I started doing my husband’s genealogy about 10 years ago. It was pretty boring and tedious at first, just the usual: born, married, worked, died, repeat. But then, I discovered “it”, the skeleton every genealogist loves to find. Usually it’s some secret marriage or a bastard kid but this was good, real good. This was an old-fashioned MURDER.
I know, right?! How awesome is that? I mean to say it’s awesome from a researcher standpoint. Look, I’m sorry the dude died like that, but come on. If you do genealogy you have to admit there is something morbidly awesome about finding something like this. Suddenly the mundane becomes fascinating. I mean who the hell cares if your widowed great-aunt Agnes had ten kids and lived on a farm in Jersey and one of them had consumption the day they took the census? If you scroll down a few pages you’ll be bound to find a family that looks just like that. La-di-effin’-da.
So what of this murder, you may ask, and why do I care so much? I suppose it’s too many TV specials about “women who kill” and how they don’t usually murder people unless they really need to, like something triggered it somewhere in their childhood. Oh, I’m sorry, did I not mention that the supposed murderer is really a murderess? The fact that the accused is a woman must be what feeds my obsession with the case – why did she do it? Did something happen to her growing up or was she simply a nutcase? BTW, I am NOT defending her actions at all, because honestly, I believe she did actually do what she was accused of, which is horrible and inexcusable. But I also believe she had help – someone knew what she did and helped her cover it up. Luckily for me, the woman who was accused of this heinous act is the wife of my husband’s first cousin 4x removed, meaning if she was indeed just a lunatic, he didn’t inherit the crazy gene, at least not from her.
In order for you to form your own opinion, I should actually add some details before you get bored and just backspace off of this page. Here goes: In April of 1893 in a little town called Princeton, NJ, Martha C. Shann was accused of murdering, via mercurial poisoning, her twenty year old son, John F. Shann, Jr. and on top of it, she supposedly disemboweled him to cover it all up. Her motive was said to be simply because she wanted the insurance money. The trial was all the rage and if you search news archives on the internet (you can check the NY Times archives for free) you can find all kinds of old articles about it. It was the same year as Lizzie Borden, making it extra sensational.
When the story first came out, most of the town did not act surprised at all. Why, her husband died suspiciously the year before and she collected insurance on him. The articles from the beginning of the drama (it lasted from April until August) claimed that John Sr. was a swell fellow and that she was just a shrew. As you read further and further along over the days and weeks, you discover that John Sr. was actually a drunk and “a libertine”. It seems that the couple fought publicly on occasion and John had remarked to at least one of his friends that he was convinced that the woman was trying to kill him. He was sure that she was slowly poisoning him by putting something in his whiskey or food. In 1892, when their boarding house caught fire, she conveniently forgot that he was sleeping (or passed out drunk) in the attic. If it wasn’t for the firemen, he would have surely died. By the end of the year though, he was dead indeed, but the cause was said to have been pneumonia.
What was not discussed in any of the newspaper articles at all, and I suspect it might have been because it may have encouraged sympathy for Princeton’s own rival to Lizzie Borden and her famous axe, were the past lives of Mattie and John. Mattie was born Martha C. Bosenbury in about 1847. She was the daughter of a school teacher named Uriah. When her father died in 1853 at the age of 36, Mattie was all of maybe six years old. He appears to have left the family without enough money to survive and pay off his debts. It was to the point where, in 1854, the Mercer Orphan’s Court put a notice in the paper telling Uriah’s creditors that if he had owed them any money and they still wanted it, they had to post this information “in five of the most public places within the county for the space of two months” and also to put a notice in one of the state’s papers. If they neglected to do this within one year, they would forfeit their right to any money due them, end of story. Luckily, by 1855, Mattie’s mom had remarried. Her stepfather was a widower himself. He was about 12 years older than Mattie’s mom, owned a hotel, and was pretty well known in the community. He had three kids from his first wife still living at home who merged with Mattie and her three siblings. Mom and her new dad added two more kids, making it a big ol’ family of nine children.
I can’t attest to the character of Mattie’s stepfather, because I simply cannot find any articles about him stating whether or not he was good or bad. I searched for everything I could about her brothers and sisters but nothing sinister could be found. Except for her biological father dying when she was so young, and her family struggling financially because of it for a time, there is nothing else at all. It is always possible that her stepfather held this over the heads of Mattie and her family, acting as if he was their rescuer, but there is no hint of that anywhere. If anything, her stepfather provided for her after he died – which I will get to in a bit.
In 1865, Mattie married John F. Shann. John was born in 1840 and I first got a hint of his true character when I found him in a list of Americans of the Civil War and next to his name it says “deserted on way to regiment”. A few years later I got a hold of his father’s will from 1882. In it he stipulates that any money he left to his son was to be specifically for his family, meaning Mattie and their kids. Anyone John owed money to was not allowed to get at it. He also saw fit to take care of Mattie personally, by paying off one of her debts for her. It would seem that even her father-in-law knew that his son was undependable.
Mattie’s stepfather died around 1874. According to the accounts in the papers almost twenty years later, it was suddenly mysterious. It seems he left all of his insurance money to Mattie alone, when he could have left it to his wife who was still alive, she would normally be the one to get it. It was conceived by the townsfolk that Mattie must have scammed him into making her the beneficiary and then she must have killed him too. It was even implied that Uriah died mysteriously and that Mattie came from a long line of evil women. But I think that her stepfather was worried about her and her not so fabulous husband. I believe he might have been simply providing for a girl and her family. His wife and other kids were probably fine. If her father-in-law did this for her, why wouldn’t her own stepdad?
Ok, so on with the murder. In February of 1893, John Shann, about 20 years old got sick. The doctor felt it was gastritis and so prescribed mercury for him. Mercury was also a common prescription for syphilis, AKA a “private disease.” John just seemed to get worse and worse. He was losing weight, he looked horrible, he was throwing up all kinds of gross things and his mother, Mattie, cared for him the entire time. She prepared all of his food and administered all of his medicine, just as she had done with his father. She even had a priest visit several times and they prayed together for his recovery. But all of this was to no avail and by April, John was dead.
Not such a big deal, right? Well I guess not unless you know the rest of it, which I will tell you in part 2 because I’m tired and this is a long story.