So, where were we… right: John F. Shann, Jr. is dead, dead as dead can be.
From what I was able to gather from the hundreds of articles about it from before and during the trial (you can also find a bunch of articles for free here http://newbrunswick.newspaperarchive.com/), I will proceed to tell you the strange tale as best as I can. It gets a bit confusing and every time I think I’ve got it, I go back and read it all again. Ugh! In any case, John died in his mother’s arms at about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a Tuesday, April the 18th to be exact. His last words were “Mama, I’m going home.” His brother and sister were in the room and it must have been quite a heart-breaking scene. At some point, after the family had grieved a bit, the insurance company that held the policy on John and undertaker Shann were sent for. Why yes, the undertaker was J. Watson Shann and he worked with his sometimes undertaking partner and full-time brother, Peter, who were, coincidentally, John Jr.s cousins. Watson and Pete’s father was the brother of Charles whom you may recall was the father of John Sr. – the same Charles who provided for Mattie in his will of 1882. Peter, by the way, did serve in the Civil War, he did NOT, like John Sr., desert on his way to his own regiment which fought at Chancellorsville.
When J. W. and Pete got to the home on Tuesday they began to proceed with their usual undertaking duties but Mattie insisted that they not embalm her boy, he didn’t even want to be iced (I have no idea why not). J. W. told Mattie that he had to do something, the body was starting to need it, if ya know what I mean. According to some articles, after a little persuasion he was allowed to at least ice his face a bit and inject him with some embalming fluid. He told Mattie that he would they would be back on Wednesday and Thursday, Mattie had the funeral arranged for Friday.
On Wednesday, Mattie received a visit from a man she knew named Frank Borden who told her that he “had received word that a telegram had come from the Manhattan Insurance Company stating upon good authority that an autopsy would be held upon the body of John”. Frank suggested that Mattie get her ass a lawyer and find out WTF the dealio was. Ok, they didn’t talk exactly like that, but I was bored. To continue: the day went on, the undertaking cousins came and did some stuff. John looked as well as could be expected. The cousins left and Mattie went to bed in her room, her daughter slept in a chair in John’s. Then, sometime between one and three in the morning, the doorbell rang. Mattie didn’t think too much about it, she ran a boarding house and people came and went all the time, but these were not her usual visitors. Three men were at the door, dressed in “storm coats and slouch hats.” They asked if Mrs. Shann lived there. She responded that yes, she did. They pushed their way into the house. They asked if there was a dead body in the house. Mattie said that yes, there was. After this the strangers told her they were going to see him. She protested, but they moved her aside. One detained her at the bottom of the stairs while the other two went to the room where John lay. At the trial, Mattie says that she didn’t cry out because she was too frightened. She doesn’t know how long they were there, then they just left. One account claims that one of the men told her, after she asked why they were there, that she would “know all in good time.” She sent for Dr. Bergen the next day and that’s when it was discovered that the John Shann had been disemboweled! His stomach and at least one kidney were missing. After interviewing several people, Mabel was arrested and indicted for murder. She was accused poisoning her son and then cutting out his insides to cover up her crime.
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? Mattie’s trial began in August, but unfortunately, she didn’t have enough to pay her lawyers and they decided that she was on her own. Whatever was she to do? No fear, Mattie my dear, ex-Senator, George O. Vanderbilt will come to your rescue – for free. What? Really? Well, if he got her off, it would make him a star. Could you imagine how his career would skyrocket? That’s what anyone might think and that’s what I thought at first, but I discovered more. In an interview with Vanderbilt in 1924, he says he had known the Shann family for years and had been helping to get them out of jams for ever. This was indeed true, because in 1888, Harry, Mattie’s oldest son, was arrested for attempting to murder his wife by poisoning her with paris green. Vanderbilt represented him and he got acquitted. Vanderbilt claimed in the 1924 interview that the judge requested that he represent Mattie. Earlier accounts say he volunteered. I believe that he was doing it as a favor for another member of the Shann family – Charles’ other brother, Josephus.
Confused yet? Let me break it down for ya – Josephus Shann (my husband’s 3rd great grandfather) was the brother of Charles, making him John Sr.’s uncle. Josephus was a member of the NJ State Legislature in 1874, the same year Vanderbilt became the rep for Mercer County. Josephus represented Middlesex. They had supported each other politically several times and so, even if they weren’t the best of friends, they had been work pals for years. Charles Shann and Mattie’s stepfather were dead by 1888. This left no one to look after Mattie and her kids, which it seems was necessary. The only person left to take care of things, would be Josephus. Although he had retired from politics by 1893, he was very popular in his time – he established the first newspaper in Rahway way back in 1840 and had purchased at least one other. He was extremely well liked among the community and his peers and his name pops up over and over again in all the papers between 1852 and 1880. He was even nominated for governor once and held a party for presidential nominee Grover Cleveland at his home. I once found an article from 1884 mentioning that he and Charles had signed a Temperance pledge, which I can’t find anymore. This is kind of important because it shows that he didn’t approve of drinking and would explain why he felt compelled to help Mattie. Despite his reputation, his name never appeared in relation to either the murder trial of ’88 or ’93. Why not? You would think that the fact that this family was related to one of the most prominent men of NJ would make this one of the greatest epics of the gay 90’s and if I were an investigative reporter I would be all over it. I’m guessing his name was not mentioned because he didn’t want it mentioned.
Now, back to the trial. It was summer, it was hot and Mattie had been in jail for a few months. She always wore black, but it was said carried herself well and never faltered. The women in town hated her and it looked like she was most certainly going to hang. The prosecution resurrected the trial of 1888, but now rather than her son being the suspect, they suggested it was Mattie who tried to kill her own daughter in law. It was implied that she murdered her husband and her stepfather. No one in the boarding house had heard the doorbell ring, her daughter had never heard or seen anyone in the room the night the strangers were supposedly there, cutting her brother open. None of the neighbors had heard a carriage on the street that night. Mattie was the only one who had ever prepared his food and his medicine. On top of it, Mattie had once been an insurance agent herself. It was Mattie’s word against the rest of Princeton.
Her defense though, may have been free, but it was also convincing. It was strongly implied that John Jr. was a drunk and a womanizer. It was also told that John had been taking all kinds of medications and when one of his brothers asked him what they were, he was advised by John to mind his own business. John’s doctor had told the court that the boy suffered from gastrointestinal problems, but John’s brother revealed that he had a venereal disease. And where were these stolen viscera? No one could find them – and no one ever has. The body of her son, whose gravesite had become a tourist attraction, was exhumed, but nothing conclusive was revealed. Whatever was left of John (he was never embalmed, remember, so he was probably pretty far gone) showed mercury, but the amount was consistent with what had been prescribed to him and nowhere near enough to kill him. Whatever did kill him was gone along with the organs that showed what it was. Mattie was acquitted.
Wait a minute – seriously? Yep, the glove did not fit. Why didn’t it fit? Vanderbilt played on the fact that a woman, could never, ever have physically performed the disembowelment that occurred. It must have been a man, and a professional one at that. Also, she was a mom. A mom would never poison her son, now would she? Of course not. Poor thing.
I personally believe that Mattie at least poisoned her son. She had worked for an insurance company so she would have probably read all kinds of files about people who tried to defraud the company and how they went about trying to cover up the crime. Or maybe she just sold policies, I couldn’t say. I don’t think she murdered her son completely out of maliciousness, but I think it had a lot to do with desperation. She married an alcoholic when she was all of 18 years old and had to depend on other members of her family to support her when that’s what her husband should have been doing. If she had anything to do with her husband’s death, I don’t think anyone cared or she would have gone on trial a year before. The reason her son’s death was such a big deal was because it was so gruesome. When she looked at her son, drinking, visiting brothels, borrowing money for “medicine”, money she didn’t have, maybe she felt she was doing him a favor. Maybe she saw her husband in their son and just couldn’t live that life any longer. But what of the trial of 1888, when Vanderbilt was her son’s lawyer? Didn’t she or her son already try to kill her daughter in law? I don’t know, the mention in the papers was just a tiny blurb. I have read different versions of it. What was poisoned was once said to be milk, whiskey a few times and lemonade mostly. It was only said one time that Mattie and her husband were visiting her son and daughter in law when this happened. Her son had four glasses and his wife got the dosed one. The wifey claimed that she was drinking whiskey because she was sick. I think that Mattie tried to kill her husband but her plan went awry and the girl got the wrong glass – whoops! She lived, by the way. She divorced Mattie’s son and went on to marry one of the wealthiest guys in town.
If Mattie was such a horrible person, how come so many members of her husband’s family seemed to take her back from behind the scenes? You would think they would hang her out to dry if she was so crazy. But then again, she wasn’t exactly supported – she didn’t have a cheering section at all. Her sister was there, but didn’t say much at all and Mattie’s mother was still alive, but was never even mentioned. I don’t think she even showed up to the trial. Ok, she was about 75 years old already, I guess I can’t expect too much of her.
So that’s it. Mattie eventually sold the boarding house at 25 Witherspoon Street and lived the rest of her life with her daughter and new son-in-law. She simply couldn’t stay in New Jersey anymore, she was a despised and talked about constantly. They all removed to MA and then to TX where Mattie died in 1929. There was no mention of the infamous woman’s death in any of the papers I could find and I suspect that by then the Princeton of the modern age was nothing like the Princeton of days gone by. Her other sons and the undertaker brothers were all dead by 1926. Peter, by the way, died when he got hit by a car while walking out of church on a Sunday after mass. Karma? I found mention of the trial in one of those “remember crazy stuff from the old days” articles in a paper from 1944 but that was it. Even the song that the frat boys at Princeton made up has disappeared. It apparently was sung to an old tune called “He’ll Never Come Back Any More” and the chorus went like this:
But they’ll never come back,
To fill up poor Jack,
His insides he’ll never see more;
For upon Rocky Hill,
Beside the old mill,
He rests with his entrails all tore.