Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Mysterious Death Of William Garrett Howard

William Garrett Howard was a local photographer who, by 1915, had been living in Sag Harbor for 34 years. Mr. Howard lived with his daughter, Florence Nelson, and was sometimes visited by his wife, Anna, who no longer lived in the village. Ms. Nelson, Mr. Howard’s daughter, is by far the most fascinating character in the curious sequence of events that ended in her father’s death.

At 30 years old, Ms. Nelson had been living with her father since the death of her second husband, William F. Holtz. Indeed, she was twice widowed and both her first second husbands had died under very suspicious circumstances. This fact created a swirl of gossip around Ms. Nelson amongst the villagers of Sag Harbor.

She was described as a “tall woman of erect carriage” and often referred to as “robust.” She was active in church and had several intimate friends amongst the women of the village. Some people referred to her as a “man-hater.”

James B. Nelson, a large industrious man with an athletic build, was Ms. Nelson’s first husband. It was approximately seven months after their marriage that Mr. Nelson was stricken with severe stomach pains that became progressively worse. He died nine months after marrying his bride.

Three years later, Ms. Nelson married William Holtz. Only 58 days after marrying, Mr. Holtz was dead. He inexplicably began to experience violent stomach pains before suddenly passing away.

Enter one Isabelle Quackenbush. She was a resident of Sag Harbor and a widow as well. According to reports, Ms. Quackenbush spent virtually all of her time in the Howard home with Ms. Nelson. She would become a permanent fixture there, and the air of mystery that surrounded their relationship in 1915 would continue for years.

There is scant information available on Ms. Quackenbush, her first marriage or the manner in which her husband died, but suffice to say, the two widows virtually ran the Howard household.

In April of 1915, Mr. Howard developed violent stomach cramps and his condition deteriorated quickly. He was taken to what was called “The Southampton Sanitarium,” otherwise known as the hospital.

It was at this time that one of Mr. Howard’s attending physicians received a mysterious anonymous letter. The letter was written in pencil and the writing described as a “feminine hand.”

It was well composed, sent from out of state and signed with the initial “M.”

In part, the letter stated:

“I had information yesterday that compelled me to write you. If you want to cure him or save him a slow death, then you better have him taken away from home immediately. If necessary show him this. Do anything to save his life. This is no idle gossip or talk. That is all I can say.”

Alarmed, to say the least, the doctor immediately sent the letter to District Attorney Ralph C. Greene, who acted promptly. Mr. Greene had already been warned of the situation in the Howard home by yet another person: Mr. Howard’s own father and Ms. Nelson’s grandfather, Garrett Howard Sr. of Greenport. Mr. Howard Sr. had made the request that should his son die, an autopsy be preformed immediately.

While in the hospital, Mr. Howard thrived. His stomach troubles went away and he rapidly regained his strength. He was sent home with a recommendation to retain a private nurse.

The district attorney, by all accounts a thoughtful and noble prosecutor, took some extraordinary measures. After learning that Mr. Howard was looking for an attendant upon his release from the hospital, Mr. Greene hired a Brooklyn nurse to masquerade as “Miss Mattie Clark.” Unknown to any of the family members, she was placed in the home to watch over Mr. Howard and take note of any suspicious activity she saw.

As soon as Mr. Howard arrived home, his stomach troubles returned with a vengeance. He died on June 7, 1915.

The undercover nurse had much to tell the DA. But Mr. Greene refused to reveal what was in her report. However, the newspapers reported that the death of Mr. Howard was now being investigated as a poisoning.

There was much attention paid in the press to an empty box of Rough on Rats, a popular, turn-of-the-century rat poison, which was found in the house. Interestingly, Rough on Rats pops up in many news stories between the years 1800 and 1920. It was almost entirely composed of arsenic and was a popular product for those with both suicide and murder on their minds.

The fact that death seemed to follow Ms. Nelson was well known amongst the villagers of Sag Harbor. The fact that Ms. Quackenbush seemed to have the same problem did not escape anyone’s attention. That they were both in the house when Mr. Howard passed away was a fact that caused a storm of activity amongst the people of the village.

Upon further investigation, it came to light that at one time Ms. Nelson had a sibling. Although the cause of death is not known and it is not even known if that child was male or female, it is of interest that yet another person living with her had died before their time.

The investigation ended on a flat note. The district attorney could find no financial motive for murder, as Mr. Howard was not a wealthy man and his daughter did not benefit financially from his death, or from the death of either of her husbands.

It was suggested that there was a motive contained in the report that Ms. Clark had submitted, however, it was not enough for Mr. Greene to press charges.

The medical examiner did not find arsenic in Mr. Howard’s stomach. He tested for 26 other poisons as well and all tests were negative. Since there were virtually hundreds of poisons in existence, it could be argued that the medical report proved only that the Rough on Rats was not the cause of Mr. Howard’s death. It’s certainly possible that all three men were poisoned by a substance that was not detectable in 1915.

According to the newspapers, Ms. Nelson left town after the investigation and moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut to live with her mother.

But upon further investigation, it seemed that five years after the death of her father, Ms. Nelson was calling herself “Florence Holtz” and living in Brooklyn with Ms. Quackenbush and her two teenage sons. Their relationship is described as “partners” on the 1920 census.

The 1930 census report shows the women still living together, however some curious changes had taken place in the 10 years that had passed. The two women were then described as sisters and Ms. Quackenbush had a new last name—Nischwihup.

But a Mr. Nischwihup was conspicuously absent from the report. Ms. Nischwihup, née Quackenbush, was listed as “widowed” in the marital status box.

To this day, the story leaves many unanswered questions in its wake. Who wrote the mysterious letter and what did they know that compelled them to do so? Why did Mr. Howard Sr. suspect his own granddaughter of poisoning his son? What was in the report that Ms. Clark submitted to the district attorney?

Did Ms. Nelson get away with multiple murders? Did she meet in Ms. Quackenbush a partner in crime? The two widows took their secrets with them to their graves.

Source:The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press, Aug 26, 2011. Story by Linda Pari

No comments:

Post a Comment