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.
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.
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.
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.