Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mattie Shann, Suspected New Jersey Serial Killer - 1893

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 5): Trenton, N. J., Aug. 8. – The trial of Mrs. Mattie C. Shann, charged with the murder of her husband and her son, John F. Shann, aged 20, began to-day. It is alleged that Mrs. Shann poisoned her victims with a solution of bichloride of mercury, that she attempted the life of her daughter in the same manner, and that she burned three houses in Princeton. The motive for her arts was the recovery of insurance money.  Her son was sick six weeks. During that time, it is charged, the apparently faithful and sleepless nurse watched by his side, administering a solution of bichloride of mercury in such doses that it slowly but surely destroyed his life.

When young Shann died the insurance company became suspicious and decided to make an examination. Mrs. Shann of the matter and the next morning told a wonderful story. She said that during the night three masked men, claiming to come from the insurance company, forced their way to the room where her son's body lay. There they cut open the body and extracted therefrom the entire stomach, lungs, and heart. A coroner’s jury was hurriedly impaneled and a portion of the kidney and other parts of the stomach, which the alleged ghouls in their haste had failed to take, were secured and submitted to Professor Wormley, of the University Pennsylvania, for analysis. At the inquest the professor testified that in the part submitted to him he found more than enough bichloride of mercury to cause death and he judged the entire stomach must have been similarly affected by the poison.

[“Murder For Money Charged – Mrs. Shann on Trial At Trenton, N. J., For Killing Her Husband and Her Son.” The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Il.), Aug. 9, 1893, p. 9]


FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 5): Trenton, N. J., Aug. 9. -- The trial of Mrs. Mattie C. Shann, indicted for murdering by poison her 20-year-old son, John F. Shann, at their home in Princeton on April 18 last, has just begun here. The peculiar and horrible nature of the accusation against the woman – the doing to death by slow torture of her own child to recover $2,100 insurance on his life – lends dread fascination to the trial, and the expected throng of spectators was early on hand.

Several of the front rows of seats in the old county court house were filled with women, among whom were half a score of Mrs. Shann’s Princeton neighbors. Her appearance in the court room was the signal for a renewal among them of all the old talk about the suspicious death of Frederick Shann, the prisoner’s husband, last November, and the peculiar and mysterious illness of her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Hattie Shann, five years ago. As the story goes, Mrs. Hattie Shann was in confinement and drank some of the contents of a bowl of lemonade, in the bottom of which were discovered traces of paris green. The poison had settled in the bottom of the bowl, and she had not imbibed enough to do her much harm.

The prisoner, Mrs. Shann, was brought into court at 11 o’clock. She is a tall, slender woman with a face indicating considerable refinement. She was dressed in deepest mourning, a long crepe veil, kid gloves, a black fan and a black bordered handkerchief being conspicuous features of her attire. She gave no sign of suffering in consequence of her three months of imprisonment in the county jail.

She was accompanied to court by Mr. and Mrs. James Kelly of Philadelphia, the latter her daughter, and by Mrs. Harriett B. Gray, of Princeton, who is a sister.

Near the prisoner sat her four lawyers, viz: Ex-Senator Geo. O. Vanderbilt, of Princeton and W. D. Holt, Chauncey H. Beasley and Francis H. Lee, of Trenton. The State was represented by prosecutor Bayard Stockton, and assistant prosecutor W. Holt Apgar.

The drawing of the jury was, as usual, a tedious process.

Judge Abbett, who presided, made it plain at the outset that the reading of newspaper accounts of the crime was not to be a ground of challenge, and the jurors were asked, after admitting that they had read the newspaper reports of the crime, what opinion, if any, they had formed touching the innocence or guilt of the accused. One man declared that he was not given to newspaper reading at all. and he was peremptorily challenged. Several who swore that they had conscientious scruples against the infliction of capital punishment were speedily excused from service.

One proposed juror was declared incompetent to serve because he took morphine twice a week to deaden the pains of rheumatism. Another was excused upon acknowledging membership in the East Trenton Athletic Association.

The defense sent him off but did not make the reason for its action known. An intelligent looking man about 60 years of age, living in the heart of Trenton, declared he had never heard of the Shann case. His Declaration seemed to amuse the lawyers, for they all smiled, but he was not challenged and therefore got a seat in the box.

Hugh Shann, a son of the prisoner, and Mabel Shann, a daughter, who was at home when her brother died and was disemboweled, came into court at noon and took seats near their mother.

When the entire panel of jurors summoned for the term had been examined the twelfth man was secured and the jury for Mrs. Shann’s trial was complete.

Of the 12 men chosen to decide her fate six are farmers and two salesmen. The foreman is a barber. A grocer, a blacksmith and a retired merchant constitute the remainder of the list. Prosecutor Stockton opened the case of the State rehearsing all details of the tragedy.

[“Mrs. Shann On Trial - The Sensational Murder Case Begun at Trenton. - Tedious Work Getting A Jury  - A One Man Challenged Because He Belonged to an Athletic Club -- The Prisoner in Deep Mourning Attire -- Horrible Nature of the Charge Against Her.” The Evening Democrat (Warren, Pa.), Aug. 9, 1893, p. 3]


FULL TEXT (Article 3 of 5): In the trial of Mrs. Mattie C. Shann for her life, at Trenton, on the charge of poisoning her son John, Dr. Bergen concluded his evidence as given in the Tomes yesterday.

William B. Beity, of No. 1710 Smith street, Philadelphia, and Samuel Asfell testified that they boarded with Mrs. Shann about the time John Shann died. They were not certain they heard any noise the night the body was mutilated.

Howard M. Goff said he was an inspector of risks for the Manhattan Life Insurance company. He was sent to Princeton in April last to investigate the Shann case. He asked Mrs. Shann if he could see John. Mrs. Shann told him he couldn’t. He then saw Dr. Bergen who told him about the young man’s illness. He spent the night in Trenton and in the morning went to New York and reported to his company, after which he sent his telegram to Dr. Bergen about the autopsy.

“Did you order anybody to do anything with the body of John Shann?”


This question was objected to and finally waived.

Mr. Goff told of a visit he made to the Shann house the day after the mutilation. He was accompanied by the coroner and the county physician. The body was examined and the stomach was found to be empty.

Frank Borden, the insurance agent who secured the policies on John Shann’s life, identified them. After John’s death be reported the fact to his companies the same day. He first heard of the proposed autopsy from Dr. Bergen about 9 o’clock the Wednesday night after Shann’s death. He went home and sent a note to Mrs. Shann asked him to see her mother. He went the Shann told him of the alleged visit of three strange men and the mutilation of the body.

Mrs. Frank C. Borden, wife of the insurance agent, testified that her husband told her of the proposed autopsy, and she read the note sent to Mrs. Shann. Right after the delivery of the note Mrs. Shann sent word that she wanted to see Mrs. Borden. He did not care to go and Mrs. Borden went. “I told Mrs. Shann why the note was sent,” said the witness, “and said the autopsy would be held in the morning, and my husband thought she ought to have her lawyer present.”

Frank C. Borden, son of Agent Borden, testified to delivering his father a note to Mrs. Shann.

Eliza Blaine testified that she stopped at the Shann house the Wednesday night after John’s death. She didn’t hear the bell ring in the night, but she heard footsteps in the hall about midnight.

At this point judge Abett adjourned the court.

[“The Shann Case. – The Testimony Continued Yesterday Afternoon.” The Daily Times (New Brunswick, N. J.), Aug. 10, 1893, p. 1]


FULL TEXT (Article 4 of 5): The taking of testimony in the case of Mrs. Mattie Shann, who is on trial for the murder of her son John, was completed at noon today and at the afternoon session of court Assistant Prosecutor Apgar presented his closing argument on the part of the State. He will be followed to-morrow by Messrs. Holt and Beasley for the defense and by Prosecutor Stockton on the part of the State. Two hours each have been allotted counsel for their closing arguments, and it is probable that the charge of the Judge will be delivered on Saturday morning, after which the case will be left in the hands of the jury.

The defense is undoubtedly worse off to-day that it was yesterday, as Mabel Shann, the youngest daughter of the defendant, made several contradictory statements on the witness stand, and the State brought out numerous points in rebuttal, which went a good ways towards clearing up the doubtful points of the case.


In her testimony before the Coroner’s jury, taken by deposition, as she was sick at the time, Mabel said that she never gave John any medicine, but that her mother always attended to that. To-day she stated that she had given John pills regularly during his sickness which only she and himself knew anything about. She testified that she had gotten them from the drug store herself and that he had taken one every two hours, being especially regular during the last two weeks of his sickness.

On cross-examination she said that she had the box refilled about three times a week and that the prescription called for six pills. When asked to tell how she could give thirty-six or forty pills per week when she bought but eighteen she got pretty badly mixed up and said sometimes they were not given regularly and there was an interval of four hours. The pills in question are supposed to have been compound catharitic.


A number of witnesses were placed on the stand to prove that John Shann had no blood disease during the winter of 1892-83, and while it was brought out that John had visited houses of ill-fame in the city of Trenton it was shown that he had not contracted any disease of a serious nature.

Several people testified to being in the vicinity of the Shann house on the night of the disembowelment or to passing it between the hours of 1 and 3 o’clock, and none of them had seen or heard any men or carriage there. It was also proved that the three men seen by Night Watchman Whorley were not, as it was previously supposed, the ones who visited the Shann house, but three reputable citizens of the borough.

Mrs. Kelly, recalled, said that she had made a mistake in saying John took three tablespoons of ginger and two tablespoons of red pepper, and that it was in reality two-thirds of a tablespoonful of pepper he took.


Mr. Apgar, who is especially strong In ridicule, scored some of the witnesses severely, among them being the expert of the defense Dr. Wolff, of Connecticut who, he said, had come high because the defense had to have him, and would not have been wanted but for his ability to swear best for the side that paid him the most. The case, he said, was one of purely circumstantial evidence, and he likened it to the recent celebrated case of Carlyle Harris in that the mother had preserved some of the medicines given her son in order to prove that others given were not poisonous.

He dwelt at considerable length on the made, is considered to be somewhat indefinite testimony of Professors Wormley and Corwall and said that they were men, who would not come before a jury and give testimony calculated to take a human life unless they knew it to be true.


He ridiculed Mrs. Shann’s actions on the night of the disembowelment. There was some motive, said Mr. Apgar, for the removal of the vitals from John Shann’s body and that motive could only have existed in the breast of one who knew that something was wrong, that some crime would be divulged should the vitals be examined. There were but six persons in all the world who knew that an autopsy was to be held when Frank Borden sent word to Mrs. Shann. Within four hours the vitals were gone. It Is Denied, However,

Mrs. Shann refused admittance to Mr. Gough when no one was sleeping in the room with the corpse, but had no uneasiness when three ghouls entered the house in the silent hours of the night and forced their way to the room where her disrobed daughter lay. Mr. Apgar declared that the story was preposterous.

He said that three men disembowling a corpse would never have been careful enough to leave so few marks of their work upon the clothing of the corpse. They would not have been so careful of the property of Mrs. Shann. Mr. Apgar said that no human mother would have acted as Mrs. Shann declares she did. No mother would have refrained from looking at the mutilated body of her dead boy, no mother would have called a boarder to look at the corpse and would never in the world have sat there till morning without raising an alarm or without trying to capture the fiends who had desecrated the body.


Again no mother would have been so regardless of her daughter’s virtue as to go first to the room of Vanselous without stopping to see whether her daughter’s virtue and purity were still untouched, and no mother would have been satisfied with the explanation of Vanselous that “something has been done” when she saw the blood spots on the body of her son.

In closing Mr. Apgar said that in light of the circumstances he could safely trust the case in the hands of the jury. He believed Mrs. Shann guilty and conscientiously asked the jury to convict her.

During the argument of Mr. Apgar Mrs. Shann seemed to be in deep anguish, and rested her head on the lap of her daughter, Mrs. Kelly.

[“The Testimony All In - Closing Argument In The Sham Trial To Be Made To-Day. - Evidence Of Mabel Sham – The Prisoner’s Youngest Daughter is Placed on the Stand, But Her Testimony Does Not Prove Very Favorable for the Defense – Mrs. Shann Severely Arraigned by Assistant Prosecutor Apgar.” The Times (Philadelphia, Pa.), Aug. 18, 1893, p. 2]


FULL TEXT (Article 5 of 5): Trenton, N. J., Aug. 21. “We find the defendant not guilty.” These words were uttered by Foreman Dopper, of the Shann jury, at 9:30 this morning, and Mattie C. Shann, who has been on trial for the murder of her son for two weeks, was set free.

The court room was packed as never before, but not the slightest demonstration took place. The court had enjoined silence only a moment before. Mrs. Shann sat surrounded by the members of her family, her body swaying gently back and forth.

When the verdict was announced she suddenly threw her head up and then fell upon her knees and her lips were seen to move as if in prayer. Her daughters Mabel and Mrs. Kelly threw their arms around her and kissed her and the scene was most affecting.

The formalities attending the discharge of Mrs. Shann from custody were brief and quickly over. She expressed a desire to thank the jurors, and Captain Hall arose and spoke to Judge Abbett. The latter shook his head negatively and it was surmised that he objected to any demonstration.

When Mrs. Shann passed out of court it was to go again to her quarters in the county jail that she might prepare for her departure from the building and from the city. The great crowd pressed close to the bar enclosure and peered into her face, and a few shook bands with her in the grand jury room, and she shook hands with and thanked them.

It is said the jury decided to acquit after a few ballots taken on Sunday. The trial of the case has cost the county $10,000.

[“Mrs. Shann Acquitted. - The Jury Return a Verdict of Not Guilty - A Dramatic Scene.” Reading Times (Pa.), Aug. 22, 1893, p. 1]

Suspected Victims:

John F. Shann, 20, died Apr. 18, 1893
Frederick Shann, husband, died Nov. 1892
Mrs. Hattie Shann, daughter-in-law, 1888, survived
Aug. 9, 1893 – trial begins
Aug. 21, 1893 – acquitted







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


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