Thursday, September 22, 2011

Olive Sternaman, Canadian Black Widow - 1897

FULL TEXT: Cayuga, May 8. The gift of prophecy evidently lies with the wives of the Sternaman household. Shortly before the marriage of  George H. Sternaman to the widow Olive, his mother said that if he married her he would be dead in six months. Her prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. Last November the younger Mrs. Sternaman, after being sentenced to death, after a verdict of murder against her, stood up in the dock and said, “I‘ll get a new trial and be acquitted.” Her prophecy has also been fulfilled to the letter. Six months ago a jury of Haldimand free men pronounced her guilty of murdering her two husbands; on  a Saturday night another jury of Haldimand farmers pronounced her not guilty. She is free, after twenty months of imprisonment, to go where she wills and do what she pleases. The spectacle of a woman a second time within the shadows of the gallows, which has drawn half the population of the county to the court-house for the past four days, is ended, and everyone is satisfied. The favourable verdict is undoubtedly a popular one – if anything more popular than the unfavourable one of the last November.


The jury filed into is room at 5.15, having listened to seven hours of speeches from counsel and judges. The court-room had been packed all day. Far aloft men and boys who had climbed up outside had climbed up outside sat with their feet dangling through the windows, looking down on the throng below. In the gallery women were packed like sardines; on the floor of the court-room a mass of humanity that drove the counsel for their seats, the reporters from their table, and threatened the judge on his bench and the jury in its box. Around the prisoner, who sat with her hand covering her face, but one eye gleaming between her fingers, the people surged. She seemed to be on fire as she sat there, listening to the words of the speakers. A fever burned hands and face to a deep crimson, and when she followed the jury out she bent with weakness, and seemed hardly able to walk.

In the hot court-room, with the evening sunlight shining through the murky atmosphere, the throng waited. At length, at 7.15, after two hours’ absence, the jury came back. The prisoner was brought in, trembling with expectancy. The foreman was interrogated as to whether he had arrived at a verdict. “We cannot come to an agreement,” he said his Lordship was preemptory. “You must go back to your room,” said he. “I cannot let you go so soon.” And so the hungry jurors were locked up again. On the prisoner the effect of the prolongation of the agony she was suffering was extreme. Again the crowded parted to let her pass out of the court-room, this time in a state of absolute collapse. As the evening wore on the throng increased. Farmers and their families from twenty miles away drove into town in the evening to see the denouement of the drama.


At 9.30 p. m. the jury filed into court again. The judge was sent for, and ordered the constables to bring in the prisoner. A pathway had to be made through the sea of waiting humanity. Yet there was delay. Physical fear had paralyzed the limbs of the prisoner, and for some moments she could not walk. Finally she was brought shambling in, and sank down with bowed head.

The delay had served to increase the intensity of the situation. The nerves of everyone were stretched to the straining point. The roll-call of the jurors seemed as if it would last forever. Finally came the formal, “Gentlemen of the jury, have you arrived at a verdict?” and the answer, “Yes, not guilty.” The men burst into cheers and the women gave vent to a great sigh of relief. The prisoner tried to rise, but sank down and sobbed. A moment later she stood up again and uttered an unintelligible word of thanks.

His Lordship addressed her briefly: – “Olive Sternaman, a jury of your countrymen having found you not guilty of the crime with which you were charged, the law has no further claim on you, and you are free to go where you will.”

Gaoler Murphy then led the freed woman through the crowd, laughing with happiness now and with tears running down her cheeks. In the gaoler’s house Rev. Mr. Foote, her mother, sisters, and relatives were waiting to see her. the freed woman was kissed and laughed and cried over and congratulated.


Ten minutes after the verdict the representative of The Mail and Empire interviewed Mrs. Sternaman. She was in an excited frame of mind, and was laughing with excitement.

“I can’t realize it. I can’t realize it!” she said, covering her face with her hands. “It seems like a dream. I feel as if I would have to go back to the court-room and be tried again to-morrow. I won’t realize it for days! I felt sure I would get off, though, until the jury disagreed. Then I gave up. I didn’t want to live. I’d just as soon have died as go through another trial. I thought that if the jury disagreed after all Mr. Johnson is the best lawyer in the world. At least I don’t think there is any better lawyer in the world than him.”

The woman went on talking volubly, and finally got upon the subject of Mr. German, who defended her at her first trial. “He couldn’t get me off because he wouldn’t accept my word that I was innocent. I knew all the time he thought I was guilty,” she said.

She was asked where she intended to go. “I’m going to Buffalo next week, and I’m going to Buffalo next week, and I’m going to work there. I’m going to make it hot for those devils the insurance men. You’ll see what I’ll do.”

She mentioned a certain Buffalo man who testified, and said, “I’m going to go back with a witness and pay him back in a way he’ll remember. I’m going to have articles put in the Buffalo papers about those insurance men.”

“I suppose your means are exhausted?” said the reporter.

“Yes, but I don’t care about the means if I have my liberty.”

Later in the evening Mrs. Sternaman left for Rainham with her relatives. She couldn’t walk on the sidewalk, so unfamiliar have streets grown to her feet, and with a sense of pure luxury she walked out in the dust of the road just to experience a sensation that she had thought herself cut off from forever.

There are persistent rumours in Cayuga that she is soon to be married to a business man of the country, who had been among her constant visitors.


Mrs. Johnson commenced his address at fifteen minutes to ten in the morning. His first words were: –

“Twice tried for her life. Twice within shadows of the gallows, and of death. Twenty long months of imprisonment hanging over her head. Life is sweet to all of us, and doubly sweet because of those we love. Such is the life that I stand pleading for, not the life of a man, strong, vigorous, active, and young, but the life of a poor, defenceless, lone woman, so defenceless that to make her defence she has to depend on the charity of the Crown to get the evidence she has produced here. So penniless that she has to depend on the pittance and the charity of friends to bring me here to perform whatever feeble service I may have rendered.” The prisoner he went on to describe as one exposed to the terrible persecution of her enemies. Every act of her life had been seized on, and exposed.

“I stand alone against terrible odds,” said Mr. Johnson. “From the Crown counsel to the lowest detective. I feel that I cannot make a fair fight against the odds. I cannot cope with the strong pressure that has been brought to bear against this woman.” He went on describe Mr. Oster as the ablest criminal lawyer in Canada, in whose hands he felt himself a mere plaything, a man about whom it had been said that he had the power to convict the innocent and free the guilty.”

“I want no verdict of sympathy,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I want a verdict of truth and justice. Though this woman be the guiltiest alive, I maintain that the  rown has not brought it home to her.”

Mr. Johnson spoke until half-past one, dealing very harshly with Crown witnesses. Coroner John he called a blowhard, undertaker Snider he described as a perjurer, and the insurance men from the United States, persecutors of a low type. The mother of the dead man he denounced as the arch-enemy of the prisoner.

He followed the policy of casting doubt on every jot of Crown evidence. In winding up he pleaded with the jurors to deliver her little children out of the clutch of the hangman.


Mr. Osler, in addressing the jury, was moderate to a degree, but age a statement of the evidence, and what he considered fair inferences from each. The similarity of the illnesses of the two husbands, beginning in each case with a luncheon prepared by the hand of the wife. History told them that the one who kisses may also kill. The fact that the wife had expected a larger insurance than was collected, and her oiffer to give up the $1,000 policy if enquiries were dropped, were dwelt on. Insurance had nothing to do with guilt or innocence. The fact that two doctors in Buffalo and two in Canada had diagnosed the case of Sternaman as arsenical poisoning. The silence of the woman when asked by Dr. Parke if any previous doctor had suggested arsenic to her was a pronounced indication of guilt. The tastelessness of arsenic was also pointed out.

Speaking of the embalming question, Mr. Osler said the onus of proving it rested with the defence, and it had not brought one jot of evidence showing that embalming had been done. It was not what Snider said, but what he did, that they were concerned with. The whole defence was built on that, for which there was no evidence.


Chancellor Boyd, in charging the jury, first of all commented on some of Mr. Johnson’s statements, saying that it was necessary that suspicious deaths should be investigated, and the prisoner was not in any proper sense a victim of persecution. He believed also that witnesses as a rule tried to speak the truth, and that no charge of perjury could be sustained against the Crown witnesses. He also censured the denunciation of the insurance men, saying that Americans who came voluntarily to help the Crown submit be protected.

Reviewing the case historically, he said that it was divisible into two parts, that which took place in Canada. He thought the evidence cogent and strong that Sternaman died of arsenical poisoning. Then the question arose of how it was administered. They must consider whether Sternaman would have suicided by taking small doses of whether he would not have taken one big dose and ended his life at once. It was difficult to see why a suicide should call in a doctor and go through the farce of consenting to go to a hospital. The question of embalming arose in connection with the arsenic found in the body. Assuming that Snider did puncture the intestines as he at first intimated, and that a little of the fluid got into the intestines, would any such quantity of arsenic as that sworn to by Dr. Ellis get into the body? Speaking of her conduct, if guilt were assumed it was in the prisoner’s interest to pose as a loving wife in order not to excite his suspicions. The concealment of Dr. Frost’s diagnosis of poisoning from the doctors who attended him subsequently and her flippant comment that the doctors could find it out for themselves was not the conduct ofd a loving wife. In conclusion he intimated that the evidence that poison was administered in Canada was very slight. He told the jury that in case of possible development it must decide this question of the place of administration as well as that of guilt.

The charge lasted about fifty minutes, and was a very complete summary of the facts.


If Mrs. Sternaman had been convicted it was not the intention of the judge to sentence her then and there, because of the point raised by Mr. Johnson on the question of jurisdiction. Had it been necessary it was the intention of the Crown to ask that the intention of the Crown to ask that the Canadian jury be upheld under an Imperial Act passed about fifty years ago governing crime on the high seas, and also containing the provision that in case of death in Imperial dominions from a stroke or poison administered in any place out of a colony the guilty person could be tried in a British court of law. The Privy Council has decided that this Act applies only to British subjects.

~ NOTES. ~

It is generally admitted that, although the verdict was against the Crown’s contention, the case against the prisoner was a stronger one than on its first presentation. Inspector John Murray had his evidence all in good order, and if neglect of duty existed it was purely local.

It is interesting to note that the judge, Chancellor Boyd, the court reporter, Nelson  R. Butcher, the Crown counsel, B. B. Osler, Q. C., the defendant’s counsel, E. F. B. Johnston, were precisely the same as at the trial of Clara Ford for murder. The minute also had the good luck to be acquitted.

[“Mrs. Sternaman Goes Scott Free. – Jurors First Disagree and Then Refuse to Convict the Prisoner. The Freed Woman’s Words. Impressive Scene in the Court-Room on Saturday Night – Strong Charge by the Judge.” The Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto, Canada), May 9, 1898, p. 3]



For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.


1 comment:

  1. Just so you know...Cayuga is not in Manitoba. It's in in Province of Ontario.