Did Mamie McDowell murder the Perkins children? Maybe; maybe
not. The case was never solved.
TITLE: Slaughter of the Innocents Chills Richmond’s Heart. –
Of the Nine Children in the Perkins Family, Five Have Died From Poisoning and
Deadly Doses Have Been Administered to Half of the Survivors, Notwithstanding
the Efforts of the Police to Protect the Little Ones and Capture the fiend Who
Is Murdering Them.
FULL TEXT: IN THE stately staid old city of Richmond of Va.,
– laden with historic memories there is today is acted a story of secret
murder, of love and jealousy of plot, such as Zola or Gaboriau would relish.
On the lips of every man and woman in the city today
rises the one question – what hidden hand poisoned the children of Mrs. Emma
Perkins? And this question, agitating the population of the whole city, remains
unanswered. One by one five of the nine children of Mrs. Perkins drooped and
died like flowers stricken by an icy wind. But it is as to the deaths of the
last two children – Willie, a two year old baby, the only child of his mother’s
second marriage, and Octavia Blakey, who, until the afternoon of Tuesday,
October 14, had been the youngest of Mrs. Perkins’ five surviving children by
her first marriage to William Blakey – that whole city asks the questions which
has driven has every mother in Richmond, from the woman of society in her
mansion to the woman of the cottage into a frenzy of fear.
For each woman, as she thinks of the hapless innocents dying
in the agonies of phosphorous poisoning, instinctively gathers her children
around her as if to protect them from the veiled assassin whose hand even now
may strike at their lives.
From the moment of that Tuesday afternoon, now nearly three
weeks agone, that Octavia, the pretty golden-haired little girl whom every
everyone one around her home in North Sixth street. Richmond, knew and loved,
staggered into the house to fall into her mother’s arms and die there, has the
whole detective force of the city and the State been concentrated on the work
of solving the problem and reaching the author of a scheme of murder which in
nicety of detail, cold calculation of chances and of results is worthy of the
best efforts of the Borgias. The death of Octavia it was that opened the path
of discovery in the case of her little step-brother Willie, two years old, who
on the night of September 21 had died in corresponding agonies, and with the
same hideous symptoms. And now do the friends of Mrs. Perkins, in the days when
she was Mrs. Blakey, recall the weird circumstances surrounding the death of
each of three of the eight the children of her first marriage. In these the
deaths were present the characteristic smoke from the mouth, the odor of
garlic, the deathly faintness, followed by complete coma, found in the cases of
Octavia and the baby, Willie.
~ Two More Little Victims ~
As though in hideous gibe at the police at the parents at all those who would
drag the assassin to the light the fell hand again strikes the Perkins home.
And two of the four children left to the mother by the destroyer at the point
of death for again in the same way the poison has been placed in their food.
Yet at the end of three weeks with the accusations of the mother on her
oath at the inquest that Mrs. Mamie McDowell the pretty dark-haired
smiling little woman with a soft voice and subdued manner who, under the
name of Mrs. Bryant lived only a few doors away from the Perkins home
had brought about the death of her children and tried to alienate her
husband’s affections rinsing through the city, the police and the
coroner alike are brought to the end of their resources in the following
1 – That both children clearly died of phosphorus poisoning the stem stomach of
the boy according to Dr. Taylor the coroner who fade the postmortem examination
giving forth in darkness a lurid flame of the unmistakable evidence of
2 – That from the days of her first marriage Mrs.
Perkins had been the object of bitter enmity on the part of a woman once her
3 – That the symptoms displayed by three of the eight
children of her first marriage before their death corresponded with those shown
by the children whose deaths are now under investigation. The earlier deaths
were, however, officially stated to be due to natural causes.
~ Mysterious Threatening Letters. ~
4 – That in May last Mr. and Mrs. Perkins were jointly the
recipients of a series of letters threatening death two being signed “A. M.,”
the initials of Miss Abbie Mitchell, a friend of Mrs. Perkins, who, however,
has denied al knowledge of these letters and has submitted specimens of her
handwriting for comparison with the
handwriting hand in the anonymous communications. Miss Mitchell has been fully
5 – That the poison had been administered by a woman.
6 – That both children had been nursed I by Mrs. Mamie
McDowell immediately before their deaths.
The rest of the evidence given at the inquest powerful in its effect upon the general public sentiment, is after all so much conjecture
and expression of opinion unsupported by other evidence.
The embodiment of vengeance personified does Mrs. Perkins
grimly relentless, arise from her seat on the witness stand and pointing to the
placid figure of Mrs. Mamie McDowell, cry out: “You ask me who I believe to
be the murderess of my children. My answer is: There, before you, smiling at me
from that doorway, Mamie McDowell, the woman whom I knew as Mrs. Bryan. Mamie
McDowell wrote those letters and children with phosphorus obtained from
But, asked to define an adequate motive for the murder on
the part of Mrs. McDowell, Mrs. Perkins grows confused and cloudy and weak,
helplessly falling back at last upon a reiteration of her accusations.
Following is Edward Perkins, a mild, wispy, timid little man, quietly suggesting
his own acquiescence in his wife’s belief that Mrs. McDowell killed his
children, the stern, indomitable figure of his wife confronting him as he gives
More startling than all and yet absolutely worthless and
inconclusive in the hands of a skillful cross-examiner was as the “expert”
expression of belief on the part of the local post office inspector, John
Bulla, that four of the many anonymous and threatening letters received by Mr.
and Mrs. Perkins during the period per covered by the deaths of the two
children were written by Mrs. Mamie McDowell.
The local authorities in an inspiration of imitation had
recalled a certain incident in the Molineux case and had requested that Mrs.
McDowell give them a specimen of her handwriting. And so on a postal card the
woman smilingly acquiescent, had written at dictation.
~ Compared the Writing. ~
The inspector then, for the of the jury explained that in
comparing an admitted with an anonymous handwriting the expert judged by
general characteristics. Several characteristic peculiarities in the
handwriting of Mrs. McDowell, he said, had been repeated in anonymous letters,
and on “general characteristics” he had no hesitation in expressing the belief
that Mrs. McDowell was the authoress of all the letters.
No sign of fear or trepidation, no sense of the hundreds of eyes turned upon
her, some already condemning; some filled with scorn and abhorrence, was to be
seen in the trim little figure of the woman who arose at the demand that she he
should tender an explanation.
And in fluent, easy phrasing, smiling at the coroner, the
jury, doctors, the police officials she gave her reply as, asking with her
candid look of a child, what had she to explain. She had loved the two
children. They had been often to her home. She had given a cake to Octavia on
the day that the little one was taken ill. But sure the child had complained of
sickness all the previous day. Why would she, a widow with three little
children (here Mrs. McDowell put her handkerchief to her eyes), seek to harm
the children of another woman? How could write these cruel letters? She knew
nothing of poisons. Well, yes; she did remember, come to think of it, that Mrs.
Perkins had called her into the house one day shortly before the illness little
Willie and asked her to help in poisoning the dog, and that she had held the dogs head while
Mrs. Perkins poured stuff down the dogs throat. And the stuff smelt like
garlic. This, however, might be merely a coincidence.
So, Mrs. Mrs. McDowell, or Bryant, ran the course of her
narrative until, with a smile and a nod to the jury, she tripped out of court.
And in face of this situation there is no cause for surprise that the Richmond
coroner’s jury took refuge in the time-honored “Murder by poison administered
by some person or persons unknown.”
But behind the curtain that shields the murderess lies the
story of a deep unfathomable well of passion running through the dull lives of these of these
simple, commonplace country people, whose only hope in this this world is to
earn bread, and work until they die; a story of baffled love turned to hate; of
a woman transformed to a fury by the indifference of the man she sought, and
striking at the heart of the mother, who she hated, through her innocent children.
“Woman’s worst and coldest crimes are committed for the sake of love those of
men for money,” says Lombroso.
And eloquent on its testimony of the working of a woman’s
heart under the stress of passion is the first of the line of letters dropping
one by one into the home. The first letter bore a border of black and is among
those not yet given out for publication.
~ The Border of Black. ~
“The border of black is for my first my first love,” said
the writer. “You robbed me of the man I wanted – he who is now in his grave.
And now I am determined to strike at you. It is my purpose first to break your
heart by making you childless, and the then to free your husband. That it is my
purpose to do this you may know.”
The mother smiled and put the letter aside. A week went by
and there came another letter.
“You have taken no heed of my warning,” said the writer. “I tell you I’ll
strike through those you love most.”
And with each morning there lay on the breakfast table, in
sinister significance, the letter with the handwriting that they knew so well.
Heavier and heavier grew the hearts of the parents with each of those letters.
But at last there came cam a morning when the familiar step
of the postman passed by their door. A second and a third morning came and went
with still no letter.
And they cried for Joy at the thought that the shadow of
death had been be n lifted from them. The mere incident of the house dog dying
in convulsions was not sufficient to attract attention.
Never was the thought the unknown avenger less present to
their minds than on that September afternoon when the baby Willie toddled out
to the doorway and then a few yards along the road.
Only half an hour had passed when there appeared in the doorway a man bearing
the motionless figure of the child in his arms.
He had been found lying in the roadway near his father’s
No one at that time took any particular notice of the odor
of garlic on the breath of the child.
At that the doctors could say was that the symptoms indicated
the presence of some foreign substance in the body. Within twelve hours the boy
~ The Poisoning of Octavia. ~
The heart of the mother was full of a foreboding of that
which was yet to come.
With the coming of Monday morning there again lay the
familiar envelope on the table.
“There is reason in this warning?” wrote the sender of the
letter. “There will be more reason before I am done with you.”
And now the letters came with every post; slander was now
alternated with commonplace verbiage, and these letters, really telling little
of the hideous truth, are the only communications made public by the police at
Then once more came a cessation of the letters, and the
parents, trembling, waited.
All through these weeks had Mrs. Perkins, quietly watching,
bent her eyes on the one woman who of all others, by reason of old memories of
which she even now will not speak, she believed hated her.
“There is a woman who is killing my children and who may take my husband, as
she would have taken the other,” she said.
The world now knows the story of the October afternoon on
which the child Octavia was to meet her death by the hand of the poisoner.
She had risen from her mother’s side, and run lightly to the
house of Mrs. McDowell, and the next that was seen of her was when she
reappeared in the doorway of the Perkins cottage, and with a sigh and a moan
fainted in her mother’s arms.
Again was the characteristic odor of garlic; again the
shivering convulsions and the sharp gasps and cries of agony, ere eight hours
later death released the sufferer.
Suspicion had in the mind of Mrs. Perkins become certainty. From that that
moment the word “murder” took the place of all others in the vocabulary of the
Richmond people. Mrs. Perkins spoke at last and cried out for vengeance on the
woman who, she declares, killed her children and would have robbed her of her
Two women confront each other over the grave of the murdered
Mrs. Perkins, defiant, accusatory, pointing with uplifted
hand at her supposed enemy. Mrs. McDowell, smiling, suave, perfect in poise,
parrying each thrust, denying all things, and laughing at her accuser. Justice,
in the persons of the police and the coroner, looks on the picture in
perplexity and doubt, while all Richmond awaits the next development in the
[“Slaughter of the Innocents Chills Richmond’s Heart.” The
Washington Times, Magazine Section, Nov. 5, 1905, p. 3]