ASHLAND -- “The Dear Lord is my safeguard. The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not fear. In him I put my trust, myself and all, trusting in Him as my refuge in all my trouble. Dear ones, good bye; my misery no one knows.”
These were the last words of Catherine Stone Kauffman who lived with her family on the Wesley Chesrown farm in the Blachleyville area, located southeast of Jeromesville. She left these words in a note on the kitchen table for her family. Little did Catherine know that the potential source of her misery would later be reported for weeks in area newspapers.
According to accounts from the family, Catherine and her sister, Ella Samilda Stone, had traveled to eastern Pennsylvania in the fall to visit an uncle. Unfortunately, when they arrived they learned their uncle had just passed away.
In the meantime, both sisters fell ill during their visit and sought the attention of a local doctor. They were given some medication and then traveled back to this area. The family also stated everything at home was fine, and there had been no indication of any physical or mental illness prior to the visit to Pennsylvania.
The ladies did not seem to improve much while taking the medication. On November 30, 1895, three of the Kauffman children, Bertha, Herb and Chauncy, attended a meeting at the Disciple Church. They left their mother and father, Irvin and brother Carl, at home. As he often did, Irvin went upstairs at about 7 p.m. to lay down with his youngest son. Carl was disabled and this was their way of getting him to sleep for the night. Catherine was last seen in the kitchen.
When the older children came back home at about 9 p.m., Bertha noticed a note on the table. She immediately took it to her father who was still asleep upstairs. A search discovered Catherine was not in the house so they started looking outside. They checked the area near the creek and then the perimeter of the house where Chauncy found his mother head first, inside a barrel used to collect rain water. The barrel was about two-thirds full.
Catherine was pulled from the water barrel but was dead, apparently from drowning. Her death was described as shocking, especially since it appeared she committed suicide. At the age of 39, she was laid to rest at Rowsburg Cemetery.
After her death, Catherine’s family surmised she committed suicide as a result the large quantity of coal burned for heat and the impurity in their water which was caused by a drought. They believed it caused Catherine’s symptoms of “derangement of the stomach and intense pain in the head with which she suffered severely until death relieved her.”
Only a few weeks later, the Wooster Jacksonian reported the coincidental death of Catherine’s sister, Ella, on December 6, 1895. Ella was a popular teacher in the area and was only 26 when she died. The newspaper reported that upon “examination,” the medicine she took contained arsenic in deadly proportions. There was also information from the Blachleyville area that the Pennsylvania physician accidently mixed arsenic with their medication.
As an added twist to this story, the Jacksonian also reported another unusual death from the same family on the same day Ella passed away. Mrs. Louisa Shopbell, was throwing out a pan of dish water when she fell off her porch. The six foot fall caused fatal internal injuries that were “aggravated by her weight of 180 pounds,” according to the newspaper.
There are no known death records for Catherine but Ella’s cause of death is listed as Nervous Prostration, which was considered a state of debility in which “nervous derangements predominate.” Symptoms were described as unable to perform daily tasks, odd sensations in the head, digestion disorder, weakness, wakefulness and other symptoms of hypochondria or mental depression.
Arsenic is found in nature in rock, water, air and soil. It is also a byproduct of the smelting process. At that time, it was not uncommon for a doctor or apothecary to mix different types of substances to create medications. Arsenic was commonly used in small doses often mixed with other things to help treat asthma, cancer, syphilis, low libido and skin problems. It was also commonly used in products such as rat poison, food coloring, beauty products, pesticides and wallpaper.
Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, sore throat, abnormal heart rhythm, skin issues and diarrhea, among other issues similar to those documented by Catherine’s family. In any case, there is some evidence to point to arsenic poisoning rather than sudden mental illness in both women at the same time.
Since it wasn’t until the 1900’s that medical care started to significantly improve along with more accountability from physicians, there was more than likely never any court action taken against the physician, especially if the poisoning was an accident. The incident also occurred hundreds of miles away which made it difficult to investigate.
Coupled with the lack of life and malpractice insurance and poor recordkeeping in this era, we will never know for sure exactly what happened to the Stone sisters but their plight was certainly a tragedy for their family and the subject of newspaper stories for weeks.
Unfortunately, a living family member happened across this information when cleaning out old family records but never knew of this unfortunate story until recently so no further details were ever shared down through the generations.