Guard Your Coffee

Two stories from 1910 prove that coffee is the perfect medium for the perfect crime

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Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

You love it, you depend on it, your day could not begin without it. Drinkers from Milan to Memphis have a love affair with coffee — it is one of the world’s most popular drinks.

But did you know that your cup of Majestic Roast might conceal a hidden peril? Coffee’s acrid taste, dark consistency, and powerful flavor make it the delivery system for murderers. A poison can be slipped into the cup of an unwary drinker, and by the time the grounds appear in the bottom, the victim is a dead man drinking.

On April 24, 1910, the Washington Post alerted its readers to the potential dangers of an unattended coffee cup. “It is curious,” wrote the article’s author, “how frequently coffee is used as a medium by poisoners.” The Post then listed two recent cases that suggested the dangers posed by this common drink.

Earlier in the year, Joseph Scott, an English manufacturer, died after drinking a strychnine-laced cup of coffee. Mary Sollebrass, Scott’s housekeeper, testified at the coroner’s inquest that Scott had complained about the taste of his coffee, calling it ‘bitter.’ He insisted that Sollebrass sample the brew. She later testified that one sip from the cup made her ill. Scott also demanded that his groom, Mr. Burrows, try the coffee. This second servant pronounced the brew “nasty.”

Unfortunately, it was already too late for Joseph Scott. He collapsed before a doctor could arrive. Dr. White, Scott’s personal physician, told the court that eighteen years earlier, Scott had used strychnine as a heart medicine. After a bad reaction to the poison, he never tried it again. There was little doubt that his past usage of the drug would have made him more vulnerable to it effects.

Although Scott’s servants were the obvious suspects, there was no direct evidence to tie them to the crime. Both Sollebrass and Burrows claimed that they were saved because the coffee had made them vomit. The inquest found this suspicious: strychnine poisoning does not usually cause vomiting. Was it possible that the pair had stuck a finger down their throats to clear the agent from their systems? It was, remarked the newspapers, suspicious but inconclusive. Neither servant could be definitively linked to the murder. The coroner’s jury rendered a verdict of “death from strychnine poisoning,” adding “There is not enough evidence to show by whom the poison was administered.” (The Guardian, Feb. 26, 1910)

It was a perfect crime, and the bitter coffee the ultimate weapon.

The Nun and the Fatal Coffee Cup

Nowhere was safe: the fatal mix of coffee and poison also seeped into the cloistered lives of nuns. On March 7, 1903, six uniformed German police officers arrived at the gates of the Convent of St. Maximilian in Munich to arrest Baroness Elizabeth von Heusler. This Bavarian aristocrat, the convent’s mother superior, was accused of murdering one of her servants. This was a shocking turn: although a member of German royalty, von Heusler had turned her back on her high station in order to become a nun at the age of 22. She devoted her life to serving the poor, performing her ministry with such zeal that, at an unusually young age, her sisters voted her abbess.

The nuns of St. Maximilian relied upon two domestic servants who helped with the convent chores. One of these servants abruptly fell ill and died. The physicians performing the autopsy determined that the victim had succumbed to poison in her afternoon coffee.

The surviving servant, Minna Wagner, accused Baroness von Heusler of this fiendish murder. She testified that the Mother Superior had compelled her to buy poison from a Munich drug store — a claim that was substantiated by the pharmacist. A few days after Wagner had delivered the poison, she saw von Heusler sneak down the stairs and pour a white powder into the servant’s afternoon coffee.

The police and public prosecutor believed Wagner’s testimony; von Heusler was arrested and charged with murder. Although Wagner could not explain why she had not warned her fellow servant about the tainted drink, nor why she had not immediately informed the police of the crime, her testimony during the trial was persuasive. Several of the nuns also testified that Wagner possessed an unimpeachable character and should be believed. Moreover, claimed the sisters, their abbess had a “Jekyll and Hyde” character: she appeared a saint to those outside the convent walls, but was “a treacherous, tyrannical woman who would scruple at nothing to attain her ends.”

The jury was convinced. They sentenced Baroness von Heusler to life imprisonment. When the sentence was pronounced, von Heusler swooned. She collapsed on the courtroom floor and awoke in a cold cell.

As was customary in the case of heinous criminals, the baroness spent the first year of her sentence in solitary confinement. She was confined to a stone cell, twelve feet wide and twenty long. This space was furnished with a bed, wooden table, and single chair. Her only human contact was with the guards, who inspected her quarters and escorted her to the common area for a one hour period for exercise. Deprived of human interaction, the nun aged rapidly, her lush hair turning gray. The solitude was unbearable, and according to the newspapers, her mood alternated between rages and suicidal depression. At the end of the year, she was released into the general prison population.

Von Heusler’s friends never abandoned her; while she wasted in prison, they labored to secure exculpatory evidence. Ultimately, they interested an appeals judge in the case and secured a retrial. The prosecutor’s principal witness, the servant Minna Wagner, died before the appeal was heard. At the second trial, the defense team raised doubts about Wagner’s veracity: several witnesses testified that the woman had “always been hysterical and mentally deficient.” She was unreliable, unhinged, and should never have been allowed to testify.

Remarkably, the nuns who had testified against von Heusler in the original trial reversed their testimony, claiming that they had been mistaken about their abbess’ guilt. They now claimed that von Heusler was innocent; they had been wrong to say otherwise.

The appeals court was persuaded, and after three-and-a-half years of prison, Baroness von Heusler was released. Since the church had expelled her from the order, she withdrew to a private home outside of Munich.

The convent poisoner was never identified.

Although the cases occurred in different countries and dramatically different contexts, they did share two important qualities: lack of motive and death by coffee. In England, the coroner’s inquest failed to establish a motive for Scott’s death. The servants knew that their employer had begun a revision of his will, but there was no evidence that this would have disenfranchised any of them. Fear of being excluded from his estate might have provoked a poison plot, but even this speculation could not be proven from the records.

Likewise, in the convent poisoning, no satisfactory motive explained the murder of a servant, a girl so insignificant that her name does not appear in any of the newspaper accounts from that time. It is probable that Minna Wagner, the unhinged servant, poisoned the other girl and then attempted to frame her abbess. Nevertheless, probability is not enough to secure a conviction in the annals of judicial history: Minna Wagner is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and as with the Scott case, both motive and murderer remain unknown.

Despite the puzzles posed by these cases, one fact remains irrefutable: coffee was — and remains — the perfect vector for a perfect crime.

Guard your cup.

Author and history professor. Excavating the past for fun and profit. Web-site: www.richardjgoodrich.com

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