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Was This The Perfect Murder?
It might have been the perfect murder. There again, it might not have been murder at all. Here are the facts: I'll let you decide.
On the morning of October 18, 1911, Allison M. MacFarland, a 35-year-old advertising manager, returned to his home at 346 Park Avenue, Newark, NJ. The previous day he had traveled to Manhattan on business for his employers, Crocker-Wheeler, a manufacturing company in Ampere, close to Newark. MacFarland had taken his six-year-old son, Robert, with him on the trip, and the two spent the night at the St Paul Hotel on Columbus and 69th Street before catching the early morning train back to Newark.
When MacFarland entered the house all was quiet. He went upstairs and saw his other child, two-year-old Ruth, crawling around in the bathroom. Calling out and getting no answer, he entered the bedroom and found his wife, Evelyn, lying on the bed. She was unconscious. MacFarland immediately summoned the family physician. Dr. George V. Gale tried to revive Evelyn but it was too late. She had been dead for several hours. Gale professed himself puzzled. Apart from frequent headaches and a touch of insomnia, for which Evelyn took bromide, she had been in good health.
"How about heart failure?" said MacFarland. Gale conceded the possibility but was doubtful. No, the only way to clear up this mystery, he said, was by holding an autopsy. This seemed to alarm the newly widowed husband. He fretted over the effect any adverse publicity might have on his two children, but Gale was adamant. He wasn't signing any death certificate without further medical investigation.
His caution proved well-founded. Toxicological analysis revealed that MacFarland had died from cyanide poisoning. County Prosecutor Wilbur A. Mott headed-up the investigation and he asked MacFarland, point-blank, if there was any cyanide in the house. MacFarland said sure. On October 7 he had obtained some cyanide from the photographic department where he worked and had brought it home to make into a solution for cleaning jewelry and silverware. He had poured the poison into an empty bromide bottle, put a warning label on the bottle, and placed it on a shelf in the bathroom. All he could think was that his wife, who frequently got up in the middle of the night and went to the bathroom without turning on the light, had inadvertently swallowed a draught of poison, thinking it was bromide.
Mott digested this story with ill-disguised skepticism and ordered that MacFarland be placed under close surveillance. Dr. Gale, too, was concerned. It was his recollection that the label on the bottle taken away for analysis on the evening of October 18 was different to the one he had seen that morning. He suspected that, at some time during the day, MacFarland had switched labels. Mott worked up a murder scenario. Before leaving for New York, MacFarland had cunningly placed a bromide label on the bottle containing cyanide, knowing that his wife would, most likely, take a dose at some time during the night, giving him the perfect alibi of being 15 miles away at the time of her death.
But where was the motive? On the day of her death, Evelyn wrote to her parents, saying that "Mac" was in New York that day and adding that she and her husband were deeply in love. But it was all a sham. Evelyn knew that her husband had been seeing another woman for two years and, judging from letters that detectives found in MacFarland's desk at work, he was desperate to marry her. This was enough for Mott to arrest MacFarland and charge him with murder.
The 'other woman' was Florence Bromley, a 26-year-old divorcee who lived in Philadelphia. She had tried marriage in 1903, didn't care for it, and left her husband after two weeks. She and MacFarland met when he was based in Philadelphia and he advertised for a stenographer. Florence got the job and a whole lot more besides. There was no doubt about her feelings for MacFarland and she continued to pepper her lover with letters as he languished behind bars, little realizing the importance that these letters would assume. When detectives went to interview Florence she grimaced and said that she would prefer to not testify at the trial. "How 'bout we charge you with being an accomplice to murder, instead?" was the threatening response. Well, if you put like that, said Florence …. Unsurprisingly she agreed to testify.
Mott did his best to poison the atmosphere before the trial began. He made sure that teasing extracts from Florence's love letters were leaked to the press. Newspaper readers could now chortle over the way that MacFarland always called Florence "Bunny," and how she styled herself his "Bunnywife."
MacFarland went on trial before Chief Judge William S. Gummere in Newark on January 28, 1912. The courtroom was packed each day. Most came to hear the contents of the notorious "Bunnywife" letters and few left disappointed. Those that were read out in court contained steamy exchanges that no newspaper dare print, while Judge Gummere ruled that a few were so graphic that they could not be made public at all. At a later court hearing, shocked justices noted that the letters "denoted the greatest degree of intimacy possible between a man and a woman."
Mott made great capital out of these 58 letters because he needed to. The prosecution case was actually wafer-thin; so thin, in fact, that MacFarland's attorney didn't think it necessary to call his client to the stand. This, apparently, didn't sit well with the jury. They wanted to hear him explain how a bottle of deadly poison – to be used as silver cleaner! – wound up in the bathroom. Judge Gummere's admonition that the defendant's morality had no bearing on whether he was guilty of murder had little impact on the jury. After a trial lasting just three days they found MacFarland guilty. Gummere was reportedly white-faced with shock when the verdict was announced. But the jury had spoken and it was his duty to pronounce sentence of death.
An appeal was duly lodged on grounds that the letters had been improperly introduced by the prosecution to demonstrate motive and on June 20, 1912, by a 9-5 majority, the court overturned the conviction. Mott's gamble had backfired.
On October 13, the state tried once more. This time MacFarland did take the stand and apart from one sticky moment – a admission that there wasn't actually any silver in the house– he held up well. Judge Gummere, who was once again on the bench, stressed that MacFarland's frankness in admitting that he had placed cyanide in the bathroom actually weighed in his favor. "Poisoners," Gummere told the jury, "do not go around with brass bands; they usually work in secret." One year to the day after Evelyn MacFarland was found dead, her husband was acquitted and discharged.
But his troubles weren't over yet. Ten days after his acquittal – and after being ditched by Florence – MacFarland was arrested on charges of counterfeiting. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta. Upon his release whatever breach that had opened up between him and Florence was healed, and on October 1, 1913, the two were married at Niagara Falls. History doesn't record what happened to the loving couple.
So what do you think? Did Allison MacFarland – as many people reckoned at the time – plan and carry out the perfect murder, or was he the real victim in this tragedy? I'd love to hear from you.