Thursday, September 22, 2011

Elizabeth Wharton, Suspected Baltimore Serial Killer - 1871

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 3): Baltimore, July 11. – The upper circles of Baltimore society are fearfully agitated to-day, and nothing of a criminal character which has occurred in the Monumental City for many, years has produced so profound a sensation as that which startled the community this morning. There is everything in the unusual character of the alleged crime and the proceedings which have marked its discovery and prosecution to throw around it the most sensational interest, and notwithstanding the concerted efforts of friends, counsel and officers of the law to keep secret the facts, mach has been developed. It is extremely difficult to ascertain particulars, but enough is known to satisfy the public that a charge of the gravest character now lies against


being nothing less than the charge of murder and attempted murder by poisoning. The reporters for the press have been denied by the authorities the usual means of correctly informing themselves as to the facts, mach less particulars, but their reticence and denials have only served to increase the Bohemian desire and determination to know the whole truth.

The public are eager for the fullest account, and great disappointment will doubtless be experienced when it is ascertained from to-morrow’s prints what restrictions have been put upon the work of the reporters. The officers who made the arrest; the doctors, whose testimony is all-important; the clerks of the court, the friends of the family and the counsel engaged are evidently bent upon having as little made known through the press as possible. The case is, however, of that all-absorbing interest which will render futile any efforts to keep it silent. It promises to equal in startling and frightful developments the famous case of Mrs. Lydia Sherman, of Birmingham, Conn., and is well calculated to awaken the most sensational emotions and to create a feeling of abhorrence. As far as your correspondent has been enabled to gather from the most trustworthy sources and to determine from the conflicting statements the following history of the case may be relied upon. During the late war:


a native of Philadelphia, and a graduate of West Point was stationed in this city as paymaster of the United States forces of the military department of Maryland, and, after the war remained here on similar duty until his death in 1867. He was well known, and made many friends. His suavity of manner was unusual, and be was conspicuous for his handsome though dressy appearance. It is said that no officer of the United States army who ever served at this post was more universally beloved. His family was among the most influential in his native city, his father having held a high judicial position, and Colonel Wharton was noted as a zealous, efficient and unusually courteous officer. It is now said by those who knew the circumstances of his death that they were suspicious, but at that time no one would have dared to breathe a whisper that his wife could have turned her hand to murder. It is remembered well, however, that his death was very sudden and that his symptoms were peculiar. His remains were taken to Norristown, Pennsylvania, and interred in his family burial lot. His family consisted of a wife, a son and a daughter, whom he left in very comfortable circumstances, and in occupation of the present residence of his widow, Mrs. E. G. Wharton, No. 263 North Butaw street, in what is fashionably known in Baltimore as “Hamilton place.” His son,


was an officer of the United States service, about twenty-seven years of age, and of very handsome appearance. Soon after his father’s death he resigned his commission, and lived here with his mother and sister. About fifteen mouths since he died suddenly, and it is said by those who are acquainted with the family that his symptoms were the same as those of his father. It was remarked at the time by persons intimately acquainted with him that his sudden demise and the character of his sickness were very strange, but nothing was thought then of a probability of the “deep damnation of his taking off.” About six or eight weeks before, his death he insured his life for 140,000, holding a policy in the Mutual Life Insurance company of New York and another in the Equitable Life Insurance Company of this city. He died a bachelor, and his mother received the full amount of the policies. It was considered at the time one of the most unusual losses of life insurance companies, but it was not intimated that the mother could have poisoned her son. Under the developments which have been recently made the belief has grown strong, however, that Mrs. Wharton caused the death of her husband and son by the subtle but potent agency which it is known she has exercised effectually within the past month. At the death of both her husband and son she exhibited the greatest grief, and there was nothing in her conduct to lead to a suspicion. She continued to enjoy the friendship and confidence of a large circle of refined and influential associates, and lived in comparative affluence, though in a rather retiring manner.


a handsome young lady of twenty-three years, was taken suddenly ill in a month or two after her brother’s death, and continued in a critical condition for some time. It is said now that she had symptoms of poisoning, and that her sufferings were similar to those of her father and brother. Nothing positive, however, can as yet be ascertained by the members of the press in reference to the causes of the deaths of the husband and son and the sickness of the daughter, on account of the extreme reticence observed by every member and friend of the family, and the family physician, Professor Richard McSherry, of the University of Maryland. There seems to be on all sides a disposition to suppress for the present at least the true history of the case, and to risk the publication of erroneous accounts rather than enlighten the public by any disclosures. The work of Mrs. Wharton in the destruction of her family is involved in mystery, but what she has effected within the past three weeks is clear and more within the reach of legal investigation. After a careful analysis of the many varying reports the following appears to your correspondent to embrace the material points of the case :

Among the oldest and most intimate friends of the late Colonel Wharton was


a distinguished officer of the United States army, and a brother-in-law of Paymaster General Brice, but at the time of his death was on the retired list. His relations of intimate friendship with the mother and daughter of his old companion in arms continued after the death of Colonel Wharton and his son, and some time since he advanced to Mrs. Wharton the sum of $2600, and took her note for that amount. On the 23d of last month General Ketchum arrived from Washington, and immediately went to the residence of Mrs. Wharton, intending to make her a brief visit, and, it is said, to request the payment of the note be held. On the 24th of last month, the day after his arrival, he was taken suddenly violently sick. Dr. P. C. Williams was called in, as the family physician was absent from Baltimore, but his efforts failed to relieve him, and on the 28th of June, about 3’ o’clock in the afternoon, he died. His remains were taken to Washington by his relatives, and his funeral took place on the 30th ult., full accounts being given in the newspapers at the time. A brief biographical sketch of him appeared at the same time. Mrs. Wharton numbered among her friends in this city a young man named


a son of Colonel Van Ness, who was stationed here during the late war as a paymaster, and a bookkeeper in the well-known banking house of Alexander Brown & Sons, corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets. He had known Mrs. Wharton and her family for several years and transacted much or her business for her. On the 24th of last month, while General Ketchum lay ill at Mrs. Wharton’s residence, Mr. Van Ness called to pay an evening visit, and was as cordially received as On previous occasions. Several others were also present on that occasion, and Mrs. Wharton offered to her Seats beer, in which she said had been put few drops of gentian (a strong tonic). All drank: except Mr. Van Ness without experiencing any sickness. He, however, was soon taken violently sick, and Dr. Chew “being summoned, declared that he was too sick to be moved. A milk punch was prescribed and administered, by whom it has been impossible for your correspondent to ascertain. After Mr. Van Ness had emptied the cup it was noticed by a person present that in the bottom lay white sediment. Attention being called to it, a lady present (your correspondent was unable to ascertain positively that it was Mrs. Wharton) said, “It is nothing but some white sugar." A relative of Mr. Van Ness standing near then tasted it, and, finding it unpalatable, set the cup aside. When an opportunity offered the sediment was carefully removed and taken to a competent chemist who, after examining it well, pronounced it tartar emetic. This act was communicated to the relatives and friends of Mr. Van Ness, and he was treated accordingly. The discovery of the emetic and the fact of General Ketcham’s sudden illness and death created a suspicion of crime. At that time General Ketchum’s remains were in Washington, unburied, and by request Professor William E. Aiken, of the University of Maryland, proceeded to analyze the stomach of the deceased officer. After a thorough and careful analysis he discovered


This, was considered strong proof of crime, but, for reasons which are as yet known to but a few, no further steps were taken. In the meantime, Mrs. Wharton and her daughter continued their preparations for a European tour, and had perfected their arrangements to leave New York on Wednesday, July 12. Last night, however, the officers of the law called upon Mrs. Wharton with two bench warrants issued by the Criminal Court in this city for her arrest upon the charge of having murdered General Ketchum by poisoning, and with having attempted the murder by poisoning of Mr. Eugene Van Ness. She was informed of the nature of the charges against her, and was notified that she would be held as a prisoner in her house. Robert Gilmor, Jr., judge of the Criminal Court of this city, was requested yesterday morning by Messrs. T. Nevitt Steele and John H. Thomas,” counsel for Mrs. Wharton, to be present in the city to receive an application for ball if they thought proper to make it, the warrants having been Issued in Chambers. Judge Gilmor complied with the request and a conference was held yesterday between his Honor Judge, Gilmor, the assistant state attorney, Mr. Frederick Pinckney, and Messrs. Steele and Thomas. What transpired at that time has been kept strictly secret, but it was reliably reported that the case had been referred for further action to the grand jury, which meets on Saturday next, pursuant to the order of their discharge. In the meantime Mrs. Wharton is kept a prisoner in her own house and is under the constant surveillance of the police.

Her daughter and two house servants have been notified that they will not be allowed to leave the city until the case has been investigated, as they are regarded as material witnesses. As soon as Mr. Van Ness had recovered sufficiently he was removed to the residence of his relative, Mrs. Frick, on Monument street, near Howard street, where he now lies in a critical condition.


In personal appearance, manners and conversation Mrs. Wharton is unusually prepossessing and attractive. Her height is above the medium, her figure slender, but graceful, her eyes dark, her hair black, the expression of the mouth pleasing, her countenance open, her manners – very easy yet not familiar, and her conversation spirited and refined. In everything she appears a perfect lady, and there is nothing in her personal presentation to lead to the belief that she would commit the fearful crimes with which she is now charged. She has always held a high position in the local circles of Baltimore, and, until now, her character has borne no reproach. As a member of St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church. Rev. C. W. Rankin rector, she was regarded among the most pious ladies of Baltimore, and received the sincere sympathy of her pastor and friends when her husband and son died. Mrs. Wharton, it is said, made persevering endeavors to obtain permission to proceed on her projected voyage to Europe, but was finally informed that she ought to see the propriety and necessity of remaining in this city, within the jurisdiction of the court, until the charges against her were disposed of. It is also stated that she received information of the charge without manifesting any unusual excitement: Her friends insist that there is no evidence which will sustain the charges against her.

~ Action of the Grand Jury. ~

    BALTIMORE, July 15.

Mrs. Wharton has been indicted, for murder in the first degree for poisoning General Ketchum.

[“Crime In High Life. - A Beautiful Widow Poisoning Two Of Her Guests - The Widow of a United States Army Officer the Criminal - A General of the United States Army One of Her Victims - Suspicious Deaths of a Husband, a Son, and two Cousins - Startling Developments - A Frightful Record of Crime.” (Correspondence of the New York Herald.), The Charleston Daily News (S.C.), Jul. 17, 1871, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 3): One of our citizens received a letter from M. J. A. Wharton, a sister-in-law of Mrs. E. G. Wharton, now in jail in Baltimore on a charge of poisoning General Ketchum and attempting to poison Eugene Van Ness, in which she says:

“My dear husband and child died. I did not know what was the reason of their death; but after my child’s funeral only a week, I believe, I was taken suddenly ill, and at one time was thought to be dying. I told the doctor I was poisoned the day I was taken sick, and then I suspected she had poisoned my husband and child. I told my brother and all of my husband’s family also, when it occurred, nearly four years ago, but they thought my mind was affected, and told me not to say so; that she might prosecute me, and I could not prove it; but I have never spoken to her since. I was brought from her house and have never had but one opinion, that she poisoned them and killed them, and I barely escaped with my life.

“My daughter never had but one hemorhage in her life, and that Dr. May can testily to.” She did not die of consumption, but vomited her life away. Although I feared she might break a blood vessel in vomiting, she did not, but being weakened by distress, she died, and I just escaped. I write this letter in my bed, for I am too weak from being so distressed to sit up. Mrs. Wharton owed my husband $2500, which we with difficulty got after his death.

“I am now at the Sunset Pavilion, North Conway, N. H. Please tell what I have told you, for I have never had but one opinion, and that was that Mrs Henry Wharton poisoned and killed my husband and daughter, and tried to kill me. I said so at the time, nearly four years ago, and it was not the first time she tried to poison my daughter, either I saw mentioned, this morning, in a Boston paper, about a vial of brandy we sent to my brother to have analyzed. It was whisky that we sent. It is all true, and occurred almost one year before they were killed by that woman.

[“The Baltimore Poisoner. – Mrs. Wharton’s Sister-in-Law Accusing Her of Poisoning Her Husband and Daughter – Suspicions that were Silenced by Threats.” Public Ledger (Memphis, Tn.), Jul. 29, 1874, p. 1]


Mrs. Wharton was acquitted in the trial for the murder of General W. S. Ketcham. She was indicted for the murder of and Eugene Van Ness immediately afterward.


FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 3): The prosecution of Mrs. Wharton is at length abandoned and the mystery of General Ketchum’s death and Mr. Van Ness’s illness will probably remain forever unsolved.

Public opinion in the State of Maryland from the beginning held Mrs. Wharton guilty, and the blunders of those entrusted by the law with enquiring into her guilt were so manifest that the issue of the trial has not materially shaken the general conclusion arrived at by the public.

[“Not Proven.” Stanton Spectator (Va.), May 13, 1873, p. 4]


1867 – Edward Wharton, cousin of Br. Col. Harry Wharton
1867 – Daughter of Edward Wharton, died.
1867 (?) – wife of Edward Wharton, attempted murder (poison).
1867 – Brevet Colonel Harry Wharton, husband died.
Mar. 1870 – son, Major Henry Clifton Wharton Jr., 28, insured 3 diff. policies totaling $30,000.
Apr. 8, 1870 – son, Major Henry Clifton Wharton Jr., 28, died.
Jun. 24, 1871 – Eugene Van Ness, survived att. Murder; “milk punch.”
Jun. 27 (28?), 1871 – Gen. William Scott Ketchum, died. (Mrs. W. owed him $2,600)
Jul. 12, 1871 – Elizabeth Wharton arrested.
Jan. 24, 1872 – Trial at Annapolis ends (lasting 54 days), for murder of Ketchum; not guilty.
Circa May 1?, 1873 – Trial; Van Ness attempted murder; jury disagreed; prosecution decided not to retry.


See also:
Arthur Griffiths, Mysteries of Police and Crime, Vol. 3, Cassell, 1901?
Elizabeth Fee, PhD, and Theodore M. Brown, PhD, “’A Doctors’ War’: Expert Witnesses  in Late 19th-Century,” America American Journal of Public Health, Supplement 1, 2005, Vol 95, No. S1 S28
Famous Trials: The Tichborne Claimant, Troppmann, Prince Pierre Bonaparte, Mrs. Wharton, the Meteor - Mrs. Fair,  Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1874.








For more cases of this category, see: Female Serial Killers of 19th Century America


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