fairfield 6 Mar 1854
Esther Ross Allegheny 10 Mar 1854
John Irwin 14 Mar 1854
Daniel Yotter Burrell 20 Mar 1854
243 Sarah Walter Unity 12 Apr 1854
Francis Laird Franklin 18 Apr 1854
244 Jacob Stahl Borough of Mt Pleasant 18 Apr 1854
Jonathan J M Gill Washington 21 Apr 1854
245 John McCadden Village of Livermore 22 May 1854
Mary Anne Sindaf Hempfield 23 May 1854
Henry McDowell Ligonier 1 Jun 1854
246 Catharine Zimmerman Hempfield 3 Jun 1854
Mary Clark Fairfield 5 Jun 1854
247 Rev. J A Mearns 13 Jun 1854
Christian Hughes Derry 6 Jul 1854
Isaac Silvis Hempfield 29 Jul 1854
248 David Stotlar Allegheny 8 Aug 1854
Thomas Gormly or Gormley Derry 11 Aug 1854
249 Daniel Helman Larimer 14 Aug 1854
Daniel Kiehl Borough of Greensburg 18 Aug 1854
Jacob West Fairfield 22 Aug 1854
250 John Kirker Fairfield 22 Aug 1854
Barbara Walthour Harrison City 6 Sep 1854
251 James Sloan Unity 11 Sep 1854
Elizabeth Sowash North Huntingdon 22 Sep 1854
252 Peter Bush Salem 3 Oct 1854
William Blair North Huntingdon 10 Oct 1854
253 Simon B McGrew Sewickley 12 Oct 1854
William Brown East Huntingdon 17 Oct 1854
Margaret Brown East Huntingdon 17 Oct 1854
254 John Giffin Sr Mt Pleasant 23 Oct 1854
255 Daniel Hawk Allegheny 6 Nov 1854
Samuel Jordan Mt Pleasant 7 Nov 1854
256 John Decker 13 Nov 1854
Jacob Husband East Huntingdon 16 Nov 1854
Margaret J Peoples Fairfield 16 Nov 1854
257 James McClelland Derry 25 Nov 1854
258 duplicate image
259 Mary Saltsman 7 Dec 1854

Indexing: Wills of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, 1853

If you need help navigating to the Pennsylvania probate records on FamilySearch, click here for guidance.

Today’s data is from “Wills 1839-1870 vol 3-5”. Check the first column of the table below for the image number. Type it into the box near the top of the page on FamilySearch (Image __ of 701) to find the desired image.

203 James B. Baird Derry 18 Jan 1853
204 John White Derry 31 Jan 1853
Robert Brown Borough of Greensburg 8 Feb 1853
205 Andrew Biggs Sewickley 11 Feb 1853
206 William Masters Franklin 19 Feb 1853
207 James Bell Derry 21 Feb 1853
Thomas Trimble Fairfield 22 Feb 1853
208 Elizabeth Brandt Ligonier 21 Feb 1853
Robert Baxter Unity 22 Feb 1853
209 Cadwallader McBurney Fairfield 1 Mar 1853
210 John Ogden 1 Mar 1853
Jesse Clements or Clemants Washington 8 Mar 1853
211 Henry Lowey 10 Mar 1853
Samuel Moorhead Derry 10 Mar 1853
George Darr Rostraver 15 Mar 1853
212 Samuel McCutcheon Franklin 15 Mar 1853
John Taylor Borough of Greensburg 26 Mar 1853
213 Samuel Reynolds Derry 20 Apr 1853
Jacob Porch 2[5?] Apr 1853
214 John Campbell Derry 6 May 1853
James Mechesney Unity 9 May 1853
215 Jonathan Mossholder Derry 17 May 1853
216 Martha Hissem Rostraver 18 May 1853
William King Donegal 24 May 1853
Sarah McClanahan village of Madison 23 May 1853
217 Margaret Jamison Unity 28 May 1853
Nathaniel T Hurst Mt Pleasant 20 Jun 1853
Isabella McLelland Borough of Greensburg 15 Jun 1853
218 Rachel Kilgore Mt Pleasant 21 Jun 1853
Samuel McDonald Fairfield 5 Jul 1853
Andrew Crise or Cruse South Huntingdon 9 Jul 1853
219 Susanna Newill Mt Pleasant 9 Jul 1853
William Harrold North Huntingdon 11 Jul 1853
Constantine Johnson Derry 14 Jul 1853
220 William Marsh Sewickley 16 Jul 1853
David Hepler Sewickley 1 Aug 1853
Thomas S Gormley Derry 23 Aug 1853
221 George Miller Derry 26 Aug 1853
Franklin Culbertson Derry 26 Aug 1853
William Patrick 30 Aug 1853
222 Ann Larimer North Huntingdon 10 Sep 1853
Joseph Hebrank borough of Adamsburg 21 Sep 1853
Louisa Arbaugh Ligonier 24 Sep 1853
223 Joseph Erwin or Irvin Washington 30 Sep 1853
Joseph Altman Hempfield 1 Oct 1853
Michael Siegfried Unity 12 Oct 1853
224 Jacob Felgar or Felger East Huntingdon 13 Oct 1853
226 Jesse Miller Washington 18 Oct 1853
Selden or Seldon King Hempfield 4 Nov 1853
Ludwick Felger or Felgar Donegal 21 Nov 1853
227 Kezia Berkhamer Rostraver 22 Nov 1853
Elizabeth Thompson Rostraver 23 Aug 1853
Jane Baxter 28 Nov 1853
228 Matthew Rowan North Huntingdon 14 Dec 1853
229 John Points Derry 27 Dec 1853

This also being the end of Vol. 3, several codicils were appended:

230 Bela Smith 29 Jun 1836
Thomas Dunlap
John Johnston 3 Apr 1840

Stop the Presses!: The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith

I had initially scheduled this week’s posts to continue the Stanley saga, but I think it’s important to switch my focus for a short time.  Today, September 26, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of Stanley’s sister, Lena.


Mary Magdalena Smith, known by friends and family alike as Lena, was born in 1895.  She was the fourth consecutive daughter born to her parents, George Henry and Mary Lucinda (Rauch) Smith.  By all accounts, Lena and her two surviving older sisters, Clara and Minnie, were extremely close.

As a result, her death at the age of 22 came as a tremendous, devastating shock to her sisters.  When I first started researching our family tree as a teenager, my grandma Lucia, Clara’s daughter, told me her story.

According to Grandma, Lena had moved from small town Ohio to Boston in her late teens.  While there, she became involved with a young man from a prominent family who did not approve of their relationship.  What happened next was a mystery.  Suddenly Lena turned up dead.  Lena’s father and brothers-in-law traveled to Boston to collect her body and bring it home for burial in the family plot.

It seemed that perhaps some foul play had been involved in Lena’s death.  Grandma wondered whether the family had arranged to have her put out of the way.

Considering that my grandmother wasn’t born until six years after Lena’s death, this story had clearly made the rounds in the family a time or two.  Clara probably spent the rest of her life wondering what had happened to her beloved sister.  Certainly Grandma was keen to know whether this was a mystery that might be solved.

Several times over the years, I began searching for Lena.  But you know how genealogy is.  There are so many amazing, interesting things to discover.  It is so easy to get diverted and end up off down the rabbit hole!  And so I had practically forgotten about Lena–until last week, that is.

I was chatting to a Smith cousin (Hi Cheryl!) when it occurred to me to ask her whether she had ever heard Lena’s tale.  After all, her grandfather was one of Lena’s siblings.  She hadn’t, but just telling the story again lit a fire under my rear end.

I searched once more for her death certificate and this time, I hit paydirt!

Next Time: The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith, Part Two


The Family Photo Album: George Henry Smith and Mary Lucinda Rauch, Wedding Photo

You have seen photos of them in their old age.  Now here are George Henry Smith and Mary Lucinda Rauch upon their marriage in August 1889.

george henry smith and mary lucinda rauch wedding photo

Little would one suspect that Mary was already four months pregnant with their first daughter, Victoria Emelina Smith, known as Dora.

Little Dora would not live more than a few short months.  She was born January 19, 1890, and died on the 9th of March.  Her parents clearly adored her.  According to their other children, they displayed a photo of Dora in a place of pride in their home for the rest of their lives.