The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Five

Unfortunately, it is very likely that the story that appeared in the Boston Daily Globe1 was not entirely truthful.  At no point was the severity of Lena’s condition in doubt.  The poison she had taken, mercury bichloride, was well known and highly toxic.

Mercury bichloride, also known as corrosive sublimate, is an extremely poisonous mercury salt with the chemical formula HgCl2. Currently, it is a highly restricted substance, utilized in the manufacture of PVC and as a depolarizer in batteries.2

However, during Lena’s lifetime, it was frequently used in households across the country.  Agricultural columns in newspapers recommended using a dilute solution to disinfect tools after removing diseased portions of trees affected by blight, in order to avoid spreading contagion to healthy limbs.3 A few tablets of bichloride of mercury dissolved in a bottle of alcohol created a remedy for bedbugs.4 For cleaning a sick room or disposing of the “bodily discharges” of an ill person, a solution containing one teaspoon of corrosive sublimate and one teaspoon of permanganate of potash per gallon of fresh water was advised. Diluted by half, this fluid could be used to cleanse the hands.5

corrosive sublimate
Pharmaceutical Label (found on Flickr: <; )

Given all these legitimate uses, it was not difficult for the average Joe to obtain mercury bichloride tablets. All he had to do was walk in to his local drugstore and request them.

And purchase them, he did.  Following a highly publicized case of accidental poisoning in 1913, there was a significant upswing in the number of suicides in which corrosive sublimate was the method used.

In an issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published in November 1915, two New York doctors examined the frequency of these cases.  According to their article, 155 suicides by mercuric chloride had been recorded in the previous 25 years.  Nearly one-half of those incidents (73) had occurred during the two years since the notorious Walker case.6

corrosive sublimate 2
Atlanta Constitution, 25 May 1913, p 19 col 4

Perhaps more realistic coverage of his gruesome death would have deterred copycats.  Instead, newspaper articles glorified his drawn-out passing:


Poisoned Macon Man Sinks Into Unconsciousness.


Sensation of Dying Not as Unpleasant as Pictured, He Tells Her Ere Stupor Comes.

Macon, Ga., May 22. — B. Sanders Walker, the young Macon banker, whose remarkable fight against death from bichloride of mercury poisoning has puzzled physicians, lapsed into unconsciousness.

His physicians believe he will probably die in this condition. He had been conscious since taking the poison by mistake a week ago.

“If this be dying, then none need fear its terrors.”

Walker had made this characteristically cheerful reflection earlier as he vainly begged his nurse to tell him exactly what had been said at a conference of physicians in a corner of his bedchamber.

Walker had begged his physicians to allow him to talk with him family and friends. He said he had no fear of ill consequences. To his wife, struggling bravely to bear up, Walker constantly offered words of encouragement.

“The sensation of dying is not as unpleasant as it is generally pictured,” he told her.

Tuesday night Walker’s physicians believed the end was near. The patient, however, steadily assured them he was determined to live. After an all-night fight with death Walker rallied slightly.

Although warned from the first that death undoubtedly awaited him. Walker consistently maintained buoyant spirits. He had rallied again Wednesday and was the least perturbed of any in his room then.

While conscious and suffering little or no discomfort, he has been unable to grasp the situation which physicians said confronted him. The slow work of the deadly poison had failed to shake Walker’s belief that he would recover. His high spirits, it is believed, had much to do with his resisting the effects of the drug.

While unable to fully account for Walker’s remarkable vitality, some of the physicians partly attributed his successful resistance to the poison to the fact that he emitted a portion of the bichloride of mercury tablet soon after it was swallowed.

It was this which alarmed the banker and caused him to call a physician, who rushed to the Walker home and pumped out the contents of the banker’s stomach. The physician’s arrival, however, was not before the poison had taken sufficient effect to paralyze the kidneys.

All of the members of Walker’s immediate family are gathered at his home. Every precaution is being taken to prevent the patient from becoming unduly excited. Only his wife, the attending physician and nurses are permitted to enter his room.

Telegrams containing suggestions for treatment still are being received at the Walker home from every section of the country.7

Reading this article, one would think that after taking mercury bichloride, you might float painlessly off to a peaceful oblivion, lingering just long enough for loved ones to fawn over you, regretting any moment they might have caused you pain.  As Lena would discover, this notion could not be further from the truth.

1 “Lena Smith, Discouraged, Takes Poison Tablets”, Boston Daily Globe, 21 Sep 1917, p 4 col 2.
2 “Mercury(II) chloride,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. <; (accessed 8 Oct 2017).
3 “Fire Blight,” Las Cruces Rio Grande Republican, 20 Jul 1915, p 3 col 4.
4 “How to Get Rid of House Pests,” Altoona Mirror (Altoona, PA), 22 Jul 1915, p 3 col 3.
5 “How to Disinfect a Room After Contagious Diseases,” Danville Republican (Danville, IL), 25 Jan 1917, p 4 col 3.
6 Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 9 Issues 1-6. Southern Medical Association: 1916. Treatment of Poisoning by Mercuric Chlorid, p 279. <;
7 “Banker Cheerful in Face of Death,” Gettysburg Times, 22 May 1913, p 2 col 6.


The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Four

According to his WWI draft card1, Officer John Marena was based out of Station 10 in Roxbury.  As part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Library of Congress holds photographs of the old station building2, which was one of the first municipal buildings constructed after the annexation of Roxbury in 1868.

station 10
Station 10, located at 1170 Columbus Avenue, Roxbury, Massachusetts

The station was located on Columbus Avenue, between the intersection with Tremont Street (William Pynchon Square) and that with Roxbury Street (Hanley Square).3

police station no 10

The station was just under a mile from Lena’s apartment, along Tremont Street and Huntington Avenue.


While police cars were in use in some parts of the country at this time, it is just as likely that Officer Marena might have been on horseback or even on foot.

Perhaps his mode of transportation was the reason that he directed Lena to the City Hospital, rather than taking her there himself.4  She may have taken a taxi or the electric streetcar the two and a half miles to City Hospital.

huntington to hospital

A recording of a streetcar journey through Boston, including part of Huntington Avenue, in 1903 is available to view on YouTube:

It is perhaps more likely that an ambulance was called.  Both the police force and the hospital itself had ambulances available for transport of patients.5

boston city hospital ambulance
“Taking Patient from Ambulance”, ca 1920. Boston City Hospital collection, Collection 7020.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

Typically, at this period in time, the patient would receive no medical care prior to arrival at the hospital.  Those individuals hired to drive the ambulances were given no medical training.  A simple communication system existed, by which a call was made from the front gate of the hospital as the ambulance arrived.  A doctor would be summoned to meet the incoming ambulance when it pulled up to the building.6

Boston City Hospital, seen below, was built in the early 1860s on the site of the Agricultural Fair Grounds on the South End of Boston.  The location was not ideal, as the land flooded at high tide.  A massive amount of gravel was carted in to the site in order to raise the average ground level by seven feet.7

boston city hospital
Boston City Hospital in 19038

The hospital was originally founded to provide medical care to those stricken by poverty, who could not otherwise afford treatment.  Paying patients were, of course, also accepted.  Semi-private rooms and other services not typically provided by the hospital required payment.  Most patients were housed in wards like that seen below:

female ward
“Female Ward”, Boston City Hospital collection, Collection 7020.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

It was here, in a ward like this, that Lena likely found herself on the night of September 20, 1917. And here where, no doubt to her great relief, she was informed that her condition was not considered serious.9

1 “U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” digital image, ( : accessed 5 October 2017), Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Dorchester City, Draft Board 21, John Vernal Marena entry, dated 12 September 1918; citing Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls.
2 Cheek, Richard. Police Station No. 10, 1170 Columbus Avenue, Boston, Suffolk County, MA. October 1979. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Accessed 3 Oct 2017. <;
3 Bromley, George Washington, and Walter Scott Bromley. Atlas of the City of Boston: Roxbury. G.W. Bromley and Co., 1915.
4 “Lena Smith, Discouraged, Takes Poison Tablets”, Boston Daily Globe, 21 Sep 1917, p 4 col 2.
5 “A History of the Boston City Hospital from its Foundation Until 1904”. Boston: Municipal Printing Office, 1906.
6 Weaver, Jay. “The Origins of the City of Boston Ambulance Service.” 13 Oct 2013. <;
7 “A History of the Boston City Hospital”.
8 E. Chickering & Co. Boston City Hospital, Harrison Ave., Boston, Mass. 1903. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Accessed 5 Oct 2017. <;
9 “Lena Smith, Discouraged, Takes Poison Tablets”.

The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Three

Lena’s death record, seen below, listed her address as 873 Huntington Avenue.

lena smith death record

My sister and her husband, who live in Boston, were kind enough to visit the location so I could get a better idea of the surroundings.  The building in which Lena lived is still standing.  In 1917, the entrance was located within the lighter colored frame below:

873 huntington avenue

The entrances to both 873 and 877 have been closed off to create more living space.  Only a central door numbered 875 exists today, as seen in the following video (873 is on the right as the camera pans over the building):

It was from this doorway that, on the night of September 20, 1917, Lena burst forth:

About 10 o’clock last night Miss Lena Smith, aged 23, rushed from her room at 873 Huntington av, Roxbury, and stopped patrolman John Marena, exclaiming that she had swallowed three poison tablets.

Next Time: The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Four

The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith, Part Two

What was Lena doing in Boston?  Unfortunately, this was not handed down as part of the family story.  Some speculation is possible, at least.

Lena seems to have been quite an intrepid young woman.  Having grown up in small town Ohio, she traveled nearly 800 miles to the brand new world of golden-age Boston in order to forge her own way.  Perhaps, like so many of us in our teenage years, she chafed under the perceived dictatorial rule of her parents and stifling expectations of the community in which she had grown to adulthood.  Maybe she was attracted by the bright lights of the big city.  She might even have traveled to further her education, though options were somewhat limited for those of her sex at the time.

Even her hairstyle (seen here) can be viewed as an indication of the kind of young lady she was.  Short hair on a woman was far from the norm.  In fact, it was considered to be less of a fashion statement and more of a political one.

In a syndicated article that appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette on 27 March 1916, journalist Nixola Greeley-Smith documented the movement toward short hair for women:

Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman has called public attention to the fact that more and more women are cutting their hair short after the manner of men. “It was not the Lord who gave men short hair,” observed Mrs. Gilman, in ridiculing man’s claim to the exclusive privilege, “it was the scissors.”

“Men have a habit of seizing upon everything comfortable and calling it masculine. They stole women’s right to short hair as they stole her right to wear trousers…and as they stole her right to the vote.”1

This association of bobbed hair with women’s suffrage makes repeated appearances in newspapers across the country, including in an article published in the Sikeston Standard (Sikeston, Missouri) in March, 1917:


Woman Displays Clipped Locks At Headquarters Of Congressional Union.

Washington, D. C., March 20.–For many years the lobby in Washington was noted for the short haired women and long-haired men, who frequented the corridors of the Capitol and tried to put through all kinds of freak legislation. It seems now as if the short-haired woman, at least, was about to return. The fashion was started at the headquarters of the Congressional Union, than which there is no more vigorous lobby anywhere, when Mrs. Jessie Hardy Stubbs Mackaye took off her hat with a flourish and disclosed thick clipped black locks, curling a la Mrs. Vernon Castle about her neck and ears.

The locks were amputated, it was explained, because in this shape it is not only easier to manage, but more sanitary and sensible than the long, hair-pinned locks which heretofore have been considered the crowning glory of woman, save in the ranks of the old-time lobbyists like Dr. Mary Walker, who not only have worn short hair for many years, but has worn trousers as well.

It was said at Congressional Union headquarters that more than fifty prominent suffragists were in favor of the new hair cut, provided proper dispensations from their husbands were forthcoming. However, Mrs. Mackaye was still alone in her bobbed-hair glory tonight.2

All of this makes me very curious to know whether Lena was, in fact, involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  One way or another, she was likely quite foreward-thinking and obviously brave enough to sport her short hairstyle regardless of the opinions of those around her.

Do any of you out there know whether there are resources I might use to find out if Lena was a suffragette in Boston?

Next Time: The Mysterious Fate of Lena Smith: Part Three


1 Greeley-Smith, Nixola. “Short Hair for Women! The Slogan Now; Many Lead in New Fashion,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne, IN), 27 Mar 1916, p 7 col 5.
2 “Suffragettes Cut Hair,” Sikeston Standard (Sikeston, MO), 23 Mar 1917, p 8 col 7.