1. A Death Most Foul
Stanislaus Bilansky was sick. Throughout the winter he had suffered bouts of indigestion, and now it manifested as a terrible burning in the stomach after eating. Even with light meals of soup and arrowroot, he experienced pain and vomiting. During the first week of March 1859, he was mostly bedridden in his home on Stillwater Road in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
His doctor of nine years, Alfred Berthier, would later testify that he knew Stanislaus to be in good health, even if he was “gloomy” and “hypochondriacal.” Berthier thought his patient might have alcoholism, because excessive drinking could cause a persistent “inflammation upon the gastric regions.” On March 6, Berthier prescribed an absinthe tonic. Stanislaus also took Graffenburg Pills, a commercial remedy touted as a panacea for everything from cholera to hangnail. As with many so-called miracle cures patented in the 19th century, there was virtually no proof to support the claims of its medical efficacy. What it actually cured, if anything, was unclear.
Stanislaus got worse. At about 3:30 on the morning of Friday, March 11, his eldest child, Benjamin, brought him a dram of liquor. Stanislaus’s third wife, Ann, whom he had married the previous September, was resting in another room. Earlier that night, she had told her new husband that she did not wish to sleep next to him while he was feverish. This reportedly caused Stanislaus to become excited and angry. The liquor was likely an attempt to calm him so that he could get some much-needed rest.
An hour and a half after taking the drink, Stanislaus was dead. He was 52.
The burial was planned for the next day. Before the funeral procession to the cemetery, John V. Wren of the Ramsey County coroner’s office arrived at the Bilansky home to conduct a routine inquest. A quickly assembled coroner’s jury took statements from several witnesses, including members of Stanislaus’s family, a maid, and some neighbors. The panel ruled that the death was a result of natural causes—a long illness—and they chastised Stanislaus’s wife for not calling a doctor in the hours before he died. Their sharp admonition of Ann was published in one of the main local newspapers, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat.
Stanislaus was buried on Saturday, March 12, at 5 p.m. He was not in the ground for long however. That evening one of the witnesses who had spoken to the coroner’s jury confessed to her husband that Stanislaus’s death was no accident. At his urging, she went to the police with a scandalous story of foul play. Law enforcement quickly ordered the exhumation of Stanislaus’s body. An autopsy and toxicology tests would follow.
By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested Stanislaus’s wife for homicide. They also detained her nephew John Walker in connection with the crime. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat soon ran an article claiming that Ann and Walker were having an affair and that she had killed Stanislaus, presumably to pursue the torrid romance more freely. Ann’s method of murder, authorities said, was arsenic poisoning.
So began the trials of Ann Bilansky. There were two: the legal one and the one staged in the court of public opinion. Often it was hard to tell which was which. Newspapers across Minnesota and as far away as the East Coast wrote breathless accounts of the purported murder and subsequent courtroom drama. People read those stories, staining their fingers with ink, because they were thirsty for news of the devilish Mrs. Bilansky. Like any good gothic novel or penny dreadful, the story was thrilling—all the more because it was true.
If the tone of the reportage is any indicator, for many spectators, the narrative wasn’t a whodunit. Guilt was all but certain. The mystery was why Ann would kill her husband of less than a year. Was it malice, money, or solely her love for another man? Was she born with a wicked heart, or had it curdled over the years?
In this gripping “whydunit,” each installment that appeared on newsstands was like a drug, ready to be snatched up by eager customers with a few pennies to spare. Would Ann the irredeemable go free to kill again? If not, would she rot in a musty prison cell or become the first woman executed in Minnesota, a newly minted U.S. state? Many people hoped for the latter. In their minds, Ann’s execution would serve as a symbolic cleansing of evil from a God-fearing society.
Like a Greek tragedy—Aeschylus’s Oresteia, perhaps, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon—Ann’s trials spoke to the cultural moment. They were chapters in a bigger story about a macabre anxiety that gripped Victorian Europe, then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. The story was thick with fear and hysteria, and informed by entrenched social tradition as much as incipient laboratory science. It was rooted in a singular obsession—a question that had long captured fascination and provoked dread: What is a wife capable of if she no longer needs or wants her husband?
2. Scandal in Saint Paul
With a population of about 10,000, Saint Paul was the largest city in Minnesota and the capital of the state, which joined the union in May 1858. A month prior, Mary Ann Evards Wright, who went by Ann, had arrived in town. Little is known about her life before then, except that she said she was a widow from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who had made her way to Pleasant Hill, Illinois, after the death of her husband in a railroad accident. At the request of John Walker, Ann joined him in Minnesota. Walker had been living in Saint Paul for a few years without family, and he had recently fallen ill with typhoid. He hoped his aunt would help him convalesce—or so he and Ann claimed, their critics would later assert.
Ann was in her late thirties, hardly an ingenue. She was tall, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a long nose. She had an overbite, with protruding front teeth, and a low-pitched voice. Ann did not hesitate to speak when she had something to say; The New York Times would later call her “talkable.” She seemed to have completed some education, and she had no children or much family. Ann dressed neatly, and while she was not beautiful, she carried herself with a dignity that must have been attractive.
Walker, 26, worked as a carpenter. Like his aunt, he had light eyes and blond hair, though his was curly. He was a smaller man—between five-foot-five and five-foot-seven—but he walked with good posture. It’s unclear whether aunt and nephew lived together while Walker recovered from typhoid. By some accounts they did; according to others, Ann lived with a Mrs. Harvy Davis and worked as a seamstress to make money while nursing Walker back to health.
Not long after Ann’s arrival, Walker introduced her to Stanislaus Bilansky, a man more than a decade her senior. He was of Polish descent and had left Wisconsin for the Minnesota Territory in 1842. He worked as a tailor and ran a small bar and grocery store out of his home in Lower Landing, an area of Saint Paul where steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River regularly docked. Locals regarded Stanislaus as rich because he had purchased a claim to land. The extent of his wealth is a fact lost to history, but his perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.
Short and portly, Stanislaus was described by many who knew him as an alcoholic. His second wife, a woman named Ellen, said he was “given to hard drinking” and often fell sick after “sprees” of imbibing. She also described him as jealous, cruel, and deeply superstitious. A premonition, for instance, had convinced him that he would die in the month of March.
Stanislaus had no children with his first wife, about whom little is known. He and Ellen had three: Benjamin, Rinaldo, and Kate. When, after nine or ten years of marriage, an exasperated Ellen left her malcontent husband, the children stayed with their father in his home-cum-business. When he wed again in September 1858, Ann moved in. Walker came too, occupying a two-room shanty situated on Stanislaus’s property.
If Stanislaus had ever been rich, he was not now; he lived only off his modest earnings. Ann took over the housekeeping and cared for Stanislaus’s young children. Because her husband fell ill shortly after they wed, Ann likely looked after his businesses, too.
Ann befriended Lucinda Kilpatrick, a woman who lived across the road. Lucinda, who was in her twenties, visited often through the worst of Stanislaus’s illness. She noted that Ann was stoic in her grief, never crying or appearing upset. At Stanislaus’s bedside, Lucinda heard Ann ask what should be done with his children—a fair enough question, given that she was not their mother, but odd because it seemed to show that, despite Dr. Berthier’s opinion, Ann thought Stanislaus would soon die. Perhaps she was taking cues from her husband, who was sure he “was not going to live,” according to Lucinda. Or maybe something more sinister was afoot.
Lucinda would later claim that she had not known Stanislaus to have the “blues”—indeed, she had always found him cheerful, a sharp contrast to the inebriated, pessimistic figure others saw. When she sat with him one day while he was ill, Stanislaus told Lucinda that he “had nothing to live for.”
In an attempt to console him, Lucinda told Stanislaus a story about a sick man who allowed only his wife to care for him. Then the wife died suddenly and he recovered. “He married a young girl afterwards,” Lucinda concluded triumphantly. The next day, Stanislaus was dead.
When Ann’s murder trial began on May 23, 1859, Lucinda was the prosecution’s first and most vital witness—the person who had changed her testimony shortly after speaking to the coroner’s jury. She took the stand and recounted a shopping trip that she and Ann had taken together on February 28, which in retrospect roused Lucinda’s mistrust of her friend.
According to Lucinda, she and Ann went uptown to the post office to send some letters and retrieve their mail. They then walked to W.H. Wolff’s drugstore on Third and Wabasha Streets. Ann asked for arsenic to kill rats in her home, but the price was too high for her budget. From there the women visited Day & Jenks, a different drugstore, where Ann purchased a jar of arsenic for ten cents. Ann did not dispute that she had purchased the poison, commonly used to kill pests. Stanislaus himself had requested it, she said, because rats were eating vegetables stored in their root cellar. Lucinda told the court that she had never once seen a rat in the Bilanskys’ home.
The information that most interested the jury—and the readers of next day’s papers—was what Lucinda claimed the two women had talked about during the shopping trip. If Stanislaus died, Ann allegedly said, people would be suspicious of her, so she asked Lucinda to buy the arsenic for her. “Mrs. Bilansky,” Lucinda claimed to have replied, “if I wanted arsenic, I would buy it.” Later, after Stanislaus’s death, Lucinda said that Ann came to her in a panic, begging her to say that she was the one who had purchased the poison. “If they don’t find arsenic in the stomach,” Lucinda recalled saying, “they can do nothing with you.”
In court, Lucinda presented as every bit a lady of high moral virtue. She had been shocked by the strange requests from her neighbor. She shared other details, including the conversations she had had with Stanislaus about death. She said that her husband, Andrew Kilpatrick, had offered to sit with Stanislaus on what would be his last night alive but that Ann had insisted there “was no necessity for it.” Nor had Ann been willing to call for a doctor—the very thing the coroner’s jury would later scold her for. (By some accounts, Lucinda did not share this information during the initial inquest because Ann had hidden menacingly behind a nearby curtain as the interview took place, though this claim was never substantiated.)
After Lucinda stepped down, a young woman named Rosa Scharf took the stand. Ann had hired Rosa, a local girl, as a housekeeper on March 2. Rosa told the packed courtroom that she had witnessed “improper actions” between Ann and Walker. After Stanislaus’s funeral, she saw Ann undressing with the door of her room open while Walker was in the house. Furthermore, Rosa described suspicious glances exchanged between Ann and Walker—“something in the expression of their faces and eyes” that did not “look natural.” Rosa said she asked Ann how she could be so careless about undressing in the house, to which Ann allegedly responded that she was just used to having Walker around.
Rosa recalled that she had heard Stanislaus say that he was jealous of Walker. She doubted Ann’s devotion to her husband, because Ann was not “kind and attentive” during his illness, nor did she behave “as a wife should.” Rosa then recounted an exchange with Ann that had occurred while the two women sat together in the Bilansky home prior to Stanislaus’s death. An old man ambled past the window. “I had better set my cap for him, for he has money,” Ann said, according to Rosa. When Rosa protested that a loveless match would be an unfulfilling one, Ann replied, “You could give him something to sleep himself to death.” Ann then mused about the amount of poison it would take to kill a man.
Later, Rosa claimed, Ann warned her to “be careful” when washing dishes, “for there had been food [on] them” meant for Stanislaus. After the funeral, while riding home together in a carriage, Ann purportedly told Rosa that Stanislaus “must have taken poison.” By that time, the coroner’s inquest had been closed; no one was looking for evidence of poisoning. Yet Rosa remembered Ann talking about the means of her husband’s demise as all but fact.
Neither Rosa nor Lucinda offered any tangible evidence that Ann had committed a crime. They had not seen her slip anything into Stanislaus’s food or drink, nor had they heard her confess to wrongdoing. Suspicion, though, was a mighty cudgel. Implicit in the women’s testimony was a phenomenon that everyone following the trial would have known well, a widespread panic about an unholy trinity: a housewife, ill will, and arsenic.
3. Beware the Arsenic Assassins
Arsenic, As on the periodic table, is a metalloid found in various minerals and in pure crystalline form. The colorless, odorless white powder widely known as a poison is actually arsenic trioxide, a compound of the element. Its fatal application dates back thousands of years. In 82 B.C., responding to a spate of deaths caused by the ingestion of arsenic and other toxins, Roman ruler Lucius Cornelius Sulla made poisoning, or veneficium, a crime.
Over time, arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side. In the 1600s, there was a thriving, female-run business in Rome and the surrounding region that sold a substance called Aqua Tofana to women who wanted to get out of marriages, particularly abusive ones. The poison, made of arsenic mixed with other substances, was a quick way to eliminate a spouse: A wife had only to put it in her husband’s food. Because the effects of poisoning—cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes—mimicked any number of common illnesses, it was easy enough to get away with murder. One proprietress of the Aqua Tofana enterprise may have assisted in the killing of some 600 people before she was discovered and executed.
One of the first documented cases of arsenic poisoning in England, where between 1750 and 1914 there were more than 200 court cases involving the crime, was Mary Blandy of Oxfordshire. In 1752, she admitted to putting something in her father’s gruel and tea, but claimed she did not know it was poison. Mary was in love with a sea captain by the name of William Henry Cranstoun, a clumsy, smallpox-scarred man whom her father, Francis, did not approve of. Francis had good reason: Cranstoun was already married. Upon her arrest, Mary claimed that Cranstoun had told her to put the substance in her father’s breakfast because it was magic and would change her father’s mind. Cranstoun by then had fled. Mary was hanged.
Many cases likely involved false allegations. In 1815, again in England, a 20-year-old maid named Eliza Fanning cooked dumplings for her employers, Robert and Charlotte Turner. She ate from the same pot they did, and following the meal, all three became ill. After recovering, the Turners accused Eliza of trying to kill them. They maintained that she had eaten less from the pot, so that she too would get sick but not die, and accused her of not tending to them properly during their illness. As for motive, Mrs. Turner said she was sure that Eliza was mad at her because she had recently chastised the young woman for being half-dressed in front of an apprentice. Eliza was found guilty and hanged.
To prove that poisoning allegations were true, scientists developed toxicology tests to identify arsenic. Some were more accurate than others. The best was the work of an English chemist named James Marsh. In 1836, he introduced what would become known as the Marsh test. It involved a U-shaped glass tube, open at both ends and longer on one side. Marsh dropped a small rod into the shorter arm, along with a piece of zinc, and corked it. Into the long end, he poured the suspected arsenic sample and some sulfuric acid. If the sample contained no arsenic, the zinc would bubble and vent pure hydrogen through a valve in the tube. If arsenic was present, the zinc produced a different gas, called arsine.
The test was hailed as an extraordinary development, but it was far from perfect. For one thing, arsine was dangerous if inhaled. More worrying, impure zinc often contained arsenic and could lead to false positives. Marsh argued that there was a simple solution—run the test on the zinc alone to establish its purity—but not all chemists were so fastidious. And there was another problem: A sample containing antimony, a naturally occurring substance sometimes found in the body, could produce the same results as one with arsenic.
While forensic science was still in its infancy, arsenic became as easy to buy as flour or sugar—which is exactly what it looked like. By the 1840s in England, any person with two pennies could buy an ounce and a half of the powder while shopping for tea or milk at the grocery store. Unscrupulous shopkeepers sometimes used arsenic to cut sugar, which was more expensive, while others, either careless or illiterate, mixed up the two substances. In 1858, 20 people died and more than 200 became ill after a candymaker in Yorkshire used arsenic in his confections.
There was demand for arsenic because England had a rat problem, and the poison was the perfect antidote to the disease-carrying rodents. People mixed a bit of it with oatmeal or some other food and left the concoction next to a rathole. Others washed their floors with arsenic-infused water. Still others simply set out a saucer of the powder and waited for the rat carcasses to pile up. Arsenic was also in just about anything manufacturers could think to put it in, because chemically, it gave items a rich green hue. It was used in paint, fabric, cosmetics, soap, candles, wallpaper, candy, artificial flowers, even children’s toys. Believed (wrongly) to cure diseases when administered in small doses, arsenic was also found in tinctures and remedies. One of the most famous was Dr. Fowler’s, a tonic that contained about 1 percent potassium arsenite. The manufacturer claimed that the tonic could cure leprosy and gangrene, among other conditions, but the label also contained a warning that Dr. Fowler’s would “produce abortion” if a pregnant woman took it.
Given the numerous avenues of exposure, most people were probably walking around with some level of arsenic in their system without knowing it. This made toxicology tests for willful poisoning unreliable, but that didn’t stop coroners from performing them. If the results came back positive, law enforcement was quick to assume that there had been foul play—of a sort the British public particularly relished.
Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in which articles appeared without bylines, once called murder by poisoning “a fiendish sophistication”—and nothing was more terrifying or seductive than the idea of family members killing one another at the dinner table. In 1855, according to author Sandra Hempel in her book The Inheritor’s Powder—arsenic’s Victorian-era nickname—one British paper asked its readers, “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you; the meal … looks correct but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?” The people who made the curry—who handled most any food preparation, really—were either wives or hired female help. In an era when women were beginning to demand new rights and fair treatment by men, it was only a modest leap in the popular imagination for women to embrace their Eve-like penchant for betrayal.
Fleet Street tabloids, which exploded in number after Parliament reduced the tax on papers from four pennies to one in 1836, could not get enough of black-widow stories like that of Mary Ann Geering of East Sussex, who decided to slip arsenic into her husband’s food. Richard Geering had inherited 20 pounds, and the couple’s relationship was on the rocks. Mary Ann saw an opportunity. After a weeklong illness, Richard died. Within months, two of Mary Ann’s adult sons had also died following a similar illness. A third son became sick but recovered after leaving Mary Ann’s home. The bodies of her husband and other two sons were exhumed, and toxicologists found arsenic in their stomach lining. Mary Ann confessed to poisoning and was hanged. Then there was Mary Ann Cotton, who over some 13 years poisoned three husbands and as many as 15 children. She collected insurance payments each time a family member passed away. Eventually, she was convicted and executed. Rebecca Smith also killed most of her 11 children with arsenic. Saddled with an alcoholic husband, Rebecca assumed poisoning would be preferable to slowly starving to death. She, too, was executed for her crimes.
These women were guilty, but others convicted through scientific evidence likely were not. Arsenic was everywhere and in everything, and the media claimed that any woman could be a murderess in disguise. When men—because all police were men—investigated cases of suspected poisoning, they looked for gendered motives: a woman mistreated by her employers, cheated on by her husband, or involved in a love triangle. Feeding on the arsenic panic, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a three-volume best-selling novel called Lucretia, or the Children of the Night, about a stealth poisoner named Lucretia Clavering. Her last name was a reference to a village in Essex where a high-profile arsenic poisoning had occurred.
The stories, both real and imagined, so frightened people that, in 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Act. The law required druggists to clearly label arsenic and keep records of who bought it. Though unsuccessful, some lawmakers even pressed their colleagues to bar women from purchasing arsenic altogether. Not that doing so would have stopped the panic’s viral spread: By mid-century, fears of women wielding arsenic had hurdled over the pond.
On November 7, 1849, in eastern North Carolina, Alexander C. Simpson sat down to his dinner at around 1 p.m. At the table were his wife, Ann, a boarder named Samuel G. Smith, and a friend, one Mr. Whitfield. After the meal, Ann Simpson brought out two cups of syllabub for herself and her husband, who consumed his with a silver spoon. Both Smith and Whitfield were Sons of Temperance and did not partake of the creamy dessert drink made with wine or sherry. When Alexander finished, he asked for more; Ann gave him the rest of hers. She then got up to serve coffee, placing a cup on the table that Smith believed was for him. “Mr. Smith,” Ann allegedly corrected, “I said that was Mr. Simpson’s coffee.” Her husband, she explained, “required his coffee sweeter.” Smith was given a different cup.
Alexander became ill that evening and vomited throughout the night. W.P. Mallett, his regular doctor, saw him the next morning and prescribed pills made of calomel powder and opium, along with a dose of morphine. By Thursday evening, Alexander was suffering from severe diarrhea. He died sometime between 8 and 10 p.m.
Mallett was suspicious. After the postmortem, he placed Alexander’s stomach in a jar and brought it to Dr. Benjamin Robinson, who had experience testing gastric fluids for arsenic. Robinson performed two tests and became convinced that Alexander had died of poisoning. But was it intentional?
A coroner’s jury ruled that there was enough evidence to indict Ann for murder. The courts issued a bench warrant, but Ann had already fled to South Carolina. From there she reportedly went to Cuba, where she remained in hiding for months. She then returned to North Carolina for her trial in May 1850, undoubtedly hoping to be exonerated.
The prosecution presented a case based on Robinson’s toxicology reports. “I entertain no doubt,” Robinson said on the stand, “that there was arsenic in his stomach.” When questioned about the possible effects of the calomel prescribed by Mallet, Robinson said “it could not have produced the same results.” However, many doctors at the time disagreed. Made of a mercury compound, calomel caused gastrointestinal problems and other side effects, including bleeding gums and facial tremors. It was so suspect that, in 1825, the Richmond Enquirer published a tongue-in-cheek poem about doctors who prescribed the substance:
Since calomel’s become their boast,
How many patients have they lost,
How many thousands they make ill,
Of poison, with their calomel.
In addition to calomel, the defense pointed out, Alexander had been taking iodine during the six months before he died, to treat a scrofulous disorder. He was supposed to take only a teaspoon per day, but what if he had measured poorly? An excess of iodine could cause stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ann’s attorney also suggested that Alexander might have had cholera, and he questioned the toxicology tests for arsenic, describing them as “uncertain, inconclusive, and fallacious.”
The prosecution mustered several witnesses who detailed Ann’s failings as a wife and as a woman. Rachel Arey, an acquaintance, claimed that Ann had said she’d visited a fortune-teller and learned that Alexander would die in a few months, leaving her free to marry “her first love.” A neighbor of the fortune-teller, who had since died, claimed that she had seen Ann visit “once or twice a day.”
The Simpsons’ boarder, Samuel Smith, claimed that Ann had once asked him about the effects of arsenic. A clerk in a local store testified that he had sold an ounce of the poison to Ann a week before Alexander died. Nancy Register, a seamstress who had lived with the Simpsons for a short period, claimed that Ann once read aloud from a letter Alexander had sent her. Despite professing not to remember much of the letter, which Ann allegedly had burned, Register managed to recite a good deal of it: “I once thought you loved me, but now I have reasons to suspect, that you love another better than me. For the sake of your friends, you may stay in my house, but you must find your own clothes as well as you can. Prepare a bed for me up-stairs tonight. You can no longer be my wife.” Register also testified that Ann had never loved Alexander and had only married him for money.
According to the prosecutor, the “vices of the world” had worked upon Ann, leading her to commit “the most horrid and detestable” of wrongs. The judge chimed in to call it “the darkest in the catalogue of crimes.” Even Ann’s attorney said that murdering a husband was “so monstrous, so revolting, so unnatural, that one is tempted to pronounce its impossibility.” Still, he argued, Ann had not done it. He asked the jury to picture his client with “her fair neck bared, and circled by the hempen cord, her delicate frame enveloped in the felon’s shroud, and the scene closes upon the gallows and the grave.” The lawyer then urged, “Gentlemen, you can let her live.”
The trial lasted until 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, at which time the judge sent the jury directly to deliberate, fearing that a period of rest would provide too many opportunities for outside opinions to taint their views. Three hours later, the jury returned. The verdict was shocking: not guilty.
Ann Simpson left the courtroom a free woman, but she would be remembered by many people in North Carolina and beyond as the woman who got away with murder. Nine years later, when Ann Bilansky went on trial in Minnesota, the prosecution was determined to avoid the same humiliating outcome.
4. Not to Soothe but to Destroy
On May 28, 1859, the fifth day of the trial, the defense team cross-examined William H. Morton, one of the prosecution’s medical experts. According to The Daily Pioneer and Democrat, Morton and two other doctors had conducted a postmortem examination of Stanislaus Bilansky’s stomach and found internal inflammation that indicated possible arsenic poisoning. They then performed the Marsh test, along with a number of other procedures, which Morton said revealed a fatal amount of poison. He testified that the cause of death was arsenic in “sufficient quantity” to have killed poor Stanislaus within half an hour.
Ann’s defense set about explaining the problems with the tests. First, the lawyers cast doubt on Morton’s abilities as a toxicologist by asking him to explain the result of each experiment he had run. Morton said there had been five tests in all, and he admitted that two were known to provide inconsistent results, while another pair had produced no evidence of arsenic. Only the fifth had yielded a positive result that might stand up in court. Morton also admitted that he had not performed any arsenic tests prior to Ann’s case and generally had little experience with chemistry. Morton confessed to using nitric acid instead of sulfuric acid in one test, a mistake that might have affected the results. Lastly, he acknowledged that antimony, sometimes found in the stomach, can produce lab results similar to those of arsenic. As The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “Antimony is the most common source of fallacy in Marsh’s test,” and illness caused by arsenic and by antinomy “would be very nearly the same.”
The defense introduced a Dr. Vervais, who criticized Morton’s findings. Even the test that had identified arsenic, Vervais said, could have been flawed if, say, the glass laboratory tube had overheated. Questioning scientific evidence was the defense’s best move, given that forensic toxicology was so new to the public and the courts, particularly in a fledgling state like Minnesota. Still, science on its face could be convincing, and the media played loose with facts. The Duluth News-Tribune, the eponymous paper of record in a town some 150 miles north of Saint Paul, published a story indicating that arsenic was definitively present in Stanislaus’s stomach.
District attorney Isaac Heard, the lead prosecutor, knew that the scientific evidence might not be enough to convict Ann. He told the jury that, while they must be convinced of guilt, the reasons “need not amount to absolute demonstration, such as alone can be obtained by mathematical science.” Heard said the jurors should rely on testimony that was rational and probable—testimony like that of Lucinda Kilpatrick and Rosa Scharf. What did their statements reveal about the sort of woman Ann really was? On the one hand, men were supposed to be stronger, smarter, and more capable than their wives. But even the best of them could be felled if they trusted wily, unscrupulous, or deranged women.
The press tackled this angle with vigor. One reporter argued that the Bilansky case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.” Because Ann never testified in her defense, her voice was all but absent from news stories. In its place, the press projected a caricature. On the second day of the trial, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described Ann as “composed and self-possessed,” an indication that she did “not show a deep concern in the proceedings.” When Lucinda testified, the paper claimed, Ann displayed “feelings of enmity … frequently smiling behind her handkerchief, as if intent on bringing scandalous information to light.” Ann demonstrated “more concern and anxiety” when Rosa took the stand, suggesting that the forthcoming testimony would reveal something damning—something newspaper readers ought to pay close attention to. Rosa went on to claim that Ann and Walker were lovers.
The Daily Pioneer and Democrat also described Ann’s defense as “slight.” In fact it was anything but. Multiple witnesses testified that Stanislaus was depressive by nature and at times even suicidal. Orrin Branch, a family friend, testified that once, when Stanislaus did not come to an appointment, Branch assumed that he had killed himself because he was “trouble-prone.” If Stanislaus did die from ingesting arsenic, might he have taken it himself? Stanislaus’s ex-wife Ellen testified to his disagreeable nature. Dr. Berthier spoke of his drinking habit and persistent stomach problems. A neighbor, G. B. Galinksa, said that Stanislaus had talked about financial problems, including $200 in debt on which he was paying 36 percent interest.
One of the Bilansky children, ten-year-old Benjamin, testified that, contrary to what Lucinda had said, the family did have rats in their home. Three other witnesses corroborated his statement. As for Ann’s alleged affair with her nephew, everyone who lived in the house swore they had never seen Ann in Walker’s rooms. If she undressed while Walker was in the main house, the two were well separated by a wall.
The defense tried to pursue a line of argument undercutting Lucinda’s testimony. The lawyers had obtained evidence that Lucinda may have had her own incriminating secrets: romantic letters and gifts that she had sent to Walker. Was she jealous of Ann’s close bond with her nephew? Did Ann’s disapproval stand in the way of Lucinda pursuing an affair with the young man? Had Lucinda sensed an opportunity with Stanislaus’s death to get Ann out of her way? And surely it was odd that Rosa had boarded with Lucinda and her husband during the trial, providing the perfect opportunity for the two women to square their stories.
For unclear reasons, the judge ruled the content of the letters from Lucinda to Walker inadmissible, but Ann’s defense still peppered the witness with questions about her motivations for sending them. In response, Lucinda stonewalled. She refused to talk about her past, including relationships prior to her marriage. She also would not answer questions about a ring and breast pin that she allegedly had given to Walker.
“Did you in the months of December, January, and February send letters or other messages of love and affection to Mr. Walker?” a defense attorney asked.
Lucinda replied, “I decline answering.”
“When did your friendly acquaintance with Mr. Walker commence?”
“I am not prepared to answer this question.”
Frustrated, perhaps, by the lack of forthcoming information, a reporter for The Daily Pioneer and Democrat skipped printing further details about the exchange. He wrote instead, “Very much time was consumed in arguing technicalities and the admissibility and regularity of questions.”
By the time Walker took the stand, he faced no charges in the case; the police had dropped them for lack of evidence. Walker defended his aunt, swearing that he and Ann were not having an affair. He claimed that he did not have a romantic relationship with Lucinda either, but noted that they had fallen out as friends in the recent past. (Lucinda said she “couldn’t tell the time when the coldness commenced.” ) Walker cast doubt on Lucinda’s indictment of Ann for not calling her husband a doctor the night he died, testifying that Stanislaus himself stubbornly refused treatment because he feared being overcharged.
The idea, as an author writing about Ann’s case a century later would put it, that Walker might have “agitated the bosoms of at least two women involved in the trial” certainly made for good newspaper copy. Reporters, however, skimmed over the matter and all but dismissed Walker’s testimony. They presented Lucinda as an obedient, dependable woman, the kind that society needed, in contrast to Ann, who would stop at nothing to have “more unrestrained intercourse.”
The prosecution closed its case by reminding the jury that Ann had committed murder “coolly” and with the “subtle instrument” of arsenic. She had taken advantage of her husband’s trust and doctored his “food and drink by her hands not to soothe and save but to destroy.” Heard, the prosecutor, told the jurors—all of them men, and most of them likely married—that “no more atrocious crime can be committed.”
After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom at around 5:30 p.m. on June 3, 1859. It had reached a verdict: Ann was guilty of first-degree murder.
5. The Bird Had Flown
The Daily Pioneer and Democrat later mused that the jury was unsympathetic because Ann “seemed to be utterly devoid of all natural female modesty, and even of common decency.” That word—decency—shaped what happened next, as Minnesota authorities and Saint Paul society debated what to do with their very own murderess: lock her away for life or let her hang.
Minnesota turned one year old the same month as Ann’s trial, and the state was eager to demonstrate to its East Coast brethren that it was no longer merely a northern outpost of the Wild West. In August 1859, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat ran a front-page article called “What Is Said of Us,” regaling readers with visiting reporters’ impressions of the state. Cosmopolitan correspondents, Minnesotans were told, “uniformly express their admiration of the scenery and great fertility, and astonishment at the rapid progress we have made.” The article relayed the rhapsodies of one New York reporter too overwhelmed to “convey the impression which the magnificent country made” on him.
Executing a woman could tarnish the civilized veneer that Minnesota was so diligently polishing. Death-penalty abolitionists throughout America had long argued that killing a woman was below the dignity of the state; even many proponents of the punishment agreed. In the mid-1800s, The New York Times began editorializing against hanging women because it was not “proper.” In practice, the penalty was rare. During the 19th century, just 49 women were executed in America, most after being convicted of killing their husbands. That figure was less than the number of executions nationwide in most years—63 in 1859, for instance.
The St. Cloud Democrat, a Minnesota newspaper, echoed the decency argument in an editorial opposing a sentence of execution for Ann. State-sanctioned murder was no different than blood vengeance, the paper argued, so if the government decided to put its most famous prisoner to death, “the Haiwain [sic] islands … would be a suitable place”—a racist dig at the Pacific kingdom. Justice Charles E. Flandrau of the Minnesota Supreme Court opposed execution, too. “It rather shocks my private sense of humanity,” Flandrau wrote in a letter to the governor, “inflicting the extreme penalty on a woman.” But plenty of people disagreed. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported on the “eagerness and persistency” of women in Saint Paul who wanted to watch Ann hang. Proponents believed her execution could serve as a lesson to other wives tempted to rid themselves of their husbands.
While the debate unfurled, Ann held out hope, however small, that the state would overturn her conviction, rendering the prison-or-death question moot. Through the summer of 1859, she sat in a Saint Paul jail cell awaiting news of an appeal her lawyers had filed. On the afternoon of July 25, Walker visited Ann to deliver bad news: The state Supreme Court had denied her petition, which meant that she had exhausted her options to prove her innocence. A judge would sentence her before the end of the year.
Walker stayed with Ann for two hours, comforting her. After he left, Ann paced the jail’s halls until about 8 p.m., which was when the guard, a man named Smith, went to fetch the keys to return the prisoner to her cell. Ann seized the moment. She ran down a set of stairs into the basement and pushed herself through a small, only partially barred window. Her feet touched the ground, and Ann ran.
When Smith realized Ann was not in the hall where he had left her, he assumed she had gone to her cell and was waiting for him there. She was not, so Smith searched the rest of the jail. Only after going downstairs to the basement and seeing the window did he conclude, as The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “that the bird had flown.”
Smith sounded the alarm, and the police immediately began a search throughout Saint Paul. They placed roadblocks at the edges of town and stopped passing carriages. The sheriff’s office made handbills that proclaimed in bold type, “ESCAPE OF A MURDERESS.” A $500 reward was promised to anyone who captured her.
Smith came under suspicion for being part of the escape plot. He claimed to have left Ann alone for only one or two minutes, but The Daily Pioneer and Democrat argued that “it requires too great of a stretch of credulity to suppose that Mrs. Bilansky escaped through the carelessness of the jailor—unless indeed the jailor was paid for his carelessness.” (Either that or Smith was “an idiot.” ) The New York Evening Post, meanwhile, reported “criminal carelessness, if not still more criminal corruption, on the part of the jailer.” Implied in the reporting was the notion that Ann could not have escaped by her own wits.
For nearly a week, Ann was on the lam. Her flight was the talk of Saint Paul. Police and citizens looked high and low for her, not because she posed any danger but because her escape surely signaled the guilt her lawyers had so vehemently denied. Ann had to be caught and brought to justice.
On August 1, she was spotted on a road about two miles outside Saint Paul, headed toward the town of St. Anthony. Ann was dressed in men’s clothes—a disguise, presumably—and accompanied by Walker. Upon their arrest, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported that Ann “manifested considerable emotion,” while “Walker was as cool as usual.” The circumstances only solidified public perception that their relationship was unseemly.
During questioning, it emerged that Ann initially had hidden near Como Lake, a 70-acre body of water in greater Saint Paul. She had convinced a boy from a nearby farm to bring her food and send word to Walker about her whereabouts. Walker then provided her with men’s clothing and found a barn—owned by George Lumsden, a man who had been in jail with Ann and befriended her—where she could conceal herself. When they left Saint Paul, Walker and Ann had decided to walk west after discerning that search parties were looking for her to the east.
Walker spent a month in jail but was not indicted for aiding Ann. He was released on September 13. Ann, meanwhile, was kept under close watch by the sheriff. Livid that she had made a fool of his department, he reportedly treated Ann with great cruelty.
On Friday, December 2, 1859, Ann entered the Ramsey County courthouse for her long-awaited sentencing. Accompanying her was a new defense attorney, Willis Gorman, a former governor of the Minnesota Territory. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat wrote that Ann walked with a “firm step” but used a handkerchief to cover her face. The judge asked if she would like to make a statement to the court. Ann rose to speak, one of the only times she had been allowed to defend herself on the record.
“If I die in this case, I die an innocent woman,” she declared. “I don’t think I have had a fair and just trial. You can proceed.”
According to a journalist, the judge told Ann that she would receive “no pardon” and that “it was useless for her to attempt to avert her doom,” which was “as certain as her crime had been heinous.” He sentenced her to one month in solitary confinement and then to be “hung by the neck until you are dead.” Ann began to cry. Unfazed, the judge continued: “May God, in his infinite compassion, have mercy upon your soul.”
6. The Last Days of a Pettifogger
Minnesotans reveled in having a wicked celebrity. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat mused that “probably no jail ever contained a criminal, either male or female, under imprisonment for such a crime, who exhibited such a complete want of decency and propriety.” When meeting with visitors, Ann reportedly discussed the trial in minute detail, but the paper said she could not be trusted to tell the truth, being a “complete pettifogger.” People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing anyone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”
Still, many locals remained uncomfortable with the idea of Ann, or any woman, dying at the hands of the state. A contingent dubbed “the friends of Mrs. Bilansky” by the press implored the governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, a Democrat, to commute her sentence prior to leaving office at the end of 1859. Instead, Sibley passed the decision off to his successor, a Republican named Alexander Ramsey.
Lessening Ann’s sentence ran contrary to the new governor’s interests for three reasons. First, his brother had sat on the jury that convicted her. Second, both of Ann’s defense attorneys were Ramsey’s political enemies. Third, the governor was concerned that there would be an outbreak of violent crime if citizens believed the justice system was weak in the face of a wretched menace. Ann wrote a four-page letter to Ramsey imploring him to reconsider her sentence and “throw around me the bulwark of [the law’s] protection.” She said, “[I have] waited patiently to have an opportunity to satisfy the public mind of innocence of the crime on which I have been imperfectly and unfairly tried.” Ramsey was unmoved. He recorded his exasperation with Ann’s dedicated supporters in his journal, claiming “much annoyance on the part of the persons asking her commutation.”
Ann spent her days in religious study, showing what one reporter described as “an earnest desire to make preparation for the great change that awaited her.” She mingled with other prisoners, speaking frankly about her fate. She reportedly told one inmate that, on the day of execution, “Old Gabriel will blow his trump for me—I wish he would blow it before that time and knock Ramsey County jail higher than a kite.” When she was not angry, Ann could be forgiving. “Mrs. Kilpatrick made a great many false statements,” Ann once said of Lucinda. “I always believed that her husband forced her to do so.”
The twists in Ann’s case were not done yet: On January 5, 1860, Rosa Scharf died of a drug overdose. The night prior to her death, Rosa reportedly had visited the Kilpatricks to discuss Ann’s fate. She then returned to the family for whom she had worked as a housekeeper since Ann’s trial. Rosa took a large amount of laudanum and never woke up.
Her death may have been an accident, as laudanum was widely used for medical reasons. If it was suicide, however, that raised a question: Why did Rosa want to die? Could it have been because she felt guilty about giving damning testimony about Ann? Was it possible that she had lied under oath? Lucinda might have had an answer, even if it was as simple as denying that Rosa’s death had anything to do with Ann. To the press, however, she was silent on the matter.
Whatever doubts Rosa’s death sowed, three weeks later, on January 25, Ramsey signed the order of execution. The date of Ann’s hanging was set for March 23, some time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Until then, the forces opposed to it vowed to continue their fight.
On March 5, the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill commuting Ann’s sentence to life in prison. That would serve the dual purpose, lawmakers argued, of punishing her transgressions and showing Minnesota to be as refined as any other state and as paternal as a gentleman toward even the most wayward women. Three days later, in what The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described as a “manly veto,” Ramsey overturned the bill. As a reporter relayed, Ramsey believed the legislation was unconstitutional because it effectively took away his sole power to pardon the convicted. He wanted to show the world that Minnesota had no “contempt for the law.”
Two weeks later, on March 22, the day before the scheduled execution, the man who had prosecuted Ann stepped forward to demand mercy. District attorney Isaac Heard wrote a letter to Ramsey. Whether motivated by his conscience or an allegiance to the letter of the law, Heard said that Ann’s trial had been been marred by at least two problems. First, the jury had been allowed a three-day weekend in the midst of the proceedings, during which they had almost certainly heard talk of the trial, including details about the case printed in the papers but not presented in court. Second, Heard pointed out that Ann’s first defense attorney, a Yale graduate named John Brisbin, had fallen ill during the trial and had not been able to present a robust exculpatory case.
That evening, in her cell, Ann once more awaited news from Ramsey’s office. She was 40 years old. Would she make it to 41? Would Heard’s letter be her deliverance? In the months that she had spent behind bars, Ann had been baptized and confirmed a Catholic. Now she prayed for salvation.
At 3 a.m., Ann fell asleep on her cot. She awoke a few hours later to stillness: There had been no word from the governor. A priest, Father Caillet, eventually came to sit with her, along with some nuns and other devout Saint Paul ladies who could not countenance the barbarity of executing a woman. Outside, people were streaming into the main public square to witness Ann’s death.
Ann calmly ate a small breakfast at 8 a.m. She offered a gift to one of the jailers, a Mr. Hoffman, who had been kind to her during her incarceration. It was a book entitled The Most Important Tenets of the Catholic Church Explained. Inside was tucked a letter in which Ann urged Hoffman to seek God so that he might “prepare an entrance in that blessed abode.” One by one, Ann said goodbye to her fellow prisoners, speaking through her tears. She met with a few visitors to bid farewell. Walker was not among them; he had left Saint Paul for good.
At 10:15 a.m., Ann emerged from her cell dressed in a long black robe and brown veil. She stood arm-in-arm with Caillet on one side and Hoffman on the other. Before they exited the jail, Bilansky leaned into Hoffman and made a request. “Don’t let a crowd see me,” she pleaded. “I am willing to meet my God, but I don’t want to have a crowd see me die.”
There was nothing Hoffman could do to honor her wish. The gallows were in a small enclosure outside the jail. About 100 people had crammed into the space. Among them were a few dozen women, some with babies in their arms, which prompted the The Daily Pioneer and Democrat to write, “What could have induced these women to voluntarily witness a spectacle so harrowing to the feelings of even the ‘sterner men,’ we cannot imagine.” Outside the enclosure, a crowd of 2,000 people also hoped for a glimpse of the murderess. They stood on a large pile of stones in the square, gaining a view of the gallows’ posts. Others climbed onto rooftops, wagons, or carriages.
Members of the Pioneer Guard, a volunteer state militia, dressed in heavy coats and caps stood sentinel with guns at the ready to keep the crowd at bay. But people never grew disorderly, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported. They may have been there to witness theater, but they respected the solemnity of the show. A woman was about to die. It was clear that no answer would come from the governor. Time and hope had run out.
Ann walked to the gallows. She stood atop the platform before the sea of onlookers and delivered a short speech. “I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice,” she said. “I die for the good of my soul and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice—but I will get justice in heaven.”
Ann requested that a traditional black hood be pulled over her face. She asked, too, that the noose be placed carefully so that her neck would break and she would not die by suffocation. Hoffman slung the rope around her like a collar and tightened it. Ann asked aloud for Jesus Christ to save her soul. “She was not defiant or stoical; neither did she shed a tear,” the Cleveland Morning Leader reported.
She stepped off the platform.
7. The Legend of Ann Bilansky
Ann’s lifeless body dangled in the air, swaying, for 20 minutes. The crowd scarcely made a sound, save murmured prayers. Then, just as quietly, it dispersed. The somber show was over. Minnesota had carried out what is now believed to be its first legal execution as a U.S. state. It was the only one that would ever involve a woman: Minnesota banned the death penalty in 1911.
The public and press were not done with Ann yet, however. A year after her hanging, The New York Times published a brief article suggesting that, in fact, she may have killed more than one man. Recall Ann Simpson, the woman acquitted of poisoning her husband with arsenic in North Carolina in 1850. The paper pointed out that the women had the same first name and that both hailed from Fayetteville, a town of fewer than 5,000 people. No one—at least among the sources the Times spoke to for its article—knew much about what had happened to Ann Simpson after her trial. Likewise, Ann Bilansky’s life before she came to Saint Paul was an empty box. Was this a coincidence? Or had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?
Seemingly no attempt was made to contact whatever remaining family Ann Bilansky had in North Carolina. Still, the Times said it “tend[ed] to the belief” that the two women were “the same person.” Other papers agreed. The Milwaukee Sentinel ran an article with the headline “The Murderess of Two Husbands.” In death, Ann Bilansky was becoming even more infamous.
There is no hard evidence that the women were one in the same. The press in North Carolina described Ann Simpson as petite, with dark eyes and a small nose—a beauty—not tall and gawky like Ann Bilansky. Based on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, historical researchers believe that Ann Bilansky’s first husband was a Mr. Wright who died in a rail accident, as she had claimed, though neither their marriage license nor his death certificate seem to be available today. As for Ann Simpson, after inheriting her deceased husband’s sizable estate, she married again: On April 17, 1852, in Charleston, South Carolina, she said I do to Charles Young. What happened to her after that is not wholly clear, but according to at least one account, the Youngs lived in the Low Country for some time, and upon her death, Ann was buried in Fayetteville.
The more likely explanation for the media’s conjecture is that they were following a script written over the course of the arsenic panic. Both Anns—in possessions of one of the most common names in the English-speaking world—were rumored to be married to men they did not love and to be sexually involved with others. Both of their husbands died after exhibiting symptoms of poisoning. When they combined those narrative elements with the women’s shared connection to Fayetteville, the media had a truly sensational story: A wife worse than any you can imagine. A traveling threat. A serial arsenic assassin.
Other women were charged with arsenic poisoning in America before the heyday of the panic passed. Mary Hartung of Albany, New York, served five years in prison for the crime, though she claimed her lover was the one who had poisoned her husband. Sarah Jane Whiteling of Philadelphia was hanged in 1889, after being convicted of killing her husband and children. Whether they were guilty or innocent, women’s cases were often riddled with ugly misogyny, flawed toxicology, and salacious press coverage—all of it familiar.
In no small part, bias and errors derived from a culture-wide fear of gender deviance. In the 1800s, women were incrementally gaining power and choosing their own destinies. What if they went so far as to kill men who stood in their way? Just as much as the state needed to punish murder, so too did it have to enforce proper womanhood in a rapidly changing social order. Science, journalism, and law, still the dominions of men, were tools for catching bad women and holding them accountable.
Was Ann Bilansky guilty? Most likely not. At the very least, she did not receive a fair trial. She was, however, transgressive in her own way. She did not embody the feminine ideal. She had no children of her own, and she liked to talk, perhaps too much for men’s taste. She traveled alone across America. Her only close relative was a young, single man. That she was not a high-society gentlewoman but a working wife surely did her no favors in the public eye.
In her final days, Ann told reporters that she had suffered enough “for all the wrongs I have ever done in my life.” None of those wrongs, it seems, was greater than being a Victorian woman with a dead husband on her hands.