CSI: 1906 Style

Forensics Before There Were Fancy Gizmos to Perform Tests.

Newspaper stories about autopsies connected to the Holy Roller case in 1906 make for some interesting reading.

George Mitchell was killed just days after he had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, so his brain was scrutinized to see if it showed abnormalities.

A few months later, one of his murderers, Maud Hurt Creffield, committed suicide and the chemist who studied her stomach contents went into great detail as to how he came by his findings. I would not suggest trying this at home.

Maud Hurt Creffield's Autopsy


Maud Hurt

Seattle Post Intelligencer 11/21/1906 p1

Poison Is Found In The Stomach Of Mrs. Creffield

Chemist C. Osseward Determines The Presence Of Strychnine After Careful Analysis

Five Color Tests All Show Alkaloid Traces.

The Most Delicate Of These, Which Indicates Reaction Is .000001 Of Grain

Coroner Says Woman Took Her Own Life.

Question Now Confronting The Officials Is How The Woman Obtained The Substance.


Mrs. Ida Maud Creffield died of strychnine poisoning. C. Osseward, chemist of the firm of Osseward & Rubenstein, has found at least a grain of this poison in the contents of the stomach of the dead woman, and Coroner F. M. Carroll has certified that Mrs. Creffield committed suicide by taking the deadly alkaloid.


The question that confronts the officials, now that it has been practically determined that the woman died of poisoning, is how it came in her possession. It may have been smuggled into the jail by some visitor or prisoner, or Mrs. Creffield may have had a few grains secreted on her person when she was first arrested.


Careful search has been made of the cell and personal belonging of both Mrs. Creffield and Esther Mitchell since the death of the former by the county jail officials, assisted by Police Matron Kelly, but nothing was found but what had been allowed by the jailer.




Mr. Osseward, when instructed to make a chemical analysis of the contents of the dead woman’s stomach, first of all examined it lining to determine if there were any traces of corrosives. “I found none,” he said.


“My next step was to extract the alkaloids, if any existed.


“After cutting up the contents of the stomach they were subjected to a treatment of alcohol and tartaric acid at a temperature of 70 degrees. After cooling, this mixture was squeezed out and the liquid filtered, and after filtration again, treated in the same manner as before with a fresh solution of alcohol and tartaric acid to make sure.


“This solution was also filtered and evaporated, at a temperature of not over 40 degrees, to about half its former bulk. It was then again refiltered to eliminate the fatty matter and the albuminous substances as much as possible.


“The evaporation was continued at the same temperature till all the alcohol was driven off.


“The extracted matter left was taken up with a little distilled water and again filtered. To this filtered solution was added ether to extract as much of the coloring matter as possible. This would also extract from the acid solution digatalin and picrotoxin.


“This ether solution was separated, after a thorough shaking and standing some time, from the water solution and set aside for further examination. This process was repeated until no more coloring remained in the ether solution.


“Next I added a weak solution of sodium-hydra, until it showed distinct alkaline reaction to turmeric paper.


“This process would throw out all alkaloids except morphine, which would be dissolved in the sodium-hydra.


“This alkaline-watery solution was now shaken up with ether, which would take up any alkaloids except the morphine. After standing two hours the ether solution was separated from the watery solution and the same process repeated until no more residue showed in the ether.




“The tests were applied for alkaloids in general, and showed rather a large precipitate, giving proof that some alkaloid was present in my solution.


“The question was which one. The first test was for strychnine. The reason was that the solution tasted very bitter and showed almost without a doubt that we had found that we had poison to deal with.”




 Mr. Osseward applied five different color tests, the most sensitive of which--the sulphuric-permanganat test--shows traces of .000001 of a grain, indicated strychnine.


After his color tests had proved that strychnine existed, Mr. Osseward so notified the coroner. This was at noon yesterday. Last night the chemist by use of a powerful microscope developed the crystals of the poison.


“There is at least a grain,” he said, “in the solution. Of course, this does not include that taken up by absorption before the woman died.”


The authorities are determined to ascertain, if possible where the poison was obtained and with this end in view all persons who have at any time visited the prisoners in the county jail will be examined. Arrests may follow.


[(Corvallis Times) The authorities have not as yet made any attempt to detain Mrs. Levins, the cousin of Mrs. Creffield, and her last caller, but there will be an investigation and arrests may follow.]




Mrs. A. Levins, a cousin of Mrs. Maud Creffield, who lives at 2409 Fourth Avenue said:

I have been in the habit of visiting Mrs. Creffield at the county jail about twice a week, and I have noticed that she has been failing in health for some time. I was raised with Maud and knew her very intimately, being a member of her father’s family. I was very much surprised when I heard the report that she was poisoned. It was very far from anything that she would naturally do. I didn’t know of the poisoning report until today, and I hardly believe it yet.


“Even if she was poisoned I don’t think they would know it.


“We frequently brought her fruit and edibles, but always gave them to the jailer, and I think that is the case with everything that is sent to prisoners at the jail. It all goes through the jailer’s hands. I have no suspicion that she was poisoned or of anybody poisoning her. So far as her taking medicine is concerned, I don’t think she had any except what the doctor at the jail gave her. She was a woman of very good general health. The only thing that bothered her was neuralgia. I have been with her several times when she had these attacks of neuralgia, and she suffered terribly for several days. I did not know that she was dead until my cousin, Frank Hurt, and his wife came out here and told me. When we were down town the doctor at the morgue told us that Maud died of neuralgia of the heart. That’s what I think she died of. I noticed that she failed very rapidly lately.”


Chief Deputy Sheriff Ed Drew stated yesterday that visitors to those who are waiting for trial on murder charges at the county jail are not searched.


“It has never been the custom to search such visitors,” said Drew yesterday. “They are not allowed to carry in packages to prisoners, and when they visit prisoners it is done under the supervision of the jailers. The visits are always held in the corridor, where a man can keep an eye on both partied concerned.”




Since the death of Mrs. Creffield the officials at the county jail have been keeping close watch on Esther Mitchell. The prisoner now occupies a cell just off the jailer’s office, where she can be observed at all times, and another woman prisoner is kept in the cell with her.


“Esther has been very nervous since Mrs. Creffield die,” said Jailer Tom Smith yesterday afternoon, “ and since she has been told that her companion evidently died of poisoning she has been worse.”


The girl emphatically denied yesterday that she knew anything concerning the cause of Mrs. Creffield’s death. “I don’t believe she killed herself,” she said. “I don’t believe she killed herself,” she said. “I think she died of heart trouble, and I shall always think so, I don’t care what the doctor’s say.




Deputy Sheriff Phil Kearney, who locked Mrs. Creffield and Esther Mitchell in their cell the night the elder woman died, stated yesterday that he believed the chemist was mistaken.


“Mrs. Creffield was taking a foot bath when I went to lock them up, and Esther asked me to wait a few minutes. Both of the women appeared to be in unusually good spirits at the time and called a cheery good night to me as I left them.”




Dr. Carroll, in discussing the finding of strychnine in the stomach of the dead woman, said:

Mrs. Creffield may have had the poison in her possession before her arrest. It would have been an easy matter to secrete enough of the poison in her clothing to produce her death. To find it would have been a very difficult matter, although I understand the cell where the two women were kept has been thoroughly gone through, it may be that the girl has poison secreted about her person now and may use it at any time. I do not think it was probable that Mrs. Creffield’s death was due to strychnine poisoning obtained through an overdose of any tonic that might have contained a percentage of the substance.




“I believe that Mrs. Creffield took the strychnine in the crystallized form and in that case a grain would have been sufficient to cause her death. One eighth of a grain is considered the maximum dose and is administered in so large a quantity only in extreme heart failure.


“Tonics are sometimes given containing iron, quinine and strychnine. The percentage of strychnine in such cases is very minute.


“Mrs. Creffield died in about forty minutes after it was first noticed that she was ill. Even in uraemic poisoning or acute Bright’s disease the patient’s live longer. Had the chemist not found traces of strychnine in the stomach, my report on Mrs. Creffield’s death would have read:

’Death resulted from uraemic poisoning, due to toxic influence, either internal or external. Now that I have the report of the chemist I have certified that Mrs. Creffield committed suicide by taking strychnine.”


Dr. J. C. Snyder, county jail physician, stated that the only poison ever allowed inside the county jail by his authority was bi-chloride of mercury, contained in antiseptic tablets.




“There has never been any strychnine in the jail,” said Dr. Snyder. “I never administered it except in a tonic, and then the dose was less than one one-hundred and twentieth of a grain. The only medicine I have ever prescribed for either Mrs. Creffield or Esther Mitchell was when they were suffering from slight stomach troubles incident to the hot weather last summer, and there was never anything of a poisonous nature contained in the medicines given.


“The effect of bi-chloride of mercury poisoning is entirely different from that of strychnine. It is a caustic and I have never yet attended a case where death resulted, although I know of cases where bi-chloride of mercury produced fatal results when taken internally.”


Mrs. Stirton, who lives at 1917 Seventh avenue west, and is said by the officers to visit the county jail frequently on errands of charity and mercy, said to a reporter last evening:

I don’t know anything about Mrs. Creffield or the county jail. I think it strange that people cannot do little acts of sympathy and kindness without getting notoriety. I am ready to respond to calls of this kind at any time, but I don not want any notoriety about it. I certainly have nothing to say for publication. The papers are too sensational as it is. I don’t see why a reporter should be sent here. This publicity discourages sympathy and kindness in the world.”



Seattle Post Intelligencer 11/19/1906 p5

Gives Opinion on Creffield Autopsy

Dr. J. H. Snively, Alienist, Reviews Findings in Examination of Brain.


Dr. J. H. Snively, a member of the commission which examined Mrs. Maud Creffield as to her sanity, in reviewing the results of the autopsy said last evening:

Sometimes in cases of insanity there occur adhesions between the membrane of the brain and certain parts of the brain itself. These have often been found as a cause of mental aberration, as have also pressure symptoms and degeneration of brain matter. These latter conditions are not apparent to the naked eye and must be found through the microscope. And so far as I am aware no such minute examination was conducted in the instance of this autopsy.


“In this particular case it was noted that there were adhesions between the durameter and the brain over the parietal lobe, and also adhesions in the middle fissures. Not only that, but there was also an area of congestion over the floor of the fourth ventricle in the medulla oblongata. This congestion might be the result of uraemic poisoning or other toxic conditions due to taking poisons in the stomach. The only things we can say that have any relation to insanity are the adhesions of the membranes to the brain, and these were found in the examination of Mrs. Creffield’s brain, as were also the congestions.


“Degeneration in her case would not easily be found, for the disease could only be in its early stages and undoubtedly difficult to detect.”





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