Sunday, March 10, 2013

Black Sheep Sunday: Did She Murder 3 Husbands or Was It 4?

Every family has their fair share of ancestor who "done wrong". Most family history folks enthusiastically embrace the inappropriate behavior as an interesting twist to the fabric of life. After all, we weren’t there and we don’t know all the facts and events. So let me tell you about another of our "black sheep" and you can be the jury.

By the time she died her name was Nancy Waggoner Yeast Layman Hufford Wiley. She was born in 1803 and went through four husbands and three of the four marriages only lasted a year or so. Hmm. Any thoughts pop to mind?

How are we related to her? She was the sister of Sarah Waggoner, born in 1825, and Mom’s great grandmother on her mother’s side who married Peter Yeast. You can read the entire details of the trial from the Cumberland Alleganian newsaper of the time on a collaborative and wonderful genealogy site local to Allegany County, Maryland, called Our Brick Walls.

Nancy first married John Yeast, “a strong healthy man” “who died unexpectedly if not mysteriously” in 1834. John was Peter Yeast's brother and you can read more about Peter here from this blog. It didn’t take Nancy too long to find spouse number two as women in those days needed to, and that was John Layman, who died naturally in 1845. Her third was Philip Hufferd who died shortly after eating some pumpkin pie.

Her last husband was Holmes Wiley. She married him in 1862 and he died in 1878. But in 1851 she stood trial for the murder by poisoning with arsenic of her friend Mrs. Engle. Seems that Mr. Engle asked Nancy to stay with the couple and attend to his wife during her "confinement", or late stages of pregnancy, delivery and a while after the birth.  Nancy agreed to do this. Shortly after the birth, which was attended to by a Dr. Patterson, Mrs. Engle became ill and subsequently died.

There was a lot of gossip making the rounds in the neighborhood. Married ladies were not too keen on three-time widowed women out on the loose. Plus, she had inherited money from some of the marriages so she was available, independently off, and probably looking for husband number four. It was even rumored that Mr. Engle might have been sweet on Nancy.

The transcript of the trial contains a lot of gross medical testimony which won’t be reviewed here. Go check the web site if that’s your cup of tea, or should we say arsenic? The testimony is interesting because the reader gets a view into the state-of-the-art medical world in the mid-1800s. The local doctors had just begun to do autopsies, and not to give too much away in case you do want to read the newspaper account, let me just say that the reader does wonder from the testimony if the removal of the stomach was done correctly.

Local doctors did a post mortem and sent bits of Mrs. Engle in jars to expert doctors in Baltimore. They were hot on the trail of arsenic poisoning. Later at the request of the experts from out of town Mrs. Engle’s body was exhumed for further testing. It’s fascinating to read and compare the testimony from the local doctors to the Baltimore expert doctors and professors.

Testimony at trial went like this: first local ladies and neighbors (didn’t care for her and thought she did it). Next up were local docs (also thought she did it and gave many in-depth clinical reasons for doing so). The defense was next at bat with expert testimony from the boys from Baltimore. They had a shining hour with plenty of medical jargon and concluded Mrs. Engle died of typhoid fever. Numerous cross-examinations followed.

During all of this, “the prisoner was much affected and wept constantly.” She was found not guilty by an all male jury. Oh, did I mention that she was very beautiful?

Photo of the day from the Archive:

The Old Rose Hill Cemetery near Eckhart, Maryland.
Has nothing to do with this article but I like it:)

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