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Deadly dose of medicine

It was Bill's contention that his wife must have had a headache and grabbed the familiar bromide bottle without looking at the label

by Max Haines
(Syndicated Newspaper Columnist)

Most implements of murder require a helping hand in order to become weapons -- but then there's poison.

Poison stands alone. Death dealing, yet clean. No nasty lacerations, no bloodspattered rooms, and no telltale bullets to be traced back to an owner's gun. Above all, given the right set of circumstances, the murderer doesn't even have to be at the scene of the crime.

To illustrate this point, let's delve into the famous old Bill MacFarland case which unfolded in Newark, New Jersey, back in 1911. Bill had spent the night of Oct. 17 in New York with his 6-year-old son. They had taken a hotel room after attending a play. Next morning they made their way home to Newark.

Bill walked into his house to find his wife lying on her bed, dead. The couple's 2-year-old daughter Ruth was playing with toys on the bedroom floor.

Bill immediately called a doctor, who was at the house in a matter of moments. He arranged for a post mortem to be performed, which indicated that Mrs. MacFarland had met her death from ingesting cyanide.

This information was taken in stride by 40-year-old Bill, who told a story which was simple, straightforward, and accounted for all the known facts.

Ten days before the tragedy he had taken some cyanide home from the plant where he worked as an advertising manager. He had made a solution of the poison for his wife, who had used it for cleaning jewelry and silverware.

Bill explained he had taken an almost empty bromide bottle and poured the contents into another bromide bottle which was almost full. He then funnelled the poison solution into the new empty bromide bottle. To avoid any possible confusion, he affixed a poison label on the bromide bottle containing the cyanide. Bill then placed both bottles on a bathroom shelf.

It was Bill's contention that despite his precautions, his wife must have had a headache and, from force of habit, grabbed the familiar bromide bottle without looking at the label. In this way, she took the deadly poison. Bill dismissed suicide as a theory. He told police his wife was a happy, cheerful woman who had no reason to take her own life. One thing was certain. Bill had had no hand in his wife's death. He was in New York with his son all night.

Inquisitive detectives sifted through Bill's past for a clue which might lead to murder. They found what they were looking for in the person of Florence Bromley.

Flo hailed from Philadelphia and had at one time worked as Bill's secretary. The pair had been engaged in an affair for over two years. Worse than that, they also indulged in that most destructive pastime -- letter writing. Police confiscated several of these missives, which were so hot they sizzled. Flo had expressed her love in terms explicit and revealing, and Bill had answered in kind.

Police, now armed with a motive, came up with a new theory of how the murder could have taken place. If, after showing the poison bottle to his wife, Bill had switched the poison label, his wife would have consumed the contents of the now deadly unmarked bottle. When he discovered the body the next morning, Bill could have removed the poison label and returned it to the correct bottle.

Bill was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. His trial began on Jan. 28, 1912. Prosecuting attorneys had no difficulty coming up with a motive for the crime. It was revealed that Flo had threatened to expose Bill to his employers if he did not divorce his wife and marry her by October.

It was further disclosed that Bill's home life was not as harmonious as he had led investigators to believe. His wife knew of his affair with Flo and didn't like it one little bit. It was, however, impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bill had intentionally switched labels in order to poison his wife.

Bill's lawyers expanded on this flaw in the prosecution's case. She had been duly warned of the danger by her husband, and if she dies as a result of injesting poison, in no way has murder been committed.

Despite this argument, the jury, after deliberating all night, found Bill guilty of murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Defence lawyers appealed the verdict on the grounds that while love letters between Flo and Bill were not read in open court, they had been given to the jury to read during the trial. The letters expressed undying love and also made it clear that Flo would not settle for anything less than marriage. The only legal way this could be accomplished was by divorce.

New trial

Certainly the letters influenced the jury. Furthermore, the defence had not been afforded the opportunity to explain and interpret the letters at the original trial. Based on these facts, the decision of the jury was overthrown on July 20, 1912. Bill was granted a new trial.

That fall, all the sordid evidence was again thrashed out in open court. This time Bill took the witness stand. He admitted he had lied to police during the initial investigation. His was not a happy home. He did seek a divorce from his wife so that he could marry Flo. Bill admitted everything, but not murder. He swore his original story regarding the poison bottles was the truth.

This time around, the jury felt there was a reasonable doubt and returned a verdict of not guilty.

Did Bill murder his wife by intentionally switching the bottles? Only Bill knows the answer to that question.

What we do know is that Bill's luck took a sudden change for the better. A few months after his second trial, an uncle died in England leaving him an estate valued at $50,000.

On Oct. 1, 1913, Mr. William Allison MacFarland and Miss Florence Bromley were married at Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Reprinted from May 25, 1982.