Murder by Arsenic in Baldwin Park
This is a brief story about characters in the Baldwin Park neighborhood as it existed in 1906: four people who were murdered; the doctor who examined two of them as they were dying; the druggist who sold the poison; the undertaker who buried all the victims; and the woman who may or may not have been the serial killer.
On November 17, 1906, a doctor was summoned to 1842 Hamilton Street due to the sudden illness of three siblings: 6-year-old Anna Carey, 8-year-old Mary Carey, and 3-year-old Edward Carey. All complained of sudden onset of abdominal pain and vomiting. After his examination, Dr. J. T. Craney, from 305 North 19th Street (now the site of the Family Court building), did not give a specific diagnosis. He felt he had nothing to offer and left. The two girls died by the next morning, but Edward was taken to the house of a relative in West Philadelphia. He survived. The doctor, feeling something was amiss, notified the coroner.
1842 Hamilton Street on the front page of the 29 November 1906 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The house, now gone, looked much the same as the houses from that era still surviving in the neighborhood. The house occupied a lot in what is now the northwest corner of Baldwin Park, just south of townhouse 1J of North x Northwest.
Portion of 1901 map showing 1842 Hamilton Street. Note for later 1825 Noble Street. Not every address is marked. Neither of these streets exist today on this block.
1842 Hamilton Street was in 1906 a boarding house with twelve occupants. Bridget Carey, age 32, had moved from Centralia, Pennsylvania in March of 1906, and ran the establishment. The night of the illness, she told police that the children had bought candy that day and that it must have been contaminated. Autopsies were ordered. The children's internal organs were removed for analysis, and their bodies were stored in the house, on ice, until 2 December when two tiny white caskets were brought to the house from the W. J. Reynolds Funeral Home at 1845 Callowhill Street (the Rose Tattoo is at 1847 Callowhill). The bodies were removed and the hearse, making its way through the gathered throng of 300 onlookers on Hamilton Street, headed to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.
The stomach contents of Anna and Mary contained lethal amounts of arsenic. After this revelation, Carey was arrested for murder. The story became national news.
Sketches from the Colorado Republican of 12/20/1906.
Detectives visited neighborhood candy stores and took samples of the type of candy eaten by the children. No contaminants were found.
Mrs. Carey was beloved by her Hamilton Street neighbors, who jumped to her defense. The police were also charmed by her. The Assistant District Attorney, William A. Gray, was more resistant to her charms. His initial interviews showed the following:
Mrs. Carey had insurance policies for $69 on Anna, $132 on Mary, and $52 on Edward (the inflation adjustment to today would multiply all 1906 dollars by a factor of 26).
The woman who had originally run the boarding house at 1842 Hamilton Street, 43-year-old Cecelia Cook, had died suddenly on 14 August 1906. The doctor wrote "uremia" (basically kidney failure) as the cause of death on the death certificate. Cecelia had an insurance policy for $200 payable to her brother Patrick.
On 17 September 1906 Patrick Cook, who boarded at 1842 Hamilton Street, died suddenly with symptoms similar to those of his sister. The death certificate noted the cause of death for the 50-year-old Patrick as fatty degeneration of the heart. No autopsies were done on either Cecelia or Patrick.
Patrick had had an insurance policy for $500 since 1893. This had been paid for by his sister and Mrs. Sarah Dougherty, who lived at 1840 Hamilton Street in her own boarding house. For unknown reasons, this policy was transferred to a new owner and beneficiary, Bridget Carey, one week before the death of Patrick.
It turns out that in August of 1906 the three Carey children had a near-death experience. Mrs. Carey, by her account, had left the house to do some for-hire cleaning. At 8 am, she returned home and found her three children apparently dead in their room. Her shrieks alerted the neighbors. The gas was on and killed the children in their sleep, cried Bridget. Bridget refused help, and just asked to hug the children in their dying moments. The neighbors, believing the children were still alive, forcibly separated the mother from the children and ran them across the street to Garretson Hospital. After five hours, all recovered. Patrick Cook had noted the smell of gas at the time while Bridget was out, but found the children's door locked. He discussed this locked door with next-door neighbor Sarah Dougherty after the incident. In addition, why was the gas on in August?
Upon looking at the records of purchases of poisons in the local drugstores, the records of druggist Paul L. McConomy at 2000 Callowhill Street (now the site of the Barnes Museum) proved interesting. One week before Patrick Cook died, a "Mrs. Carey 1825 Noble Street" had purchased some Rough on Rats, the then popular rat poison containing arsenic. There was also another entry for "Mrs. Carey 1842 Hamilton Street" two weeks before the two children died. There was a Norah Carey living at 1825 Noble Street, and she admitted the purchase attributed to her address in the book, but was adamant that that was her one and only purchase. The druggist could not identify by sight either of the Carey women. Also of interest, McConomy's drugstore was not the usual drugstore used by Bridget Carey, her customary store being on 18th Street near Hamilton Street.
Rough on Rats, the arsenic-containing suspected weapon. This was sold to Mrs. Carey by Mr. McConomy, whose drugstore was at 2000 Callowhill Street.
Racial sensitivity was not a strong point in late 19th century advertising.
Death certificate of 8-year-old Mary Carey
Cause of death: "Arsenic poisoning Homicide"
The Plot Thickens
exhumations and autopsies of the bodies of Cecelia and Patrick Cook were performed after the toxicology studies on the children returned. Sure enough, those bodies contained supralethal doses of arsenic. Undertaker Reynolds had checked with the manufacturer of the embalming fluid used on their bodies, and verified that there was no arsenic in the formaldehyde-based fluid. On 11 January 1907, Bridget Carey was charged with those two deaths as well. The body count grew to four.
It turns out Bridget Carey also owned and paid for insurance on one other boarder, Bridget Mullen. Upon the discovery of Carey's indictment for the murder of the Cooks, Mullen ran out of 1842 Hamilton Street yelling, "I was insured by that woman and I suppose I was the next to go!" Mullen had been told that the beneficiary of the $205 death benefit from her policy was to be her son, but Carey had paid the 25 cents per week for the policy and no beneficiary was named. 1842 Hamilton Street was then vacated by all after the arrest, and the furniture put in storage. Little Eddie was taken to the home of Carey's cousin Bridget McDonald in West Philadelphia (are you keeping up with all the Bridgets?).
With the death of the Cooks now considered homicides, the investigation turned to Centralia. The Cooks, who had been neighbors of Bridget Carey in Centralia, had moved to Philadelphia in 1905 to lease and run the boarding house at 1842 Hamilton Street. In Centralia Bridget had lived with her husband and three children, as well as her mother-in-law Honora Carey, brother-in-law James Carey, and sister-in-law Miss Rose Carey. Rose Carey had died in September of 1903 at age 39. The mother-in-law died 5 July 1904 at age 65. Both had similar terminal symptoms of abdominal cramping and vomiting, and the listed cause of deaths for both were inflammation of the bowels. 32-year-old James Carey died in October 1905 after eating his lunch and drinking from his water bottle at work in the coal mines. A coworker reported that his last words were "I have been poisoned." James had a Miners Union death benefit of $250, payable to his brother Peter. Peter, Bridget's 29-year-old husband, became ill at work in the mines on 15 December 1905. He died on 31 December. Of note, coworker Owen Frey had taken a drink from Peter's water bottle on 15 December and felt an immediate burning in his throat, then became ill. He survived. At Peter's funeral, his sister, Mrs. Katherine Graff, accused Bridget of poisoning Peter. The Philadelphia district attorney's office sent representatives to Centralia in an attempt to exhume at least the bodies of James and Peter Carey in repose in St. Ignatius Cemetery there. The investigation in Centralia was hampered by the closed mouths of the "shanty Irish" miner families who believed the big city prosecution was based on discrimination against the Irish. The DA and coroner in Centralia refused to cooperate with their Philadelphia peers; no exhumations were performed. Also, the Centralia druggist's record book of sold poisons had disappeared without explanation. Two months after the death of her husband, Bridget and her three children moved from Centralia into the boarding house at 1842 Hamilton Street. When Cecelia Cook died, Bridget took over the lease and ran the boarding house.
Bridget Carey's Hamilton Street neighbor, Sarah Daugherty, told detectives in February 1907 that Cecelia Cook's dying words were "I have been poisoned. She [Carey] put it in my tea."
Bridget Carey, held in Moyamensing Prison without bail since her arrest, patiently awaited trial. Things were not looking good for her.
Corrected death certificate after exhumation and autopsy on Peter Cook.
Chart of symptoms and signs of acute arsenic poisoning.
Moyamensing prison as seen in 1901.
America's most infamous serial killer H. H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett and subject of Erik Larson's bestseller Devil in the White City) would leave here in a coffin five years prior to this photo, after his hanging.
Suspected serial killer Carey would move in here five years after this photo. Holmes, the Carey children, and the Cooks would all end up in Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, just outside Philadelphia.
Moyamensing Prison, designed by famed architect Thomas Ustick Walter and built in 1835, would be demolished in 1968 and replaced by an Acme supermarket.
The dormant case of Bridget Carey returned to the front pages in November 1907 when the trial began. Assistant DA Gray thought he had enough circumstantial evidence for a first degree murder conviction for the deaths of Anna and Mary Carey. The other cases were to be tried afterwards if needed. Fifty loyal Hamilton Street neighbors of Bridget turned up for the first day of the trial. It took a few days to empanel twelve jurors, since many were prosecution exclusions either because they admitted that they could not base a guilty verdict for murder on circumstantial evidence or because they were opposed to capital punishment for a woman.
On 21 November the judge dropped a bombshell. He declared the following evidence inadmissible: the insurance policies on all those except the two dead children; the near-asphyxiation of the three children by gas in August; and the homicides of the Cooks and the four suspicious deaths in Centralia. The prosecution had hoped to build a case showing a serial pattern, as was done in the H. H. Holmes case a decade before. With evidence confined to the deaths of the two children, the newspapers declared the prosecution case over from the start.
The prosecution called many witnesses, including Mrs. Katherine Graff, Peter Carey's sister, and she testified that Bridget Carey had told her that she would soon be married to a Mr. McIntyre, referring to an attentive neighbor living in the boarding house at 1844 Hamilton Street. The DA was attempting to show that there may have been another reason for the murders of the children besides money, i.e. love. Also called was Dr. Solomon Solis-Cohen to anticipate defense claims. Solis-Cohen testified that although there had been reports in the medical literature of accidental arsenic poisoning from foods and wallpaper, these sources were unlikely based on the amount found in the children. He also ruled out ptomaine poisoning (food poisoning) as the cause of death. Undertaker Reynolds of 1845 Callowhill Street bolstered the prosecution by stating that the two Carey children had not been embalmed, thus precluding embalming fluid as the source of the arsenic found in their stomachs.
After a three hour recess for deliberation of the jury, Bridget Carey was acquitted. She was returned to Moyamensing Prison pending her trial in the deaths of the Cooks. The prosecution had thought the children's case was its strongest case, and decided not to prosecute Bridget for the other deaths. One consideration: a Mrs. F. M. Denkle of 4639 Haverford Avenue in Philadelphia was prepared to testify that the Cooks were addicted to arsenic, which was popular to improve complexion and for other presumed health benefits.
Bridget was free after one year in Moyamensing.
Mrs. Carey as seen at her trial.
Photo from the Colorado Republican.
Bridget Carey took her 4-year-old son by the hand as she left the courtroom after the decision to quash the indictments over the deaths of the Cooks. She turned her back on 1842 Hamilton Street and went to live with her cousin Bridget McDonald in West Philadelphia. She lived under assumed names and married a man named Spare, who was unaware of her past. She was arrested in March 1914 for stealing $6.27 and a gold locket from a boarding house. She gave only the name Bridget Spare, but the police officers recognized her from her prior trial and she made the papers again. She was acquitted in September 1914. She seems to have remained anonymous afterwards.
The house at 1842 Hamilton Street was demolished in 1916 for the construction of the Baldwin Munitions Plant that occupied the north side of what is now Baldwin Park.
Portion of 1917 Sanborn insurance map showing the Baldwin plant in the future Baldwin Park, having replaced 1842 Hamilton Street and all the other town houses on this block. It was built in 1916 as a munitions factory.
19th Street runs vertically on the left; 18th on the right.
The eight-story BLW plant that made munitions in WWI is seen here in 1939, to the left of the empty lot near the top of the photo. It has two dark-colored water tanks on its roof.
Most of the BLW buildings to the east were demolished in 1937, accounting for the empty lots in the upper right. The surviving BLW buildings were converted to warehouses after BLW left. The former munitions plant would be used by the North American Warehouse Company and then as part of the I-T-E factory complex.
Bridget Carey was found "not guilty" in a court of law, but was she innocent? Did an innocent woman, who had just lost two of her children, spend an entire year inside the dank walls of the county prison? Was the house at 1842 Hamilton Street, site of four deaths in three months, just bad luck? If any of the four Careys buried in Centralia had been exhumed, and found to contain lethal doses of arsenic, would that have exonerated the house and shifted the guilt to Bridget?
You be the judge.
authored by Joe Walsh, February 2021