Sunday, July 5, 2015

Were They Murdered?

Belvidere Apollo, March 27, 1885
I recently wrote about my discovery of the index to obituaries and other mentions of deaths in the Belvidere (New Jersey) Apollo/Intelligencer.  I now have all the copies, and while I am very excited to learn more about my ancestors, the most intriguing item was about a collateral line.

I was curious about this one when I found the names in the index.  The index entries for Joseph W. Sellers and Mrs. Joseph W. Sellers were on the same day.   I had wondered if maybe there had been a tragic accident and the two had died on the same day, or something similar.  But no, the story is even more interesting than that.

"Coroner Harry H. Davis, of Camden, said that the suspicious circumstances connected with the death of Joseph W. Sellers and his wife, and the fact that several other persons of his household have suffered with symptoms of poisoning, leaves but one course for the officials to pursue, and that is to make a thorough investigation.  The body of Mr. Sellers will be exhumed and possibly that of Mrs. Sellers also." (Belvidere Apollo, March 27, 1885, page 3, column 6, under "State Items"; image above)

When I checked my family tree for Joseph W. Sellers, I didn't find him.  I had to look for him in the 1880 census and work backward to determine that he was a great-grandson of Abraham Sellers, my 4th-great-grandfather; I had begun work on his father's line in the past but had not pursued it forward in time sufficiently to have learned about him and added him to my tree.  Joseph W. Sellers was the great-nephew of my 3rd-great-grandfather Franklin P. Sellers, and therefore the first cousin once removed of my 2nd-great-grandfather Cornelius G. Sellers, second cousin of my great-grandfather Elmer Sellers, and my second cousin three times removed.  (Not exactly a "close" relative.)

But he was a relative!  Now that I knew he was a relative, I couldn't leave that poisoning question alone, could I?  And down the curiosity rabbit hole I fell.  I jumped online and started searching for more information.  A couple of Google searches immediately found three more newspaper articles.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 20, 1885 that Joseph had died on February 15, supposedly from typhoid fever and fatigue contracted while taking care of his wife, who had died a short time before him.  The deaths were not considered to be suspicious until Mary Bowyer, a cook who had worked for the Sellers family, moved with the Sellers' son to another family, which apparently was going to adopt the boy.  Suddenly everyone in that family became ill, except the cook and the boy.  The doctor called in to take care of the family members stated that they were suffering from arsenic poisoning, which made people wonder about Joseph Sellers and his wife (Sallie, by the way, though she is identified by her own name in only one of the articles I found).

The next day, March 21, 1885, the Philadelphia Times carried more information on the developing story, on the front page!  The decision had been made to exhume Joseph.  More people, including a former housekeeper of the Sellers family, had come forward to say they had had bad reactions to food prepared by the cook, and a motive for the hypothetical poisonings was being bandied about.  Apparently Mary was very attached to the Sellers' son and wanted to have him for her own.

By March 22 the story had gained more traction and was being republished in other areas of the country.  The Indianapolis Sentinel ran a synopsis of the Times story and included commentary from the doctor who had attended Joseph, saying that he had observed no signs of poisoning and still believed Joseph had died of typhoid.

The next step was checking dedicated newspaper sites.  Searching for "joseph w sellers" and "joseph sellers" on,, and provided several more articles.  All told I found almost twenty articles, ranging from Philadelphia and New York City (including the New York Times!) to Boston and Indianapolis, covering the ongoing question of the possible poisoning of Joseph and Sallie Sellers.  The articles were published between March 20 and March 27, 1885.  One article, from the Philadelphia Times of March 24, 1885, even ended on the chilling note that "[i]t was semi-officially stated that they [the Coroner, County Physician and Dr. Snitcher] were satisfied that Mr. Sellers did not die of typhoid fever."  I noticed, however, that I hadn't found anything from New Jersey, where they had died, or about a resolution to the investigation.

Next I looked at New Jersey links on the Wikipedia newspaper archive page.  None of the pages had any hits for "joseph w sellers" or "joseph sellers."  I also checked the newspapers on Google News Archive and found a local paper, the Camden Democrat.  Unfortunately, the only issues online for the 1880's were for January 1880.  I was starting to wonder if perhaps the matter had been a tempest in a teapot and nothing had come of it—notwithstanding the opinions of the coroner, county physician, and Dr. Snitcher—for otherwise surely there would have been more local coverage.

Then I remembered that has been adding many U.S. records to its site, including newspapers.  So I signed in to my account on that site and searched for "joseph sellers" in 1885 in the newspaper collection.  (I wrote in 2013 about how much I dislike the disastrously awful interface that brightsolid created for the site and then had the stupidity to port over to the site.  I originally planned to allow my subscription to expire, but when I learned that the Family History Library edition of the site allowed access to only the index for the newspapers and not the images, I decided I needed the newspaper access enough to keep up the subscription.  It pains me every time I have to use the site, though.)

The first thing I noticed is that I finally had some results for New Jersey papers!  I found articles from the New Brunswick Times and Trenton Times that pretty much rehashed the same information I had found before, during the same period.  But then I saw an article from April 9, 1885 in the New Brunswick Times:

"The jury in the Sellers poisoning case at Camden agreed that the deaths of both Joseph W. Sellers and his wife were due to natural causes."

New Brunswick Times, April 9, 1885
Well.  It's good to know they weren't poisoned, but I have to admit it was rather a bit of an anticlimax.  On the other hand, a few valuable lessons were illustrated by my search for the answer.

First, and it's something I say all the time (even in classes focused on online resources), not everything is online.  The Camden Democrat, being the local newspaper, probably would have had more detailed information about this case and been able to give me a direct answer more quickly, but the only site I could find with any issues didn't have them for the right period.

Second, never rely on only one source of information when you're doing your research.  I started with a short item from one newspaper and ended up looking for information from thirteen sources (and finding useful info in most of them) before getting a fuller picture of the situation and finding out what happened in the end.

Third, more than one finding aid (i.e., index) for the same records can be really helpful!  I mentioned that I had searched on early on.  I didn't have any New Jersey results from that search.  But when I used, all the significant results were noted as coming from NewspaperArchive.  So that search found items that NewspaperArchive's own search didn't.

The last lesson has to do with a fact that I haven't mentioned until now.  Most of the articles talking about the possible poisoning mentioned that Mary Bowyer was "colored."  Considering the time period, I have to wonder how much that affected people's opinions of the likelihood of a poisoning having occurred and of her being capable of doing it.  Depending on what kind of research you are doing, you might need to take into account perceptions of the time.

Spurred on by this little excursion, I have found a few more pieces of information about the Sellers family.  FamilySearch provided the death dates of Joseph and Sallie, and the number of the microfilm roll on which the records appear.  I also found their son, Robert, in an index entry for the 1885 New Jersey state census; he was living with the family that was said to have wanted to adopt him.  I have not been able to find Mary in 1885 in New Jersey, although she was with the family in the 1880 census.  I am curious what happened to her.  More than one article mentioned that she was still in Camden during the investigations, and even that her residence was being watched.  Taking into account that her name was spelled Bowyer (most common), Bower, and Bowers in the articles (and Boyer in the 1880 census), however, who knows how she might have been enumerated.  Or maybe she decided that leaving the state was her best move and didn't stay around long enough for the census.

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