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Jennie Cramer Murder Trial: 1882 - The Elm City Tragedy

defendants douglass arsenic walter

On January 17, 1882, multiple charges against all three defendants were consolidated by New Haven's grand jury into a single count of first-degree murder. Cramer's body was exhumed to address arguments that she, like many Victorian girls, habitually ate arsenic to improve her complexion. An examination found little of the substance in her bones, discounting the defense's claims.

When the case finally went to trial on April 25, 1882, prosecutor Tilton Doolittle charged that Walter had brought Douglass to New Haven for the purpose of helping James to "ruin" Cramer. The conspiracy succeeded and Cramer had been poisoned with liquid arsenic for fear that the crime would be discovered.

Despite confusion over dates and times, the defendants' version of Cramer's and their own whereabouts were opposed by a parade of prosecution witnesses, many of whom had testified in the earlier proceedings. A woman who lived opposite Elliott House repeated that she had seen Cramer there alone on Wednesday night and together with the Malleys and Douglass on Thursday. A New Haven waiter testified that he had served Walter, Douglass, and Cramer at 10 P.M. on Wednesday, casting doubt on the story of the party at the Malley mansion. A drugstore clerk recalled serving Cramer and Douglass sodas on Thursday night. A married couple disputed Margaret Kane's story, insisting that it was Cramer who claimed to be stricken on the carousel. The defense offered a sole witness, a doctor who disagreed with medical reports that Cramer had been raped. He also proposed that she had drowned and that the arsenic in her system was the result of habitual use.

In final arguments, one defense attorney theorized that Cramer had committed suicide. Another emphasized the Malleys' alibis, belittled the prosecution's scientific evidence, and said that too little attention had been given to the possibility of a drowning. Douglass's attorney argued that even if Cramer had died of arsenic poisoning, the state had introduced no evidence that the defendants administered it to her. Yet it was the grand jury's decision to charge the defendants only with murder that doomed the prosecution's quest for justice. On June 30, 1882, Judge Miles Granger instructed jurors that they were only to decide if the defendants had murdered Jenny Cramer with arsenic—the accused were not on trial for rape or for telling lies.

The jury acquitted the defendants in less than an hour. Douglass, James, and Walter were freed, but charges that the Malleys had bought their freedom dogged the family for decades. Despite Walter Malley's outspoken desire to discover the real killers, the Cramer case remains unsolved.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Jennie Cramer's Death." New York Times (June 28, 1882): 1.

McConnell, Virginia A. Arsenic Under The Elms: Murder In Victorian New Haven. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishing, 1999.

. The Beautiful Victim of The Elm City Tragedy. 2nd ed. New York: M.J. Ivers & Co., 1881.

"The Malleys Acquitted." New York Times (July 1, 1882): 5.

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