The Case of Martha Grinder

Cases from history are often hard to research properly.  Sure, we are able to access many old newspapers from the times, as we have for many years through things like microfilm and what not, but the problem lies in the newspaper accounts themselves.  Actually in all truthfulness, newspapers should not be isolated as being the only source that was unreliable. I am certain that books of the time, as well as the infamous 'murder pamphlets' as they were called, recalling crimes, also fall into this category. 

I have mentioned before in previous blogs about what was known as 'yellow journalism.'  To put this in a type of modern terms it could be equated with The National Enquirer  or even movies based on true events.  Things were not just exaggerated but often flat out fabrications in order to make the story more interesting.  Today true journalism, at least when it comes to newspapers are generally more reliable than they were back in the mid-late 1800's, probably lasting up until at least the 1940's or 50's.  The more sensational the story, the more copies it sold; the more copies it sold, the more money it made.  Does not sound too much different than how the world works

The point is, that when reading things today that were published in papers during this time one has to be skeptical of every detail. Of course, I too can only report what I have seen and as we all know, not everything we find on the Internet is 100% reliable either.  

I often ask myself when looking into these old cases if based on the evidence that was available at the time of the accused trial if today the same outcome would occur.  Although I have to admit that in recent years I have questioned my belief in the justice system and wonder if juries do not expect too much whereas in cases of long ago it seems they barely had anything in many cases and often times what they did have would be questionable by today's standards.

Such is the case of Martha Grinder....

Ultimately at the age of 50 (by most accounts making her date of birth around 1915) Mrs. Martha Grinder was executed in January 1866 for the poisoning murder of Mary Caroline Caruthers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  She supposedly, on the eve of her execution, wrote a confession to this and to the poisoning of Jane Buchanan, a woman who had worked for her.  She was suspected of many of crimes to which she claimed innocence and so, likely due to the "confession" she went into history only for these two crimes.

The death of Jane Buchanan occurred on Feb. 28, 1864 but apparently nothing came of that aside from a few questions.  Her death was officially ruled by natural causes.  Her friends and acquaintances immediately questioned this. Jane had unexpectedly accepted a position to be a servant in the Grinder household just a few days before.  According to her friends she had quit her previous job, emptied her back account of about $30-40 and was planning to visit a relative.  For reasons unknown the trip did not happen and she accepted the position at the Grinder home.  On the night that she arrived she became violently ill and died just a few days later.  In the mean time she had left a few trunks with her belongings at another location.  Within the few days between getting ill and passing away Mr. Grider retrieved the trunks from their location.  It is said that upon her passing that friends immediately noticed that most of Jane's possessions had been removed from the trucks, including clothes, jewelry and the money from her account that she removed on the day she arrived at the Grinder home. 

The death of Mary Caroline Caruthers occurred on August 1, 1865.  On the 24th of that month her husband, James went to the town mayor, who presumably was in charge of legal matters also, and by all accounts basically demanded that Martha Grinder be arrested for the death of his wife... to which she was, apparently solely on his say.  While Martha was being arrested a statement was being made by James. 

According to James, he and his wife Mary lived next door (or possibly an adjoining house) from the Grinder's and were on a friendly basis with the family.  He claimed that in the early part of June that his wife had visited at the Grinder home and had tea and fruit at their home.  He stated that she came home and became violently ill.  Over the next few weeks she would appear to become better and then be ill again.  Periodically through this time Martha Grinder would tend to her and by his statement as far back as June they had decided to no longer eat anything prepared by Martha as they suspected they became ill only after things she had made for them.  He too had had small bouts of sickness but recovered quickly.  By the end of June/early part of July, per doctors order they left the home for an extended stay somewhere. He also states that it is around this time that the doctor had said he believed they were being poisoned.  While they were gone they both recovered to seemingly fine health.  James returned to the home prior to Mary Catherine and for reasons that I cannot explain according to his statement, remained friendly with the Ginders and once again digested things she prepared and once again he became sick.  By mid=July, Mary Catherine returned and according to James they both became violently ill, and remained so off and on as once again Martha Grinder was caring for him.  On August 1st Mary Catherine succumbed to her illness and died.  Within a day or two the Grinder home was searched and it was said that envelopes of white powder, as well as a pitcher of milk were confiscated.  These things were examined and found to contain arsenic and antimony (another heavy metal).  On August 30th Mary Catherine's body was exhumed and it too was reported to have arsenic and antimony contained.  

Now, I am going to stop right here for a moment.  I have huge problems with the account above (I found this same account from multiple sources, mind you) so let's look it over.  Let me first say that just because I have questions on things that were said, done and reported, does not mean that I am convinced that Martha Grinder was innocent, however, nor am I convinced that she was guilty.

  1. Let's start with the fact that according to reports, Martha was arrested solely on the word of James Caruthers as neither the search of her home, nor the exhumation of Mary Catherine's body occurred until a few days to almost a week later. Then of course there is the time it would have taken to examine the evidence.  Admittedly I do not know the procedure used in finding the poisons and the time in which it would take to get results but as she was already in jail, that would not matter.  This is something that would not occur in today's society as there was nothing but the word of a husband that a murder even occurred.  Then let's move on to James' statement and the problems I have with it.  He openly stated that the supposed poisoning began in early June and that by late June the doctor has told them they were being poisoned in some matter, as well as they had decided to stop consuming anything made by Martha.  I question as to why if a doctor has supposedly told them that they are being poisoned and they obviously suspect that it is coming from Martha Grinder they did not report this.  
  2. Next, he says that the went away from the home per doctors suggestion and they both got well, yet upon his return, he began consuming things made by Martha Grinder and he in turn became sick again.  Why would he do this if he suspected she had been making him and his wife sick. And, since Mary Catherine returned while he was ill to help him why did he not share this information with her and then allow her to consume things made by Martha?
  3. For the next few weeks both he and his wife were ill and then on August 1st she passed away and yet it was not until August 24th that he says anything to anyone about Martha Grinder.  It was indicated that there were other people in and out of their home beside Martha as in his statement he stated that they only seemed to become sicker when they consumed things from Martha and no one else indicating that others were caring for them too.  Even if he was very weak from August 1st through the 24th before going to the Mayor, why did he not have someone summon him, or again why did the doctor not contact the Mayor?
In today's court of law this statement would have been torn to shreds.  Then we move on to the toxicology information.  I attempted to do a search for the doctor in which performed the exhumation examination, Otto Wuth and was unable to confirm anything solid.  I suspect the "professor" who had the same name and often came up in searches related to Nazi soldiers is not likely the same as the man involved in this case.  If however I am wrong that would mean that he would have been very very young, and likely fairly inexperienced the time of this case but I cannot speculate.   So we look at the results themselves.  As I stated earlier, I do not know the procedure of the time (or honestly truly now) in detecting poisons or the amounts in which they are detected.  The latter is more important in this time period than whether they were present at all.  Both arsenic and antimony were common in this time period in general household things, as well as in products.  We could equate these things to say mineral oil.  It was often in everyday products such as make up and cleaning products; they were used sometimes in the medical field not only in embalming (that was just coming to age at this time) as well as in cures to some ailments.  The fact that a body had arsenic in it would not be very alarming.  Admittedly I had to do a search on antimony as I had never heard of it but upon searching it apparently had much of the same usage, as well both were highly obtainable. It was also reported and supposedly confirmed that not Martha, but her husband, had been the buyer of the poisons.  If we look at the Lizzie Borden case you can recall that she had purchased arsenic at a general store for the cleaning of a coat in 1892.... so you are talking almost 30 years prior to that time.  

Martha's trial commenced in October of 1865 and lasted just a few short days. The defense offered no witnesses.  She was ultimately convicted of first degree murder in the case of Mary Catherine and on November 25, 1865 was sentenced to hang, to which that occurred on January 19, 1866.  It was reported that throughout her jail time, her trial, as well as her execution she was stoic, save one time, just after her conviction when visiting with her husband.  It was also reported that she staunchly proclaimed her innocence, even at the gallows.  Now, some of these later reports are sketchy I should say.  First, when I first began reading about the case through different sources one of the first things it says is that she confessed.  Later reports state that she wrote this confession on paper the night before her execution but that it was not found until after her hanging and the confession was published the next day.  Even after her trial it was reported that she professed her innocence and stated that her neighbors (presumably James Caruthers) lied at the trial. The supposed confession admits to the deaths of Mary Catherine Caruthers and Jane Buchanan but she steadfastly denied being involved in any other cases that had been questioned including those involving one of her children and a brother in law.  

When reporting the visit with her husband after her conviction, it was said that she openly cried and continued to cry after he left.  She also reportedly still claimed innocence as well as expressed worry for her husband who it was said was also charged.  Upon researching I could find nothing on her husband at all really, including if he was ever really charged and or convicted of anything involving crimes that Martha was suspected.  Stories that I read had him more involved in the case of Jane Buchanan, a case in which Martha was not charged with.  This leaves me to question then why if she was concerned of his well being and what would happen to him would she have confessed to a crime there was obviously not enough evidence to even charge her.  

As we, true crime and legal buffs, know, in a trial a motive for a crime is not needed for a conviction.  This is a case in which no motive was found, let alone given. Of course over time we have learned more about cases of serial murder and sociopaths and their behaviors and know that there is not always a reasonable motive, or one at all.  It has been theorized that Martha Grinder was simply a psychopath that enjoyed watching people die.  That very well may be true but no one will truly ever know.

Going into this case, knowing very little, I took things at face value as far as the guilt of Martha Grinder.  I cannot say that she was not guilty, but I am unsure that I believe she was.  What I do know is that the trial that was conducted in which she was convicted in 1865 would have been a very long shot in 2014, based solely on the evidence.  Of course in 2014 we could definitely tell you how much poison was in a body and likely where it came from.... if in fact there are many of those anymore (aside from antifreeze poisoning I have heard from few) since the poisons are not as accessible as they once were.


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